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Zabel Article, Part 4: Stay Safe

This blog started with a series that argued that the teacher IS the teachings. The teacher, in this case, called himself Yogi Bhajan, and he called the teachings "kundalini yoga." The blog argues that if you're doing any form of this practice, you are practicing what Bhajan preached. It suggests, in other words, that once you're convinced that Bhajan was not admirable, then you will ultimately come to the conclusion that his yoga is an unhealthy extension of him. Either that or you will be living the same lie that Bhajan lived, under the same level of deception that he imposed upon his students.


That is not my opinion alone. It is based on my experience and research, but also on compelling writing and scholarship, on the credible testimony of legions of former Bhajanists, and on the conclusions of an independent investigation. What we thought was healthy turned out to be unhealthy. What we thought was a spiritual community turned out to be a cult. And what we thought to be an ancient yoga practice turned out to be an ad hoc invention, a clever way to draw people into Bhajan's world in order to control their lives and extract their riches.[1]


But now, two years after the Premka memoir dropped a bomb on Bhajan World, a serious effort at revising that picture has appeared. I'm referring to Rob Zabel's article on the roots and context of Bhajan's yoga. His article addresses concerns of both Bhajan's organization and of those practicing versions of his yoga, who simply want to know more about the legitimacy of Bhajan's yoga system. This is especially the case for those offering teacher training in this form of yoga, for obvious reasons.[2]


First let's look at what makes this a serious effort.


Zabel focuses his narrative throughout on refuting two strands of thought that question the validity of Bhajan's yoga. One, probably best represented by Dr. Trilochan Singh, Sikhism and Tantric Yoga: A Critical Evaluation of Yogi Bhajan's Tantric Yoga In the Light of Sikh Mystical Experiences and Doctrines (1977), systematically refuted Bhajan's combination of Sikhism and "modern postural yoga," as Zabel terms it. The title of one chapter says it all: "Yogi Bhajan's Clap Trap Theories of Kundalini Yoga in the Light of Sikhism." Singh's 20-plus scholarly books on Sikhs and Sikhism display his command over Sikh history, philosophy, theology and scriptures. He stresses that the connection between yoga and Sikhism is a deep and serious conversation, and Zabel engages in that conversation.[3]


While Singh focuses on what he sees as Bhajan's false connection between Bhajan's yoga and Sikhism, he also remarks on Bhajan's "newly invented Guru Yoga," and predicts that Americans "will sooner or later find the truth and condemn his fictitious spiritual postures invented for them." Because Singh was not an authority on the history and lineage of hatha yoga, that part of his criticism was less influential than his commentary on yoga's relationship to Sikhism.[4]


Historian Philip Deslippe wrote perhaps the most hard-hitting article about Bhajan's tendency to lie about his history, his yoga background, and the system he called kundalini yoga. With careful and surprisingly detailed research into a history that had been obscured by Bhajan and his propagandists, Deslippe argues that the practice was Bhajan's creation, construction, and curation. This is true about the topic of Zabel's article (Deslippe: "Yogi Bhajan himself can be seen as the primary editor of the understanding of his Kundalini Yoga and its claimed lineage.”) and about the yoga itself (Deslippe: "When the Golden Chain of Kundalini Yoga is investigated rather than invoked, it unravels.”) Again, to his credit Zabel is willing to take on this powerful critique.[5]



So the questions that Zabel addresses are those two essential unknowns: Did Bhajan mislead his followers about links between yoga and Sikhism? Did Bhajan fabricate kundalini yoga's lineage? Those two questions, with affirmative answers already backed by strong scholarly research, raise serious doubts about the practice, especially now that Bhajan has been personally discredited.


Zabel responds with what I call the legitimacy thesis. While Singh and Deslippe imply that the construction of Bhajan's yoga made it inseparable from Bhajan -- that the teacher IS the teachings -- Zabel contends that those arguments lack nuance, that they have too narrow a perspective, and that the practice does have a legitimate lineage.


He makes two primary arguments in the service of his legitimacy thesis. First, that Bhajan's yoga had roots not only in the modern postural yoga lineage but also in certain sects of Sikhism. Second, that it's normal, rather than abnormal, for masters like Bhajan to have been influenced by many teachers, to be inconsistent in their acknowledgments to those teachers, and to innovate beyond their teachers.


Both of those arguments have weaknesses that I've discussed in previous posts, but what I find most interesting is how Zabel at times pulls the rug from under his own thesis. If you pay close attention, you'll see that Zabel's article undercuts itself by indicating at various points that the yoga was original, Bhajan's own creation. In other words, you can find evidence in Zabel's article that the teacher WAS the teachings.

  • Yogi Bhajan had no qualms about borrowing, mixing, and even obscuring as he built his sprawling collection of techniques. (p. 96)

  • Bhajan remixed and repackaged his decades of study into a practice. (p. 35)

  • It is perhaps just as likely that Bhajan simply saw the practice somewhere, experimented with it independently, and taught his own version. (p. 92)

  • For Yogi Bhajan it seems that … whatever approach or explanations worked were acceptable. (p. 36)

  • Whether Bhajan himself believed in these scientific explanations of yoga or merely found them expedient is hard to glean. (p. 59)

  • Bhajan "made up" his variation, which is perhaps a pessimistic way to describe what might otherwise be considered revelation or innovation. (p. 89)

  • A shrewd inventiveness on the part of Bhajan ... cannot be definitively ruled out. (p. 33)

  • There is no doubt that his teachings and organizations are novel in their borrowings and inventions. (p. 4)

  • And yet the teachings were never presented as his own creation, but rather as part of a larger concept of Kundalini Yoga that was ancient and multifarious. (p. 6) Similarly, Bhajan would emphasize how important it was to leave the practices unaltered, hyping the perfection of the supposedly received tradition. (p. 93)

What's more, Zabel acknowledges at various points that Bhajan was deceptive, brash, shrewd, clever, expedient, ambitious, and egotistical.

  • The “golden chain” concept was a powerful tool by which to consolidate authority and discourage departures from his method. (p. 94)

  • His self-assigned title of Mahan Tantric exists somewhere between historical reality and bombast, based on real precedents but overstated to project a very well-curated image of mastery and authority. (p. 99)

  • Bhajan taking on and likely even coining the title may have been an act to which he felt intuitively entitled, which certainly accords with accounts of the brash and ambitious man Harbhajan Singh was. (p. 41)

  • Nothing legitimizes a teacher more than this direct connection to Source in these traditions, and nothing empowers a mantra more than an unbroken chain of transmission from that Source. Ultimately, Yogi Bhajan claimed to have found that communion for himself, allowing him to act as a direct conduit of the Guru. (p. 51)

  • At times [the Golden Chain] seemed to even obscure the piecemeal origins of KYATBYB, used to indirectly present the practice as primordial and divine. (p. 93)

  • In some regards Bhajan seems to have emulated Dhirendra’s decadent lifestyle more than his teachings. (p. 63)

  • It may be argued his most valuable lessons were in healthy living and clever marketing. (p. 59)

  • What these Hindu teachers’ names did for Yogi Bhajan was give him an air of authority to that large swath of the West which was familiar with these household names. This was advantageous. (p. 53)

  • But was this genuine inspiration or ... shrewd concoction? The ambitions that Yogi Bhajan clearly harbored may justifiably raise suspicions in the mind of the critical observer. (p. 49)

  • The transition from crediting his more famous influences to Hazara Singh was an undeniably shrewd choice. (p. 39)

  • Perceived historical validity is a source of succor to young faiths, even when fabricated. (p. 9)

  • Whatever the origin of Yogi Bhajan’s claimed lineage, one cannot ignore that his claims of access to the “Golden Chain” were a source of power. His exclusive authority within 3HO made him the arbiter of all aspects of the practice and connected lifestyle that his students were imbibing. Bhajan’s eventual rejection of his only accessible Sikh teacher, Sant Virsa Singh, certainly helped consolidate that power. (p. 13)

  • Bhajan’s power was not initially derived from financial largesse or political clout - though this power came in time - but rather by his claimed access to an ancient lineage. (p. 13)

  • When he had sufficient motivation, that taboo was conveniently broken. (p. 59)

Wow.


I agree with all that, but I didn't expect it in a paper funded by a grant from Bhajan's organization. If true, that all calls into question not only Zabel's legitimacy thesis, but also what I call his "safety thesis," something he introduces at the very end of the article, and doesn't address directly anywhere else because, as he says at the start, "This paper is not intended to explore Yogi Bhajan’s character." And if you ignore Bhajan's character, it's a lot easier to end your paper with the safety thesis: "If a yogi finds themself further along the path by means of this or any other practice, it hardly matters how flimsy its composition. As long as it has safely brought you to the other shore you are free to leave the raft behind, its purpose served."[6]


Why does Zabel presume that Bhajan's yoga is safe? One reason only: he did not explore Bhajan's character. Only by actively ignoring Bhajan's character could someone write, as Zabel did, "There is little reason to believe Bhajan was anything less than genuine in his belief in the teachings and practices in which he dealt." [7]


My plea to you, dear reader: If you are going to practice kriyas or do mantras created by Bhajan, regardless of the branding or rebranding, please explore his character first.[8] In Bhajan's case, the teacher IS the teachings. Kundalini yoga as it's taught in the West, by whatever name teachers are using these days, IS Yogi Bhajan.


Do not accept the stories that Bhajan put out about himself, as Zabel so often does. Ignore vague generalizations about Bhajan's yogic influences. Avoid unsourced statements about Bhajan's youthful yogic mastery. Do not listen to those who tell you that this man's yoga practice "exists in the continuum of All Yoga and doesn't begin or end with Yogi Bhajan."[9]


It began with Bhajan, and even though people will continue to try to make money off it, it can end with you. Study Bhajan's character, and stay safe.


TO BE CONTINUED...

[1] Olive Branch Report (An Olive Branch Associates, LLC, 2020). Report on an Investigation into the Allegations of Sexual and Related Misconduct by Yogi Bhajan.


[2] Dyson, Pamela (Eyes Wide Publishing, 2019). Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan. Zabel, Rob (no publisher, 2021). Bhajan’s Yoga: The Roots and Context of Kundalini Yoga As Taught By Yogi Bhajan. Kundalini yoga teacher training (not recommended) is still offered by people like Ravi Singh, Guru Singh, Mahan Rishi, Jivan Mukta (Juan Lafontaine), Harijiwan, Brett Larkin, Jai Dev, Yoga Farm Ithaca, Gurucharan Singh, Soul of Yoga, Molly Warner, Meherbani Kaur, Simran Kaur, Santokh Singh, Shakta Kaur, Shiva Singh, and too many others.

[3] Singh, Trilochan (International Institute of Sikh Studies, 1977). Sikhism and Tantric Yoga: A Critical Evaluation of Yogi Bhajan's Tantric Yoga in the Light of Sikh Mystical Experiences and Doctrines. See also this biography of Dr. Singh.


[4] Singh, Sikhism and Tantric Yoga, pp. 25, 149.


[5] Deslippe, Philip (Sikh Formations, 2012). From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric: The Construction of Yogi Bhajan's Kundalini Yoga, pp. 382, 370. Unlike Deslippe, Zabel figuratively throws his hands up by saying on p. 4 that Bhajan's "existence before 1968 remains largely nebulous and inaccessible," an odd comment from someone who is supposedly writing about Bhajan's existence before 1968.


[6] Zabel, p. 103.


[7] Zabel, p. 4.


[8] One place to start is by reading what he actually said to students as he was teaching them.


[9] Singh, Ravi (website, 2020). Gurus Gone Wild - The Yogi Bhajan Revelations Part 1. Ravi Singh, who continues to teach Bhajan's yoga, does not consider this kind of blog post part of a civil discussion: "Dale Prentiss has a pre-existing agenda that leaves no room for civil discussion. He's been blocked from [my Facebook] group for his negativity and divisiveness. He'll never have a platform here. He's making points based on sophistry and incorrect assumptions.”

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