The following is taken from an article called paradise lost;
The Heaven's Gate suicides in March shone a new
light on the phenomenon of cults. Sally Chew listens as former members tell their haunting
(The following section deals directly with Siddha Yoga, one of several groups mentioned
in this article).
SOUTH FALLSBURG, New York, is a steep little village on the edge of the Catskill
mountain range that seems to specialize in the spiritual retreat business. The roads
leading away from town are lined with Orthodox Jewish hotels and weekend bungalows. And up
Pleasant Valley Road from places with names like Camp Bnos Yisroel Witniz is Shree
Muktananda Ashram, the western headquarters of the Siddha Yoga Dham Associates Foundation,
a practice based on Indian philosophies about which both the AFF and CAN have had
complaints. On summer weekends, thousands of devotees converge to meditate and chant
together in the ashram there, a compound of white buildings hemmed in by a pine forest and
a six-foot storm fence.
Followers say that when you look into the beautiful face of Siddha Yoga's female Indian
guru, Gurumayi (allegedly enhanced along the jawline and nose by some plastic surgery, a
rumor she denies), it's enough to make you fall in love. Which is one possible explanation
for why there are so many lesbian devotees - despite Gurumayi's alleged 1990 edict to fire
all gay and lesbian yoga teachers at ashrams throughout the country, despite the distaste
some ex-members say she has expressed for people with AIDS, and despite the harsh
teachings of Gurumayi's deceased predecessor, Swami Muktananda. "A Guru would never
be flirting with mistresses or hobnobbing with homosexuals," a 1976 Muktananda
missive reads. "Homosexuals are considered to be eunuchs - disgusting, impure, and
Siddha's Oakland, California, ashram is notoriously lesbian and so is the Seattle
center; Gurumayi's picture is a dashboard fixture in both communities. And there is
genuine contentment to be sure. Gail Bigelow in Oakland and Chris Vaughn in San Diego
testify in letters to spiritual joy and acceptance as lesbians, though sexuality is beside
the pint for them. "That's not why we're there," explains Barbara Bones in
Oakland. "We're there for spiritual study."
But many former members say the closet, and sometimes mandatory feminine attire, is the
rule - unless there are overriding financial or recruiting benefits. "There was a
whole group of lesbian millionaires who had places to live outside the ashram, like in
Woodstock," says Alison Kilroy, a South Fallsburg - based devotee for 12 years.
"And the feeling was they were tolerated because they were rich and didn't live
there. Anything would be tolerated by Gurumayi if they were rich." Kilroy remembers
"Godi," for instance, an '80's fixture at South Fallsburg whose services for the
guru included taking her picture: "You'd see her every summer with some model type
buzzing around on her motorcycle."
Siddha's most famous lesbian is women's music godmother Meg Christian. When she joined
in the '80's, she was naturally disposed to bringing in lesbians. "She'd sing and
they'd love it, and somebody would stand up and talk about Siddha Yoga says an ex-member
from Philadelphia. "She swooned and we swooned," according to a lesbian whom
Christian won over at a concert in Houston. "I thought, if Meg is into it and it
helped her find peace and an inner love, maybe it's OK."
Kilroy, among others, eventually saw Christian's involvement differently.
"Everyone was always pointing to Meg [in response to charges the group was antigay]
and saying, 'What about Meg?'" she remembers. "But the truth is she was never in
a relationship." Others assert that she served too much of a recruiting purpose to
let her lesbianism get in Gurumayi's way.
Former members speculate that Siddha's lesbian following probably has something to do
with the appeal of worshipping a living goddess - and with that many perceive as a greater
susceptibility to cults among lesbians in general. Says Kilroy, "A lot of lesbians
are more open anyway because they've already gone through this huge process of coming out
and questioning the entire way the world was presented to you, and so it's not such a huge
Leaving Gurumayi - a process that can take years for people who have become more
involved than weekend visitors - is very much like leaving other cults. Usually, as the
cultic studies literature explains, it's about piecing together a pattern of hypocrisy.
People who reached the inner circle at Siddha and then left with a bad taste in their
mouths discovered that people in high positions, close to the guru, were, for example,
having plenty of sex despite the celibacy required of the middle-level masses (a 1995
article in the New Yorker documented this in some detail).
Likewise, a number of people with AIDS say it became clear that they were not receiving
the same message of unconditional support as the rest. "You're not supposed to get
things like that," says Beau Benable, 42, who is HIV positive and says that he, a
friend, and even a senior staffer, were shunned. "There are no sick people in Siddha;
there are no poor people in Siddha."