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July 30, 2020

Can Truth & Transparency Heal the Kundalini Yoga Community? A Look into the Allegations against Yogi Bhajan.

*Editor’s Note: Elephant Journal articles represent the personal views of the authors, and cannot possibly reflect Elephant Journal as a whole. Disagree with an Op-Ed or opinion? We’re happy to share your experience here.

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The Kundalini Yoga community has become divided since the publication of Pamela Dyson’s book, Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan.

It is a haunting look into a teacher/student yogic relationship, which came out in January of this year. I understand the divisiveness because I struggle every day with how to move forward as a Kundalini yoga student and teacher. (Please note when I mention Kundalini yoga I am referring to Kundalini yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan®.)

I have never met Yogi Bhajan, the Kundalini Master, who brought Kundalini yoga to the West in 1969. One might think it would be easy for me to process these alleged sexual abuse accounts against him. He has said, “Don’t love me, love my teachings. Become ten times greater than me.” I do love the teachings, but it is not this simple.

About 15 years ago, I started practicing Kundalini yoga in West Los Angeles at a studio that taught many forms of yoga. I wasn’t clear about exactly what I was practicing and chanting; I just knew I felt peace doing it. My favorite part of the practice was singing at the top of my lungs to Snatam Kaur’s “A Long Time Sunshine” song. I don’t recall my teacher ever talking about Yogi Bhajan or quoting him in class.

After five years, I started to attend a Kundalini yoga specific studio and began to dive deep into the practice. I attended class twice a week and eventually took Kundalini yoga teacher training as taught by Yogi Bhajan in 2016 and two of the Kundalini yoga teacher training level two courses in the following years. I love the mantras, their meanings, the music, and how gentle the practice could be. I felt a part of a spiritual community, and I made some great friends.

Currently, there is an investigation of Yogi Bhajan’s sexual misconduct by a company hired by 3HO called An Olive Branch that is still pending as a result of Pamela’s book. 3HO, Happy, Healthy, and Holy Organization is a 501(c)3 NPO that started in 1969 about when Yogi Bhajan came to the West to “create teachers, not to gain students.” I want to be sensitive to the investigation and the many brave souls who shared their stories knowing the backlash they may receive. Pamela’s book encouraged others to speak out, which has been validating and powerful to some, yet debilitating and hurtful to others. An Olive Branch has compiled stories from whoever was willing to share their experience and then will report it to 3HO.

I try to wrap my mind around how so many people, especially the Rama Institute, including Gurujagat and Harijiwan, can deny what 3HO has called “credible allegations” and continue to brainwash and feed lies to their community. This keeps me up at night more so than the allegations themselves. I understand that a lot is at stake for some of these organizations and studios financially. I also know that some Yogi Bhajan students are so devoted to him that they may never give space to acknowledge the victims. This kind of spiritual bypassing and refutation does not help those who, like me, when they are new on their Kundalini journey, may not understand where the teachings come from or who Yogi Bhajan is.

Spiritual bypassing is real in the Kundalini yoga community, which is confusing for those seeking truth and transparency. Many say that Yogi Bhajan was human and just a flawed man. However, this kind of complacency has perpetuated the behavior for too long, keeping the victims silent. I have even seen some suggest that if we focus on joy, love, and the teachings, the community will survive these times while minimizing the abuses. Although this is a sweet sentiment, I can’t forget, dismiss, or stay silent. I cannot deny the first-hand accounts of many people who have shared their stories. I believe them. In my heart, I want justice for the survivors.

The lack of love, compassion, and understanding for the survivors who have come forward and shared their stories with brevity is disturbing. However, just as there are haters out there, there are people loving and embracing those who have suffered at the hands of Yogi Bhajan and his inner circle. I try to focus on these people.

Many members of the Kundalini Yoga Sangat have lost their communities. Their stories of personal abuses have been censored or deleted. Even those who are allies of Yogi Bhajan’s survivors who did not experience abuse first-hand are treated disrespectfully or muted altogether. Many are torn on how to move forward. I am struggling because I love my Kundalini community. I have experienced massive shifts in my healing journey through my years of practicing Kundalini and the many Kundalini teacher training programs I have completed.

Kundalini Yoga Studios are struggling to stay afloat not only because of the allegations but because of Covid-19. Students are dropping out of Kundalini yoga teacher trainings and cannot continue to move forward in the practice that has served them for years. Some have come to terms with the allegations and support the survivors but can continue in their practice in a way that feels authentic to them. There are so many sides, which is creating a bigger divide.

When I was in my level one Kundalini yoga teacher training, the allegations of sexual abuse were brought to my attention by a friend. She thought it was important for me to know because I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was so upset and mad that she told me. How could she ruin my experience? But, something inside of me pushed me to do more research. When I asked several of my teachers and lead trainers, I was told Pamela made it up and begged to be back into the Sangat, which Yogi Bhajan gracefully honored. Some even mentioned that Yogi Bhajan was a flawed man, so these allegations should be forgiven. I took their word as truth and continued my training.

I loved my experience in Kundalini yoga teacher training, and honestly, I would have been heartbroken to leave it. Being with my Sangat brought me joy, and I felt a part of something magical. But when one of my teachers assigned me to do the Tratakum meditation, which required me to stare into the eyes of Yogi Bhajan for 31 minutes a day for 40 days, it made me very uneasy. It is said that when looking into the eyes of Yogi Bhajan, “the power is in the beholder, in the student who, by using the picture to help him tune into his inner awareness, elevates himself and gives life to the spirit of the Teacher inside.”

But when I looked into his eyes, I saw my perpetrator—the one who sexually abused me as a child. I did not move forward with the meditation, and I am so grateful I trusted my intuition. Knowing what I know now, I would not have wanted to rely on Yogi Bhajan’s picture to elevate me and give life to the teacher that I already knew was inside of me.

“It’s very important that you should know you, and it’s most important that everybody should know you as trustworthy, honorable, graceful, steadfast, serviceful, kind, and compassionate. These are a few faculties of a Teacher,” Yogi Bhajan said on 4/23/1997.

Many who support Yogi Bhajan are encouraging those who are struggling to separate the teacher from the teachings. If I were to separate the teachings from the teacher, the quote above is precisely why I cannot move forward in the same way I had, teaching Yogi Bhajan’s kriyas, quoting him, and practicing his meditations. If one were sexually, physically, mentally, and emotionally abusing someone, would they be trustworthy, honorable, graceful, kind, and compassionate? I do not believe so. They would not be a teacher of mine. If this quote is his teachings, then I can separate the two, and I believe that I am what Yogi Bhajan was saying about the faculties of a teacher: graceful, trustworthy, kind, and compassionate.

Let us all remember that the reports of sexual abuse by Yogi Bhajan are not new. Pamela originally filed a civil lawsuit against Yogi Bhajan in 1986. They were just ignored and paid away, going unaddressed and silenced. Although I am grateful that many who choose to ignore the original allegations are working through them now and standing with the survivors, it is shocking for me to witness some Kundalini Yoga Studios and 3HO act as if these allegations are brand-new stories. There is a history of scandal, deceit, and fraud with Yogi Bhajan and his closest friends. This cannot be denied.

The question for so many is, how do we move forward?

I believe everyone has a choice on how they process the allegations about Yogi Bhajan. It may take some of us longer than others. Some may never process the abuses or side with the survivors. I know that I also have a choice. I choose to stand by the survivors. I choose transparency. I choose not to spiritually bypass. I even choose to hold space for those who cannot and will not ever agree with me in all my choices.

This will be hard, but from the inspiration of Glennon Doyle, I can do hard things.

More will be revealed.

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