The founder of Kundalini Yoga in the West is implicated in dozens of sexual assault and harassment claims according to an independent investigation conducted by An Olive Branch.
Sexual assault allegations against Yogi Bhajan, originally named Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogij—the man who brought Kundalini Yoga to the West—are likely true, according to a report released August 13, 2020, by An Olive Branch, an organization formed in 2011 to respond to ethical misconduct in spiritual communities.
Bhajan, a Sikh born in the Punjab region of India (Now Pakistan) in 1929, relocated to the United States in 1969, where he subsequently built an empire of multiple businesses and non-profit organizations worth billions of dollars at the time of his death in 2004.
The report was commissioned by the Siri Singh Sahib Coporation (SSSC), an umbrella organization overseeing all for-profit and non-profit holdings of Bhajan’s estate—including the Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization (3HO), which disseminates information on Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan worldwide; the Kundalini Research Institute (KRI); Sikh Dharma International, which spreads the teachings of Sikh Gurus; Yogi Tea; Akal Security; and many more. SSSC announced that it was launching an independent investigation into allegations and hiring An Olive Branch on March 9, 2020.
The wave of allegations was prompted by a book called Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage, published in late 2019, 16 years after Bhajan’s passing, by the guru’s former secretary of 20-plus years—Pamela Dyson.
The book opens with Dyson’s hospitalization in London after a botched abortion in India. She writes that she was carrying Bhajan’s child. At this point, Bhajan was married to Inderjit Kaur Uppal (they remained married for 50 years) and they had three children together. Vows of faithfulness to your marriage partner are integral to the Sikh faith. In her book, Dyson says she experienced sexual and emotional abuse, coercion, and harassment from Bhajan, spanning from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s.
After the book’s release, several more Yogi Bhajan followers broke their silence on a private Facebook Group, now called Beyond the Cage | The 3HO | Yogi Bhajan | Kundalini Yoga Aftermath.
Findings: Sexual and Spiritual Abuse
As stated early in the report and in the cover letter from SSSC, “much of the alleged conduct, more likely than not occurred.” The report lists statements from anonymous victims and supporters in their own words.
The scope of the report focuses solely on allegations of sexual and spiritual abuse (i.e. cult-like control of the spiritual community by Bhajan), but also documents reports of drug smuggling, gun running, and embezzlement or misuse of funds. Investigators from An Olive Branch either interviewed or received statements from 299 “reporters”: 96 of these identified as victims or “reporters of harm,” 140 refuted any allegations of wrongdoing by Bhajan, and 63 stated a position or made comments that fell outside the scope of the investigation.
Here is a breakdown of Bhajan’s alleged sexual abuse detailed in the report:
4 instances of rape8 instances of physical injury during sex9 instances of unwanted touching in intimate areas3 instances of unwanted exposure to pornography
The report also details many of the ways Bhajan was allegedly able to intimidate and coerce his followers into obeying his rules, which led to an atmosphere of fear of aggressive reprisal, including ostracization and being banished from the community.
Victims also claimed that he divided and compartmentalized certain factions within his organization to hide his misdeeds. “The message was ‘toe the line or we will destroy your character,'” shared Reporter 54. “It became cult-like versus a spiritual organization.”
You can read the entire, unedited report here. (TRIGGER WARNING: contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.)
What Happens Now?
At the end of SSSC’s cover letter, the organization lists the steps they are taking to “meet the challenge” of the healing process. In short, they are:
Compassionate reconciliation based on the principles of restorative justiceInternal policy reviewHiring an external consultant to advise their Office of Ethics and Professional StandardsCommitment to providing safe and protective environments for all community members and responding to allegations of harm, in a timely and appropriate manner, moving forwardRequest community feedback through Listening Tour forums
Many in the Kundalini Yoga community are relieved that the report classified many allegations as likely true. “As a woman who has spoken publicly about sexual assault, I actually feel a sense of relief that the report is out,” said Karena Virginia, a former Kundalini Yoga teacher who has rebranded her teaching because of this scandal, said the report gave her a sense of relief. “Sharing the vulnerability of sexual assault can bring up shame, blame, fear of not being accepted, fear of abandonment and feelings of deep betrayal. For some, telling the story without being heard or validated can be more traumatizing than the experience which has been locked deeply in the body. Once the key opens the lock, the memories return, and if it’s made public and not believed within a close circle or community, the need for survival can kick in. We might begin working extra hard to please others by shrinking or conforming or getting lost in our need for approval and love.”
Sukhraj Gipple, a Kundalini Yoga teacher and former Kundalini Yoga studio owner in Boulder, Colorado, adds: “What’s important for me is to see that all the people raped, abused, groomed, assaulted, neglected, and who were separated from their families are acknowledged and taken great care of. He could not have done all of these things without the protection of many people—a system that enables such mistreatment of human beings. Without a public restorative justice process where the people who enabled Yogi Bhajan take responsibility, I don’t see how this community can be whole again.”
The Olive Branch’s report ends with this ultimate question, “Going forward, can the community rally around Bhajan’s own advice: Follow the teachings. Not the teacher?”
Read more: yogajournal.com