Sexy, Cultish Power, Yoga & Healing.

Via Brooks Hall
on Mar 3, 2012
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The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power, by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad

“…we deepened our understanding of how authoritarianism in its varied guises has been and largely still is a primary mode of social cohesion—and also how it has now become a major factor in social disintegration.”
~Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, ‘The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power’

My relationship with yoga has been a tumultuous love affair.

I have experienced the vicissitudes of elation, letdown and equilibrium. The process first included buying into authoritarian styles where I practiced accepting and absorbing the teachings I received, and then started to feel a lot better. I experienced disappointment with teachers, and have inquired within to try to understand. I think I’m still discovering how to learn and grow on my own terms.

“’Guru’ is a metaphor for anyone who manipulates under the guise of ‘knowing what’s best’ for them, whether leaders, mothers, or lovers.”
~ Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, ‘The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power”

I just didn’t do it with John Friend and Anusara yoga.

When I first heard about the scandal concerning John Friend, I was completely stunned. It was hard for me to believe, at first. I had taken a weekend workshop with Mr. Friend about 10 years ago in Evanston, IL, and had been impressed. I bought into what he was teaching at the time, and had even considered studying further with this man. I had believed that his teachings were good, and was impressed with the exponential growth of this style of yoga over the years. But as the story continued to unfold with teacher resignations , the awareness started to sink in that there must have been some truth to the news. It was sad to discover that someone with so much power and influence was no longer appearing to be whom I had once believed he was. And my heart went out to friends in the Anusara community.

When Diana Alstad contacted me and we talked about her and Joel Kramer’s book, The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power, I realized that this book may be of help to people seeking to understand and heal from this. Reading from this book has helped me in my own healing too.

The book speaks out on the dynamics of authoritarian power. The fact is, a lot of us were raised in households that used authoritarian parenting techniques where we were trained to look to others to tell us what to do—even as we got older. Many of us emerge from our childhood homes believing on some level that someone else has the answers that we need. In other words we may not have matured into self-determining adults, but instead are seeking our answers from leaders, lovers and/or doctrines. Or some of us might have given up hope that there are answers. Most of us, I venture to say, are crippled by self-mistrust.

“Not all people obey blindly. Moreover, if people are forced to obey, they will tend to force others to obey, given the opportunity. If children are taught to mistrust themselves (a prerequisite for the authoritarian personality), as adults they will have little option other than looking for someone else to trust, especially under stress. What this shows is that whatever the genetic base, much of authoritarianism is taught. Until children are taught to trust themselves, and social forms reward not punish this, there is no basis for making nature the cause of authoritarianism in arenas of power.”

~ Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, ‘The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power”

Since methods of control may be hidden, I found it helpful to discover this excerpt that includes questions that help to determine if a group is dedicated to maintaining or growing the power of those in charge or driven by tasks to fulfill a different purpose.

In determining this and in judging whether a hierarchy is essentially authoritarian or not, one faces the following considerations:

1. What is its purpose?
2. Who decides if it’s purpose is being fulfilled and how is this decided?
3. How free are the members of the hierarchy to enter and leave it? That is, how much coercion is involved in getting people to belong and stay?
4. How responsive is it to change from within or without, and how open is it to internal and external feedback? This includes who determines what is even considered relevant feedback.
5. In what direction does power flow? Does it only flow from top to bottom, or are there mechanisms within the structure of the hierarchy that give the lower rungs a say in who the higher rungs are and what they do?

In the current state of things, even question #1 becomes cloudy when we consider that yoga is a business, a business is set up to make money, which represents a kind of power in itself. Is a yoga business set up to help people or make money? Can it reasonably do both? How is the business set up to ensure that both objectives are met? Does it work? Or do we become slaves to the money coming in?

Is it really possible to have a spiritual business with integrity? In Anusara yoga spiritual teaching is definitely an aspect of the system. Some yoga businesses can claim they are “only physical”, but my sense of it is that Anusara has always had a spiritual thrust in the teaching. When does a spiritual group become a cult-like situation? In ‘The Guru Papers,’ “…the word “cult” is used in a specific way to refer to groups with an authoritarian structure where the leader’s power is not constrained by scripture, tradition or any “higher” authority.” I have a lot of questions here, and think that there are many angles on what we might constructively think about and discuss with each other that will inform how we are going to handle yoga and spiritual teachings going forward.

“Successful gurus, rock stars, charismatic leaders of any sort, experience the intensity of adulation amplified beyond most people’s ken. This can make ordinary relationships pale in comparison. Being the recipient of such adulation and devotion is exceedingly addictive…Adulation has powerful emotions for the sender as well, and can be easily mistaken for love. It is likewise addicting for the sender, as it is an easy route to feelings of passion. Since adulation is totally a function of image, should the images crack, adulation disappears, demonstrating that it was essentially empty of real care.”

~ Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad,  “The Traps of Being a Guru.”

Oh, it is so intoxicating to admire someone! It is a pleasure I have allowed myself. But when I consider the above excerpt, I think that I should consider modulating this energy. Adoring someone without expecting anything back can seem like a harmless activity. But I believe myself to have been addicted to the feelings of passion connected with adoring a teacher. To consider that it could be stirring unhealthy, yet feel-good, emotions in the idolized teacher is another reason to approach such situations with restraint.

I’ve had a teacher who described this situation of transference of power as an opportunity for healing (for the student), but I am suspicious because it also seems to assume that the teacher “knows what’s best” for the student—a red flag for an authoritarian interchange.

“Using lofty ideals to mask self-interest is common, but when this is melded to images of purity, corruption is guaranteed. The myriad scandals around sex, money, and power that have tainted so many gurus are not surprising, given the structural corruptibility of the role. In political realms, where the corrupting tendencies of power are legend, we are often warned that constant vigilance is needed to insure freedom. Authoritarian ways of relating undermine vigilance so that both sides have unconscious vested interests in the unquestioned power of the leader. In spiritual realms, the power is so absolute that it can lead to extreme excesses.”

~ Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, “Gurus and Sexual Manipulation”

A way for healing presented in “The Guru Papers” to strengthen the integrity of groups and institutions is to build self-trust of individuals in our society. The book does not suggest that the concepts of hierarchy, authority or power are in themselves bad, but they have been deeply misunderstood and abused throughout time. When we can trust our own perceptions we can communicate what we see, because we can actually see for ourselves. And this might really help to change the situation. But if we have been taught to believe, and continue to believe blindly in what others have seen for us, we might just continue on in the same cycles of abuse and destruction that we, the human beings, have been acting out for some time.

I wish healing for everyone touched by Anusara yoga. I wish healing for everybody who’s never heard of it.

* Find more information and excerpts from ‘The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power’ by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad here. *


Editor: Kate Bartolotta


About Brooks Hall

Brooks Hall is a Yogic Muse from Chicago, Illinois. In this capacity she teaches Yoga, writes about Yoga, and generally enjoys it. You can find her at:


72 Responses to “Sexy, Cultish Power, Yoga & Healing.”

  1. bflatbrad says:

    Thanks for the article. The Guru Papers, I feel, should be required reading for all yoga teacher training curriculums.

  2. matthew says:

    i agree with bflatbrad. it's good to see kramer and alstad dusted off to fight the good fight, once again. well done, brooks.

  3. liz says:

    Awesome article!

  4. Kitty says:

    Well done! It is encouraging to see that this episode is causing introspection. Here in Eugene, we are seeing similar episode play out with respect to the Sikh community and a business founded by followers of Yogi Bhajan. A small group took over the business and it strayed from its root mission of supporting the community to one of maximizing profit. It is truly sad to see the community in crisis over the actions of a few.

  5. JoeC2K says:

    The word guru has been abused, misunderstood and misused in the Western culture. And to speak of the business of yoga or a yoga business is just a Western profane perversion of the sacred…

  6. There is a wide chasm between absolute belief in one's ideas and self doubt. Most vacillate between the two and life is largely a process of finding the place of steady and strong and also flexible. A teacher's job is to facilitate that learning and asana is the most understandable experience of that since it deals in what we can see and feel.

    Many of us have raised our children to trust themselves, we have not overly imposed authority on them. Many of us are also seeing that the effects of that can be a lack of respect and discipline so again, the human endeavor is to be neither one extreme or the other but to be intelligent. Intelligence requires instinct and reason and experience. Should we bypass any of that to obey another dictum we have ceased to be intelligent.

  7. Brooks_Hall says:

    Thanks for the comments!!

  8. […] Sexy, Cultish Power, Yoga & Healing. […]

  9. ValCarruthers says:

    Great article, Brooks. Posted to Spirituality – Popular Lately.

  10. shivani says:

    Good Article. I think its important for all spiritual seekers to read this book. I had an Indian guru for over a decade years who mainly taught bhakti-yoga and guru-bhakti. It is very difficult to explain, without sounding crazy, how quickly an intelligent educated person can so quickly get brainwashed and give all their authority over to an "enlightened" master. And their behaviour is often justified as "spritiual training" to help you "overcome your ego". Just last year I left the guru after sex-abuse and power-abuse came to light. It has been traumatic and hard to leave and realise that I gave my authority and power away for so long.
    YES – healing does come from building self-trust and self-confidence.
    The organisation founded and dictatorial ran by my ex-guru is "Yoga in Daily Life" and is mainly known in Europe and Australia. the website for ex-yidl recovery and healing.
    For those who have or have been involved in authoritarian relationships I would also recommend the work of Stephen Hassan and and

  11. Chills says:

    Thanks. I've spent some time following this mess. It's not so much John Friend who's the problem now, it's his psychotic disciples. The more anyone tries to talk to the AY Inc.-heads about basic concepts of ethics, accountability, and character, the more they spout pseudo-spiritual babble about love compassion forgiveness shri metta nonjudgment grace brightness — I mean, you could just string all those words together and do it for them. They are unthinking fembot Stepford wife yoginis, mostly, and they quickly get vicious when challenged rigorously. They are disturbed, disturbing people. As a yoga student, I never, ever wanted to go near AY b/c of how these people act. This is truly having a chilling effect on the yoga world.

  12. Janice Lodato says:

    Great article, Brooks! I'm often surprised by people who ooh and aaah over "celebrities." Even people who don't seek the limelight and yet are put there by others. I was in a yoga class once when the owner of the yoga studio was participating as well. He is a real unassuming sort of guy and I thought nothing of it other than feeling empathy for the teacher who was being evaluated. However, as I walked to get a mat, another student said to me, in a awestruck breathless manner, "The guru is joining us today." I couldn't believe she even uttered the word, "guru." And I remember thinking to myself, "So what. It's still MY yoga."

  13. yogijulian says:

    its a fantastic book! great article exposing new potential readers… joel and diana are amongst the smartest and sanest spiritual intellectuals around.. :)

  14. While power and authority may not be inherently bad, the linkage to spirituality makes the demand for respect, obedience or deference fraught with the potential for abuse. Spirituality can't be quantified. It can't be proven. Maybe Swami I'mSoHolyananda really does have a trunkline to the AllThatIs, but lots of people make that claim. How can you tell the difference? Lots of people will tell you they know what's best for you, and have messages from the Beyond just for you.

    One thing only is for certain – you will never know the truth. The clumsiest of grifters knows the key is to get the mark to buy in and sell his or herself. Of course you feel something special in his or her presence. You're supposed to.

    In the end there's only one person you can really trust. Yourself. It's hard enough sometimes sorting out the truth of what we tell ourselves in our own heads. It is a ridiculous pointless exercise to try to decipher the words and intentions of others. Sure other people say lots of interesting things and have fascinating insights to offer, but ultimately you are responsible for yourself.

    Be your own guru. Take responsibility for your own beliefs, feelings and experiences. This doesn't mean discipline or respect is unnecessary, on the contrary, they go together. What it means is if having considered it in detail you can't question the party line on a practice or idea without being labeled or personally criticized – RUN. And don't forget your wallet.

  15. integralhack says:

    Thanks, Brooks. Thoughtful post about an unthoughtful–or unmindful–topic (giving it up to the guru).

  16. timful says:

    But, let us remember that many of us do not always behave as we would wish, whether it is to control our addictions, eat healthier, exercise more, be more sociable, compassionate, creative, industrious, or however we seek to improve ourself. We know what we should do. We just can't seem to move ourselves to do it. The fact is, a little brainwashing might help. The same dynamics that allow gurus to exploit their disciples can surely be used for positive effect. I know some will claim that change driven by some fake guru can never be real. I would like to know what facts there are to back that up. Or, if in fact, these occasional abuses are the exception.

  17. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Now if someone has done this in the past, including a past life, then this person has a NEED for it to happen to them. Reading a book will not stop it. If someone has no need for this to happen, then it will not happen. Life gives us what we need to learn. It is called karma in the east but in the west it is called things like "As you sow, so shall your reap."

  18. doug says:

    Thanks you, Brooks, for bringing this special book to the attention of ej readers. Often, when I read all the mindlessly positive comments after ej articles I feel like I'm visiting a cult. I read the Guru Papers about twelve years ago after having spent years in more than one spiritual group / borderline cult. The current John Friend scandal comes as no surprise. I no longer trust Gurus, spiritual group dynamics, or proclaimed authorities. But I've still managed to cultivate a spiritually rich life for myself in spite of that. Spirituality is an individuals choice and journey, and can certainly be paramount in one's experience without having to think positive, belong to a group, or associate with a charismatic leader.

  19. Pam says:

    Excellent article Brooks. I've never read the Guru Papers – will have to make a point of it. Sounds like a book I'd really relate to.

  20. trueayurveda says:

    You rock Brook, thanks for sharing. Good article, good book.

    No, what is being sold out there is not yoga, it is just capitalism once again. Spiritual business is the new green. Lots of money to make there. Along with authenticity, coaching and all the other stuff that used to b only in books. Is it a sign of the times? And then we say but isn't that good?

    Go back to the original texts. Yoga is not a lifestyle that can be lived by most everyone in this day and age. Householders are what we are mainly except for the select few and they are not out teaching and showboating. They are silent, humble and most likely you would not even know that they were a yogi if you saw one.

    The rest are really sad. Not living what they are preaching because we don't even know what yoga is. It isn't what is being taught, that is for sure. Look at the aftermath.

  21. Beautiful piece, Brooks. So well done.

  22. Robbie Sheppard says:

    Thanks so much, Brooks! The quotes are great and also your sharing about how the book helped you heal from disillusionment – a personal endorsement. I'm so happy The Guru Papers is getting the attention and recognition it deserves. It can help people understand the dynamics of cultish leaders and followers more deeply and thoroughly than any other book I've seen–and I can say from experience that the deep understandings it offers deepens and speeds healing, making it more complete.

  23. simmonj says:

    I met Joel Kramer in Ojai Valley and his talk was very negative. It was very strange talk he gave and when I met him at the end there was no light in his eyes or joy in his heart.

    Authentic yoga is pyscho-spirtual practice to quote Georg Fuerstein and involves initiation into teachings by a qualified teacher.

    Please read Devatma Shakti by Shivom Tirth for the real truth about yoga and the meaning of the word Guru.

    Teachers that fall from grace should not be associated with the teachings. The teachings themselves are pure and the actions of a few do not represent the reality or truth of the teachings.

    This goes for religion as well or any wisdom tradition.

    Even Kishna had a teacher named Sandapani. Just because Joel had a negative experience thirty years ago does not diminsh the neeed for a qualified teacher. (guru)

  24. Robbie says:

    To simmonj:

    Ad hominem attacks on the person are so much easier than refuting that person's ideas, especially in the case of The Guru Papers. I too have attended talks by Joel Kramer and totally disagree with your take and hominem attack on him.

    Since you cite Georg Feuerstein respectfully, this excerpt of Feuerstein's Yoga Journal book review of The Guru Papers might surprise you.
    “Provocative and thorough….Covers vast territory…raises all the vitally important questions….It should definitely be placed in the hands of anyone who has been, or is, or contemplates becoming involved with a guru or cult.” (This excerpt is in the front 4 pages of The Guru Papers–along with many other rave reviews.)

  25. This is required reading for anyone who is considering teaching Yoga, cultivating a consistent yoga practice, or planning to visit any ashram… As an active Yoga teacher (and Student of Yoga) this book more than any other book has been instrumental in me being able to navigate this path in a healthy and graceful way. Without this book and and without my specific teacher training which insisted we teach from an authentic place and to encouraged others (students) to find and claim their own authentic selves, I would likely be stumbling my way through this path that I have chosen as a teacher and a student.

  26. Not Impressed says:

    Last time I checked mainstream media, the governement, advertising and televions were all subtle forms of manipualtion of the sub-conscious.

    In fact all your beliefs and ideals in reality are based on conditioning of your experiences in the ascension of your ego.

    Time to take ownership for what you know to be true and stop projection that the problem is out there in the world. When in fact it is al happening at the level of your own mind and projections.

    It i easy to bash the guru but few have immersed themselves in the deeper waters of that tradition. They stand on the shore with one toe in the water crying foul.

  27. Akbar and Jeff says:

    I'd also recommend visiting Rick Ross' website on cults and manipulative behavior, false gurus and how some groups are able to brain wash vulnerable people so easily.

  28. […] Sexy, Cultish Power, Yoga & Healing. ( […]

  29. Diana & Joel says:

    What a splendid, personal, multi-faceted, thoughtful piece! You cover a lot of ground.
    We're so glad our book was meaningful to you–and through you, it could be to others too.

  30. B81 says:

    I agree with True Ayurveda above. There are some humble saints out there and real yogis / teachers with something spiritual to offer but they are few and far between and will pop up in the most random places and humblest demeanors. Unfortunately in the west people like Friend and mass media have given the role of an authentic guru a bad rap. Obliterating your ego is a difficult process and I would really suggest trying to find a real teacher if you indeed want to do this with your life, otherwise accept that you are going through some karma, not that enlightened, and like your ego more than the truth for the time being which is a hard pill to swallow for those who feel their "progressing" on some path by getting certified or taking a workshop.

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