The following is a transcription of “Ep. 3 – Yoga Cult Culture (pt 2)” of The Beginner’s Mind. To listen to this episode, visit www.shutupandyoga.com/podcast or search for The Beginner’s Mind wherever you get your podcasts.
Sarah Dittmore: 00:05
Hi Friends. My name is Sarah and you’re listening to The Beginner’s Mind, a podcast about all things yoga-ish.
Sarah Dittmore: 00:15
Today is part two of yoga cult culture, so if you haven’t already, I would go back and listen to part one. It’s definitely important and relevant as it leads into the discussions we have today. In today’s episode, we’re going to be looking at intentionality a lot and how these organizations can come to be even in communities where the person who creates cult-like communities might not intend to. We will also be looking at how people who are in cult-like organizations can safely get out of that community and sort of what to expect after escaping a cult-like organization. And to wrap it up, we talk a little bit about forming communities and spiritual groups without falling into the traps of cults and cult behavior. I will give a small trigger warning. Nothing we explore today is particularly graphic. However, we do talk about cults and abusive and manipulative relationships, so if that is something you are sensitive to, I would keep that in mind before listening to this episode. As always, this podcast is made possible thanks to the support of listeners like you. So please, if this episode is the kind of thing you enjoy and you would like more Beginner’s Mind podcast episodes, exploring the different elements of yoga and yoga communities, please take a moment to subscribe, rate and review and possibly consider contributing to my Patreon. Patreon members are what makes this possible. And I wouldn’t be able to do this podcast without all of you and your support. Without further ado, let’s dive into part two and let’s get curious.
Sarah Dittmore: 02:21
It can all look like one when you’re talking about it because it’s all people and organizations who are telling you that what they’re teaching can change your life, right? So how do you, how do you know, you know, how do you know how far to go? How do you know? How do you tell if an organization is doing it in a really helpful, healthy way or doing it in a really dangerous way?
Yossef Sagi: 02:43
It’s really about keeping your discernment.
Sarah Dittmore: 02:48
You’re listening to Yossef Sagi, who was brought into the Kabbalah Center at age 10 along with his mother and continued to be a member of the organization for another 25 years before realizing that he was part of something that he didn’t believe was healthy. At that point, he decided to get out. In this episode, we’ll hear a little bit about why and how Yossef decided to leave.
Yossef Sagi: 03:14
So like if I look back, it’s obvious that the leadership of the Kabbalah Center is completely unaligned with their own values, right? So if you really pay attention, then you’ll notice if they’re walking the talk or not. Because you know what, at least if you’re walking the talk, even if, if it’s a, if it’s a little bit like a constraining in terms of the rules, then I would say, well at least you, you believe in what you say and there’s value there. There’s value to that. But when the leadership doesn’t behave according to the rules that they’re putting on other people, so for instance, the Kabbalah Center, there was a lot of like stress over like managing your sexuality and no sex before marriage and don’t masturbate and all these things. And meanwhile, a lot of the, several of the teachers, including like the son of the leader of the organization who was one of the de facto leaders after the, after the leader passed away, then he was like out there and, and acting with complete opposite behavior to what was prescribed to the students. So that’s one way. Another thing was about the money. You follow the money, you pay attention, you know, just the mismanagement, the sheer mis-mismanagement of money that happened there. And the corruption around that in the way it was used. Now there’s things that are alleged that I can prove, uh, but you can find them online about the organization, about the Kabbalah Center in terms of money. And there’s all kinds of stuff there. But even if you just looked at how like the teachers would manipulate students into giving money and those conversations through fear tactics, through like saying that if you don’t give money, you’re missing out, you’re gonna, you lose your blessings of everything you’ve done to this point. So there’s a lot of fear and manipulation around giving money and time to the organization as well. And so I would pay attention that if you, if you’re really like, if you look objectively at your life, are you being drained or are you being fed? That’s a big deal. That’s, that’s something to pay attention to. And another thing is like if it builds codependency, it’s unhealthy. So a lot of it was like, you gotta you gotta be back in here. Like they would say like this is the arc of Noah. This is the protection from the rest of the world. And the, all the chaos that goes on there. Only in here, you’re safe. There was a lot of that kind of language. And I noticed, and it’s so scary to think about now that that I needed to go to the Kabbalah Center to feel replenished, which means that they gave me nothing to deal with the real world. If I have to go back there in order to get my light. It’s like I have to rely on them. So if you feel yourself getting codependent on the organization then it’s probably unhealthy. If they’re empowering you to go out into the world and to live your life to the max, that’s different. But there was something about like constantly coming back for classes and connections and stuff like that that made people dependent on the organization to feel good. And that’s… That’s an addiction.
Sarah Dittmore: 06:12
You know, you’re talking a bit about the Kabbalah Center’s markers and I’m thinking some of those I see a lot in other places like the spiritual codependency is something that’s huge in the yoga world for sure. But I wonder when I’m trying, so what I’m trying to do right now is consider how these things apply to like smaller scale. You know, the Kabbalah Center is this huge organization and so it’s easy to see how the management and the teachers and the students might be living different lives and following different practices. I wonder when you take this down to a smaller scale of, you know, a yoga teacher with a big following or a small community center that preaches some sort of spirituality and some sort of practice. You know, if they are people with good intentions who are trying to heal the world, like, like the Kabbalah Center’s goal was, is it possible for that still to manifest in this way? Even if these people are trying to help you and really do believe in what they’re teaching.
Yossef Sagi: 07:14
I think it’s very hard for it not to go down that path actually. Because like you said, it often starts with good intention, but when you have a bunch of people who are all thinking the same way, right, then it creates like its own entity, like its own thought entity, this own like energy intelligence that becomes bigger than anybody else they’re in. And it’s our nature to not challenge ourselves. You know, confirmation bias is very strong and so we want to have some kind of stability and what I’m suggesting, which is to live your life moment by moment and re-examine your values, creates instability. And so that’s scary for a lot of people and people want to have that stability. So what’s bound to happen is to create systems. Systems are important because they give us structure. However, eventually those systems, they serve the system more than the people they’re created to serve the people.
Yossef Sagi: 08:08 But in the end, people serve the system and that’s what happens. It all switches from how we can change people’s lives to what we want to reach more people. So we have to get that out there to eventually we need more people and then we need more money to reach more people and we forget about the original mission. And that’s a very natural progression that happens in spiritual organizations. And it happens in political movements and it happens with nonprofits and it happens with businesses and it happens with sports teams. It’s all about getting more fans, more people to follow. That’s what it’s all about. And they forget what the real mission was all about. And that’s very natural.
Sarah Dittmore: 08:47
Next we’re going to hear from clinical psychologist and social worker Aisha Shabazz who will talk a little bit more about how to identify these cult organizations and how to tell the difference between a healthy versus an unhealthy group.
Aisha Shabazz: 09:03
We can look across the board with different organizations that have positive and peaceful principles and see that even in those circumstances, there were times in which individuals of that group were mistreated and manipulated and taken advantage of. And one often says, well how could this happen when their message is so positive? Look at the teacher and not the teachings. There are so many times and the religious contacts where if you look at the religious books from all over the world, I would argue that you could find at least one thing that’s mentioned in these religious books that is positive and, you know, on on the verge of just peace and harmony and all of that, and then think back to all of the different teachers of those teachings and see that there are people that have permutated the language of that peaceful statement or saying or tenant and have said, but this doesn’t apply to this group. Everything’s all well and good but not in this circumstance. And really see where the deviation happens between again, the teacher and the teachings. And that will allow, I think people to have a bigger opportunity to see that it is and can be the individuals that have the capacity to change the words of positive teachings to do more harm than good. Because every teacher of a large and grand idea does not mistreat their followers. It doesn’t mistreat their membership.
Sarah Dittmore: 10:43
This concept of how someone with only the best intentions can still perpetuate cult-like behaviors is something that was really fascinating to me throughout this conversation. So next we’re going to talk to Don Durrance. Don is a yoga teacher himself. He has had various experiences with cult-like communities, which we discussed in part one, and I was asking him a little bit about his thoughts on intentionality in the creation of cults.
Don Durrance: 11:16
Intentions are talked about a lot in yoga and they are really important. You can definitely feel an intention through a massage. You can feel that person’s intent is true. But that’s not enough to protect you against wrongdoing. Not at all. Because we have just certain tendencies that maybe work well in a small group or used to work well that absolutely do not work well in a larger group. It’s so subtle because we’re speaking about cults, which are very intentional. They are not intentional by most of the members, most of the members, they’re just completely innocent and they’ve been trapped. But it’s very intentional by the person who created it and what we’re seeing in spiritual communities, and again, it’s just because power is available there, it’s a lot more subtle because it’s a natural culture that’s arisen. There’s, there are a lot of management books and I hate those things, management books, but there is one that was, that had a concept in it that applies really well here and it said that if you don’t create your company’s culture, one will naturally arise. And the one, the one that naturally arises is not one that you would have chosen. And it’s just because we’re complex creatures and we’re social in a certain way. We’ve existed on this planet for a really long time and we might not be completely adapted to our current environment. And so we have to use our brains to help each other further adapt. And so that just takes like education and knowledge is the biggest thing. Raising everyone’s consciousness.
Sarah Dittmore: 12:39
Yeah. And that, that thing about intentionality too of what you just said of like, you know, these big organizations that might be really intentional, but you know, something I’m particularly fascinated with is the way these organizations or communities or cultures can grow out of good intentions.
Don Durrance: 12:59
If you’re just unaware of the mechanisms of how the, how this works, like how these sort of power traps work, you get trapped into wielding power in a way. So if you don’t understand how that mechanism works, it’s a really common pitfall that you’re falling into. And it’s really common because it feeds into our tendencies as human beings. The only way to avoid that, and there’s like a 99% success rate, you’re going to get caught by that trap unless you know about it. And once you know about it, it’s completely disarmed. And if you understand the mechanism of how it works, so that particular mechanism in a yoga class, there’s projections from the student, their own feelings of wellbeing that they’re getting from the yoga they project onto you, you feel that you project it back onto them and there’s a well known psychological phenomenon there. And if you don’t understand it, you’re going to get trapped into wielding that power.
Sarah Dittmore: 13:51
And that, that’s interesting too in that idea that you know, we talk about intention in this episode and we talk a lot about how these groups can come out of good or bad intentions. But it’s also interesting this idea that as a teacher or a spiritual leader or a person who kind of has that power, it’s your responsibility to be more intentional and not just say, oh, well I have good intentions to help people and that’s enough. It’s like you have to be much more intentional about the words you use, the way you interact with people, all of that. Speaking of intentions and cult-like behavior, I asked Aisha to help me understand the psychology of this, how someone who wants to help can end up doing so much bad and hurting so many people.
Aisha Shabazz: 14:42
Some of it is pathological where if we’re looking at it from a mental health standpoint, frankly you could diagnose anybody anything, but if you’re looking at it from a pathological standpoint, there is a common theme of these particular cult-like leaders as having charisma. That ability to cultivate this emotional intensity around an idea and almost like this hypnotizing way of doing so that allows negativity to spill in. There are people that are very charismatic and negativity doesn’t spill in. They have positive messages and they inspire people and are saying truths that are difficult to hear, but challenge people in a way that inspires them to be better. And with the cult-like leaders and organizations, it has the opposite effect where it’s not leading people to be better.
Sarah Dittmore: 15:38
What about those people who really do want to serve the greater good and think they’re doing something that’s good for their students? How do they end up creating sort of an unhealthy culture or unhealthy organization?
Aisha Shabazz: 15:54
I think when they’re looking at the greater good as a sacrifice to something that they want for themselves. So if they’re saying, you know, I’m doing my good works to help the greater good, but on the same end they’re sacrificing power or recognition and that makes them uncomfortable. It’s that US versus them mentality, but they’re doing it with themselves. So, oh, I can spread a good message, but I won’t make as much money. So how can I make more money and still spread a message? How can I have a lot of followers but still have a lot of power and status? You see. It’s still that balance of one versus the other and it’s not a win win situation. It is often a lose lose. But in their perspective, they’re seeing it as a win loss opportunity. What can I get in opposition to somebody else losing a little bit? Because when you’re looking at these massive groups, thousands of people, hundreds and thousands of people who cares about a couple hundred, you know? But it was for this greater cause. And so the moment that you put one over the other, that’s when you’re going through dangerous territory.
Sarah Dittmore: 17:16
In part one, we looked at how people get involved in these groups, some of the red flags to identify these groups, and what techniques these groups use to manipulate and keep members. Now that we have a greater idea of the intentions and how these groups get formed, I wanted to look at how people can get out of these organizations. So you’re going to hear from Yossef and Lauren about their experiences escaping from their respective cults and cult-like organizations.
Yossef Sagi: 17:51
When I moved back to Los Angeles, I started seeing a lot of the corruption more firsthand because that’s where the headquarters were and I was in Miami. And when I started seeing it more firsthand, and then there were also a lot of stories that one of the main leadership figures, uh, there was some sexual abuse allegations going on. And there were a lot of them. And then first they were denied, denied, denied, denied until they were like, you couldn’t deny it anymore. And then he was removed. So it was always like they were dealing with things only when they had to. And I saw how that happened with numerous teachers and with numerous situations; and I naively thought at the beginning that I could help change it. So I brought it, I brought up what I saw and everyone that I spoke to with any power of leadership in the organization either didn’t want to do anything about it or wanted to, but felt their hands were tied from higher ups. So at that point I was like, wow, this is really problematic. I started studying other types of philosophy. I stopped getting value at the Kabbalah Center from the teachings, it became very repetitive, and I started hearing as similar things taught in different ways outside and I realized that their wisdom wasn’t their own property and nobody else had access to it. I was told, don’t look outside because it’s just going to distract you. And really what I’ve found out, the reason why was because there’s actually a lot of wonderful wisdom in a lot of other places. So the combination of that, and then when looking back in the organization, seeing my friends, my colleagues, my fellow community members, I saw them with blinds on their eyes. I saw them with this illusion that their lives are better because they’re connected to the light, that really their lives were worse relationships falling apart, people losing their money, their businesses because they’re putting all of their energy into the organization. And that really broke my heart. To the point where it became so misaligned with my own values that one night I just couldn’t sleep anymore and I didn’t know what I, what I needed to do, but I knew I needed to speak up and I didn’t know what I was going to say. So I took a walk outdoors at night and I, and finally got a message just like you know from a voice inside of me that said, you don’t need to know what to say. Just hit record and start talking. And I even recorded a video about eight minutes long and I, and I don’t even like it just came out of me. I don’t even know exactly what I said, but I posted it on Facebook and at a certain point when I replayed it back to myself, I heard myself say as a former Kabbalah teacher and former Kabbalah student, and when I heard the word former, I knew I was done. I literally went from teaching a class that previous Saturday to being gone on that Tuesday, and I spent the next three weeks after that, a video only dealing with the fallout from that video. So people calling me and texting me and wanting to meet with me to hear what I have to say, uh, thanking me for giving them permission to leave because I wasn’t just a student there, even though I never worked for the organization directly, I was a known figure in the organization. I was very involved in volunteering. I was there for 25 years and I had taught a bunch of classes. So people looked at me a certain way and I think they were a little bit surprised to see me go and it, and a lot of people thanked me because it gave them permission to leave or to question or to challenge their beliefs. And that was, that was sort of my journey out. It was like, you know, some people say, wow, that was very brave of you, but that’s not how it felt to me. It felt like I couldn’t not do it. They would say, um, the movie The Matrix is about the Kabbalah Center and how everyone else is living outside of the matrix. And like when you come here, you take the red pill. And what I realized is like, I really got that red pill when I, when I left. And that’s when I felt, that’s when I realized I was getting out of the Matrix. I lost some friends. Uh, some people weren’t happy about the fact that I left. Some people were unhappy about the fact that I left publicly. Some people were unhappy about the fact that, uh, when people would ask me my opinion, I would suggest that it wasn’t a healthy organization and that caused other people to leave. So that definitely was one of the repercussions. Another one is that my whole identity was wrapped up in this reality. In being Mr Kabbalah, you know, and that was my whole identity in my life and I had to really explore who I was and I lost a lot of my community as well. So those were repercussions. I think there’s like a certain, like when you’re, when you’re a figure within one of these organizations, people will look up to you, not based on your own merits but based on merits that was given to you by the organization, you know. So because I was a teacher in that organization and because I was nominated as such, it’s almost like I had this like credibility with people in the organization, and it’s funny then to go out into the real world and realizing what it takes to create your own credibility. And I think that’s why a lot of people stay and are afraid to leave. Especially a lot of people who are teachers there because if they go and now go out into the outside world and they don’t have their followers and who are they? And that’s a, that’s something that’s tough to face. Who am I without this? And that’s literally what I have to face every day.
Sarah Dittmore: 23:02
Now we’re going to hear from Lauren Brown about why she decided to leave Nexus after a year and a half of being a member of this cult that billed itself on self-help and personal growth.
Lauren Brown: 23:15
Questioning was kind of always happening within me. But every time I would feel uncertain, I would be reaffirmed by those factors like participating in the community. And part of it too is that it’s taken me a while to relate to the difference between being comfortable with and accepting myself and always having the need to grow. And so what they were speaking to in a way was like, no, you’re not going to be comfortable. You know, because you’re growing, you’re trying to grow and that’s, you know, can be challenging. And so they created a container for challenge that I did not have by myself. And it’s still a work in progress now even. So part of my confusion was, is this just about me not wanting to deal with challenge and wanting to be more comfortable? But I think what was always mixed up with that was the financial values and their financial agenda because they did promote, you know, you becoming more financially successful as your personal development. You know, you want to succeed in life and you have all this potential and it’s about manifesting and about being unlimited and you know, so the prosperity kind of trip, that was something. That I had an often interested in before. Again, I was sort of hanging around more nihilistic post punk music scene, um, an artistic flavor to it. So I was confused about that, but they were so compelling and the personal growth and the depth and all that stuff is so compelling that I went along with it. But I was always wondering like, is this really okay? I guess so, you know, it just kind of built up over time until, I don’t know, it was feeling like this ongoing tension about that for sure. And I was struggling myself in the meantime, like I quit my job because they were encouraging me. Like you can make it, you know, you can be an entrepreneur or you can like do sessions of this kind of work with people and offer counseling kind of things. And so I quit my job and then I was really floundering in San Francisco. So with all of that going on in my life and then that tension was ongoing and one day it was at carnival and the mission and I was on the main street watching all the people and the parade and things and all of the different ethnicities and thinking like, you know, none of these people, this like this work that I’m doing is not universal. Like most of these people would never even come close to being able to access this. And that just felt unacceptable. Um, I think that was kind of like that tension that had been ongoing finally just built up to that point where I thought, okay, I don’t want to do this anymore. But it’s ultimately up to the individual to pick what works for them at that time in their life too.
Sarah Dittmore: 25:49
And I think to trust that you know what works for you. I think that, you know, you talked a lot about how you were doubting and you were questioning, but you trusted that they knew better than you. You know, it’s that trust that like, if I don’t feel like this is right for me, it probably isn’t right for me. And it’s okay to walk away from that. Even if they’re telling me I’m wrong.
Lauren Brown: 26:09
Yeah. And maybe to line up supporters who have that tone more of like, yes, you need support in figuring this out, but I’m here for you. I’m here to respect you. I don’t have an agenda, um, to have you make a decision either way. That’s what people need is, really just kind of that active istening to figure it out for themselves. But you know, still maybe need help in discerning that, especially if you’re young, confused and searching or, or even if you’re not, but still in that position for some reason
Aisha Shabazz: 26:38
When you’re in a group that you’ve decided, “I no longer want to participate.” I think it’s important to determine your safety and is it safe to leave? Some of these groups do resort to violent tactics. So some of them resort to physical violence to keep people subdued in the group and to fall in line. And other groups use violent language. So, manipulation through words, um, exploitation. So I think people should always assess whether or not it is safe to leave. Now, if the answer is no, it’s not safe to leave, that doesn’t mean that you should stay. There should be a well thought out plan as to when is the safest opportunity for me to leave. If you’re someone who hasn’t fully isolated themselves from their community in which they belong, you can certainly rely on someone who does not exist in the community to help you and share information with them that you’re concerned about your safety. People recognize that language of I don’t feel safe and are more likely to respond kindly than, you know, so-and-so said this weird statement the other day. I think the other thing to think about in addition to your safety is having that plan. Sometimes people do have that opportunity because of the, the level of safety or the spectrum of unsafeness that they’re in, but some people don’t have that choice. So if you don’t have a choice where “I don’t know if I’m going to live or die,” then that is something where if you don’t have the opportunity to put a plan in place is just really to rely on your instincts and then say, I have to get out. Noticing the patterns of the, of the groups, the comings and goings and take advantage of any opportunity that you have to leave and to leave a safely as possible. This is, it’s, it’s scary. It is for a lot of people, a life or death situation. So I would say if at all possible, if you know somebody that is going through a difficult time or you notice that slippery slope, reaching out to them and saying, if you ever need help, if you, if you don’t feel safe at any point in time, you can count on me to, to help and then that person that has appointed themselves as that anchor of safety telling other people when the individuals fall victim to a cult-like organization and they’re isolated, the person that they do share this information with oftentimes feel that they have to keep their secret and so they are therefore isolating themselves. And I am a firm believer in there’s safety in numbers. The more people that know what is going on, the better so that they can corroborate what’s happening when the time comes for you to seek safety.
Sarah Dittmore: 29:41
And what if they don’t, you know, like you said, if someone’s in a situation where they don’t feel safe, what options do they have if they have been so isolated that they don’t have any resources outside of the group?
Aisha Shabazz: 29:52
For me professionally, I will wholeheartedly say that if someone does not feel safe in any circumstance, whether it’s a cult-like organization or not, the most reliable resource that you could use is going to a local ER, or emergency room. The reason why that is is because you are protected as a patient under care that if someone was to follow you and say, you know, oh I’m here to see, you know, so and so, the hospital is legally not able to confirm whether or not you were there seeking care. So that is an opportunity for you to seek support and safety and not have them confirm whether or not you are present there. So it’s kind of throwing the person off of your trail. And then at that point, most emergency rooms and hospitals, most of them, not all, but most of them do have social workers on site. So they do have professionals able to triage the situation and say, what’s going on? Do you feel safe in your, in your living environment? That is a standard of care that’s being, that has been rolled out for quite some time now where social workers and physicians and nurses do violence screening upon any person coming into the emergency room. So it’s, it’s as standardized now and it’s becoming more commonplace just as you know, step on the scale and give me your weight and your height because they recognize that there are so many people that are in very unsafe and violent circumstances and then they’re able to give them resources to keep them safe in the interim. The other reason why I encourage people to seek physical and emotional safety at an emergency room, at a hospital, is that back in the day people would say, you know, go to your local police department. The unfortunate landscape of our society right now is that everybody cannot feel the same level of trust in our law enforcement as they once did. But seeking support and physical safety at an emergency room hospital is a little bit more accessible and feasible. So that, for me in my experience, has been the most accessible resource for the most amount of people.
Sarah Dittmore: 32:13
And for someone who doesn’t feel that it’s, you know, a violent situation or life and death situation, you mentioned that kind of weaning your way out is the safest way to remove yourself from one of these groups. So what tips do you have for that.
Aisha Shabazz: 32:28
In dating culture for instance, it’s a, it’s a term that people often refer to as ghosting. So ghosting is you just kind of fall off the face of the earth and never to be heard from again. I don’t recommend that technique when you’re trying to elope from a group because that in of itself can be injurious to the person that’s leaving the group, right? So if you created this sense of safety and community and trust and belonging to all of a sudden just disappear from the group that you’ve been with this whole time can also be very jarring for you to the point where you know, depression might sink in or what have you. So I always encourage people to wean themselves off so that they’re giving themselves an opportunity to find a positive, a more positive community to belong to. The intention of weaning yourself off is one, to keep yourself emotionally safe so that you are finding a new community as you’re weaning yourself off of the old community that has been destructive in your life and two, not to raise any red flags and therefore caused the group to ramp up their intensity and eventually turn even more manipulative or violent.
Sarah Dittmore: 33:47
What if you have a friend you feel is in one of these situations who isn’t expressing concern but you are concerned for them? What are some ways you might be able to help out someone you see in a situation like this?
Aisha Shabazz: 34:01
If you have a friend that you’re concerned about, you can share your concerns with them but not in a derogatory way like you’re spending way too much time in this group, what’s going on? You can reflect first and say, what have I noticed about my loved one, my friend, my family member and what aspects of them have changed in the negative direction and then bring that to their attention. You’re making it about the thing that you’re noticing. You’re not criticizing the group because the moment someone criticizes the community, of course, they’re going to lash out and be like, you don’t know what you’re talking about is the best things ever happened to me. You know, seek to understand, don’t seek to judge. You know, I think it’s important when we do notice things that just pop up on our radar of intuition to go with that because the moment that you disregard your intuition, you’re disregarding your capacity to critically think, which is the same tactic that a lot of these groups use. So if you’re intuition is saying something, follow that, seek to understand, don’t disregard it, just make a note of it.
Sarah Dittmore: 35:14
Unfortunately, getting out of a cult is only half the battle. Next we’re going to hear from Yossef and Lauren about what they went through in the period after getting out of their respective organizations and some of the recovery that’s involved in that process.
Sarah Dittmore: 35:31
You mentioned that even since you were a little kid, you are a highly spiritual person, so it’s not like you left the Kabbalah and you’re like, oh, I don’t care about a higher purpose anymore. You know, it’s, it’s something you were still questioning. So I wonder how you returned to that journey without being too jaded by your experience with the Kabbalah Center.
Yossef Sagi: 35:49
Oh, I went through that phase. No, that happened. That happened for sure. Um, yeah, but luckily I had started searching for spirituality outside before I left. Um, and I was, I started recognizing these patterns, like when I went to study Tantra, uh, I recognize like similar patterns in like some of the tantric schools and like you said, you know, in this yoga world and uh, or I would go to like non-religious self-help type organizations like landmark. And I would see how they were acting out the same behaviors that I saw, like a lot of the same markers that I saw at the Kabbalah Center. And so I know it wasn’t exclusive to them and it’s sort of a systemic problem, and that sort of really turned me off from the way I thought spirituality is supposed to look like until I spent more time with my self and started recognizing a different way to live spiritually. Uh, and it’s something that’s constantly evolving. So I like, I can share you my theory today, but it doesn’t mean that that’ll be my theory in a year from now. Uh, but I think that’s part of my theory today is that we’re in constant growth. The danger about these spiritual groups is that they’ll create a paradigm shift in you and they will change your life. But then that becomes your new plateau and they keep you at that new plateau. And the double blind is that you think you’re changing, and you’re not. And that’s the trouble. Cause at least people who aren’t in these systems feel that they’re not changing. But when you’re in those systems, they convince you that you are changing while keeping you the same. Why? Cause if you change, you’ll no longer be around.
Lauren Brown: 37:27
Psychically, I felt like I had come off life support. I really just didn’t know what to do or what to plug into. And I was kind of desperately looking like at everything that I came across in every direction pretty much as far as… I applied to grad schools, like JFK university major in arts and consciousness. I looked at CIS, and I got into Leslie University back in Massachusetts where I’m from. And I actually almost started going there. But I got freaked out because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make a living. And you know, pretty much, I think my eyes are always scanning for anything that spoke to what I needed, like a source of meaning and community and structure and something that would replace that. And it took years to not be feeling like that. And I would, I think I remember saying that I think about it every day and you’re like, not a day goes by when I don’t think about that group or you know, the kind of material that it was about. Even now, sometimes I see sayings, you know, like, uh, I’ll see, you know, trainings or offerings that kind of touch on that. Like, Ooh, maybe they know something like that has like the way to be in the world. I’m less and less, especially I think now I really, it’s sort of dissolved. Like, I don’t feel this compulsion to look to somebody who’s claiming to have a great answer to life. So that’s something that’s shifted in me kind of seeing that there’s so many problematic structures in our world and that people have created that to succeed within that almost doesn’t make sense anymore. So that’s part of what’s changed, I think is my frame of reference has really shifted out of what it’s been for a long time. But I think a lot of people still have that frame of reference.
Sarah Dittmore: 39:07
Next we’re going to hear a bit from Aisha in regards to some resources and tools people can use after they’ve come out of a situation like this.
Aisha Shabazz: 39:17
One of the things that I recommend is not to fall into the same patterns that the group brought to you. So the isolation factor, resist the urge to isolate yourself because that is where emotional unsafety lies. The reason why I say that is because oftentimes people that are experiencing depression isolate themselves, people who are experiencing suicidal ideation often isolate and experience depression. Seek support in a community fashion, but in a public area. So in our society we have a lot of public areas that are deemed safe. One is a park, so if you enjoy nature, instead of going on a trek through the woods by yourself and going hiking for five or seven miles all alone, try visiting parks and being amongst people without having to engage with the people. Just sitting on a bench and watching the people go by and that sort of thing. Engaging with your community without it being too intense on the, “I got up belong to someone” and too intense on the isolating factor. The second thing is I am a firm believer in seeking support from a mental health professional. It’s just a helpful thing to do, whether it’s brief or longterm, depending on the circumstances because again, everybody deserves to have a person that’s willing to listen to them and the benefit of having a mental health professional do this is it’s an unbiased party. We’re trained to sit with people and be present with whatever emotions they’re experiencing or lack there of without judgment. In these groups, people are subjected to a lot of emotional roller coasters so you often are not able to experience your emotions as they’re happening. So being in front of a mental health professional, being with someone that’s an unbiased party that’s going to listen to what you’re saying and is going to be able to hear you without judgment, I feel like is so important and you know there are some people that are experiencing these things. They’re in the midst of it or they, they recently parted from a cult-like group, or just an institution that might have mistreated them or manipulated them. And I would say if at any point in time you are feeling like you would want to harm yourself or you know in your life, I would highly encourage you to contact the suicide hotline so that you do have someone to talk to and it’s a 24 hour, seven day a week, 365 resource for anybody that’s feeling like they just can’t go on anymore.
Sarah Dittmore: 42:00
I will also put that hotline as well as other helpful resources in the notes section of this recording.
Sarah Dittmore: 42:08
With all this talk about cults and cult-like organizations, I found myself wondering how can we form a community without falling into these traps and how can we as spiritual seekers or yogis or questioners explore personal growth and spiritual growth without ending up in a situation that is manipulative and harmful?
Yossef Sagi: 42:33
You create your community, but when you create your community, stay away from like-minded community. I think a lot of people are searching for like-minded. Can you do any, when you have like-minded community, there’s no growth. Search for a like-valued community with very different minds. Values are important. It’s what we live by. It’s integrity or authenticity or care or whatever it is that’s important for you and surround yourself with people with similar values that are willing to challenge the way you think about how to create a community around those values. So someone might be spiritual, some people might be scientific, some people might come off as like completely like disconnected from spirituality. It doesn’t matter because those are all valid approaches to life. And true spirituality and doesn’t have judgment in it and so if your value is non-judgment and integrity, then you’ll surround yourself with other people who feel that and will have their own way of doing that and you’ll be okay with being challenged to think about your values in a different way and guess what? Then you get to grow within that. And I think that’s the way to build community, not around the beliefs, more around values. And I’m open to being wrong about that too.
Aisha Shabazz: 43:46
It’s so hard to pinpoint like the key to not falling into this trap. Because people like you and me never think that they would ever be in this circumstance ever. No one wakes up and says, I’m going to get myself in the most uncomfortable, violency, toxic relationship I can and see how I do. So to say that there’s one magic thing that you could do to make it less likely to happen. I would say that’s setting people up for a false expectation. I will encourage people to recognize that the moment you are not allowed to critically think that is an opportunity for you to say, is this the best use of my time, energy, and effort? Finding someone that’s gonna validate the fact that you have an independent mind and you have the opportunity to express that and to have your thoughts and your time and your energy and your effort put towards something that is invoking this spirit of I’m a critical thinker and I can challenge things and not be punished for it. If you can find one person that does that, then use that as your anchor to say, this will get better. Things will get better.
Sarah Dittmore: 45:28
You know, sort of one last topic I want to touch on before we wrap up is as a teacher, as a guide, as a coach, what is your responsibility to make sure you don’t, you know, fall into that pattern of manipulation?
Yossef Sagi: 45:43
Yeah, you’re reading my mind. This is what I think about all the time. And it’s a lot of why I thought to like not do this work anymore because I honestly don’t want people to follow me. That’s the last thing I want, you know, so, so I think yes, I do. I do think about that a lot. And I think part of it, uh, happens when you create a, um, in your community if you’re building like a like value differently among community, to be held accountable by that community. I think that can help. Uh, I think one of the big things that happens to cult leaders is that these talking held accountable and they’re looked at as almost infallible. And so that’s one way. Another way is not to be the leader, uh, or not to have a clear leadership. It’s more to have a community where everybody adds their value. And there isn’t like any, like one person’s way, but everybody shares their way and everybody learns from each other. And I think part of the values that have to be in there is to change the way we think about not knowing from, from seeing it as weakness, to seeing it as a strength. That not knowing is actually a strength. Cause it’s what leaves you room to grow and to learn and to be okay with that. And for that to be a part of this looks like baked in to, uh, to creating this path. And for me, I’m always checking in with myself around it. And the last thing I think, I guess I’ll say about that is I’ve been switching from teaching things that I find to be true to sharing of my experience of how it was for me. I think I might have said some things throughout this interview and I want to be very clear that I’m open to being wrong. This is my understanding based on my current experience and what I’ve had through life. And I invite everybody to find out what’s true for them through their own experience. But I’ll share with you. And I think that’s what I, I don’t want to put myself in a category with those other dudes. But I think that that’s what Abraham and Jesus and Buddha were trying to do is like, this is my experience now, create your own and not this, my experience, follow it.
Sarah Dittmore: 48:00
And I think appreciating that everyone’s experience is on an equal playing field. I think we have such an obsession with like, oh, you have so many years of teaching and someone with a thousand years of teaching brings one thing to a table. Someone who just discovered this field brings something very different to the table. And those are equal value.
Lauren Brown: 48:23
I mean it’s, it’s a both-and. Because if somebody has skills and materials to offer somebody else, then you know, it’s not a flat relationship. But at the same time, it can be an orientation of equality. If somebody approaches a situation like they already have the answer or they know, you know, like the kind of cliche almost about mansplaining or something like that, somebody will come in with an attitude not as curiosity but of um, educating each other. You know, without asking that is already, to me it’s like maybe consent is a big thing here as well, like kind of subtle communication cues for consent and dialogue as opposed to kind of top down. Like you said, that’s something that to me makes a big difference in the quality of these relationships or these groups. The message that there’s one thing that works for everybody is not accurate. Even in a benevolent way. There’s a lot about how mindfulness or breathing are going to be helpful but then, you know, some people might have a different experience, so like to allow for that. Like, just say you know, it helps a lot of people. You might want to try this, oh, it doesn’t work for you. Okay, well that’s fine. What else might work for you? If anything? And if you want help, and if you don’t, then that’s your life, also.
Sarah Dittmore: 49:41
Right, right. That recognition that we’re all different. So what works for you might not and probably won’t work for me.
Yossef Sagi: 49:52
And so what I’ve sort of seen the way to live life is, and I, I’m not gonna tell people you have to take this on for yourselves, but I’m just going to say this is my discovery of my own experience. Is to be constantly open to learn, constantly open to learn, constantly open to, to, to the idea that everything that you know is completely wrong and that there might be a completely different way. And through all the different experiences that you gather from outside you to always check in with yourself, what’s right for you in the moment, and let that be your religion of the moment. And constantly reassess that moment to moment, day to day to see what’s right for you and I, and I think that’s how we build our own paths. And I think honestly, that that’s what every spiritual leader, when they start their path really thinks about. And I think, you know, we may have talked about this before, but this idea that like, you know, all the great leaders, Abraham, uh, everyone was worshiping idols and he looked up into the sky and he says, I think there’s only one God. And then a whole religion was built around that. And then Jesus, you know, came up and he says, I think that really what it’s all about, it’s about loving your neighbor. Uh, and, and he was trying to break down the religious establishment and what happened? 300 years later, someone built a religion around him. And the same thing happened with Buddha. And the funny thing is that the only person who has reached enlightenment through Buddhism is Buddha. And only person who has reached enlightenment through Christianity is Jesus. Everyone else is a follower. And I think what, if I can be presumptuous enough, I think that what they were trying to tell us is that you have to carve your own path and you have to be your own leader and not to follow it. I literally think a bunch of them said not to follow blindly. And the problem is that it’s easier to follow and we want someone to tell us what to do and the harder work is to check in with yourself and to constantly see what’s right for you and to carve your own path. It’s a scary, it’s a scary way to live, but I think it’s also the most liberating way to live and everywhere else you’re trapping yourself.
Sarah Dittmore: 51:57
Well, and that’s something that I see come up a lot in, in kind of the spiritual and yoga journeys… Of this dedication to a path is a very big thing of like you find a school or a path or a philosophy that you truly believe in and then you’re supposed to dedicate yourself wholeheartedly with complete and utter faith. And what you’re saying kind of butts up against that of complete and utter, faithful dedication. Where does that fit in?
Yossef Sagi: 52:26
I think there’s tremendous amount of value to that actually. Uh, and the, the question is where you’re at at your point in life. I think that that there is this, this beauty in balancing structure and freedom. We can’t truly experience freedom unless we have structure. Because like how safe do you feel on a roller coaster if there’s no safety belt? You know? Like we want the safety belt so that we can feel; it allows us to feel the danger in a safe way. So the same way in life like we want to experience it, but we, we need, we crave structure at the same time. And I believe that all these organizations, beginning with religion and ending with the modern day spiritualities. They give people that structure. And I think for some people that’s right for them at that point of their life. I believe however, that eventually you learn how to create that structure, your own. And so there’s value to ritual, but why do you have to take on a whole system with all of the rituals that come with it when some of them work for you and some of them don’t? Instead of tasting from everything and then having the discipline to create your own ritual and your own structure in your life so that you can enjoy your life. I don’t say throw the baby out with the bath water. But I’m also saying, why do you gotta keep the bath water?
Aisha Shabazz: 53:48
We are seeing these things unfold in our daily lives regardless if we’re recognizing it or not, regardless of if we’re talking about it as direct as we should. If we’re not talking about these things that are really putting one versus the other, someones needs versus another, someone’s life over another, then we really have to question ourselves, how are we participating in cult-like behavior? Even though, you know, I’m a good person, I recycle. I, you know, I, I rescued a dog last year. You know, all of the little things that we try to convince ourselves are things that good people do, but it’s the subtlety that we really need to look at because that’s the slippery slope that a lot of these leaders fall under and the moment that you pit them versus us, mine versus yours, that’s when you’re veering down the dangerous path. And you know, in this social movement of me too and not again, you know, a lot of times people are caused to look at themselves in the mirror and say, did I do something that was a little bit off putting or that someone didn’t like? When people are caused to look at themselves and say, did I act out of character for myself? It’s, it’s very scary. They’re like, oh gosh, I’m not like that person. I’m not a monster. Right? And then they just dismiss anything that they might have done in the past and just say, well, I’m not like that person. So I know I wouldn’t do anything like that now or in the future. But I think we all have the potential of being monsters. It’s just are we having those hard conversations with ourselves? Are we in a community that’s going to encourage that critical thinking and do we belong to an institution that’s gonna hold us accountable for when we mistreat others and abuse the powers that have been bestowed upon us by the community that we belong to, whether we created it or not.
Sarah Dittmore: 56:03
This has been part two of Yoga Cult Culture. A huge thank you to Don, Lauren, Aisha, and Yossef for their amazing interviews and contributions to this discussion. I also want to thank Shut Up &Yoga who produces and supports this podcast. Shut Up & Yoga is an online yoga magazine where people are having uncomfortable conversations about yoga. They’ve recently rolled out some new offerings including a library, this beautiful, wonderful podcast, and even a new Facebook group where you can join and have your own conversations with the writers and with other readers. I recommend going to www.shutupandyoga.com, you can find the link in the episode show notes, to find out more about what they’re doing and start having the conversations that we as Yogis should be having. Thank you all for listening. As always, this would not be possible without your support, so please rate, review, subscribe, and if you feel so inspired, check out the Patreon link below. There’s a ton of great offerings on there, including early access to episodes, bonus content, and the ability to suggest and vote on future episode topics. And if anyone wants to get in touch with me to share their own experiences with cults and cult-like organizations, or just to tell me their thoughts on this episode, you can reach out to me @TBMpodcast on Instagram @The Beginner’s Mind Podcast on Facebook, or directly via email, at Sarahditmore@gmail.com. All of those links can be found in the show notes below. Thanks again to everyone who helped make this episode possible. In two weeks we’ll be discussing mantras and chanting, and if that’s a topic that interests you and you want to get early access, go to the Patreon. It’s going to be a really great conversation. We’re going to look at some of the philosophy, science, and history of mantra and question why we practice it in yoga today. Until then, have a great day and… stay curious!
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