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.

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- 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.

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