How I Stepped On A Swami’s Toes — OR Is This Spiritual Abuse?…

How I Stepped On A Swami’s Toes — OR Is This Spiritual Abuse?

After attending classes regularly with The Yoga Group (TYG) for several years, I went to a weekend Shaktipat retreat with TYG’s swami.  (Shaktipat is the transmission of divine energy from master to student.) Margaret, my yoga teacher, had told me how everyone feels so good in Swami’s presence, very blissful and peaceful, and I was eager to experience this for myself.

At the retreat, I waited for some divine feeling of bliss to come over me, but I felt nothing unusual. On Saturday I sat at Swami’s table for lunch. I knew Swami has three adult children, and that she had taken them to an ashram in India as a young mother when she dedicated herself to study with her yogic master. When I asked Swami about her children, she replied, “Yes, I have children.” I waited for her to elaborate, but she said nothing more.

“Do you have grandchildren?” I asked.


“I guess that makes you the matriarch of the family.”

“No, I am The Swami.”

“Oh,” said I, feeling a bit shut down, and wondering what can of worms I had stumbled into. But before I could embark on some other line of conversation, she got up from the table and left without saying another word.

The next day, at the end of the retreat, everyone was given the opportunity to approach Swami individually, to say a few words, ask advice about something, or simply to receive her blessing. Some of her devout disciples lay prostrate in front of her as she passed an ostrich feather over them, giving them her blessing. This felt very strange to me, and I did not want to do that. But as my turn came, I decided I would kneel and bow briefly, as is the custom in the karate group that I was part of for many decades.

As I knelt before her and introduced myself, she said, “I can feel you’ve had a very difficult path.” I smiled and nodded. Then she added, “And it will continue to be difficult until spirit takes over.” I was taken aback but continued smiling as I bowed. I certainly hoped my regular practice of yoga with TYG would make my life easier!

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Not impressed

Although Swami had not impressed me, I continued to attend classes with TYG. I had suffered from chronic pain, insomnia, and depression for several years, and TYG purported to help with these issues. I also liked Margaret, a woman in her late 60’s, a lot. She was enthusiastic and compassionate, but also down-to-earth and very human.

The pain and frequent low moods continued, but overall there was a slight trend toward feeling better.  However, since it was clear that TYG and its methods were not curing me, I tried other healing modalities and made mindfulness a daily practice. I became aware that I was often self-critical and not very self-compassionate, so I added a meditation focused on increasing self-compassion to my daily routine. I read many spiritual books and found The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama very wise and comforting.

Time passed and Swami came again to our town. I attended a free early morning chanting and meditation group that she led. She gave a discourse, and there was time for discussion and questions. By now I was no longer depressed and I participated animatedly. Near the end of the discussion, I asked a question. I don’t recall exactly what I asked, or what her answer was, but what she said felt like a put-down, a verbal jab. I felt hurt and angry. I did not say anything further but kept my pain to myself. “I guess I’m just too sensitive,” I thought. I continued to practice with TYG.

The human side

Then, a few months ago, the teachers asked me to help with Swami’s upcoming visit. Thus I was included in some planning meetings and over her 3-day visit, where she led four community sessions, I helped with setting up chairs, distributing publicity flyers, putting up decorations, and making food for the potluck.

What bothered me in the planning sessions was that Margaret and one of the other yoga teachers, Cathy, both competent and accomplished women, were extremely anxious. They perseverated endlessly on who would meet Swami at the airport, who was staying where, what meals we would have, who would drive Swami, that Swami doesn’t like Cauliflower or Kohlrabi, thus we must not include that in the potluck, etc. They were like two little mice, afraid that their preparations for Swami’s visit wouldn’t be perfect, and the cat might pounce on them in displeasure.

I thought, “Swami is supposed to be an enlightened being. She’s supposed to be accepting and able to go with the flow.  Why are they stressing so much?”

On the Friday morning of Swami’s visit, she greeted a crowd of about 60 people. I noticed immediately that she appeared ill. She looked tired, was sucking on a cough drop and her voice sounded hoarse. When she began chanting she sounded even worse.

I began to have critical thoughts: What is wrong with her? Why is she sick? Some enlightened being she is, she sounds terrible! I quickly realized I was being harsh and unkind, so I deliberately turned my thinking around: She’s just human. Yes, she sounds ill, but give her credit that she is here, doing her best to put on a good program. She needs compassion, Jolene, not criticism.

I turned my thoughts to love and compassion for her and mentally sent her positive energy. I sang loudly with the chant she was leading. A few minutes after I turned my thoughts to a positive direction, Swami looked over at me with warmth. Was it gratitude? I smiled back at her and for the first time, I felt I had made a positive connection with her.

The breaking point

On the final day of Swami’s visit, I sat with Margaret, Cathy, and six other yogis. After chanting, meditation and finishing the potluck breakfast, Swami led us in one last discussion group. This time she said she’d like to know what we had heard in her previous talks. I said I appreciated the discourse she had given Friday morning where she had talked about the differences between TYG’s style of meditation and Buddhist meditation. It was quite informative to me because I had not really understood the differences in these two types of meditation, although I had recently had an experience that seemed to illustrate what she had talked about.

After watching a YouTube video about Vipassana meditation, a state of consciousness where I felt peaceful and had almost no thoughts for several hours came over me. It seemed to be the state that Buddhist meditation takes one too, calm but not blissful like TYG’s meditative state. After I shared this experience, some of the other yogi’s asked me questions or commented on what I said. Then Swami said, “but you haven’t asked a question.”

I felt a little confused because I didn’t have a question. When I looked back later, I realize I might have said, “You asked us what we heard you say in previous talks. I am simply relating an experience I had that illustrated what you talked about.” But at the time, ever being the good student, I knew the teacher wanted a question, so I groped around trying to formulate one but then finally said, “I don’t have a question.”

Swami’s response was, “You know what your problem is: You have too much humility.” She then turned away from me, put her hands on her hips, puffed up her chest and said, “I don’t have a question, I only have these fantastic, mystical experiences.” I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. Was she saying, “You’re arrogant?”

I could feel the pain of the verbal jab coming up into my head and tears pressing behind my eyes. Not one to lose my composure, or to fight back against what felt like unfair and untrue characterization, I simply sat there, silent. Everyone else also sat in silence, perhaps also astounded. Finally, my friend Cindy asked a question. Something about being an introvert, and often feeling exhausted after spending time with other people. Swami’s reply was “you have no personal identity.” Cindy, who is a retired attorney and obviously a very smart and accomplished woman, later told me, “I drove home feeling shaken and thinking, ‘huh? what? I have no personal identity?'”

After the session ended and Swami left for the airport, I helped my teachers clean up and pack up leftover food. As I drove home, the wounded feeling persisted, and when I got home I immediately went for a hike, all the while saying to myself, “Jolene, you are OK. You are loved and valued, and you have many friends and a family that loves you. You are not arrogant. Don’t let Swami’s opinion make you feel less than.” The intense feeling of woundedness gradually dissipated, but I wondered, am I too sensitive? Or is this swami simply a snarky jerk?

A week or so later I continued to reflect on this incident. I thought: I have no need to bow down to a spiritual leader who I would not want to emulate. If I am going to pay homage to someone, I want it to be someone that I aspire to be like, not someone who thinks it is her job to throw out verbal barbs and humiliate others.

Like the Dalai Lama, kindness is my religion and compassion is something I value highly. Swami’s words to me were neither kind nor compassionate. One of the first rules of self-care is: don’t subject yourself to toxic people. If you have experience with someone, and they have exhibited a pattern of being critical and putting you down, don’t associate with them. There are seven billion people on this planet, plenty of other spiritual leaders to choose from!


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Jolene Starr

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Jolene is a retired physician whose memoir Buen Viaje: A Physician’s Journey to Healing and Wholeness was published last month.…

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