It’s true, Ashtanga’s a cult, and I’m proof

OK, confession time. (Also known as: The original purpose of blogs.)

I wrote the post that’s below, got it all ready, and asked Bobbie to take a look. (A nagging suspicion? Perhaps.)

Here’s how she responded:

“The post is fine, but it’s a bit too earnest for my taste. It’s ridiculous to even ponder Astanga as a cult, so you give the idea more dignity than I would.”

People, with that, I’m here to tell you:

Ashtanga is a cult. Run!

I yell this caution to you because there is simply no other explanation for how I would become the earnest one in our relationship, or earnest at all. For nearly 20 years, I haven’t even been able to fight seriously or earnestly. (This has insured I’ve lost most fights in our house. I’m happy to report they’ve been relatively few over the years.)

But now. What’s happened to me? Ashtanga apparently has robbed me of my sense of play and my irreverence.

Here’s the offending post. Keep in mind, it is entirely false. Ashtanga is a cult, an especially pernicious and evil one, and you absolutely should consider if you are being adversely affected by your practice:

What keeps Ashtanga from being a cult

A few weeks ago, an old friend we hadn’t seen for a few years was in town. Included in one of our back-and-forth emails to plan our meeting was the question: “Have you guys joined a cult?”

I assured him no, although he may have walked away less convinced after our afternoon together.

With the Kumare documentary out, I’ll admit I’ve been thinking about the cult / guru nature of Ashtanga and yoga, in general. As someone who is decidedly not a “joiner,” I sort of assume it’s unlikely I’d wake up one day in a cult. But stranger things have been known to happen.


If you search online, you’ll find almost as many sites with definitions of cults as there probably are cults. I happened on one really simple one, though, at Andrew Sullivan’s political blog:

1. Does it have secret, sacred places that are sealed off from outsiders? 2. Is there some kind of esoteric teaching involved known only to those high up in the faith? 3. Is it easy to leave the church, i.e. is apostasy without serious consequences? 4. Does it enforce tithing effectively?

I suppose one could argue that the Advanced Series fits No. 2 there, or maybe pranayama. But, of course, those advanced poses end up in flow classes and there are any number of pranayama techniques out there. And I’m sure we all feel No. 4 every month when payment time comes, but that doesn’t make a gym a cult, does it? (OK, maybe bad example!)

All that aside, what I’d actually focus on is No. 3, and what it also implies. Cults cut members off from the world; people end up physically and emotionally isolated. But at Ashtanga’s core is that it fits in with our daily life, our lives as householders. (Yes, it may end up making that life more austere, with crazy strict diets and early bedtimes.) Ashtanga practice takes up a very specific and clear part of our day, but from there our lives are supposed to take precedence, even if Ashtanga does wield influence throughout our days.

I think this fundamental fact to the Yoga that Guruji spread would keep it from ever being a cult. Might an Ashtanga teacher come along someday and establish a cult, based on most of the Ashtanga tenants? Totally possible. But the thing is, the moment you go from being a householder who practices yoga (I think here when I write “practices yoga” I probably mean something close to “is religious” in the sense of the yoga filtering throughout one’s life) to a yogi surrounded by a bunch of other Ashtangis… well, then you’ve got some problems.

Until that happens to me, I think I will keep practice with a clear conscience, if not a clear and focused mind.


Again, let me repeat: The above is false. Ashtanga’s a cult. Women and children get in the lifeboats first.

And I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Posted by Steve

Published by


Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

4 thoughts on “It’s true, Ashtanga’s a cult, and I’m proof”

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