3HO – Cult or Spiritual Environment?

Despite the remarkable help I’ve experienced from my Kundalini Yoga practice, I often wonder if I’m stuck in a cult. I was out with some friends having dinner, and one guy remarked that his ex had been a dedicated Kundalini Yoga practitioner. He made an off-hand comment about it being a cult. Is it?

Just where do you draw the line? Even if it IS a cult, can it still be beneficial? There are a number of embittered “ex-3HO” discussion groups, and Rick Ross maintains a group of articles about 3HO claiming the horrible abuses it inflicts. But the stories he relates are indicting for the individuals involved more than the community as a whole.

A woman I know says she did spiritual counseling for women (plural in her story) whom Yogi Bhajan instructed to be celibate within the 3HO community, but he “made them have sex with him.” Apparently they were scarred for life. The questions that immediately came to mind were; was it an ego trip for them? For him? Was their self-esteem so damaged they needed that interaction? Does his wife know? Is there any possible way it could have been beneficial to the women? Or did Yogi Bhajan just blatantly abuse his powers without regard for their good? Is there some spiritual level at which it’s all inconsequential? Do our moral laws and judgements so thoroughly color our perception of the encounter that it obscures the power and esteem issues involved? Such questions immediately draw into mind the “defense of the cult by those blinded by their involvement in it” issue as well. I don’t have any clear answers. Of course any women will be insulted by open-minded examination of the issue, and most 3HO people will probably be defensive.

I heard so many horrible stories of the Hare Krishnas abducting people during the 70’s and not letting them leave after they had their free meal and were worked to the bone. Moonie stories abound as well. Both organizations have done wonderful things for various communities; Culver City’s Hare Krishna community seems wonderful, and boasts one of the best vegetarian restaraunts around. A friend of mine travelled to spiritual temples all around the world with a program sponsored by the moonies, and another worked for the computer animation lab they ran. Is a cult a black and white issue? Recent articles have condemned the Kabballah Center in Los Angeles for cult-like practices. Many people I know have met their “soul-mates” there or at least praise their spiritual growth and how much it’s helped them. A friend left the Scientology community and had people pursuing him through visits to his home and family. Others claim it’s helped them immensely, although some have lost family inheritances through shyster investment advisors that preyed on the community. Who am I to say? That one hasn’t held any attraction to me.

Steven Hassan has a website called the Freedom of Mind Center. In it, he’s examined some of the issues involved. Forthwith:

Questions to Help the Assessment Process

from Spiritual Responsibility: Avoiding Abuses and Pitfalls Along the Path

1. Who is the leader?

What are his/her background and qualifications?

Have you relied solely on trust that all of the information you were given is true or have you done independent investigation?

Do you feel pressure to accept and not question at all?

Is it possible that there are misrepresentations or falsehoods?

Is there external corroboration for extraordinary claims of accomplishment or are they simply his/her say-so?

If “miracles” have been performed, can they be replicated under open observation or even under scientific conditions?

Are there other explanations for the “miracles,” such as magic tricks, hypnosis, etc.?

If there is a former leader or member, have you sought him or her out to hear for yourself critical information? If not, are you afraid to trust your ability to discern the truthfulness of what you learn?

If you find yourself saying that you don’t care if there are major deceptions, ask yourself if you knew this information before you became involved, would you have even bothered to make a commitment of time and money?

2. Are there exclusive claims made to wisdom, knowledge, love, and truth? If so, the burden of proof is on the leader to demonstrate his or her superiority, not on members to disprove it. A truly “developed” spiritual being exudes love, compassion, and humility. Any person who claims to be “superior” but does not practice what they preach is of questionable character. There is never incongruency between words and deeds. A person who uses fear and phobia indoctrination to control followers demonstrates insecurity and lack of spiritual maturity.

3. Is total submission and obedience required? Any relationship that demands giving up one’s personal integrity and conscience is dangerous and leads to totalitarianism. Be wary of those who advocate “the ends justify the means,” especially when it clearly serves their own self-interest. Also, make sure that your desire “to believe” doesn’t simply activate the common psychological defense mechanisms: denial, rationalization, justification, and wishful thinking. If a doctrine is true or a person is truly spiritually advanced, they will stand up to the scrutiny of objective evaluation. If they do not prove themselves, they are probably not worthy of your commitment and devotion.

4.    Does he/ she have a criminal record, a legacy of allegations against him/her or a history of misconduct? If there are allegations of misconduct against the leader, the responsible follower must seek out the negative information and the sources of that information to evaluate the truth. If a leader claims to be celibate and allegations are made that the leader engaged in inappropriate sex, this is an extreme violation of integrity. It must be investigated vigorously. It is never appropriate for teachers, therapists, or spiritual masters to take advantage of a power differential over followers. This is especially true in the area of sexuality. It is grossly unethical to engage in sexual relations with someone who has placed their trust in as a teacher/advisor/master. Many followers are incredibly vulnerable to this and unable to resist sexual intimacy. Anyone should be able to say “no.”

Is he or she a “trust bandit,” stealing hearts, souls, minds, bodies, and pocketbooks for his or her own ends?

5. Does the leader demonstrate psychological problems and awareness of their existence?

Does the leader have addictions to power, drugs, alcohol, sex, even television or shopping?

Does the leader have emotional outbursts?

Does the leader physically abuse followers?

Does the leader drive expensive cars and wear expensive clothes while extolling the virtues of renunciation?

Does the leader financially exploit followers by expecting them to live in poverty while he or she indulges in luxury?

Is the group or leader’s driveway habitually filled with luxury cars while ordinary people find him or her inaccessible and unreachable?

Does the leader ever encourage deception or use deception as a “technique” to trick followers into so-called correct thinking and understanding?

Codependent behavior by a spiritual teacher should be a warning sign of danger. Codependency includes: obsessively trying to control others; allowing people to hurt and use them; lack of clear boundaries; being reactive, not proactive; tunnel visioned; obsessive worrying and denial; expectations of perfection and suppression of human needs. (Beattie, Beyond Codependency, Harper/Hazelden, 1989)

6. Are questions and doubts permitted within the organization?

A healthy spiritual environment must engage individual followers at their level of experience and should encourage them to feel and think and therefore question their beliefs and exercise good decision-making. In this way, the follower can investigate, discriminate, and test the dogma and the environment they are being asked to accept, between what his or her personal issues are and what might be an unhealthy environment. If intense pressure is used to dissuade people who wish to talk with former members or critics, it is a clear sign of information control. Controlling information is one of the most essential components of mind control.

7. Is the organization open or closed?

Are there organizational secrets?

Are there “in” groups and “out” groups?

Are there restricted teachings for initiates only?

Are there secret texts and publications “for your eyes only”?

Is there real financial accountability?

If a group says that you can look at its accounting records, does it actually provide access?

The only way to know is to ask to see the records. If you are afraid to ask, what does this say about the atmosphere of the group?

8. What structural checks and balances exist within the organization to prevent abuse of power?

Are there divisive sectarian biases, even in the name of interdenominational ecumenicism and universality?

Is there an independent “ethics”committee to challenge and change policies of the group?

If there are abuses or injustices, what structure exists to correct them?

Can anyone legitimately question the actions of the leader without threat of emotional withdraw or fear of expulsion to “hell”?

Do the rich and powerful get preferential treatment?

Are “indulgences” (spiritual pardons) sold?

Is there a “code of silence” against unethical behavior of leaders?

10 Replies to “3HO – Cult or Spiritual Environment?”

  1. Someone born and raised in 3HO and is no longer a part of it found this post and recently mentioned it on her blog:


    It’s the post from Aug. 23, 2009.

    If you read the whole blog, it might answer some of your questions as to whether 3HO is a cult or not.

  2. HI

    I practice Kundalini Yoga and I am thinking about doing the training. It is a fact that it makes me feel wonderful, it makes me radiant.

    And yet I come from a background of critical thinking and inquiry, I believe that ideas are strong if they lend themselves to discussion. And in this sense I do feel that any religion is like a Totalitarian state, you must believe, submit, not question.

    So although, I want to practice and open my heart and keep growing. I don´t want to join a cult and I want to keep my feet on the ground, knowing what is real. If someone else out there has experiences to share about teachers training, I would love to hear them.

    with love,

    D A

    1. If something makes you feel great, I say “do it!”

      What hasn’t been mentioned is that 3HO hasn’t had a “leader” in some time (Yogi Bhajan died in 2004) and since that time no one has been “appointed” to take over. I feel that is because he never intended to create a following, but people in the 1960s and 1970s WANTED to follow him.

      3HO is still a thriving community of yogis. Some of them are Sikhs, but that is a personal coice rather than a requirement.

      In everything you learn, you can choose what applies to you and what you can leave behind. Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training is a really great experience and I highly recommend it.

    2. We are/were in the same predicament. Kundalini yoga absolutely changed my life and I was set to do the teacher training last summer. About a month before however, I began learning some disturbing things about 3HO and Yogi Bhajan. I have been to a few Solstice celebrations and they things I learned confirmed red flags that I had come up, but I had dismissed. Even though Yogi Bhajan is not around, many of the old 3HO members are still running the show. I decided not to do Kundalini training, that after learning what I had that I couldn’t represent it and keep my integrity. One can still teach it, even without the 3HO certification… I have struggled greatly to find a place of peace where I can keep the teaching, and my practice and leave the b.s. but it’s not easy. I wish you luck.

  3. Hi D A,

    I can speak only from my own personal experiences. I can only offer positive feedback about the teacher training. I’ve only done Level I, but I found it to offer a very thorough overview of the techniques and philosophy behind Kundalini Yoga. Furthermore, I really loved the level of community that existed among the teacher trainees during the training.

    With that experience and knowledge under your belt (or should I say under your turban) perhaps then you can apply your critical thinking and inquiry to your practice and the information presented to you.

    I can’t say I’ve heard a lot of critical thinking and inquiry applied to the practice, however. KRI certainly has done quite a bit of scientific investigation into the results of it, but I didn’t hear a lot among the teachers. Perhaps because initially there’s so much information to digest that it can be overwhelming.

    With much of it my approach has been to try it and see if it delivers the promised results. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there are miraculous consequences I didn’t expect. Sometimes I feel that I’ve wasted my time. But overall, I still believe Kundalini Yoga has had more beneficial results in my life than anything else I’ve discovered, so I continue to turn to it.

    I’ve rarely felt pressured to get involved in the community in a cult-like fashion. There are many people who’ve done the teacher’s training and don’t teach or participate in the culture in a committed fashion, so there’s no obligation to put on a turban or do anything extreme like cut off communications with your family and friends.

    On the other hand, some of the religious, spiritual, or philosophical practices and ideas seem questionable. Kundalini Yoga is a house-holder’s yoga, meant for someone who has a job and family, yet some of the fundamental practices are difficult to maintain while participating in the society most of us live in.

    Morning sadhana, for instance; rising for 3:45AM yoga and meditation makes it nearly impossible to socialize with most of society, yet promises that your relationship with God will be more rewarding than the friendships you have to overlook. Yet, I have found that when I practice it regularly, most things in my life go much better.

    The Sikh “uniform” if you want to call it that, certainly presents you as an outsider to much of western society, and an uncut beard disqualifies men from many jobs. This is probably more of an issue in the west; muslims or buddhist monks have had these external trappings as evidence of their spiritual commitment for ages, as do the Hasidic Jews.

    What I find somewhat more troubling is the fundamental belief, or presentation, of the coming transition into the age of Aquarius from the Piscean Age as a nearly apocalyptic event. This strikes me as not unlike the Christian Rapture, or the Jewish Hasidic Prophet of Crown Heights (which I’m obviously not qualified to speak knowledgeably about since I can’t even recall his name). Apocalyptic motivational prophecies are a hallmark of a lot of cults and religions.

    Dasvandh, or spiritual contributions, to 3HO are encouraged but not demanded. Spiritual tithing is a hallmark of most spiritual practices, and the explanation is that what you contribute will return to you ten-fold. It’s hard to hold most religious beliefs and practices up to scientific scrutiny; if you contribute $10 and get a $150 dollar check two months later, was it because you made the contribution, or because you worked for it? You got 15 times back, so maybe it wasn’t due to your contribution… I have no issue with supporting 3HO because they offer so much to me, but question the spiritual rationalization of it. Tithing is, after all, a “spiritual law.” OK. I contribute to a lot of different spiritual causes in addition to 3HO, but don’t see a lot of financial reward for it. Nor should I expect to, since it’s a “contribution,” right?

    Perhaps most widely questioned is White Tantric Yoga. This experience is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding and fantastic of Kundalini Yoga, and was amusingly mis-interpreted by the NY Times in Yogi Bhajan’s obituary as a “sexual practice,” which it isn’t. It’s a fantastic meditation practice done by groups of couples, who hold postures or mudras while chanting out loud or silently. What’s suspect is that Yogi Bhajan was the only “Mahan Tantric” on the planet, and there is only one at any given point in time. It is not to be practiced on your own, only with him guiding it. Yet when he was unable to be physically present, he could facilitate through television recordings of him leading the group. It was said that people who were with him during these “remote sessions” actually observed him reacting to the process of the group, which could be true. But it’s a hard one to accept. Now that he’s died – or left his physical body – he STILL guides people through the day-long, rather expensive, workshops. They’re still incredibly rewarding experiences. But why shouldn’t people practice them on their own?

    I think many Christian religious groups have been subjected to more thorough “analysis” by westerners. Eastern practices take longer to be assimilated by the west, and their novel qualities often are welcomed by those disillusioned by the personal shortcomings of the priests or leaders which discolored the practitioner’s religious experiences.

    Spiritual experience is by its very nature beyond “practical analysis” and relies upon your willingness to suspend disbelief, reorganize your beliefs and faith, and commit to something that may be nothing more than the constructs of a persuasive individual with an active imagination. Miracles may be nothing more than events that we don’t have the capacity to understand, or they may be due to spiritual beings in other realms we haven’t encountered. Religious and spiritual groups can always be swayed by the fears and ego struggles of those involved, and there are the more severe “fundamentalist” kundalini yoga practitioners around, just as there are those who embody yogic flexibility in their behavior bolstered by undying faith of spirit in the way they encounter all their problems in life.

    1. I enjoyed reading your comment.

      I wanted to mention that Yogi Bhajan was not the only Mahan Tantric. He learned it from a Mahan Tantric who had 2 students—Yogi Bhajan was one of the them. However, it was the other student that was considered to the more prepared of the two to take on the title when the original Mahan Tantric died. When THAT student died, the Mahan Tantric position was passed to Yogi Bhajan.

      As I understand it, somewhere in a vault there is a piece of paper with the answer to a question that ONLY the next Mahan Tantric could know.

      Whether of not you believe this is not really important though. I think a lot of useless discussion happens when we try to debate spirituality too literally. What matters is that White Tantric Yoga is an extremely healing practice.

  4. There are a few things about the *religious* aspects of 3HO’s interpretation of Sikhi that I find puzzling if not outright disturbing and cult-like.

    1) The whole emphasis on yoga as a spiritual tool is contrary to Sikh teachings in the SGGS — http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Yoga

    2) Why the all-white uniform? There’s nothing scriptural about it. Setting aside that it’s visually boring (God made all the colors in the spectrum, yes? Why shouldn’t we wear them?!), there’s a kind of creepy quality about *all* people in the same organization wearing the same color clothing all day, every day. Yes, I find it a little creepy in the military as well, if you must ask…

    3) Women wearing the turban… I never see Punjabi Sikh women wearing turbans. Like *ever*. Only white women, and usually those white women are 3HO Sikhs. I asked one such woman about her attachment to her turban and her response was basically “My guru has given me this as a crown. There is nothing I would not do to please my guru.” That sort of mindless devotion is in keeping with cult member mentality.

    4) The lionization (no pun intended) of Yogi Bhajan — almost as if he were one of the 10 gurus reincarnated. I have heard waaay too many stories about unseemly things he has said or done that have all the hallmarks of ego-centered cult-leader behavior — tantrums, abusive language directed at underlings, splitting up marriages, exploiting his power to indulge in sexual relationships with his “secretaries,” etc.

    Why would anyone listen to anything that man said given how horribly he behaved? Clearly he is just as human as the rest of us and there was nothing particularly noble or good or special about him.

    The bottom line is God gave us each an inquiring and discerning heart. We do not do God any great honor by refusing to USE those gifts to better understand the nature of God and our relationship with The Beloved.

  5. Kundalini Yoga predates Sikhism by some millenia. Indeed most of the religions we know today, with the exception of Vodun or Neterianism. Yogi Bhajan, instituted among his followers, a form of Sikhism that is pre-Colonial, as a means of countering what I would call Addictive American culture. As I can’t identify as a mainstream American, and was raised in a culture of resistance, I could relate to the yoga, but not to Sikhism, considering it like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, alien imports to this continent. Rather than the Sikh guru’s, I found indigenous and African American spiritual and civil rights leaders more relevant to my life. My personal relationship with Yogi Bhajan was always characterized by respect and encouragement for my academic and professional career. As with anything or any group, the personal failings of a leader are not necessarily indicators of the merits or benefits of his cause or movement. I’m paid to listen to horrific stories, so at least I believe that they believe their tales of woe. I never knew anyone personally sexually or financially abused by Yogi Bhajan, which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That being said, I maintain a distance from the organization, mostly I find like many organizations predominantly populated with white Americans, their skill in dealing with diversity issues generally lags behind corporate America. While you don’t have to become a Sikh to participate in the organization, most are, and there is always a sense of a certain elitism. The yoga, meditations, and sadhana provide a useful non-chemical way of dealing with American life. I’ve gone through teacher trainings, and tantric, and watched 3HO from a distance since the 70’s. They had a pretty decent addictions treatment program, and I like some of the things that go on among communities of color, and in other countries. Otherwise, one can and should pick and choose their own path. I liked what you posted.

  6. I share my experience with kundalini yoga and 3HO as a means of communication and my personal healing. I was introduced to Kundalini Yoga about 9 years ago. For me it felt as Divinity coming into my own hands, that I had he power to do something to heal and change my life. Very quickly it became a life raft for me. Whenever I was experiencing turmoil and deep challenges within myself and in mylife I would go to Kundalini Yoga. I love God deeply and profoundly. I wanted to be part of a community and I felt strongly that the Kundalini Yoga community would be a wonderful support for my healing and the evolution of my Soul. I have experienced so much hurt within the Kundalini Yoga community! The techniques themselves I have experienced as being very helpful, healing and awakeniing for me. I have also experienced within myself that through proacticing Kundalini yoga an enormous amount of spiritual power and even spiritual powers are awakened. I found it very challenging to stay in my heart and manage my ego and spiritual power. In the Kundalini Yoga community I have experienced severe negatation! I wanted to connect with others in the community. And what I experienced time and time again was huge spiritual ego on the part of others. There definately is an elitism within the Kundalini Yoga community, for as I shared I experienced it within myself also. When I needed deep help and contacted several in the community for support, even Guru Charan who is head of the teachings and KRI, I recieved no call back or communication. So many times I felt left and alone in the communty until I finally just gave up and practiced Kundalini Yoga on my own. I came to a point about a year ago where Kundalini Yoga (most meditations and kriyas) are too much for me too manage through my day and on a consistent basis. Too much heat and through my own inner healing I now am very sensetive where the kriyas and meditations are like a sledge hammer to my nervous system, brain and psyche.
    I held on for years feeling so strongly and deeply that Kundalini Yoga was my only way, salvation and protection for the coming times. I have been in several spiritual communities and I have had many gurus and spiritual teachers. I am now, finally at a point where I will not go outside of myself any longer. I will not give my power or myself away to any being, spiritual teacher, guru, community or teaching any longer. I Am Done. My choice is to rely on my Soul and my Divine True Self for guidance. I do not believe nor will I accept any longer that my salvation lies in the hands of any other Being, teaching or community. I have experienced first hand humans who profess and teach that they are incarnations of God and the only wayto enlightenment or salvation is through them. Bullshit! I have also experienced devotees in these very same communities show up as nuerotic, deeply cruel, hateful, selfish and damaging. Anyone can say that “this is just the way of the world”, and this too I find unacceptable and bullshit. Spiritual teachers and gurus have a viable responsibility to be a vessel of Truth, Love and Compassion. Especially if they are proporting themselves as Saviors and the only means to enlightenment. We are all responsible for what is ours and nothing else. To hear people express – “well, this is your karma and it is because of you that these people are showing up in this way” is a complete negation of Everyones responsibility and part. Yes, we are responsible for what we create and the propulsion of energy that wants to come into consicousness within us. AND there is always a co-creative process in any interaction and communication or lack thereof.
    I am healing and coming into wholeness within myself from all of my cult experiences. A large part of this letting go is letting go of the whole dooms day mentality and way of living. I have lived in this mentality and way of being for far too long – almost 3 decades. I now look for a way to live in peace, security and harmony within myself and let go of all of the fear, worry and ocd ways of trying to make myself safe and secure.
    Kundalini Yoga helped me deeply when I needed help. It was the safest and most reliable path that I knew at the time. This being separate from the community, which proved itself to be hurtful, unresponsive, selfish and negating.
    I hope this helps those who read this in their own healing and coming into wholeness.

  7. I worked for a self proclaimed Kundalini yoga guru 15 years ago, who would preach the end of the world is coming and we must all prepare for the shift… scaring everyone into submission. When I told him I couldn’t work for him any longer… he told me I would die if I left. He spread rumor’s that I was going to fail in my life and dreams. All my friends at the time turned there back on me and continued with the training. Obviously I am still alive and well. Healthier than ever without the kundalini cult. I believe he is just seeing himself. Its not the world that is ending.. Its inside him that is falling apart. Hiding behind mantras. Never stepping out into the world on his own. Never facing himself alone like a real guru should. It took me years to get my strength back and live a normal life I enjoy. Following my heart and dreams without the fear of failure or death if I dont do as he says.

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