Over the last four decades, I have met and worked with many former members of the Kundalini Yoga cult founded by Yogi Bhajan. He set up numerous profit and non-profit entities, including the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO), the Kundalini Research Institute, Sikh Dharma International, the multibillion-dollar companies Yogi Tea and Akal Security and the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation overlooking them all.
In recent years, a series of books, podcasts, social media platforms, documentaries, and websites have rattled the Kundalini Yoga community by bringing to light extensive abuses committed by Yogi Bhajan and others within its institutions. I invited former member and teacher Els Coenen, to share her insights and experiences with this damaging group.
Els Coenen earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics in 1985 and subsequently established a career in the banking, IT, and telecom sectors within her home country, Belgium. However, her life took a transformative turn in 2007 at the age of 49, when she attended her first Kundalini Yoga class taught by Yogi Bhajan and was instantly captivated. She went on to become a devoted Kundalini Yoga instructor, teaching yoga, assisting and organizing Kundalini Yoga teacher training programs in Belgium, neighboring countries, and East Africa. For a decade, she also presided over the Belgium Kundalini Yoga Federation.
In 2018, following several unsettling events, she decided to distance herself from the Kundalini Yoga community. However, when allegations of half a century of concealed abuse and criminal actions by Bhajan and his associates came to light in early 2020, that impacted the lives of hundreds of his followers and their children, she felt compelled to return and assist in revealing the truth. In 2021, she created the website Abuse in Kundalini Yoga, a platform aimed at exposing and addressing the sexual abuse, child abuse, homophobia, exploitation, business fraud, and drugs and arms trafficking within the community. Els served as a member of an advisory group for the Compassionate Reconciliation Program until December 2022. She recently released a book titled Under the Yoga Mat: The Dark History of Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga, which brings together the stories of many survivors and draws a picture of the extent and variety of abuses and crimes.
Yogi Bhajan, a Self-Proclaimed Kundalini Yoga Master
In 1968, Harbhajan Singh Puri, a 39-year-old Punjabi Sikh and former customs officer at New Delhi’s airport, arrived in the US from India. Asserting that he was a revered holy man back in India and part of an ancient lineage of Kundalini Yoga masters, he adopted the moniker Yogi Bhajan. In truth, the form of Kundalini Yoga he espoused in 3HO was his own concoction, amalgamating various breathing and yoga exercises he borrowed from others without attribution. He integrated Sikh mantras into the core of his yoga practice and led his followers toward his distorted interpretation of Sikhism. Despite asserting that he was the religious and administrative figure for Sikhs in the Western Hemisphere, Els explained that many in the broader Sikh community largely rejected his association.
Yogi Bhajan was, in reality, a deceitful businessman with high-ranking political and religious connections. Demonstrating shrewd entrepreneurship, he rapidly cultivated a devoted following. He dispatched his followers to establish ashrams, or yoga communities, throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. With the self-bestowed titles of Siri Singh Sahib and Mahan Tantric, he began to expand his networks and business ventures. His form of Kundalini Yoga gained increasing popularity and quickly spread globally. Bhajan presided over his rapidly growing empire for nearly four decades as an authoritarian and omniscient spiritual leader. By his death in 2004, his business enterprises were generating hundreds of millions of dollars.
Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga Cult and the BITE Model
Els Coenen and other former group members have provided compelling evidence that 3HO and its associated organizations meet numerous criteria of the BITE model, thereby qualifying as a destructive mind control cult. Their assessment places the group on the highly destructive end of the Influence Continuum. Els highlighted that the most heinous acts occurred in Yogi Bhajan’s inner circle and residential schools. From the early 80s, children were uprooted from their families and enrolled in school programs in India. These children were subjected to sexual abuse, corporal punishment, isolation, neglect, and emotional abuse.
According to Els, Bhajan demanded unwavering obedience from his followers, encapsulated in his mantra, “obey, serve, love, excel.” His teachings fostered a divisive, absolutist ideology. Among his many spurious claims, Bhajan professed to see auras and predict the future. He was implicated in numerous reports of sexual assault, separated families, and propagated his teachings through intimidation. A particularly shocking claim from a YouTube video has Bhajan stating that “rape is always invited.” His manipulation of his followers was extensive – he cheated, lied, evaded taxes, engaged in the illegal trade of drugs and weapons, swindled devotees of their life savings, and issued death threats to his opponents. While a few of his close business associates were convicted and imprisoned for their criminal activities, Bhajan evaded justice.
In 1980, I became aware that Yogi Bhajan was studying Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). He aimed to master sophisticated hypnotic techniques to control his followers more effectively. Over my 47 years of helping people involved with destructive cults, I can professionally validate the depths of trauma and suffering endured by those within his group.
Revelations From Survivors Reveal 3HO Abuses
The veil concealing the grim history of Yogi Bhajan’s 3HO cult was finally lifted in early 2020 with the publication of Pamela Saharah Dyson’s book, Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan, whom I also had the opportunity to interview. Pamela, who served as the 3HO’s Secretary General for 16 years until 1985, broke decades of silence to recount Bhajan’s egregious abuses of power. Her revelations triggered an avalanche of similar testimonies from others who had endured traumatic experiences at the hands of Bhajan or within the Kundalini Yoga community.
When the book was released, Els believed that purification, truth-telling, and healing would be possible. She reconnected with the community and took on her previous role of international representative for Belgium. However, despite the outpouring of stories, the leadership’s response was driven more by a desire to salvage their image than to acknowledge and address the harm inflicted upon the survivors. Recognizing their unwillingness to fully expose the extent of the wrongdoings, Els launched her website to reveal abuses within the group and give survivors a voice and started writing Under the Yoga Mat.
Els also shared the disturbing fact that Bhajan was posthumously recognized by the United States Congress, an acknowledgment that starkly contrasts the countless lives he adversely affected. Els hopes this recognition will be recanted to reflect the whole truth about Yogi Bhajan’s damaging legacy. For this same reason, the “Yogi Bhajan Memorial Highway” in New Mexico should be renamed.
The World of Kundalini Yoga Continues Amidst Revelations
Despite Bhajan’s demise, his legacy remains within the various enterprises he established. Active group members continue to recruit followers under the guise of Sikhism and Kundalini Yoga teacher training programs. The group’s rebranding efforts, including the erasure of Yogi Bhajan’s name, are attempts to whitewash their tainted past, while the truth about its origins is essentially swept under the rug. It’s important to remember that the roots of an organization, regardless of its evolution over time, remain significant. If a group is founded on the deceit and criminality of an individual claiming divine powers, the most prudent decision would be to distance oneself from any residual influence of such a group.
While the practices might have benefited many and were harmless to them, understanding the full context and source of Bhajan’s teachings is essential as they contain all elements for a cult to thrive. Els Coenen’s tireless efforts to expose the truth about Yogi Bhajan and his cult provide an invaluable service to survivors and serve as a cautionary tale for the wider public. It’s vital to approach spiritual teachings and practices with a discerning eye, particularly when they’re tied to an individual or group with a controversial history.
Abuse in Yogi Bhajan’s 3HO Kundalini Yoga World – Website by Els Coenen
Complaint filed by four women about the abuse of Yogi Bhajan, filed at the Supreme Court of California / Los Angeles.