Yogi Bhajan was a spiritual teacher of a Sikh origin, who brought Kundalini Yoga to the west. He started a successful movement in the United States, that later spread to many other countries, as well as a number of businesses which are still thriving. However, his version of Kundalini Yoga is a syncretic teaching, which is considerably different from the original indian Kundalini Yoga, andeventually it became an independent spiritual movement.
Yogi Bhajan was born in a sikh family in what is now Pakistan. He got educated in a catholic school. After the partition of India his family settled in Delhi, where Yogi Bhajan attended college and received a degree in economics. He entered the civil service, and eventually became a customs officer in the airport of Delhi. At some point of his life he started practicing yoga. In the 60s Yogi Bhajan supposedly became a yoga instructor in an ashram of a well-known yoga teacher Dhirendra Brahmachari. In 1968 he emigrated to Canada, and the following year started teaching Kundalini Yoga in the United States. At this time he established his 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization). His first followers were mostly hippies, who readily accepted the new teaching, which had something in common with the ideas of the counterculture. Yogi Bhajan was good at establishing political connections; since the 70s he had acquaintances in the congress, and befriended with a few successive governors of New Mexico state, where he finally settled. According to his official website, in 1971 he “became the only living master of the white tantric yoga”. It is not specified, what is “white tantric yoga”, why is he the “only” master if it, and how could he “become” it. He was socially active and participated in numerous forums and conferences, and met different religious leaders. He started a few successful businesses in different fields like healthy food manufacturing, computer systems and security services; Akal Security, founded by his follower, has received more than 1 billion USD in federal security contracts. Though Yogi Bhajan was married, he had a reputation of a womanizer; his former followers state his private residence housed a group of women, that were serving, massaging and having sexual relations with him. One of them later sued him for sexual assault, battery, fraud and deceit, the case was settled out of court.
First of all, Yogi Bhajan’s life story was told by Yogi Bhajan himself. His claims are not supported with any evidence, and much of his story seems to be a hagiography. Apparently he never studied yoga systematically with any teacher. According to some sources, he was not even a customs officer, but just a porter in the airport. Now, what is Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan? It is definitely a very different thing from the original indian Kundalini Yoga and is his own creation. Basically it is an original mixture of yogic exercises with the elements of sikh and hindu practices. It has postures and breathing techniques from yoga, teachings from tantra and chanting from sikhism. For the sikh community Yogi Bhajan kept his sikh image and presented his movement as “spreading sikhism in the west”; for the western seekers he was a “teacher of yoga”, somehow connected with the hindu tantra tradition. But the traditional sikh community mostly rejected the new movement, since it had numerous hindu influences. But it was well accepted by a number of american celebrities. His practice of chanting sikh mantras also inspired a whole movement of new age musicians, like Snatam Kaur.
The whole Kundalini Yoga movement is pretty worldly. There are no extremes and austerities associated with traditional forms of yoga. Yogi Bhajan himself was involved in a number of businesses, and inspired his followers to start their own. As to its value as a spiritual practice… one has to decide for himself. The main question here is – whether you trust Yogi Bhajan or not. The whole system is his own creation, but his qualification as a teacher is very doubtful. And his personal history is not very clean. At the same time many people do Kundalini Yoga and enjoy it.