Giving (Your) Head to the Guru

February 1999
By "Breath of Fire Kaur"--a former member of 3HO

When I first got into 3HO, I thought that I was going to experience the classic Guru/Disciple relationship. In the Sikh tradition, there is a saying that you "give your head (the ego) to the Guru". The implication is that through humility and commitment and faith, the spiritual treasures will then be your blessing or reward. It seems to me that Yogi Bhajan turned this entire concept into a way to manipulate and control students. But actually, many religions at times appear to use guilt-trips very similar to my old guru.

One former 3HO student, who was once an accountant for the group, approached the producers of the "60 Minutes" television show about doing a segment on Yogi Bhajan. Their response was that people like Yogi Bhajan are just "small potatoes" compared to big newsmakers like the Peoples Temple and Waco Davidians.

Bhajan may not be a real master of any type of Yoga, but he is a master at picking students that he can manipulate and control and who will typically not expose him to the media. And his legal team seems to have found some very effective ways of keeping embarrassing stories out of the media spotlight.

My first few years of being in 3HO were fun--everything was fresh, exotic, in defiance of my upbringing and I was in an interesting and often exiting new peer group. As a young woman I also thought I had hit the dating pool jackpot--all I saw around me were cute men, many who were Jewish, with long hair (under their turbans), who were vegetarians and did yoga!

In my naivete, what more could I want? Any one of them would do--or so I thought. And to top it off, these men apparently didn’t mind considering women who wore layers upon layers of unnecessary clothing, no make-up and had hairy legs!

I really related to the organic, hippie values and felt privileged to be a part of this budding utopian society that would help heal the world by teaching yoga, meditation, and what I thought was conscious living.

As the years wore on I began to see many discrepancies and hypocrisy in the lifestyle. There were just too many to list here. But just one example: Yogi Bhajan states in his lectures that it is ungraceful for a woman to go around in public without her head covered. He quotes scriptures that say, "There is no difference between a mad dog and a woman with her hair down". Well, where are his priorities? I walked around town looking like the Pillsbury Doughgirl--while my guru played around and committed adultery year after year.

Parents were also made to feel like overly possessive neurotics if they didn’t ship their kids off to schools in India. But what many people didn't know was that every time a planeload of children went off to India, Bhajan’s son-in-law (a travel agent) made money.

These types of things began to weigh heavily on my conscience. Year after year I would see good people becoming frustrated by and dissatisfied with the organization and Yogi Bhajan himself. People who stood up to the authorities within the group were labeled as "negative". God-forbid anyone should say anything critical of Bhajan--then you would be thought of as a "slanderer of a saint".

Those of us who managed to retain a sense of humor quietly acknowledged the power struggle. Someone came up with the joke--"How many Sikhs does it take to change a light bulb"? Answer: "Just one, but he has to ask 'the Siri Singh Sahib' (Bhajan) for permission first". And truly, if it weren't Bhajan’s call, then he would assign one of his inner power circle to take care of a matter. Completely unqualified people gave marital or business advice to those in crisis--like a hospital run by the patients.

Speaking of the inner circle, Bhajan has always surrounded himself with really peculiar people--some who seemed racist or homophobic. These are the people that he shared his business ventures with--that he liked to have around to entertain him. There were secretaries who seemed to be part of his huge sexual clan, people who appeared to be his security force and special members with money. It seemed like there was a caste system within the group. And extra "Brownie points" or special attention was given to young, impressionable and attractive women---or a man with money.

Yogi Bhajan made such a big thing over the years to "fake it until you make it"--that many students patterned themselves after him materialistically. They drove old Mercedes just so they could look "prosperous"--- even if they were barely making a living. There were countless examples of such bizarre behavior, but it would be too painful and not really therapeutic to cite them all.

In part, I consider my own departure a real success--because I don’t dwell too much on the past. People who are in 3HO believe that is their reality. It seems that many are like big fish in a small pond and the pond has grown rather stagnant--but that's their choice.

The real point of my contribution to this Web site, is to offer some insights that will hopefully help someone on the fence about 3HO think twice before joining that group--or any other exclusive "New Age" meditation group. Many such groups seem to have the same soap opera going on: gurus having sex with their students, misuse of authority and money, shaming people who leave the organization with parting warnings that if you leave your life will be ruined.

None of this threatening retribution for leaving a religious group is really new or original. Hey, it’s been going on within quite a few groups for thousands of years. I have finally come to understand that there is often a distinct difference though between being spiritual and religious. They can both go together, but they can also be quite distinct. There are some people who are very religious by appearance or through their rituals, but they often lack the truly meaningful spiritual insight to treat people, their families, and even themselves properly.

Of course one frequently asked question always arises: How can smart people get involved in cults? For the same reason that some people that experiment with drugs never consider the possibility that they might become hooked. It starts out being just dabbling, just a little, but slowly bit-by-bit you can get hooked without even really knowing it.

Being in a cult or a destructive group can actually be a tremendous spiritual and personal lesson. You can learn to believe in yourself and grow once you have recognized what has happened to you. Leaving a cult may be hard, but ultimately it can be a meaningful spiritual break-through and personal victory.

In fact, when I was making my plans to "take off the turban", I worried that my yoga students would be let-down or disillusioned with me. Quite the contrary, virtually everyone that knows or hears of my past has expressed strong support for that decision and my new life.

I find it easier to communicate now with people. Today there are no superficial barriers like white clothes from head to toe, which separated me from mainstream society. I still believe in and practice a spiritual lifestyle, but now my "cult radar" helps me to recognize the warning signs and potential for abuse in certain situations.

Yogi Bhajan often used guilt-trips in his lectures. He said that people left 3HO because of "sex, power, or money". The implication was always that people, who in his estimation somehow failed spiritually--were weak and could not stay on the spiritual path because of worldly temptations. Looking back now, it seems to me, he should have listened more closely to his own advice.

Copyright © 1999 Rick Ross

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