I Love the Way You Lie to Me

In my comparative politics courses I teach young college students about the phenomena of cults-of-personality. It comes up in my unit on communism, when I get to Krushchev’s Secret Speech of 1956. This was a private condemnation of the atrocities masterminded by Stalin,

“who absolutely did not tolerate collegiality in leadership and in work, and who practiced brutal violence, not only toward everything which opposed him, but also toward that which seemed to his capricious and despotic character, contrary to his concepts.” (excerpt from Khrushchev’s speech; a complete transcript can be found here)

This speech gives specific examples of the types of coercive tactics and abuses of power one might find in a society governed by a cult-of-personality. With this information in our thinking caps, the class can then discuss other historic cults-of-personality, like Mao, Khomeini, and Mubarak and the propaganda needed to maintain these brutal, repressive, and oppressive regimes.

Propaganda for Stalin’s regime often showed this type of affection from women and children. Meanwhile, he was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of human beings, women and children included. It’s ok though, because Stalin loves women and children, and this was all for their benefit, anyway. Clearly.

Ok, thanks for the history lesson. But, what does this have to do with yoga?

Translating the political notion of the cult-of-personality into the yoga realm is not a far stretch. Take Khrushchev’s description of Stalin, make a couple adjustments for yoga, and here is what you get:

The yoga teacher who has formed a cult-of-personality absolutely does not tolerate collegiality in leadership and in work, and practices exclusion and marginalization, not only toward everything which opposes him, but also toward that which seems to his capricious and despotic character, contrary to his concepts.

Add a proclivity for abuse of power manifested in sexual exploitation and manipulation, and you have many of our recent yoga scandals in a nutshell.

The personality around which a cult forms is often times quite similar to the Weberian charismatic leader. Charisma is understood to be the power dynamic wherein the leader is seen as more-than-human by his followers. This type of leadership is not particular to any type of organization. It is not set aside for politics, religion, or athletics.

This is not to say that every deified leader has a veritable cult-of-personality. To wit, the cult-of-personality necessarily employs coercive means to maintain the vision of godliness; a charismatic leader may or may not do this. We see this type of deification everywhere, because where human beings are, there the cult may possibly be.

Because the yoga world is comprised of human beings, it, too, has its fair share of individuals who have the type of delusive personalities that vie for power via coercion. These leaders offer a salvific message of extrication from the human condition (that is, uncertainty), implicitly claiming some absolute certainty. Offering an answer to a problem that has no solution is not only deceptive, but it is also quite alluring. It is as if these teachers pull us close with a playful grin and whisper seductively, “I have the answer.” Succumbing to this erotic rush, we exhale and declare in exhilaration, “Don’t stop. I love the way you lie to me.”

Simply do a google search for “yoga scandal” and a candy shop of colorful stories will appear before you. Certain elements reappear in many of these stories, such as sexual exploitation of students in exchange for professional advancement, or the inevitable excommunication that comes on the heels of disagreement with the leader. Some stories are more tragic, such as the bizarre set of circumstances surrounding the death of Ian Thorson in April of 2012. Regardless of the specifics, all of these leaders use manipulation, shame, exclusion, and many other repugnant tactics to continue the lie. The basic lie at the heart of all cults-of-personality is that the leader is working for the interest of those under him with absolute knowledge of what is politically best or morally correct.

Bikram Choudhury smiles as throngs of Bikram yoga asana practitioners lie in Savasana. Choudhury is the most recent charismatic yoga teacher to be engulfed in scandal.

If a cult-of-personality is dependent upon widespread propaganda and deception, then, the problem with yoga is not just the teachers that fall susceptible to the lure of power. Rather, the problem is that people believe the lie that yoga is somehow categorically different than all other systems. The reason people believe this lie is because the charismatic leaders discourage critical thinking in favor of submission and acceptance, which is reinforced by the benefits that come from being in the good graces and high favor of the leader. Further, because the followers have raised the leaders to such a high position, thoughtlessness now permeates a community that could be vibrantly creative, a community that could significantly contribute to the world in general.

While the gentle urging to “stop thinking” is often accompanied by good intentions, for instance when a friend encourages you to stop obsessing about that boy, that girl, that job, and the endless list of unknowns, the thoughtlessness that permeates our culture is staggering and debilitating.

I want to be clear that I am not accusing those that have fallen prey to various cults-of-personality of being altogether thoughtless. The situation is much more complicated, which is only a credit to the manipulation and deception employed by the leader. I have had many conversations with individuals who have been members of yoga communities with deceptive, manipulative leaders. Many of the people indicated that they felt a deep sense of shame and fear for having thoughts that were contrary to the leader’s ideas, or questions about the leader’s integrity. I also found that most of these people looked around and had the impression that they were alone. And, because they respected those around them and feared speaking out against a majority of faithful supporters, they repressed their ideas, concerns, and questions. This is successful manipulation in action.

What makes yoga so amazing is that there is no yoga. If we define yoga simply, perhaps we would say yoga is engagement, or union, or even communion. But, what does this mean? All of the traditions, lineages, and schools of thought emerge in the historical landscape upon presenting an answer to this question. In this way, yoga is often about engaging the question of engagement itself. Yoga in the West largely denies this and tells us yoga IS this or yoga IS that and if you aren’t doing it this way, you are wrong.

Really? Because I don’t meditate like you or asana like you, I am wrong?

This is a lie. And the primary basis of this fallacy is the belief that there is an answer at all.

What too often happens under the tutelage of a deified yoga teacher is the deconstruction of individual imagination, creativity, thought, and inquiry. I have had teachers and fellow yoga practitioners tell me that I need to stop thinking so much. Regardless of the intention behind these prods, I categorically reject the sentiment. Any teacher, any person, that does not encourage your thought, your disagreement, your unique perspective is riding high on the waves of their own greatness and is dangerously close to the line of absolutism that marks all cults-of-personality (that is, if they haven’t already crossed this line).

In our efforts to appease our anxieties, the declaration of something absolutely certain is comforting, enticing, and altogether relieving. The problem is that there are many different people offering their versions of “Truth.” In a world of uncertainty, we seek certainty, often to the detriment of our well-being.

Cults-of-personality, that play on the human quest for certainty in an uncertain world, work through deception and manipulation to encourage ecstatic submission to their authority. Combine this with the the basic Western framework of understanding and we are in for a ride. Yoga in the West, in many instances, is not offering anything “new” to us. It takes the same Judeo-Christian framework and replaces the jargon with cool new-age words. So that the Holy Spirit is now your True Self; God is Brahman or the Universe; Jesus is (enter favorite Hindu deity here).

This is not meant to criticize the Judeo-Christian faiths, but to point out that placing this tradition in the Western framework, while comfortable and familiar, greatly inhibits the power of the tradition and robs it of its living meaning. After being pulverized through the blender of Western philosophical categories, this magnificent story is left dead and lifeless. This need not be the case. We could, as teachers, be honest with ourselves and our students about what we know and what we are doing. We are, indeed, limited by our experiences and our frameworks. However, we are not limited in our ability to expand these things and to allow the space for competing frameworks and a healthy tension of ideas. Subjecting ourselves to manipulative charismatic leaders, however, will never allow for this type of growth and evolution.

Until yoga can be honest about its message, we will never get out of this trap. There is no catch-all solution for how to go through this life; so be wary of anyone who claims to know what it is. Often, they are just telling you there is a scary monster under your bed. As long as we believe this, the cults-of-personality will continue to grow and the yoga world will continue to be robbed of the potential greatness of this vast tradition. Get on your knees and look under the bed yourself. You may just find that the scary monster simply wants to play.

Jennifer Richard

Jennifer Richard is a professor-in-training, and is very excited to be finishing her PhD in 2013! She has been an instructor at the university-level for 4 years, teaching in the political science departments at both Tulane University in New Orleans, LA and at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. She has Master’s degrees in religious studies and political science, and currently teaches courses in political theory and comparative politics.

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  1. Frank Jude Boccio
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink


    I read your post with such excitement I barely could contain myself as I sit here in the Kripalu cafe; I had to bring my laptop over to a friend for her to read it! I am particularly moved by this passage:

    “If a cult-of-personality is dependent upon widespread propaganda and deception, then, the problem with yoga is not just the teachers that fall susceptible to the lure of power. Rather, the problem is that people believe the lie that yoga is somehow categorically different than all other systems. The reason people believe this lie is because the charismatic leaders discourage critical thinking….”

    The same can be said of what some of us call ‘consensus buddhism.’ I don’t know if you’re familiar with the blog, Speculative Non-Buddhism, but much of the same critique is made there of popular mainstream western buddhism. The idea that “the Dharma” is — as you put it — “categorically different than all other systems” leads to what Glenn Wallis has called the faith in “Sufficient Buddhism,” which is simply the notion that buddhism is the end-all, be-all and there’s no need to engage with other thinkers or systems of thought.

    Thinking, most certainly critical thinking is not at all encouraged in many buddhist communities, as if “right thinking” weren’t a part of the 8-fold path! I suggest to my students that the problem isn’t thinking, but that so much of our thinking is inefficient! We need to learn to think better, to think through an idea!

    So, please keep thinking! I will be looking forward to what you have to offer and provoke in us readers!

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Glad you enjoyed the read! Thanks for drawing the comparison to ‘consensus buddhism,’ as you say some call it. I like this notion of inefficient thinking you bring up! I could not agree more: let’s learn how to thing through an idea!! This is great, indeed.

  2. Tomasz Goetel
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely brilliant.

  3. Leah Stern
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    You are just as brilliant as I remember you and clever as clever can be. I love this blog and I love you. Keep it coming sister! Namaste.

  4. Miz James
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Loved this. Loved it loved it loved it LOVED IT.

  5. Marcy
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    I love this essay for what it says and for discovering other ‘yoga nerds’ such as you all. What a brilliant, practical, and compassionate application of political theory for the benefit of people who are so very among us! While reading, I didn’t know what to do first: get to the next compelling paragraph, forward the link to friends who will similarly jump out of their skin, or finish writing the explanation of the Sanskrit of “vivekananda” (which I told you about and addresses the same concerns). So as not to ironically fall into the trap of the tyranny of certainty, I’ll say that I am only *fairly certain* that you have hit the nail on the head here. And, by the way, when I teach about the point of yoga, I also talk about the scary monster under the bed (or in the closet), and say that it’s not just about looking under the bed, but also yelling “aaaahh!!!” at it.

  6. Patricia
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the great article.

  7. George
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    A large factor in the problem is the traditional veneration of the guru that is part of the yoga package. Power corrupts the guru in proportion to how much power and status yogis ascribe to him. A semi-mystical or spiritual status just exasberates the problem, as does the temptation of access to attractive young practitioners. I am all for respecting a yoga teacher; it’s when veneration, leadership positions, uncontestable teacher status, or control over money are involved that problems tend to start.

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      George! Right on. Check out Tracey’s post “Gotta Getta Guru.” She speaks more directly to this issue. And I completely agree, respecting teachers is quite important, and god-like veneration is problematic. On of my teachers says, “If your teachers never disappoint you, you aren’t looking close enough.” If we allow the distance between teacher and student to be so vast, then even the greatest violations of ethics or morals can appear as a fleck of dust. If we keep it real, that is, realize we are ALL human, then this distortion of character might not be so dramatic. To your last point, throw money in the mix and this all becomes that much more complicated. Check back with us in June, we will be discussing yoga and capitalism then!

  8. berniebirney
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this.

  9. Paola Bahamondes
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the post.
    But I would say the main difference between yoga schools and a political, religious or any other dogma, is that you can choose who to follow. Nobody forces you to follow a yoga teacher, you can pick up your stuff and walk away anytime.

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment. I would actually disagree, though. I see freedom as something inherently present in human beings. This is a freedom to think and to act. This is why I would argue that the ability to walk away, as you say, is not specific to yoga, but that this ability to choose for yourself actually does apply to most other things. Political, religious, or social circumstances will determine the difficulty or consequences of thinking and acting, to be sure, but they need not force us to follow.

      • Paola Bahamondes
        Posted April 26, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        I agree with you, with everything you say about freedom. It is (or at least should be) something inherently present in human beings. The ability to walk away is not specific to yoga and apply to many things (or situations) these days. Agreed. My point here is you are comparing Stalin ideology with yoga teachers or even religious dogmas. My question is, who is forcing you (or anybody else) to follow, a yoga teacher, a pastor, a guru? Stalin was a dictator, you got killed if you didn´t follow. I don´t think you can compare.
        Sorry if I don´t explain myself very well, english is not my first language.

        • Jennifer Richard
          Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          Paola, I completely agree that the atrocities of the totalitarian regimes are not comparable to the yoga scandals I discuss here. Because the term “cult-of-personality” was originally a political term used to describe despotic rulers, like Stalin, I reference that here. The modes of repression used by Stalin and those used by people like Friend or Choudhury are most assuredly different, as indicated in the replacement of the phrase “brutal violence” in Khrushchev’s speech with “exclusion and marginalization.” Thus, the notion of force changes as well. The force by a totalitarian regime is physical and brutally violent, as noted. The “force” in the yoga community is more social and psychological, I would argue. And, I think it would be remiss of us to deny the power of social opinion. J.S. Mill speaks to the power of society and I think this plays in significantly here.
          Keep it coming; this is a lovely conversation!

          • Paola Bahamondes
            Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

            Thank you for the clarification, I am enjoying the conversation too…
            I totally agree with the concept, but the fact that, we choose to go learn something from a person. Freely. Knowing in advance what he teaches, preaches and says, we actually pay for it, and then we dislike the way, is still our personal choice. If this happens in another educational context, like schools, even universities I would say (and not even sure about that) it might feels edgy on the ethic. The “force” -as you call it- in the yoga community is your final choice. And you can actually pick another, method, guru, school, teacher that fits your personal ideology and beliefs. Again, nobody is forcing nobody.
            When you talk about the “cult-of-personality” and you put it in sutch different context -as you point out on your last comment- it just doesn´t feels like it fits the concept anymore. Beacuse you need represion to make the concept to be able to work. You need the political context, because politics affects us all. Yoga affects just the people willing to be affected.

  10. Brad Yantzer
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink


    Thank you for turning the lights on in this very dark and ignorant world of what we call yoga, Modern Yoga, or many of the other forms of the words meant to identify the same theme here in the west.

    I think more to the point is the idea that someone can not have any type of experience on the path of yoga, go to a 200 hr teacher training that is teaching whatever it wants and being certified by an association that doesn’t do anything about standardization of what is being taught but rather just collects money from the training and then again from the students becoming teachers, then those so called certified teachers in just a few weeks are now out teaching an exercise class with, as you have so nicely made the connection, judeo christian paradigm belief concepts put then into a western paradigm that is just about sales, marketing, ego and based solely from a western paradigm that does not and can not support the paradigm that yoga is from. Without the so called teacher ever having any experience in the real paradigm or on the path they are not actually teaching anything but this ridiculous, excuse me, “crap” that has then led the innocent to believe that this is somehow YOGA.

    How can we have such irreverent disrespect for the path of yoga? It is the only career that i know that it is acceptable to have no actual knowledge of what it is you are teaching and still be certified as a teacher. Would a building contractor get away with the same, no they would be sued for the same stuff that John Friend, Shiva Rea, Rodney Yee and the long list of others that lack the ability to actually walk the talk but rather are just the celebrity facade that they are. Compare this to Lance Armstrong and how all his sponsors have pulled out and the law suits that he is dealing with yet John Friend is still teaching and Gaiam did nothing about the Rodney Yee scandal. The cycling world has more integrity than the yoga world, who would of thought? What, because this is the so called spiritual world, it lacks any responsibility?

    Another little issue is that from what i get from what you said, there is no right way???????

    From my 25 years of working with the physical body, biomechanics, ayurveda, yoga, energy, and many other esoteric studies, there is definately a correct way. There is a correct way and there is an incorrect way. For example a back bend: you do a back bend without any understanding of biomechanics, bandhas, breath, or prana, and how, why, and what a beck bend is and you will end up injuring yourself due to obstruction of the flow of prana and many other reasons. This simple idea goes into all asana. This is only taking asana for an example but it goes into all the other limbs as well. Say someone who is pitta prakriti and vikriti (ayurvedic terms for someone that is excessive imbalance of fire and water) goes to a bikram class, not just once a day but twice a day because they are told to as well as they are imbalanced in their mind toward doing so as well. What are they doing to them self? They are causing much more of a disease as bikram is not actually a healthy or balanced template at all. (but the public and the teachers don’t know that because of what they have been told and blindly believe) Yes, they will be creating disease in their system while thinking they are doing something healthy and “spiritual” for them self but instead they will be creating much more rajas and pitta imbalance.
    How about someone who is extremely full of anxiety and fear going to a vipassana 10 day silent retreat. They will experience more trauma from this retreat do to the fact that the prana is being moved into their head and the lack of grounding that they already have is becoming more. Their mind will spin more. Their anxiety will grow.

    I could also use the idea of mantras. While the ignorant “yoga teachers” out there think that mantras are from intention, someone that is educated knows that there is a deep science to mantra. It is dangerous to just be saying a mantra, specially if it is given from any of these uneducated yoga teachers. Where is the actual authentic teaching? Where is the actual science of these beautiful vedic vidyas being taught in the west?

    We do not have the deeper understanding of all of this and nor is it taught at all here in the west. What we have is egoic teachings with little authenticity or depth of knowledge of the teachers teaching. We do not have the wisdom to have any sight into diagnosis of an individual and how all of this works for an individual. Instead we have sun salutations being taught without any understanding of a sun salutation and the 12 steps ONLY of it and how it is performed with the mantras. The sun salutation has only 12 steps due to the zodiac only having 12 signs and the sun’s bhava in each of those signs is the 12 names being used in the mantras. Instead we have flow classes that have no understanding of any of what it is they are doing.

    This is yoga in the modern world but we call it creativity and due to ignorance, it is accepted.

    How can one be creative with no knowledge behind what they are supposedly creating? and then what you have is the destruction of what is yoga. It is a science, not a free for all. It is not about being happy. It is not about creating love. Where is that told in the texts?

    So all of that blathering is just to point out the obvious. Yes, there is cults of personality out there. This is most of what you have.

    I did a poll of about 50 yoga teachers. Only one of them had ever bothered to pick up any original text and try to read it. Most had never even heard of the Bhagavad gita. One of them even replied about the Yoga Sutras that it was “that book of how to be that goes with yoga”, yet he had never read it….. and he and his wife are teaching teacher trainings in AZ.

    So I get you care about this stuff and what is going on. Kudos for you on that. but the knowledge has not been handed down but to a few that have dug deep and by luck had authentic teachers. The masses have turned yoga into a circus and it is the clowns that are out there teaching to the masses, this is observed by the obvious results that you write about. Also the lack of knowledge and lack of integrity that is going on out.

    Yoga is but a fashion in the West.

    • jj
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      Interesting. Because what I get from your message is the only person qualified to practice or teach yoga is you. That no-one else is authentic. That only you understand, respect and preach the practice. And that is exactly how the seed of the cult of personality is sprouted.

      • Brad Yantzer
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

        Funny but I don’t see anything like that written above. Silly you, you must be reading into what was written. I don’t see one things saying that I know jack. Actually all that i have written is quite factual. Go to India and see how many people are walking around carrying a yoga mat. Be careful what you believe brother.

        • John Clarke
          Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          Defensiveness, the reaction of the confused person.

          If you go to India you will see people carrying Yoga mats, just like here. Go stand outside of an Ashram.

          You might do best to return to practice and keep all you over the top opinions, which is what they are to yourself.

          Your article was highly judgmental and shows a shallow understanding of Yoga and people in general. Its a little crazy actually.

          As fara s your 25 years experience you might just want to stick to one teacher and stay with them. You are what we call a tourist, staying just long enough to make a huge judgement call on another person or style, but can walk away before you face the consequences of your social weirdness.

          Remember, no matter where you go; people are people, India, Russia, or America. There is no lost knowledge, just bad or inexperienced teachers. Jezzz….

          • admin
            Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

            Keep it intellectual. This is a terrible place to insult people. Actually, all places are terrible places to insult people. No personal attacks or your comments will not be approved. I am leaving this here to give you an opportunity to steer this conversation in a productive direction.
            Otherwise, it will be removed. I’m sure you understand.
            Thanks and best,

          • Brad Yanzer
            Posted May 8, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

            John Clarke,

            First off, thanks for taking the energy of actually reading and replying.

            Thanks also for being a hypocrite. It is exactly what this yoga world is all about and what I stated above and your just made the perfect example of it. Thanks for the personal attack out of context to the article.

            Yes, go to india and stay in an ashram. See how much real culture where this knowledge comes from you experience. It is out of context. It is a disneyland adventure where nothing is real. India has sold out to spiritual tourism long ago. There are few places there that are actually authentic. Yes, been there, done that. Got a shirt too. Thanks.

            If defensiveness (which none of this has been) is as you have put it, “the reaction of a confused person”, then what is personal attack, lack of being able to hear something that isn’t within your view, and complete oppression of another’s freedom while doing exactly what you are accusing them of doing?

            Yes, I would agree with you, crazy. Not just a little though. Quite a bit. I think one has to be quite crazy to live in a world where people are out there teaching and identifying themselves as spiritual, yogis, ayurveda practitioners etc are maybe unknowingly but very egoicly, putting themselves out there as “teachers” or the what without having the actual knowledge and experience of what they are “teaching.” On top of that it is culturally excepted as well.

            As a general example….
            Ghee. You go to the market and go to the refrigerated section where the butter is and buy your so called ghee, thinking it is ghee when really it is not. You don’t know this though. But you swear that it is and that you know better and even more then you use an excuse when someone tells you it isn’t that it is just their opinion. It is ignorance. The ghee you make from a stick of butter isn’t ghee either. Doesn’t have the qualities of ghee. But yet, you would go on ignorantly standing by your pride that what you are doing is ghee. The ghee you are getting in the store isn’t get and worse because it is refrigerated the qualities have been even further changed in the opposite direction. But go on and enjoy your “ghee”. The results are not there. This is what we have here in the Western culture. And the whole society thinks that it is ghee, because it has been marketed as such. Ignorance.

            As for your judgement of my journey. Thanks. Enjoy the limited path of studying only one view from one teacher. If you are a hammer, everything is a nail. The studies of all the Shad Darshan as well as Jyotisha, Yoga, Ayurveda, Vastu, Medical Qigong, Western Nutrition and Exercise, Biomechanics, etc. etc. etc. have all shown light to the limitations of Western thoughts and systems and also each of the studies of each of the vedic vidyas have just given more light to the wisdom of each of the other vedic vidyas. Plus with actually having experience living in the culture of where these vidyas come from and the studies from authentic teachers there, I have quite a different view from someone that lives in the Western paradigm and thinks they have studied Ayurveda or yoga or whatever taking a 2 month to 2 year course on the weekends while being immersed in the Western life. Or because they take a “yoga class” everyday from just another clown. I have been blessed with some horrific teachers and just the opposite as well. Nothing in the middle and all of it great lessons. And I would also remind you that the vedas are in complete opposition to your comment. But thanks for your opinion of me.

            And i agree with you, no matter where you go in the world these days, you have bad teachers. Very few teachers are in any knowledge to be teaching anything at all. Their actions speech and thoughts are not uniform, which only comes from a pure mind and lifestyle connected with actually living what they are teaching.

            I have only pointed out the obvious above to what Jennifer in her article but to a much deeper level of the roots of the naivety and ego of Americans.

            Red pill or Blue?

            Thanks again for your personal reply.

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      I love your passion and zeal here. Let me address a couple of things. You comment on my assessment that there is not a “correct” way. Perhaps I can clarify a bit, because in many ways I do agree with you. I would say, yes, there is a universal way to, say, do a backbend. And you describe this. However, and this is my point, even with that universal knowledge, one must still think about how to apply that knowledge in his or her body. This is necessary because every individual while alike in human-ness, does differ in the body based on patterns of use, injury, disease, etc. So that the person with a rotator cuff injury will have to apply the universals in a particular way that is different from the particular application of the individual with screws in his elbow and in the inability to actually straighten his arm all the way. I think you actually clarify my point beautifully, reading it again. Your examples of the healthy vs. unhealthy are all examples of particular cases and what is good/balanced/healthy based on these particularities. Thus, any notion of what is correct is completely dependent upon a deep understanding of the entire situation. Now, with regard to life, to my knowledge we humans have not come to understand the entire situation, making a “correct” assessment of how to do life impossible. We do, however, do our best to work within our limits of time and space.

      I completely agree, we are dismally educated on the whole. I cringed when I read what you wrote about your survey of 50 teachers. But, it is true. I love this articulation: “What we have is egoic teachings with little authenticity or depth of knowledge of the teachers teaching. We do not have the wisdom to have any sight into diagnosis of an individual and how all of this works for an individual.”

      As for the clowns, yep, they are amongst us. But, I think this is why it is important for people of knowledge, like yourself and many in this forum, to remind us all of what is really there. There is so much there!

      Please stay with us, your comments are valued!!

      • Brad Yantzer
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the support Jennifer. I enjoyed your article and am glad that there are a few out there like you.
        Most of the time, I get pounded like JJ above, thinking that i must be coming from ego when i state the damn obvious to anyone that has studied any of this stuff in any depth. It is nice to get someone standing up for what is reality and not falling in with the sheep.

        I in no way know it all in fact the more you learn about any of the vedic sciences, the more you realize you don’t know but it surely separates you from the masses and “the clowns” and he circus. I myself am a very humble student of many of these great sciences. Just a beginner. But with every new day of greater study and greater knowledge, i find it more and more useless to teach any of it. There is this thing called a paradigm. The western paradigm cannot comprehend the paradigm that these vedic science come from. It is esoteric. Once again the proof is in what is out there. Cleanses, juice fasts, raw diets all in the name of yoga. It is nothing but sales from an ignorant society. It isn’t yoga. It is not the path or lifestyle. It is almost useless to say out loud because all it does is engage egos. Lots of teachers out there with no knowledge but damn they think they do.

        The masses would not know truth if it bit them in the arse.

        And apologies if i seem sharp.

        Thank you again Jennifer for your article.

        • Shelley
          Posted April 28, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          Brad, I love your comment above about “the more you learn about any of the vedic sciences, the more you realize you don’t know” and this goes for anything in life really. If we all remained this humble and open minded we would be on the right path.

    • troy turi
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      You haven’t been to one of my classes… Yoga, real Yoga is being taught in the west… look for it in the unpopular teacher in the community. It just takes a little longer to break through the mold.. Yoga is an awareness of Self.. only one that is Yoga can teach something that isn’t seen, by being it. So have some compassion for the west living I FEEL FAT YOGA. When we’re not starting with death and working backwards, we’re talking vedas and bandhas and lions and tigers, oh my! Also look for Ryan C. Leier. There are so many that are qualified to teach… and yes, most yoga teachers are actors… but what does that make the students?

      • Brad Yantzer
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:37 pm | Permalink


        I don’t doubt that there are few out there. I have ran into just a couple. Funny, they all share the same view of Modern Yoga. Yes, you can tell them by the size of the class, few attending. Few stay to really learn and grow. Most want prana depleting workouts that leave them vata provoked and feeling high. It is disease forming just from a yogic lens. That is the sad truth.

        Compassion isn’t what i am needing though. A loud speaker would be better. Yes, meeting them where they are is one thing but that doesn’t mean because they have copied their favorite yoga teachers asana sequence they have any right to be teaching. I think that we are gonna need a few more John Friend episodes to have some eyes really open.

        Glad you are keeping it real.


      • Brad Yantzer
        Posted April 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

        Just checked him out. Nope, He is just another clown.

        First, just to draw some very simple points. Yoga danda, it is a stick that is used to open the balance of the flow to the nostrils. The nostrils need to be balanced or in other words the energy needs to be balanced before any practice is done. The channels being balanced is also when sushumna is open. This happens when the sun is at horizon at sun rise or sun set.

        The asana practice is about energy, not flying or floating or any of the other stuff that your guy is teaching. Vinyasa is not it either. there is no control over what is going on with the prana in a vinyasa class, much less any idea of what an asan is doing or supposed to do.

        There is so much to all of this it is ridiculous to even try to start to explain it to people.

        Troy, try this. Stand in one place and take a breath. Where does it go? Where is prana flowing to as well. Also check the mind. Then lean forward to the balls of your feet and take a breath, notice the breath and prana and mind again. Then let your lower back go into flexion and put the weight into your heels. Do the same, check the breath and the prana and the mind.
        This is very rudimentary example of how the energy changes in position of the biomechanics of the body as it is all the same and interrelated. Yet, I am guessing that about 80% of people out there can’t feel a difference at all.
        This is what all of asana is based upon.

        Then you take pranayama, It is to build the capacity and how is that done? Without knowing correct usage of the bandhas, there is no building of any prana. It equates to with a ballon with a big hole in it.

        Pratyahara? In this culture I find hardly anyone that actually knows what that is much less how to do it.

        i can continue but won’t think I am done with this stuff.

  11. Kimberlyn David
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    So refreshing. Paola offers a good point. Maybe it’s time to get behind the (emotional) psychology of why people feel the need to *follow* any particular teacher (or political party or church or celebrity or fill in the blank). Part 2 in the works :) ?

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      You are after my heart here. I love this question of identity! How do we identify ourselves and what role do others play in that? There are so many answers offered to this question. And, I have some ideas. Perhaps a Part 2, who knows!

    • troy turi
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      that’s simple. The work required to seek out your own teacher seems like work. To have to be responsible for it all, seems like work to others, so instead they chose the lesser of the two choices and revere rather than look within… Bikram couldn’t have been easier to spot..

  12. michelle
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this..I like the dialogue.
    It seems there are even similarities in the medical world. If the doctor says ‘X’ to the Patient, MOST of the time, the patient says ok and does not take responsibility for researching their own bodies, health ect. I would say in fact this lack of taking responsibility may be part of the root of the problem. Critical thought is not something the educational systems support/ teach from an early age. Most students are taught how to win the system and that may be in lieu of critical thinking. We could take it a step further..back to childhood. How many Parents really taught/ supported real critical thinking in their kids? How could they offer what they didn’t have?
    I am a freak or lucky or a bit of both because my father was a philosophy teacher and pushed me to think for myself and to question. I am also lucky perhaps because I had this background and sought out teachers who encouraged the same thing.
    Being a teacher now myself I find this is the hardest part of teaching, asking students to think and giving them a framework for how to use discrimination.

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Michelle! YES! I could not agree more! But perhaps I should not get into educational reform…that is an entirely different blog :)
      To your point, though, I think it is awesome that you now share the benefits of your “freak or lucky” circumstances, teaching others the same thing your father taught you. As teachers it is not our job to teach people what to think, but simply give them tools to do the thinking. Your critical thought is always welcome here. Thanks for the comments.

  13. Joanne
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m either really naive or really fortunate. In my experience as a yogini (or am I a yogi, or just a person practicing yoga) I have never, seriously, ever run into such a cult-of-personality. If I did I would run away faster than you can say I-LIKE-TO-BLOG.

    I can and do see how we in the west want to categorize yoga as This or That. And I also see the speed in which we are making it a Big Business.

    I’ll just practice and be oblivious to any cult building going on!

  14. troy turi
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    you do think too much.
    Anyone does, who falls susceptible to someone like Bikram. He is obvious. The most obvious. The people in his classes are not initially in search of a union. They are in search of losing weight, they are in search of being important, of being ambitious and to not think for themselves in the first place. “Hellooooo, you are being subjected to extreme heat while doing Yoga, while dehydrating being told not to drink water… Hello, Nervous system! Helloooo, go to India and see that nobody does yoga in any form of heat, it’s too hot. This is a man who patented Yoga, let me get this straight, he fooled you? And yet, you couldn’t see this? I don’t blame this on Bikram. He was just being himself. Obvious.

    To give yourself a mental lobotomy is the only way to see reality from the perspective of the Whole, not from your individual’s holes. To see what makes a great teacher, not an instructor, you simply look at the students he attracts. A teacher will encourage you to go deeper and question your mind–whose priority is to doubt everything and everyone, but never miraculously doubt itself. You must lose everything in order to see what’s underneath. Many don’t know how to seek out awarenss of a Self that is invisible. In the search they only discover the same day, the same chapter of suffering, suffering inevitably leads them back into the possibility of finally trying that something new, a new path, past other than where your reactionary mind will attempt to seduce you back with more hope(suffering), more ideas of happiness(suffering), more suffering.
    It is so simple, that it is impossible to see… with your mind. You have to become the Yoga. Only a teacher that encourages that, is your teacher. But let’s be clear, don’t blame the lamb when he tells you he’s a wolf and you believe him. It’s just… that you don’t know what real Yoga is… good luck in your pursuit. If it’s in your head.. enjoy the Bikram experience, you might as well.

    • admin
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      Your comment here is borderline harassment. Furthermore, you are missing the point of Jennifer’s argument. Perhaps you should read it more carefully. We welcome thoughtful criticism, but your verbiage has a distinctly unfriendly tone and is definitely not constructive. Please monitor your choice of words more carefully in the future. Conversation is welcome here, rants are not. I’m sure you understand.
      Thanks and best,

      • UGH
        Posted April 26, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

        Well said Ed,
        Furthermore…. that is the very LAST reason people choose/chose Bikram yoga…. sadly, few had the awareness, knowledge or education to see what was happening, EVEN WITH eyes wide open. If you study cult leaders as mentioned, the mind control techniques are so subtle…it truly takes specialized training to recognize it when its happening. They are Masters of their craft. Getting up and walking away???? who has $10-15k to flush down the toilet and “walk away”?…. when, I for one,simply took note and completed my mission. Sadly, the community is not a “self thinking one” in my case, and branched out as I have and had MUCH more going for me and ANY form of Control over what I can and can’t do or “mind control” was not part of it. Thank you for this article… it was great! I truly hope the pressure stays constant and the awareness level and TRUTH will not be covered up any longer… too many people have suffered already.

      • Jennifer Richard
        Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        I just want to say that while I do not feel harassed, I do appreciate the support form the site manager.

        Clearly, you and I have different views regarding this topic, which would make for a great conversation! However, that is only possible if you would like to listen as well as be heard. If your point was to simply state your opinions, then that is done. If you would like to have a conversation about why you have come to the conclusions you have, I would welcome that warmly.
        I wish you the best,

  15. Estela
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I am so glad you wrote about this issue. I almost left yoga after a bad experience with a teacher who wanted me to submit to what she preached. Without giving specifics she humiliated me in front of the class while assisting her. I cried in Child’s Pose after the humiliation while the class was in Savasana. I left after this incident and never went back. I still practice yoga but don’t have a favor teacher, yoga lineage or style. They all claim to be “right” and the rest of them wrong.

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      That is a story of empowerment; I am very happy you shared. Thanks, Estela.

  16. jan
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Just a thought on Buddhism. The Buddha taught that one should question everything and believe nothing until one knows it from their own experience. It is the essential teaching.

  17. David Fink
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic stuff. I was really struck by the critique of Yoga’s attitude about critical thinking. Where I teach yoga, somone put up a sign at the door that reads “leave shoes & mind behind.” I cringe each time I walk past it.

    I’ve bee thinking a lot lately about the history of spiritual authoritarianism in the context of fascist rhetoric. Here’s a rhetorical game that I put together using the words Yoga & Yogi to replace fascism and fascist in some of Mussolini’s Writitngs.

    A thought experiment for consideration.

    Part 1

    In the following text the words “Yoga” and “Yogi” have replaced two other words.

    “2[...]The world see[n] through Yoga is not this material world which appears on the surface, in which man is an individual separated from all others and standing by himself. . . . The man of Yoga is an individual who is nation and fatherland, which is a moral law, binding together individuals and the generations into a tradition and a mission, suppressing the instinct for a life enclosed within the brief round of pleasure in order to restore within duty a higher life free from the limits of time and space; a life in which the individual, through the denial of himself, through the sacrifice of his own private interests, through death itself, realizes that completely spiritual existence in which his value as a man lies.

    3. Therefore it is a spiritualized conception, itself the result of the general reaction of modern times against the flabby materialistic positivism of the nineteenth century. . . . Yoga desires an active man, one engaged in activity with all his energies: it desires a man conscious of the difficulties that exist in action and ready to face them. It conceives of life as a struggle, considering that it behooves man to conquer for himself that life truly worthy of him, creating first of all in himself the instrument (physical, moral, intellectual) in order to construct it. Thus for the single individual, thus for the nation, thus for humanity. . . .

    4. This positive conception of life is clearly an ethical conception. It covers the whole of reality, not merely the human activity which controls it. No action can be divorced from moral judgment; there is nothing in the world which can be deprived of the value which belongs to everything in its relation to moral ends. Life, therefore, as conceived by the Yogi, is serious, austere, religious: the whole of it is poised in a world supported by the moral and responsible forces of the spirit. The Yogi disdains the “comfortable” life.”

    Part 2

    Here is the original text. It is an excerpt from an article on Fascism which Mussolini wrote (with the help of Giovanni Gentile) for the Enciclopedia Italiana in 1932. The words that were replaced in the previous text by “Yoga” and “Yogi” are “Fascism” and “Fascist”. The text is taken from http://www.historyguide.org/europe/duce.html

    2. [...]The world see[n] through Fascism is not this material world which appears on the surface, in which man is an individual separated from all others and standing by himself. . . . The man of Fascism is an individual who is nation and fatherland, which is a moral law, binding together individuals and the generations into a tradition and a mission, suppressing the instinct for a life enclosed within the brief round of pleasure in order to restore within duty a higher life free from the limits of time and space; a life in which the individual, through the denial of himself, through the sacrifice of his own private interests, through death itself, realizes that completely spiritual existence in which his value as a man lies.

    3. Therefore it is a spiritualized conception, itself the result of the general reaction of modern times against the flabby materialistic positivism of the nineteenth century. . . . Fascism desires an active man, one engaged in activity with all his energies: it desires a man conscious of the difficulties that exist in action and ready to face them. It conceives of life as a struggle, considering that it behooves man to conquer for himself that life truly worthy of him, creating first of all in himself the instrument (physical, moral, intellectual) in order to construct it. Thus for the single individual, thus for the nation, thus for humanity. . . .

    4. This positive conception of life is clearly an ethical conception. It covers the whole of reality, not merely the human activity which controls it. No action can be divorced from moral judgment; there is nothing in the world which can be deprived of the value which belongs to everything in its relation to moral ends. Life, therefore, as conceived by the Fascist, is serious, austere, religious: the whole of it is poised in a world supported by the moral and responsible forces of the spirit. The Fascist disdains the “comfortable” life.

    • Brad Yantzer
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

      That rocks David. Thanks for your 2 cents. It is much more like $1.50.

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      David, I appreciate this thought experiment greatly. As Brad says, worth much more than 2 cents!
      I think this speaks directly to something that I mention in the article: that so many in the West believe yoga to be completely different from all other systems. This experiment shows that it is not, indeed.
      Thank you for this. Very provocative.

  18. Seeker
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this.

  19. Marwellous
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    “This is not meant to criticize the Judeo-Christian faiths …”

    In the light of everything you wrote up until that point it seemed natural that you would do just that. But you backed off. It must be the inveterate political correctness. Or. You truly didn’t notice?

    Faith is the problem. Faith injects, nourishes, and cultivates precisely what you are admonishing – cultishness – like nothing else I can think of.

    When people are trained (by their loving and faithful parents who take them to places of worship, yes, that sounds horrible, but that’s what it is) or when people do this to themselves (maybe during a life crisis when one of the faith’s marketing machinery lured them in) to internalize and adopt faith as a way of life .. well, then people are trained to do exactly that – look for something to follow. Aptly, in Judeo-Christian school of worship, they call themselves “sheep”. But the flavors of the faith and the monikers of the followers are irrelevant.

    This works nicely for yoga gurus. They do what any good business does – apply their skills and wits to natural resources (the sheep) to sell sought after products (something promising to follow).

    I love yoga the practice. But, as you can tell, I, too, am turned off by the self-reinforcing cultish environment of it. I wish that went away (and, obviously, not only from yoga studios). It won’t go anywhere until the real causes – which run far away from yoga gurus and their shops – are addressed.

    • UGH
      Posted April 26, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink


    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for your valuable insights here. When I wrote the bit about Judeo-Christian frameworks, I was certainly careful. I don’t think it was out of political correctness, however! Primarily, I did not want to equate faith with the type of thoughtlessness that I discuss here because I do not think that all people who have “faith” are necessarily not critical thinkers. Lots to think about with this!

  20. Kimberlee
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    So many people want absolutes. Though ethical relativism gets a bad wrap, I find the search for absolutism not to my taste. The moral hypothesis debates are always interesting and always worth pondering as in, would you kill one man to save the lives of 10 children–which is the more compassionate act. There is not a right or wrong and there is no way to say for sure until you are ever faced with a crisis, but it’s definitely worth pondering.

    I am not a sociologist nor have I been to India, so I cannot answer this myself, but I would love to hear from people who have either studied Indian culture academically and/or have traveled through Indian extensively whether the cult of personality problem exists there as well. I have read stories about the religious absolutism among some Hindus there that parallel the actions of fringe Christianity in the US. The riots against filmmaker Deepa Mehta come to mind. I believe extremists can be found in any society, but the extent to which extremists dominate the majority is the question. So I am curious if anyone has encountered a similar cult of personality and drive for absolutism in India.

    Also, there have been contributions of knowledge to yoga for the better, though purists might disagree, and specifically in the area of biomechanics. For example, pregnant women, or women for that matter, were excluded from yoga. Now there are asana classes for pregnant women and it is only with the knowledge from Western medicine that we know deep back bends, which were mentioned earlier, are not safe for pregnant women because of the risk of rectus diastasis. Combining the traditional, spiritual, and energetic perspective on poses with a fundamental understanding of the body from a more clinical/Western perspective is a powerful teaching tool.

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      You speak with such gentleness, it makes me want to keep reading. I grapple with notions of moral relativism and the question of universals (where universals will only manifest in particulars, but does that mean that particulars are relative or only seem to be because of the limitations of time and space?) I cannot speak authoritatively to the questions regarding cult-of-personality except to say that I have heard anecdotes of similar stories with gurus in India. Perhaps someone reading will be able to share more with all of us. Finally, I really appreciate the sweetness of the way you are not simply “tolerant” of different ideas and concepts, but that you engage them and bring them together. This is an admirable practice, and I think it is the only way we evolve as human beings. Thanks for your comments and hopefully someone will add to this conversation with more on India, in particular.

  21. julian walker
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    delighted to discover you, jennifer. fantastic piece. come and visit us at yogabrains.org sometimes.. :)

  22. Dell
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your lovely and insightful article Jennifer. I look forward to more of what this site has to offer.

    I suppose my response is directed more to some of the commentary in response to your article. While I agree that in some ways perhaps it is sad that many yoga teachers are unfamiliar with traditional yoga texts, to privilege certain bodies of knowledge over other ways of being or knowing is in some ways to sustain exactly the means by which these cults-of-personality develop. Indeed, I’m not actually even sure what my right is to much of that knowledge, given the colonial history of the West in India. How much of any rigorous study of Eastern scripture by a Western student is driven by a kind of Orientalism? I honestly don’t know.

    And as much as I am wary of yoga teachers who claim to have some deeper understanding of the world, or know that their way is the only, and the right way, I am wary of people who deride other “forms” of yoga as dangerous, or disease-making, or what have you. Yes, there might be problematic aspects of a practice, or perhaps aspects that seem disagreeable, but to suggest that people are doing it wrong, or not at all, is to go against your beautiful point exactly — that “there is no yoga.” (Or, the reverse: everything is yoga.) Thinking with Foucault here, and the idea of power/knowledge, is a useful (for me at least!) way to trace how this operates: what is deemed (by those already with a kind of power) as “real” knowledge, be it “esoteric” or controlled by someone like Bikram, perpetuates systems that have a tendency to other and to exclude, while simultaneously maintaining a hierarchy that benefits those at the top, often doing exactly the opposite of what it is intended to do. I am also a bit puzzled that a measure of a good teacher is how few students he or she has. Doesn’t this underestimate people in a seriously disrespectful way? Maybe I’m naive, but to think that people won’t respond to wisdom makes me quite sad.

    Too, I think it’s worth remembering that it is not available to all students to spend a great deal of time studying scripture, and perhaps this is something many do not actually desire. It’s arguable that this desire or lack thereof is out of ignorance, but it’s not for me to judge. This is not to say that I advocate dilettante teaching, but rather, as you encourage, a more sustained critical engagement in all spectrums of life, by both teacher and student. For me, this looks like teaching a highly disciplined class but encouraging students to break rules to understand why those rules are in place and what effect it is they create.

    Finally, I do wonder, if I am a self-reflective teacher of asana and it is my intention to bring a little bit of joy, a moment of stillness, and maybe a better night’s sleep to a student, than perhaps for today that is the best I can do, and perhaps it is enough.

  23. Natalie
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I agree that some charismatic leaders become one-sighted in thier message and insist that their yoga way is the only right way or that yoga is the only way and convince practicioners to stop thinking critically about the best things for themselves.

    But I have expereinced the inverse as well, I have seen leaders that espouse critical thinking and attempt to challenge learners. What’s interesting is the desire of some of those learners to follow and seek exact answers. I have seen students get angry when specific direction and instructions weren’t given, when they were only given more questions.

    What I am suggesting is that some people don’t understand they have to work for thier own answers and very much want the answers given to them. It’s those people that fall prey to leaders like the ones you describe. Personal accountability has to extend to the student and self-discovery (or doing anything of any value for that matter) always comes with risk.

    There will always be those that know how to prey on weakness- there always has been. It is part of the human condition and the only path I can see is to be in my own inquiry and hope to influence those around me to do the same.

  24. Eric Shaw
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Alot of material here.

    As a former associate of some high-profile yoga teachers who’s work bent strongly toward cult-of-personality behavior, and as a person of faith who partly makes his living as a critical thinker, I’d like to offer a few things:

    1) Charismatic individuals have different vibrations based on different attributes. Jesus was charismatic but he was that way, arguably, because he was boldly manifesting energies of higher insight in a time when people could recognize them and takes risks for them. Other charismatic leaders may work with “lower vibrations.” They are working with particular tics of our human psychology that yearn for “God-realm” thinking, i.e. singular answers to complex questions that press the shadow elements into non-recognition. If a particular charismatic leader shares our biases but speaks them more boldly and coherently than us, we are liable to fall under his/her spell.

    The cue is often how such leaders/organizations interact with their opposite class/sect/creed. If there is profound projection (e.g. Democrats, Republicans) think a bit deeper.

    2) Leadership happens. Leadership is required. It pushes the karmic boat forward and I would argue that that is a general good. So, even a bad leader is valuable for the resolution of our individual karmas. Even an evil leader serves us, for s/he makes the issues of our particular attachment dramatically clear. Even evil leaders have karmic value–they would not succeed as leaders unless they were outpicturing our actual troubled psychology.

    3) I, too, must take issue for your comment about the Judeo-Christian traditions, for it seems you are flattening them. If an institution lasts for 2000 years it probably has something good going for it. I was raised in Christian settings where the search for Truth was manifested in non-glamorous, holistic environments that few Eastern faiths could improve upon (and I have taken part in a fair share of Eastern transformational organizations and studied them deeply from scholastic perspectives, as well as spent significant time in Mother India). There are problematic religious organizations and individuals in every tradition. There are abusive gurus by the dozens in the subcontinent. Don’t let the screaming evangelizers or other annoying sorts be your touchstone for the true spirit and power of Christianity and Judaism.

    In the spirit of reflection and faith,

    Eric Shaw

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 29, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink


      Lovely to have such thoughtful comments.

      1) Love this explication of charismatic authority. You expound some of the more psychological components. Thank you for that!

      2) I agree: leadership is necessary. However, I would take a very different stance on karma. Given this notion of karma, your position makes perfect, logical sense!

      3) I think you miss my point on the Judeo-Christian implications. The reason I mention them is to point out that many in the US are working form within this framework; therefore, the way in which they understand many eastern, yogic, or otherwise different philosophies reflects the same framework. The Judeo-Christian framework is not, nor was I implying, implicitly a bad thing! However, when taking a foreign paradigm and sifting through a different framework, I think it wise to be aware of what we are in fact doing.

      On another note, I think you and I are in complete agreement when you say, ” There are problematic religious organizations and individuals in every tradition.” Exactly. Exactly. In every tradition. Because, as I state, all traditions are comprised of human beings.

      My use of the Judeo-Christian framework was not meant to imply anything about the spirit or power of Judaism or Christianity. That is an altogether different topic, in my opinion :)

      I appreciate your insight and the open and honest way with which you present it.

    • Paola Bahamondes
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      I agree 100%

  25. Juan Flores
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Great article.
    I have enjoyed yoga for many years as part of my fitness routine that includes walking, martial arts and ballet. My classes were mostly Anusara. Even before the Anusara scandal I could not help but notice the “glass-eyed” look on the faces of some people when they spoke of yoga and the founder of Anusara. It reminded me of articles I read on cults for my graduate work (JD and MA) and that I read in the media.
    An important aspect for research is why so many of these “yoga gurus” are male and their followers (some would say victims) are female. What is it that females are looking for that allows so many of them to be taken in by these charlatans?

    • Posted April 28, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      @Juan: Maybe men are sometimes just too embarrassed to admit they’ve been taken in?:-) Seriously thought, I think it boils down to the fact that there are more women taking yoga courses than men. Therefore, more women will be affected by this than men…in my opinion.

      • Jennifer Richard
        Posted April 29, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        Off the cuff, I would agree. And, I think this begs a deeper question: why is the US yoga scene so female dominated?
        I like this line of inquiry, guys. Thanks for commenting.

  26. Sanjiv Chaturvedi
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Watever you wrote is right . May be you have your own personal experience . But I am not agree about lies in yoga. There are people who always claim that their system is best and solve all your problems but at the same time there are people and systems who are working silently without any claim and advertisement . I think you should explore more ,so that you can not generalize your view about yoga.

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 29, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      This article was not meant to be a generalization about my view of yoga, but to discuss this recurrent problem in yoga. If I did not have a favorable view of yoga, I would not care so much about the charlatans, so to speak. I have certainly found wonderful practitioners, teacher, and philosophers that share the openness needed to protect against social tyranny and also prod development and evolution. It is a beautiful tradition, thus, the reason to address the issue :)

  27. Fredric
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    Reading this made me think of our current two party political system. I wish more people would wake up and recognize the cult of personality that is ever so present in politics today not just in the yoga community. In the long run (or short unfortunately) this looks to be more pressing of a situation.
    Sorry to be a bit off topic. ;)

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 29, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

      I like the off-topic-ness. After writing this, and upon receiving all these comments I have found myself thinking about this in broader and different terms, as well. I am happy the article made you think about something else…very cool.

      • Brad Yanzer
        Posted May 9, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

        Fredric and jennifer,
        Might add into your off topic glorious add on, that the planets have been doing their work pretty hard core as of lately. Saturn and Rahu are both in libra. Vedic style I might ad. Lots of work globally on relations with others. Saturn is bringing in the long hard lessons with Rahu backing it up with an excessive nature in Libra which is basically all about others and ruled by Venus. If your interested can throw alot more from that angle at you, this was just interesting with your so on topic – off topicness. :)

  28. Posted April 28, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    I mentioned this in Tracey’s post, but I think this one may be a good place to discuss it too: Jennifer, when you mention “Yoga in the West,” I wonder if the more appropriate term in my opinion would be “Yoga in the English-speaking West” or even “Yoga in the US”?

    I’ve lived in Europe (Switzerland) for over 12 years and discovered yoga here. I have yet to see the ‘cult of personality / yoga guru veneration’ in any German-, French- or Italian-speaking area. I think this is because the folks here felt the direct effects of what you discussed earlier. They know first hand that veneration of *any* person can be dangerous.

    Maybe the issue is US centered?

    • Jennifer Richard
      Posted April 29, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      SUCH a GREAT point. I am not sure why we (as a community) refer to yoga in the West. Perhaps we would all be better served to speak of yoga in the US? I think this begs some more interesting questions regarding cultural comparison. Hmmm…now you have my wheels spinning…

  29. Posted April 28, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    David wrote: “Where I teach yoga, somone put up a sign at the door that reads “leave shoes & mind behind.” I cringe each time I walk past it.”

    See, this is where I get confused. Isn’t discernment (viveka) a key component of yoga? According to what I’m reading in Edwin F. Bryant’s version of the Yoga Sutras “it is viveka-khyati, discriminative discernment itself, that burns the seeds of false knowledge.” Isn’t being able to sniff out BS a key skill picked up when practicing yoga? If so, doesn’t that involve actually *using* your mind and not leaving it behind?

    • Marcy
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes! I just spoke to this very point/concern about ‘viveka’:

      Vivekānanda is the celebrated swami who addressed his “sisters and brothers of America” at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893. Do you know what his name means?

      vivekānanda = viveka + ānanda

      viveka – verbal root /vic (to discriminate, discern, judge) + prefix
      vi (probably from ‘dvi’ meaning ‘two parts’ and expressing division
      or deliberation) >>> discrimination, true knowledge, right judgment, the faculty of distinguishing and classifying things (Monier Monier Williams, p. 987, c). The 8th c. C.E. text, Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, is about ‘viveka,’ which is indispensable for mokṣa (liberation). One should discriminate between ātman (Self) and anātman (non-Self, body), and truth and untruth.

      ānanda – verbal root /nand + prefix ā (to rejoice, be delighted) >>> unconditional joy, bliss

      vivekānanda >>> the bliss of discrimination

      Perhaps you have heard lines or seen signs like this at yoga studios: ‘leave your shoes and mind at the door.’ Don’t do that! You need your mind to negotiate the waves in the tumultuous sea of ‘Love and Light.’ Given the numerous yoga scandals and the concern that some charismatic teachers suppress independent thought and “discourage critical thinking” (see “I Love the Way You Lie to Me,” by Jennifer Richard), let’s make sure to bring more ‘viveka’ to modern yoga.

      – Marcy, YFSP resident Sanskritist, see FB page Sanskrit Revolution, for more conversation about this

  30. Shelley
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Thought provoking article, thank you Jennifer. There are many comments here adding fuel to the fire which is great, and with so much said already I have a few thoughts on avoiding this type of mess … as students and as teachers we all need to find a healthy BALANCE … a balance between conviction in what we teach (or follow) and open mindedness to fresh perspective, a balance between understanding and questioning, a balance between giving and receiving, and a balance of respect between the teacher and the student.

  31. Donna Jackson
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Love your post. Totally spot on!
    Thank you for the truth.

  32. nolayoga
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Here, here! Thanks for your clarity and scholarship, as we alchemize the supposed monster under the bed into the best playmate of all!

  33. YogaforCynics
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I like most of what you say here, but it seems that, near the end, you see to fall back on the all too typical bogeyman found in discussions of the problems of yoga: that of the West–the great snake in the grass that corrupts pure Eastern practices. While I love your analogy between the Christian trinity and popular understandings of yogic metaphysics, is this really where the destructive guru cults of personality are coming from? Or could it be that they’re a relatively pure transplant from the East, where authoritarian gurus have been exploiting their followers for thousands of years and continue to do so today? Thankfully, recent Western yogis have shown little interest in the Hindu caste system (unlike those in the early 20th century, who tended to be fascists). Let’s hope that soon we’ll ditch the gurus as well, to form a hybrid yoga that discards the destructive traditions of East and West.

  34. Brad Yanzer
    Posted May 9, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    More of the circus.


    Funny coincidence right after your article.

    How much more do the results of what we are calling yoga in the West do you need?

    The paradigm that yoga exists in is not experienceable in the Western paradigm. What we are left with is crap like this wher the actions speech and thoughts are not in alignment and from an Ayurvedic or yoga view is nothing more than mental disorders.

    • Avi Marjoe
      Posted May 28, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      How interesting that you should adopt such a deeply harmonious, fundamentally sound way of life (yoga and its sister Ayurveda), and present yourself so inharmoniously! We should all seriously question your comprehension, because true yogis would never ever speak this way. And yet, you present yourself as one who knows better than everyone else. How astounding that you have anointed yourself evangelist (needing a bullhorn? gracious!) to trumpet how the Western world is so corrupt and inferior to the Eastern. This is not news, nor is it true. Western-born and bred folks are not inherently stupid and unable to comprehend the complexities and depth of Eastern philosophies; in fact, quite the opposite. The freedoms afforded for learning in the West are unparalleled in the world (which is NOT true in the East). That there are producers and consumers of “fake” yoga and “fake” ghee is a world-wide problem, and not Western-born. This travesty is one that can serve to enlighten those who are interested in finding out for themselves. And those who aren’t interested do not need you to “save” them from these parasites. Only your ego leads you to believe this.
      As YogaforCynics says above, Eastern-born and bred Yogic and Ayurvedic teachers and leaders are infamous for their controlling dictatorial ways. While it is satisfying to finger-point, scoff at and criticize participants of what is offered as YOGA here, that doesn’t mean they can’t get something out of it that is deeply profound. Whether they call it exactly what you think they should call it (or not call it) is really irrelevant. You have NO idea what is going on with these people, or how what they are doing is affecting them, nor is it your right to judge it. A true yogi would not dream of doing that. No principle, philosophy, or theory in life has only one way to get to it, no matter how much you quote ancient texts or preach about what ghee is and isn’t. People who care about this learning will find their way to it. And you can’t force people to care about this no matter how much, how loudly, or how sarcastically you express yourself. Given the way you do express yourself, I fear for your students if they do not follow your instructions to the letter. You should know, Brad, the ancient texts are guides, not literal dictates. This is true whether it’s the Vedic texts, the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. The truths are ineffable. Simple-minded folks take them literally. And the “circus” to which you refer in the West (where, by the way, you make your living and derive untold benefits) is essential for true students of YOGA to fully understand the context as each “gets” the metaphysical principles, in their bodies and in their essential selves. I categorically reject your statement that “The paradigm that yoga exists in is not experienceable in the Western paradigm.” That’s simply not true. It is not easy, here or anywhere. Perhaps this is your excuse for why you struggle to find your way to true yoga? (And by the way, I define YOGA as the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will so as to allow the self to realize its distinction from them and find true liberation.)
      I sincerely wish you peace.

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