Yoga has become a popular form of exercise and something of a sensational craze in recent years.

Many Westerners are enthralled with the practice and hope that yoga will help them to shed pounds and firm up. Some say it may also lead to a sense of inner calm and tranquility.

Numerous yoga studios have opened up almost everywhere, from major metropolitan areas to large towns.

But how can a hopeful student find a reputable studio with a good teacher?

Most seem to rely on word-of-mouth endorsements from friends, but there are some organizations that register schools and teachers.

One such body is called the “Yoga Alliance” (YA), its mailing address is in Reading, Pennsylvania. YA was officially established just a few years ago in 1999.

But the background history of some YA board members is rather disturbing. It seems nearly half at one time or another have been involved with groups called “cults.” And some of the schools registered at YA are associated with “cults.”

For example, the alliance includes on its list of schools the 3HO ashram in Espanola, New Mexico, the Integral Yoga Center of Richmond, Virginia and Ananda Yoga of Nevada City, California.

All three of these groups have less than laudable histories and they have also often been called “cults.”

A close look at the resumes of YA board members reveals some interesting connections.

Kartar Singh Khalsa, Co-head of Teachers Outreach, is a devotee of Yogi Bhajan the founder of 3HO.

The group Ananda Marga first initiated Steven Landau, Chairman of the YA Newsletter Committee.

Carol A. Stefanelli, head of the group’s Networking Committee, once studied with Swami Muktananda the founder of Siddha.

Mary Lynn Tucker, Co-chair of the Outreach Committee, studied yoga with Swami Satchidananda and lives near the ashram the guru created named “Yogaville.”

Rich McCord, Chairman of YA’s pivotal Standards Committee, actually teaches at the Ananda Church of Self-Realization, which has been labeled a “cult” in court.

Ananda’s founder J. Donald Walters was found guilty of sexual misconduct and plaintiffs were awarded a staggering multi-million dollar judgment.

Interestingly, the last “face-to-face” meeting of the YA board was actually held at the so-called “Ananda Village,” in California.

Isn’t this a bit like the “foxes guarding the hen house”?

Anyone considering yoga classes with teachers and/or schools registered by the Yoga Alliance might want to exercise a bit of caution, before beginning any of their exercises.

The old adage “you can’t take it with you” applies to everyone, even gurus.

Swami Satchidananda, a guru and purported “cult leader” died last year and moved on to his next life, that is for those who believe in reincarnation. But the octogenarian left behind quite a bit of worldly baggage.

Satchidananda accumulated prime real estate in Manhattan, which provides space for an Integral Yoga International (IYI) school and a vegetarian grocery store.

There is also the sprawling ashram he established in Virginia called “Yogaville,” which includes a $2 million dollar temple and its own airport (the swami liked to fly and had his own plane).

The guru’s property holdings alone are worth millions.

Yet another legacy of the late swami is the Yogaville Federal Credit Union. After all, what’s an ashram without its own credit union?

According to official records this credit union has more than $4 million dollars in assets, with two employees on salary to manage its funds.

Satchidananda left behind a core group of faithful followers at Yogaville and a few in Manhattan too.

And since their guru’s death those devotees continue to manage the swami’s considerable material legacy.

This all seems to provide proof positive of another not so spiritual reality; If a “cult leader” wants to keep a “cult” going after he or she is gone, do some estate planning.

Some journalists write hard-hitting news stories about destructive cults, which have often led to further action. They expose wrongdoing and the authorities often follow-up through criminal prosecution or some other enforcement action.

However, there are those reporters who seem to be more interested in presenting a pretty picture for their community, than exposing the truth about cults.

Three recent stories about well-known groups often called “cults,” expose what looks like a penchant for puff pieces. This is a term used to describe uncritical articles that are more positive spin and/or froth than substance.

In such puffery reporters largely let the “cult” tell the story, without asking anything really tough, or follow-up questions.

Here are some recent examples that seem to fit into the category of “puff piece” if not cult apology.

A recent story written about the notorious group “Ananda Marga,” which has been accused of violent crimes, child abuse and linked to suicide, described members as “covered in a life of peace.”

The journalist did ask a member about the “C” word (cult) though.

A devotee answered evasively, “You won’t lose your mind and be brainwashed.” And according to another member they are “not a religion.”

Right.

I guess that resolves everything, well at least the reporter seems to think so at the Kingston Jamaica Gleaner.

However, P.R. Sarkar the founder and “God-Man” of Ananda Marga who died in 1990 did some time in an Indian prison. And that government felt he was important enough to publish a book about his group titled, Ananda Marga: Soiling the Saffron Robe.

This was not a “puff piece” and Sarkar comes off as little more than a “sociopath,” hardly “covered in a life of peace.” And not apparently respected by Hindus.

The next journalist to offer up what amounts to cult apologies works in Ithaca, New York. This time the group is the “Twelve Tribes,” a racist anti-Semitic “cult” led by Elbert Eugene Spriggs, a former carnival barker.

The Twelve Tribes has a horrific history of child abuse, terrible custody battles, kidnappings and harsh exploitation, which rivals some of the worst “cults” in America.

In numerous news reports former members have spoken out about the abuse they endured under Spriggs harsh totalitarian rule.

But the leader they now call “Yoneq” lives in luxury, travelling between his homes in France, the United States and South America.

Forget about all this.

The reporter for the Ithaca Times says the Twelve Tribes are a “unorthodox religious group…that worships Jesus.”

Right. Didn’t Jim Jones make that claim?

“And they have now chosen Ithaca as their newest community,” the reporter happily adds.

The upstate New York journalist then essentially dismisses virtually every allegation against the Twelve Tribes offering readers instead their version of events.

No former member is quoted, no other opinions offered except, “Much of the content found on the Web can be described as derogatory.”

Is this in-depth journalism?

The article reads almost like an infomercial with a plug for the group’s website at the end.

Such positive spin for “cults” in not limited to America. “Down under” an Australian journalist seems to be plugging away for Scientology.

This Sydney Morning Herald reporter tells us the story of Hindu boy named Raja who found happiness at the Athena School in Sydney run by Scientologists.

There is nothing said about the troubled history of this controversial church, that Time Magazine named the “Cult of Greed.”

Instead readers are regaled with how happy the little boy is at his new school, which teaches from text originated by L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder.

This Australian article puffs on almost like an ad campaign, complete with a price quote per school term and a mention for a booklet by Hubbard called The Way to Happiness.

However, Lisa McPherson didn’t seem to find her “way to happiness” and instead died after a breakdown, while under the care of her friends at Scientology.

Somehow the Sydney reporter didn’t bother to include that little titbit.

Certainly these articles will not be nominated for Pulitzers.

Instead of reflecting professional journalism at its best these reporters seem be treading down a different path.

They didn’t do their research and/or chose to ignore it.

Their motto appears to be; Make nice, be happy and ignore reality.

Maybe that is “The Way to Happiness”?

But cults have a nasty way of getting headlines, through bad behavior and shattered lives. And eventually that cannot be ignored, even in Ithaca, Kingston or Sydney.

Noted attorney and anti-cult activist Ford Green of San Anselmo, California has been nominated for a Trial Lawyers for Public Justice Foundation’s Lawyer of the Year award. The award is “given to the lawyer or lawyers who make the greatest contribution to the public interest by trying or settling a precedent-setting case,” reports the Alameda Times-Star.

Winners will be announced July 22nd at the foundation’s 21st annual awards dinner in San Francisco.

Green was nominated along with three other California attorneys for his work regarding a 22-year legal battle to collect a multi-million dollar personal injury judgement awarded to Lawrence Wollersheim against the Church of Scientology.

This is certainly not the first precedent-setting case for Green.

The prominent lawyer litigated and won the landmark appellate court decision, Molko v. Holy Spirit Association (1988) 46 Cal.3d 1092.

In this decision the California Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not bar civil causes of action for fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and restitution when a cult uses deception, which subsequently leads to an unsuspecting individual’s exposure to thought reform techniques that cause suffering and damages.

In 1998 Greene also won a $1.6 million jury verdict in Bertolucci v. Ananda against The Church of Self Realization led by Swami Kiyananda in California for fraud, coercion and sexual exploitation.

Ford Green is an Advisory Board member of The Ross Institute.

Increasingly, more and more Americans are engaging in the practice of Yoga.

Men now make up 23% of the 15 million yoga enthusiasts within the US. “They’re in it for the exercise and the physical benefits—hold the chanting and the New Age vibes,” reports Newsweek.

But beware. Some groups called “cults” use yoga as a means of recruiting new members and exercise is not all they are teaching.

Some yoga groups and teachers are essentially interested in proselytizing. And if you are not interested in their beliefs, their yoga classes are probably not for you.

Controversial organizations such as 3HO and Integral Yoga International (IYI) may practice “yoga,” but they also promote a student/guru arrangement and religious belief system with an authoritarian figure at the top.

A plethora of neo-eastern gurus and “New Age” types are hoping to cash in on the yoga craze.

Health and diet “guru” Dr. Dean Ornish says “he has found evidence that yoga can help fight cardiovascular disease” and this may be true. But Ornish himself is a long-time follower of IYI and its recently deceased Swami Satchidananda.

So it seems that there may be more to the diet doctor’s regime than meets the eye.

Newsweek appears to have carefully avoided endorsing any particular yoga school or teacher, which is wise. But others in their enthusiasm regarding this pop craze have been less prudent.

Supermodel Christy Turlington’s yoga book praises many groups, which have been referred to less glowingly as “cults.”

Donna Karan once promoted IYI within Vanity Fair magazine, without apparently doing much of a background check.

Don’t make Donna’s mistake.

Researching a yoga school or class before enrolling is certainly wise. Most are perfectly safe places to exercise and get in shape, but some are worrisome.

“Check first, enroll later,” might be a good motto.

A quick rule of thumb might also be, if you see some guru’s picture on the wall, or religious statues in the entrance area or practice room, something more than yoga might be lurking within the instruction.

Newsweek says, “There’s a yoga bonus: the way it sharpens your mental game…the meditative breathing calms their nerves and hones their focus.”

Maybe so, but meditation can also render practitioners more suggestible. And it’s important to understand just who you are becoming suggestible to and within what type of environment.

A group with a hidden agenda can use meditation to download its program.

Again, the overwhelming majority of yoga schools and classes are benign, healthy and likely to be beneficial to their students.

The point is to be an informed consumer.

In an effort to establish meaningful criteria for judging yoga teachers the California Yoga Teachers Association has established a Code of Ethics.

This code can be a useful tool in gauging the behavior of yoga teachers, how they treat their pupils and conduct classes.

According to one psychiatrist in California “dreams do have meaning.” But what does he mean?

David Hoffman a retired psychiatrist writes a “dear doctor” column dispensing advice and answering questions through the “La Jolla Light.” One recent column was rerun within the Mammoth Times.

After recounting his personal history Hoffman eventually answers a reader’s inquiry about the meaning of dreams. He says, “Much of my life is guided and directed by [dreams].”

But the doctor’s column really raises more questions than it answers.

Hoffman discusses his “exploration into what was called ‘New Age Psychiatry,’” which might be more objectively seen as his odyssey through the world of “cults.”

The doctor admits he has studied with “Rajneesh, Shirley McLaine, Kevin Ryerson, Edgar Cayce, Ramtha, and Yogananda.”

These controversial sources are hardly what medical doctors would typically rely upon to form any clinical opinion. And it certainly is questionable that any mental health professional would base an opinion on such specious and subjective sources.

Never-the-less Hoffman concludes, “From all that, I learned to adapt the value of dreams to my own life.”

But such statements only raise more questions.

It is understood that people seeking help from a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or professional counselor are typically at a time of personal need often also accompanied by stress, depression and/or anxiety.

This means that the patient is frequently very vulnerable and suggestible. And the helping professional occupies a position of power and influence in that person’s life during the course of their therapy/counseling.

Unfortunately, some mental health professionals may see this as an opportunity to express their personal beliefs. Perhaps even proselytizing for a certain group and/or belief system.

Thankfully this is apparently a very small minority. And exercising such an influence over a patient is most often seen as a violation of the ethical code prescribed by most State Boards and/or mental health licensing organizations.

So where then is the proper place for the practice of “New Age psychiatry”?

It seems that there would be no proper place for such a practice amongst ethical psychiatrists, who should remain objective and not project their personal beliefs into the lives of their patients.

Doctors like Hoffman may believe whatever the want, but such personal beliefs should not be passed off as part of the practice of medicine. That is, unless you are a “witch doctor.”

According to one psychiatrist in California “dreams do have meaning.” But what does he mean?

David Hoffman a retired psychiatrist writes a “dear doctor” column dispensing advice and answering questions through the “La Jolla Light.” One recent column was rerun within the Mammoth Times.

After recounting his personal history Hoffman eventually answers a reader’s inquiry about the meaning of dreams. He says, “Much of my life is guided and directed by [dreams].”

But the doctor’s column really raises more questions than it answers.

Hoffman discusses his “exploration into what was called ‘New Age Psychiatry,’” which might be more objectively seen as his odyssey through the world of “cults.”

The doctor admits he has studied with “Rajneesh, Shirley McLaine, Kevin Ryerson, Edgar Cayce, Ramtha, and Yogananda.”

These controversial sources are hardly what medical doctors would typically rely upon to form any clinical opinion. And it certainly is questionable that any mental health professional would base an opinion on such specious and subjective and sources.

Never-the-less Hoffman concludes, “From all that, I learned to adapt the value of dreams to my own life.”

But such statements only raise more questions.

It is understood that people seeking help from a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or professional counselor are typically at a time of personal need often also accompanied by stress, depression and/or anxiety.

This means that the patient is frequently very vulnerable and suggestible. And the helping professional occupies a position of power and influence in that person’s life during the course of their therapy/counseling.

Unfortunately, some mental health professionals may see this as an opportunity to express their personal beliefs. Perhaps even proselytizing for a certain group and/or belief system.

Thankfully this is apparently a very small minority. And exercising such an influence over a patient is most often seen as a violation of the ethical code prescribed by most State Boards and/or mental health licensing organizations.

So where then is the proper place for the practice of “New Age psychiatry”?

It seems that there would be no proper place for such a practice amongst ethical psychiatrists, who should remain objective and not project their personal beliefs into the lives of their patients.

Doctors like Hoffman may believe whatever the want, but such personal beliefs should not be passed off as part of the practice of medicine. That is, unless you are a “witch doctor.”

In India police are cracking down on “God men,” reports The Telegraph.

Authorities in Calcutta are warning residents to beware of the gurus and swamis who say they have “supernatural powers” and can effect mystical or magical cures.

One police commissioner said, “We will do everything to guard Calcuttans from the clutches of such swindlers.” He added that they frequently prey upon the sick who are in a “vulnerable state.”

Will this crack down eventually include more established Indian gurus such as Sai Baba, who supposedly possesses “supernatural powers”?

Probably not.

But at least in India some attention is being paid to this issue.

In sharp contrast within the United States “God men” like Brooklyn born Frank Jones, who calls himself “Adi Da,” most often operate with impunity.

And then there is the lucrative “faith healing” business, which supports apparent posers such as the popular Benny Hinn. Hinn lives lavishly off of the millions contributed by his faithful, that believe “cures” come from heaven during his crusades.

Does America need a crack down? There certainly seems to be plenty of gullibility on this side of the globe.

American showman P.T. Barnum once claimed that “people like to be humbugged.” And he was attributed incorrectly, as the originator of the old adage; “A sucker is born every minute.”

But despite such observations Westerners often suppose smugly that they are somehow less susceptible to spiritual hucksters, than say people in Calcutta.

However, the facts don’t support such an arrogant conclusion. There seem to be plenty of suckers ready to buy or believe almost anything in America.

Historically, many Indian gurus and swamis sensed this and moved to the United States. Swami Satchidananda, Yogi Bhajan and Bhagwhan Shree Rajneesh are three examples of such migrating “God men” who marketed their “supernatural powers” in the United States.

Books have been written about the “vulnerable state” of many Western spiritual seekers visiting India such as Karma Cola by Gita Mehta. And the more common category of largely domestic seekers is examined in The Faith Healers by James Randi.

One yoga website seems to do little if any meaningful research before recommending classes or “styles” to potential yoga beginners.

At Yoga Movement.com under “choosing a yoga style” “beginners” will find the “most common types” of yoga listed for their consideration includes “Swami Kriyananda,” “Swami Satchidananda” and “Yogi Bhajan.”

Sherry Roberts the editor of the site suggests, “Find a teacher that you can relate to and a style that furthers your own personal growth.”

However, these three teachers have all been historically referred to as “cult leaders.” And former students claimed their “yoga” was often a means of recruitment and basis for abuse.

Roberts writes, “Swami Kriyananda” (J. Donald Walters) “devoted 45 years of his life to studying the teachings of Parmahansa Yogananda.”

But she doesn’t mention that the Self-Realization Fellowship founded by Parmahansa Yogananda has disavowed Kriyananda.

Walters was also sued by the Fellowship for copyright infringement and lost. He certainly must have been busy “studying the teachings.” The swami paid $29,000 in damages.

More importantly Roberts fails to mention the plight of some of Walters former acolytes. Kriyananda lost a sexual abuse lawsuit filed by former students and was forced into bankruptcy.

Swami Satchidananda, now deceased, had his share of sex scandals. Former secretaries said he was more of a predator than a celibate. Many of his followers left in the 90s.

More recently a controversy arose regarding an Integral Yoga International (IYI) student in New York City who attended a 30-day retreat at “Yogaville,” the group’s retreat in Virginia.

That IYI student was only at the ashram for two weeks before marrying one of its “swamis she had never met,” who was old enough to be her father. She stayed on to become a devotee and “yoga teacher.”

Yogi Bhajan of 3HO is perhaps the most controversial figure listed by Roberts.

She says that his “practice is designed to awaken Kundalini energy.”

Well, if “Kundalini energy” means collecting cash and sex scandals, Bhajan certainly has conducted something of a “wake up call.”

The yogi makes money from businesses run by his yoga disciples, but was sued for “assault, battery, fraud and deceit.” He decided to settle out of court.

One of Bhajan’s top leaders and yoga enthusiasts was busted for smuggling guns and marijuana and then sentenced to prison.

Did this “style” somehow “awaken” criminal “energy”?

Ms. Roberts doesn’t appear to do much research before listing “yoga” teachers?

Hopefully, visitors to her website will do some cursory checking before becoming involved with some of the groups listed. Some yoga students say these “common types” are simply “cults.”

NASA astronaut and scientist Brian O’Leary reportedly stopped in at the ashram of Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru with a history of sex abuse allegations, to learn about peace, reported the Hindustan Times.

Subsequently, CultNews reported about the connection between O’Leary and Sai Baba, January 20, 2003.

Never mind.

O’Leary sent the following statement to CultNews via email:

“I am in India now, with absolutely no intention to visit Sai Baba. The newspaper article in the Hindu[stan] Times was planted by a devotee who had no idea as to my intentions in my trip. It is total disinformation. I have never been, and am not, a devotee of Sai Baba. About ten years ago, I visited him to observe his Siddha powers from the point of view of a scientist.”

OK.

The astronaut will actually lecture at the Neyyar Dam Sivananda yoga ashram.

It seems that some people once interested in Sai Baba have lost their interest.

Maybe that’s because where there is so much smoke, a fire might be burning? Sai Baba’s supposed “Siddha powers” seem to have consumed him.