Tea Cults: A Nickel-Sized Summary (Yogi Tea and Sleepytime)
Updated: Jun 5
A Tik Tok video by @kressie has gained popularity where she holds up a box of Yogi tea and Sleepytime teas with the text "If I had a nickel every time I found out one of my favorite tea brands was created by a cult I'd have two nickels which isn't a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice, right?" [source from Tik Tok]
So is she right?
Yes, Yogi Tea was founded by a cult leader who perpetuated abuse and that abuse may still be perpetuated by the owners of the company so we advise boycotting that company.
Sleepytime is more complicated as the founder may be a strong member of a new religious movement, but he does not own Celestial Seasonings anymore.
Yogi the Tea Cult?
Harbhajan Singh Khalsam, known as Yogi Bhajan, was an entrepreneur, yoga instructor, and spiritual leader who lived 1929 to 2004. He created the primary tea recipe of Yogi Tea, founded the group 3HO, popularized "kundalini yoga," and controlled Yogi Tea. After his death, multiple reports of sexual abuse, imprisonment, excessive control, verbal abuse, and emotional manipulation were published.
While Yogi Tea has changed ownership from the original company run by Yoji Bhajan, the company 3HO is still in business. Some of the abuse reports allege some of the current board members of 3HO were accomplices to Yogi Bhajan's abuse, including sexual abuse. Many members of the 3HO board sit on the Yogi Tea board. Yogi Tea may have distanced themselves from Yogi Bhajan in their branding, however, the money and power are allegedly still connected to the high commitment group.
Bhajan was born in Punjab in 1929, an area now part of Pakistan. His father was a Sikh medical doctor, his mother was Hindu, and he attended a Catholic school under the British Raj. After the Partition, his family were refugees in New Delhi. Bhajan got a degree in economics, worked for the government, married, and had 3 kids. Throughout this period of adulthood, Bhajan traveled to many ashrams and hermitages to study religion and yoga.
In 1968, Bhajan left to teach yoga in North America. In Los Angeles, Bhajan met Judith Tyberg at the "East-West Cultural Center" who invited him to give lectures at the center. Tyberg is noted for bringing many gurus/yogis to the USA during the 60s and 70s when many Americans were interested in converting to Hinduism, Sikhism, and new religious movements.
In 1969, at the age of 40, Bhajan established his 3HO Foundation among other business including a chain of restaurants, a tea company, chain of yoga centers, and a school for yoga teachers. He aggressively promoted himself and his businesses to gain followers and fame. He received a lot of press in the 70s for combining Sikhism and capitalism to mass success. Bhajan taught a mix of yoga and Ayurveda focused on achieving balance. The story goes he served his special tea blend at his yoga centers throughout the 70s and 80s. Then in the mid-80s, he launched the tea company under the name picked by his followers.
At his death, the company that controlled his cereal and tea brands was estimated to be work over $100 million.
Bhajan argued women could never be rapes, fostering rape culture among members. He also lied to women, saying the only way for them to resolve their Karma was to have sex with him.
Yogi Bhajan encouraged followers to buy his products and work for his companies, forming an insular group of people that ate his food, worked at his companies, followed his medical teachings, and wore specific white clothing. His teachings included that he could see auras, predict the future, and followers needed to stop following their own intuition and only follow his rules. It is alleged he arranged marriages between followers and weaponized family relationship. In addition to the white fashion, followers changed their name and were on strict routines for their diet, meditation, and yoga, often spending long days working for the profit of Yogi Bhajan while living difficult lives. Similar to other cult leaders, members of his yoga studios often lived with few personal belonging while Yogi Bhajan was estimated to have the largest collection of ivory in New Mexico.
On www.YogiProducts.com, the company states "Our story began over 30 years ago with an herbal tea blend of Ginger, Cinnamon, Clove, Black Pepper, and Cardamom. Treasured for its wellness-supporting properties, this aromatic and warming tea was inspired by the ancient holistic philosophy of Ayurveda." There is no mention of the founder or meaning behind the name. Additonally, there is no mention that Yogi Bhajan's teaching were a capitalist interpretation of Ayurveda with many of his own additions.
The company describes Ayurveda as "an ancient healing philosophy" that inspires their teas. The website is full of language such as "holistic approach to wellness" "intention" "synergy" and "state of balance." There is no mention of Hinduism or Sikhism. While some people consider the philosophy unrelated to any specific religion, there is a lot of academic research that link Ayurveda to Hinduism and Sikhism. The Yogi Product's website describing a sacred text as "ancient philosophy" without a mention of religion or guru tradition is reputation laundering so consumers do not think about the Yogi that invented the primary recipe in the first place.
Verdict on Yogi Tea? Don't buy it as the board members are all still connected with the abuse. The tea company may have distanced themselves, but they have not disavowed their founder of his abuse.
Alternative? Black tea with ginger, cinnamon, clove, black pepper, and cardamom is just masala chai. Vahdam Teas is an Indian tea company that makes a wide variety of masala chai. I got their sampler box and they were good. Their founder has been featured in Forbes and seems normal (linkedin), so I don't think he's running a cult on the side.
Sleepytime the Tea Cult?
Morris Siegel, known as Mo Siegel, is an entrepreneur who co-founded Celestial Seasonings, Inc. behind the "sleepytime" tea which features an anthropomorphic bear. He is President of the Urantia Foundation and says the morals of the new religious movement influences his running of the company.
Morris Siegel, known as Mo Siegel, is an entrepreneur who foraged wild herbs to make tea blends to sell to a local Boulder, Colorado health food store, in 1970-1971. Hay's brother John ended up joining the group and propelled Sleepytime into a large corporation. They incorporated the six person company in 1972 as Celestial Seasonings. The company was very successful, but when they were attempting to go public, a woman became sick from a high amount of atropine in the tea which led to a large recall that squashed the IPO.
In 1984, the company was purchased by Kraft, Inc. but the merger with Lipton tea was blocked for anti-trust reasons (would have given Kraft over 80% control over the USA tea market to the fear of Bigelow tea). An investment firm took the company private in 1988. To help Celestial regain market after the heavy debt from going private, Mo Siegel returned to run the company after leaving over the Kraft buyout. In 1993 the company went public. In 2000 the company merged with Hain Food and in addition to tea, the company also sells Terra sweet potato chips and Spectrum Essentials vitamins. The NASDAQ listing for Hain Celestial Group Inc is HAIN. Siegel retried from the company in 2002, shortly after the merger was complete.
The Urantia Foundation was founded in 1950 in Chicago to be a guardian of The Urantia Book and published the book in 1955. The exact date the book was finished and by who is unknown. Since at least 2006, the book has been in the public domain.
Per the group, Dr. William Sadler was approached by a neighbor for help with her husband's "episodes." Sadler claimed a celestial visitor spoke through the un-named individual during these episodes and wrote them down. Later, Sadler and friends formed "the Forum" and through additional contract with celestial beings created The Urantia Book which is now widely distributed by "the Foundation."
Sadler's wife was the niece of John Kellogg, Sadler worked for John, and William Kellogg was likely a member of the Forum. Sadler wrote 3 books promoting white supremacy and John Kellogg is well-known for his white supremacy beliefs. The racism is visible in The Urantia Book with passages that denigrate indigenous people,
It's not surprising the Kelloggs and Sadlers become involved in another new religious movement after John Kellogg was excommunicated from the Seventh Day Adventists (with William Kellogg as the possible "channeler of the celestial being"). There are many overlaps with Adventism, including a focus on vegetarianism, healthy living, and channeling spirits.
In You've GOT to Read This Book! 55 Tell the Story of the Book that Changed their Life, Mo Siegel discussed The Urantia Book. He read the book in 1970 and ever since then, he hosts a weekly Urantia Book study group at his house. His passage is emotionally moving how the book helps him be a virtuous person and brought him peace in finding closeness with God.
Mo was attracted to the syncretism of Christianity with a version of the Big Bang Theory. The book does get it slightly wrong, presenting the Chamberlin-Moulton planetesimal hypothesis, which was popular in the early part of the 20th century when the book was written, and discarded by the 1940s for the nebular hypothesis. In You've GOT to Read This Book!, Mo admits the book sounds goofy to having been translated from angels but does not address the scientific inconsistencies or racist passages.
Mo describes the book as his inspiration for starting Celestial Seasonings Tea in fostering a positive life purpose through selling healthy products. It is not surprising someone was inspired to create a company similar to the Kellogg food company based on the religion of the Sadler-Kelloggs.
In You've GOT to Read This Book!, Mo admits to sharing his beliefs with an employee, but qualifies it was after hours and the other man looked unhappy. In an article by Meghan Giller, she talks to one of the first 6 employees and she mentions Mo often brought the book up at work.
Verdict on Sleepytime Celestial Seasoning Teas? While the above could easily create a toxic workplace, there's no articles to suggest Celestial Seasonings was a toxic workplace under Mo. He has not been apart of the company since 2002 and there's been no allegations of toxic workplace or abuse.