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My Experience With a False Guru

What happens when you're asked to surrender too much of your power?

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I had been practicing yoga weekly for about four years when I began Kundalini yoga teacher training. Kundalini was working for me. The emphasis on kriyas, or specific actions, seemed to strengthen my nervous system and overall resilience in the face of stress and disappointment. I felt less overwhelmed, more grounded, and capable of sound decision-making. Plus, my overall mood was elevated.

As one teacher described it, the practice works like a telephone. You dial in the type of healing you need and you receive it. Feeling depressed? There’s a kriya for that. Can’t sleep? Do this meditation. Want to call in prosperity or even straight-up cash? Try this mantra. For the first time in my life, there was an actual solution to every mental, emotional, relational, even financial struggle in my life. Kundalini seemed prescriptive. I wanted to share this magic with others. Badly.

However, I was experiencing complicated feelings about the “father and founder” of Kundalini yoga in the West, Yogi Bhajan. Bhajan died in 2004 and was revered like a saint at the yoga studio I attended. His image hung on studio walls and his lectures were regularly quoted to students.

We practiced White Tantra Yoga, which was designed by Yogi Bhajan and required us to spend 8- or 10-hour days meditating or chanting while dressed in white, heads wrapped in turbans. He was said to lead us in our practice from beyond the grave. There was even a specific and supposedly very powerful meditation we were told to practice while staring at an image of Yogi Bhajan for 15 minutes a day for 40 days. One of my teachers explained it would “dissolve your karma and expand your destiny.”

As a journalist and an agnostic woman raised without religion or spiritual dogma, I’m skeptical of any sort of promised outcome. I wasn’t comfortable with the deification of Yogi Bhajan. But the allure of Kundalini Yoga as a “technology,” which is how Yogi Bhajan defined the practice, that could bring about healing and transformation held incredible sway.

What, exactly, is a false guru?

It’s no secret that many yoga teachers attain guru status among their students, either as a self-serving goal or because those who are suffering hand over their power to those who “have the cure.”

When a group of people unquestioningly commit to a leader or ideology or both, it can be troublesome. But the teachings often contain elements of truth that can actually help and comfort people—and that’s exactly what’s so tricky about discerning a false guru from someone who can help guide you.

Classic signs of a false guru include a charismatic leader who holds all of the power with little or zero accountability. Any criticism and critical thinking are actively discouraged and followers typically undergo a process of thought reform or “brainwashing.” Members are often exploited spiritually, economically, and/or sexually, and former members are demonized and excommunicated.

The (spiritual) danger zone

As I dove deeper into Kundalini yoga as a lifestyle during YTT, there were aspects of the practice that started to seem pretty odd and potentially controlling. I’m not saying that Yogi Bhajan had no wisdom to impart or that Kundalini is a cult. In fact, Yogi Bhajan was careful to not assert himself as a “guru” and famously stated that “the true guru is within.”

However, he has been accused of sexual, physical, spiritual, and financial abuse by several former followers. In 2020, an independent investigation by an organization called Olive Branch determined that the allegations of sexual, physical, and spiritual misconduct were most likely true.

In many ways, I felt vindicated after hearing this news. I was never comfortable with his God-like status among teachers and students at my studio, and I found many of his “lectures,” which we were asked to read as part of yoga teacher training, to be cruel and derogatory toward his followers.

My teacher trainers would explain this away by saying that Yogi Bhajan was a “Saturn teacher,” alluding to his astrological sign as an explanation for his tough, moody, almost misanthropic style. But why would I want to learn from someone like that?

During the first week of YTT, when we were discussing a particularly weird lecture of his where he was berating women for wearing makeup and having bangs, I said, “Yogi Bhajan sounds like a dick.” I stand by that.

How to discern the truth

Our yoga practice can help us pause, reflect, and recognize manipulation and spiritual abuse as it occurs. The Sanskrit term viveka means “discernment” or “clear sight.” In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (2.26 – 2.27), viveka is described as a means to help us separate reality from illusion. The practice of yoga asks us to remain awake, thoughtful, and true to ourselves. A false guru asks you to do the opposite.

Ultimately, Patanjali taught continuous discriminative awareness as a means of liberation from suffering. Viveka can help us find and uproot avidya (ignorance) and is essential as we move through life. When practiced, it can help us discriminate between truth and untruth, skillful or unskillful action. Viveka can help us discern the truth by remaining rooted in ourselves and our own wisdom and intuition.

Kundalini-ish yoga

Today, I take a more balanced and measured approach to Kundalini yoga. I no longer lead morning sadhana, the requisite two and a half hours of yoga and chanting that Yogi Bhajan prescribed to his devout followers, nor do I even have the desire to rise at 4 a.m. to practice it at home.

I also no longer practice White Tantra Yoga. In retrospect, both of these time-intensive practices seem, to me, like exercises in control, used as a means to keep you from getting sufficient rest or personal time.

However, I haven’t thrown away my practice in its entirety. I still lean on the pranayama that I learned in YTT to help me shift my energy in times of stress or frustration. I still love chanting and mantra and probably always will, and I usually find a way to bring it into each class I teach.

Whereas Kundalini yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan was incredibly rigid, the Kundalini yoga I now teach is more fluid and intuitive–I call it Kundalini-inspired yoga. I’ve learned to take what I love from the practice and the teacher. And I leave the rest behind.

About our contributor

Jennifer Davis-Flynn is a writer and yoga teacher based in Boulder, Colorado. Follow her on Instagram @jennifurious.