Blog Post

The Troubling Background of Yogi Tea

We recently had a question about the "Yogi Tea" that has been popping up in supermarkets across the U.S. recently. I discovered that it is connected to a cult-like group that was formed around a phony guru with a history of sexual predation.

Yogi tea originated with a man named Yogi Bhajan who died in New Mexico in 2004. According to this article by cult expert Steven Hassan, Bhajan was born Harbhajan Singh Puri in 1929 and arrived in the U.S. with his wife Bibiji and three children in 1969 to begin teaching Kundalini and White Tantric yoga to the hippie counterculture of California and New Mexico.

Soon after his arrival, he renamed himself Yogi Bhajan. Although he told everyone he was a well-known holy man in India, he had been nothing more than a customs inspector. But that didn't stop him from lying his way to prominence. Eventually, he was granted audiences with the likes of St. John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, and even served as a yoga mentor to the late Indian Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi.

One of the ways he managed this ruse was to claim that member of his group were Sikhs, even though the Sikh community wasn't buying it. "...[A]according to mainstream members of the religion, by adhering to the doctrine of Yogi Bhajan, they are violating more traditional Sikh teachings. Yogi Bhajan's teachings are closer to a synthesis of Kundalini yoga, tantric and New Age practices than anything originating from Sikh teachings," Hassan writes.

Nevertheless, Bhajan's claim to be teaching a secret form of yoga for the first time found fertile ground in the hearts of gullible westerners seeking unique and exotic forms of spirituality during the Age of Aquarius, and this fueled his success. Before long, he was able to form the 3HO Foundation (which stands for happy, healthy, and whole), "a multi-pronged organization that promotes its philosophy and practice, providing guides and even soundtracks for yogic meditation," this article states.

Some of Bhajan's more bizarre teachings include the claim that he could see auras around people as well as predict the future.

After his classes, he would serve his pupils a spicy aromatic tea that came to be known as yogi tea. All Yogi Teas supposedly contains five basic spices - Cinnamon, Ginger, Cardamom, Black Pepper and Cloves - which supporters believe increases circulation, decreases joint stiffness, enhances digestion while decreasing gas and nausea.

"Our philosophy is rooted in Ayurveda, which combines sensual pleasure with a balanced approach to overall well-being," one of their websites explains. "We invite you to experience all that YOGI TEA® has to offer and allow balance and joy in the various aspects of your life. YOGI TEA® is dedicated to well-being that reaches beyond our products."

According to court documents, as Bhajan's community expanded and built ashrams throughout the U.S., yogi tea became part of his "brand", as did some distinctly cult-like qualities.

For instance, he encouraged members to support themselves by establishing businesses where they employed only members of his dharma. Among these businesses were the Golden Temple Conscious Cookery Restaurants which served  - and eventually began to package and sell - yogi tea. Sales exceeded $59 million in sales in 2022.

However, Bhajan is about a lot more than a tea company and has a disturbing backstory that came to light in 2019 with the publication of a tell-all book by his former secretary, Pamela Dyson in which she claims she was forced into a sexual relationship with Bhajan. When she became pregnant, he forced her to have an abortion. After the publication of the book, many former members of the group came forward to tell of their own abuse at the hands of Bhajan.

For example, in addition to his sexual improprieties, he convinced members to give up their birth names and sever ties with anyone outside the community.

"Bhajan arranged marriages between members and came to establish 3HO-run schools in India and New Mexico, to which followers were coerced to send their children," this report states. "According to recent allegations, these schools were a breeding ground for lice, disease, extreme physical punishments, gross neglect, squalid living conditions, malnutrition, and other nightmares. At one point, the schools enacted an exercise meant to cultivate 'non-attachment,' in which children and young teens were re-homed to total strangers [in India]. A group of former students (now adults) are actively enacting a civil lawsuit against the school for child sexual abuse in a Los Angeles Superior Court."

Eventually, this growing list of abuses was documented in a report known as An Olive Branch which found that it was more likely than not that Yogi Bhajan had raped at least three women, engaged in nonconsensual touching of nine persons, showed pornography to minors, used sexually offensive language, and other actions too egregious to be printed here. It was also decided that the Bhajan's claims to be a celibate were inaccurate and that he "employed a variety of methods to control his students including compartmentalization, quid pro quo, promises, threats, slander, phone calls, guarding, and/or telling women they were his wife."

Hassan claims that over the past thirty years, he has helped former members who allege sexual and psychological abuse by and under Yogi Bhajan. He is also aware of various criminal activities and Security Exchange Commission convictions of members of Bhajan's inner circle.

"Several former students of Yogi Bhajan claim that when attempting to leave the group, they were threatened with violence. There is an unsolved murder of a member that is still under investigation, and also haunting suicides," he writes.

Even more shocking is the prominence this group gained at one time both politically and financially. For instance, Bhajan's lawyer served as New Mexico's Deputy Attorney General and every year a member of his dharma offered a prayer at the state legislature's inaugural session. After his death in 2004, former Governor Bill Richardson called him "a man of peace, compassion and intelligence" and named a highway after him. Yogi Bhajan's widow Bibiji sued Yogi Tea in 2010 along with the State of Oregon, alleging that Yogi Bhajan's advisers forged documents regarding their take-over of the company, excessive compensation and exclusion of the family from its board. This suit spurred numerous other suits which are still being litigated.

I have never liked the idea of buying products from New Age companies and I certainly wouldn't buy tea manufactured by a phony guru who ran a cult-like organization where he allegedly abused members.

There's plenty of great tasting tea out there. My advice is to take a stand against this kind of behavior and find another brand.

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