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. 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.)

  2. timful says:

    I did not mean that charismatic leaders are the only answer. Just that they are an important one, and we will not be ahead if we so armor ourselves as to make these abuses impossible. At any given moment more emotional damage is being inflicted within the culturally proper relations of matrimony than John Friend has accomplished in a life time. I don't mean to defend the man; I know next to nothing about him. I just know it is always easier to point out problems than to come up with solutions.

  3. simmonj says:

    My impression of Joel is not an attack but simply my experience which is authentic.

    My focus will always will be on the teachings first and not personalites. The teachings of yoga are very real and people tend to lose sight of this. Also initation by a qualified teacher is definitetly helpful.

    I studied the ansuara method and am qualifeid to comment on the teachings. It is defintely not a cult and not even close by a long shot.

    Of course recognizing the signs of a cult are important and students should be empowered to study and choose wisely the organization they associate with.

    Since this is an open forum it is only a fair an alternate opinion be offered.

    If you have experience in deeper aspects of iniation in to the subtle aspects of yoga I would love to hear about that.

  4. Brooks Hall says:

    Simmonj: thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll take it at face-value and share a link to my post about seeing Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad speak in November 2010 . My perception differs from what you’ve shared. It almost sounds like you had expectations of falling in love when you note, “there was no light in his eyes or joy in his heart.” I doubt he was trying to be that for you. I also wonder about that perception: you claim to have seen into his heart.

    Joel Kramer spoke passionately when I saw him.

    I wish you well on your unfolding yoga journey!

  5. Tito says:

    Those in a cult rarely recognize it as a cult and, when they finally do, it is on their way out.

  6. hmmmmmm says:

    No. will never agree. Critical thought and self-reliance are what often lead people forward, as well as many other things. Charismatic leaders are not necessary. And the "point out problem" argument is silly and pious. The solutions are everywhere in American history and culture. Look around.

  7. timful says:

    "Silly and pious?" I point out that 1 in 10 Americans are on anti-depressants and your answer is that's just "big pharma." Yes, that is a good critical thought, but you would have nothing to criticize if big pharma had not tried to come up with a solution. Alcoholism and bad marriages? Well, we always have those. Good answers. Like I said, solutions are hard.

  8. 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.

  9. Brooks_Hall says:

    Thanks, Robbie! 'The Guru Papers' definitely helped to define power mechanics that previously just "didn't feel right." It's amazing how much defining something can speed healing.

  10. Brooks_Hall says:

    Thanks, Carlos! I wish it was required reading for people involved in yoga. Our yoga might be so much better, and the attendant relationships so much more consciously lived. It can just be so easy to love the "love" without healthy discernment or sucked into the seduction of ones own adoration, if my stumbling path can serve as an example.

  11. Brooks_Hall says:

    Thank you! I'm glad that you like it!

  12. Brooks_Hall says:

    Thanks, I'm glad that you like this article! It sounds like you don't think that yoga can ride the wave of capitalistic attention, and at the same time it is monetary support that has helped to fuel a veritable explosion of yogic interest. So I think it might be complicated, and I have hope that minds and actions can be applied in ways that can help. That's why I wrote this!

  13. trueayurveda says:

    Brooks. It always amazes me how we take stuff, change it and sell it. Yoga is inward, not outward. If we go to the original texts of yoga we see this. We arrogantly have thought that although this wisdom has been the same for thousands of years, it needs to change now and we are the ones to change it . Can you see the ironic side to this? It is not yoga. Asana doesn't make you spiritual. Yoga hasn't ridden the wave of capitalism because what we have out there, except for a few and I mean a handful of people, is people turning yoga into whatever they like. Paddleboard yoga has a certification now. The mass intrest isn't for yoga, but a new way to be in shape and supposedly find peace. It is all a real joke. Sitting still for five minutes may be a big step for some people, I give them that. But….Not yoga. nivritti marga is the path of yoga. So I love your open stance to everything and i loved the book and their ideas. Thanks for the post and keep it real. By the way, drop into the upanishads and see if anything that is taught there is actually understood by our mass modern yoga.

  14. 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.

  15. Brooks Hall says:

    To the one who chooses to be called “Not Impressed”:
    I believe that we are all making meaning for ourselves all of the time, and seeking to understand. I believe there are valid understandings beyond what I personally think. Community, including friends, offer ideas and contribute to what I think. Scientific understanding also contributes to what I think. There are many factors and complexities to the situation—including manipulations. The way I see to best take ownership of the situation of myself is to employ what I understand to the best of my ability, and to trust—not a guru, or someone who claims to know what’s best for me. I trust my self, and am pretty sure that my steps will not be perfect because I am learning as I go.

  16. 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.

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

  18. 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.

  19. integralhack says:

    You raise a good point, Joe. Hopefully the thesis of the Kramer and Alstad's book doesn't boil down to "guru = bad" in a dismissive fashion. All power structures can be abused (and it appears from the excerpts that they touch on that). I think it is good for everyone to maintain a healthy skepticism, but it is also important to recognize that you may not have complete understanding of a particular spiritual tradition if you are outside of it and/or possess little knowledge of it. It's sort of like saying all forms of social welfare are bad because, you know, the Nazis also engaged in a little social welfare too! It's another form of Reductio ad Hitlerum. Unfortunately, I have witnessed that fallacy on Elephant (reductio ad guru . . . um?).

    Holy crap, did Hitler do yoga?

  20. integralhack says:

    Beautifully stated, Hilary.

  21. JoeC2K says:

    Hitler was a vegetarian though!

  22. 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.