Are the kulas of today the cults of tomorrow?

Via Chelsea Roff
on Jul 6, 2011
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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

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.


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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. […] Are the kulas of today the cults of tomorrow? […]

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. […] Are the kulas of today the cults of tomorrow? […]

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  10. 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.

  11. D_Bob says:

    Well said in both your posts. Very well said.

  12. […] 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 […]

  13. 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.

  14. Stewart J. Lawrence says:


  15. 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.

  16. yoga sceptic says:

    all hilarious in hindsight