My yogic journey - Els Coenen
From 2008 to 2018, Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan ruled my life. In the yoga world everyone knew me as Ravinder.
My passion was intense. I took cold showers, did my sadhana (early morning yoga), experimented with kriyas, meditated for hours, bought tons of books and DVDs, attended all possible courses and workshops, led the Belgian Kundalini Yoga Federation for eight years, taught several yoga classes a week, organized and assisted in teacher training programs in Belgium, neighbouring and East-African countries.
And yes, I wore a turban and white clothes when I was teaching and sometimes even outside the yogaroom.
Once, my brother asked me if I had a head injury. This could have woken me up, but it didn't.
From time to time, I heard rumors about sexual abuse by Yogi Bhajan.
"That is all slander," they said. "Don't listen to it."
'They' were my yoga teachers and yoga friends who were more senior in this yoga than I was. I followed their advice without any further critical reflection.
In 2012, the abuse came very close. Hari Singh, one of the teachers from the Sat Nam Rasayan* course that I organised in Belgium, seduced two young female students into a sexual relationship. He knew that both of them were in a vulnerable situation in that period. I asked the SNR leaders to take appropriate action. They asked me to remain silent. Because I insisted appropriate action would be taken towards the women and to avoid similar situations in the future, Guru Dev Singh, the master of Sat Nam Rasayan excommunicated me. He declared Belgium a no-go zone for all SNR activities for two years.
At the end of September 2020, eight years after the events, I wrote a letter to Guru Dev Singh asking him if today he was more open to acknowledge the harm done by Hari Singh and that transgressive behavior has no place in Sat Nam Rasayan. You can read the full story, my letters to Guru Dev Singh and his answer here.
* Sat Nam Rasayan, or SNR, is a meditative healing technique that uses Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan as a basis.
In 2018, I came across the article 'From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric' from historian Philip Desllippe. It reveils Yogi Bhajan's lies about his yogic and spiritual background and the origin of his version of Kundalini Yoga. After reading it, I felt betrayed and asked questions to different leaders in the community. I got silence as an answer .
I realized this was Bhajan Yoga, not Kundalini Yoga. It was a hard truth to swallow. I had eagerly participated in spreading those lies in my weekly yoga classes and in teacher training programs.
"This is an ancient technology," I told students and I was grateful I was allowed to teach it. To hear that Yogi Bhajan made it all up, was a slap in my face. What he had taught, had nothing to do with Kundalini Yoga. I read the book 'The Serpent Power' from Sir John Woodruff. Amongst Orientalists it is recognized as the most important work on Kundalini Yoga.
I felt ashamed that I had not read it before. Bhajan's yoga had nothing to do with this ancient Kundalini Yoga. It was fake.
How was it possible that I, a scientist to the core, nuclear physicist, had believed all this nonsense?
How was it possible that I had not investigated it further? What had prevented me to do that?
Had my intuition not told me from the start, from the very first session in the Level I training, that the obscure link between this yoga and Sikhism, that no-one could explain in a clear-cut way, was something very weird?
Why did I accept to get no clear answers to simple questions?
What prevented my critical mind to funtion? It was omni-present everywhere else in my life.
After gettting no answers on my questions related to Philip Deslippe's article, I stopped teaching yoga classes. I resigned from the Teacher Trainer Academy, handed over my activities in East-Africa to a friend who was right-in-time ready to do that. I found someone to replace me as representative for Belgium at the International KY scene and resigned from the board of the Kundalini Yoga federation in Belgium.
Bye-bye Kundalini Yoga. I was free. At least that is what I thought.
Early 2019, I heard about the involvement of Akal Security* in the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Fatehbir Kaur launched a petition to ask for clarification. The question was simple: were yoga activities sponsored by Akal Security money? The petition got little attention from teachers and trainers. They did not seem to care. It took more than a year for the organisations to come with a not very credible and weak response. Was this the yoga of awareness?
When I asked teachers why they did not bother about Bhajan's lies or the Akal Security's issues, they told me: "We focus on the yoga. Stop being so negative."
* Akal Security, like Yogi Tea, is a profit organisation that is part of the Siri Singh Sahib Cooperation (SSSC), the umbrella organisation that also includes all non-profit Kundalini Yoga organisations such as KRI and 3HO.
And then, finally, in January 2020 the floodgates opened.
Pamela Saharah Dyson released her book 'Premka - White Bird in a Golden Cage. My Life with Yogi Bhajan.' In it she talks about the sexual and power abuse she experienced in the many years she spent with Yogi Bhajan. A storm broke loose in the International Kundalini Yoga community. The KY world began to shake to its foundations.
I felt relief while reading the book. This was the moment the purification process would start. I felt lighter and my belief that change was unavoidable, made me feel joyful.
In June 2019, six months before, the person who was representing Belgium at the International level, had resigned. The board asked me to take on that role again. Since I was interested to follow up on the Akal Security issue, I had accepted that role.
In this International group, people reacted very differently to Pamela Dyson's book and the allegations against Yogi Bhajan. Some people burned their books. Others left the organisation. Still others continued to worship Bhajan as a saint.
On the 'Beyond the Cage' closed Facebook group more and more survivors posted about their painful experiences in the Healty-Happy-Holy community. I discovered the RishiKnots site that was active since many years. Especially the stories of the children born in the community convinced me that everyone who practices this yoga should know about the dark part of its history. A great deal of the information about the abuse had been available since the 1980s among leaders in the organisation. It had been concealed and swept under the carpet. 'They' did nothing with it. 'Their' awareness was selective.
In November 2020, GuruNischan started her 'Uncomfortable Conversations' I listened to every episode and was blown away. This was even worse than I could imagine. In February 2021, the idea to create this website was born. GuruNischan agreed I would use extracts of some of her episodes. The goal was to create an easy accessible platform to show the vastness and diversity of the abuse that took place.
Since the start of the Compassionate Reconciliation project, I am a member of the Guerilla Peacemakers advisory team. I have never been convinced that what we are doing is very useful. With the launch of the IHRP, the reparations program (see News page), the SSSC has proven, not for the first time, that they are the decision makers. It is my personal feeling that the CRC serves window dressing purposes and keeps us busy and out of the way of the SSSC. However, for unknown reasons, I feel like I need to stay involved.
For now, this is where my Yogic Journey has stranded, landed, ended.