Reflections on abuse in yoga
Trigger warning: doesn't speak of specific examples of triggering situations but references words including abuse, rape, and manipulation.
Just over a year ago, Pamela Dyson published a book about her time as Yogi Bhajan's secretary. The book is not exclusively about abuse she suffered by Yogi Bhajan but it does discuss this. This book set off a chain reaction of other survivors of abuse from Yogi Bhajan coming forward and telling their stories, initially on facebook, and then to an independent organisation called An Olive Branch, commissioned to investigate the allegations by the umbrella organisations which oversee and manage Kundalini Yoga and various related things.
These stories emerging, sometimes decades after abuse happened, sent the Kundalini Yoga world into a tailspin. The investigation found that the abuse very probably did happen (although because Yogi Bhajan is dead it's impossible to be completely sure, which is why it's 'very probably'). The Kundalini Yoga world, and the various organisations which oversee it are still very much working their way through what this means, and how to take Kundalini Yoga foraward.
This is not an account of what's happened, how everyone is responding to it, or what is happening going forward. I'll add links to the bottom of this post which you can read more about it, if you want to. These are my reflections on this whole situation so far, and where I have got to with it.
The allegations came out mid way through my teacher training, so this was deeply unsettling for me and raised questions around whether to continue, whether to teach, and how to do so in a way that doesn't continue to embody the abuse suffered. However, lockdown then happened and my entire world was pulled out from under my feet. Teaching was something I loved doing and was something I could do online, so despite having many unresolved questions with regards the abuse and what this meant for the yoga, I decided to go ahead and teach.
Until I decided to become a teacher, the yoga world was largely something I was unaware of. My experience of all forms of yoga was entirely experiential. I found the yoga world something of a bizarre place, largely, and was pretty sure I wouldn't become a teacher! But I loved the yoga. And I especially loved kundalini yoga. I did come across the odd webpage about things which did seem a bit dodgy in the kundalini yoga world, but I was unconcerned because it didn't really affect me.
Then, when choosing to go into teacher training, it became clear that part of the training is to immerse yourself in the teachings, and also the whole lifestyle that goes around being a yogi and a teacher. I needed to become more aware of what this world was. Some of it still seemed strange, odd, bizarre, weird - all of that! But as part of the immersion I told myself I'd try out at least the majority of it and decide for myself, based on the experience of it, whether this was something I wanted to do. We were very much encouraged to adopt as many of the lifestyle practices as possible, and I wanted to commit and devote myself to this study and learning. And so I did. Of course, I was quite used to doing some very odd things in my kundalini yoga classes and then discovering that actually the effects were powerful and beneficial. So it was this approach I took to immersing myself in the yoga world and the kundalini yoga world.
Then the allegations came out and everything changed. Suddenly the man who was the head of Kundalini Yoga, who brought it to the West, who's teachings I was studying and learning and intending to teach to others, was found to be a rapist, abuser, manipulator, lier, and tyrant. How could someone who shared such amazing teachings, said so many truthful and enlightening things, taught respect, empowerment and elevation for women also be this person? The two things just didn't seem to go together. And given that yoga is an embodied practice, was he using the yoga to manipulate, abuse and lie to people? And if so, how was that passed on in the teachings?
And yet...I still loved the practices, the meditations. I loved singing the Japji, a sacred Sikh text. And so I carried on with these, and with teaching because for me there seemed to be quite a disconnect between the teachings and the person. And what it started to do for me, over time, was enable me to let go of seeing things as they were taught, and accepting all the teachings without question. It allowed me to reconnect to my sense of self and what felt right within me. To embody the practice and the teachings myself and to see for myself how they felt.
So, a number of the lifestyle and teaching practices I've dropped or adapted to better suit me and not seeing Yogi Bhajan as someone who had all the answers, who's rules we have to follow without question, and without deviation, was liberating. In dropping or adjusting I've found my own way with the practice, with the other aspects of being a yogi and a teacher. And this has also enabled me to bring in other aspects that perhaps I wouldn't have done before. To explore how practices outside kundalini yoga might complement it.
Beyond me and the teaching, I absolutely stand with the survivors of abuse, I hear their stories and believe them. I want to see changes through the organisations and structures of Kundalini Yoga to ensure that this abuse cannot happen again.
I am unsure about continuing with my own learning through the organisations set up by Yogi Bhajan, and have been accessing support and training from a wider range of sources, even beyond Kundalini Yoga. I am not sure how all of this is going to evolve yet, but I have found the Yoni Shakti Movement to be a source of inspiration, comfort, education and liberation. This movement was set up to support all in yoga - survivors and yogis - coming from lineages where sexual abuse has occurred. Because of course Yogi Bhajan isn't alone in this - most yoga lineages have had these scandals emerge over the past few years. Most recently in iRest, a Yoga Nidra school. And of course, it's not limited to yoga. Many spiritual and religious organisations have had these stories emerge as its been easier to share and not so easy to silence victims.
The approach of Yoni Shakti Movement is to become post-lineage and to take the good, the best, the beautiful from all the practices and leave behind the misogyny, the gurus on pedestals, the rules and regulations and to adopt practices with support, listen to, and enable healing across the community and especially for survivors. This approach makes a lot of sense and is a relief to me.
I'm writing this to share where I'm at with all of this, to recognise that it's a big process and whilst the shock might have worn off, the implications and aspects which need to be through through and adjusted or let go of, is still ongoing and will likely take some time. Each teacher, each yogi, in Kundalini Yoga and other lineages is in their own process with some of this and the range of responses to it has been as wide as the people in it. But when we stay connected to our hearts, when we listen to our bodies, to our emotions, then we find that our truth comes through and can steer us through even the most challenging of situations.
I still love Kundalini Yoga, I still practice daily and teach. And I intend to continue to do so. Kundalini Yoga has brought me such richness, healing, rejuvenation, change, challenge, and ultimately brings me home to myself. I intend to retain the power, the beauty and strength of the practices; whilst releasing those aspects which don't align with my truth. As practitioner yogis with me, feel into what the yoga means to you, and you will find your way with this. You may not be particularly interested in what is happening in the wider yoga world, and that's totally fine. But if you are - come back to you, drop into your heart, and let it show you the way through it.
Yoni Shakti: The Movement https://yonishakti.co/the-movement
Information on how the KY community is moving forward, including links to the investigation https://www.3ho.org/moving-forward-community
How to report teachers who are not abiding by ethical standards https://kundaliniresearchinstitute.org/ethics/
Initial response from 3HO (one of the KY organisations): https://www.3ho.org/3ho-letter-investigation-findings
Response from the international teachers association: https://mailchi.mp/ikyta/please-read-important-communication-from-ikyta-213608?e=47cf547be9
Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage by Pamela Dyson https://www.amazon.co.uk/Premka-White-Bird-Golden-Bhajan/dp/0578621886