John Friend has been called a celebriyogi. Recently I had an opportunity to interview him at the Wanderlust Festival in Vermont. Ever since our conversation, I’ve been thinking about the tenuous boundary between cults,  kulas, and communities in the yoga world.

I spent a lot of time studying social psychology in university. But if you really want a lesson in group dynamics, there’s nothing like Wanderlust Fest to bring the theories of old men in armchairs to life. I love to people watch, so seeing bedazzled yogis ask for autographs from their favorite teachers was something to behold. When almost everyone I met introduced themselves in terms of the yoga “kula” they belonged to, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d walked into a cult.

What’s the difference between a clique, cult and a kula? Well to start off with, as John notes in the interview, the word clique is a modern term that’s typically used in a pejorative way. We often use ‘clique’ to describe a group of individuals who exclude and act derisively toward those in the larger community. Kula, on the other hand, is a Sanskrit word often translated as family, clan, or community of the heart.

“I don’t like to think that any yoga group would be cliquish because that would presume that they have an intent to somehow look on the others in a disharmonious way.”

Since returning home I’ve continued to sort of chew on the topics we touched on. One thing that struck me was the sense of divisiveness and imbalance of power quietly alluded to in the interview. I don’t like to think that yogis would be “cliquish” either. It definitely paints a prettier picture to suppose that we all see one another as brothers and sisters, that there’s no fiscal competition among different brands of yoga, and that no one ever gets excluded or cast out of their community. But is that the reality? I’m not sure.

I wonder if those in leadership positions really see all the things that happen under the radar in their kulas and the yoga community at large. Or maybe some do and are too wrapped up in the dynamics of it themselves to sound the alarm. 

As a young person who lacks a real rootedness to my own family of origin, I’m hyperaware of my tendency to get pulled in by the allure of family-like clans. There’s a strong desire — and I believe this exists in all of us, not just those of us who are in our youth or come from broken homes — to belong, to be accepted, to be a part of something bigger than our individual selves. This desire, I believe, is in part what drives human beings to form tribes, to build families, and to create communities throughout world. We want to believe we are held by something greater, and it’s in the arms of others we find the reassurance we need.

“Yes, I see you. I value you, and you’re wanted here.”

But there’s a shadow side to the yearning for community as well. Often we get so wrapped up in our desire to be accepted that we end up losing our connection to our self in order to be accepted by the clan. We begin to idealize the leader(s) in the community, we start to meld our beliefs and value systems to be more in line with theirs’, we lose our capacity to rationally evaluate the teachings or demands being made because dissent might result in us getting kicked out of the group.

Moreover, the hierarchical nature of these communities and kulas (i.e. the fact that there’s usually one or a few leaders at the top) can sometimes lead to voices of “lower” members in the group being hushed or kept down. I’ve seen multiple instances in which a more powerful member in the community intentionally casts out someone who’s voice has gotten too loud — either because they pose objections to the ideas of the majority or simply because they’ve stepped into their own innate potential and their growth threatens the power dynamics in the group. And when you throw money and commercial interests into the mix… well, let’s just say things get very interesting.

I want to emphasize the fact that I don’t think the formation of cliques, communities, or kulas are a BAD thing. Quite the contrary, I don’t know how I’d survive without the nourishing support of the communities that have welcomed me in. But I do think our understanding of yoga communities could use a much more nuanced perspective and some conversation around the power dynamics at play.

When we look closely at our motivations to be a part of a kula or community, there’s an opportunity to meet our needs without handing away our power to a charismatic teacher, mentor, or community. When we understand both sides of the coin– light and shadow, benefits as well as pitfalls — we have the chance to create something different. Perhaps, even, we can begin to build a global since of kinship — one that transcends race, culture, socioeconomic status… even, dare I say it, style of yoga!

So, consider your own yoga community. Is there a sort of hierarchy among members — a leader at the top who’s been lifted up onto a pedestal by starry-eyed followers? Do you think there’s a risk that the kulas of today will become the cults of tomorrow?

I’m also curious about whether any of you have had the experience of being cast out by a yoga community or clan. Let’s start a conversation. Share your story in the comments section below.

Photos via Wanderlust