It started with a prayer.
Tasha Samar was thirteen years old the first time she heard the bewitching buzz of their voices. It was their turban-to-toe white ensembles and meditation malas that first caught her eye, but it was how they spoke that beckoned her through the front door. She heard them through the open window of a Kundalini yoga studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The prayers were so strange, all in another language,” Tasha, now twenty-nine, tells me over macadamia milk lattes at an outdoor café in West Hollywood. We’re less than a few miles away from the epicenter of the sinister life she led until only three years ago. Judging by her crisp cream button-down and satiny blowout, you’d never guess she could once tie a turban as naturally as any other young woman in this courtyard could toss her hair into a topknot. “Yeah, I could still do it now, if I had to,” Tasha assures me, her meticulous acrylics clack-clack-clacking on her porcelain mug.
Tasha, a first-generation Russian American Jew who experienced an agonizing lack of belonging her entire childhood, was struck by this yoga group’s sense of closeness, so she peeked her head into the lobby and asked the receptionist who they were. “The front-desk girl started telling me the basics; the phrase ‘the science of the mind’ was used a lot,” Tasha reflects. “I didn’t know what it meant, I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I really want to try that.’” Tasha found out when the next yoga class would be, and her parents let her attend. You didn’t need to be a permanent member of the group to take a class—the only requirement was an “open heart.” Learning and reciting their foreign prayers, all directed toward a man with a long peppery beard whose photograph was plastered throughout the dimly lit studio, cast a spell over tween Tasha. “It felt ancient,” she says, “like I was a part of something holy.”
Who was this group in all white? The Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization, or 3HO—a Sikh-derived “alternative religion” founded in the 1970s, which hosts Kundalini yoga classes all over the US. The guy with the beard? Their captivating, well-connected leader, Harbhajan Singh Khalsa (or Yogi Bhajan), who claimed—to much contest—to be the official religious and administrative head of all Western Sikh
s, and who was worth hundreds of millions of dollars by the time he died in 1993. The language? Gurmukhi, the writing system of modern Punjabi and Sikh scripture. The ideology? To obey Yogi Bhajan’s strict New Age teachings, which included abstaining from meat and alcohol,
dering to his arranged marriages, waking up at four thirty every morning to read scripture and attend yoga class, and not associating with anyone who didn’t follow . . . or who wouldn’t be following soon.
As soon as she turned eighteen, Tasha moved to Los Angeles, one of 3HO’s home bases, and for eight years, she dedicated her entire life—all her time and money—to the group. After a series of exhaustive trainings, she became a full-time Kundalini yoga instructor and, within months, was attracting big-name, spiritually curious celebrities to her Malibu classes: Demi Moore, Russell Brand, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody. Even if they didn’t become full-time followers, their attendance was good PR for 3HO. Tasha’s swamis (teachers) praised her for raking in the dollars and allegiances of the rich, famous, and seeking. At the café, Tasha unsheathes her phone from an inky black clutch to show me old photos of her and Demi Moore, garbed in ghost-white short-shorts and turbans, twirling around a desert retreat, backdropped by Joshua trees. Tasha slowly blinks her eyelash extensions as a bewildered smile blooms across her face, as if to say, Yeah, I can’t believe I did this shit, either.
Obedience like Tasha’s promised to yield great rewards. Just learn the right words, and they’d be yours: “There was a mantra to attract your soul mate, one to acquire lots of money, one to look better than ever, one to give birth to a more evolved, higher-vibration generation of children,” Tasha divulges. Disobey? You’d come back in the next life on a lower vibration.
Mastering 3HO’s secret mantras and code words made Tasha feel separate from everyone else she knew. Chosen. On a higher vibration. Solidarity like this intensified when everyone in the group was assigned a new name. A name-giver appointed by Yogi Bhajan used something called tantric numerology as an algorithm to determine followers’ special 3HO monikers, which they received in exchange for a fee. All women were given the same middle name, Kaur, while men were all christened Singh. Everyone shared the last name Khalsa. Like one big family. “Getting your new name was the biggest deal ever,” Tasha says. “Most people would change their names on their driver’s licenses.” Until last year, Tasha Samar’s California ID read “Daya Kaur Khalsa.”
It might not have been totally apparent, what with the peaceable yoga classes and high-profile supporters, but there was a dangerous undercurrent to 3HO—psychological and sexual abuse by Yogi Bhajan, forced fasting and sleep deprivation, threats of violence toward anyone attempting to leave the group, suicides, even an unsolved murder. Once followers fully adopted the group’s jargon, higher-ups were able to weaponize it. Threats were structured in phrases like “Piscean consciousness,” “negative mind,” “lizard brain.” Take a bite of a friend’s meaty burger or fail to attend yoga class, and lizard brain, lizard brain, lizard brain would play on a loop in your mind. Often, familiar English terms that once held a positive meaning were recast to signify something threatening. “Like ‘old soul,’” Tasha tells me. To an average English speaker, “old soul” connotes someone with wisdom beyond their years. It’s a compliment. But in 3HO, it incited dread. “It meant someone had been coming back life after life, incarnation after incarnation, and they couldn’t get it right,” she explains. Even three years after escaping 3HO, Tasha still shudders whenever she hears the phrase.
In 2009, shortly after Tasha arrived in Southern California to give her life to 3HO, another eighteen-year-old moved to LA to start a new life. Her name was Alyssa Clarke, and she’d come down the coast from Oregon to start college. Afraid of gaining the freshman fifteen, Alyssa decided to try joining a gym. She had always struggled with body image, and she was intimidated by LA’s formidable fitness scene. So, over holiday break, when she reunited with a family member who’d recently started a new workout program, dropped a ton of weight, and beamed with the honeymoon glow of fresh muscle tone, Alyssa thought, Damn, I have to check that out.
The new workout was called CrossFit, and there was a location right near Alyssa’s dorm. Upon returning from break, she and her boyfriend signed up for a beginners workshop. The sweaty, sculpted instructors oozed masculine enthusiasm as they introduced Alyssa to a whole new world of terminology she’d never heard before: The gym wasn’t called a gym, it was a “box.” Instructors weren’t teachers or trainers, they were “coaches.” Their workouts consisted of “functional movements.” You had your WoD (workout of the day), which might consist of snatches and clean-and-jerks. You had your BPs (bench presses), your BSs (back squats), your C2Bs (chest-to-bars), and your inevitable DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). Who doesn’t love a catchy acronym? Alyssa was captivated by how tight-knit all these CrossFitters seemed—they had such a culture—and was dead set on mastering their private patois.
A portrait of CrossFit’s founder, Greg Glassman (known then to devotees as “The WoDFather,” or simply “Coach”), hung on the wall of Alyssa’s box next to one of his most famous quotes, a fitness proverb that would soon sear into her brain: “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts . . . master the basics of gymnastics . . . bike, run, swim, row . . . hard and fast. Five or six days per week.” Alyssa was taken with how CrossFit focused on shaping members’ mentalities not just inside the box, but everywhere. When driving trainees to work harder, coaches would bellow “Beast mode!” (a motivational phrase that reverberated through Alyssa’s thoughts at school and work, too). To help you internalize the CrossFit philosophy, they’d repeat “EIE,” which meant “Everything is everything.”
When Alyssa noticed everyone at her box was wearing Lululemon, she went out and dropped $400 on designer workout swag. (Even Lululemon had its own distinctive vernacular. It was printed all over their shopping bag
s, so customers would walk out of the store carrying mantras like, “There is little difference between addicts and fanatic athletes,” “Visualize your eventual demise,” and “Friends are more important than money”—all coined by their so-called “tribe” leader, Lululemon’s founder, Chip Wilson, an aging G.I. Joe type just like Greg Glassman whose acolytes were equally devout. Who knew fitness could inspire such religiosity?)
As soon as Alyssa learned that most CrossFitters followed a Paleo diet, she cut out gluten and sugar. If she made plans to go out of town and knew she wouldn’t be able to make her normal workout time, she quickly alerted someone at the box, lest they publicly shame her in their Facebook group for no-showing. Coaches and members were all fooling around with each other, so after Alyssa and her boyfriend split, she started hooking up with a trainer named Flex (real name: Andy; he changed it after joining the box).
So here’s the big question: What do Alyssa’s and Tasha’s stories have in common?
The answer: They were both under cultish influence. If you’re skeptical of applying the same charged “cult” label to both 3HO and CrossFit, good. You should be. For now, let’s agree on this: Even though one of our protagonists ended up broke, friendless, and riddled with PTSD, and the other got herself a strained hamstring, a codependent friend with benefits, and a few too many pairs of overpriced leggings, what Tasha Samar and Alyssa Clarke irrefutably share is that one day, they woke up on different sides of Los Angeles and realized they were in so deep, they weren’t even speaking recognizable English anymore. Though the stakes and consequences of their respective affiliations differed considerably, the methods used to assert such power—to create community and solidarity, to establish an “us” and a “them,” to align collective values, to justify questionable behavior, to instill ideology and inspire fear—were uncannily, cultishly similar. And the most compelling techniques had little to do with drugs, sex, shaved heads, remote communes, drapey kaftans, or “Kool-Aid” . . . instead, they had everything to do with language.