I was 22 when I moved to a different US city and needed a new yoga studio. I discovered a place that believed in eastern mysticism – perfect for an open-minded spiritualist, which was how I saw myself at the time.
I walked in and a young woman was very excited to see me. She paid attention to my every word, making me feel cared about. I then met with a “master”, who informed me I was in very poor energetic health and needed to sign up right away. The classes were quirky. We’d do 40 minutes of exercise and meditation to a mix of new age flute music and Michael Jackson. It was far less pretentious than the yoga studios I had visited before. I decided to join for the haggled price of $100 (£79) a month.
During my second class, the teacher gave me a healing massage, rubbing my chest with both hands. I started to cry. A friend had killed herself a few weeks before and I was probably more emotionally raw than I realised.
As I got better at yoga, the masters told me I had potential. Within a month, my master had personally requested that I attend a weekend retreat the organisation was hosting in the Arizona desert, where about 400 people spent time doing yoga. I’d have to pay my airfare, plus fees to the organisation.
The retreat was fancy: lots of rich Californians in a huge house with a pool, gardens and many outhouses. We were well fed. I made close friends from around the world, forging deep bonds with other members, some sexually charged. I had a good time.
After that, I attended two more retreats. At one, the leader addressed the crowd in the manner of a minister giving a sermon. (There was even a special chair that only he could sit on.) Before he was introduced on the opening night, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy as loud dance music played; a rock star entrance.
One master hadn’t spoken to his parents in years. It was very tough, he said, but saving the world was more important
During that third event, senior devotees tried to convince me to become a “healer”, their term for someone who teaches classes. They said, “Do you want to save the world? Make that happen by teaching.” By then I’d sacrificed time and money for the group, and made friends. I had reservations, but was too embarrassed to turn back. I paid several thousand dollars to train, maxing out my credit cards.
Healers are a step below masters who are similar to monks, living in small apartments with other masters and turning over most of their possessions. A close friend who joined around the time I did quit university and spent tens of thousands of dollars from her student loan fund to become a loyal master.
After a few months’ training, I realised I wasn’t seeing my friends and family as much as I used to. The organisation didn’t like it if I went on a weekend away with friends. I thought about leaving, but had already paid a year’s subscription and for more Arizona trips. I figured I’d stay and gain from the experience.
As time went on, I struggled. I started reading online accounts of others who felt exploited by the group. I wasn’t falling in line, either. Once, a master grabbed me by the shoulders, shouted in my face and shook me, because I wasn’t doing what they wanted. I was supposed to be an obedient subject.
The tipping point was when I was told I should leave behind my “unconscious family” (my parents), as my “spiritual family” (the organisation) was more important. One master hadn’t spoken to his parents for five years. It was tough, he told me, but said that saving the world was far more important. I know he believed he was doing the right thing. He was just fully indoctrinated.
Experience: I’m stranded in a ghost town
I spent six months with the organisation. I didn’t want to be convinced to stay, so when I left I basically ghosted everyone. I still felt I owed them an explanation, though. In the end, I sent them a postcard, saying, “Good luck on your path, but this is not my path.” They never wrote back.
The only time I saw anyone from there again was a decade later, on the front page of a magazine. The article described the organisation as a cult, outlining its brainwashing tactics and speaking to several former members I knew. From some of their stories, I’m glad I got out when I did.
• As told to Jack Needham
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