Why I Joined — And Left — A Yoga Cult

This piece is about my experiences with a community that worshipped a Geshe: one that was officially denounced by the Dalai Lama in 2005. I hope that it provides illumination or solace; whatever you came here looking for. Take what you will. Leave the rest.

I never met Geshe Michael Roach in the flesh. But his presence was as pervasive in our yoga community as the thick smoke from the incense. Conversations would often start with, “Geshe Michael says,” or “One of his close disciples says.” These were the models on which we were to frame our own opinions, thoughts, and beliefs.

We felt Geshe Michael at nearly all times — watching us as we meditated, while we practiced asana, when we bowed to our teacher, while we prostrated ourselves to ideas and people bigger than ourselves. Where our individuality ended, our part in the group began.

We were not to question. To do so was cause for an immediate reprimand: a long, confusing conversation designed to twist your mind in circles, and, eventually, be subjected to professed, condescending sadness over your “inability to understand, to see the light, to engage in your own healing.” Geshe Michael was a “Geshe,” after all. It’s a degree or title that a person can earn within several Tibetan monastic lineages after studying extensively for many years, often decades. As the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition states, “‘Ge’ means “virtue” and ‘she’ means ‘knowing.’ Geshe thus means one who knows virtue, one who knows what should be practiced and what should be abandoned.”

And so, since he was a geshe, one of the only Americans to earn the title, we believed Geshe Michael knew what was best. To profess doubt or criticism was because of your defect: It was your fault that you didn’t “get it.” This ideology is pervasive in some yoga communities. You’re mad at someone who wronged you? You’re hanging onto toxic energy. You’re negative. Bless your heart, you must have some serious healing to do.

In my community, it was never considered that maybe it was the system that needed fixing; you were always the one who needed to be fixed.

When I joined, I was desperately searching for something that would give me direction. More than a decade of loss and pain had left me angry, alone, and bitter, and I had decided that there was no god or benevolent presence in the universe. The previous 15 years had been a constant barrage of people I loved being diagnosed with terminal illnesses, deaths, chronic illnesses and pain, addictions in my family, personal struggles with eating disorders and depression, and a series of boyfriends who thought I was pretty useless. My inner loop was one of abandonment, worthlessness, and futility. What did anything matter? The world outside was ending. My family world had fallen apart. By my boyfriends’ accounts, I pretty much sucked, anyway — so why bother going on?

For a 22-year old, I felt 50. A jaded, New York 50.

I was searching for light.

A cult, like many groups, offers members friendship, connection, and identity. Answers to the questions they seek. The difference between a cult and normal-ish sect or group, however, exists in the cult’s desire to keep itself, its teachings, and its practices secret and above scrutiny, both internally and externally. According to Alexandra Stein, a scholar of social psychology of ideological extremism and other dangerous social relationships, a cult is, “A group that violates the rights of its members, harms them through abusive techniques of mind control . . . Or, a group that is adverse to adherents’ best interests.” A normal sect doesn’t perpetuate this kind of abuse.

And who joins them? Dr. Cathleen A. Mann, an expert on cult-related issues, said, “There are no reliable psychological profiles or tendencies to describe potential or actual cult members.”

People don’t join cults because it seems like such a great idea, like BOGO waffle makers or buying toilet paper in bulk. I certainly didn’t wake up one day and think, “Hey! I know what my life needs right now — a mix of subtle and overt indoctrination that will result in a complete shift of my habits, life, and personality, and alienation my family and existing friends! I want to be more un-relatable!”

I had no idea that this group was a cult. I was going to do free yoga, make new friends, and try to find ways to heal my broken heart. Many in the group would still fight the characterization that it is, in fact, a cult: It’s just yoga, meditating. When I joined, I certainly had no idea that the group I was practicing with worshipped the often delusional, grandiose claims of a geshe. I had no idea that they believed that we could change our realities, create our own destinies, and actively participate in the dealing out of the cards life dealt us — by obtaining yogic powers.

But over time, I, too, began to believe these things. I wanted what this group had, what they believed. I wanted to believe that all of my problems could be healed with their answers. And they assured us that they did have all of the answers — direct from Buddha and ancient, secret scriptures, no less.

When my parents and my friends outside of the group began to question my shifts in behavior, philosophy, and beliefs, I told them that they didn’t know what they were talking about. My new friends in the group told me that this disbelief in our practices was common. Some people simply didn’t have the karma to have the experiences that we had. It was sad for them, really.

The chance of being born in a human body, we were told, was as rare as a seal popping its head up into the Pacific Ocean and finding it inside an inner tube. Next time we might not be so lucky — we could come back as cows, or bugs, or be reborn in a hell realm. We needed to get enlightened in this lifetime. We could dedicate our practices to our loved ones, set intentions for their salvation, their enlightenment, but that was it.

Did I think it was kind of weird that we received directions on everything from dietary practices to our sex lives direct from god-like Michael Roach and his upper level teachers? Of course. Weirder still was that these teachers often played with embodying Hindu gods in a misguided attempt to practice tantra. They insisted on devotional practices from their students that included bowing, kissing their feet, and refraining from eating, drinking, or sitting with feet pointing toward them. (Several of the yoga teachers in this group , in the past and today , are defended as “gods” among their students, and are beyond reproach , even when they are accused of sexual abuse, sometimes by other teachers or students.)

But we had given them a lot of power. We trusted their words and their promises that these practices and teachings would change our lives — our eternities, even. And they knew that the people who came to them would do almost anything to heal their pain and to find eternal salvation or bliss.

So if they made their reward enlightenment, and punishment banishment from the group — with enlightenment indefinitely canceled — no one would question their tactics.

Many people yearn to have feelings of value and worth — to be special, somehow. To manage our pain, our relationship to and place in the world. I wanted that: the answers to my pain, a reason to feel valuable, when I had spent so long feeling worthless. Geshe Michael and his disciples told us that we could have all of these things, and more. One way was through developing siddhis — yogic special powers. These included the ability to become invisible, to read other people’s minds, to walk through walls, to fly, and to walk on water.

If we devoted ourselves completely to the geshe or to a teacher of his lineage, and surrendered ourselves to them as our guru, we would become “holy beings,” free from the pain of being human. We were taught to see everyone — even those who were abusive to us or treated us wrongly — as holy beings, as angels on earth.

It was a seductive method: Who wouldn’t want to be a holy being? It’s a pretty nice thing to call someone, or to aspire to be, but it’s also a hell of a lot to live up to. When discussing the influence of this tactic, former member Matthew Remski addressed the source of its power, “I cannot be less than the idealization that has been made of me. I’m not going to fail this angelic persona that has been made of me because it is now the source of my social power.”

It was all part of the path to our enlightenment.

If someone in our lives was negative, confrontational, or even flat out abusive, we were advised to see them, too, as holy beings, sent here to teach us a lesson on our path to enlightenment. If we asked our teachers why we had such people in our lives, the explanation was simple: We had planted the karmic seeds for them. We had, at some point, done the exact same thing to someone, and in doing so planted a seed for it to be done to us, in the future.

This was that seed ripening.

In practice, this was difficult to watch. One woman, for example, was encouraged by our teacher to see her incredibly abusive boyfriend as a holy being, or as her guru. “What can you learn from him?” she was asked. “How are you abusive? How do you take advantage of others? Where in your life are you practicing violence?

In other words: What are you doing, as the victim, to deserve this abuse?

The seeds we ourselves had planted — they were the reasons why violence might visit us.

As Geshe Michael would say, “You can’t see death; you can’t see sickness among the people around you or yourself unless you have a seed for that, coming from hurting others in the past.”

***

Geshe Michael created a system that told people they could literally create their own realities and save themselves from the world at hand.

I, and so many others, needed something to believe in and aspire to, and the product being sold was literally fantastical:

“Tonight we’re going to talk about oxygen money . . . In 15 minutes I will teach you how you can make $250 million business, have a beautiful partner, have energy and save the world . . . just listen! . . . Oxygen money, beautiful partner, youth, and inner peace — you don’t need to choose, you can have them all.”

Who wouldn’t want that?

This group strongly believed that we could change our realities, create our own destinies, and actively manipulate the people and world around us.

My parents weren’t so sure, telling me that my new group of friends sounded like a cult. I was appalled: I would never join a cult! I was educated. I knew better.

These were wonderful, positive, loving people, that only wanted the world to be a more beautiful, caring place. They were vegans, for fuck’s sake! No one was asking me to shave my head and live on a commune or worship a cat god.

And it wasn’t, of course, all bad. The group contained a lot of lovely, wonderful people, some of whom I still call friends. And some people’s lives were saved as a result of the group. Maybe mine was, too — it certainly was on an edge of some sort when I joined. It’s undeniable that some people were given value and purpose that perhaps they never would have discovered without the group.

However, that doesn’t absolve the group from the leader’s actions and abuse, and it doesn’t absolve the group from the actions and abuse of its members.

Those who did express doubt or dissent were cut loose after being shamed and castigated, often publicly, and blamed for their “inability to see the light, for their negative and toxic vibes.” They lost friends, support networks, teaching jobs, recommendations for future employment in the yoga world, a strong sense of identity, financial stability.

It took me years to separate myself from this community, even after I’d seen it for what it was and was committed to getting out. I lost beloved friends and wonderful teachers, people I still miss. Even today, I struggle against the insidious indoctrination that runs rampant in the yoga community: demanding that we submit to a teacher, obeying them without reproach, ignoring their delusions, hypocrisies, or blatant abuses. The effects of being involved in this cult may never leave me.

Speaking about my experience in my personal life makes me an outsider. Speaking about it publicly may make me a pariah. But there were basic tenets — which, in some form, are universal themes in all cults — underneath all of the yoga, meditation, happy-speak, and projected beliefs that are profoundly destructive and need to be called out. These tenets work to convince you that the way in which you see the world is not OK, that you need to transform not just your habits, but your mind completely. In cults, information travels in one direction: from the all-powerful top down — with no checks and balances.

And if you disagree or fail to live up to the cult’s ideals?

You’re out of the “in” group. You’re a “toxic person.” Your failure to understand the higher vibrations of the in-group are looked upon with sadness, contempt, and dismissal. If you don’t want to be a holy being, get the fuck out.

You’re fucked up — not the cult or its leaders.

Namaste.

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