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Encore: QAnon's toehold in the wellness world

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Since the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol two years ago, we've learned a lot about the influence of QAnon. The baseless conspiracy theory claims a cabal of evil, Satan worshipping and blood-drinking elites control politics and media. And that thinking has slowly made its way into yoga and wellness circles. Emily Guerin from member station KPCC and LAist has the story of one Los Angeles yoga teacher's journey down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole.

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GURU JAGAT: Inhale and exhale.

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: She was born Katie Griggs, but for most of her adult life, she went by Guru Jagat.

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GURU JAGAT: Now we're going to do five minutes of addiction meditation, not three minutes, 'cause everybody is too messed up.

GUERIN: Guru Jagat ran a Kundalini yoga studio in Los Angeles called the RA MA Institute for Applied Yogic Science and Technology. She had celebrity clients. She had a book deal, a clothing line, studios in Majorca and New York, and tens of thousands of Instagram followers. Here she is in a YouTube video from 2016 leading a class.

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GURU JAGAT: Thumbs right here, and then you'll squeeze each back molar, like, little compression, is sa ta na ma. Breathe through the nose.

GUERIN: A big part of why she was so popular was that she dressed and acted like a deeply spiritual yogi, but she also swore and talked about sex and fashion. This is a YouTube video of a class she taught in February 2021.

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GURU JAGAT: That's ultimately what all spiritual practice is for. Can I be cleaning up the dog [expletive] and having, like, an ecstatic experience because I get to do this? Like, that's the extreme, right?

JACLYN GELB: I was, like, all in. A yoga teacher that talked like that, that was real, that was grounded - I knew instantly this is my teacher.

GUERIN: Jaclyn Gelb began taking yoga classes with Guru Jagat back in 2013. She told me that Guru Jagat had occasionally talked about conspiracies before the pandemic, but as it progressed, she began to speak more openly.

GELB: This is engineered by the government. There's a reason they need to keep us at home. You need to be looking at that. And she said, this is what you get for spending the weekend on YouTube watching alien videos. And, I mean, that caught my attention 'cause it was like, oh, she's falling into rabbit holes.

GUERIN: In the beginning of the pandemic, Guru Jagat suggested specific foods, yoga poses and breathing exercises to stay healthy. But over time, she began to defy local stay-at-home orders. Here's Guru Jagat teaching maskless and in person in late May 2020, in a class that was later shared on Instagram.

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GURU JAGAT: We now have that AI technology where they know how to control your mind.

GUERIN: In December 2020, Guru Jagat invited a well-known conspiracy theorist and antisemite to come speak.

GELB: When she brought in David Icke, I mean, that just was not something that the woman I knew before would do. That was so deeply offensive.

GUERIN: Among other things, Icke claims that reptilian extraterrestrials control the world. By the time Guru Jagat interviewed him on her podcast in January 2021, he'd been banned from Twitter for spreading falsehoods about COVID.

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GURU JAGAT: We're in this global lockdown. We know there's other reasons for it besides what they're telling us.

DAVID ICKE: Well, I've been researching and writing and talking about this now for 30 years. And over that period, I've gone very, very deep in the rabbit hole.

GUERIN: By this point, student Jaclyn Gelb had stopped taking classes with Guru Jagat.

GELB: It was a very hard, confusing time, but mostly I was really angry. She was so intelligent. She had so much power. She could have done so much good.

GUERIN: But Guru Jagat kept many of her followers. Nancy Lucas is another one of Guru Jagat's longtime students, and she told me she liked hearing what she called every side of the story.

NANCY LUCAS: I think she was giving people from all walks of life that opportunity to come there and speak and give their point of view. I do think she felt that the press was being biased, and I think I do, too. So...

GUERIN: About coronavirus or...

LUCAS: About a point of view. I mean, if you're banning people's comments from Twitter and Facebook, we don't have an open forum for dialogue.

GUERIN: To be clear, millions of people enjoy practicing yoga and don't fall down conspiracy rabbit holes. But for Guru Jagat, there were a number of things that influenced her radicalization, some that are personal to her and some that had to do with her yoga practice. Matthew Remski is a journalist who hosts a podcast called "Conspirituality." And he told me there's actually quite a bit that yoga philosophy has in common with conspiratorial thinking, themes like everything is connected, nothing happens without a purpose and nothing is what it seems.

MATTHEW REMSKI: So if you've been practicing yoga, these are going to be very familiar ideas to you.

GUERIN: One of the central concepts in QAnon is that there is a secret alternative truth. Ben Lorber is a researcher at Political Research Associates, a think tank that monitors right wing movements.

BEN LORBER: And you see that in also a lot of yoga and wellness communities - right? - where, you know, you stumble upon a kind of hidden knowledge that only you and a select few others have access to.

GUERIN: QAnon followers believe that many experts are part of the so-called Deep State. Yoga practitioners can also be skeptical of Western medicine and science. And in both circles there's this emphasis on doing your own research and finding your own truth.

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GURU JAGAT: So that meditation helps you to start to have the power of your mind to create your own narrative and your own reality.

GUERIN: We'll never know what would have happened to Guru Jagat - if she would have become more extreme, or maybe she would have changed her views - because on August 1, 2021, she died of a pulmonary embolism. She was 41. Here's a woman named Angela Sumner talking about her in a YouTube tribute.

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ANGELA SUMNER: 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.

GUERIN: Since her death, her yoga studio, the RA MA Institute, has kept going full speed. And she's kind of become an angel-like figure watching over them. There's even an altar to her at the back of the studio.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin.

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LIMBONG: To hear the full story about Guru Jagat, check out Emily's new podcast from LAist Studios called "Imperfect Paradise: Yoga's Queen Of Conspiracy Theories." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.