Premka - White Bird Escaping From Her Cage

Posted on March 11, 2020

Yesterday I finished reading PREMKA - White Bird in a Golden Cage - My Life with Yogi Bhajan. This book, which appeared just over a month ago, in January 2020, describes the sixteen years, beginning in 1968, that the author Pamela Dyson spent in the close neighbourhood of Yogi Bhajan, founding father of kundalini yoga. It has made quite a splash in circles of kundalini yoga practitioners.

There is a closed FaceBook group devoted to discussions of the book of which I am a member, with a tsunami of sharings about abuse in the communities KRI and 3HO (two organizations founded by Yogi Bhajan). The key sentiment expressed here is “Finally a group where people are willing to listen and willing to believe our testimony.”

For starters, let me tell you that I have a bit of skin in the game. Two years ago I did an intensive training course in kundalini yoga coaching where I had the good fortune to meet an amazing group of wonderful people and an intelligent and inspiring teacher. It was exhilarating and uplifting, and I also learned a number of useful coaching skills. For a while after that I kept up my private practice and I occasionally went to kundalini yoga classes. But when last year I did some internet research, for a blog on guru worship that you can find here, I chanced upon a website maintained by people who had left Yogi Bhajan’s organization in bitter disappointment: The Wacko World of Yogi Bhajan.

The Wacko World website has information about lawsuits against Yogi Bhajan by two of his former secretaries (Pamela Dyson and Katharine Felt), with - for me - convincing details about how these women had been abused. There were also stories about Yogi Bhajan’s involvement in criminal activities. I then checked out the Wikipedia lemma on Harbhajan Singh Khalsa. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa is the official name of Yogi Bhajan, who also gave himself increasingly grandiose titles such as Siri Singh Sahib and Mahan Tantric (the only person in the world who could teach White Tantra practices). Hmm, nothing untoward there. The entry reads like the biography of a saint, with long lists of impressive achievements and famous pupils,… until you check the edit history. Then it transpires that edits from dissidents, most notably from a person called Gursant Singh (also involved in Wacko World), are getting systematically removed by other editors eager to maintain the unblemished banner of their guru:

I am removing the legal issues sections – both of them – for the simple reason that in the big scope of things, they do not merit mention in an article about a man of the caliber of Yogi Bhajan, a religious figure considered by the United States Congress to be in the same elevated category as just three other individuals, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Anyone who seriously looks at the remarkable contributions Yogi Bhajan has made, as sketched out in the article, in areas from the healing arts to interfaith dialogue to standing firm against terrorism, will come away impressed, if not amazed at his consistent humanity and passion for peace and the good of all. (Wikipedia comment by Guru Fatha Singh Khalsa)

Clearly, for Guru Fatha Singh Khalsa it is literally unthinkable that the lawsuits - one by Pamela Dyson and the other by Katharine Felt - against the Yogi have merit. Guru Fatha Singh Khalsa has decided to side with fiction rather than with reality.

One comment in the history section of the Wikipedia lemma reads: “This article is an embarrassment to Wikipedia. It is clearly being guarded by editors with a non-neutral view, who have repeatedly deleted anything critical, despite the multitudes of Reliable Sources.” I think any sane person would agree.

In short, my research made clear that Yogi Bhajan, who died in 2004, had been a con-man, a fraud and an abuser, and that the leaders of the KRI and 3HO organizations that he had founded were covering up his wrongdoing. It became impossible for me to continue the practice. I have dropped out of yoga schools before; here is my story of a previous parting of ways, if you are interested. Onward to my next yoga studio; fortunately there is no shortage of them here in Amsterdam.

Why did Pamela Dyson’s book succeed where all earlier attempts to expose the guru as fake had absolutely no effect on his followers? Well, there is a very significant difference. The style of Wacko World of Yogi Bhajan is one of indignation; the authors clearly have an axe to grind. This makes it rather easy to put the contents down as slander. Also, the title of the website is not helpful, for people do not enjoy being labeled as wacky. In any case, when I brought this issue up with kundalini yoga teachers, I invariably got replies like “Every great man has enemies, and it is rather obvious that these are people with grudges,” “How can we know what is true?” or “Both parties have their truths; so I am not too bothered,” or “Yogi Bhajan is dead, and the technique works for me, so what is the problem?”

Pamela Dyson’s book is completely different from Wacko World. This is not a reckoning but a tender and tragic love story, the tale of a young and vulnerable white all-American girl who met an amazing and exotic and inspiring teacher from the East, completely fell for him and for his message, and decided to become his follower. This is a story of devotion, of putting love of the master - who in the course of the years would also become her lover, her boss, her God - above everything, above love of self. As she is stating clearly in the book, she put herself willingly in his power. Not her will, but his.

I resolved to defy, to override, my rational mind, to disregard my own intuitive voice, to dedicate myself to following this spiritual teacher wherever he might lead me. (Premka, page 42.)

The Yogi gives Pamela her new name Premka. Everybody in the community gets new spiritual names. As the story unfolds, it becomes very clear that the Yogi thoroughly enjoys exercising his power over people. He revels in his ability to make people do things that he wants but that they would not do of their own accord, things they do not necessarily want for themselves, or even things that are squarely against their best interests.

The Yogi is wielding this power by making it appear as if any form of disobedience to his will is a sign of lack of devotion, a flaw that has to be remedied. The punishment for disobedience or criticism is gruesome: “You will be reborn as a cockroach!” His devotees accept all this, and the more they accept the more outrageous become the beliefs he forces them to adopt and the more stringently he prescribes the most minute details of how they are supposed to live. And he gets away with almost anything, e.g. with these infamous remarks about rape, in a lecture:

Rape is always invited, it never happens, a person who is raped is always providing subconsciously the elements and the arrangements. If you do not provide the circumstances and arrangements it is impossible.

Yogi Bhajan, April 26, 1978, Espanola, New Mexico

You may not be able to find this quote anymore on the websites of 3HO and KRI (the kundalini yoga organisations founded by the Yogi), for these sites are now rapidly being purged by the cult leaders. The lecture can still be found in the files section of the Premka FaceBook group.

In the course of a few years the Yogi, who had been a humble airport customs official in India, had amassed thousands of Western followers and millions of dollars. He encouraged his disciples to work in successful businesses that were started by his students, who sometimes gave up their ownership to him: Yogi Tea, Kettle Chips, the Golden Temple restaurant chain, and the multi-billion dollar AKAL Security company. He asserted himself as the Chief Religious and Administrative Authority of Sikhism in the Western Hemisphere, although this assertion was hotly disputed by other Sikh leaders.

The demands he put on his followers were extreme: long hours of devotional practices followed by equally long hours of unpaid volunteer work. The Yogi arranged marriages and persuaded parents to send their children off to boarding school in Amritsar, India, in order to avoid corruption by American culture. Also, he had the habit of belittling students during his lectures, a behaviour that was presented as a legitimate teaching strategy (“Poke, Provoke, Confront, Elevate”).

As the years pass by, the going gets rougher and rougher for Premka. Her elevated status as personal secretary makes her feel lonely. The Yogi, who is a married man with children, has appointed more young female secretaries who dote on him, for personal assistance and, Premka suspects, also for sex. But whatever happens, she remains devoted.

And she has to put up with a lot. When her furtive sex with the Yogi causes a pregnancy, he commands her to stay silent and forces her to agree to an abortion. This gets arranged by the Yogi in a private and not very professional clinic during a trip to India. On her flight back from India to London, together with the Yogi, Premka is almost bleeding to death. On arrival she gets admitted to a London hospital where the Yogi deserts her. Fortunately, this gives her space to tell the doctors of her recent abortion and they rush her to the operating room to scrape her uterus and save her life. This is just the beginning of the ride. Premka soon becomes General Secretary of the 3HO organisation, a position that allows her to travel the world and to meet with celebrities like Coretta King, Jackie Kennedy, Indira Gandhi and the Pope. But all the authority and power resides with the Yogi.

Until, at the very end, she cannot take it anymore. This is splendidly written book, and reading it has been a moving experience. The most inspiring feature of the memoir, for me, is the complete honesty about her own part, and the absence of resentment. Obviously, Pamela Dyson is blaming the Yogi: she is aware that she was manipulated, groomed, conditioned in all sorts of ways from the very beginning. But that is not the focus of the book. She is mainly blaming herself, and in the end she is able to forgive herself for her lack of discernment. There is good news here: after having been in the clutches of fake gurus, people are able to heal and to find a true path. Pamela Dyson is a shining example of this. It is clear from her writing that she has come to terms with everything that has happened to her. She has learned the important lesson that her true teacher is within, and she states in her book that she is full of gratitude for the lessons that she had to learn the hard way.

Two other examples of spiritual women who fell into the clutches of frauds but managed to get away and find their own path are Tara Brach and Mirabai Starr. Tara Brach, who is a distinguished meditation teacher and writer and the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, was also abused in Yogi Bhajan’s cult. She talks about her experience in this podcast (the story of her abuse by Yogi Bhajan starts at minute 38). Mirabai Starr wrote a rollercoaster of a book about her seduction by and marriage to a spiritual fraud and her subsequent escape. See Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation.

So if you are in any way connected to the wacko world of Yogi Bhajan and are reading this, my unsollicited advice to you is to move out while cherishing what you have learned. By all means, don’t give up on yoga or meditation, but find better teachers. If you are a kundalini yoga teacher, ask yourself if you still want to belong to this tradition. And maybe also ask yourself why you disregarded all the warning signs, all the rumours about Yogi Bhajan and about the leaders of the 3HO cult.

I believe the organisations that were founded by Yogi Bhajan are beyond redemption. Proposals to “rewrite the manuals” are futile; there is just too much nonsense in them. Beliefs such as “Wearing a turban is necessary to protect your aura”, or “Cutting your hair and shaving your beard will make you weak”, or “This kriya has to be practiced for exactly 31 minutes to be beneficial” are obviously not fact-based. They have nothing to do with truth or reality, but they serve a different purpose: they create a separate reality that disconnects the followers from the rest of the world. In other words, they suck you inside a cultic belief system.

Philip Deslippe, who wrote an interesting scientific paper about the true origins of Yogi Bhajan’s teachings, perceptively remarked in the FaceBook group devoted to Premka that he would love to hear theories of how Yogi Bhajan can be separated from his form of Kundalini Yoga that do not depend on the terminology or theories of the Yogi himself. For instance, if kundalini yoga practitioners are dealing with Pamela Dyson’s book and the avalanche of further testimonials that it generated by proposing to “strengthen their sadhana” and to “practice the cultivation of neutral mind”, then this is a cop-out, because these people stay in the same mind set.

The way to really make a fresh start is by stepping out of the cult. So I advise you to say goodbye to kundalini yoga and to use everything you have learned to find your true path. May your departure be gentle. Wish everyone well, also those who decide to stay. If they accept your departure, hopefully you can remain friends. If they cover you with negativity, remember that that is how cult members deal with dissidents.

By all means, continue your yoga and meditation practice, maybe throwing in some journaling, and keep some good habits that work for you. I am still taking cold showers because I have found that it helps me to stave off colds. Invent your own kriya’s: if Yogi Bhajan could do it, you can do it. But don’t overdo your practice. Be a bit more gentle with yourself than the followers of the Yogi tend to be. And never again follow a person who is telling you what to believe.

Writing this, I feel compassion for the people who have devoted themselves to what they believed was a genuine path, and who can not yet escape, maybe because there are too many friendships at stake for them, maybe because their business is based on kundalini yoga, or because practicing kundalini yoga has saved them from depression or from substance abuse. I hope that these people will realize that they are better than their leaders, and I sincerely wish that at some point they will be able to follow Pamela Dyson’s example and liberate themselves. And I hope I can remain friends with some remarkable people that I have met through kundalini yoga and that I have come to love.