“I want to keep it long” I say as she pulls from the hair in between her fingers, and I realize every tug reveals more split and broken edges. Edges that I had let go for too long. She realizes she may have been insulting me with her corresponding face of disgust at my scraggly hair and quickly pulls back her hands “Oh I’m sorry!” I tell her it was okay, “I know what I’ve done.”
As a seventeen-year-old I did not have a plethora of experience with faith and religion. I went to some non-denominational Christian churches here and there as well as some Catholic masses with my grandparents during sleep overs growing up. And of course, tragically, a Catholic church for my cherished grandmother’s funeral when I was fifteen. Leaving a soiled taste in my mouth for the tradition. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school when I was fortunate enough to attend a semester long World Religion course with my favorite social science teacher, Mr. Robinson, that I experienced countless types of religions, spiritualities, and faiths, opening my mind and heart to a world I had once believed I would never inhabit.
Mr. Robinson and his new wife, a science teacher at my high school who had very long flowing blonde hair and wore entirely all white every single day, practiced a faith and spirituality unheard of by the majority of people I had ever met in my life before or since. One I would learn ten years later leaned into being more of a cult than a religion. And after getting a signature from my mother was able to attend a makeshift yoga class in the school’s auditorium, directly on the stage, with the rest of my class, along with my then boyfriend, Brandon, who came from another class to participate.
I was more eager for this experience than I had been about anything I had partook in at this school. The World Religion class had been such an enormous impact on my existence, and this was such a beautiful extension of that, and I felt so much gratitude that they would share their faith with us.
We begin our Kriya (series of poses with a set intention) by doing some of what I would explain at the time as odd type stretches. Putting our hands on our shoulders and twisting at our upper spine rapidly, grinding what I would learn was called our root chakra, or Muladhara, in a circular motion counterclockwise, then clockwise, until the base of our spine was like jelly. All in an attempt to loosen our spine so the energy we cultivate through the Kriya can shoot up from the bottom of our spine through the top of our head like a brilliant beam of light spreading positive rays of energy throughout the universe. A lot to expect from several beginners but I personally was up for the challenge.
After an hour and 15 minutes the Kriya was almost completed. All that was left was what is known as deep relaxation. Normally, I would learn, a gong was to be resonating throughout the room during this particular practice of the Kriya but that was unavailable, so we laid there in utter silence, on the stage floor, on our backs, our arms limp at our sides, palms up, eyes closed, waiting for her to touch our forehead with her index finger when she felt we needed it. After some time of laying in this euphoric state, beginning to feel a peace I had only dreamed of, I feel our beloved science teacher’s finger touch the middle of my forehead, my third eye, the eye of awareness, the eye of enlightenment. I then feel a shock of what feels like lightning throughout the entirety of my body. At the time I could only attribute this to total nirvana. Complete awareness. I had finally experienced something otherworldly. Something I had been looking for all my life.
She was wearing a costume of face paint, though I am unsure what animal she was, there was indeed well done animal print on her left temple and nose.
It’s Halloween, the day most people pretend to be someone they are not. To confuse the demons I once heard someone say. Though I never actually celebrated and as a result didn’t care for it, I couldn’t help but feel that maybe I was about to adorn my first ever Halloween costume. Becoming someone I am not.
How has so much of my identity become wrapped into my hair? Riding the swirls and at times tight twists of each strand. My hair never really knew what it wanted to do. But don’t most people say that? The color has a natural ‘ombre’ to it. It goes from dark to light as it spreads down. Dark roots, joyful endings.
You can call it a guideline of faith, that which taught me the discipline to let things be. Our energy is seeping through every strand, they said. Cutting the hair is like a slap in the face of creation, they claimed. Regardless of the outcome of that denial of self-creation, we have to stick it through. They said this way of life reveals the true self. I say I CHOOSE. I CHOOSE who I want to be.
As with many faiths we were required to follow certain rules and abide by particular restrictions. Like a requirement to wear entirely white clothing every day, while also concealing our head with some kind of covering, whether it be a white turban or white knit hat and wear a steal bracelet on our dominant hand. Seeing the bracelet was to remind us to do the right thing and treat others with respect. To eat a strictly vegetarian diet with lots of beets, to never consume caffeine, alcohol, and of course to never smoke. To take only bitter cold showers daily after rubbing our entire body with oils, pressing deeply into our glands and tissues with our fingers. To wake up every morning at 4:30am to recite the entire holy text in its original language, perform a Kriya, and chant for hours. To never, ever, cut our hair and lastly, to answer to what they called a “spiritual name” (mine: Siri Lakshmi. Pronounced “City Lock Shmee”) given to us by a woman at the main ashram organization in New Mexico who would meditate while thinking about our birth name and birth date and time. One of the more senior yogis who spent many years working and living at the ashram told us once that she was given a name one day when she first arrived, and then given another because the woman in charge of it forgot she had already given her one. The names were different. This was when I really began to question things.
“Well we definitely have to wash it, it will make it easier for me to see what needs fixed.” It took seemingly longer than I would have expected feeling her hands scrubbing and rubbing at my scalp but mostly the ends. She really focused on the split ends.
As the hairs that have already fallen out are dragged through the mess they hang on still slightly fighting on its way out. Grabbing at anything it can on its way down. Breaking and tearing at its finger nails, kicking and screaming. There were handfuls left over, I would never admit I had let it go that long. At times taking out others with it. Displaying the little white ball on the very tip the seed, detached.
I walked over to the chair slowly, she getting to it far quicker than me, waiting patiently. The chair was difficult to mount with the foot rest in the way. It hit my heels and I could see the old dried hair dye on the backs of the wooden chairs fleetingly wondering why they wouldn’t clean that off afterward. There was no one else in the solon and I was glad for that. I felt shame. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this. Is it too late to change my mind?
Something else this group practiced was the abusive act of free labor disguising it as selfless service they called “seva.” They would have sometimes up to 3 people daily working, cleaning, manning the front desk, cooking, for hours on end and for no compensation. I was a seva and worked almost 30 hours a week there while also holding down a full time (paying) job, and going to school full time, because I believed it was my duty to them for all I was tricked to believe they had done for me over the years.
It hurt as she brushed it. A lot. At times I felt the hair pull out from the root. I had brushed it more than once before I left the house but it re-tangled quickly. There was no stopping it. So often times I actually wouldn’t even bother, leaving the house with a matted, and broken, crown. She reassured me that it was behaving better than I thought it was.
She started in the front as I asked for something different, I wanted a complete transformation. I could feel each piece hit the top of my feet. Just after the sound of scissors cutting. Looking at the curled wet hair sitting on the counter she sat that there on purpose. “There it is. Would you like to keep some?” “No. I need to let it go.”
Every snip was intense. I could feel it all way into the skull even seeping into the section of the brain controlling memory. Electrically creating snaps of memory. Those times where I felt loved. Of times where I had breakthroughs. There were good memories but really, if I was being honest with myself, more sad ones.
The music was random. Each time the hair dryer turned off there was a different song always unrelated in genre and style to the last. I frequently brushed the little specks of sprinkled cut hair off my nose and cheeks. The ends pulled as she brushed them. I watched edges tangle up in her hand though she never seemed annoyed or judgmental. She was happy to help. As they hit the floor I saw them curl. I did think they were kind of beautiful though the background was of course a floor that once displayed the end of others hair swept up into the filled dust pan sitting right next to my brown messenger bag.
The years of not cutting my hair due to faith hindered the health and strength of it. And for many years it helped me through intense nightmares and celebrated the great things. The things that in many ways they allowed to happen and even caused to happen to me. They were supportive. The longer I stayed the more devout I got. The more devout I got the more it fell apart at the ends.
After ten years of practice, I was invited to train to become a teacher. It was not only a dream of mine but the ultimate goal of all involved in the group. It was believed that everyone should desire to become a teacher while also striving to always be a student in the eyes of whatever you believed was the true god or gods.
The first day of the training proved frustrating and confusing. I learned that one could be a seva and train for “free,” or could pay upwards of 3000 dollars to participate. There was no discrimination against how long a person had been a part of the group. So people would come in off the street with no experience having rarely practiced the yoga and become a teacher. It really made no sense to me how they could allow someone who never practiced before reach the ultimate goal it took some of us decades to work towards, but it eventually dawned on me: Money. That was only the first of several issues that sprouted throughout this training process for me and a couple of other students in my cohort.
Throughout my time with them we were taught to follow the teachings of a particular man who brought this type of yoga to the United States in the 60s. It was believed that this man came to the US with no money in his pocket and worked his way to becoming a religious leader, starting a spiritual organization in the desert of New Mexico where hundreds of people lived, worked for free, and did yoga all day from 4:30am to 11pm. This man’s photo was displayed at the village in several places on their walls, including at an alter with candles and miniature statues of gods and goddesses. He was, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary man, but I would learn that mythical stories would be attributed to this man, causing his followers to believe him to be more of a god than a man and he perpetuated the lies and abused his power.
After I began the training and would have to sit through hours of videos of him teaching yoga to his flock, being told to always sit up straight at the feet of the master even though our backs were killing us from sitting up for entire days without back support during the training, and doing strange rituals involving him such as taping a photo of him on the wall in front of our face, holding a candle, and staring into his eyes for 30 min straight as to absorb his holy energy, I decided to Google him for the first time. Up until then I had learned all I thought I needed to know about him and never even thought to research him. I was horrified at what I found.
People who had lived on the commune in New Mexico, and got out, divulged their stories of the man. These stories included extortion, abuse, rape, child molestation, slave labor, odd expectations and practices that were harmful to them. I went back the next day confused, hurt, and frightened at what I had become and who I had been following for the past decade. Strangely, another student walked in with a similar demeanor. She blurted out to me, when no one else was in the room, “have you ever Googled the yogi?” I told her I just did and that I was indeed just as disturbed as she.
I then decided to begin to ask as many questions as I could, about him, about the practice, everything. And to most of my questions I was simply told to either ignore the lies, or to have faith. They began to treat me differently after a time. My questions had no doubt changed their opinion of me. I was no longer as devout as I was, and was clearly bringing others along with me. After the training, they stopped calling me by my spiritual name and I decided, finally, to leave.
People referred to us often as a cult. The kooky people of the yoga world I once heard. The teachings resonated with me for 10 years though as time went on and I started question things and the more unhappy and the more questions I had. The longer my hair, the thinner the edges the more breakage and the eventual cut. I’m done.
The encouragement I received at the beginning made me feel in many ways that I had an obligation to be perfect. A word they always told me to stay away from. But in the end, was expected of me. I felt like I couldn’t make a mistake. I felt I was being judged at every turn. Though I don’t think they realized it at the time.
Others had left just before me. Realizing before me the pressure involved and wanting out. I defended the village with all I had, saying “look how much they’ve done for us.” Only to realize not too long after what they were talking about. What, really, I had been in denial about for quite some time.
The end result I was told made me look like a completely different person. I couldn’t stop feeling, looking, and playing with my new hair. My new self. I notice the natural color of my hair goes from dark to light as it spreads down. Dark roots, split ends.