- A Case Study
- Understanding The Practice Of Kundalini Yoga
- Reaction To The Pandemic
- Increasingly Disturbing Messages
- Radicalization Turns Off Some Devotees
- A Mother-Daughter Rift
- Kundalini Yoga And QAnon
- Building On Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories
- A Look Down The Rabbit Hole
- Kundalini’s #MeToo Moment
- A 'Donald Trump-Like Response'
- The 'Golden Chain'
- How To Talk To Loved Ones Who Believe Conspiracy Theories
Just hours before then-President Trump banned all travelers arriving from Europe — a white woman in a turban took the stage at a yoga studio in Venice, Calif. It was March 11, 2020, and the potential devastation of the coronavirus pandemic was just starting to come into focus.
The woman’s name was Guru Jagat. She looked relaxed, and a little sunburned. From the stage at her studio, the RA MA Institute of Applied Yogic Science and Technology, she encouraged people to stay positive, because, she said, positivity helps your immune system. She recommended “good carbohydrates,” like sweet potatoes and grains, because the virus likes moist environments. She told people to believe in their body.
But over the coming days and weeks, Guru Jagat became more and more skeptical. She questioned the wisdom of taking a coronavirus test. She talked often about “seeking out the truth” about what was really going on. She began to talk openly about her belief that there was a reason beyond public health why the government wanted us all at home.
There has been a lot of reporting on radicalization in yoga and wellness circles during the pandemic, so much so that there is a term for it now,“the wellness to QAnon pipeline.”
A Case Study
Guru Jagat is a case study of this problem. Over the course of 2020 and 2021, she began to speak more and more openly about her fringe beliefs, even joking that she should win the Oscar “for the queen of conspiracy theories.”
To understand the rabbit hole she descended into, I followed a bread crumb trail she left behind: hundreds of yoga classes recorded and distributed on multiple platforms. I was seeking to answer this question: Why do some people immersed in wellness culture seem to slide so naturally into the deep, dark world of conspiracy theories?
The first thing you should know is that Guru Jagat is dead. She died suddenly in August 2021 of the kind of thing that can kill anyone: a pulmonary embolism — a sort of unglamorous death for someone who has been called “Kundalini Royalty.”
So, because I can’t talk to Guru Jagat herself, what I do know has been pieced together through watching her classes, and listening to the recollections of her friends, enemies and former students.
Jaclyn Gelb took her first class with Guru Jagat in 2013. By then, she’d been searching for a spiritual teacher for a long time.
“She came out and she looked like a queen,” Gelb recalled.
Guru Jagat sat down on a stage adorned with flowers, crystals, candles, fairy lights and a bronze gong. She wore flowy white blouses over white tights. Her shoulder-length beach blond hair tumbled loose out of a head wrap. Her earlobes sagged from the weight of gold door knocker hoops.
Her voice was confident and gravelly, like your big sister, or camp counselor. Gelb was struck by her intelligence, her absolute authority, the way she spoke and how completely she believed every word she said.
“When she used the word f—-, I was like all in,” Gelb said. “I knew instantly: this is my teacher,” she said.
Pretty soon, Gelb was practicing Kundalini yoga daily, sometimes for four or six hours. Her husband and her pre-teen daughter thought it was weird, but she didn’t care. She began bringing friends to classes, urging them to find what she’d found.
Understanding The Practice Of Kundalini Yoga
The yoga that Gelb got hooked on — Kundalini yoga — is very different from a yoga class you’d take at your local gym. In a more traditional yoga flow class, students move through a series of poses designed to improve flexibility and strength.
But Kundalini is all about manipulating energy. Students hold simple poses for an agonizingly long period of time. Or they make vigorous, rhythmic movements, while chanting or breathing rapidly. These exercises are demanding, and can produce, for some students, a kind of spiritual high.
The practice was founded by a man named Yogi Bhajan, an Indian immigrant who arrived in Los Angeles in 1968. According to the scholar Philip Deslippe, who practiced Kundalini yoga in L.A. for many years before he began attending UC Santa Barbara to get his Ph.D in Religious Studies, Yogi Bhajan told his students that Kundalini was a powerful, ancient, previously-secret form of yoga. That appealed to the legions of young, spiritually dissatisfied Americans who had come to California, searching for enlightenment. Soon, thousands of people were practicing Kundalini and opening studios and ashrams of their own all over the world.
Guru Jagat was one of them. And just like Yogi Bhajan, Guru Jagat encouraged her students to wake up at dawn to meditate, take cold showers, do cleanses and follow raw food diets. She prescribed poses for ahealthy metabolism, postures for vitality, kriyas to release toxins and meditations to bring about prosperity. Kundalini, she told her students, could make you a better, healthier, more successful person.
Reaction To The Pandemic
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Guru Jagat — and many other yoga teachers — treated it as yet another problem that could be overcome with the right diet (sweet potatoes), outlook (positivity), and series of yoga postures (breath of fire).
“If you have spent the last 20 years making tortured and stretched medical claims about the effectiveness of yoga and meditation for certain illnesses, then the pandemic is your Waterloo, it's your time to shine,” said Matthew Remski, a journalist who writes about wellness, spirituality, cults and yoga and hosts the podcast Conspirituality.
Early into the pandemic, after stay-at-home orders forced her to close her studio to students, Guru Jagat’s classes began to take on a different tone.
If you have spent the last 20 years making tortured and stretched medical claims about the effectiveness of yoga and meditation for certain illnesses, then the pandemic is your Waterloo.
She suggested that the pandemic was engineered by the government, which had an alternative agenda for keeping everyone at home. Now that everyone was online all the time, she said in an April 2020 class, it was now easier for “them” to control “our” minds. She told staff at RA MA that the city of L.A.’s mask mandate was unconstitutional, in a private message that became public.
And she went back into the studio teaching maskless, in-person classes and violating local health orders.
Increasingly Disturbing Messages
In December 2020 — when more than 100 people were dying from coronavirus every day in L.A. County — Guru Jagat invited David Icke to speak in person at the RA MA Winter Solstice Festival, which she described on Instagram as, “uncensored, mind-blowing, pineal decalcifying, heart blasting conversation with the Great thought leaders, artists, brave-hearts, prophets, & poets of our Time.”
David Icke is one of the most well-known conspiracy theorists around. He’s a former professional footballer from England who got interested in New Age, antisemitic conspiracies in the 1980s, after seeking holistic treatments for arthritis. He eventually became convinced the world was run by a secretive cabal of alien lizard people, mostly Jewish people, who drink blood, perform child sacrifices, and use vaccines to control us.
After the festival, Guru Jagat airedher interview with him on her podcast, Reality Riffing, describing him as “a controversial thought leader.” Over the course of 90 minutes, Icke and Guru Jagat discuss whether Anthony Fauci is in cahoots with Bill Gates, whether the virus or the vaccine is the “real” bioweapon, and how the vaccine is actually designed to sterilize the population entirely.
Radicalization Turns Off Some Devotees
Until this point, Gelb said she’d hoped Guru Jagat would snap out of it, and go back to being the inspiring, down-to-earth teacher she’d begun following seven years earlier.
“When she brought in David Icke, I mean, that just was not something that the woman I knew before would do. That was so deeply offensive,” Gelb told me. “She was so intelligent. She had so much power… she could have done so much good with her life. And I was pissed at all the people around her who enabled her, and the ones who didn't speak up, and maybe pissed at myself that I didn’t.”
Am I going to win the the Oscar for the queen of conspiracies this year?
Guru Jagat was aware of what other people thought of her radicalization. Right around the Winter Solstice Festival in 2020, she talked in class about how “a bunch of assholes” had voted her “top of the pops” when it came to believing in conspiracies.
“I can’t believe you thought of me,” she joked, pretending to be flattered. “Am I going to win the the Oscar for the queen of conspiracies this year? Thank you so much, I’d like to thank my manager.”
A Mother-Daughter Rift
For years, Guru Jagat had called her mother, Nansy Steinhorn-Galloway, every week. The two were “inseparable,” Steinhorn-Galloway said, “until the pandemic and her crazy volatile ideas.”
She had raised Guru Jagat — who she calls Katie, the name she gave her — on a spiritual retreat center in a small town in Maryland. Steinhorn-Galloway was Jewish, but the family attended Unitarian and Buddhist and Episcopalian services.
From Maryland, Guru Jagat had moved to New York City. It was there that she got into Kundalini yoga.
“I think she had a spiritual experience with it,” Steinhorn-Galloway told me. “For years when she came home, she turned the heat up to do yoga to do hot yoga. She did it obsessively. She didn't have a normal relationship with it.”
Guru Jagat went on to travel to New Mexico to meet Yogi Bhajan in the final years of his life (he died in 2004). Later, she moved to Los Angeles to practice Kundalini and start the RA MA Institute, which she claims Yogi Bhajan instructed her to do in a vision she received while meditating.
Guru Jagat had a penchant for conspiracies long before she began doing yoga, her mother and stepfather, who goes by Rabbit, told me. But they say it got worse when she started doing Kundalini.
“It was a cruel chore to do Kundalini yoga,” Steinhorn-Galloway said. “You had to repeat one movement for an hour. From what I understand, that was to weaken your ego, to weaken you, so they could filter in their ideas.”
Kundalini Yoga And QAnon
Yogi Bhajan expected total devotion from his students. He encouraged them to change their names, leave their families, enter into arranged marriages, live in compounds and work for businesses owned by his organization, and send their children to Kundalini boarding schools.
And because the yoga itself is so rigorous, the feelings of light-headedness or even ecstasy that students experience can make them feel special.
“Those kind of euphoric, bizarre experiences people have in doing Kundalini yoga is a great way, intentionally or unintentionally, to create a division between insiders and outsiders,” Deslippe said. “I had an experience. You did not.”
That, incidentally, is one of the draws of QAnon.
Ben Lorber, a senior researcher at Political Research Associates who studies right-wing movements, told me that one of the things that makes QAnon so appealing is that “it kind of promises that there's a secret alternative truth out there that only a select few can really access.”
The “truth” that QAnon is trying to reveal is that the world is controlled by “the Deep State,” a secretive, evil cabal of elites who worship Satan and sexually assault children.
QAnon emerged in 2017 on a website called 4chan, when an anonymous poster who went by “Q” began posting cryptic messages about how former President Trump was trying to fight the Deep State.
The conspiracy also encompasses doubt of the medical establishment, the Democratic Party, the pharmaceutical industry — rhetoric that appealed to yoga teachers and others interested in holistic wellness.
“I think that you see a lot of the same kind of rhetoric in alternative spirituality communities or wellness communities that say, ‘what the medical establishment is telling you is a lie, and we have the truth',” Lorber said.
Building On Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories
And even though QAnon started recently, it builds on centuries of antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Five years before the pandemic, and two years before QAnon existed, Guru Jagat talked about QAnon-like conspiracies in her classes. By 2015, Guru Jagat was telling her students that AIDS was created by the government, recommending yoga poses to help with scar tissue from alien abductions, and talking about her friendship withAlan Steinfeld, who hosts an annual UFO conference in the desert.
But it wasn’t until the pandemic that her interest in fringe beliefs became divisive.
By summer 2020, Guru Jagat began arguing with her parents about their media habits. Rabbit, her stepfather, said on one of their weekly phone calls, she tried to convince them not to watch CNN because “they’re part of the deep state.”
“I said, ‘that that sounds like some Q-Anon bullshit,’” he recalled. “And she hung up on me.”
Later, Guru Jagat joked about this incident in class.
“My mom and her husband, all they do is watch CNN 24/7,” she said laughing. “They're very very unhappy if I say anything about CNN — it's a touchy subject. So of course I have to hashtag my QAnon hashtags to them every time I say hello, just to f—- with them...you gotta keep the family fresh.”
A Look Down The Rabbit Hole
So what happened during the pandemic that drew Guru Jagat further down the rabbit hole?
And what was it about the pandemic that contributed to the radicalization of so many other yoga teachers?
At a certain point, those beliefs can also curdle through a kind of paranoia, and turn a person towards a susceptibility towards conspiracy theories.
Matthew Remski, the journalist who writes about wellness, spirituality, conspiracies and cults, told me that in the beginning of 2020 that he thought talking about QAnon might be a marketing ploy for out of work yoga teachers to attract more students online.
But after a few months, Remski noticed many teachers went deeper. One of the men who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 wasa former yoga and meditation teacher from Orange County.
Remski thinks yoga shares some central concepts with conspiracy theories: everything is connected, nothing happens without a purpose, and nothing is as it seems.
“So if you've been practicing yoga, these are going to be very familiar ideas to you,” Remski said. “And that's a strange thing, because many people find those ideas to be very relieving on psychological, emotional, and existential levels. But then at a certain point, those beliefs can also curdle through a kind of paranoia, and turn a person towards a susceptibility towards conspiracy theories.”
Kundalini’s #MeToo Moment
Guru Jagat was already on the defensive when the pandemic began. Just a few weeks earlier, a #metoo scandal engulfed the founder of Kundalini yoga, Yogi Bhajan, the man she claimed had given her her spiritual name and instructed her to open the RA MA Institute.
It began in January 2020, when a woman named Pamela Dyson released a memoir about her decades living and working alongside Yogi Bhajan. She’d met him in L.A. in 1968, and quickly became devoted to him, giving up her name and becoming Premka: his mistress, his secretary, and his personal attendant.
Any sense of a respectable legacy is however now in question. One of Yogi Bhajan's 1st American students, & his 'second in command' during the 70s, Pamela Dyson, has just published a deeply insightful and calmly-written memoir of her time with Yogi Bhajan https://t.co/Og3WJCfei6 pic.twitter.com/CdOFXlxK4A— Amandeep Madra OBE (@amanmadra) March 10, 2020
She wrote that over the nearly two decades she spent with him, she’d become concerned he valued preserving his image above all else: he’d forced her to have an illegal abortion, and to remain single while he had many lovers, a wife and children. Eventually, she’d grown disillusioned and left the community.
At the age of 76, she decided to tell her story in her own words.
“Yogi Bhajan had been presented to us as a master, a bodhisattva, a realized being,” Gelb, the former Kundalini student, explained. After reading Dyson’s memoir, she realized he may be all of those things, but he was also, “a typical, predatory man.”
Around the world, some Kundalini students were having nearly identical reactions. And soon, women were coming forward with their own stories of being abused and harassed by Yogi Bhajan. The organization Yogi Bhajan founded commissioned a third-party to look into the allegations. The report came out in August 2020, and it found that Yogi Bhajan “more likely than not” engaged in sexual harassment and rape.
A 'Donald Trump-Like Response'
When the revelations against Yogi Bhajan began to emerge, some yoga studios immediately stopped offering Kundalini classes and denounced their guru. Others tried to separate the teacher from the teachings. They argued that the yoga Yogi Bhajan created really helped people, even if he was harmful.
Guru Jagat, and the RA MA Institute, took a different stance. In early February, another teacher at the RA MA Institute named Harijiwan uploaded a video to his YouTube channel called “The Futile Flow of Fate: A Story About a Teacher's Love and a Student's Betrayal.” In it, Harijiwan speaks up on behalf of Yogi Bhajan, and casts doubt on Dyson’s story. “She’s making claims against him that date back 50 years ago,” he says. “Who knows what happened?”
Harijwan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Guru Jagat re-posted this video on her Instagram account. She captioned it, “This tale is no truer than any other tale — the Truth as always lies in the eye of the Beholder,” and turned off the comments.
“So many people are apologizing. They're sad, they're grieving. RA MA does the opposite,” said Deslippe. “In many ways, they have a very Donald Trump-like response. It's all lies. It's all fake news. None of these allegations are true. It's all slander.”
The 'Golden Chain'
Guru Jagat’s own origin story may help explain a response that, on the surface, made little sense coming from a woman who marketed herself as a feminist.
In Kundalini yoga, there is this idea of “the golden chain.” It’s the idea that knowledge is passed from teacher to student, from that student to their student, and you can trace it all the way back to Yogi Bhajan himself. For many Kundalini teachers, Deslippe told me, their connection to Kundalini’s founder is their primary form of credentialing.
This was the case for Guru Jagat, who told people that Yogi Bhajan named her, instructed her to move to LA, told her to start the RA MA Institute, and even gave her the business plan.
It would have been awkward, even compromising, if the person she derived her authority from was a serial abuser. And throughout Yogi Bhajan’s life, he told his students that there would come a time when his enemies would try to take him down, and they would have to come to his defense.
According to Deslippe, Yogi Bhajan primed his students to doubt women like Pamela Dyson.
“So when accusations come out, his followers immediately have a box to put those accusations in. Well, of course, he's going to have enemies, of course, he's going to be slandered.”
It wasn’t until I re-watched Harijiwan’s video, “The Futile Flow of Fate,” that I realized what the connection was between Pamela Dyson’s memoir and the pandemic.
Part of the way through the video, Harijiwan makes a sudden jump from talking about Dyson, and begins talking about the coronavirus.
“Pamela Dyson’s story can be taken as a virus,” he says. “It depends what you want to do with it. This is your choice.”
At first, it confused me. What do Dyson’s allegations and a worldwide pandemic have to do with each other? But I realized he was saying both are simply stories we can choose to believe, or not.
“Everyone is allowed to tell their story,” he goes on. “Then the question becomes, what’s truth? It’s your truth. You decide what you want to believe in the story.”
The relativism of truth, and the idea that individual people have “true” knowledge over their own bodies, is central to yoga and wellness, argues Natalia Petrzela, a historian who studies American culture and has written a book about the history of fitness. She said during the pandemic, this way of thinking really “reared its head.”
Guru Jagat’s stepfather, Rabbit, said he believes that the yoga she practiced influenced her to become detached from reality.
“She decided that making up your own truth was just as real as an objective reality around you,” he told me. “I think it came from her teacher that taught her about the fact that empowerment is a personal space inside yourself. And to do that you have to create your own reality. Therefore, keep going with it, create your own truth, and then try to get that truth out into the world.”
Since Guru Jagat died, her studio, the RA MA Institute, moved into a new space in an office park in Santa Monica. When I went to take a mid-week class there last year, the studio was nearly empty, but Guru Jagat’s presence was everywhere.
White dresses from the Guru Jagat collection hung in the lobby. Photos of her were for sale at the front desk, for $175. And in the studio itself, that same photo hung on an altar, above lit candles, pink lilies, and a crystal ball.
Even more so than in her studio, her influence lives on among her followers.
“I would be lying if I didn't admit that there's a new fire that her death has lit under me,” a woman named Angela Sumner posted in a YouTube tribute. “I'm willing to do whatever it takes for humans to understand what's really going on in the world.”
How To Talk To Loved Ones Who Believe Conspiracy Theories
The ADL has created resources for people hoping to intervene with loved ones. Here's a quick look at some of the organization's guidance.