Reflections on Leaving a Cult: Evolutions and Revelations August 25, 2022 11:01
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE for the audio recording.
I recently binge-listened to a podcast called Uncoverage. In it, Nina Bird Lawrence describes some of her childhood memories and recollections that she had while in a Tibetan Buddhist cult and her interactions with the leader of this cult, Chogyam Trungpa. Her story was one of deep sadness, survival, and growth. I appreciated her vivid and specific details in each episode. Each was a zoom-lens view of her experiences in Shambhala.
So many things were stirred up for me as I listened to Lawrence’s story. Cults aren’t necessarily large, global groups like Jim Jones’ The People’s Temple, the Moonies, or Scientology. Cult dynamics can occur in families, work places, one-on-one relationships, or, as was my case, a local yoga studio.
I had taken a weekly yoga class since 2000 at a local gym in Indianapolis. When I took a sabbatical from teaching high school English in 2012, I had more time to dive more deeply into my own personal practice. I discovered that a nearby yoga studio in Greenwood was offering a Yoga Teacher Training program. I chatted with the business owner (I will refer to her as Narcie in this article) at length on the phone, and I took a few classes at the studio before committing to the 200 hr. YTT training.
Looking back, I should have known better. There were signs all around me that things were not quite right, but I was in a vulnerable place in my life—I was exhausted and burned out from full-time teaching and was in desperate need of spiritual nourishment and self-care—so I was a prime candidate for a charismatic, predatory cult leader.
I remember the lobby area of the studio...cluttered and “busy” with shoes haphazardly scattered under wooden benches. Photos of famous yogis (T. Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois, Neem Karoli Baba) hung in mismatched frames on one wall. The wall leading to the studio space included hand-painted yoni shapes in thick, sticky jungle green and brown paint. The studio itself was dimly lit. Along one wall were stacks of yoga blocks of various sizes and colors, and straps hung on hooks. The flooring was a cheap laminate marked with Frog tape to indicate yoga mat placement. Mismatched sarongs were draped over tables and bookcases. A small burned-out salt lamp gathered cobwebs in one corner. Scruffy, worn-out bolsters were piled in the opposite corner along with leftover carpet squares and ceiling tiles. A long, vertical banner with the chakra symbols hung on the back wall near the bathroom. Additional canvases dotted the walls—dark, heavy colors in thick paint—abstract references suggesting Hindu deities like Ganesha and Kali.
There was always something interesting to look at, but it was not a warm, inviting place. The décor was dark, mysterious, and a bit unkempt. I recall Narcie telling me once, “It’s this place…it draws people in…and sends some away.”
After I left this studio, I found the research and writings of Steve Hassan, Janja Lalich, Matthew Remski, and Rachel Bernstein to be extremely helpful to my healing. According to these experts, one of the qualities of a cult leader and a common characteristic of cult dynamics is dominance. According to Hassan, this authoritarian trait can come in the form of a person (Narcie), or an ideology (yoga).
Narcie liked to feel superior. She took pleasure in knowing things that others didn’t, and she wasn’t generous with her knowledge. She often withheld it to hold over others. For instance, sometimes, when I was taking her class, she would sneer to herself when she noticed that I struggled with a pose, instead of offering to help. She took pleasure in my awkwardness.
She also liked to manipulate and control others. She used hands-on adjustments frequently during her classes (without bothering to ask for consent first). Having someone touch me during class was always jarring for me. It pulled me out of my practice, and it made my practice feel performative rather than interoceptive or reflective. Hands-on adjustments were intrusive—and made me feel judged and uncomfortable.
Later, when I led my own classes at this studio, I preferred offering verbal cues and giving my students agency instead of physically manipulating them.
Ironically, I would learn later, thanks to Matthew Remski’s book Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond that Pattabhi Jois, who abused hundreds of students at his shala in India, often used hands-on adjustments as a way of abusing his students in plain sight. Remski also refers to this invasive practice as somatic dominance.
Once, in one of her Gentle Yoga classes, which attracted a large number of regular students, and it was a class that I attended as well, Narcie announced during the flow that she was a sadist. Her students giggled at this; they thought she was joking...and that she was making a reference to the pose that we were doing. However, I didn’t laugh—because I knew she was admitting the truth.
Narcie could also be quite cruel, especially during our YTT modules. She would make biting comments about one of the students in our group—and tacitly encouraged others to either chime in or side with her. She encouraged petty dramas and passive-aggressive digs. She carefully picked her targets—she knew who she could bully or break down, and she was consistently aggressive and harsh with them.
Narcie liked to know what other teachers were learning, too, even though she was very aloof and reluctant to share her own knowledge. One of her students, for instance, was in graduate school and studying to be a physical therapist. One day, she had brought her anatomy text to the studio and was working on an assignment before class. Narcie glanced at her book and said, “I could be a doctor of yoga.”
Narcie also fostered tacit competition, and she needed to be better than everyone else around her. She was a very strong and skillful asana practitioner. She demonstrated physical mastery, flexibility, and prowess. Sometimes, before the Gentle Yoga class, which was comprised mostly of older women, she would practice very advanced poses before class started. Those who arrived a few minutes early would be her “audience.” These displays communicated authority and superiority (as well as arrogance and unprofessionalism).
Deception is another red flag and a strong indication of cult dynamics.
I felt like I was under a spell when I was in this studio space, especially when I was taking classes or attending YTT modules. During our training modules, Narcie would boast about being a highly intuitive empath. She also claimed to be a Reiki master and a firekeeper. Actually, she was a master co-opter and cultural appropriator.
She would host seasonal solstice ceremonies at her studio where participants would bring flowers, fruit, and chocolates to offer to the makeshift altar space that she had created in the middle of the floor, which included candles, crystals, and a statue of a sacred Hindu deity. Narcie was not a practicing Hindu, and her heritage was not Indian, but that didn’t stop her from appropriating sacred objects and traditions from Indian culture or chanting Sanskrit mantras without explaining their significance in her ceremonies.
Co-opting was a big part of her hustle as a studio owner. Narcie would learn about a new phrase, idea, or trend, and incorporate it into her own classes or create workshops around them. For example, she purchased several Yoga Dharma Wheels (a trendy $100+ prop that resembled a section of PVC pipe covered in a swath of rubber similar to a yoga mat), and decided to host a workshop around these expensive props. Participants had to purchase this prop in order to attend the workshop as well as sign a waiver releasing her of liability in the event of “death or injury” during this special class.
She also hosted workshops and private sessions that involved Reiki, Thai yoga massage, essential oils, and acro yoga—but would quickly lose interest and toss them aside, especially if they didn’t prove to be interesting or profitable. I found that she did the same with people as well.
Narcie wasn’t especially good with people, and she cultivated a fair amount of relational chaos and drama as a result. By nature, she was aloof and overly aggressive, so she had a hard time making and keeping loyal friends and partnerships. Her business partner, Russell (again, not his real name), was Yang to her Yin. Russell was friendly, affable, good-natured, and very energetic.
Narcie and Russell had an interesting relationship. When I first started going to their studio, they weren’t married, but they lived together. When Russell wasn’t around, Narcie referred to him on more than one occasion as an asshole, which confused me because he was more than willing to lie and cover for her, and he was her greatest go-along-to-get-along enabler.
When I was almost finished with their YTT program, Narcie suddenly left the studio. She had run away to Las Vegas for two months without an explanation, leaving Russell to field questions from curious (and worried) students, cover all of her classes, and keep the studio running.
I had worried that she ran off to Vegas to gamble away all of the YTT money she had made from the students in our group. When customers asked Russell where Narcie went, he told them she was getting dental work done. It was a ridiculous lie that no one believed, but he said it with a smile, and they didn’t press him for more details.
Narcie eventually returned…without an explanation...and her teeth looked the same as they did before she left…crooked.
She never said a word about where she went or why she left, and we knew better than to ask. Fortunately, I was able to finish my training and started teaching Yin classes at their studio.
The signs had been there all along, but I didn’t see them. The co-opting, co-modification, cultural appropriation, fickle hustles and detours, and, of course, the lies. It took me six years to recognize that no matter how hard I worked, how many classes I taught, she didn’t value me…she didn’ t value anyone, but herself.
"When we are no longer able to change a situation...we are challenged to change ourselves." Victor Frankl
Cult researchers also agree that members of cults often delay leaving a manipulative, toxic group or environment. This may seem counterintuitive, but I totally understand. It took me six years to walk away from teaching and attending classes at this Greenwood studio.
I did enjoy teaching classes--that was the main reason why I stayed as long as I did--because of my students.
However, I also felt lonely in this space--and hopelessly inadequate. A 200-hour YTT program is not enough training to effectively lead others in a yoga practice. Consequently, after I completed the YTT program at this studio, I also completed a Prenatal Yoga Program at Kripalu, I studied Yin Yoga in Vancouver, B.C., with Bernie Clark, and I completed an online Yoga for All training with Dianne Bondy and Amber Karnes.
All of these additional programs were excellent, and the teachers were knowledgeable AND professional--no secrets, no drama, no mind games.
These programs and trainings also helped boost my confidence while I taught prenatal, Yin, and community yoga classes at the Greenwood studio. I invested a great deal of time and effort preparing meaningful sequences for my students. Not only did these trainings help me grow as a teacher, they also helped me recognize how unhealthy the environment was in this space--and how manipulative and toxic Narcie and Russell actually were. In effect, breaking away helped me muster the courage to walk away.
In August, of 2017, I signed up for an additional training with my friend Alyssa at her studio in Broad Ripple. She was offering a YTT supplemental program for those who were interested in teaching meditation. Alyssa's program was excellent, too, and it was during her training that I found out about a meditation retreat in Colorado scheduled for March of 2018.
I had been practicing meditation daily on my own, and was really looking forward to this retreat. On Thanksgiving of 2017, Narcie sent me an "urgent" email. I was expecting a message from a family member--it was a holiday, after all. Instead, it was Narcie wanting to know if I was interested in renewing my contract to teach at her studio (she had her independent contractors fill out ridiculously long contracts every six months). I had filled out these papers many times before, but for the first time, I hesitated--I thought about what the next six months would be like. I thought about teaching in her dark, cavelike studio. I thought about all of her demands, dramas, passive-aggressive digs, and mood swings that I would have to tolerate. I thought about her lack of appreciation for all of the effort and dedication that I would offer, and then I thought about the upcoming meditation retreat-- and the hassle of finding subs to cover my classes while I was away.
It was at that point that I decided to leave. I taught my last class on December 17, 2017. Narcie didn't thank me for my time, effort, and dedication--and she didn't even say goodbye...which was a clear indication that I had made the right decision.
I tried to maintain my own personal asana practice afterwards, but I found it to be extremely triggering for me emotionally. When I attended the meditation retreat a few months later, I met a few Feldenkrais practitioners, and was very curious about this practice. I have been a fan of this alternative somatic movement practice ever since.
I was not the only teacher to leave this studio; others left, too. In fact, Narcie closed this Greenwood studio within a year of my leaving. I am relieved that she will no longer harm others in this space. She does still teach online, however. Thankfully, there are also many qualified, kind, and ethical teachers who are teaching online as well. I'm hoping they will outshine her dark influence.
I don't teach asana anymore; however, in the last five years, I have been healing from the toxic cult dynamics that were present at this studio and from the manipulative, controlling business owners. Feldenkrais lessons have been a wonderful substitute for asana, and I have been actively exploring and practicing the other seven limbs of yoga.
Yoga is not just about physical postures; it is much more vast and profound. Leaving this studio has given me an opportunity to actively cultivate a stronger sense of discernment and ethics; breath practices have been extremely helpful in regulating my nervous system; I have benefited from single-pointed focus, and I have found contentment and authenticity in my own meditation, mantra, and Buddhist practices.
In walking away from a toxic environment and toxic people, I have found compassion and peace, which are key ingredients for a healthy yoga practice. I have also had more time to heal and grow, and I've been able to fill in the gaps that these distressing experiences created with authentic, meaningful practices, and by surrounding myself with people who have an enormous capacity for integrity, humility, and kindness.
Another bonus: moving forward has also given me more time to devote to stringing malas. Creating beautiful, hand-knotted malas has not only fostered my own healing and allowed me to dive more deeply into my own personal meditation practice; it has also helped me inspire others to explore meditation in their own ways as well.
Thanks for reading or listening to my story today. It was not an easy one to write, and my hope is that it will be of benefit to others.
If you haven't taken a look at the malas available in the current online collection, please visit the MMM homepage. There are malas waiting for your there.