The special type of yoga she taught was called kundalini yoga (meaning yoga of awareness). It takes the standard yoga exercise and adds what is called "breath of fire", a rapid inhalation and exhalation through the nose. The exercises are quite strenuous and are punctuated with frequent rest. We wound up each class with a series of chants and ended with a song: "May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you and the pure light within you guide your way on."
My teacher was a thin, intense graduate student in biochemistry. She was intelligent, gracious, warm and friendly. She explained that she belonged to the 3HO, meaning happy, healthy, holy organization. 3HO, she insisted, was not a religious cult but a group of people perfecting the science and technology of happy healthiness and holiness. Some people chose to live together in ashrams, but anyone could be in 3HO if they exercised and meditated (called "Sadhana") every morning, ate vegetarian, didnt smoke, drink or take drugs and abstained from sex until married.
Toward the end of the quarter, she encouraged everyone to go to an upcoming tantric yoga session, conducted by 3HO leader, Yogi Bhajan. Tantric Yoga was so powerful, she said, that Yogi Bhajan was the only living master, the one person in the world qualified to teach it. Tantric Yoga wove together the energies of the male and female and was done in pairs. "No one", she added softly, "knows his way around a womans body like Yogi Bhajan". "How do you know?" I teased. "I know", she replied evenly. "He can go on for hours".
I never attended that Tantric yoga session, but I have since learned about Yogi Bhajan, a six foot, two inch bear of a man who, it turns out, is a former customs agent from New Delhi. He set up residence in Los Angeles twelve years ago as an unknown yoga teacher and within a year began to introduce thousands of young Americans to the Sikh religion. "America is a mess"; Bhajan is fond of saying. "It is a complete mental mess and our children are suffering". He has struck a responsive chord by combining traditional eastern religious practices with yoga and a cozy communal lifestyle.
Believers swear by him, following his orders on how to dress, what to eat and even whom to marry. But, predictably, Bhajans detractors are as harsh in their criticisms as the faithful are in their praise. Many Indian Sikhs abhor the way Bhajan practices the religion. Others have attacked him for the explicit sexual instructions he dishes out and for treating women as though they were back in the 15th century.
Today Bhajan's followers claim there are 250,000 people living his special lifestyle--about 2500 in ashrams, which also often serve as places of worship. The largest single concentration of followers is in California, primarily in LA. Los Angeles is home not only to the 3HO International Headquarters but to the Kundalini Research Institute as well.
The Sikh religion goes back about 500 years and is now practiced by more that eight million Indians. A Punjabi Indian named Nanak was its first guru. In all there have been ten [such gurus] each one taking over when the one before him died. The fifth guru, Arjun Dev, became a victim of religious persecution when he was placed on a burning hot plate and had hot sand poured over him. Since that time, Sikhs have been instructed to bear arms and to be fearless in defending their faith. The tenth and final guru, Guru Gobind Singh, embodied the Sikh ideal of the warrior-saint, which is still maintained: "When all other means have failed," he wrote, "then it is righteous to take up the sword".
Today the Sikhs, who still live mostly in northern India, are sometimes called the Jews of India. They are both bright and industrious and for the most part, solidly middle class. In India, Sikhs allow democratic elections of priests and abhor personality cults. Yoga has no part in Sikhism, and India's Sikhs are known to be meat eaters.
This is all in sharp contrast to Yogi Bhajan's brand of Sikhism, which the force of his personality is definitely the attraction. Also, Yogi Bhajan not only teaches kundalini yoga and Tantric yoga but dispenses advice on breathing and massage techniques to improve ones sexual performance. Further, he has wrapped the faithful in ritualistic clothing, first given to the Sikhs by the tenth guru.
Ironically it is almost exclusively the young American followers, not the Indian Sikhs, who follow this prescription for dress. It includes white turban with all white clothing, unshaven hair and beard, specially made tight cotton underwear, a steel bracelet, a sword and a wooden comb. Each of these items has come to symbolize the elements of the Khalsa, the "Pure Ones". The white clothing represents purity; the turban helps maintain an elevated state of consciousness and protects the temporal lobes from soaking up negativity. As for the long hair and beard; "The hair functions as an antenna, conducting energy to the brain where it is stored." say a 3HO newsletter. "By wearing the hair coiled and covering the head we increase the efficiency of our antennae".
The tight underwear is a "reminder of the commitment to chastity and procreation", but, here again, Bhajan takes it further: "If you dont have the proper underwear and dont control the area, the testicles can become lodged. This is the beginning of sexual problems for the male--male frigidity." The steel bracelet symbolizes "one's bondage to the truth", the sword a vow to "defend the poor, the weak and the innocent", and the comb is a symbol of cleanliness.
Although Yogi Bhajan says, "Our saying is if someone hits your right cheek, blow up his left so he cannot do it to anyone else," contemporary American Sikhs appear to be for the most part, peaceful and gentle. The small swords they carry are mostly symbolic. In fact, it is tough to get a Sikh to unsheathe his weapon. They are instructed that if they ever take out their weapon they had better be prepared to use it to draw blood. There is a story told among Sikhs about two fellows who got into a heated argument and drew weapons. At that point they realized how ridiculous their argument was and ambled down to the blood band to donate a pint each.
The total effect of this garb is that at first glance these young Americans look decidedly foreign. In fact, they are sometimes referred to as "ayatollahs" or "diaperheads". But converse with one and you realize that he is just your average middle-class Joe in a white turban. They are friendly, laugh easily, live in nice houses, drive nice cars and dont proselytize. Its their life-style thats different.
For one thing, every morning they get up at three and take a cold shower after only five hours of sleep. Then they practice Sadhana, the morning spiritual discipline those last two to three hours and include chanting, meditation, vigorous yoga exercises, spiritual readings and songs. After eating a wholesome vegetarian breakfast, theyre off to work.
Sikhs come from all walks of life; their jobs range from construction worker to doctor They are hard workers, put in long hours and abhor welfare. Some work for large companies, others have their own business. In fact, American Sikhs have set up partnerships and corporations, and a number of these businesses are apparently quite successful. These include Golden Temple restaurants; Sunshine Brass Beds; Shakti Shoes a variation on the Earth Shoe theme; Sunshine Scented Oils; and Golden Temple Health Food, which makes a candy bar called Wha Guru Chew. According to Sopurkh Kaur Khalsa, Bhajans head of finance, the brass bed and shoe sales each surpass $1 million a year.
Another business Americana Sikhs seem to take an interest in is firearms. Sikh members have been licensed to buy and sell guns in New Mexico and California. Integrity Arms in Los Angeles sells rifles and shotguns. And a Los Angeles firm called Khalsa Security Company provides bodyguards and security for executives and VIPs.
The sect owns 210 acres of prime property in Espanola, New Mexico, much of which is used as a training center and for summer solstice celebrations. Worldwide, they own over 120 training centers, from Anchorage to Hong Kong. The Sikhs have started nursery, elementary and junior high schools for their children. They want to be everywhere, intent on fulfilling the ancient prophecy of "960 million Sikhs rising from the West".
The money for these projects and properties comes form the members of the sect. Like the Mormons, Sikhs are obligated to give 10 percent of their incomes to the church. Of course larger donations are welcome: Joanne Rollo of Homewood, California, says she has had no communication with her daughter since the later signed over a $1.3 million inheritance to Bhajan's cause.
In some respects, Yogi Bhajan appeals to the same group of young Americans who flock to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, or the Hare Krishna movement. Many come from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds, and a surprising percent of them are Jewish. A lot of them used mind-expanding drugs prior to joining, but anyone who sticks with Yogi Bhajan is quickly broken of any such habits. Sikhs are, for the most part, young, idealistic and searching for that sense of family and spirituality that they can't get elsewhere.
It is the American Sikhs outer appearance, more than their behavior that has caused them a few problems. Sikhs also have had some difficulty being accepted in the community. Although they certainly do not invite trouble, they do at all times stick up for their rights. Sat-Peter Singh Khalsa, director of public relations for the 3HO regional office, describes two Sikh victories against discrimination: "We got the army to change the dress code to allow Sikhs to wear turbans and uncut beards" (This is a bit of an overstatement. The army does make allowances for their garb, but in non-combat situations only. Still this is impressive.). He continues, "We had had people laid off in labor positions because they refused to wear hard hats over their turbans. We took that to court to allow Sikhs to maintain their turbans."
Sikhs also have had some difficulty being accepted in the community. About three years ago, for example, when Sikh families started buying homes in a neighborhood in the old section of central Phoenix, the locals got worried. One Phoenix resident, Sue, confesses her reservations: "I was fearful of them diminishing the resale value of the homes. Isnt that middle class? Isnt that awful? But that was the general attitude on our street". What was it that so terrified those good citizens of Phoenix?
"Well, first, I always have a Christmas party for the children and one year I wanted to invite the Sikh family. But I was told that it might be insulting to them because I was having a Santa Claus come to the house". And she continues, "you cant invite them to a block party because you are probably going to have hamburgers and they dont eat meat. Plus, they have very difficult names and I can never remember what they are. [Names go like this: All followers have "Khalsa", the "Pure Ones"; men have "Singh", "Lion" and women have "Kaur", "Princess"] We just kept finding all these picayune things to prove that they were not like us." Sue did not feel comfortable with her attitude. "This plaguing voice kept saying, "'Jesus I 'm prejudiced.'"
The Sikhs own several houses in Arizona, mostly in Phoenix and Tucson and their attempts to buy houses are evidence of their attitude of upward mobility. So far, they've bought seven in the Robertson/Preuss area of Los Angeles. We're slowly buying up the entire block", says regional director Krishna Kaur Khalsa. "When they see us coming they jack up the price." They also own houses Altadena, Fullerton, Long Beach, Pomona, south central LA, San Bernardino and San Diego. Some of these are single family dwellings, others are ashrams. And individuals own most of the ashrams. But Phil Hoskins, Yogi Bhajan's chancellor and part-time legal adviser until he left the sect in 1976, says that although when he left most of this property seemed to be owned by individuals, a lot of it was actually owned by a clique of five or six top echelon women who were under Bhajans control. This, claims Hoskins, made the group look more decentralized that it really was.
If this upwardly mobile approach is in line with todays "I want and MBA degree", world, Bhajans attitude toward women seems to be a throwback to ancient India. In a series of lectures entitled "Man to Man", Yogi Bhajan explains womens nature to the males: "One day she is very bright and charming and after a couple days she is totally dumb and non-communicative. This is called the normal woman mood." And because women fluctuate so much, "a female needs constant social security and constant leadership ...when you are not the leader, she is not satisfied".
A woman who sleeps around "trashes her aura," as one female Sikh describes it. Akasha Kaur Khalsa, a Sikh member, explains, "A women holds the imprint of every man shes had sex with; she brings the imprint to the next bed". And what about the man who does the same? "A mans aura is not trashed the way a womens is. The man plants the seed and he leaves. But the women is designed to grow the seed". Lest this sounds too sexist, men are also discouraged from engaging in pre-or extramarital sex. It is just more of a burden to women.
Yogi Bhajan has revealed many exercises designed to repair the damaged nervous systems of Americas wayward youth, who, he says, know nothing of real love. He claims he can help with almost all problems, from trashed auras to premature ejaculation. And it is true that Yogi Bhajan arranges marriages, though not for everyone. "He may be giving a lecture and say Oh, you two people are engaged. They may or may not even know each other", explains Akasha Kaur Khalsa. And sure enough, perfect strangers often consent to marrying each other.
The Sikhs say Yogi Bhajan can see and interpret auras, and this is how he matches people. A Sikh can also find someone he wants to marry and take that person to Bhajan for approval. Says Sat-Peter Singh, "Ninety-five percent of our marriages are sanctioned by him, and the divorce rate is practically non-existent--less than six percent."
Every summer for six weeks, Bhajan holds a training camp in New Mexico for women. The men dont get such a camp. In one lecture, Bhajan emphasizes the traditional role of women. "The guy has gone to work at seven o'clock after having done Sadhana. In work he is hassled and hassled and did everything he was supposed to do. He came back home at seven o'clock. Right? Why is he coming home? Tell me. To relax, find comfort, look at the sky. If there is a big bitch with an open mouth waiting for him, how many days can you expect him to come back home?" Later he says, "Theres no such thing as buddyness between husband and wife. No matter how rotten he may be, he will still expect and demand respect When you start talking to him as your buddy and your friend, then you will also have slaps and black eyes."
American Sikh women, however, are encouraged to study the martial arts as well as to become involved in high administrative levels of the organization. "There is no discrimination as far as a person's ability to do any tasks or hold any position," explains Krishna Kaur Khalsa. And, in addition to everything else Yogi Bhajan says about women, he is also fond of saying things like "A woman is sixteen times stronger than a man."
Yogi Bhajans sex lectures to the men arent exactly of the "let's transcend desires and reach nirvana" genre. This is your basic sex manual. "The women has nine highly sensitive areas, which are called moon centers. There is an order in which these centers need to be touched, using any technique you wish. First, the breasts; then the neck; third the lips; fourth is the cheeks; number five is the ears, a most sensitive moon area. After the ears, remember the spine. Then the thighs are seven; the calves eight; and the clitoris or vagina, nine. If you use any other order, you are an idiot."
And, "There are three different positions of the opening to the vagina: upper, normal and lower. The woman with an upper entry has no problem with orgasms. Because her vagina and her clitoris are so close together, all she needs is a little touch, a little entry, a little doing, and there she goes". Unfortunately says Bhajan, "Out of hundred women, sixty will have lower vaginal entry. The sixty- percent is a problem. Never satisfied, always bitchy, always complaining, always blaming".
In another lecture he asks, "All these yogis and swamis who are celibate dont marry. Why not? They cant handle women". Handling women, though, does not appear to be a problem for the fifty-one-year old Bhajan. For the six weeks of his summer camp, Yogi works with them in absence of all other men save a few helpers.
Bhajans "handling of women" however, has also become a point of criticism. In the summer of 1977, there were accusations of Yogi Bhajan, a married man with three children, being a womanizer. Colleen Hoskins, who was in the group almost seven years, worked for Bhajan in New Mexico. There, she said, he was served by as many as fourteen women, "some of whom attend his baths, give him group massages and take turns spending the night in his room while his wife slept elsewhere".
She now adds, "I saw women go into his bedroom in their nightgowns, and the next morning they would emerge fully dressed." When she became disillusioned and decided to leave the group, she says Bhajan told her she would be responsible for a nuclear holocaust and that her young daughter would go insane by the time she was fifteen. Bhajan denies these charges and says he does not want to discuss "negativity...The critics didnt spare Jesus Christ, they didnt spare Buddha, and they dont spare me."
Now other charges have come to light. Dr. A.S. Marwah, a Los Angeles dentist, is a respected Indian Sikh who has been living in this country 30 years. He was president for many years, and is still chairman of the board of the Sikh Temple. According to Marwah, when Yogi Bhajan left India, he first went to Toronto Canada. There he called Marwah and told him he wanted to come to the States. Bhajan stayed with Marwah for a month, and Marwah got him a job at the East-West Cultural Center in LA. What Marwah didnt expect was that ten days later a young lady would arrive from Toronto, pregnant, looking for Bhajan. "This poor girl came to my office", remembers Marwah, "so I called him [Bhajan] and said, This girl is pregnant and shes looking for you What happened? He admitted it at the time."
Marwah went on a short trip to India and when he returned the head of the center where Bhajan worked was distraught and in tears. According to Marwah, Bhajan was living with six girls in his room. Marwah was on the phone immediately. He relates this conversation between him and Bhajan: "What are you doing The same hanky-panky you did in Canada?", he asked Bhajan. "Im not doing anything with the girls. Theyre just staying with me.", Marwah remembers Bhajan saying. Soon after, Bhajan was fired. Today, however, Bhajan scoffs at Marwahs accusations. "Hes just made at me because I cannot cater to his ego".
American Sikhs have countered such criticism of their leader--and more general criticism from Indian Sikhs about the way Bhajan has distorted their religion--through good deeds in the community and very thorough public relations campaigns. They have several outreach programs, including a successful drug rehabilitation program ("Try meditation instead of medication"), a free food program and a group called the Grace of God Movement has marched in candlelight processions against the topless and bottomless nightclubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities.
Indeed, it seems that Yogi Bhajan has achieved a certain degree of respectability in this county. In Beads of Truth, a magazine published by 3HO there is a photo of Bhajan with former LA mayor, Sam Yorty at a dinner, another of Yogi Bhajan and Liv Ullmann on a talk show together, and another of New Mexico governor Bruce King presenting Bhajan with a proclamation honoring 3HO for its work against drug abuse. There are also photos of Bhajan meeting with Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Manning.
"Im a very new rising phenomenon on this hemisphere!" Bhajan declares. "Im a successful religious leader! At first people thought the American Sikhs would never last. They thought we would fade away. But now, I hear them say, "Theyre going to stay and theyre going to live, and, oh my God, theyre better than us".