I spent a significant amount of time involved with a yoga retreat center.
When I first arrived there, I thought it was marvelous. The property is stunning, the food was great, the ocean is spectacular, the pool is magical, the yoga studio is one of the best I’ve seen in a yoga retreat center in the tropics. The pets were adorable, the nature awe inspiring, and the people I met amongst the staff, guests and volunteers are still some of my best friends to this day.
What’s there not to love?
Fast forward to now. Property? Still gorgeous, in fact even more. In constant improvement. The ethical standards of the place? Not so much.
But you might say: what could be so wrong about a self proclaimed “Center for yogic healing and transformation?” Won’t I just be doing yoga, connecting with my self and with nature in the most biodiverse place on Earth?
Yes, you will. On the surface. But what lies below that is much much darker and more toxic truth. One made of lies, manipulation and deceit.
Let’s cut straight to the chase.
Misleading about the source of the food, (farm to table?) more like ” the majority of it is grocery store to table”. The countless times I’ve heard guests being called annoying, dumb or “a bitch” behind their back. Stinginess. When avocado and fish curry were banned from the menu because they cost too much. “Make them some bread, plantains, yucca, something cheap”. Blatant racism, calling local employees “stupid” and talking about them as being an inferior race, who can’t figure out how to work or communicate. Normalization of inappropriate behavior from the top down, firing people on the spot for “serving the wrong kind of tortilla”. Mind control games being played with the staff, who are spied upon constantly through cameras, then punished accordingly for “drinking the resort’s coffee” or “clanking the pots while cooking during morning silence”.
The staff are the ones who are taking the biggest hit here. Mental manipulation techniques, combined with harsh punishments and tip-pay cuts create an atmosphere of terror where everyone is scared.
Behind the unethical business practices, there is a strong spiritual facade. Upon entering, you are greeted by Hindu statues and Tibetan bells and invited to breathe deeply, take a mediation walk, focusing on your heart center and the power of healing. In the morning, everyone observes silence. Before meals, rituals are in place. Everyone holds hands and says grace, thanking the Earth for its gifts, and the plants and animals for contributing to our sustenance and well being. Meanwhile, in the “farm”, the chickens are amassed into unsanitary cages covered in feces and in the back office, someone is secretly adding drinks to your tab so that you’ll end up paying more. The morning silence feels more of a control tool so that people can be “busted” disobeying and forced into staying with the program. During morning silence, guess who the one talking? The owner. But if anyone else if caught doing it, there will be consequences.
Over the years, I observed guest’s reactions when arriving at the resort. Usually, the reactions could be categorized into three types. Category one, totally into it. Hypnotized by the rituals, wanting to take home the chants, raved about the meaningful meal prayers, and swore they could feel healing energies sprouting from every Indian statue and Tibetan prayer flag.
The second category, which is the one I fell into for a long time, loved the property and the staff, and did notice the discrepancies, but decided nevertheless to ignore and carry on.
The third category were the people who smelled the bullshit as soon as they came in. Those were the ones who never came back.
Not surprisingly, the first category of devotees is going strong. Thanks to The Rituals, The Speeches, The Chants and a mix of savvy marketing, a well designed website, strategized ads, high quality videography and photography, most people who buy into it become pretty faithful, in a cultish kinda way.
Also not surprisingly, I’ve seen many people often shift from Mode 1, to Mode 2, to Mode 3. It happened often to the students who came for yoga teacher training and have stayed for an entire month. That’s a long enough time to see the hypocrisy and realize that behind the forced yogic rituals, lies a ruthless money making machine riddled with control issues. When your yoga teacher, who also happens to be in charge, makes you do kriyas every morning (purification rituals) and talks to you about integrity, non-harming, accountability, not engaging in sexual acts with staff or volunteers, you take it seriously. But when they proceed to conduct themselves in the exact opposite manner or even display annoyance when the students need medical care, you start to feel a bit perplexed.
This is a classic case of unethical business practices. Are we shocked? I mean, not really. Look around. What company DOESN’T have its amount of skeletons in the closet.
This is also a classic case of “King of the Castle” syndrome, the power trip of someone with a drinking problem, who is both money hungry and gets pleasure out of controlling others while calling themselves, literally, a Yogi. Someone who unfortunately was probably bullied as a child and then went on to become a bully onto others.
The real point of this is though, ASK QUESTIONS. Use your discerning mind. Not everything that shines is gold. In fact, BE suspicious of those who make strong claims to be one way or another. Who want to force it down your throat. “I am yogic, I am spiritual.” Ask yourself: “Why so many outward displays? What are they trying to prove? and “Who are they trying to impress?” And “If they were so sure of being such, why would they feel the need to advertise it?”
You can have the most profound, insightful and meaningful yoga experience without ever oming or dropping a Rumi quote or even speaking at all.
Alternatively, you can chant for hours, smear turmeric on your forehead, sweat profusely around a fire, offer money to Ganesh and still feel that something around you is off in a fucked-up, human-rights kinda way.
When you start to rely heavily on the outward things, is when you become sidetracked. A Guru. A ritual. A place. Objects. They can all become crutches that hinder your ability to see clearly and to think for yourself.
Pause and reflect and ask questions. Whatever skills you hone in from the inside will serve you far more than anything from the outside.