Friday, February 12, 2010

Yoga Cults

It is very easy for people to take their spiritual path and get a bit carried away with it. By that I mean preaching to others how they should live, eat, sleep, worship, etc. As Ashtangis, we are reminded that ours is an individual journey. We can learn from yoga teachers and gurus, but ultimately we must decide what is right for us as individuals according to our means and to our discoveries through the work of Yama and Niyama.
I came across a truly appalling story written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in the February 18 issue of Rolling Stone magazine about a yoga cult called Dahn Yoga. If you are a Dahn practitioner, be warned that what you are practicing is not yoga and doesn't even vaguely resemble yoga. What Dahn Yoga is, in fact, is a scam run by a middle-aged Korean man named Seung Heun Lee who has managed to con a great many college students into thinking they can buy their way to enlightenment by giving all their money to his organization (Dahn Yoga) and relentless fund-raising. These students are drawn in gently by tai-chi and yoga-like exercises and are gradually driven to maxing out their credit cards in trying to make their weekly fund-raising quotas. They are then chided and driven toward damaging and humiliating acts such as: excessive exercise; holding their breath under water until their lungs strain and then jumping out to sing songs of praise to their Korean Master; drinking toilet-water; rubbing their faces in dirt; and even being sexually molested by the Master himself. In the end, those who make it that far are coerced into giving up all contact with family and friends and dedicating their lives exclusively to Dahn Yoga. Meanwhile, the Master himself is basking in his glory, jet-setting around the world, owning multi-million-dollar properties and canoodling with lovely young ladies. All, of course, paid for by the money he has stolen from these naive young people and their relentless fund-raising activities.
The former Dahn members that Ms. Erdely interviewed for her article all had plenty of moments where they felt ridiculous and seriously questioned what they were doing. Yet they were somehow always convinced that their doubts were a sign of weakness and that they just had to try harder. These doubts were a very disturbing aspect of this article; everyone seemed to have them and yet no one ever heeded them. Doubts are never a sign of weakness; they are your inner voice warning you that something is not right and should always be heeded. Yoga is not boot camp - you do not need to "try harder". Yoga does not entail acts of self-humiliation. Yoga does not require payments of money if no service is being rendered. And yoga does not involve worshiping any individual.
More disturbing still was the fact that even two years after getting out of this cult, the former members were still psychologically disturbed and confused about how to get on with their lives. The only enlightenment any of these former members seemed to receive from this experience was that they had been scammed and had wasted a few precious years of their lives. That is not the kind of yoga we want to be practicing.
Living a yogic life means checking in daily with those doubts and your values. Please do not let anyone, under any guise of yoga, tell you what you need to do to be enlightened.