Sadhguru: Indian spiritual advisor captures Americans’ imagination

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Robin Estrin

“Forcefully you cannot force out a single thought from your mind. Whatever you try to do, there is only plus one. … It is just that if your aspiration is something else, all these things may evaporate. … You want to go to the top of the mountain, you are very focused on that. What is at the foothills is not your concern. … [If] you’re focused on [the] top of the mountain, you will cross the foothill and not even notice it,” Sadhguru says about unwanted thoughts. Credit: YouTube.

Indian mystic Sadhguru has a lot of knowledge he wants to pour into you, from the right way to eat an almond, to the problems with the world economy. With 10 million Instagram followers, he’s a yogi, New York Times bestselling author, and spiritual adviser to Hollywood celebrities and the ultra-rich, including Will Smith, SZA, and Matthew McConaughey.

Journalist Stephen Rodrick spent time at one of the guru’s week-long yoga retreats in McMinnville, Tennessee, and wrote about it for GQ.

He tells KCRW that arriving there was soothing at first — the place was like a rural college campus, with acres of pastoral land and a creek running through the middle, plus temples, basic meeting areas, and a gift shop. Crews are also building residential units to eventually house followers, and Sadhguru wants a school in his “utopian community” too.

“You can get a studio apartment or one-bedroom apartment for around $200,000. … You don't actually own them, you get a 99-year lease. … You can pass it on to one relative. But after that, it reverts back to the foundation that Sadhguru has,” he explains. 

A few blocks away, craftsman-like homes run about $450,000. 

Amenities are included, except air conditioning. Rodrick says Sadhguru wants residents to be in touch with the environment and feel the seasons changing – though he wasn’t able to confirm whether Sadhguru forwent A/C in his own dwelling. 

Rodrick explains that the guru as a child felt particularly connected to nature and insects. He grew up questioning things and not paying attention to classwork and the rote memorization that came with it. After graduating from high school, he started small businesses and ran a poultry farm. 

In his early 20s, mourning a recent breakup, he drove his motorcycle up a mountain, where he started crying and felt closer to the earth. “He realized he'd been up on this mountain for four or five hours. And once he came down the mountain … he decided he wanted to go on a path toward what he saw as enlightenment. … And then he started teaching it. … He started making connections with influential people in India, and his practice … started to grow.”

Rodrick says he gained U.S. fame partly thanks to social media, which he used during COVID shutdowns to give sermons and advice, exponentially growing his number of followers. 

He adds, “There's something else at play here. One of the first things I saw when I got there was a very peaceful place, but there was almost like an advertising billboard that you would see in a bus stop in New York. … And it was of his book. And the two blurbs were from Will Smith and Tom Brady. … There's a real … going all the way back to the Beatles … infatuation by famous people with Indian mysticism.”

Part of Sadhguru’s appeal is that he teaches you to become more self-aware while your life is unfolding. The appeal, says Rodrick, is that Sadhguru doesn’t ask followers to make many great sacrifices.  

He points out that at the retreat, attendees pay a few thousand dollars to take classes, and at the gift shop, they can buy miniature yogi statues for thousands of dollars, as well as the types of robes that Sadhguru wears. “here's a ton of capitalism going on here. And they insist that is just to keep the foundation afloat.”

“As much as I thought some of it was hocus pocus, some of the meditation really … connected with me. …  I've written a book about my father, who was a Navy pilot … killed in a plane crash when I was 13 and … how that had always haunted me. … And during one of the meditation things … I could see my father, or an image of him, in a flight suit falling away. And I didn't think it was like, ‘Oh, this is another nightmare about him dying.’ But it was more like, ‘Let it go and live your best life and raise your son the best you can.’ And that was incredibly meaningful to me.”