I hadn’t planned on becoming a yogic monk and finding myself in a cult when I first entered an ashram in the south of Spain almost 20 years ago.
In fact, if someone had suggested “monk” as a prospective career choice, I would have done a few Exorcist style head spins in disbelief.
I did, however, enter the ashram because I felt lost and directionless, and I thought the experience might provide some much needed purpose to my life.
I was living in Madrid at the time working in musical theatre. But after two years of listening to the same old show tunes, I started to feel a little restless. My gypsy spirit knew this sensation well. It meant I was ready to move on.
The majority of my life until then had been spent travelling around the world in search of something. What, I didn’t exactly know. Maybe it was community, a sense of belonging, inspiration or someone to see me for who I really was.
I stayed in some places longer than others, worked different jobs and remained open to opportunities. But nothing appeared that resonated with my spirit.
Then, a friend invited me to a weekend workshop with his yoga guru. I reluctantly agreed, because I wasn’t that interested in yoga. I’d never even been to a yoga class before.
But during the first day of the workshop, I was unexpectedly captivated by the teachings. This guru spoke of the psychology of the mind, ancient eastern scriptures and the philosophy of yoga. And there was something lovely about the camaraderie within the community that felt warm and intimate. It was something I‘d never experienced even within my own family.
The guru seemed welcoming and pleasant, so when he invited me to spend a summer at his ashram, I didn’t hesitate. This was obviously the opportunity I’d been waiting for. I quit my job, left my apartment and within weeks had installed myself in the ashram ready and eager to learn more.
Within a few months, I had completely fallen in love with yoga. And instead of staying just the summer like I originally intended, I ended up staying five years learning everything my mind could absorb around Vedic culture, Yoga asana, Ayurveda, Meditation and Vedanta.
In the hands of a sincere spiritual guide, becoming a yogic monk can be an incredible experience. One that allows you to really know yourself, meditate deeply, reflect on what makes you you, build resilience, renounce the pleasures of life for a time and discipline the senses.
But as time wore on, an uneasy sense that something wasn’t quite right started arising within me. I began witnessing dubious methods of teaching, erratic behaviour and emotionally abusive tendencies from the guru.
When I first entered the ashram, his charismatic personality made me feel special, seen and heard, and I became easily intoxicated by his attention.
But once he had my trust and I was a devoted disciple, what I thought, felt or believed no longer mattered. My opinions were dismissed, and if I disagreed with him in any way, I was labelled disloyal and humiliated in front of the entire sangha.
If I challenged his perspective, I was gaslit, sidelined and punished with silent treatment. And if at any time I didn’t behave appropriately (according to his standards), I was verbally abused and shamed.
What I didn’t know at the time, was I had entered a cult and was being emotionally abused by its leader.
Instead of guiding us to greater heights of spiritual elevation, he metaphorically kneecapped us so we would never walk again without his blessing or support.
So how on earth did I not see this man for who he really was?
I didn’t grow up with a strong sense of Self or with an emotionally available father. So, inevitably, I went searching for someone who was capable of filling the huge void I felt from that absence as a child.
This groomer convinced me he knew what was in my best interest and he promised to help me become the best version of myself.
Excited for such guidance, I happily surrendered myself into his care. I handed over my sovereignty with the kind of ease some might consider alarming, and placed all my faith in someone I was convinced would “fix me”.
Since I had always been taught to be a “good little girl”, I blindly followed his advice. I did everything he told me to do even when it didn’t feel right, and ignored every instinct I had that was telling me to run for the hills. Soon enough, I’d become adept at self-abandoning and my soul was paying the ultimate price. It was slowly shattering into a million little pieces.
After five years of serving the colossal ego of a man obsessed with his own power, I finally began entertaining thoughts of leaving.
I escaped the Ashram in 2010 and initiated extensive therapy to address the trauma and emotional wounds. It’s taken over 13 years to recover all the pieces of myself that broke away during that time.
Living in an environment that fostered an idolising of a flawed individual had its repercussions. There were so many times my instincts told me something wasn’t right, or didn’t feel aligned, and almost every time I chose to override those feelings by choosing to trust him over myself.
So dear reader, here are three life lessons learned from that traumatising experience.
Listen to your inner knowing
Listen to that small clear voice inside you, because it knows. Follow it loyally and believe yourself when a situation feels unsafe to your heart. And speak up, every chance you get. Speak up against injustice, speak up when someone is being treated badly in your presence and speak up to express your ideas, desires and needs. Because what you believe matters.
During those five years, I lived in perpetual fear. Fear of making mistakes, fear of punishment, fear of not pleasing the guru, fear of making him angry, fear of my complacency, fear of who I was becoming and my fear of completely disappearing.
Living in this strict and orthodox environment made me forget that life doesn’t have to be so serious. It’s full of joy at every turn, if you choose to see it. So grab life by the collar and belly laugh your way through this wild, messy and painfully wonderful existence. It’s one of the few coping mechanisms we have.
No one way
Finally, there’s no one size fits all way to live. You’re a unique being that may not fit into a square box, because you’re a wide, expansive circle. So, embrace that and never try to be anyone except your beautiful self. Do the things that make your heart sing. You owe it to yourself and you owe it to the world, because that’s where you’ll find the happiness and fulfilment you’ve always longed for.
I am reminded that we cannot find ourselves outside of ourselves, or ask another to show us the way. We must find our own way. It’s part of our initiation. An initiation we must go through alone in order to discover who we really are.
I now look back and see that season as a gift. Had I not completely lost myself and moved through that adversity, I never would have found myself or my purpose. Had I not self abandoned and silenced myself, I never would have found the courage to use my voice, take back my power, and live life on my own terms.
For these lessons, I’ll always be grateful.
In Part 2, I’ll share more about how I finally managed to escape the ashram, what it was like starting my life from zero at almost 40-years old and how I found my joy again.
“You cannot hand over the responsibility for your power to anyone else, no matter how wise or enlightened you believe them to be. Gurus, ascended masters, guides, whatchamacallems of every stripe – no-one knows your soul’s trajectory and purposes more intimately than you do. No-one else can fulfil the purposes of your incarnation for you. And no-one else can carry the karmic consequences of your choices.
Trust yourself. Relieve others of the burden of your projections. Turn to the source of love, truth and wisdom that lives in your cells, for clear guidance. Let your soul, your creative work, and your relationships with your world, school you.
Truth lives in your heart, as does knowledge, wisdom, understanding and most everything you seek. These souls qualities don’t hang out in temples or on pedestals, awaiting your worship. They are the stuff of which you are made, and they await your embrace”.
– Hiro Boga