It was November 2005, and I was spending a few days in Ottawa; I'd driven up for the weekend to visit my best friend (as I used to do every spring and fall). She was working the day after I arrived, so we couldn't hang out, but she'd received a flyer at work announcing an open house at a new yoga studio and she passed it along to me. Dahn yoga. I'd never heard of it, but I was willing to go and find out what it was all about.
The open house was partly meet and greet, partly sales pitch, partly practice session. Regarding the practice itself, it was unlike any other yoga I'd practised before. No reference to Patanjali, or even to India; totally unfamiliar poses. Strangest of all, we ended the session with 30 seconds of forced laughter. I remember sitting there in the circle at the end, forcing laughter along with the rest, thinking "This is crazy."
Regarding the sales pitch; well, they were certainly quite heavy handed. I had an out, of course, because I was only in Ottawa for the weekend. Still, they persisted in suggesting that I pursue Dahn yoga back in New York, and they really wanted me to return the following week for some sort of an aura reading.
I don't recall if anyone (apart from me) from outside the Dahn yoga circle came to the open house; most everyone else there was from Dahn yoga's Montreal centre. That, of course, was the real highlight of the open house for me; sitting there listening to people talking in Korean, French, and English, with a smattering of Sanskrit thrown in (names of other yoga studios in Montreal). I didn't understand the Korean, of course, but I understood a fair bit of the French. There is little that makes me happier than being surrounded by conversations in multiple languages, some of which I vaguely understand. I felt so cosmopolitan. I felt like I was in the Tower of Babel.
Is Dahn yoga a cult? I guess that depends on how you define the word cult. Is a cult just a religion without any political clout? I find this definition tempting, but ultimately insufficient. I think there needs to be a proselytizing aspect as well, which is common but not inherent in religion. Also, my sense of cults is that they are intractable; once you are in, it is difficult to leave. So given this very informal definition of cult (religion without political clout, proselytizing, intractable), does Dahn yoga fit the bill? Perhaps. I leave it to greater minds than my own to decide.
There is, perhaps, a second issue here, and I only raise it because I suspect the question will be asked (and answered poorly) by mainstream media if it ever addresses the Dahn yoga story. Is yoga a cult? Obviously I don't believe it is, else I would not be involved in it. But let's apply my three point definition here as well for the sake of argument. First, I disagree with the suggestion that yoga is a religion (though some in the community do present it as such, and would probably take umbrage with me for disagreeing). Although we talk about goddesses and gods, no one in the yoga community has ever suggested to me that I need to believe in these deities as anything other than mythological beings, and no one has ever suggested that I need to pray to them. Neither is there in yoga (at least, the forms of yoga which I practice) a hierarchical power structure or a supreme leader. Yoga, in my experience, is a bottom-up enterprise; yes, there are big names and leaders of sorts, but I am free (and encouraged) to build my practice out of my own experience rather than relying on anyone else's. Also, I have never experienced anything akin to proselytizing in yoga. Those involved in the practice have found their own way there, and remain there (or not) because of the meaning that they find in it, not because of the meaning that anyone else attributes to it. Finally, the question of intractability. People leave (and return to) yoga all the time; it's almost a joke among yoga teachers. We run into former students outside the studio, and the first thing they want to tell us is that they're sorry they haven't been practising. Not to sound insensitive, and not at all to suggest that I'm uninterested in their practice or personal struggles (nothing could be further from the truth), but whether and how to practice is the student's decision, not her teacher's. We are not shepherds. We are not baby sitters. Just as we all find our own way into the practice, we are all free to find our own way out as well, and I don't think I have ever met a teacher who does not understand or respect that.