To anyone who has walked into a Los Angeles yoga studio, the scene this Wednesday morning would be familiar: white walls hung with Tibetan silk tapestries that depict various incarnations of the Buddha; leafy plants and sparkling geodes dotting the corners of the room; shoji screens that mask a busy city street; a shiny wood floor on which 40 acolytes quietly wait cross-legged on mats and fluffy sheepskins. Into the room comes Guru Jagat, who founded the RA MA Institute in Venice in 2013. She is 35 years old, her long blond waves tucked into a white turban shimmering with gold threads, her outfit head-to-toe white cotton accented by a protective jeweled tantric mala. Stepping onto a small stage, she settles in front of a 60-inch-wide gong that was made for the rock band Van Halen. Jagat cues up some chants on her iPhone and adjusts her turban. “Good things are happening this morning,” the kundalini yoga teacher says, leaning into the mic. “It’s the fourth day of the moon, and we’re going to do a whole glandular reset that’s very anti-aging.” She grins. “In the West we’re not really known for aging gracefully, especially in this town. But this is the Aquarian Age—we have options.”
Do we ever. On any given day in L.A. you can gather with a group to strike a warrior pose on a bluff above the ocean, contort yourself in a Bikram sweat box, or simply sit in silent meditation for hours. This city is home to hundreds of yoga studios, and most yoga teachers, whether their style is hatha or hot, tend to spout feel-good affirmations and preach the transformative power of the practice. But Jagat is more sweeping in her points of reference and ambitious in her teachings, striving for a grand synthesis of spirituality, science, cultural commentary, self-help, and catchphrases that sound straight out of Silicon Valley. RA MA’s version of kundalini, a branch of yoga that is believed to awaken latent energy coiled at the base of the spine, is aimed squarely at the Mac generation: The discipline is referred to as a “technology”; teachings are “downloaded” to one’s “operating system” or “transmitted” as “microchips” of information. As for the turbans that serious practitioners wear? Jagat calls them “turbines” because, she says, their placement on the skull activates cranial meridians.
The earliest recorded mention of kundalini is in the Upanishads, the sacred Indian texts dating to 500 B.C. However, the science of this so-called yoga of awareness—including precisely timed sequences of breath exercises, poses, mantras, and meditations called kriyas—was transmitted only orally among the elite, according to lore, until Yogi Bhajan brought the tradition to the West. A former Indian customs officer, Yogi Bhajan came to Los Angeles in 1968, presenting the philosophy as a tool for modern life. He claimed that kundalini yoga, by harmonizing chakras (points of spiritual or physical energy in the human body) and by recalibrating the glandular system, could heal the LSD-addled nervous systems of hippies as well as those suffering from what he presciently called “info dementia.”
Jagat has used this fusion of ancient knowledge and digital-age lingo to attract a growing band of believers. It’s not unusual to see Demi Moore or Laura Dern in her classes, unfurling their sheepskins alongside nymphlike twentysomethings, earth mamas surrounded by crystals, zero-body-fat Hollywood execs, and burly dudes in jeans. When she encounters skepticism, Jagat greets it head-on. “My favorite thing is to go into a room where everyone is rolling their eyes,” she says, recalling the bored hipsters who greeted her recently when she led a meditation before her friend Rain Phoenix’s band performed at an art space downtown. She was unfazed. “I wanna open for Lady Gaga.”
With that goal in mind, Jagat has her own record label. Its most recent compilation, RA MA Records, Volume 2, begins with a contemporary chant by Go Gobinday, who happens to be Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s. The label is just one facet of Jagat’s vision for a global brand. Late last summer the second branch of the RA MA Institute opened in Boulder. Jagat says she is eyeing Brooklyn as a possible third location, and 2016 will have her leading workshops and retreats in Europe as well as in India, Egypt, and Israel. She’ll use each stop as an opportunity to add subscribers to the RA MA TV Web channel, which uploads an average of ten classes per week for members in 83 countries. “People can tune in from anywhere,” she says. She also has a book deal—her first—to write about the kundalini lifestyle for HarperOne’s new spiritual imprint, HarperElixir. Slated for an October 2016 release, it will offer practical solutions for problems ranging from insomnia to sexual dysfunction.
Tasha Eichenseher, a senior editor at Yoga Journal, views this guru’s relatability and drive as her greatest strengths. “I think kundalini can be perceived as very intimidating,” says Eichenseher. Jagat, she notes, “is able to convey the complexity of the spiritual teachings in a way that’s frank and humorous.” By working across multiple platforms, she reaches “people who might not otherwise receive them. I think that’s bold.”
All of this, Jagat affirms, is part of a plan to broaden her audience by going beyond the celebrities and the one-percenters. “So I’m the ‘It’ girl of yoga and all this kind of crap?” she asks facetiously. “I want the book in Walmart!”
The rise of the RA MA Institute coincides with the decline of another stalwart of the kundalini community, Golden Bridge Yoga. Last fall, just three years after the renowned teacher Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa expanded Golden Bridge into a 22,000-square-foot “spiritual village” on Highland Avenue, the studio imploded. Gurmukh was a vision in white with an A-list following that once included Madonna and Courtney Love, whose band, Hole, played a benefit at the Viper Room to help launch Golden Bridge’s first Hollywood location.
The demise of Golden Bridge was sparked, many believe, by the actor Russell Brand, who felt the studio was treating his teacher Tej Kaur Khalsa unfairly. One morning in January 2013, Brand came to class and, in protest, led his fellow 200 students out the door—an act he gleefully dubbed a “yoga coup” in the recent documentary Brand: A Second Coming. A few months after the Pied Piper-like walkout, RA MA opened, and Tej Kaur Khalsa began teaching there.
Jagat’s discovery of kundalini had come about a dozen years earlier, when she was living in New York City, working in a fashion showroom and practicing ashtanga yoga six mornings a week. One day, sidelined by an injury, she checked out a kundalini class on the recommendation of a friend. “Within the first 30 seconds,” she says, “I had a major energy surge go up my spine and blast out the top of my head. It was literally instantaneous. Now that I look back on it, it was the moment I experienced what kundalini truly means.”
Not long after, she visited Yogi Bhajan’s Guru Ram Das Puri ashram near Santa Fe for the annual Summer Solstice gathering, where she participated in a three-day “White Tantric Yoga” meditation led by the kundalini master. In 2003, Bhajan instructed her to teach at Yoga West, his L.A. studio, sending her off with a letter and the name “Guru Jagat,” which in Sanskrit translates as “Bringer of Light to the Universe.”
Jagat didn’t flinch at the grandeur of her new moniker. In fact, she would soon move to distance herself from her legal name. (She says she has “painstakingly removed my birth name from my dharma” as a means of protecting her brand and to honor her spiritual identity.) Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, she was raised by a single mother in a series of East Coast spiritual communities, among them a Quaker farm. By the time she was a teen, Jagat had been exposed to a wide range of New Age modalities, from Reiki to transcendental meditation. “It’s not my first time off the turnip truck,” she says. She also studied with the heir apparent to the Indian mystic Osho and investigated the Mesoamerican Toltec culture, but it was Yogi Bhajan, she says, whose teachings illuminated her life’s path.
Arriving in Los Angeles, Jagat completed her kundalini teacher training with Gurmukh, one of Yogi Bhajan’s earliest disciples (Gurmukh declined to comment for this article). Soon Jagat was teaching regularly at Yoga West. “I didn’t get substitutes,” she says. “I showed up. I had the same class five times [every week]. I did my practice, and I taught. I was stubbornly consistent.” After nearly a decade at Yoga West, she had a steadily growing roster of private clients and hosted a kundalini “speakeasy” in the guesthouse behind her home for such Westside tastemakers as Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of the organic cold-pressed Moon Juice line. In those classes, Bacon recalls, “people were changing their lives, and it was all happening crammed up against her refrigerator. I said, ‘This is crazy! You’ve got to open a center.’ ”
Bacon sat her friend down with Sharpies and index cards to help her plot a business strategy. Jagat says that the name RA MA Institute of Applied Yogic Science and Technology was transmitted to her in a meditation by Yogi Bhajan, who died in 2004. (“RA MA” is a mantra that means “Sun Moon.”) “He’s very ‘active,’ ” she notes with a smile. “I was clear when I started RA MA that I wanted to call it something other than yoga because, in the West, we think of this core-power-hot yoga, and I wanted to put a new spin on it.”
She found a location for the studio, on Lincoln Boulevard just east of Rose Avenue in Venice, that was situated on the 33rd parallel—a power vortex, according to some mystical traditions. Next she set out to transform the building, formerly the home of a massage parlor. Amethyst crystal dust was laid beneath the floorboards for protection, and the renovation was based on tantric numerology. “I’d never been in a space other than [the Sikh holy site] the Golden Temple that had considered those types of energetic details,” she says.
While RA MA offers as many as nine kundalini yoga and meditation classes each day, Jagat’s daily 9 a.m. session is, for many, the marquee attraction. A blend of lofty spiritual concepts and intense physical demands peppered with cheeky pop cultural observations, her classes are so crowded, students must often fold their mats in half. During the 15-minute opening lectures, she’s as likely to bring up a sketch from Portlandia as she is the philosophy of Yogi Bhajan. Before leading a complex chant, she has been known to instruct her students to pretend they’re learning a Radiohead song.
Although she has embraced the traditional trappings of kundalini—the adoption of a spiritual name and an all-white wardrobe—Jagat mixes in the occasional vintage piece or something from Rick Owens. She’s aware, she says, that the urban spiritual realm can attract a type whose dedication doesn’t go much deeper than the outfit. She describes such people, tongue firmly in cheek, as “very ‘sat nam’ ”—the kundalini equivalent of namaste. “Have you seen the YouTube video called ‘How to Be Uber Spiritual’?” she asks the class one morning, referring to a popular spoof that mocks the faux spirituality of so many New Age practitioners. “You just speak in a little bit of a lighter tone,” she murmurs, eyes wide, in a demonstration of the “method” before erupting in laughter.
Bacon, who remains a confidant of Jagat as well as a follower, has seen her friend be both sassy and steadfast: “I feel like she speaks to something beyond the ‘love and light’ of it all. You’re always gonna get a wacky outfit and an off-color joke before the class, but when it’s go-time, she’s a very clear projection of the teachings.”
Jagat’s stated aim is to share the techniques she’s been taught and the knowledge she’s acquired in the most practical way. No reverence is required, just a willingness to, say, stretch out one’s arms in a V-for-victory gesture while sharply inhaling and exhaling in a “breath of fire” for 22 minutes to “heal” splits in the personality caused by trauma. She doesn’t care if you think it sounds out there; she wants you to try it and see what happens. As the prominent American Sikh Harijiwan Khalsa, the man Jagat identifies as her earthly spiritual teacher, puts it, “It’s not a belief system; it’s an experiential technology. We’re not asking you to believe in a Mac computer; we’re asking you to plug it in and use it!”
The RA MA studio staff—millennials, mostly—maintain Jagat’s schedule, update her social media, send e-mail blasts, design flyers, record and upload her classes to the RA MA TV site, teach their own classes, organize Sunday potluck dinners, and, when needed, help her figure out her i-Phone after an iOS upgrade. They almost always sneak into her 9 a.m. class, but their days typically begin much earlier, with sadhana meditations during what Yogi Bhajan called the “ambrosial” hours—between 3:45 and 6:30 a.m.
Jagat isn’t shy about her desire to make money by spreading the word (though she says that only recently has she been able to take a salary). She recalls a conversation she had with Tej Kaur Khalsa, Russell Brand’s former teacher, about the misconception that being a yogi means dropping out of society or being poor: “Tej was telling me that someone had come to her saying they were going to quit their corporate job, and she was like, ‘No, don’t! We need people in the corporate world.’ This isn’t like we quit and all start weaving ponchos.” Recently Jagat, Tej, and Harijiwan conducted an Aquarian Business Training seminar to help their community develop a healthier relationship with money.
Jagat invokes the Kerala, India-born saint Amma—who tours the world offering hugs to her devotees—as a model of feminine power and as an economic powerhouse. “She’s like, ‘I’m gonna bring all of you into my bosom,’ ” Jagat says. “Then she comes up for air and grabs the cell phone the swami is giving her and negotiates some business deal. And she’s a billionaire, and all of it is not-for-profit! That’s real.”
L.A.’s original white-clad spirit sister, the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, might have looked askance at Jagat’s pagan ways. But surely the savvy preacher, who broadcast a radio show from her rectory in 1924, would have approved of this 21st-century guru’s Puritan work ethic, multimedia platform, and overarching belief that bringing light to the universe can yield handsome financial rewards. “What my teachers have told me is that if you serve and give everything you can,” Jagat says, smiling, “then all the rest of it will come.”
Steffie Nelson is an Echo Park writer who is working on a book about cosmic Los Angeles.