Are the kulas of today the cults of tomorrow?

Disclaimer: This article is NOT directed at John Friend, Anusara Yoga, or any one group in particular. It is my honest and heartfelt reflection on trends I see in the yoga community in general.

John Friend has been called a celebriyogi. So you better believe I was oh-so-relieved when a very down to earth and personable guy plopped down next to me on the couch for our interview at the Wanderlust Festival in Vermont. As soon as he started teasing me about astral projecting into the future (I mistakenly said we were at Wanderlust 2012 in my introduction), I felt myself relax and quickly took a liking to the “yoga mogul” as he’s been called. Ever since our conversation, my mind’s been all abuzz with thoughts about that tenuous boundary between cliques,  kulas, and communities in the yoga world.

I spent a lot of time studying social psychology in college. But if you really want a lesson in group dynamics, there’s nothing like Wanderlust Fest to bring the theories of old men in armchairs to life. I love to people watch, I can’t tell you how interesting it was to see bedazzled yogis asking for autographs from their favorite teachers or see the looks of confusion as English-speaking yogis struggled to find common language (she says inner-spiral, he says internal rotation). We’re a fascinating breed, us modern-day yogis. When almost everyone I met introduced themselves in terms of the yoga “kula” they belonged to, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d flashed-back to high school.

I may tussle a few feathers here. But this is my heart speaking. I’ve gotta get it out.

Photo via Wanderlust

What’s the difference between a clique and a kula? Well to start off with, as John notes in the interview, the word clique is a modern term that’s typically used in a pejorative way. We often use ‘clique’ to describe a group of individuals who exclude and act derisively toward those in the larger community. Kula, on the other hand, is a Sanskrit word often translated as family, clan, or community of the heart.

“I don’t like to think that any yoga group would be cliquish because that would presume that they have an intent to somehow look on the others in a disharmonious way.”

I really resonated with John’s heartfelt answers during the interview, and since returning home I’ve continued to sort of chew on the topics we touched on. One thing that seems to keep showing up for me, no matter how much I resist looking at it, is the sense of divisiveness and imbalance of power I sense in the yoga world. Frankly, I don’t like to think that yogis would be “cliquish” either. It definitely paints a prettier picture to suppose that we all see one another as brothers and sisters, that there’s no sense of competition among different styles of yoga, and that no one ever gets excluded or cast out of the kula. But is that the reality? I’m not so sure.

I wonder if those in leadership positions really see all the things that happen under the radar in their kulas and the yoga community at large. Or maybe some do and are too wrapped up in the dynamics of it themselves to sound the alarm. I don’t know. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. I have to admit I feel vulnerable tackling this issue at all, but my hope is that by sharing a little personal anecdote here, we can open up space for an open-minded and respectful dialogue.

Photo via Wanderlust

As a fiery young twenty-something who lacks a real rootedness to her family of origin, I’m hyperaware of my tendency to get pulled in by the allure of family-like clans. There’s a strong desire — and I believe this exists in all of us, not just those of us who are in our youth or come from broken homes — to belong, to be accepted, to be a part of something bigger than our individual selves. This desire, I believe, is in part what drives human beings to form tribes, to build families, and to create communities throughout world. We want to believe we are held by something greater, and it’s in the arms of others we find the reassurance we need.

“Yes, I see you. I value you, and you’re wanted here.”

But there’s a shadow side to the yearning for community as well. Often (and I know this from my own process), we get so wrapped up in our desire to be accepted that we end up losing our connection to our Self in order to be accepted by the clan. We begin to idealize the leader(s) in the community, we start to meld our beliefs and value systems to be more in line with theirs’, we lose our capacity to rationally evaluate the teachings or demands being made because dissent might result in us getting kicked out of the group.

Moreover, the hierarchical nature of these communities and kulas (i.e. the fact that there’s usually one or a few leaders at the top) can sometimes lead to voices of “lower” members in the group being hushed or kept down. I’ve seen multiple instances (and I’m NOT referring to John Friend or the Anusara Kula specifically) in which a more powerful member in the community intentionally casts out someone who’s voice has gotten too loud — either because they pose objections to the ideas of the majority or simply because they’ve stepped into their own innate potential and their growth threatens the power dynamics in the group. And when you throw money and commercial interests into the mix… well, let’s just say things get very interesting.

I want to emphasize the fact that I don’t think the formation of cliques, communities, or kulas are a BAD thing. Quite the contrary, I don’t know how I’d survive without the nourishing support of the communities that have welcomed me in. But I do think our understanding of yoga communities could use a much more nuanced perspective and some conversation around the power dynamics at play.

Photo via Wanderlust

When we look closely at our motivations to be a part of a kula or community, there’s an opportunity to meet our needs without handing away our power to a charismatic teacher, mentor, or community. When we understand both sides of the coin– light and shadow, benefits as well as pitfalls — we have the chance to create something different. As John said, we can be part of a kula and still maintain a strong connection to the broader community. Perhaps, even, we can begin to build a global kula — one that transcends race, culture, socioeconomic status… even style of yoga!

So, consider your own yoga community. Is there a sort of hierarchy among members — a leader at the top who’s been lifted up onto a pedestal by starry-eyed followers? Do you think there’s a risk that the kulas of today will become the cults of tomorrow?

I’m also curious about whether any of you have had the experience of being cast out by a yoga community or clan. Let’s start a conversation. Share your story in the comments section below.

Posted by:

- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

48 Responses

  • Elle Basten says:

    Bless you Chelsea! This is a topic that I resonate with deeply. For myself as a teacher, it is all about intent and responsibility. I am a self-confessed 'Yoga Mutt' because I have chosen to study with many teachers and delve into the practice for the PRACTICE and not to follow a style, or specific person; To become our own gurus and seek guidance along the way is key.

    There are pockets of imbalance in our world. There are those who seek and thrive from the power of being in control and those who feel the need to be under power's influence. Until the day that we can share yoga as a momentum to seek balance in our everyday lives and recognize the imbalances when we come across them, we will probably continue to have this conversation :)

    I am grateful for you starting this dialogue – I will definitely be sharing it!

    • Chelsea Roff says:

      Absolutely, Elle. I've been accused of "digging my well in too many places instead of just sticking to the same hole" because of my yoga gypsy tendencies, but I feel similar to you. I am digging just one hole for my well, it just doesn't fit in the categories other people use to divide up this style of yoga or that. When we're tapped into our deepest sense of wisdom, we can gain insight from our studies with multiple practices, diverse communities, different types of perspectives and grow even more because we're rooted WITHIN.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Would love to see you write a response blog if you feel inspired!

  • After a few decades of immersion in one way of experiencing yoga, I too, am now a Yoga Mutt and proud of it. I resist falling for the celebriyogi, but it's difficult sometimes, isn't it? What particularly resonated with me was your story of why those of us "lacking rootedness with our family of origin" might feel drawn toward the kula. We crave the love and support of connection and it's important to our practice to feel connection with like-hearted souls. But when I was young I fell in love with reckless abandon. These days I prefer to walk into open arms – whether it's a potential partner's or a potential yoga community – with care.

    • Chelsea Roff says:

      Aaaaw, I'm so glad this post resonated with you Mimm. It's definitely easy to get pulled in by that tendency to idealize people we look up to– whether it be famous teachers, mentors, elders, whatever — but I'm learning that the very thing I often admire in them I only recognize because it's present in myself! Hard to really own that though, ya know? I'm glad to hear others have had similar feelings as me on these issues, and I really appreciate you sharing here.

  • Atom says:

    Can you direct me to the definition of Kula as used in this article and interview? New term to me and wikipedia didn't answer my inquiry. Great Stuff! Thanks. Namaste, Hari Om!

    • jennifer s. says:

      @ Atom…the term "kula" that is used here refers to the connected, yoked, bound community of fellow yogis that we practice with,,,the clan, the group, the fellowship, the family, the people we know who live by a like-mindedness of yoga..those of us who are bound together by similar passions – your "brothers" and "sisters" in yoga….

    • Chelsea Roff says:

      Atom:

      I originally had 2 other paragraphs in this article on the historical background of the word kula, but the post was stretching on far too long so I ended up cutting them out. Still have them saved though, so I'll go ahead and share them since you asked! (reference included)

      *********

      Kula (or Kaula) is a Sanskrit word often translated as family, clan, or community of the heart. Scholars say the Kaula sects of India were known for breaking taboos in their quest for liberation. For instance, the original members of kulas were well-known around town for their scandalous acts — like covering themselves in the ashes of cremated bodies to demonstrate the non-dual nature of the manifest world.

      But the historical definition of the word kula also encompasses an air of exclusivity that surrounded the "communities of heart" in ancient India. The very purpose of the gatherings and practices partaken by kulas (which, by the way, were restricted to members of the clan) was to "initiate novices and expand the consciousness already attained by more advanced participants" (http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Kaula). It was the exclusionary element itself that was believed to accelerate the spiritual evolution of the group… By tightly controlling who was allowed "in" and who was kept "out", the leaders of the kula could build a sort of energetic momentum to lift everyone higher.

      ******

      Thanks for opening the door with such a great question, and the research you did on Bhakta is quite interesting as well. I think it's really valuable to consider all sides of these issues and get clear on the terminology we're suing.

  • Barbra Brady says:

    Excellent post, Chelsea, and one I completely understand, especially as another who is somewhat "lacking rootedness with family of origin." I look forward to the dialogue here, as I see subtle evidence of what you speak on a fairly regular basis. I am happy to say that within my "kula," ParaYoga, the Code of Ethics includes this statement: • Avoid speaking negatively about other teachers, styles, and/or Yoga traditions other than my own.

    Of course, Walking the Talk is a constant point to remember, in thought, word and action..

    • Chelsea Roff says:

      Thanks, Barbra. We seem to line up on a lot of things, especially when it comes to experiences with communities. I always see a lot of myself in your posts as well!

  • Atom says:

    I was researching Bhakta today and thought you might find this Wikipedia article of interest, specifically under "types and classifications" http://bit.ly/oR0bGi

    In Valmiki's Ramayana, Rama describes the path as ninefold (nava-vidha bhakti):

    Such pure devotion is expressed in nine ways, . First is satsang or association with love-intoxicated devotees. The second is to develop a taste for hearing my nectar-like stories. The third is service to the guru (…) Fourth is to sing my kirtan (communal chorus) (…) Japa or repetition of my Holy name and chanting my bhajans are the fifth expression (…) To follow scriptural injunctions always, to practice control of the senses, nobility of character and selfless service, these are expressions of the sixth mode of bhakti. Seeing me manifested everywhere in this world and worshipping my saints more than myself is the seventh mode of bhakti. To find no fault with anyone and to be contented with one's lot is the eighth mode of bhakti. Unreserved surrender with total faith in my strength is the ninth and highest stage. Shabari, anyone who practices one of these nine modes of my bhakti pleases me most and reaches me without fail.[47]

    Hope this adds to your reflection and understanding. Looking forward to hearing more of your exploration.

    A

  • Yogi Mutt says:

    I love being a yoga mutt. And as a teacher and studio owner have shied away from associating myself with one particular yoga celebrity. I have been blessed to study with many teachers from very diverse yoga "kulas" and have found though i can like them, respect their yoga styles I do not see them as above anyone else. The Celebrity yogi , as far as i can tell, can feed insecurity as well as they can preform for a crowd.

    The small town teacher can be more "yogic" in their actions than the yoga celebrity that is given commercial deals and packs the yoga conferences.

    Yoga is about a giving heart, and it is a service, and for many it is a lifestyle and career. We all need to appreciate what we have in our communities the teacher that is in every class room.

    • Chelsea Roff says:

      "The Celebrity yogi , as far as i can tell, can feed insecurity as well as they can preform for a crowd."

      Definitely. But I think a lot of time it's US that creates the celebrity yogi, not necessarily just a big ego performing in front of a crowd. People tend to project a lot onto charismatic teacher, and it ends up putting more power in the teacher's court than is probably healthy and leaves them in an awkward position of having to hold and respond to a bunch of love and adoration that they probably haven't earned. Does that make sense? Perhaps there's a little responsibility we all can own up to, both the celebrity teacher and the crowd that's lifted them up.

      I really resonated with what you said about yoga being a service of giving heart. Totally matches with my experience and understanding of this practice. Namaste.

  • adan says:

    nice delving into a no-man's land of groups and cliques and kulas -

    esp liked, "When almost everyone I met introduced themselves in terms of the yoga 'kula' they belonged to, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d flashed-back to high school"

    i imagine many cliques feel they're kulas, and many kulas wish they were cliques; and most politicians are glad this discussion is about yoga not political parties ;-)

    but as chelsea says, "I want to emphasize the fact that I don’t think the formation of cliques, communities, or kulas are a BAD thing…But I do think our understanding of yoga communities could use a much more nuanced perspective and some conversation around the power dynamics at play"

    this seems to be a growing call, from carol horton to claudia azula to chelsea here at yoga modern – i think that's a good thing, and hope the call endures

    • Chelsea Roff says:

      Thanks, Adan. Carol and Claudia are both favorite writers of mine; they both bring such insightful commentary to the dialogue. Glad you resonated with this too and hope the conversation just keeps building!

      • adan says:

        me too ("hope the conversation just keeps building!" – and you've done a great job of helping it along ;-) thank you ;-)

  • YogaDawg says:

    Of course we can free ourselves of all this kula silliness by declaring our yoga independence…

    http://yogadawg.blogspot.com/2011/07/declaration-

  • Jack says:

    Before arriving at my current practice, I worked my way through several different styles of yoga, one by one. I wouldn't have called myself a yoga mutt – I was definitely searching for that one style that would really resonate. And by resonate I mean the one that would have me leave class feeling consistently better in my body, more at peace, and yes – wanted. At this point, incidentally, I'm thinking that for me this one style happens to be Anusara.

    At this point, I would call myself a member of the kula. And when I look at myself and the other members of my group, I don't see much concern over John Friend. There are little things, certainly. Applicants for Certified or Inspired teaching status fret a bit that they'll do or say something in their video that the evaluator will judge as "wrong" or "not Anusara", though I've never seen it come out that way. Good questions from students sometimes earn an "I don't know, but I'd love to ask John that question." He's in charge, for sure. And he wields that authority. He decides which teachers and scholars express what Anusara is about. But I think most of my friends and teachers aren't exactly starry-eyed over it all. We acknowledge that power and money are involved, but it's not just about that either – control ensures that people know what they're getting, and it maintains a certain quality. Many other styles of yoga do the same thing, by claiming lineage or something else. As a student, I appreciate that. It has given me a stable framework from which I can explore my body with great efficacy and safety. All the jargon about Spirals and Principles and so forth ultimately holds power not because of the mouth from which it issues, but because it works. And by codifying knowledge, I think Anusara has made it more accessible, not less. So I respect John Friend for inspiring my teachers, creating a flourishing business with integrity, and coming up with so many dynamic ways to share what he knows and obviously loves.

    In terms of community in Anusara… I'm sure there are problems in some places and with some people, but thus far the one I'm in doesn't seem negative at all. People are really drawn in and held there by a love for a particular sort of group energy. Many yoga classes are like exercise – many others are like ritual. In my community Anusara is like… I don't know, chess club. It's self-conscious and people-oriented. People talk to each other and treat each other as human beings, but within a ritual space establishing that we're all a family of energetic, divine beings. There's discussion and debate. There's small talk. There's support for the triumphs and tribulations of others in the group. And most of all, there's real enthusiasm about what we're all doing together. The practice binds us, and together we learn more and often connect off the mat. The teacher is just the facilitator, and a fellow friend and human being.

    I perceive much more distortion around styles that aren't about community. In some classes of, say, ten students and one teacher, I feel eleven little cliques of one – silently competing, sneaking little peeks at each other. Community can go very wrong, it's true. But it can also help each of us reach beyond ourselves and create something big and beautiful. My community does that, and when I look at my friends, I think they would agree that this is the source of Anusara's power.

  • heather says:

    I am interested to know how you define "cult". It is often a term to describe a group as exploitative and dangerous. It seems to me that it is not a term to used lightly about any group.

  • David Kizler says:

    Brave post Chelsea! My kula has greatly helped me to move towards community and togetherness and I also can see some of the other shadow sides you documented too. I feel closer to my community when these types of things that nobody dares name get named, so thanks.

  • Meherbani says:

    Thank you Chelsea. I have ALWAYS thought of Kula as clique – ever since the first time I heard it: I was on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica and it was all Kula-this and kula-that, and I hadn't ever felt so left out of something before in my life. The majority of participants knew each other from, well, their kula, and they were cliquish all the way – and it was very painful for those few of us unlucky enough to also be there. I too am a Rainbow-Yogi; have studied, trained and teach in several styles of yoga and healing. I have never felt the NEED to be a PART OF a kula/clique and don't really jive with that mentality, but the pain of that retreat and the feeling of left-outedness was raw. My first teacher training was in Anusara, but not being able to stomach the kula is a big part of why I no longer do it.

    • Chelsea says:

      Haha, I love the sheer honesty in your comment Meherbani. I think sometimes we grow so accustomed to the language of yoga (worlds like kula, energy, bhakti, etc) that we don't even realize how weird they sound to an "outsider." It sounds like at that first teacher training you saw things very clearly— saw through how we can mask what's really going on with pretty yoga words like kula. I'm glad you recognized it right of the bat and were able to stay true to yourself rather than getting sucked into what sounds like was an unhealthy mentality.

      In case you haven't seen, we just opened a "Teaching Yoga" current here at YM and I wanted to invite you to check out some of the articles and discussions happening there. They're all particularly relevant to teachers, and it's been neat to watch a community form here at Yoga Modern around the wish to communicate with one another in meaningful dialogue– not a particular yoga style, teacher, or what have you. I hope you'll stay engaged in the discussion. Unlike some kulas, the dissenting voices are not only welcome but encouraged here! :)

  • Diane says:

    I have known 2 people to have been banned from their studios of learning after they grew into a position of teaching and went off to open their own studios. This was seen as ungratefullness and competition, so they were chastised and banned.

    Sometimes I encounter teachers who differ from me in their teaching beliefs and methods, and when i approach them about it, it is sometimes mistaken for arguing instead of discussing.. they will tend to "name-drop" on me, saying what they're doing is right because they have learned under so-and-so celebrity yogi… which means nothing to me if they can't back it up with logical reasoning.

    I think it's nice for people to feel they have a family, somewhere they belong and somewhere to go.. a sense of community. This is similar to what churches provide to their members. I believe it is only a cult when things become secretive, abusive, exploitive, and dangerous (my cousin is in a cult and she not allowed to talk to any members of the family and could only marry inside the "religion"). I do not see Kulas ever doing this to their members.

  • Rebecca says:

    Hey Chelsea, great article. So true what you said. I have seen it and felt it at various places. It is quite sad that as some associate with a certain style of yoga is a form of putting "the group" on a pedistal. I have grown to love different styles and glean from each what resonates with me. Do I associate myself with one particular style? Not anymore, sure I received my 200 and 500 RYT from a particular school but I have been blessed to learn from many great people in the community.

    I find it sad there are those who feel threatened by another yogi when the best thing is to bridge and create a strong community. I can only hope those affected will see that we are no threat at all but living, breathing people sharing a love of yoga.

    • Chelsea says:

      Thanks for sharing that, Rebecca. I think if we can see one another as just that– living breathing people — the whole kula issue sort of falls alway. We can be in community without identifying ourselves based on membership in a particular group. We can recognize our humanity without putting labels like "hispanic, Mormon, yogi, American, etc" on it to separate ourselves from others. We can just be… as you said… people.

      Glad you're hear, and I hope you'll jump in on some of the other conversations happening at Yoga Modern right now. We just opened a Teaching Yoga current with some really interesting articles and discussions about what comes up for us as teachers. Would love to have you join in. :)

  • The trouble is caused by the overlooked "Corporate Karma".

    http://yogawiki.co/Main/AYogaBook/CorporateKarma

  • Heart says:

    This is the challenge of our time, reflected on the world stage — can we be accepting and tolerant of "other" groups whose views/beliefs/ethics are different from our own? It resonates from the clash of Christianity vs. everyone to the nuances of yogic philosophy and form. Such a great discussion and one to keep in the forefront of our awareness always.

  • Marcella says:

    People new to yoga often feel that they cannot leave their teacher because they attribute a particular aspect, or series of life-transforming events to him or her.

    The inspiration to overcome an addiction of some kind, or to manage some past trauma or rebuild a harmful habit or relationship is attributed to the teachers skills, knowledge and expertise.

    Putting the yoga teacher on a pedestal avoids the need to contemplate and reflect fully on the the possibility that this type of therapeutic yoga can be just as delusional as the teachers who facilitate it, and the students they want to heal.

    • Chelsea says:

      Beautifully said, Marcella. I think that when teachers see their students as broken and needing healing, there's a much greater potential to do harm. If we see ourselves and one another as whole already, we can support one another rather than create relationships of codependency. In the unhealthy communities I've been a part of, there was very much a sense of "you have to stay broken (or poor, or weak, or whatever) so you still need me… you can't rise to your own potential because you might overshadow me." That is not healing, that's debilitating. And while it keeps us attached to our teachers, I think it ultimately detaches us from ourselves.

  • Barbra Brady says:

    The word "sectarianism" keeps popping to mind…the self-inquiry, is this particular kula my true path, my dharma to follow, or am I confined by the dogma of one belief system?

    • Chelsea says:

      Hmmm. Coming back to this dialogue after this few weeks. You ask "is this particular kula my true path, my dharma to follow…" It's weird for me to think about a kula being part of one's dharma– I suppose because for me dharma has always felt so extremely personal. I've always heard it translated as your truth, that which speaks from the deepest place of your being. And I guess it's because I think of it as so personal and internal that it feels weird to think about a sangha or community being part of your dharma.

      I think the way I would frame your question is to ask myself is whether the people within the community are in line with my dharma, will help me embark on my one true path? Not so much whether they're part of it, but whether they can support it– even temporarily. We're probably saying the same thing in a different way. :)

  • Gillian says:

    Thank you for such a well written article!
    As a yogi who came from a very cult-like church, I find myself hyper aware of the guru complex. I think the risk lies within the leadership. If the leaders encourage their community to follow their own guidance first and foremost, to explore outside of the community, to recognize that their kula is just one of the many ways to interpret yoga, it is probably a pretty safe community.
    If, however, the leaders guidance is more important than their follower's inner voice, if there are restrictions placed upon visiting other communities, if their way is the "only" way or the "right" way…. well, that's gonna be a problem.

    • Chelsea says:

      I agree, Gillian. I think you've just developed a good test for determining whether you're looking at a kula versus cult-like community. I've always been curious about how and WHY communities make the shift from being the more safe, open minded ones you describe to becoming critical and close-minded toward other traditions. Is it a matter of fear? Money? Isolation? I hope it's something we start to look at more closely in the yoga world.

  • dsunshine says:

    –Apple-Mail-2–378920662 Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset=us-ascii approve

  • Gail says:

    How timely and thought provoking. I am on the mailing list for a nearby studio, where I have been a student, consistently for several years, and more recently, attended now and then. When I got an
    email with an invitation to a "Kula"…I must admit I didn't know what it was. I explored the internet,
    but still felt I wanted to check it out. The studio owner fired back an email with lots of questions
    about my experience and relationship with Anusara; when we crossed paths in public soon after, he
    assured me he didn't mean to keep me from being there. Well that is uncomfortable, and I have no intention of going. Perhaps it is a reminder of rejections-past. I rejected the idea of going to college as A "fill in the Greek letters of your choice" and perhaps that is my preference still, to go through life, as "an independent". to be judged only by
    my character and my actions, not by my affiliations/ the company I keep. Appreciate ya!

  • Dear Chelsea,

    Was your bullshit detector going off during this interview?