One year ago, I wrote and published a blog post called “Decolonizing Ayurveda: Realness and Heartbreak”. Over the past year, it has been re-shared on social media by other people and I have had emails from strangers about, what feels to me now, this ancient snapshot into my deep, weird process: Emails from students thanking me for my writing and asking for advice, and one wonderful email from someone who offered me a very thoughtful critique which I was so honored and touched to receive. That someone would take the time and the energy to lovingly critique my writing / my thoughts on this, stunned me. And it also showed me, oh shit, I have been utterly silent here on my blog as my process around this subject, the subject of taking a deeper look at ayurveda through a social justice lens, has unfolded. I have shared some on Instagram, but not here. That blog post was intended to be preliminary and quickly followed up by more serious writing. I had not meant to be so silent this year, but it’s been a weird year. I’ve been writing the whole time, but not sharing my writing, as it still felt so raw and I am absolutely terrified to share my story and my thoughts with the internet at large. Also, each scholarly book I have read on the subject has given me more insight but more questions too, I still have some significant unanswered research questions, and then my work around this took a different turn when I realized how cult-like my ayurveda school was.
In this blog post and more to follow, I intend to share what I have learned and am still learning the past year+ re: ayurveda and social justice (and a bunch of related subjects). It is messy and imperfect and my great hope is that in another year I look back on this with even more insight and knowledge and perspective from others that enrich my own. It is my hope that I am creating a body of work that will be accessible and available for everyone, in right timing, so you don’t have to dig through google scholar and these impenetrable college books, as I have been doing, and that my work is transparent and humble.
My intention is to write a book on Ayurveda in the West, through a social justice lens, and my own (and others’) journey with it, and to create a podcast for the project so there is an audio component and a public space to share the interviews I intend to conduct. But a year has gone by and I have not started the interviews yet, have only reached out to a couple people to interview, and I’ve just been reading scholarly books and articles, and doing some of my own writing. As I wrote out the outline for this book I want to write, I saw that I needed to thoroughly write out my own personal narrative, for my own clarity. It took me a long time to do that. I actually put it off madly and distracted myself from doing it for months.
Two notes before I dig into this:
1. ) What follows here is not about “decolonizing” ayurveda. It is about other stuff. (Although writing on the subject of decolonization will follow.) As decolonization is described in the very good article “Decolonization is not a metaphor” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.”
2.) Also, so we are clear, I welcome constructive critique and call-outs, just know that more writing is on the way so if part of what you are critiquing is an absence of something, know it may be coming. Also know I am doing my best over here, working as a laborer and trying to put my life back together after I moved 1500 miles and abruptly ended my former career, and also that I do not ask or expect any other person to take the trouble to educate me on anything. Honor your own precious energy and your own pain and I am here trying to do the same and loving us all for doing that.
So anyway. I was putting off writing out my story. Then I had the opportunity this summer to attend an artist residency at a biological research station in Western Nebraska. I thought I would be mostly painting pictures of plants and hiking on the trails. But what actually happened is that I injured my foot so badly I could barely walk at all, could barely hobble to the bathroom and the cafeteria. There was nothing to do but sit in my cabin and do….something?
Oh shit, I thought, I have to work on my book. I have to write out my own experience with ayurveda, ayurveda schooling, and all the rest. Obviously.
So I did. For four or five days, I made that my main project. I sat on my ass with an ice pack on my foot and I wrote, alone in my cabin. And from that writing came wave after wave of emotion and deeper understanding of my experience, understanding I did not have before. It was excruciating. No wonder I had been putting it off.
The biggest thing that came out of that time, other than the writing itself, which is all sitting in a folder in my google drive, was the new clarity that my school, the California College of Ayurveda, was more like a cult than I had realized. I mean, I knew but I didn’t know.
It wasn’t and isn’t a cult proper. Certain things are gratefully missing - for instance, it is expected that students graduate and leave; there is nothing weird or coercive about trying to keep people there. Also, as far as I know, there has been no gross abuse of power or sexual abuse of any kind. I have discussed this with three other former students who I am still in touch with, and none of them knew of anything like that happening. So it isn’t a cult. But, this is how it was like a cult:
1. There is a leader who is above accountability, who makes all the rules and can change them at any time.
2. There is a very curated, bounded worldview being taught there, and anything outside of that world view is dismissed. No substantive questioning is encouraged (or tolerated actually), only clarifying questioning, all leading back to the truth as the leader teaches it. It is understood that ayurveda has all the answers, and “ayurveda” as it is taught there is defined by the school’s leader. All the teachers were educated at the school itself, so there is little variation in perspective.
3. Other schools and other perspectives are often dismissed or criticized.
4. There is a salvific quality to the teachings. As in, if you eat this way and do these exercises and take these plant medicines, you will be healthy and blissful. You will have perfect health. If you don’t do these things, you won’t be. If you are doing these things and are still unwell, it is a failure on your part (somehow) in doing these thing properly. Any problem at all is referred back to the same bounded worldview.
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A lot of this is actually spelled out pretty clearly on the school’s website, for the observant person to see. Had I been looking for it, I would have seen it long ago. This is all taken directly from the school’s website, accessed July 6, 2018 (Italicized notes at the ends are my commentary):
Academic Standards are what we stand for. Dr. Halpern has been a leading force in developing standards of education the United States and is a co-founder of the National Council on Ayurvedic Education. CCA's program exceeds the guidelines of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association. CCA has the highest academic and clinical standards in the West. >> pretty sure Dr Halpern created or helped create the guidelines of the national ayurvedic medical association. Also, honestly, from my perspective this program was not academically rigorous at all.
Because of the clarity and focus of CCA's educational process, CCA has graduated the most successful practitioners in the United States and the West. Our curriculum is not only strong in Ayurveda but also in the business and marketing skills that are necessary to be successful in today's world. >> “clarity and focus” = bounded worldview. CCA speaks highly of their cohesive, organized curriculum, but do not say how much of ayurveda they leave out in order to have that curriculum.
CCA offers the only program in the West where residents and interns have the opportunity to make each and every medicine they prescribe to their patients. Our herbal studies program begins in Level I and grows with each level of study. Students can also participate on our 1 year Herbal Apprenticeship Program. >> The very complex, traditional formulas are made in India at herbal pharmacies there, which is why many people just buy them from those Indian companies. CCA instead created their own system of designing herbal formulas that are not the same as the traditional formulas. This seems like another way of creating a bounded reality where there is more control. Though it doesn’t related to the school being cult-like, it is also worth noting that they purchase most of their bulk herbs from Mountain Rose herbs and Banyan Botanicals, two herb companies which are great in many ways but are not owned or operated by Indian people. There are reasons for this - there are major safety and quality control issues with herbs from India and Indian herb companies, but it does not change the fact that the practice is neocolonial. For an ayurveda school to be run by a white american guy and mostly staffed by white and not indian people, and then to buy their medicine from herb companies owned and operated by other white people, is neocolonialism. Is extractive. The people who should be benefiting aren’t.
While most internships only include observing a teacher seeing patients or having students evaluate other students, the internship program at CCA emphasizes seeing real patients either in our community clinic or through our field internship programs. This gives students the real world experience necessary to be successful. In internship, the focus was more on filling out the paperwork properly and following standard treatment protocols than on anything else, as far as I could tell. It was not medically rigorous at all; it was challenging in all the wrong ways.
Every facet of CCA's training program is designed to coordinate a student's learning experience. Rather than provide students with seminar teachers who do not coordinate with each other, CCA's teaching staff is a completely integrated unit working together to assure a cohesive learning experience. >>Self-bounded worldview, thought control
Excellence in Teaching Staff
Teachers at CCA are hand-picked by Dr. Halpern for their knowledge, their ability to communicate clearly, and their ability to teach in an organized manner. Many have been teaching for more than a decade. CCA's teachers are among the most experienced teachers in the country. >>Self-bounded worldview, thought control
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I read about narcissistic personality disorder, which it seems is almost synonymous with “cult leader” and saw that my school’s leader had many of those qualities. Because I have no desire to make this a personal attack on him, though it may come off that way anyway, I will not go deeper into that here but instead leave interested people to do their own research on NPD and on cult leaders.
I was pretty freaked out at this point so I emailed three friends from school and got their perspectives on all this. All of them basically said, yes to most of this, yes to narcissism, but no it wasn’t a cult because of the reasons I mentioned above - about it not being hard to leave, about no abuses we know of, also not alienating people from their families or public shaming (two other common things cults do). I also reached out to two former teachers. One didn’t respond and one did. I include her email copied below and I have left it completely 100% unedited, except to conceal her identity:
This actually strikes me as slightly humorous. I have to disagree with you. I worked at the college for 4.5 years and it was definitely Not a Cult. Dr. Halpern has a giant ego, absolutely true. But he doesn’t even run the school anymore, there’s a general manager that does, a woman, who is awesome!
Dr. Halpern created the school with Dr. Lad and Dr. Frawley, he has taken a lot of classical references and A Lot of time and care to try to make it great. His heart is always actually in the right place. I witnessed the college was his child, created the same year his eldest son was born, and it went through the same acts of control a parent has over their child’s development. It’s a trip to be a parent, trying to guide without instilling your own stuff. The process revealed all of his flaws, much like parenting does. He stepped away, when his son went to college, totally paralleling the process. There has not been any sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior. The college is genuinely a portal of transformation for all who enter, but not with any expectation of anything in return. I spoke regularly with Dr. H about the various approaches of other schools and he was not negative towards them at all. He just wanted to create a place that was whole, offering a more a westernized approach for our society, especially with his western medical background. That was his niche for a different way of learning this material. There are certainly other more traditional schools. I agree there was a lot left out, but it is also always evolving and growing to incorporate more.
I’m sorry you have these feelings or thoughts, but I just don’t really think there’s any validity to your claim.
I’m glad you reached out to me though. It’s important to acknowledge your feelings and identify the root, so healing can take place. But no, CCA is not a cult.
Ayurveda compared to anything else we know of in the West, seems strange and kind of culty, but the college is a genuine place of learning and healing, and Dr. H is just a human.
Hugs and blessings to you,
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Her smugness and invalidating of my own experiences, her saying things I had witnessed with my own eyes did not happen, was hurtful and hard to swallow, but it also confirmed all my suspicions. Her invalidation was oddly validating. We messaged back and forth briefly after this, and I asked her to please look up the word “gaslighting” and not contact me again if this remains her stance. I told her I am blocking her on social media.
This teacher was someone I truly liked and admired, and to say these things to her and block her did not feel good, but the idea of not doing it felt worse.
I had been trying to share some of this as I go along, on my primary public channel of instagram, mostly so that it isn’t so lonely. I shared this post on July 6, from my cabin at the artist residency:
Right after I posted this, two women reached out to me saying they had been in similar situations with ayurveda schools that were not my school. They both sent me personal messages about it. One of them sent me a series of messages in which she told me she had attended a different cultish ayurveda school in California, that she has also been in what you could consider a “real”, abusive cult as well as grown up in another country under a totalitarian regime. We messaged about this and we ended up talking on the phone for an hour and a half. This woman, a total stranger, took that time and energy to listen to me and talk with me. She asked me to tell her my story and when I was done, she asked me, “What do you need now?”
What do you need now?
What a compassionate question! Just her asking that question caused my whole body to relax.
“I think I just needed someone to ask me that,” I sniffled.
I know she is, you know, another human with faults like anyone else, but that night, to me, she was nothing short of an angel. She didn’t invalidate my experiences in any way, though her own were so much worse. She told me about her experiences in all these cult-like groups, and about her recovery process, and I cannot thank her enough for doing that.
Quickly, I realized this was a whole other topic that only relates tangentially to what I thought I was going to write about in my book. Two other people reaching out to me saying they also attended cult-like ayurveda schools which were not the cult-like ayurveda school I attended may mean my idiosyncratic experiences are part of a cultural phenomenon that is a lot bigger than I thought. (The subject of another blog post!)
Then I started to see how many organizations have cult-like qualities, even some informal, loosely organized online communities have serious cult-like qualities. I started to see bounded worldviews being espoused by charismatic authoritarian leaders who are above accountability in their own sphere, everywhere. And some other cult-like characteristics that go along with that, including public shaming, breaking down of the ego, and salvific promises.
I mean, the government is like a cult is many ways, actually. And organized religion shares many of these qualities too though neither of these organizations are cults.
Things got a little weird in my head and I cried a lot.
That phone call with the angelic cult-survivor kept me afloat and from feeling simply insane.
As I read about recovery from cults, I saw some of my own experiences of the previous year written out plain as day:
The sitting on the porch drinking coffee, waiting in the emptiness and absence of knowing, waiting for the spring to fill again. My own worldview had crumbled entirely and what I thought had been my north star was actually part of a shifting summer constellation. The only north star is the actual north star. But I’m not a sailor so what does this even mean? How do I organize my life, my career, my mind? How could I ever trust an authority figure again?
Ayurveda, as I understood it, was not just my “job” or my “business” or how I earned my bread. It was those things, but only because I believed in it so strongly as to devote my life to it. It was also how I organized my day, to a certain extent, and my framework for understanding the world, the body, health, food and nutrition. So once so much of that had been called into question, I had no idea if any part of it was trustworthy.
So I sat on the porch, or in cold weather, on the floor of my study wrapped in a quilt, and drank good coffee out of my owl mug because it brought a sense of joy to my troubled heart.
I stopped meditating because I had been doing it so long, I didn’t know who I was without meditation and I suddenly felt I must know. I read a couple articles on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the person who brought to the west the type of meditation I practiced, and he seemed pretty cult-leader-esq, so I was like, screw that. I’m done. Not because meditation is bad (it is certainly good, I believe) but because of these other reasons. I had to sit in the emptiness of not having “practices” and see what showed up for me, or what came back in.
I came to see that I had leapt headlong into ayurveda as a study, a practice, and a career, precisely because of the bounded worldview and the salvific promises which were offered, not just by my school, but by most anyone writing or teaching about ayurveda. And I had done so to fill a very real emptiness inside myself. I didn’t realize I had latched onto those easy “easy answers” but I had, and in turn I sold them to other people to earn my livelihood and tried to bring others into the bounded worldview of the ayurveda I knew. It was a lot to sit with, new perspectives and awareness piling up on top of one another, too much to even keep the other people in my life up to speed on.
There is more to be said on all of this, and more to be learned and researched too. If you feel you have also been in a cult-like organization and you didn’t realize it before now, consider getting support right away, from a trusted friend or a therapist, or if you don’t have anyone like that, feel free to send me an email. email@example.com
If you went to my school or another ayurveda school and your experiences echo my own in some way, please tell me. I’d love to hear your story. If you also went to my school or worked for it or are really invested in ayurveda as a profession, and you feel threatened by what I am writing, that makes sense. So, be mad at me. It’s fine. But don’t contact me to tell me I’m wrong. I already feel like I’m going to vomit just sharing this, don’t make it harder. Also I am not practicing ayurveda anymore so I don’t actually have anything to lose professionally.
Here are links to two different popular articles i read that helped me understand more about cults, and that I referenced above in my writing out how my school was cult-like:
Thanks for reading and witnessing.
Adieu, for now.