Are the kulas of today the cults of tomorrow?

Via on Jul 6, 2011

Disclaimer: This article is not directed at John Friend, Anusara Yoga, or any one group in particular. It is my honest and heartfelt reflection on trends I see in the yoga community in general. ~ the author

Watch the video of my conversation with John at YogaModern.com

John Friend has been called a celebriyogi. So you better believe I was oh-so-relieved when a very down to earth and personable guy plopped down next to me on the couch for our interview at the Wanderlust Festival in Vermont. As soon as he started teasing me about astral projecting into the future (I mistakenly said we were at Wanderlust 2012 in my introduction), I felt myself relax and quickly took a liking to the “yoga mogul” as he’s been called. Ever since our conversation, my mind’s been all abuzz with thoughts about that tenuous boundary between cliques,  kulas, and communities in the yoga world.

I spent a lot of time studying social psychology in college. But if you really want a lesson in group dynamics, there’s nothing like Wanderlust Fest to bring the theories of old men in armchairs to life. I love to people watch, I can’t tell you how interesting it was to see bedazzled yogis asking for autographs from their favorite teachers or see the looks of confusion as English-speaking yogis struggled to find common language (she says inner-spiral, he says internal rotation). We’re a fascinating breed, us modern-day yogis. When almost everyone I met introduced themselves in terms of the yoga “kula” they belonged to, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d flashed-back to high school.

I may tussle a few feathers here. But this is my heart speaking. I’ve gotta get it out.


 

Photo via Wanderlust

What’s the difference between a clique and a kula? Well to start off with, as John notes in the interview, the word clique is a modern term that’s typically used in a pejorative way. We often use ‘clique’ to describe a group of individuals who exclude and act derisively toward those in the larger community. Kula, on the other hand, is a Sanskrit word often translated as family, clan, or community of the heart.

“I don’t like to think that any yoga group would be cliquish because that would presume that they have an intent to somehow look on the others in a disharmonious way.”

I really resonated with John’s heartfelt answers during the interview, and since returning home I’ve continued to sort of chew on the topics we touched on. One thing that seems to keep showing up for me, no matter how much I resist looking at it, is the sense of divisiveness and imbalance of power I sense in the yoga world. Frankly, I don’t like to think that yogis would be “cliquish” either. It definitely paints a prettier picture to suppose that we all see one another as brothers and sisters, that there’s no sense of competition among different styles of yoga, and that no one ever gets excluded or cast out of the kula. But is that the reality? I’m not so sure.

I wonder if those in leadership positions really see all the things that happen under the radar in their kulas and the yoga community at large. Or maybe some do and are too wrapped up in the dynamics of it themselves to sound the alarm. I don’t know. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. I have to admit I feel vulnerable tackling this issue at all, but my hope is that by sharing a little personal anecdote here, we can open up space for an open-minded and respectful dialogue.

Photo via Wanderlust

As a fiery young twenty-something who lacks a real rootedness to her family of origin, I’m hyperaware of my tendency to get pulled in by the allure of family-like clans. There’s a strong desire — and I believe this exists in all of us, not just those of us who are in our youth or come from broken homes — to belong, to be accepted, to be a part of something bigger than our individual selves. This desire, I believe, is in part what drives human beings to form tribes, to build families, and to create communities throughout world. We want to believe we are held by something greater, and it’s in the arms of others we find the reassurance we need.

“Yes, I see you. I value you, and you’re wanted here.”

But there’s a shadow side to the yearning for community as well. Often (and I know this from my own process), we get so wrapped up in our desire to be accepted that we end up losing our connection to our Self in order to be accepted by the clan. We begin to idealize the leader(s) in the community, we start to meld our beliefs and value systems to be more in line with theirs’, we lose our capacity to rationally evaluate the teachings or demands being made because dissent might result in us getting kicked out of the group.

Moreover, the hierarchical nature of these communities and kulas (i.e. the fact that there’s usually one or a few leaders at the top) can sometimes lead to voices of “lower” members in the group being hushed or kept down. I’ve seen multiple instances in which a more powerful member in the community intentionally casts out someone who’s voice has gotten too loud — either because they pose objections to the ideas of the majority or simply because they’ve stepped into their own innate potential and their growth threatens the power dynamics in the group. And when you throw money and commercial interests into the mix… well, let’s just say things get very interesting.

 

I want to emphasize the fact that I don’t think the formation of cliques, communities, or kulas are a BAD thing. Quite the contrary, I don’t know how I’d survive without the nourishing support of the communities that have welcomed me in. But I do think our understanding of yoga communities could use a much more nuanced perspective and some conversation around the power dynamics at play.

Photo via Wanderlust

When we look closely at our motivations to be a part of a kula or community, there’s an opportunity to meet our needs without handing away our power to a charismatic teacher, mentor, or community. When we understand both sides of the coin– light and shadow, benefits as well as pitfalls — we have the chance to create something different. As John said, we can be part of a kulaand still maintain a strong connection to the broader community. Perhaps, even, we can begin to build a global kula — one that transcends race, culture, socioeconomic status… even style of yoga!

So, consider your own yoga community. Is there a sort of hierarchy among members — a leader at the top who’s been lifted up onto a pedestal by starry-eyed followers? Do you think there’s a risk that the kulas of today will become the cults of tomorrow?

I’m also curious about whether any of you have had the experience of being cast out by a yoga community or clan. Let’s start a conversation. Share your story in the comments section below.

via Yoga Modern

About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author and speaker, and the Founder of Yoga for Eating Disorders. In September 2013, Chelsea raised $50,000 on the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to kickstart her non-profit, Yoga for Eating Disorders. The program is currently being offered in treatment centers and yoga studios around the country at no charge, and she is working with researchers at UC San Diego to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in treatment. Chelsea is known for her intelligent, inspiring, and tell-it-like-it-is speaking style, and for weaving together profound personal experiences with her scientific background to deliver deeply moving insights. After nearly losing her life to anorexia and a subsequent stroke when she was 15, she has became a national advocate for community-based mental health interventions. Her work was recently showcased by Sanjay Gupta on CNN, and she’s been keynote speaker at 92nd Street Y, The Omega Institute, and at various universities and conferences around the country. Chelsea currently lives in Venice, California, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

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67 Responses to “Are the kulas of today the cults of tomorrow?”

  1. Ann says:

    For more years than I remember I’ve practiced yoga, a home practice that went with me everywhere. I became part of a strong yoga community. I was part of the “inner circle”. And I witnessed and then experienced for myself being rejected by the ” kula” for my connection to another “kula”. I’ve been awestruck by the irony of ‘yoga’-’union’ being exclusive. I’ve asked myself many times how “loyalty” to ones community of heart means closing off your heart to other communities. It contradicts everything this expansive practice represents. My conclusion, an authentic “kula” is always inclusive because the heart is connected to all beings. My experience is beware of teachers & communities that require exclusive loyalty as a prerequisite to belonging- yoga is union, not separation. Thank you for your courage to engage this discussion.

    • Yogini5 says:

      @Ann, yes, I found that a "home-practitioner-friendly" or "gym-stretching-area-practitioner-friendly" studio is the only kind of studio, kula, community or sangha worth my limited time anymore.

      The same studios that would say that it's okay to "practice at their lineage guru's space"–that is just another way of saying that only their school or method is the right or recognized method.

      Who is to say?

    • Stewart J. Lawrence says:

      I agree, not a popular topic, but the yoga world, historically, is litterred with cults. There are many elements about yoga in America tha lend itself to this. I often think that the Tara Stiles of the world are the only truly enlightened ones. Because they don't try to be. They know their market, and they just want t make some $$$ and help some other people get through their day. All these young guru wannabes are scary, because rhey are venturing into territory they don't understand with weak morals and a strong ego. This is why so many sages never wanted yoga to come to America to bgin with. "Spiritual atom bomb," as one put it.

  2. Peter says:

    Whenever humans form groups around a common activity and especially when you add a "spiritual" orientation to it you can not avoid a "cultish" quality. We're social beings looking for inclusion and affirmation of our being in relationships. The underbelly to this, of course, is the exclusion and denial of others that are not in the same relationships. Cultish does not necessarily lead to cult, but they quality will always be present.

  3. Peter says:

    "the" ;-)

  4. Jen says:

    There is nothing wrong with wanting to have an inner circle and be closest with those who share our same interests. To me, the issue arises when people reject others from their group because they are not wearing lululemon pants. Another issue I see is this "my yoga is the best yoga" attitude. We don't need to be best friends with everyone, but we should try to accept the way other people are and be kind to everyone. No person should ever feel rejected from the yoga community.

  5. elephantjournal says:

    via http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal
    Lisa Nevar-Landsmann
    Thank you for posting this! I have thought about this topic so much, I'm glad you actually put it out there! Where I practice, the teachers encourage discussion, reflection and invite students to challenge them on all topics and aspects of …the practice. How else can yoga grow and adapt to serve us? The only time they are more rigid in their teachings are when it's a matter of safety for the student. I visited another studio to see what it was about and they asked what style I practiced. When I said I'd been practicing Hatha for 15 years, the teacher trainee replied: "oh, I started with Hatha when I was a beginner."… definitely not the way to embrace me and my practice or make me feel welcome in your studio!

    • Angel says:

      You could have lovingly reminded her that "Hatha Yoga describes any of the physical practices of yoga. (yoga has eight limbs, only one of which, asana, involves doing yoga poses.) When you do Iyengar, this is hatha yoga; when you do Ashtanga, this is hatha yoga too." <3

  6. Ari Setsudo Pliskin Ari Pliskin says:

    I was also at WL last week. My partner had some similar struggles to you (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/06/la-vie-bohme-exploring-privilege-creativity-and-activism-at-wanderlust–katie-sachs/). While some viewed the pronouncements of Off the Mat Into the World to be preachy, was quite swept away with them (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/06/should-we-invite-social-issues-onto-our-yoga-mats-perspectives-clash-at-wanderlust-festival/). I get really excited about joining groups of like-minded people. Indeed, the festival as whole felt like finding my social niche. I hang around the Buddhist scene a lot, which I love, but I appreciated how much younger the WL scene was while still having a connection to serious Dharmic practice.

    believe it is possible to maintain close ties with one group while staying close with people outside the group. I do think it is dangerous and undesirable to be part of a group that insults other groups or discourages connection to them. While some Zen teachers require their students to forgo study with other teachers, my Zen teachers encourage us to study with other teachers, including teachers from other traditions. That works for me. That being said, our Zen family is fairly loose-knit and you can assume very little about the similarities between a Sangha in one part of the world with one in another part of the world.

  7. Anna Fidz says:

    "Do you think there’s a risk that the kulas of today will become the cults of tomorrow?" I think your question is a good one, but it's LEADING and it's obvious you are asserting that they are. You should explain yourself more truthfully and openly why you think they are. And, what was your TRUE intention for writing this article? Best, anna

  8. Roger Wolsey Roger Wolsey says:

    I'd never heard of a "kula" before. I partake in yoga classes for the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of the practice. I participate in a local church congregation for my community/relational needs. Nope, never seen anyone booted out of a class.

  9. elephantjournal says:

    via http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal

    #
    The Self-Aware Parent this is an important discussion for us yogis……

    #
    Anna Fidz
    These articles and discussions are really stifling to me. The article will get a lot of hits in the next few days and will become really popular on EJ, bc it's "controversial." People will go in circles voicing pros and cons. And after all …is finished, we'll all make peace..will anything be TRULY accomplished? Let's look at the real INTENTION of these kind of posts and think if they truly raise our consciousness and make us better human beings?
    #
    Anna Fidz Just one more thing: I thought this topic was discussed ad nauseum when the NYTimes article was published some time ago. Why is it being re-introduced again? Are we going in circles?

    #
    Rick O'Connell As in any human endeavor there is going to be issues. But by honoring core techings we should be able to rise above such elements…. Hence opening to grace…

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      all dialog, especially on tricky and controversial issues in our world is better than silence and piety! it needn't lead to any solid conclusions, needn't make us all feel resolved and needn't be politically correct – ie true to some preconceived notion of the right intention.

      the more we open up conversation the more people think and feel and express and debate over time, the more things can change for the better.

      we are made better human beings by not obeying the code of silence around the shadow material many would rather pretend was just not there…

  10. Emily says:

    Chelsea:

    I feel for you. You do seem to need to find more friends and perhaps get laid more often. Perhaps this is what the cultist love fest of John is all about. You are okay just the way you are without spending tons of money on yoga festivals to connect with other wanting women..

  11. markd says:

    Chelsea:

    Listen to Emily…

  12. dan says:

    I do not think there is something inherently wrong with being insular; it’s a way to focus, and shutting out isn’t necessarily shunning, let alone shaming or psycho-sexual abuses. Is group therapy a clique-cult? Corporate “culture”? Our networks may grow and grow together, but this doesn’t make them open, and an open network can be incredibly indecisive or even an excuse for being a flake.
    Groups take responsibility, so if it’s going to be something to shirk, then of course why bother, but such an attitude shouldn’t dismiss the positive efficiencies and support of closed networks.

  13. Steve says:

    Chelsea,
    I am a studio owner, teacher and former member of a cult, (Dahn yoga, search them for what its like in a real cult), so I have experience of cult like behavior. in my opinion there is potential in some groups for this, although its far different than full cult. I brought in Anusara teachers and found strange behaviours, such as preaching their system over others and an intense selling mentality about Anusara, regular folks got turned off by it, some drank the coolaid and would only practice Anusara. I despaired! cut the class and never taken Anusara teachers back. Its strange the way they tried to convert everyone this has cult like tendancies, I saw the signs….
    Disclaimer – opinion based on two teachers, perhaps they are not all like that?

    • Hi Steve, I invite you to read my comment below, and also to read my recent article about why I chose to devote myself to Anusara: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/06/made-for-a

      I've been practicing Anusara for 3 years, after having practiced both Vinyasa and Ashtanga for years. I can say from my own experience with different types of yoga, that I definitely do not believe that Anusara is remotely a cult (and I hope that my honest critical examination below supports that). I have found only wonderful teachers, none of which have ever tried to push their beliefs on anyone. As I mention below I have come across one or two people who I would describe as more "indoctrinated" than others (but that was no different in Vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga), but overall, I would describe the character of the Anusara community as nothing but positive, loving, open and healthy. One of the main themes of Anusara is to promote open-hearted living, and I can attest that it has definitely done that for myself and many of my yogi friends. I've definitely never felt anything "weird" or "off" of "cult-like", in comparison to any other types of yoga I've practiced, or for that matter any other type of spiritual community.

      Hope that helps to give some perspective. : )

  14. Diane says:

    WAIT until I tell you about the book I'm reading and about to review on ele. Just. WAIT! Thank you for this incredibly insightful piece, Chelsea my friend.

  15. Hi Chelsea, I really enjoyed reading this article. I've been thinking a lot lately about the idea of "clique" versus "kula", especially given comments in response to my recent post, about why I chose to dedicate myself to Anusara yoga. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/06/made-for-a

    I have heard rumblings (and some direct comments) that there are some who view the Anusara kula (and perhaps others) as snobbish or elitist. Though ironically I refer to myself as a "snob" in my essay, I did so in a self-deprecating manner, to exaggerate the point of why Anusara resonates so strongly with me. I know for myself, and most of my fellow yogis, that the Anusara kula is a very accepting and open community. But anyway, my point is not to try to defend Anusara on a broad level, but rather to state that the existence of these feelings in the community prompt the need for continued and open dialogue on the matter.

    That said, I have also begun to observe that yoga can be no different from religion. There are some who seem to take it to a level of what I can only describe as blind "indoctrination", much the same way that I could describe overly religious people; without questioning. And I recognize that to outsiders who are not familiar with yoga, it can appear very cult-like. Most of us reading here of course know the benefits of yoga and how powerfully it can transform one's life, but I think it's also very important for us to keep our heads out of the sand and our feet on the ground (at least somewhat!) and to be able to step outside of our kula and look back at it with more objective eyes. The more honestly and critically that we can look at ourselves, as a community, and the more we can continue to have open dialogue about it, the more we can allow ourselves to stay in healthy balance.

    Thanks for having the courage to broach what could be viewed as a controversial topic.

  16. siri says:

    John friend has created a clickey cult of ego maniacs who spute the jargan but donot move from the shining heart.a bunch of control freaks not unlike the iyengar community.

    • Yogini5 says:

      Siri, the Kula you refer to as a cult is not the only Iyengar derivate with a sense of humor. It is only the best-known and the most commercial.

      I am happy even for that, but especially for all the others. Because I found another, different Iyengar-derivate–one that I like.

    • Siri, I could not disagree with you more. Read my writing and I think you'll agree that I move only from the heart: http://theawakenedlife.wordpress.com/

      Anusara (along with a lot of intense emotional work and other healing modalities) has completely changed my life, for the positive, and has allowed me to live from an open heart, and to be in the flow of Grace and gratitude. This is of course not true of everyone I have encountered in Anusara yoga, but it is true of the majority of the people I have met.

      I invite you to read my story of healing with Anusara, and perhaps this will offer you some perspective: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/05/my-journey

      • shakti says:

        the awakened life: you're selling. stop it. you're giving anusara that bad name and rep.

        everyone is entitled to their experience! all teachers of all methods are going to interpret and present the method in their own voice.

        please remember everyone … EVERYONE… is a hot mess engaging in yoga to find openness, healing, and love. Including teachers, myself, and YOU.

        • Hi Shakti, I'm sorry that you feel that way. I wasn´t selling anything (I have nothing to sell!). I was simply trying to show that we Anusara yogis are very open-hearted people, and that that is the entire premise of Anusara yoga. I have no problem with everyone having their own experience, but I do feel that Siri's comments about Anusara were unfounded and frankly just false. I've been in the Anusara community for 3 years and from experience I can say that the community has been nothing but open-hearted. I have met nothing but incredibly warm, loving, open-hearted people (no different from any other type of yoga). If you read my post about why I was "Made for Anusara Yoga", then you'll know that I fully respect all other yoga practices and I fully believe that they all bring light and love to the world. I was simply explaining why Anusara resonates most with me. That doesn't make me an ego-maniac.

          • Yogi Mat says:

            People new to yoga often feel that they cannot leave their teacher because they attribute a particular aspect, or series of life-transforming events to him or her.

            The inspiration to overcome an addiction of some kind, or to manage some past trauma or rebuild a harmful habit or relationship is attributed to the teachers skills, knowledge and expertise.

            Putting the yoga teacher on a pedestal avoids the need to contemplate and reflect fully on the the possibility that this type of therapeutic yoga is just as delusional as the teachers who facilitate it.

          • Hi YogiMat, I don't know if you are writing that in response to my statement. If so, I'm not new to yoga, nor have I stuck with one teacher and put them on any kind of a pedestal. I've done different types of yoga for years in different cities. When I found Anusara, it just felt like home to me. I've had loads of different teachers, in 4 different cities, so am by no means in a situation where I cannot leave my teacher.

            Also, I invite you to read my blog. You'll see that I've done years and years of deep and profound emotional and spiritual work on my own. The yoga has simply helped to complement that.

          • Stewart J. Lawrence says:

            Then stop talking like a cult member, or feeling compelled to respond to every post, to have the last world. "We Anusara yogis"? You can't speak for everyone. I know Anusra very well. Not a full-fledged cult, but was well on its way. Some but not all people function in Anusara here as if they would like to be cult members. The defensiveness, the brand snobbery, the I don't know the answer to that I'll have to ask John Friend, the endless quoting of John Friend, as if he actually knows anything, even the exact same ionflecton and tempo in the "pedaggoy." People mirroing each others words and language so precisely. I would say Stage 2 cult formation. Maybe this scandal will save us froma future Jonestown on American soil.

  17. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    brave and topical article chelsea! nice job.

    for me the question (in some ways) comes down to whether the group is based around a genuine sense of inquiry, or whether it perpetuates some sense of having to believe something on faith.

    if teachers are trained to think critically, and to empower their students to think critically, i think much of the groundwork that (often inadvertently) leads to cultish group-think gets scrapped in favor of something more authentic. if something is true it will be revealed as true through sincere inquiry.

    as you point out – all of us want to belong, and the more vulnerable we are the more deeply we long for that feeling and the more willing we are to follow blindly the charismatic teacher who claims special knowledge, star status and infallible wisdom.

    personally (as i discussed in this article: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/04/spiritual-… ) i find teachers (like friend and many others) who parrot metaphysical narratives about how the universe works as if these are the revealed facts of spiritual life do their communities a dis-service, because the only way to follow such ideas is not to think critically, and seeing as the pressure is on to belong and believe we end up over-valuing a kind of submission of the "ego" which is really a submission of thinking for yourself, or speaking up about your feelings, or pointing out when the power structure is unfair, unethical or just plain incorrect about something.

    i think we are also in very tricky territory, because the marketing of a brand of yoga usually seeks to make converts to the superiority of that brand and this innately creates a clique-ish mentality. unless it is intrinsic to the yoga itself to become aware of the pitfalls of spirituality (what perhaps the buddhists call the "near enemies"- and what i pointed out in detail here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/06/10-obstacl… ), unless it is part of the philosophy to ask ourselves why we feel such a need to believe and belong and what kind of shadow work might actually make us more skillful and liberated in those areas – i think the dynamic you are concerned about continues to have us in a headlock.

  18. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Very interesting article, Chelsea! I really enjoyed this and love that you question and provoke such discussions. I also appreciate your openness. Perhaps it was coming from a broken family (same as myself) that draws you toward 'groups' but perhaps it is the same mentality that encourages you to question them. :-) There have been times when I have joined a yoga intensive and have definitely felt a bit of an outsider (people knowing each other, already familiar with the style, etc), but I have to admit it was probably more my insecurities kicking in. I think in any case, we have to be careful not to lose ourselves – it is easy to ride the coat tails of a group or idea and forget the unique part we have to play in this life.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  19. Misa derhy says:

    Thanks for great article, exactly what I was looking for today. And thanks Tanya for your coment, here we go, don t forget our own value in each story and each community! <3

  20. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  21. cheryl says:

    The hostility expressed by some for bringing up the subject is interesting to notice.

    I think it is important for the yoga community to remember that we are all human. Even those that aspire to being more.

    Also, people drink the kool aid or "join" groups of any kind for a multitude of reasons and yoga teachers become teachers for lots of different reasons. Just because most of us take to the mat to cultivate a higher self doesn't mean everyone does. Lastly, just because some elevate their "self interest" to exclude others is no reason to stop practicing.

    What I find helpful to me is to constantly question — Why am I doing this? What does it mean? Is this serving me? Not simply accept the words that come out of my teacher's mouth.

  22. Jessie says:

    "Are the kulas of today the cults of tomorrow" with a picture of John Friend as a front page picture on ele, no matter how you shroud the thesis of your article with praise and an empty disclaimer, seems like another catty illustration ofnthe separation you describe in the article. This is lovely and insightful and SMART (congratulations), but at the heart of it, it's pretty mean.

    • Yogini5 says:

      Friend is not the only one. All of the other, branded (even some of those with lineages spanning decades or centuries) have that tendency.

      Question something … or someone … for any reason?

      The answer you get from the palace guards of the shala could send your mind back into the Twilight Zone …

  23. shakti says:

    Chelsea –
    the article is an interesting one.

    i was fired from a yoga studio for something very minor that was a ruse for kicking me out. I believe the reality was the owners being annoyed with me being dharmic and asking them to behave in a more dharmic way. They found a way to get rid of me so they did. this is in an anusara community. one with no heart, and a whole lot of ego.
    This is a community with a leader being treated as a 'guru', and as such, that guru has created such a vibe of fear that no one is able to speak up. its quite an unhealthy dynamic.
    I am so happy to be away from this.

    I understand kula to be inclusive, and that is how I teach it and create it. It involves having adult conversations with people when necessary and living with integrity in this way.

    John is teaching the ideal. We are all free to interpret it through our own understanding and experiences, which include many disfunctions, so it comes out dysfunctional sometimes.

    Kula is about creating a community you want to live in.

  24. Cher says:

    This is absolutely spot on and I so appreciate your writing it. I wish I had read it 15 years ago when I got involved in a meditation community that seemed so loving, so welcoming, so tribe-like. Growing up as an only child, I yearned for that feeling of belonging and that it aligned with my spiritual seeking seemed heaven sent. It was not. Any time we have to give ourselves away to be part of something, where no balance of power exists and where open dialogue is repressed — whether by a yoga teacher or any teacher — it hurts the students and the teachers. Neither can truly grow towards authentic self-expression. One is trying to be a "guru", the other is trying to be the ideal "student". What happened to just being ourselves?

    • Yogini5 says:

      A lot of it has to do with the commercialization of yoga and some other practices. But, for example, the Anusara-ites walk the fine line among prominently featuring certain things about the practice you teach (over-emphasis on teaching Adho Mukha Vrksasana as some kind of object-lesson); luring in all types of students (claiming you are a mild and Iyengar-based practice so as not to otherwise maybe scare off Boomers such as myself …); and providing a feeling of identity to your students, which could prove self-perpetuating (clapping in exhibitions (?))

  25. [...] Are the kulas of today the cults of tomorrow? [...]

  26. My first attempt at yoga in a studio was in a small local studio. Everyone there had been practicing yoga since they were 18 months old. Most of them were my age or younger. I was greeted with a once over which to me indicated they thought I mistook their establishment for Baskin Robbins. Red flag number one. Back then, I wasn’t strong enough in my self or my yoga to know when I was being marginalized in my Walmart workout attire. Everyone was dressed in special yoga clothes, with designer mats, and ‘yoga bitch’ attitudes.

    I avoided studios like the plague for many years after that. Occasionally I'd wander in just for a reminder of what I did not want my yoga experience to be. I headed back to the gym or community center for almost a decade. I have since found a few yoga teachers who share my view about yoga and cultivate communities which do the same.

    I don’t have the right to expect any teacher or studio completely share my beliefs or values. I do have the right to believe that a complete 180 from them is not a place for me. It baffles me that people who would not tolerate this attitude at work or amongst friends seem to find it to be acceptable within the confines of a yoga studio. They accept the behavior because they feel they are gaining something from the experience. But at what cost?

  27. I have to weigh in on this one as a Certified Anusara Teacher & a writer for elephant journal. What I love most about Anusara Yoga is that it emphasizes individuality and diversity of thought within an intelligent alignment system. I am, and have always been, fiercely independent in my life choices and I choose Anusara because no one tells me who to be, but I am invited to participate in an intelligent, thoughtful, and graceful community. A kula is not a clique or a cult. A kula means a community of the heart that one opts into, as opposed to a community that one is born into or required to join. Anyone can be a part of the Anusara kula simply by showing up. John Friend continually emphasizes that Anusara celebrates different belief systems and deeply respects other yogic systems.

    No one can or should control the behavior of a greater connected group, so I am sure that out there somewhere there are Anusara Teachers who feel free to behave in a cliquish manner, just as there would be in any other yoga community, but the exception is not the rule, and negative behavior draws more attention than positive. I regret that the provocative title of this article is poised over John's picture, and that he has been associated with this question. It is easy to imply wrongdoing through this type of juxtaposition, and it is unfair to John and to all of Anusara's teachers and students. The vast majority of us just want to help people, create beauty, and celebrate life.

  28. [...] Are the kulas of today the cults of tomorrow? [...]

  29. Is the security system you are talking about a wirless system? And I hear the celular based monitoring services are a lot safer as there are no phone lines that can be cut. Great site, great range of content.

  30. D says:

    Chelsea, you’re entirely on the mark about the need for ‘family’ as well as the ‘shadow’ side of groups in which there is a hierarchical relationship. It is indeed a very strong and very human pull that has both a positive and a ‘shadow’ side.

    Traditionally, the ‘kula’ in its original form among hatha yogis — the Nathas, Kanpathas and etc. — could quite fairly be described as a clique or even ‘cult’ — the root of the word is indeed shared. The contemporary spin just puts a nice gloss on the original meaning and significance of the term. Any suggestion of a relationship between ‘kula’ and ‘cult’ is by no means off base, either historically or linguistically — or practically.

    You are also quite fair in your treatment of the topic, and you’re not off base in referring specifically to Anusara, since a central emphasis within Anusara is upon this notion of ‘kula’ — one could fairly say that the word was barely known before Anusara put it at the forefront, and it has been used so extensively since then that it is starting to promote a gag reflex among some when they just hear the word.

    It is disturbing that the response from the Anusara supporters has been so strong — so critical while passing judgement upon you as being too critical and judgmental — that the article has to have a huge italicized disclaimer in the banner, even when in the article you practically bend over backwards to make it clear that your point is a general one, and to disavow direct targeting or criticism of Anusara. It’s clear without the disclaimer that that is not the point of your article.

    That being said, it’s pretty impossible to even touch upon the word ‘kula’ without having your words associated with some sort of comment on Anusara — so close is the association between the two that was established by Anusara from the start. It’s pretty well impossible to address the topic of ‘kula’ or even simply of ‘community’ in yoga without some mention or connection to Anusara, since that is one of their main selling points. You sell yourself short when you joke that you did it for the ‘clicks’.

    The nature of the criticisms directed toward you by those who took it personally was, well, suggestive that you indeed hit a nerve, and accurately so. When a reasonably balanced article such as yours draws such fire and protestations, it says something.

    It’s worth bearing in mind that those who start ‘cults’ in any form are generally quite charismatic and quite likable, and also have a ready explanation for why theirs is indeed not a ‘cult.’ Otherwise they wouldn’t be successful in forming one. By their fruits — even more than by their preaching — ye shall know them.

  31. [...] discussed this issue among my yoga kula and one friend offered this very good food for thought: Like everything I think we need to reflect [...]

  32. Yogini5 says:

    That yoga teacher was Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

    Some say the picture had been Photoshopped, but I am not so sure, since I have read comments from some who had been there …

  33. Yogini5 says:

    I love your analogy of yoga to skiing … because of ecotourism it is such an apt analogy. You have your high end yoga resorts, your spiritual materialism, and your entertainment … just like ski packages … !

  34. cheryl says:

    I absolutely love skiing and have found lots of wonderful low key places to enjoy being on the mountain. It is true that skiing has gone through an evolution. First, it was adventure/risk taking/off the bell curve thrill seeking. Next it became sport or exercise. Now it is lifestyle. I choose to enjoy skiing at my level and let others do the same.

    I think yoga will follow in similar footsteps. That is ok with me.

    Many people do not cultivate the mind-body connection. Doing so in even the most elementary way is beneficial.

  35. Stephanie Dickerson says:

    Thanks for the response Chelsea! I totally agree. I do think that it is more appropriate with due discussion. But I would never had known it existed otherwise! I will do some thinking about it as this is an important topic that doesn't get much time.
    Great job!

  36. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    thanks chelsea! yea hala and i are passionate about empowering students and teachers by encouraging psychological awareness, critical thinking and tools that support healing and growth!

    i think all you said in your reply is dead on – and feel that it is essential that contained within the very fabric of an integrated spirituality there is the invitation to keep turning to look at the tendencies we all have to identify with a belief system and group, to project our shadows onto other groups, and to seek out charismatic leaders.

    this is most difficult in spirituality because there is usually an overt or covert idea that the leader or the approach is somehow imbued with supernatural power or metaphysical ultimacy.

    this is why i mentioned my article that was critical of Friend's interview after the japanese tsunami. i found the whole thing a bit sickening: an acolyte asking the guru something like "if the universe is all good and loving how can we understand natural disasters?" (because of course john friend must know the answer to this question) and then Friend going on about the karma of the japanese people, and the difference between the pain of having a piece of a building fall on your leg and the suffering you create by wishing it wasn't so…. ugh.

    for me any time someone is preaching spiritual metaphysics about the ultimate nature of reality, what god is, why our lives unfold as they do, how the universe operates etc it bestows upon them an aura of being the One who knows the special secret knowledge. there may be a limited scope of questioning tolerated, but never of the veracity of the claims, the philosophical problems of such assertions or any kind of suggestion that evidence might be a good thing! it also makes the group feel that finally they have arrived in a community that has the answer to life's existential anxiety – and this is dangerous, because it is a lie. far better to learn how to work with and understand existential anxiety via compassion, honest courageous awareness and good tools than to sweep it under the rug of metaphysical certainty – where it will hide and grow more powerful.

    so now we have a problem – someone has set themselves up as having special/impossible/unevidenced ultimate knowledge – and a group of people are believing this based on their charisma, or the fact that the beliefs make them feel good etc…. already we are a BIG step down the road toward a cultish situation because a) the teacher has been granted this weird special status that is not actually based in anything tangible and b) the students have abdicated (mostly because not to do so would supposedly be "ego" and because the promised reward is so alluring) their critical thinking.

    while i would never suggest that groups like anusara have the kind of deep darkness present in so many tragic cults – i will offer this: the underlying move away from critical thinking, psychological awareness and valuing belonging to the group over authentic self-inquiry has been a central feature of every cult situation from organized religion and the specter of pedophile priests and fundamentalist terrorism, to tragedies like jonestown, heaven's gate, and the manson family, to the ongoing bizarre circus around gurus like sai baba, adi da, and many others….

    this is a central question with which a contemporary, integrated, sane spirituality must wrestle – and i am glad you bring it up!

    i am also very happy to note that people like jack kornfield and john welwood have been writing about and doing research into these issues for some time and that there are also some good cult resources online. i would also direct people to hugh milne's book rajneesh: the god who failed, as well as the joel kramer and diana olstead's brilliant book the guru papers: masks of authoritarian power.

  37. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    just watched the video of your interview with john friend – and have to say i thought he did a good job of responding to your questions and came across quite nicely.

  38. Egalitarian Gal says:

    Yes, Hugh Milne's book is so extremely honest and fair about the responsibilities of the student to the teacher, the sources of power and devotion and the potential for great sensitivity and selfishness in all humans. Every time I read an Osho quote on someone's FB page or see his book on a teacher training reading list or a studio bookstore wish The God That Failed was just as widely known. My very first yoga teachers were inspired & shocked by Amrit Desai at Kripalu, but just like in the Boston Diocese, there was shame and no public education about why how the traditional top-down submission to the annointed can be as dangerous for them as it can be exciting for the flock.

  39. D_Bob says:

    Well said in both your posts. Very well said.

  40. Oh, and don't worry, I know you weren't pin-pointing Anusara in your article, I didn't take it that way. I just thought that it was interesting that I had been thinking about the topic in relation to Anusara because of the comments I had received on my last article. I couldn't agree more with what Julian says, we must continue the curious inquiry and the open dialogue. : )

  41. Andy says:

    Yes – I believe that was Willem Dafoe. I feel the same way he does. It's freakin awesome to be around these people and never actually talk to them!

  42. Jessie says:

    Ah, getting clicks!!!!$$$$ Yoga moguls unite! Seriously though, I thought your article was provoking in some really important ways, and it's a reminder to all of us to hug into the center and do our own work instead of getting entangled in base human drama. Like this comment thread. Namaste.

  43. Yogini5 says:

    We Americans could learn from you Australians. Especially given your overly body-conscious legacy due to so many beaches and the reputation you have for drinking, partying and good times. There is a lot that is lost in the strain of (the average innocent and unprepossessing student) trying to keep the Kool-Aid out of the yoga here …

  44. nimitta says:

    I love that quote, too, but it actually originated with Groucho Marx, whom Woody admired and acknowledged: I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.

    Good article, by the way. I remember a tremendous amount of clique-ish behavior among Iyengar teachers in my area during the mid-70s – much of judgmental feeling one sensed from them clearly came from the top down.

  45. Yogini5 says:

    And, let's be honest here — would we be taking on and calling out schools of yoga if they weren't so hypocritical about trying to be all-inclusive here … "everybody here is beautiful" .. that sort of thing …

    When obviously "some" are more "beautiful" than others …

    Unfortunately, in order to personally take from yoga that which I want … I have to do an end-run around "schools of yoga" … this is learned the hard way, too.

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