I’ve been sitting on some thoughts regarding some of the media’s portrayal of yoga in Western society. Most recently, I watched the documentary about Bikram Choudhury and his horrifying yoga lens and oppressive teaching. As alarming as Bikram’s methods were / are, I was equally disappointed in the film’s inability to clarify what yoga truly is. Maybe this is because the definition of yoga is so broad an all-encompassing? Maybe it is because the truth isn’t as sensational as the instances where megalomaniac men use yoga as bait to lure in people to abuse and manipulate. The one glaring omission from all of these? Nobody stood up to say, “all of this happened, and this is not yoga. Yoga is…”
Let’s take a look at some of the offerings we can all sit and consume from home that could make anyone’s grandma think “all yoga is a cult.” This isn’t a complete list, just a list of things I happened to see or hear this past year.
Wild Wild Country (2018): I remember seeing Osho books next to the Rumi anthologies in college bookstores back in the 90’s. A guy I dated quipped about “free love.” I’d kind of forgotten about Osho until my brother suggested I watch Wild Wild Country. This Netflix doc series covers the rise and fall of the Rajneeshpuram cult. Rajneesh/Osho and his minions used some aspects of yoga, hypnotism, psychological abuse, sex, violence, and power to manipulate and abuse as many as 2,000 people who lived on it’s commune in Oregon. As horrifying as this doc-series is, apparently it doesn’t even include some of the worst happenings on the commune, like sexual abuse of children, and an alleged plot to purposely cause an AIDS epidemic. Unreal. I’ve added Jane Stork’s book, “Breaking the Spell: My Life as a Rajneeshee and the Long Journey Back to Freedom (2009),” to my reading list. In case it isn’t obvious, this is not yoga. But there are still people buying Osho’s books and paying to go to resorts and meditation trainings in his name!
Holy Hell (2016): CNN films documentary about the Buddhafield cult. This autobiographical film by artist Will Allen introduces viewers to Michel, aka Jaime Gomez, aka many other names… an actor turned hypnotist/guru who uses yoga as a tool to manipulate followers into submission. We come to see the obsessive vanity of Michel, as well as his requirement that followers be fit, young, and beautiful. What blew my mind about this film was the perspective shift… Allen made this film over the course of 22 years! He began filming in an obviously loving, admiring way when he was young and we can see the shift in his lens as he begins to see the truth about Michel. Viewers will see a lot of mind-bending hypnotism, ego, sexual abuse, idolization, manipulation… this is not yoga. Yet there are still Buddhafield events and followers, and Michel is still a guru leader!
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019): Another Netflix documentary. This one was a little different, because in the yoga world even today, Bikram is a household name. It is a brand. Bikram Yoga. It is a noun! “My sister does Bikram.” I recall seeing Bikram Choudhury on late night TV, in People Magazine… there are studios in nearly every city branded Bikram. I have also been cautioned by many teachers over the years, “Bikram yoga is not real yoga. People love it but it isn’t for everyone.” And now I know why. Again, this man used yoga to coerce, manipulate, emotionally and sexually abuse, and most of all, PROFIT (cha-ching!) thousands upon thousands of people. Again… this is not yoga. Hot yoga? Ok. Maybe. Bikram is alive and well. But let’s not give the Bikram brand any more money!
Uncover, Season 1, Escaping NXIVM (2018): This is a Canadian (CBC) Podcast, and this season is not about yoga per se, rather, about yet ANOTHER cult known as NXIVM (pronounced Nexium). NXIVM is so many things, but I think this organization would say it is an “executive training” business, very guru-style self-help if you ask me, with a guru leader named Keith Raniere who claims to be not only the smartest man in the world, but in many senses a Messiah. Why is this on my list? Because threaded throughout the season, we hear how members targeted yoga studios and yoga practitioners, the yoga community is tangentially linked here, and it bugs me! Not once does anyone say, “this has nothing to yoga,” rather, it makes it seem like taking a yoga class makes you susceptible to being recruited into a cult. Maybe yoga students are seekers, more open-minded. But yoga itself is not a cult. And of course, there are still people who follow Keith Raniere, who consider him a guru.
The common theme here, in my humble opinion? Megalomaniac men using yoga as a tool to elevate themselves to guru status, and then using that power to manipulate, control, and abuse. THIS IS NOT YOGA. Sadly, the truth is, there is a problem with gurus. A google search can reveal hundreds of abusive gurus over time. It has gotten to the point where whenever I am curious about a type of yoga practice, or even want to read a new book, I need to do some research to find out whether or not that person has hurt people. Often they have. It is a sad reality. This is not yoga.
So we have a problem. There has been the question, “Can you separate the art from the artist?” Well, I have come to ask, “Can you separate the yoga from the abusive guru?” I cannot. I simply cannot. What can we do to resolve this problem? Would Netflix be interested in making documentaries about the positive, real contributions modern yoga is making in our society, while also honoring tradition and history, and not appropriating? We shall see. Something tells me it won’t be happening anytime soon.