At its core, Kundalini yoga is about supporting yourself spiritually, emotionally, and physically so that you can operate from a place of equanimity.
And for many of us, that’s exactly what we have achieved through this practice.
What Yogi Bhajan did was the opposite of that. As more stories come out about Yogi Bhajan and his indiscretions, we’re learning about the man behind the teachings. We’re finding out his values don’t add up with what he taught. After being a hailed guru for many years, we’re seeing he was a human with many flaws, who (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt many people.
So who is Yogi Bhajan and where does his sexual abuse scandal leave the Kundalini yoga community?
Here is my breakdown of what happened with this spiritual teacher and how Kundalini Yoga is still a powerful yoga practice outside of Yogi Bhajan’s teachings.
History of Kundalini Yoga
Kundalini yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that originates from Vedic philosophy. It first dates back to 1,000 B.C. when mentioned in the Upanishads, a sacred collection of writings that teaches how to have a healthy lifestyle through yoga. Originally, these teachings were passed from yoga teacher to student through a yoga class that involved very little asana (yoga postures). Instead, the spiritual teacher would speak on the concepts of life, peace, consciousness, joy, and truth as a way of knowing God.
The teachings were reserved for only serious and advanced practitioners, often requiring several years of studies before ever moving onto the physical practice that we know today. The physical practice, according to Vedic philosophy, includes yoga and meditation practices, called kriyas.
The kriyas, which is what I teach today, help move energy throughout the body so that we can be more attuned to the cosmic Truth of our existence.
If it sounds strange, then think of it as an intense mindfulness practice that helps you detach from desires. Instead of holding on too tightly to expectations and desires, Kundalini teaches us to channel our energy in a way that is more aligned with our true purpose. With dedicated practice, many can achieve Kundalini awakening, which happens when energy moves freely through your energy centers.
Just like prayer works for Christianity, Kundalini kriyas work for yoga.
It wasn’t brought to the West until 1968, when a Sikh rebel from India went to Canada and then eventually settled in Los Angeles, California. From there, the rebel combined Sikhism with Kundalini to lead his first yoga class in the United States.
And thanks to the political unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, his mystical yoga class became increasingly popular for White middle-class Americans seeking spirituality and consciousness. The spiritual teacher branded himself as a guru from India named Yogi Bhajan and built an empire that grew to a multi-million dollar organization that included both fraudulent schemes and sexual misconduct.
Though Yogi Bhajan is responsible for bringing Kundalini yoga to the west, he is not Kundalini yoga in itself. The ancient practice was established long before he established 3HO, the organization from which he ran his empire, and continues far outside of his empire today. Many Kundalini practitioners have purposefully distanced themselves from Yogi Bhajan’s teachings, myself included, for this reason.
Who Is Yogi Bhajan?
While Yogi Bhajan claimed that he was a well-known Sikh leader in India, which helped his brand as a Sikh guru in the US, the truth is that he was just a civil servant with little to no notoriety whatsoever. He was born as Harbhajan Singh Puri and was a customs officer at the New Delhi airport. Yet when he left India and eventually arrived in the United States, he had renamed himself Yogi Bhajan and had recruited a group of followers to help him build his empire.
Yogi Bhajan established 3HO to teach Kundalini yoga to the masses, claiming that his teachings were based on Sikh tradition and a secret practice called Kundalini.
It turns out that comparative religion studies and Sikh leaders alike have denounced his claims, saying that Yogi Bhajan’s teachings were a slipshod combination of common yogic practices and only a few teachings from Sikh tradition.
But the truth about his claims wouldn’t come out until long after he passed when a tell-all memoir was published by one of his original followers.
Yogi Bhajan grew to be so famous that he met the likes of Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, and the Prime Minister of India at the time, Indira Gandhi.
Yogi Bhajan established himself in California and New Mexico and ran an ashram in India that schooled the young children of his followers from the US.
More than a decade after Harbhajan Singh Puri died, stories of sexual misconduct, abuse, and financial scams came out to reveal that Yogi Bhajan wasn’t just a guru, but a man who abused his position of power.
He wasn’t the perfect yogi 3HO made him out to be.
Yogi Bhajan Sexual Abuse Scandal
Dozens of Yogi Bhajan’s followers have come out with grueling details of the abuse they endured during their time with 3HO. Many of them include the children that were sent away to India to live in an ashram, where they were meant to be taught the traditional practice and become spiritual servants for the practice.
In light of the memoir that came out in early 2020, many of the victims filed a civil lawsuit in Los Angeles against 3HO, claiming that not only did Bhajan abuse them but also that members of 3HO were well aware of the abuse…
…and did nothing about it.
Following the allegations, an investigation was opened by An Olive Branch, a consultancy that is strangely established to deal with misconduct in the spiritual community. Their final report revealed that the allegations are indeed (most likely) true.
How Did Yogi Bhajan Die?
Yogi Bhajan died at the age of 74 of congestive heart failure. He died in New Mexico, where he resided with his million-dollar lifestyle, which isn’t even the least yogic thing about him. Shortly after his death, the New York Times published an obituary that praised Yogi Bhajan for being a Capitalist genius (again, very un-yogic) and somewhat knowledgeable of the ancient yogic practices that he taught.
The 3HO Foundation and the Kundalini Community
For the most part, many Kundalini practitioners have distanced themselves from the 3HO Foundation and the Kundalini Research Institute. In fact, most of us have distanced ourselves from any Kundalini yoga school that follows the teachings of Yogi Bhajan.
But that doesn’t mean that we’ve distanced ourselves from Kundalini yoga. Instead, we need to separate “the teachings” from “the man”.
I truly believe that this yoga practice can help bring world peace by connecting people with their own spirituality and teaching them how to lead a healthy lifestyle. So it has been my mission as a Kundalini yoga teacher to spread the healing powers of Kundalini yoga…
…outside of the teachings of Yogi Bhajan.
I have been a Kundalini yoga teacher for years. This yoga practice has completely changed my life, showing me the path to inner peace and consciousness.
But that doesn’t mean that Yogi Bhajan, the man credited for bringing Kundalini yoga to the west, is my guru or that I support the sexual abuse allegations surrounding him, his ashram, and his followers.
Is Kundalini Yoga Safe?
Yes, absolutely. Kundalini yoga in and of itself is a safe and peaceful practice. No yoga practice should require you to do anything that is harmful to yourself or others (that’s the entire basis of Ahimsa, one of the Yamas of the eight limbs of yoga). If you ever find yourself in a situation that doesn’t feel right, isn’t beneficial to your well-being, or harms you, then it is not yoga and you have every right to walk away from it.
The truth is that this a confusing and difficult time for all of us who love Kundalini yoga. If you feel misled, angry or confused, I empathize.
I quote YB in some of my YouTube videos from years ago — now these are things I wish that I could take back. You don’t know what you don’t know. We all need to heal and move forward. At the same time, this is a great opportunity to extend compassion to one another.
Times of chaos are ripe for opportunity. The era of “personality worshiping” is gone. The fall of YB gives all of us who love Kundalini yoga permission to break his “rules” and make this practice our own. I am excited about this — it feels liberating.
It feels like the scandal has tipped the balance back into equilibrium, allowing us to take ownership of our practice and to use discernment when searching for teachers. This can only lead to good!
Where Can I Practice Kundalini Yoga, Now?
Kundalini yoga is still a powerful practice that is taught online, in yoga studios, and at ashrams. You can follow me on YouTube, where I teach kriyas, Kundalini meditation, and pranayama breathing techniques. You can also join me for my Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training with Guru Singh, where we teach Kundalini yoga as an individual spiritual practice that is unlike the teachings of Yogi Bhajan. While the practice certainly will be challenging for the ego at times, it should never, ever ask you to do something that you feel is wrong.
The YB story reminds us of the importance of trusting your own direct experience. If you don’t want to wear a turban or wear white when practicing Kundalini yoga, for example, then feel emboldened to DO YOU. Trust your own direct experience in your practice and do what feels right and works for you.
This is among is the highest values of Uplifted yoga and reflected in our new Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training with Guru Singh.
I’m curious: how has the Yogi Bhajan scandal affected you and your practice? How do you feel about Kundalini yoga now, after learning about Yogi Bhajan? Let me know in the comments or join me on Facebook in my private Uplifted members group.