Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

yoga, cultism, and quackery

Like it or not, there are many who see yoga—or, at the very least, certain segments of the yoga community—as cultish. When considered objectively, it is completely understandable why prudent people would think such a thing. A simple way of recognising a cult is to notice whether a key part of the group dynamic is the notion that the group’s ideology is more important than the opinions or rights of any individual member. Another key element of the cult is the one exception to this first observation: the one individual (or small number of individuals) who expects to be honoured with a privileged air of authority because they themselves are the embodiment of the cult’s ideology. Yoga’s past and present are riddled with charismatic figures who have convinced people that they need to take such measures as adopting strict veganism, cutting off contact with their families, and transferring their savings to their guru as a means of procuring some form of karmic advancement. For some reason, the idea of any individual or ideological structure exerting that kind of control over somebody else’s life simply does not sit well with a lot of folks.

In the past, I never considered myself particularly susceptible to mental manipulation; however, my self-assuredness did not protect me in the end. I have indeed both witnessed and been subject to a number of instances of emotional exploitation, gaslighting, and price gouging from authority figures in the yoga community. In one instance, a “yoga master” spread false rumours about me and swindled me out of large sums of money, and it has transpired that this person did similar things to other people as well. I know firsthand how hard it can be to challenge such betrayals of trust, or to leave compromising situations when it involves people who present themselves as spiritual and pure—particularly when these people are also in positions of institutional authority and have the means to promote or thwart your career. For I while, I believed that the problems I'd encountered in these situations were my own fault; indeed, many spiritual schools like to perpetuate the idea that all negativity is something that we have "attracted" into our lives. Yet, for me, there eventually came a point at which the situation was so odious that I decided to confront the matter head-on and speak out. I am sad to say that my decision to do so cost me a number of friends, in addition to having some remarkably negative consequences for my yoga career. The whole thing precipitated a chain of depressive episodes for over a year of my life, as well as putting me into a hypervigilant state in which I simply no longer knew who I could trust.

Right now, I feel grateful that this abrupt (and at least partly self-determined) ejection from my former community has given me a much greater sense of objectivity about some of the power dynamics in the yoga world. Having had enough time to reflect on my erstwhile codependent condition, I am now in a place where I feel ready to admit—both to myself and to anyone else who will listen—that what happened to me was not ok. In saying this, I also understand that compared to a lot of folks, my story isn't even particularly bad. There are many people in vulnerable situations who may feel an even greater sense of powerless than I did, and may be the victims of similar manipulation and hypocrisy for even longer periods of time. And sadly, stories of sexual abuse in yoga circles have been conspicuously prevalent in the media. 

I recognise that these kinds of conversations are likely to prompt some Twitter trends (dibs on #NotAllGurus!). I happily acknowledge that plenty of yogis are perfectly lovely individuals who have no intention of controlling your mind or making off with all your cash. Yet we must recognise that many people get hooked on yoga at times when they are feeling utterly hopeless. They are looking for something to believe in, and are thus particularly susceptible to charismatic characters who preach lofty dogmas, promising that their way and their way alone can offer access to the unbound potential of the spirit, along with the power to manifest anything their hearts desire. 

I addressed the dangers of such ideologies in a post from last April. I think that all sensible yogis everywhere would do well to drop these pretences in favour of sharing the things yoga is actually good for: a greater sense of embodiment, reduced stress (and all of the attendant health benefits), and an improved ability to give our attention to both the tasks we need to accomplish and the quality of each moment we are in. An industry-wide focus on empirical and common-sense benefits—in addition a commitment to call out those who are trying to abuse others or sell people the Brooklyn Bridge—may help us to arrive at a place where yoga is not simply seen broadly as a weird cult, but as a pragmatic tool to add to our physical and mental health repertoire. In order to do so, everyone in the yoga community needs to be mindful about ensuring that spiritual leaders are held to the same standards of decency as the rest of us—that their “holiness” does not put them above a common-sense agreement about what’s right and wrong. Until we do this, vulnerable people remain in danger. Moreover, until we address these issues, the actual benefits of yoga will cease to have much of a reach, because a huge proportion of the population will be understandably wary about putting themselves into potentially compromising situations.

In addition to such prudence throughout the community, only a respect for science has a chance of getting us to a point where we yoga can earn the trust and respect of a greater swathe of the population. And to be clear: saying “only science” is not the same thing as saying “only Jesus Christ” or “only Haile Sellasie I” or “only Guruji,” because dogmatic ideologies depend on unverifiable and unfalsifiable faith, while scientific knowledge can be independently verified, over and over again, regardless as to anybody’s degree of faith in it. My own inability to speak out against the unfair treatment to which I was subject came down, in no small measure, to my indoctrination into the belief that those in positions of authority served as the sole access point to a unique set of truths. My teacher training manual stated explicitly that "only instruction received directly from the guru has the potential to inspire genuine inner growth"—a tradition also upheld, by the way, to "ensure secrecy." As a result, my relationship to the spiritual realm depended on an acknowledgement of my own deferential relationship to the masters. Conversely, a recognition of the genuine authority of empirical knowledge is the very thing that takes unverifiable mystical power out of the hands of the people (many of whom are narcissists and psychopaths) who are manipulating vulnerable minds into thinking that they have privileged access to “the way.”

At this point, I can already hear the chorus voices ready to deploy their secret weapon: “Yes Michael, science is amazing. In fact, you must know about quantum mechanics, right? There have been experiments where subatomic particles were launched at a double slit, and the scientists realised that they behaved differently depending on whether or not there was an observer! This proves that, even according to science, the human mind shapes reality! Scientific knowledge of the effect of the human mind on the universe has paved the way for quantum healing, quantum touch, quantum depth healing—”

Right. People often cite the “double slit” experiment as “evidence” that, because particles “behave” differently when they are observed, human consciousness has some form of power over the constituent particles of matter; therefore, we create our reality. The problem with this is that the “observer effect” is a perfectly common and perfectly un-mystical phenomenon. In fact, you experienced it the last time you used a gauge to measure the air pressure in your car tyres. The very use of the gauge—which allowed you to observe the pressure in your tyre—released a little bit of air, thereby slightly decreasing the tyre's pressure. This does not mean that the human mind exerts any degree of supernatural control over tyre pressure. When it comes to experiments in quantum mechanics, the “observer” in question does not have to be a subjective, living being in order for the effect to appear—it can be a machine. As Richard Feynman explains, "Nature does not know what you are looking at, and she behaves the way she is going to behave whether you bother to take down the data or not." So please stop putting the word “quantum” in front of everything and calling it scientific. If what you're doing is some form of spiritual healing, please just say so.

 “Yes Michael, but even if what you’re saying is right—there are simply so many things that science isn’t able to tell us! So many mysteries that are beyond the comprehension of the human mind! You must admit that there are forces at work that we simply don’t understand! There’s so much that we don’t know! The beauty of the spiritual is that it can fill in these gaps!” 

While I do understand this perspective (it having been my own at certain points in my life), and while I certainly admire your unabashed use of exclamation marks, there are a number of problems with such an argument. Chief amongst these problems is the inaccuracy of the statement “There’s so much that we don’t know.” It has been my observation that, when people say this, they think they are saying “There is so much that science has not yet determined,” or perhaps “There is so much that science cannot/may never determine.” What they are actually saying with this proposition, however, is often something more like “There is so much that I don’t know.” (Just in the last 10 days, I have had conversations with three different, very intelligent adults who did not know that chocolate contains caffeine. Did you? You do now.) Perhaps an equally accurate and altogether fair proposition would be “There is so much that you don’t know.” (I just learned recently, for example, that spelt contains more gluten than wheat contains.) However, it is objectively true that we, as a collective, have an immense amount of knowledge. 

I myself am not claiming any kind of privileged knowledge. I’m simply a nerd who spends what many people would consider an unhealthy, slightly antisocial amount of time reading various forms of nonfiction. One consequence of this habit is certainly that I have learned an awful lot; however, another result is that I know for a fact that the amount of knowledge that is currently available to humanity is orders of magnitude greater than what I can even imagine. As a result, I am increasingly inclined to believe that statements like “there’s so much that we don’t know” are both lazy and disrespectful. 

Sure, there are questions for which science does not currently have the answers. Why did the universe begin? What, precisely, were the conditions that gave rise to the origins of life? How and when, exactly, did humans begin to use language? Unsurprisingly, these questions have been the traditional purview of the world’s religions, and some intelligent and esteemed philosophers (actually called mysterians—among them Thomas Nagel, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker) hold the impression that we will probably never know the answers to them. While there are plenty of (also intelligent and esteemed) scientists and philosophers who are inclined to disagree with this line of thinking, it very well may be correct. Yet even if we were to agree with the mysterians, it seems to take a rather creative abuse of logic to go from “science can’t tell us” to “therefore only I, the spiritual man, have privileged access to the mysterious forces, and if you are willing to buy into my ideology, I will share with you the secrets of how to empower yourself with this cosmic intelligence in a way that will revolutionise your life.” Come on, now. Such claims are both absurd and irresponsible, and they are also very much a part of what gives yoga a bad name. By trafficking in such mysteries, the gurus are selling empty formulas that are simply not capable of providing the results that are claimed on the tin. The money that they receive from their clients is, however, a currency that is certainly recognised by the global economy. There are a number of legal terms for these kinds of transactions, none of which are particularly flattering. 

When we’re honest with ourselves, the ability of “spiritual truth” to fill in the scientific gaps has reliably been disproven again and again. Darwinian natural selection has taken over the world’s various genesis tales. Genetic sciences have determined that the concept of “race” is a human cultural construct rather than a biological one; hence, any divinely ordained divisions amongst groups of human beings (as the stories in the Hebrew Bible and Vedic Hinduism claim) are wholly impotent. Physics has shown that it would be impossible for light, day, and night to have been created on the First Day, Earth on the Third Day, and the sun and the stars on the Fourth Day. As mathematician (and Methodist Church leader) Charles Alfred Coulson famously remarked “There is no 'God of the gaps' to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.”⁠

Moving away from a vision of the universe governed by magical realism and toward one that obeys the laws of science might seem like a depressing development. Yet, for myself, I can say that it has only made me happier. It has given me the sense of recognition that my own sense of empowerment doesn't have to come from another human being; my yoga practice feels like it is mine again. I no longer need to burden myself with the belief that the accidents occurring in my path are the result of my own spiritual misbehaviour or negligence. And I feel much more capable of recognising where my own responsibilities begin and end. I am still in the process of making amends for my complicity in perpetuating some ideas that I now regret. This post has been a part of that process for me. 

I'll leave you with a few words from Steven Pinker, who says it much better than I can.

The first step toward wisdom is the realisation that the laws of the universe don't care about you. The next is the realisation that this does not imply that life is meaningless, because people care about you, and vice versa. You care about yourself, and you have a responsibility to respect the laws of the universe that keep you alive, so you don't squander your existence. Your loved ones care about you, and you have a responsibility not to orphan your children, widow your spouse, and shatter your parents. And anyone with a humanistic sensibility cares about you, not in the sense of feeling your pain—human empathy is too feeble to spread itself across billions of strangers—but in the sense of realising that your existence is cosmically no less important than theirs, and that we all have a responsibility to use the laws of the universe to enhance the conditions in which we all can flourish.

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