She was a popular yoga guru. Then she embraced QAnon conspiracy theories
QAnon — the baseless conspiracy theory that claims that a cabal of Satan-worshipping, blood-drinking elites control politics and media — is closely identified in political circles with some supporters of former President Donald Trump. But it also has a toehold in yoga and wellness circles.
Themes like everything is connected, nothing happens without a purpose, and nothing is what it seems are central to both yoga philosophy and conspiratorial thinking.
"If you've been practicing yoga, these are going to be very familiar ideas to you," said Matthew Remski, a former yoga teacher and journalist who hosts a podcast about conspiracies, wellness and cults called Conspirituality.
During the pandemic, many yoga teachers began to speak more openly about their belief in conspiracies, to the point that there is now a term to describe this phenomenon: the "wellness to QAnon pipeline."
To understand what wellness and conspiracy theories have in common, I decided to follow the radicalization journey of a Los Angeles-based Kundalini yoga teacher named Guru Jagat (to hear the full story, subscribe to the LAist Studios podcast Imperfect Paradise: Yoga's "Queen of Conspiracy Theories," which publishes on Jan. 3).
An LA yoga teacher with celebrity followers
Guru Jagat was born as Katie Griggs but used her "spiritual name" professionally.
She ran a Kundalini yoga studio in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles called the RA MA Institute for Applied Yogic Science and Technology, where she taught celebrities like Alicia Keys and Kate Hudson. Part of why she was so popular was that she was something of a contradiction: She wore white flowing clothes, wrapped her hair in a turban, and could chant in Sanskrit, but she also swore profusely and talked about sex and fashion in class.
Jaclyn Gelb first took a class with Guru Jagat in 2013 and was immediately drawn in.
"A yoga teacher that talked like that, that was real. That was grounded," she recalled. "I knew instantly. This is my teacher."
Soon, Gelb was practicing four to six hours a day, taking cold showers (which is a Kundalini yoga thing), and trying to get friends and family to join.
Gelb always liked that Guru Jagat was an edgy disruptor, unafraid of speaking her mind. Before the pandemic, she spoke about conspiracies occasionally, but that seemed like part of her schtick. But after the pandemic started, Gelb noticed her teacher beginning to speak more openly in class and in her podcast, Reality Riffing.
Guru Jagat shared her belief that the government wanted everyone at home for reasons other than public health. She suggested that the coronavirus was being sprayed in airplane chemtrails. She said that artificial intelligence was controlling our minds and suggested meditation as a way to take back control.
"And she said, 'This is what you get for spending the weekend on YouTube, watching alien videos,'" Gelb recalled. "That caught my attention, because it was like, 'Oh, she's, she's falling into rabbit holes.'"
Soon, Guru Jagat was defying local stay-at-home orders to practice maskless and in-person. On her podcast, she began to interview controversial people with fringe beliefs, like Arthur Firstenberg, a New Mexico-based writer and activist who believes 5G wireless internet caused the coronavirus pandemic.
Gelb said it was hard for her to watch her teacher change, but she also couldn't look away. She began to wish someone close to Guru Jagat would "figure out a way to wake her up, a way to snap her out of it."
But in December 2020, Gelb reached her limit. That's when Guru Jagat invited David Icke to speak at the studio and on her podcast.
"That just was not something that the woman I knew before would do," Gelb said. "That was so deeply offensive."
Icke is a well-known conspiracy theorist and antisemite who claims that reptilian extraterrestrials control the world. By the time Guru Jagat interviewed him in January 2021, he'd been banned from Twitter for spreading falsehoods about COVID.
Their conversation ranged from the lockdown to other far-right talking points.
"The wellness industry, it's been hijacked by all of this, this kind of woke agenda," she said.
Guru Jagat wasn't the only yoga teacher to plunge down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole during the pandemic.
From yoga philosophy to conspiratorial thinking
Remski, the host of Conspirituality, noticed a number of yoga teachers flirting with QAnon during the early months of the pandemic. At first, he suspected it was a marketing ploy. With yoga studios around the country suddenly closed, teachers were forced to compete for the same online audience. But as the pandemic progressed, some teachers, like Guru Jagat, did not walk back their rhetoric.
Of course, many people practice yoga without believing in conspiracy theories. However, yoga philosophy and conspiratorial thinking have a lot in common, Remski said, making it easy to slide from the former into the latter.
In both circles, there is an emphasis on "doing your own research" and "finding your own truth." And many people who practice and teach yoga distrust Western medicine, preferring to find alternative solutions or try to let their body heal itself.
"The relativism around truth, which has so long been a part of wellness culture, really reared its head in the pandemic," said Natalia Petrzela, an author and historian at The New School. "This idea that 'truth is just in the eye of the beholder' is something which can feel kind of empowering when you're sitting in yoga class, but when it's the pandemic, and that kind of language is being deployed to kind of foment, like, vaccine denial or COVID denialism, it has the same power, because we're all steeped in this culture ... it can be used for real harm."
QAnon, in particular, may have a particular resonance for yoga practitioners, according to Ben Lorber, a researcher at Political Research Associates, a think tank that monitors right-wing movements, because both communities share the idea of a higher truth accessible to a select few.
The secret truth that QAnon followers believe is that the world is controlled by "the Deep State," an evil cabal of elites who worship Satan and sexually assault children. In yoga, it's more nuanced, but could include ideas like enlightenment or spiritual awakening.
One follower leaves, but others remain
Jaclyn Gelb stopped taking classes with Guru Jagat; she was angry with her former teacher.
"She was so intelligent. She had so much power," she said. "She could have done so much good."
But as Guru Jagat radicalized, she kept many of her followers.
Nancy Lucas is another one of Guru Jagat's long-time students who said she liked hearing what she called "every side of the story" in her class and on her podcast.
"I think she was giving people from all walks of life that opportunity to come there and speak and give their point of view," she said. "I do think she felt that the press was being biased, and I think I do too. I mean, if you're banning people's comments from Twitter and Facebook, we don't have an open forum for dialogue."
Guru Jagat's story came to a sudden, unexpected end on Aug. 1, 2021, when she died of a pulmonary embolism. She was 41.
Since her death, her yoga studio, the RA MA Institute, initiated an elaborate period of mourning, including two weeks of continuous chanting, a gong ceremony, and a 13-day-long "Mayan ceremony for clarity and direction."
Since then, Guru Jagat has become a saint-like figure to many of her followers.
In a YouTube tribute, student Angela Sumner described her this way: "Even if you think that she's a scam artist, even if you think she's a conspiracy theorist, you can't look at her eloquence and her teachings and deny that she is one of the greatest teachers that's ever lived during our time."
To hear the full story, listen to Imperfect Paradise: Yoga's "Queen of Conspiracy Theories" from LAist Studios beginning Jan. 3.
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