Yoga Uncovered: The Cult Debate Surrounding Yoga

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Lifevif Team and JC Franco

With certain states and even countries banning yoga in some areas, because they believe that it is a religion that goes against their common beliefs, it can be a bit confusing for practitioners of the art to fully understand what they are getting themselves into. If you are a yoga enthusiast (or “yogi” as they are nicknamed), you might start to worry that you belong to a cult, and you do not even know it. 

Yoga is not a cult. While yoga has religious roots, it is not an actual religion and demands nothing of its practitioners. Anyone can do yoga – it is not reserved for people with any particular religious or belief system. 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a cult as a small religious group not part of larger, more acceptable belief systems. It goes on to say that people regard cults as extreme and dangerous. 

Do you consider your yoga class extreme or dangerous? Perhaps a late afternoon hot yoga class might seem a bit extreme, but I don’t believe that is the nature of “extreme” that Merriam-Webster Dictionary is referring to. 

Want to learn more about what I learned about yoga, what sets it apart from a cult, and why some people seem to have come to this general misconception? Take the time to read through my research and findings below.

What is the Modern Day Understanding of the Word “Cult”?

What I found out is that nowadays, the meaning of the word “cult” often also refers to something that has a huge or growing following. If a film has a cult following or is called a “cult film” it is not a film about a cult, but rather a popular film that is followed by a large group of people. While yoga has a massive worldwide following, it does not really fit into any of the other definitions of a cult. 

While I practice yoga myself and have my own knowledge and experience to rely on, I thought it would be of value to chat to other practitioners, both novice and expert, to discover their feelings on whether or not yoga is a cult, in their personal experience. The answer was the same across the board: the general consensus is that yoga is not in any way similar to a cult group, especially when you take the definition and signs of a cult into consideration. 

How/Why Yoga Does Not Fit Into the Definition of a Cult

I couldn’t help but wonder how many people have genuinely believed that they joined a cult instead of an exercise class. I wanted to know what gave them the idea that the class was a cult and what people could look out for to ensure that their class wasn’t a cult in any way, shape, or form. I set out to find out from yoga practitioners if they felt/thought that the art of yoga was, in fact, a cult. 

After a lot of research, I found out a few interesting things about cults, and yoga too. In the early 1980s, a psychiatrist called Robert Lifton wrote a fairly in-depth paper on the formation of cults. In this paper, he set out 3 main characteristics of a cult, and these same characteristics are used for people to determine if a religious group is, in fact, a cult or not, nowadays.

Characteristics of a Cult

Below are the 3 cult characteristics (not mentioned verbatim) – you decide if your yoga class fits into these particular characteristics or not:

  • A charismatic living leader who eventually becomes worshipped. As time progresses, the principles of the group fall away as total worship, and allegiance is required by the leading. The leader is the greatest source of power in the cult.
  • Indoctrination of the members of the group. The group is educated or taught persuasively a specific way of thinking and acting that is not always in the individual’s best interests (or socially accepted), but always in the best interests of the leader or the group.
  • Exploitation of the members by the leader. Exploitation can be in terms of sexual abuse, money requirements, labor law infringements, and even a call for mass suicide. 

Here is How Yoga Differs:

  • There is no doubt that yoga is a Hindu practice and that its roots come from Hindu belief systems. However, there is no living leader of yoga, and while yoga has a religious background, it does not require all of its practitioners to dedicate themselves to the Hindu faith or any particular living leader at all.
  • While education towards a calm and healthy lifestyle is promoted, members are not indoctrinated. The mindset taught in yoga is exactly the same as the health industry punts – exercise, eat right, relieve stress from your life. This type of education is in the best interests of the individual, not any particular leader or group.
  • Unless your yoga instructor is persuading your class to consider mass suicide, you are being sexually abused in class, or you’re being forced to ‘donate’ significant quantities of money, your yoga class does not particularly lend itself to being described as exploiting its members. 

The health (both mental and physical) benefits of yoga are undeniable, and while some religious enthusiasts might want to argue that yoga is a cult, perhaps it is not. 

Devil’s Advocate: Some Yoga Groups Could be Cults

Just because yoga itself is not a cult, it does not mean that some groups of people are not using yoga as a basis for creating cults. 

Now you are probably worrying, but you do not need to. After doing a lot of online research and speaking to a lot of practitioners, some did imply that they had heard of some yoga groups being used as a foundation for building a cult. I found this particularly scary myself, but there are always ways of safeguarding yourself. One way that I think would be useful is to be aware of what to look out for. 

How to Avoid Joining a Yoga Cult

What can you do to ensure you do not join a yoga cult instead of a yoga class? 

Before you join a yoga class, Google the organization and see if anyone else, who has attended the classes, has seen any cult-like behavior during classes. Also, on attending your first class, be aware of what is happening around you. If something happens that you personally find strange and unusual for a yoga class, listen to your gut and do not return. There are yoga cult groups out there and they do not follow the norms of a typical western yoga class/group. 

Here is what to look out for when you join a new yoga class:

  • Is the instructor focusing on new philosophies that you find strange at first?
  • At the end of class, when you are relaxed and in a semi-hypnotic mindset (in your most suggestive state), pay attention to what the instructor is relaying. What is the message he/she is delivering, and could it be a cult message?
  • Is the instructor introducing new doctrines and ideas that do not particularly fit into those that you know about yoga?
  • Is the yoga instructor having sex with the members of the group, and do the group members consider it an honor for such behavior to unfold? Do you feel like this is something that might be expected of you at any point?
  • Is the yoga instructor providing advice to the other members (and you) on more than yoga exercise? Perhaps he/she is advising members on relationships, life decisions, family situations, money, and so on – this is a red flag. 
  • Do you find that you felt unnerved when meeting the instructor and other members of the group? Remember to trust your instincts.

If you found yourself answering yes to these questions, there’s a very good chance that there is something fishy about your yoga class.

While no-one can make you leave your current yoga class, it is worth investigating further and not opening yourself up to new suggestions and ideas that might not fit in with your world view and beliefs.

If you ever suspect or feel uncomfortable in your yoga group or class, it is better to be safe than sorry – so leave the class and seek out another group that is more in line with your desire to get fit and healthy. Don’t feel pressured to give an instructor or a yoga group the benefit of the doubt just because they have been recommended by family or friends. Look into the group closely and determine for yourself if their behavior is considered normal or cult-like.

Is Yoga a Cult or Culture? You Decide!

Of course, generally speaking, yoga in its true form and as it was intended does not seem to be a cult by any means. What one person may deem cult-like might not be at all cult-like to another. Consider the information presented, take a closer look at the class and linked association that you are attending and decide for yourself; is yoga a cult or merely a culture of healthy living?

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who share their experiences and knowledge about the "Seven F's of Life".

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco is a New York-based editor for Lifevif. He mainly focuses on content about faith, spirituality, personal growth, finance, and sports. He graduated from Mercyhurst University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business, majoring in Marketing. He is a certified tennis instructor who teaches in the New York City Metropolitan area. In terms of finance, he has passed the Level I exam of the CFA program.