I recently finished watching “Wild Wild Country”, the six part Netflix series about the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as “Osho”), his power hungry assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and their community of followers in the Rajneeshpuram in Oregon. It was an astonishing documentary that encapsulated the Rajneeshi’s truly insane experiment in Wasco County, a rural part of Oregon where cattle ranchers and Christianity ruled before hordes of orange wearing cult members showed up preaching sexual liberation, devotion to a Rolls Royce driving guru, and Yoga. There is much to be said about Rajneesh and the cult he started, but the documentary got me thinking about a time in my life when I got heavily involved in the Israeli military Martial Art ‘Krav Maga’ in West L.A back in the mid 2000’s. Some of the parallels between the Rajneeshpuram and the highly organized Martial Art I got involved with were striking to say the least.
I was 23 years old when I first walked into the Krav Maga studio in West LA, and was struck by how professional the gym looked. Having grown up in the UK, I was used to training Martial Arts in rented Church halls, leisure centers or public parks. There were no professional Martial Arts gyms that I knew of in the UK, and I had always thought of Martial Arts as a part time hobby. I knew about full time gyms in the US, and it played a strong part in my decision to move there knowing I could pursue my passion for as many hours in the week as I wanted. After I found the Krav Maga studio a mile or so away from my apartment, I knew this was where I needed to be. The gym was full of intelligent, nice people who had a deep passion for combat sports and wanted to train as much as they possibly could. The gym was amazingly well equipped with multiple studios, television screens playing Krav Maga promo videos, and a shop where you could buy snazzy, black Krav Maga training outfits and branded boxing gloves.
There were morning classes, afternoon classes, evening classes and night classes. You could train Krav Maga (a military style self defense oriented approach to training), boxing, kick boxing, Jiu Jitsu or Yoga. You could train back to back classes, progress through their belt system, or even enroll in their instructor training program.
Having a background in competitive kickboxing, I quickly became known in the gym as a new talent, and some of the company people (all of whom were high ranking Krav instructors themselves) started talking to me about going through their instructor training program. Not only that, they were looking for a sales person to work full time too. My friend, an extraordinarily talented fighter who was going through instructor training himself, was one of the sales managers and encouraged me to work alongside him. The instructors were all charismatic and seemed to have a god like status amongst students. Many of them trained celebrities (Russel Brand, Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were trained by friends of mine while I was there), and they even had a department set up specifically to deal with famous people. I wanted in, and stopped the journalism course I was on at UCLA to be a part of the Krav Maga brand.
Going through the instructor training and working full time was extremely mentally and physically demanding, but my craving for status within the community was so strong that I really didn’t mind in the beginning. I wasn’t sure about some of the training philosophies, and I had absolutely no passion for selling people memberships. My day consisted of showing people around the gym, sitting them down to watch the promo videos, and repeating specific phrases to get them hooked. In between this, I spent hours calling people up to get them to come by for free classes, and jumping into training sessions to progress through the system. The longer I was there, however, the more I began to see things I did not like.
There was a hierarchy in the company, favorites, and a “business first” attitude that seemed contrary to my ideals about the Martial Arts. Instructors who conformed to the most perfect archetype of a Krav Maga practitioner were given better personal training clients (celebrities and Hollywood producers etc), more classes, and more attention from the corporate higher ups. I didn’t rate many of the instructors as fighters and would often get the better of them in sparring sessions, yet I was told to change my style to conform more to their way of fighting. I would question parts of the curriculum that I felt wouldn’t work or might lead to injury, but was told that I had to learn the system as it was. The more questions I asked, the more I was ignored by management, and the more isolated I began to feel. I tried to talk to my friend in sales about it, but he’d recently gotten a promotion and wasn’t really interested. He was now a company man, and the more he rose up the ranks, the less time he had for anyone questioning the Krav Maga model. After all, the business was working very well for him, so why rock the boat? I couldn’t blame him, but it hurt a little knowing that I had no one to talk to about the hard time I was having.
The training became repetitive and boring to me, and I began to see the damage adulation was having on some of the instructors teaching us. They would take their authority far too seriously and would use it to assert dominance over those with less status within the organization. It started to feel like being back in high school again, and my childhood resentment for authority came back with a vengeance. I did my best to bite my lip, but the instructors could tell I didn’t respect them and consequently used the training program to make my life even harder.
One day, management took all Krav employees on a day long horse ride through Griffith Park to a restaurant where they would be making a big announcement. It was a fun day for the most part (although 6 hours on horseback is no joke for those unfamiliar with it), but when we arrived at the restaurant and took our seats, I could tell something was happening I wasn’t going to like.
The head of Krav Maga World Wide played us a slickly produced video presentation about the growing company and laid out their plan to put a Krav Maga franchise in every city and town in America, then take their product abroad and create a global company with hundreds of thousands of Krav adherents. We would all be part of this new expansion and would be representatives tasked with promoting the brand of Krav Maga wherever we went. Everyone around me seemed to be overjoyed at the prospect of being a part of something so ambitious, and loud cheers erupted from around the room.
I was having the exact opposite reaction as I sat watching the presentation. My heart sank as I watched the fast paced video promo and learned of their global domination plan — this was not why I had gotten in to Martial Arts, and I wanted no part of it. To me, Martial Arts was an expression of my individual identity, and styles merely a framework for me to explore. I was heavily influenced by the great Bruce Lee who spoke passionately about the need to express yourself in Martial Arts training. “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself,” Bruce Lee would say. “Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”
Krav Maga didn’t want to duplicate a personality, it wanted to duplicate an entire system and brand thousands of times over to make as much money as they could. While I’m sure their intentions weren’t entirely money related, it did seem to me like a business venture more than a contribution to the Martial Arts. This was not something I could be a part of anymore, and I went home thinking about what I was going to do with my life.
I quit Krav Maga a couple of months after the horseback riding expedition, and began a long journey of trying to make a living teaching my own take on Martial Arts. I trained in Jiu Jitsu, Wing Chun and boxing, experimented with friends, and sought to stay true to the principles that got me interested in Martial Arts as a young boy. I also didn’t get a job again, permanently scarred from a bizarre corporate culture that behaved in many ways like a cult. The uniforms, the deference to authority, the group think, and the adherence to a rigid set of beliefs had opened my eyes to the insidious power of largely unaccountable organizations that operated often plain sight. All you had to do was sign up and get involved with the community, and months later you could lose your self identity and become a true believer to a cause you didn’t really understand. You could drown in toxic infighting and politics, and never find your way out.
When I watched ‘Wild Wild Country’, I saw Krav Maga on a scale I didn’t think possible. They had the uniforms, the shared beliefs, and a worship of authority that was deeply dysfunctional. Rajneesh and the people he attracted were involved in a mass delusion — a self reinforcing belief system and cult of personality that made them incapable of interacting with the outside world. The true adherents were weak people whose minds had been corrupted by a culture gone mad and a guru who was more interested in collecting diamond encrusted watches and fancy cars than creating a healthy environment for self development. While my time at Krav Maga was not comparable to anything the ‘Sannyasins’ (Rajneesh disciples) went through, I couldn’t help but draw an alarming number of parallels. I am grateful I recognized the pitfalls of cult like organizations early on, and have spent my life thus far avoiding anything remotely similar. While it is easy to point fingers at the members of the Rajneeshpuram for their fealty to a corrupt leader his malevolent sidekick, I know how easy it is to fall prey to communities that seem to good to be true. The more spectacular the vision, the more likely it is to be corruptible, and the more likely you are to lose your own identity at the expense of the group.
I have learned that cults are everywhere, waiting for true believers to sign away their lives and join the cause. Sometimes these cults do a lot of good, and sometimes the benefits outweigh the negatives. I know many people who still happily train at Krav Maga and get a lot out of it for example.
But it is always worth remembering that they are still cults, and you must always walk away whenever you feel your personal integrity is being compromised. You have one life, and it is far better to make your own way in it than have others plan it for you.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.