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World peace through cheap labor 

Turmoil continues as the Maharishi downsizes in Colorado Springs

click to enlarge Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement.
  • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement.

Some companies have rec rooms complete with foosball tables and Play Stations.

Maharishi Ayurveda Products International, or MAPI as its known, has gender-specific rooms for yogic flying: an advanced form of meditation that involves bouncing up and down on a padded floor while fixed in the lotus position.

"Flying yogis" have described the experience as "bubbling bliss." But bliss hasn't been bubbling from the mouths of former employees of this curious Colorado Springs company.

Located on Elkton Drive near Garden of the Gods Road, MAPI markets and distributes Indian herbal health products throughout North America. Earlier this year the company employed nearly 60 people; currently a skeletal crew of about 10 remain, half of whom are stipend-paid volunteers for a movement whose professed goal is human enlightenment and world peace, but whose business practices are described as cutthroat.

The movement behind the company that sells these herbal remedy products -- to help in everything from weight control to emotional balance -- is called TM (short for Transcendental Meditation). Its colorful leader is 86-year-old Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, former guru to the likes of The Beatles and Donovan who currently resides in a guarded castle in Holland. The Maharishi's combined corporate and real-estate holdings are estimated to be worth more than $3.6 billion.

Layoffs and price hikes

The confusion among employees over the future of MAPI began earlier this year. On July 9, the Independent reported that in April, MAPI had slashed employees wages by 10 percent, laid off several employees, and upped the prices of its products between 30 and 100 percent, angering many longtime customers. In addition, it cancelled its senior discount program.

Company management also announced a possible relocation to Avon Lake Ohio, where the Maharishi owns a '60's era resort hotel that would serve as the new headquarters for the company.

According to former employees, on Nov. 7, MAPI's executive vice president Steve Barthe informed them he had some good news and bad news. The company, he said, is not moving to Ohio, however, there would be some pay cuts.

Alexis Asseff, who had worked as a health educator in MAPI's call center since 1998, was aghast at the prospect of two pay cuts in the same year.

At the start of the year she'd been making more than $14 an hour through incentives and commission. On Nov. 14, she was told she would be making $6.92 an hour, with no incentives or commissions.

"Is this a joke?" Asseff remembers asking her boss. "How can anybody live on this?"

Asseff wasn't alone. When faced with similar raw-deal pay packages -- salary cuts ranging from 40 to 50 percent -- 85 percent of MAPI employees -- including two longtime members of the board of directors -- resigned.

The core issues of life

Barthe did not return calls or emails for this story. However, Bob Rose, who spent six years managing MAPI's health professional division before the position was phased out this summer, describes the unique environment within the company.

Philosophical discussions, he said, were not uncommon. "They'd talk to you about that," Rose says, "You could talk about the core issues of life."

But as a business, Rose said, decisions were often made with no apparent rhyme or reason. "To a large degree, upper management was based on loyalty and commitment to the TM movement rather than business experience," he said.

Noncommunication from management, Rose explains, was a problem. "I know Steve [Barthe] has a wonderful heart, it's just the way they went about this stuff made them look like cold-hearted capitalists," Rose said. "Decisions were made for some other reason that was incomprehensible."

For example, Rose noted, the company's decision to terminate all wholesale discounts to doctors and retailers, raising prices between 30 percent and 100 percent overnight.

"We did not respect them [customers], we did not thank them for years of buying our products. It was just, 'Thanks for spending money with us for years and years, but we're done.'"

Shipping back and forth

Another decision that left many ex-MAPI workers scratching their heads was its aborted move to Avon Lake.

Customer service manager Ken Andrew said MAPI moved a sizable percentage of its warehouse stock to the Ohio facility in May, during a time when the management's official line was that the move was still "under consideration."

Andrew said that throughout the summer, mail orders and merchandise were sent to Ohio, shipped back to Colorado Springs, and then to customers across the country. The confused system resulted in a considerable bottleneck of unfilled orders.

Reasons for the proposed move were never explained to employees. However, several former workers said they believe that company would have a difficult time attracting workers to the Ohio facility that would be willing to work for the room, board and stipend that were being offered.

"They thought they would get something for nothing in Ohio, or they were just grinding it (the company) into the ground," said Shannon Murphy, a call center employee who resigned last month.

Peace palace initiative

What has never been fully explained is the rationale behind the company's increased prices and cost-cutting measures, including employee layoffs.

Murphy, Andrew and other former employees believe that the driving force has been increased pressure to fund the Maharishi's peace palace initiative, a project that was hatched after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, the Maharishi has been raising funds to build 3,000 "Peace Palaces," or meditation centers, around the world where flying yogis would meditate in an effort to stem the rising tide of global violence. The movement's core belief is that collective Transcendental Meditation can alter social consciousness and reduce levels of violence, both within a community and around the world.

Continuing turmoil

Meanwhile, the company that supports the movement is being run by several new hires working for hourly wages between $5.75 and $6.75.

An employee who spoke with the Independent under condition of anonymity described the company as being in a state of turmoil. Telephone customers, the employee reported, often face waits of up to half hour to place orders.

In addition, this employee and Andrew, whose been serving as a temporary consultant after his resignation, said that several TM volunteers from Iowa, Virginia and the West Coast have been working only on stipends while living in a company-owned condominium.

"It's like the military, people go everywhere," Andrew said of the work patterns of followers of the Transcendental Meditation movement.

Rose views the pattern as somewhat less benign.

"People who are in the movement for years are used to doing this," Rose said. "They asked you to jump, you said 'How high?'"

  • Turmoil continues as the Maharishi downsizes in Colorado Springs

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