Are You In A Cult?

For about 8 years, I have been slowly disentangling myself from a cult.

Cult indoctrination techniques are so normalized for us that most people don’t realize how much exposure they have to them.

Cult leaders are interchangeable. But the techniques are universal. More disturbingly, exposure to brainwashing tactics have a long-term effect on your brain’s wiring. Once exposed, you’re more susceptible to those tactics. Repeated exposure makes you a better and more compliant subject – literally and metaphorically, individually and as a society.

The tactics of “brainwashing” used by destructive cults have been perfected by advertisers, motivational speakers, and business leaders. We are manipulated in both obvious and subtle ways with nearly every exposure to all forms of media.

This isn’t paranoia – it’s just factual acceptance of reality. The two largest financial backers and consumers of psychological research are marketing firms and government military. It’s directly applicable information for both. It’s useful and actionable intelligence.

In his seminal work Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton documented 8 criteria for how cults indoctrinate members.

Eight Criteria for Thought Reform

  1. Milieu Control
  2. Mystical Manipulation
  3. Demand for Purity
  4. Confession
  5. Sacred Science
  6. Loading the Language
  7. Doctrine over Person
  8. Dispensing of Existence

Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large. 

Mystical Manipulation. There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes. 

Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here. 

Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking. 

Doctrine over Person. Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

Dispensing of Existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also. 

The anti-vaccine movement uses these techniques. So do self-improvement ‘thought leaders’. Go to any self-help retreat or sales coaching seminar, and you’ll find they dip into the same tactics. They work.

I didn’t understand how people came under the influence of cult tactics until I began to regularly practice Bikram Yoga about 12 years ago. Prior to my introduction to Bikram Yoga in 2007, I had been practicing hatha yoga and meditation (inconsistently) for decades. I was not a young girl and not brand-new to yoga.

I certified to teach Bikram Choudhury’s method of yoga at his teacher training of Spring 2011. It was nine weeks of isolation, control, sleep deprivation, jargon (loading the language), and – as I realized when I got home – indoctrination. But it took a few years to really comprehend what had happened – I couldn’t think for myself, I didn’t know how to make a decision about my own life if it meant “going against Bikram”. And if you are not deep in a cult, it seems silly to struggle so much with just living your life according to your own needs & desires. But that’s how you know you’re in a cult – you fear defying the leader. And you fear repercussions from the community.

Aspects of Bikram’s misconduct has been covered in the press in the last few years. It’s not surprising that he has fled the U.S. and hidden his assets. This post isn’t about Bikram Choudhury’s legal, illegal, suspected, or proven conduct (you can get a lot of those details easily with a quick Google search.)

It’s about manipulation and brainwashing. Bikram just happens to my personal cult tactic touchstone.


Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr

Are You In A Cult?

Leave a Reply

Scroll to top
%d bloggers like this: