Yogi Bhajan

     It was between 1969 and 1970 that I began awakening to a different way of thinking.  I was reading different spiritual books at that time, one of the first being “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda, and many others on different Indian spiritual masters and metaphysical subjects.  My two older brothers shared this interest with me.  We had many discussions about our new-found spiritual awareness.  It was an exhilarating time in my life. 

     Also, around that time, one of my brothers and a sister started attending yoga classes nearby.  They brought the teacher home one day, and we ended up having an impromptu yoga class in our back yard.  This is when I met John Twombly, the teacher trained in kundalini yoga by Yogi Bhajan.  I joined in with my brother and sister in attending the weekly yoga classes given by John.  Sometimes we met at Rollins College, other times at the tree-canopied park on Park Avenue or elsewhere around town.  I felt like this is where I belonged.  One by one, the other three of our siblings joined in with the classes.

     Soon John found a modest home  in College Park that he rented and started an ashram representing the spiritual teachings of Yogi Bhajan.  I attended my first weekend intensive course there and my life was forever transformed.  It was a weekend of complete silence and focused hours of yoga and meditation.  I was still a teenager.

     Some months later, John moved the ashram to a spacious house out in Pine Hills that was isolated and surrounded with woods and even had a private little pond on the property.  It was the perfect location for an ashram.  It was then that I joined him and moved from my parents’ home into this commune of like-minded yogis. 

     In December of 1971, I first laid eyes on Yogi Bhajan.  We had received word a few weeks earlier that Yogiji (as we then affectionately called him) wanted to put on a Winter Solstice gathering for all his students for 10 days of rigorous yoga practice and meditation all done in complete silence.  Suddenly, we were to be hosts to hundreds if not thousands of fellow yoga students who would be arriving in just a few short weeks from across the United States, Canada and worldwide.  There’s a long story that precedes this regarding all the planning, mishaps, and good intentions that went awry but I won’t go into that here.  But it was there, at this first Winter Solstice, that I met my spiritual teacher face to face for the first time.

     Hundreds did show up (I don’t now recall the exact number) to a local campground.  We all had gathered there, many pitching tents or having come with campers, and eagerly awaited his arrival.  I remember Yogi Bhajan suddenly appearing in the crowd, dressed from head to toe in white–his Sikh bana, or traditional, spiritual clothing, including turban, kurta and churidars.  He was an imposing and commanding presence of 6’ 3”.  He had a jet-black beard that reached halfway down his chest, piercing dark, brown eyes, and large, broad shoulders; and in spite of his size, he carried himself with a refined grace.  He spoke in a loud, powerful, heavy Indian-accented voice that grabbed my attention.  I had never seen anything like him and was captivated.  I had read about Indian yogis and teachers but had never personally seen this type of person before now.  He had a lot to say to us over the next 10 days.  He had come to America, he said, “to create teachers, not to gain students”.  I was to become one of those teachers.

     Born Harbhajan Singh Puri on August 26, 1929, in a part of India that later became Pakistan, he was the son of a medical doctor.  His family were devout Sikhs.  He spent his youth in private schools and his summers in the exclusive Dalhousie mountain region of Himachal Pradesh.  He was eight years old when he began his yogic training with an enlightened teacher, Sant Hazara Singh, who proclaimed young Harbhajan Singh to be a master of kundalini yoga when he was just 16 years old.

     When Harbhajan Singh was 18 years of age, during the time of turmoil of partition in 1947, he moved to the safety of New Delhi, India.  It was there that he settled and resumed his studies attending Punjab University and graduating with a degree in Economics.  He began government service with India’s Internal Revenue Department and later moved to the Customs Service and became head of Customs at Palam International Airport (now known as New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport).

     He married his wife, Inderjit Kaur, in 1952 and they had two sons, Ranbir Singh and Kulbir Singh, and a daughter Kamaljit Kaur.

     Throughout his college studies and government work he continued to teach yoga to people from all walks of life.

     In September of 1968 he had flown to Canada to teach yoga at Toronto University, carrying a letter of recommendation from Sir James George, Canadian High Commissioner in New Delhi who had been his student there.  After two months in Canada, he traveled to Los Angeles for a weekend visit and it was there that he came into contact with the “baby booming” hippies of that era.  He recognized that instead of the drugs they were turning to for their experiences of higher consciousness, they could achieve this through the science of kundalini yoga.  He decided to make his home in the United States.

     Soon he was teaching classes at colleges and universities in many cities across the United States, and true to his word, he created teachers through his non-profit 3HO Foundation (which stands for Healthy, Happy and Holy Organization) and his International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association and Kundalini Research Institute.

     He was an ardent advocate of world peace and religious unity and he traveled extensively in the eighties and nineties teaching people their birthright to be healthy, happy and holy.  He met and worked with many world leaders of all faiths, which included Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama.  In June of 1985 he established the first International Peace Prayer Day in New Mexico, which continues to this day bringing national and international leaders in the realms of religion, politics and humanity together to further the spreading of peace.

     He was a defender of women’s rights and believed that women were the backbone of society and were to be respected, revered and cherished.  He started a summer camp for women that is held each year in New Mexico to further their self esteem and the realization that they are the “Grace of God” as he put it.

     From a personal viewpoint, Yogi Bhajan was a charismatic teacher, full of witticisms and vast knowledge on many topics.  For example one famous quote:  “If you can’t see God in all, you can’t see God at all”.  He was very accessible and would take phone calls from his students and dispense advice on any struggle that you may be having.  I still have letters that he wrote to me when I turned to him with my concerns.  He always had a remedy to administer for any type of physical malady and practiced aryuvedic healing customs along with the use of homeopathy, herbs and even different foods and yogic exercises for enhancing and maintaining health.

     My years spent in the ashram were unforgettable ones.  I was propelled along my spiritual journey by all that I learned through teachings of Sikhism, kundalini yoga, a vegetarian diet, healing techniques and the example of being a strongly convicted, authentic human being.  Yogiji’s teachings have added immeasurable meaning to my life and a lifetime of gratitude.        

     I left that lifestyle in 1979 but the many experiences I amassed while under Yogiji’s tutelage will be with me for lifetimes to come.

     Yogiji left this physical plane on October 6, 2004 at the age of 75.

Postscript:

     When I wrote this I was wanting to focus on the positive lessons that I came away with from living that lifestyle.  I was not trying to “white wash” some very real problems that the organization was challenged by…some of which I experienced while there.  All groups of people who gather together and try to accomplish goals run into problems and 3HO was not exempt.  When I look back at that time I see how it strengthened my physical and mental abilities.  I learned to meditate and quiet my mind.  I learned reverence and humility and so much more.  But in the end, I knew it was time to move on and I’ve come to realize more and more that I need to rely on my own self to guide me through this life.  And in this way keep myself open to ideas and other people’s perceptions that may help me learn and grow.

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16 Comments

  1. I read your account of meeting Yogi Bhajan and starting your practice of kundalini yoga with great interest. Like you, one of the first books I read on spiritual practice was “Autobiography of a Yogi”. I had a different experience with Yogi Bhajan & kundalini yoga which lead me to eventually reject the Yogi Bhajan yoga lifestyle and see that much of what Yogi Bhajan said was either an outright lie, such as his accounts of learning yoga from “great masters” like Sant Hazara Singh which there is no record of him ever existing, or fabrication of yoga asanas & meditations by Yogi Bhajan to appeal to innocent westerners who wanted something “magical” in their lives.

    I wrote a book, “Confessions of An American Sikh” which goes into great detail about how my eyes were opened to the truth about Yogi Bhajan and how I remained on the Sikh path which rejects the teachings of Patanjali’s yoga and other yogic disciplines for spiritual awakening but relies instead on the Sikh Gurbani or words of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib Ji for salvation. I am not trying to sell you my book but if you’d like a free copy, please write me at Gurusant@hotmail.com and if you would care to buy the book it is available for only 0.99 cents on Amazon at this link: http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-American-Sikh-corrupt-tantric-ebook/dp/B00ANSWUPM/ref=sr_1_2_bnp_1_kin?ie=UTF8&qid=1388928975&sr=8-2&keywords=Sikhs

    You may also like to read a book by a traditional Sikh scholar and historian, Dr. Trilochan Singh who spent months with Yogi Bhajan in the 70’s. This book is availbale for free as a pdf at: http://www.gurmukhyoga.com/forum/index.php?mode=page&id=1

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  2. Thank you for your comment, Gursant Singh. I wrote this because the experience was a very life changing one for me. Through the years I’ve heard and read many stories of some very controversial experiences that others have had with 3HO and Yogi Bhajan personally. There were difficulties living in Yogi Bhajan’s ashrams some of which were led by very unskilled people whose egos were out of control. My husband and I chose to leave after several years, however; I did learn a lot while living that lifestyle and grew stronger in many ways. I can’t deny that. And one thing I learned is that I don’t want to follow “teachers” and hold them up to higher standards than they are capable of maintaining.

    I do know that reading from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib brought me a lot of solace and inspiration while in 3HO. I clung more to those words than the ones being bandied about by the “teachers” around me.

    I’m more of the “live and let live” type though. I have no need or desire to take anyone down regarding their beliefs or who they profess to be.

    Did Yogi Bhajan do more harm than good…I don’t know. All I know is my own experience made me a stronger person…maybe strong enough to walk away from something that no longer served me.

    I thought about whether or not I should publish this for quite some time. Still not sure now…

    Thank you for sharing this with me, Gursant Singh, and I must admit am curious about your book…

    Gayle

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  3. Thank you Gayle for your thoughtful & sincere response. I too have moved on with my life outside of Yogi Bhajan’s group. I have chosen a lifestyle as an orthodox Sikh, as I mentioned in my previous comment, which gives me great satisfaction & happiness. I have decided to talk openly about my criticisms of Yogi Bhajan and his 3HO followers for several reasons.

    Firstly, 3HO people use the Sikh religion for commercial profit while in the process violating the Sikh code of conduct in many ways which I won’t go into detail here about but suffice it to say that Yogi Bhajan’s followers openly worship golden idols at their Gurdwaras and practice astrology which are strictly forbidden for Sikhs to engage in. The message I want to send to all unsuspecting spiritual seekers who are not aware of Yogi Bhajan’s frauds is that Yogi Bhajan’s followers stubbornly hold onto the image of Yogi Bhajan as a great Sikh leader and obey his word over the Sikh Reht Maryada (written Sikh code of conduct accepted by the vast majority of Sikhs throughout the world). Yogi Bhajan’s followers may do whatever they want but they should not use Sikh names like Singh, Kaur or Khalsa and misrepresent the Sikh religion.

    Secondly, New yoga students should be aware that Yogi Bhajan made-up most of the yoga asanas & meditations he taught. I refer you to a new academic study which showed conclusively that Yogi Bhajan lied about his so called “kundalini yoga lineage of great yoga teachers”: http://www.gurmukhyoga.com/forum/index.php?id=634
    Some, as myself, feel that these high energy tantric and kundalini asanas are in fact dangerous and cause psychotic episodes. I wrote an article on this subject which you might like to read at this link: http://www.sikharchives.com/?p=7690

    Thirdly, 3HO and Yogi Bhajan’s followers charge thousands of dollars for these tantric & kundalini yoga classes and teacher training which is like a pyramid scheme where the graduates eventually teach others to charge more money to more unsuspecting yoga students for instruction in yoga that again Yogi Bhajan fraudulently bills as being taken from some ancient sources but are really just calisthenics and heavy breathing which make one more susceptible to induction into the Bhajan group.

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  4. I respect your desire to speak your opinions and was happy to publish them here, Gursant Singh. Every person has a right to their own path and belief system. What I have difficulty with is when others don’t show the same respect and try to push their beliefs as the “only” way or exclude others who don’t believe as they do. It can get tricky can’t it? Because you know the lies and deceit permeating 3HO you want to warn others and yet others within the organization are happy and choose not to believe the “reality” of what you know is true. Each person’s reality is self created.

    Religions and/or spiritual ideology are born from groups of people believing in the same ideas and joining their focus. It seems as if Yogi Bhajan brought together many people who chose to believe in his spin on Sikhism, yoga, etc.

    From my experience, I gained much from my time in the ashram but when I found myself questioning the validity of certain practices, I could move on and allow those still involved to find their way…either within it or moving on to something else. It’s an evolutionary thing in my eyes. I see no need to intervene in others chosen paths.

    I have many extended family members still involved in 3HO. Some I have seen leave and others are very firmly and happily ensconced within the organization. I love and respect them all.

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  5. Gayle, it’s so interesting to get some background on you and your spiritual journey. I knew you and I were like-minded regarding Buddhist principles. Now I understand a bit more about why. I’m always interested in what leads a person to their beliefs. Thank you so much for sharing.

    By the way, I absolutely agree that finding your own way (often after varying degrees of instruction) is the only way to travel a fulfilling spiritual journey. I have never ascribed to strict or formalized practices. I find they confine my spirit.

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    • Hi Lorna…so nice to be sharing with you again. Yes, it’s been one interesting trip to say the least but hey it got me to where I am today and that’s the point…to keep moving forward…learning, growing. Now I find that I want to rely on my own sense of intuition that leads me in the “right” direction…for me. Finally!

      I like that you’ve come to that place too. No need for lots of rules and regulations. Feels free doesn’t it! Which I think is the whole point! 🙂

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      • Yes, very free. Sometimes it’s confusing, but then you have the tools to look inside and explore the confusion. I find that when I do that, things clear up pretty fast!

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        • Yes, I think both of us have learned some good tools to help us navigate our challenges more easily. I think many of us are prone to overcomplicating things and spirituality is no exception…we make things so much harder than they need to be. I’m all for simplicity and following my instincts…tuning in to those “gut” feelings that we so often ignore.

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  6. Sara K.

     /  January 10, 2014

    Bodhirose, I found your blog through an internet site that is made up of people who have left the Yogi Bhajan group. I also have family who are in Sikh Dharma and have been since the early 1970s. I appreciate your reluctance to write anything critical about Yogi Bhajan and his group because of your family.

    However, because I found your blog unexpectedly it may be that others with family in Sikh Dharma will too and I would like to encourage them to look beyond what you’ve written here for some help. My family are deeply involved in this organization and I know from reading what you have put on your blog that you wish to avoid examining the details around the lawsuits, criminal activities, sexual abuse and outright fraud that have emerged both before and after Yogi Bhajan’s death.

    My personal experience with this involves watching my family endure arranged marriages and children sent away to Yogi Bhajan’s boarding school in India. The constant presence of Yogi Bhajan and his dictates even now that he is dead has distorted my family for over 40 years. The availability of information about Sikh Dharma and Yogi Bhajan that is available on the internet has been a transformative and positive way to undo some of the damage that this man and his so-called teachings have done. While it is too late for some of my family there is hope that the generation born into this group will escape thanks to access to the facts.

    Repeating the myths put out by Yogi Bhajan’s group is an example of why it has been difficult for people anxious to get factual information. You have recycled the inaccuracies and fantastic claims that have helped keep Sikh Dharma going to the dismay of families like mine.

    You seem like a thoughtful person on a spiritual quest. I won’t overwhelm your blog with links to anti-cult sites. But I would like to caution those reading your blog to do their own research. Thanks.

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  7. Firstly, I’m surprised to know that you found me on an internet site made up of people who have left Yogi Bhajan’s teachings. I never joined any such group and really don’t care to be affiliated.

    Sara, I’m sorry that you are suffering because of your family’s relationship in 3HO. I was a part of Yogi Bhajan’s organization in the very early years and made my exit mostly because I felt inhibited to make my own decisions about my life.

    You are assuming that I had knowledge about underhanded things that were going on with Yogi Bhajan and his “dictates”…I did not. I left before children started being sent to school in India. I didn’t know about any sexual misconduct between anyone. My experiences in 3HO don’t match yours. And I haven’t spent much time researching all the things written about Yogi Bhajan by ex members (or members) and I couldn’t begin to figure out what is accurate and truthful and what may be being fabricated by disgruntled ex members.

    Honestly, I think that if I chose to submerge myself in the ugliness of 3HO, it would not be to my benefit. And as I said before, I wrote this piece because 3HO was a very life changing part of my life and growth. It served a purpose for me for the time I was there and then I moved on. Others have that same freedom…if they so choose.

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  8. Gayle, thank you for sharing this. I’m not familiar with Yogi Bhajan, but I’ve had similar experiences. In the end, like you, I came to the conclusion that I’d benefited much, wouldn’t have missed these experiences for anything, but that I need to abide by my own internal compass. That doesn’t invalidate these very important experiences or the people who bring them to us. They are like boats which we use to get to the other side. Having done that, we let go and move on. They’ve done their work with us and we’ve done our work with them. It’s all good and is – as you say – life changing. Profoundly so. Thank you for sharing a lovely meditation on your experience and your analysis. Made my evening.

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    • So grateful for your visit and your sharing here, Jamie. You summed it up well and I like your boat analogy too…thank you. I seem to have come full circle in my journey…knowing now that I have all the answers I seek within. Others can surely teach us much but bottom line it is our choice as to how we wish to manifest all that we learn and which pathway to take. It is empowering and exhilarating to know this. Thank you, again, Jamie.

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  9. Beautiful sharing of spiritual experiences! It just shows that spirituality has no boundaries as seekers are all over the world. A true Guru imparts spiritual inputs to his or her followers only up to the point where the disciple become strong enough.

    Thank you and regards!

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  10. Thank you, Dilip…and I appreciate your observation and insight here. Yogi Bhajan could not claim himself as a guru and I didn’t see him as such. The Sikhs believe that the Siri Guru Granth Sahib (their holy book) is now their one and only guru. He was a powerful teacher though and I can’t take away from the strength that I grew in while practicing his teachings.

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  11. I too was a student of John Twombly in, I think, 1970. It was apparently between the Park Avenue and College Park scenes. I attended classes at the Unitarian Church on Robinson and was invited to ride along to the Summer Solstice near Santa Fe. I liked John and I was permanently influenced by my time with them but I never was susceptible to the religion/guru aspect of it. Perhaps because I was previously innoculated against gurus by J.Krishnamurti, or maybe I was just not a “joiner” (still not).

    I am still a vegetarian, meditator and inward explorer. Some of their techniques have stayed with me and gradually morphed into my own variations and discoveries. Still a loner, I have no one with whom to share these breakthroughs, so I am just keeping a journal for historical purposes.

    Today–out of curiosity– I emailed “Hari Singh” inquiring about John Twombly and recieved a quick repy that he “made his transition” way back in 1988. I would like to know what happened–not just out of morbid curiosity, but as a fellow traveler with similar influences and tendencies.

    Tres Longwell

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    • Hi Tres…nice to meet you. I always get a little surge of energy when I find a comment on this particular posting. Is it going to be a rant, a rave or something in between…smiles.

      Well I’m not a joiner either and I really don’t know how I got wrangled up in 3HO. Oh wait a minute…yes I do…it was through those dang yoga classes. One minute I was blissing out doing some yoga and the next I was being indoctrinated into Sikhism. But now, like you, I think I have become completely inoculated against gurus. At last.

      Tres, do you have a blog where you are writing your journal? When I clicked on your name it took me to your Etsy space where I admired your art…very pretty. If you have a blog I would love to read about some of your experiences.

      But getting to your question, I gave a quick call to one of my sisters who was also in 3HO for several years. She was the one that gave me the news about John’s passing several years after he had died. She wasn’t sure of the date (you were told 1988) and said that she was told it was a heart attack. But something interesting happened before he died. He reconnected with Yogiji and Yogiji tried to get him to rejoin 3HO (John told us this himself). And around that same time, John started looking up some of his old students…my husband (now ex) and I were included and he visited us in our home for an evening. My sister said she was contacted by him too. To our thinking, it was almost like he knew he was dying…or so we have surmised in hindsight. It was good to see him and he seemed a mellower version of himself. Like you, he made an indelible mark on me.

      If you would like you could email me and I would love to continue a dialogue on your/my experiences within and without 3HO…would be happy to listen and share. From one fellow non-joiner to another… :~) Here’s my email: bodhirose@yahoo.com

      Gayle ~

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