In 1968, Pamela Saharah Dyson, 25 and newly divorced, moved into a Beachwood Drive duplex. She sped through Hollywood in her black MG convertible to Burbank, where she worked as a secretary at Warner Bros. Records. In her free time she practiced hatha yoga, because the meditative states offered solace from her angst.
But she wanted a guru—someone who could give her a deeper understanding of Eastern philosophy. They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Later that year Dyson met Yogi Bhajan and began a journey that would transform her life. She wasn’t alone; in a very short time, the charismatic yogi gained a devoted following of mostly white middle-class seekers who gave up their birth names and embarked with him on a prescriptive lifestyle that combined Sikhism, Kundalini yoga, and new age philosophies. He called himself a Saturn teacher, characterized by his disciplinarian style.
Dyson became Premka Kaur Khalsa, and she would devote her life to her guru for 16 years. She was part of his inner circle, earned the title of secretary general, and helped him build the organization from a couple hundred hippies taking classes from him in an antique store on the corner of Melrose and Robertson into an international behemoth with businesses, ashrams, and yoga studios all over the world.
Earlier this year, Dyson self-published Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan, in which she revealed that her guru-student relationship had a dark side. Her tale of love, betrayal, and sexual misconduct has the considered perspective of a woman who is now 77. She worked on the memoir for 12 years but has processed the trauma that led her to write it for more than 30, well before the #MeToo movement. What was acceptable behavior decades ago, let alone a year, a month, or even a day ago, has changed so rapidly that Dyson could not have anticipated the reckoning her story has wrought for a spiritual community that relies on the reverence of Yogi Bhajan as a pillar of its existence.
Bhajan claimed to be married yet celibate and had three children with his wife, Bibi Inderjit Kaur Khalsa. But rumors of his sexual misconduct circulated for years, especially liaisons with his female staff, a kind of harem who dressed in all white and in turbans. The women traveled with him, attended to his personal and professional needs, and lived like nuns with no families of their own.
Philip Deslippe, a yoga historian who has written extensively about Yogi Bhajan, and is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wonders if Bhajan’s reputation can survive the onslaught. “I think the scandals that are coming out will leave his name and his legacy as toxic,” says Deslippe, who taught Kundalini yoga for a decade before he began scrutinizing Bhajan through an academic lens. “He will be remembered like a Harvey Weinstein or a Jerry Sandusky of yoga, and I believe his teachings will be tainted in a way that will make it very hard to rebrand or salvage them.”
Bhajan died in 2004 at the age of 75—by then he was stricken with heart disease, was diabetic, and confined to a wheelchair. He left behind a sprawling empire under the banner of the 3HO Foundation, which stands for healthy, happy, and holy. His New York Times obituary called him the “boss of worlds spiritual and capitalistic.” Over the years he met with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama, and gained political capital in Espanola, New Mexico, where many of his businesses were headquartered. He became friendly with the state’s politicians, including Governor Bill Richardson, who, upon Bhajan’s death, ordered that flags be flown at half-staff. Bhajan liked gems, and amassed a maharaja-worthy collection of jewelry, a fleet of luxury cars (he was partial to Rolls-Royce and Mercedes), a 20-plus-acre ranch in Espanola, and an additional 120 acres nearby in the high desert. When he was at his Los Angeles headquarters, he liked to shop in Beverly Hills and dine at La Scala, which wasn’t far from the 3HO headquarters, comprised of several buildings in addition to his modest home on Preuss Road. He split his time between New Mexico and Los Angeles, visiting India often. But Bhajan’s brand of yoga traveled all over the world, and today there are teachers and ashrams in South America, Europe, and Russia.
“He will be remembered like a Harvey Weinstein of yoga. I believe his teachings will be tainted.” —Yoga historian Philip Deslippe
His businesses flourished, too. In addition to the Kundalini yoga enterprise—teacher trainings and events geared toward the 500,000 students the 3HO Foundation claims practice his brand of yoga—there was the Yogi Tea brand and Akal Security, which over the years has been awarded $1 billion in federal contracts to guard courthouses, embassies, and military bases. Like many 3HO businesses, Akal Security was started by a community member who turned it over to the organization. It wasn’t as big a stretch as it might seem for a yogi like Bhajan to run a security business, as South Asian Sikhs have traditionally served in military and police forces. Not to mention, according to Dyson, that Bhajan’s business philosophy was “OPI and OPM,” or Other People’s Intelligence and Money. But the way most people know Bhajan in Los Angeles is through Kundalini yoga taught at studios like Yoga West and the RA MA Institute. Yoga is big business, too: tuition for a teacher training can cost as much as $3,500, not to mention the revenues generated by 3HO-related companies that produce new-age music favored by yoga enthusiasts and instructors.
It was against this backstory of spiritual piety and roaring capitalism that Dyson published her memoir earlier this year. At first the book was an outlier and might have stayed so had it not triggered an unexpected outpouring of testimony from other women revealing stories of abuse at the hands of their guru that had been festering for decades. The revelations stood in stark contrast to the inner-circle members of 3HO, who still abide by Bhajan’s prescriptive lifestyle, use the spiritual names he gave them, wear white, tuck their uncut hair into turbans, and start the day with an ice-cold shower and a session of Kundalini yoga, often in rooms adorned with portraits of their guru. Bhajan had arranged their marriages, and now some of their grown children, meant to pass his teachings on to a new generation, are claiming that they endured relentless sexual, emotional, and physical abuse at 3HO-sponsored schools in India and New Mexico. At the end of June, one of them filed a civil lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging Bhajan engaged in child sexual abuse and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and that members of 3HO not only knew of Bhajan’s predilections, but enabled and witnessed them on multiple occasions.
The Siri Singh Sahib Corp., a body that incorporates 3HO, deemed the allegations credible and hired An Olive Branch, a Philadelphia-based consultancy guided by Buddhist principles that helps spiritual communities navigate ethical misconduct. Its report is scheduled for public release in late July. Shanti Kaur Khalsa, a public-affairs specialist and a member of the team established to oversee the inquiry, says, “Just because the complaints are credible doesn’t mean they’re true. It’s a very complex situation. Honestly, in the 40 years I was around [Bhajan], I never had any indication that this was happening. So that’s hard to believe. I’m a very smart person, I’m intuitive, I’m a yogi, and I honestly didn’t see it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do the right thing.” Khalsa confirmed that An Olive Branch received upwards of 16 reports from individuals who claimed harm at the hands of Yogi Bhajan, and it interviewed more than 300 members who either corroborated the accusations or defended Bhajan. Hard-line 3HO members seek to discredit Dyson’s allegations and claim the investigation is a farce. They have requested that a 3HO representative be allowed to advocate for Bhajan by obtaining access to all the allegation details—including the identities of the accusers. “Yogi Bhajan had a couple of sayings that really have now come into view for us. One was ‘Don’t love me, love the teaching’,” Khalsa says.
At Yoga West on Robertson Boulevard, the flagship Kundalini yoga studio where Bhajan often lectured, his portraits and sayings have been removed from the walls. Guru Singh Khalsa, a first-generation senior teacher, joined 3HO when Bhajan still taught classes at the antiques store owned by Bhajan student Jules Buccieri. (It’s now a John Varvatos store). Singh Khalsa describes his relationship with Bhajan as being akin to a father and son, and while he is aware of Dyson’s claims of sexual misconduct, he says that, back then, 3HO was a culture of denial. In March, he posted a public apology on social media, expressed contrition to the students in his teacher-training course, and promised to be an advocate for transparency and for the An Olive Branch investigation. “I believe the people that are telling their stories,” he says. “Does that mean I believe that Yogi Bhajan was a horrible person? Absolutely not. Does that mean I believe Yogi Bhajan had flaws? Absolutely yes, as do we all. And sometimes in some people those flaws are very big.” (Other Los Angeles–based senior Kundalini yoga teachers declined to comment for this story.)
Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, who teaches classes online through Alo yoga clothing, and whose prenatal classes have attracted celebrity clientele including Cindy Crawford, Demi Moore, and Miranda Kerr, posted a statement on Facebook that said, “Between the flu and the allegations, from the center of my being I choose Joy. This is sincerely all that I can do. I stand for Joy. My platform is Joy. Joy is the opposite of fear. Fear breeds more fear. Joy breeds more Joy. In my choice I choose to teach Kundalini Yoga throughout the world, God willing, until my last breath.”
THE CUSTOMS INSPECTOR
Harbhajan Singh Puri, a former customs inspector at the New Delhi airport, came to Los Angeles and started teaching yoga under the name Yogi Bhajan in 1968. It was a year after the Summer of Love, and revolution was in the air. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis; Robert Kennedy Jr. was shot at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. The Vietnam War protests peaked as love-ins convened in places like Elysian Park.
Dyson learned about Yogi Bhajan when a friend prattled on about the sexy six-foot-two yogi with the coral-colored turban, long black beard, and velvet loafers. Bhajan taught at the East West Cultural Center on 9th Street, which was run by a Sanskrit scholar named Judith Tyberg. It was a serious place, with a library and lectures about Eastern spiritual traditions.
“We were turning away from our parental indoctrination and looking towards the East,” recalls Dyson. She read Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and lectures by Jiddu Krishnamurti, who lived in Ojai. “Yogi Bhajan prophetically spoke in front of us and told us that he would die and we would carry on. He presented himself like an Eastern Jesus who was uplifting humanity. He spoke to a desire to make our dreams come true and to guide humanity toward the god consciousness.” Though Dyson claims that Bhajan put his hand on her breast during her first yoga class, she continued to be his student. His charisma, his claim that he could read auras, kept her and other early devotees rapt. He encouraged them to quit smoking cigarettes and marijuana, to stop drinking alcohol and taking drugs, to stop eating meat, and to use food as medicine.
According to a 1977 Time magazine article that characterized Bhajan as a “womanizer,” within a few months of his arrival at the East West Cultural Center, Tyberg fired Bhajan for reasons she refused to reveal. Nevertheless his boisterous hippie following rapidly grew; he taught acolytes how to get “high on their breath” and sent them across the country to open ashrams and teach yoga. Students were mesmerized by his brand of yoga, which he characterized as a secret ancient technology that he was sharing for the first time, thus making followers part of a “golden chain” of teacher-to-student transmission.
In many ways, Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini yoga isn’t different from other modern yoga traditions with dubious ancient origins, and the story Bhajan told about Kundalini’s roots turned out to be more fiction than fact. Deslippe authored an academic paper that questions the legitimacy and origin of Bhajan’s style of yoga and concludes that it’s neither ancient nor secret; rather, it’s derived from a verifiable hatha yoga lineage that Bhajan interpreted and reconstructed into his own version of asana (yoga poses) and lifestyle. During his lifetime, Bhajan was a controversial figure among South Asian Sikhs, who noted that he picked up some aspects of their faith while abandoning others. For one, Sikhs aren’t vegetarian, their religion does not include yoga, they do not revere living gurus. And they don’t wear white.
“They [3HO] are literally selling Sikh spiritual names on an internet portal, like our religion is something they can take and make money with,” says Sheel Seidler, a Punjabi Sikh who took Kundalini teacher training as taught by Yogi Bhajan but amends her classes to honor her practice of Sikhism. “There’s a flippant disregard that feels like colonialism for the religion and the 30 million people around the world who it belongs to.”
THE SECOND GENERATION
“Pamela [Dyson] and the first generation made the choice to be Sikhs. We didn’t have that choice,” says Nadine Stellavato Brown, 48, who was born to Bhajan followers and sent away to school in India at the age of eight. For Stellavato Brown, her parents’ decision had grave emotional consequences. “As grateful as I am that Pam came out with the book, which finally gave us permission to tell our stories, the irony is that she and the whole first generation were perpetrators of this abuse. She helped build the system that abused us.”
In a series of Zoom calls in April and May with the Khalsa Council, a body of ministers within 3HO, more than 200 first-generation members listened as their children and their friends’ children recalled physical and sexual abuse, some from Yogi Bhajan himself. The second generation expressed the emotional toll of the social experiments they endured—child swapping, an emphasis on parental detachment that encouraged mothers to suppress their nurture instincts, and being sent to boarding schools in New Mexico and India where a cruel survivalist mentality prevailed, which they compared to Lord of the Flies. “When Pamela’s book came out, the focus was on all that grown-up stuff—the salacious sex stuff that’s so typical of cults. Instead of feeling like we were heard, once again we were getting talked over. I had to bring it back to our stories, which are not footnotes,” says Narangkar Glover, a Portland-based artist who attended the schools in India from eight to 16.
“We grew up in these boarding schools. We were whipped with sticks until we had big welts on our bodies. Some of us were tortured,” Glover adds. “The crux of our experience was first and foremost abject neglect, abject filth. There was head lice, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis. We didn’t have running water for days; there was feces on the floor, the walls; the electricity would go out. We’d see stray dogs getting killed right in front of us.” When the children tried to tell their parents about the conditions, “they would say it wasn’t easy for [them] either,” Glover adds. “But I say, ‘You had food; you had hot water, a comfortable bed; you drove around; you got to go to the movies and float around Los Angeles with celebrities, looking beautiful and radiant in your white perfection.’”
Shanti Kaur Khalsa says a team has been established to address the second generation’s allegations, and has offered $1,200 of therapy for anyone who asks for it. She declined to speak about her own son’s experience at a boarding school in India, but did say, “I know these kids. I’ve heard their stories, but they have always told it in a lighthearted way, couched in humor. Now it’s been exposed for what it really was. It was trauma, and I appreciate them and their courage.”
Another parent who listened in on the Zoom calls wept when he heard the accounts. “I felt like I was run over by a truck,” says Tej Steiner, who left 3HO in 1988. Steiner and his former wife from a Bhajan-arranged marriage sent their children to school in India. “Yogi Bhajan set up schools for our children and staffed them with sadistic, masochistic teachers,” he posted to a Facebook group. “They were profit centers for his business empire. He also knew that separating children from their parents would increase his control over both.”
The narrative that no one knew bad things happened in the schools angers second-generation members like Sunny Khalsa, who tried telling grown-ups and her peers that Bhajan was sexually inappropriate with her, but says they wouldn’t listen. “They said, ‘He’s just testing you.’ There was always an excuse for complete blindness. Or they’d react with rage because I was slandering our god,” Khalsa says. “We were raised to believe he was a god, that he was my spiritual father, that he could see my soul, but people refused to see him as the cruel, manipulative, divisive, scary man that he was.”
In a lawsuit filed in June, Khalsa, now 46, names as plaintiffs 3HO and 100 unnamed defendents, and charges that she was groomed from the age of eight to become one of Bhajan’s secretaries, and that he repeatedly groped, grabbed, and sexually harassed her. Bhajan and his associates, the suit alleges, used 3HO’s businesses as a cover for a “thinly veiled, covert second purpose” to “operate a cult to lure people in to take all of their money as well as place Bhajan in a place where he had unfettered access to women that he could abuse verbally, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually.” Bhajan, the suit alleges, “cultivated other people in his organization who assisted him in breaking down people to turn them into devotees. . . .”
When Khalsa was eight and living on the 3HO-operated Hacienda de Guru Ram Das Ranch outside Espanola with her mother, the suit alleges, she was summoned to Bhajan’s quarters. While his associates watched, he grabbed her vagina and verbally abused her, demanding to know if she wanted to be a prostitute. The suit also alleges that when Khalsa was ten, Shanti Kaur Khala, 3HO’s current spokesperson, took her on a $1,000 shopping spree in an attempt to endear her to Bhajan. In 1990, when she was 16 and had returned from school in India, she planned to earn her GED and attend college; instead, she was given some white Chanel dresses and sent to L.A.
Khalsa moved into one of the Preuss Road compounds. During the day she worked at the 3HO offices and at night prepared juices for Bhajan, who ordered her, in front of others, to massage his feet while he watched graphic pornography. “I was told I was going to have to start sleeping with him. That was my duty,” she says. As a precursor, she alleges, “he would grab my ass or my breasts, ask me about sex, and tell me he was going to fuck me.”
Khalsa finally ran away in 1992, after, she alleges, Bhajan called her into a meeting where all the secretaries sat quietly in a circle around her. He proclaimed she was in love with him and told her that “she needed to be fucked,” the suit charges. “He told her that he had the world’s biggest cock and he would fuck her with it.” She agreed to sleep with him to end the coercive meeting, but instead of going to a party he promised to host to celebrate her acquiescence, she went to the bus station and bought a ticket to New York. “It was like a suicide for me,” she says. “They excommunicated me and I disappeared into the world.” Later she discovered, people were told she was a drug-taking prostitute living on the street. (A spokesperson for 3HO said in an email that because the organization had yet to read the lawsuit, it could not comment.)
Meanwhile Bhajan’s popularity remained largely undiminished. “Over the years friends have come to me, excited to share that they’ve found Kundalini yoga,” says Khalsa. “They tell me he’s a saint. That’s like sticking a dagger in my heart. He was a lecherous, manipulative, creepy man, and he’s responsible for so much trauma and abuse. No one should be doing his yoga.”
Deslippe attributes Bhajan’s enduring appeal to 3HO’s Sikhism. “Sikh values align very easily with the conservative mainstream. They believe in family, in hard work. They run their own businesses. They do yoga. They don’t take drugs, so none of it sticks,” he explains. “All these things keep 3HO off the radar.”
While Bhajan was allegedly indulging in unfettered sexual abuse, some of his far-flung enterprises were attracting attention from authorities. In 1988, the DEA raided the home of a member of Bhajan’s inner circle in Great Falls, Virginia. Gurujot Singh Khalsa was apprehended as part of an undercover sting operation and convicted for participating in an international drug smuggling conspiracy that transported thousands of pounds of marijuana into the United States.
Ten years later, Hari Jiwan Khalsa, who holds the position of chief of protocol at 3HO and is another close associate of Bhajan, paid a $4 million judgment to settle FTC charges related to a company he owned that telemarketed gemstones and fraudulently represented that the purchases would reap huge profits. (Bhajan had claimed that there was no karma over the telephone, which emboldened other telemarketing businesses within 3HO.) Another Harijiwan Khalsa associated with 3HO spent nearly two years in prison for a Los Angeles-based “toner bandit” operation that invoiced medical offices for copy-machine toner never delivered. (The latter Harijiwan is now an L.A.-based Kundalini yoga teacher and a member of the band White Sun, which won Best New Wave Album at the 59th Grammy Awards in 2015.)
REASSESSING A LEGACY
In 1986, Dyson filed a civil lawsuit against 3HO and Bhajan. Another former Bhajan follower, Katherine Felt, alleged in a separate suit that he repeatedly raped her. Dyson’s complaint described sexual and psychological abuse, assault and battery, malnutrition due to forced fasting, and sleep deprivation. The suit stated that “Bhajan has no good faith belief that he is serving God or guru, but rather is devoted to serving himself by obtaining his followers’ money, talents, and sexual services.” The suit sought $25 million in damages but was settled out of court for much less. (Bhajan repeatedly claimed medical exemptions and was never deposed.)
“He was quite demeaning to women,” Dyson recalls. “They say he exalts women and the divine feminine, but then he teaches that men have the right to beat and rape their wives. It was all about power.” His lectures have been meticulously transcribed and are accessible on a 3HO website called the Library of Teachings. “Rape is always invited . . . a person who is raped is always providing subconsciously the environments and the arrangements,” Bhajan stated in a lecture in 1978. “If you do not provide the circumstances and arrangements, it is impossible.”
As for battering, he said in 1989, “But the funny part of it is there are some women who get stimulated by being beaten . . . 20 percent [of] women get abused and it stimulates them and 30 percent [of] women are those who provoke violence and like to enjoy it.”
Awtar Kaur Khalsa, director of the San Francisco Kundalini Yoga Center, thinks it’s time to take a critical look at Bhajan. She’s a lead teacher trainer whose been involved with 3HO since 1972. While she never personally witnessed sexual misconduct, in February she posted to Facebook a statement she’d written and revised for nearly five years. It began, “Over the decades reports of sexual abuse by my spiritual teacher, Yogi Bhajan, have spurred various responses. Some find the accusations unthinkable and traitorous. I have been one of them. Others minimize, ignore or compartmentalize the allegations. I have done this, too. But I can’t do it anymore.”
Speaking for herself and other women in thrall to Bhajan, she adds, “We always knew he was the master manipulator, but we assumed he was doing it for the greater good.” That Bhajan engaged in sexual relationships with his staff when he preached monogamy and claimed to be celibate seemed an especially corrosive betrayal to her. “At the time I assumed it was marginally consensual, so I rationalized it. I’m embarrassed to say it, I’m a very smart person in many parts of my life, but when it came to this stuff, I was willing to be uncritical. And, of course, nowadays we understand these power dynamics and it is not consent.”
Awtar has not taken off her turban, but she has stepped back from teaching to study cults and mind control. “My whole career I fought the label of cult—I rejected it,” she says. “It didn’t seem to fit the cult markers. But as I learn more about that combination of terror and love, I do feel like it’s a cult. I’m willing to be quoted as saying that. And with certain people, my social capital just went to zero.”
In Los Angeles and across the world, Yogi Bhajan’s most lasting legacy may be Kundalini yoga. This isn’t a discipline that requires acrobatic stunts or contortionist flexibility. Rather, it’s a remnant of yoga’s early hippie days when achieving an altered consciousness offered a counter-narrative to the pervasive drug culture: arm-waving, breathing that veers on hyperventilation called “breath of fire,” chanting mantras, meditation, and gong sound baths. Every class still ends with a blessing song, “May the Long Time Sun Shine Upon You.” Teachers and students tout the practice’s healing properties and its ability to shift consciousness in a way that other yoga does not. But studios that offer Kundalini yoga may now have to reevaluate whether they can separate the teacher from the teachings, and whether their students are willing to do the same.
“I’m so grateful for the practice, but as a woman and a feminist, I will never quote him or mention his name again.” —Libby Lydecker
Libby Lydecker has practiced Kundalini yoga for more than 20 years and became a certified teacher in 2007. When she first met Bhajan in 1998, he slapped her across the face and said, “You are too blessed to be unhappy.” At the time she thought that act prophetic and felt fortunate to receive his tough love; now she views it as a cover for misogyny. When she teaches, Lydecker uses the spiritual name Dya Kaur, but she doesn’t wear a turban and didn’t adopt 3HO Sikhism. “I’m so grateful for the practice. It’s been a beautiful experience that has helped me and my students immensely. But as a woman and a feminist, I will never quote him or mention his name again.”
Harijiwan Khalsa, the Grammy-winning toner bandit who went to jail on felony fraud charges, posted a video called The Futile Flow of Fate, with images of Bhajan surrounded by angelic women in white. In the video, he defends Bhajan and accuses her of writing her memoir solely for financial gain. His mentee, Guru Jagat, whose students include Alicia Keyes, Kate Hudson, and Moon Juice’s Amanda Chantal Bacon, and who presents herself as an advocate for women, shared Khalsa’s video. When critical comments were posted, they were deleted and the comment section was closed. (Khalsa and Guru Jagat did not respond to interview requests.)
Until Dyson published her book, she lived a quiet life in Hawaii and didn’t realize how popular Kundalini yoga had become. Nor did she imagine the explosion her book would ignite. Several times she considered abandoning the project because she didn’t want to cause harm. She finally decided she would withdraw the book, went to sleep, and woke feeling relieved. Then, she says, a light appeared, and in its center was an image of Yogi Bhajan. The energy emanating from the light was warm and grateful—a source of wonder. She recognized that Bhajan was trapped in what the Buddhists call the hell realm. She then understood that he would not be free until his followers were. “Take him down off the altar,” she says. “He’s not a master. He’s far from being a saint. Just take him off.”
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