- Gaia is a streaming business with a wild catalog of conspiracy theories, new-age mysticism and yoga.
- But before pivoting to misinformation, the Nasdaq-listed company owned huge yoga brand Gaiam.
- Some employees fear CEO Jirka Rysavy is invading their dreams as supernatural rumors swirl internally.
Only a select group of employees were allowed to know about the corpse.
It had surfaced in the valleys of southern Peru, and word quickly made its way to Jirka Rysavy, a former athlete from Czechoslovakia turned serial entrepreneur. Rysavy, now operating a young video-streaming service called Gaia, got to work, dispatching a video crew from the company’s crystal-strewn headquarters in the shadows of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to document the find. The team was sworn to silence, hiding its mission even from coworkers.
The body looked, at first glance, almost human. It sat hunched in a fetal position, its bones visible through its shriveled, ash-white skin. But the mummified cadaver had just three disturbingly long fingers on each hand. Each foot bore a trio of freakishly long toes. Its eyes were unnatural, alien slits.
After months of quiet preparation, in June 2017, Gaia introduced the “Nazca mummy” to the world. The company’s documentaries about the archeological discovery racked up millions of views online and prompted global headlines speculating about the remains’ potentially extraterrestrial origins.
The reality of the body seems less unearthly. Experts believe it was probably the work of enterprising grave-robbers who knitted together the remains of ancient indigenous corpses to create a macabre, inhuman-looking effigy.
But the publicity it generated was a major milestone for Rysavy, an iron-willed entrepreneur with deeply alternative beliefs, and for Gaia, a company that has evolved from selling yoga mats to becoming one of the world’s foremost peddlers of occult knowledge and information that bucks mainstream narratives.
With roughly 700,000 paying subscribers and a market value of almost $200 million, Gaia has become a specialized video service capable of thriving in the shadows of streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu.
Instead of the Hollywood fare offered by the big players, Gaia’s catalog is a kaleidoscopic array of wild claims, conspiracy theories, and new-age mysticism loosely classified as “conscious media.” Claims of a “shadow government” secretly behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks jostle with yoga instructional videos; the forbidden truths about President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secret summits with aliens in Palm Springs are presented alongside
techniques. The video content blends together into a hallucinatory slurry of time-traveling psychic CIA spies, purported dangers of vaccines, Bigfoot sightings, alchemists’ secrets for transmuting gold, and the founder of JPMorgan’s clandestine plot to sink the Titanic.
Gaia’s quiet rise comes amid a surging societal tide of dangerous misinformation and illustrates how conspiracy theories can still be professionally repackaged with a veneer of respectability. Gaia is a publicly traded company on the Nasdaq, Wall Street analysts are bullish on its growth, and its stock is owned by name-brand mutual funds.
The impact of such “alternative facts” is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Gaia’s own operations. The company’s conspiratorial mindset has bled into the office itself, melding with traditional business concerns to create a surreal post-truth workplace rife with paranoia. Some panicked workers have speculated that their employer is using supernatural means to invade their dreams and that they’re being manipulated by crystal energies.
Insider spoke with 30 current or former workers at Gaia to peer inside the secretive Colorado company and attempt to understand how a business that was once a pioneer of the yoga industry turned into a trafficker of disturbing conspiracy theories — and how it became embroiled in the very fantasies it peddles.
The tale begins with Jirka Rysavy.
The musician Sting, Gaia’s founder Jirka Rysavy, and the fashion designer Donna Karan at a fitness-DVD event in New York on December 10, 2009.
MAX RAPP/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
The bear-whispering office-supply king
Every prospective employee at Gaia faces a final test: a conversation with Gaia’s CEO.
Sitting across from the imposingly tall Rysavy — his slender frame often decked in a purple turtleneck and bell-bottom jeans, a 60-something “Boulderite Steve Jobs” — applicants have found themselves discussing Rysavy’s mother’s psychic abilities, his love of crystals, psychoactive drugs, and astral projection, a meditative technique that purportedly allows the spirit to leave the body and wander freely in the cosmos.
Sources said it’s part of the CEO’s drive to ensure that employees are “in the space” — that is, on board with Gaia’s far-out philosophies. “He sat on the table, cross-legged, and just stared into my eyes,” one former employee recalled. Some employees speculated without proof that Rysavy would “use those opportunities … to scan people psychically.” Gaia denied that Rysavy supernaturally appraised applicants, and it said it hires “based on business-need, candidate qualification, and best-fit.”
Another topic of conversation in these interviews can be the enigmatic chief executive’s journey to America.
Before Gaia, before the dawn of the consumer internet, before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Rysavy was a champion hurdler for what was then Czechoslovakia. He left home in 1984, settling in the US after being entranced by Boulder, Colorado, and he found himself in a pedestrian line of work: office supplies.
After buying a small firm in the city, the self-made businessman transformed it into a behemoth. Thanks to Rysavy’s trademark acquisitions and wily business sense, Corporate Express grew to employ more than 27,000 workers, enjoyed nearly $5 billion in annual revenue, and was the biggest player in the industry.
Even then he was deeply spiritual, explaining to glossy business magazines how he lived in a remote mountain cabin without running water, meditated for hours daily, and befriended wild bears. Selling pencils and toner was clearly never his dream. “Look, it’s not as if I have this deep belief in office products,” he told Businessweek in 1997. Rysavy is now intensely private and has not given a mainstream interview in years. A Gaia representative declined to answer any questions about his life or beliefs.
In 1999, he sold Corporate Express for more than $1 billion — it was subsumed by Staples the following decade — and, flush with cash, began the next chapter of his life.
“He created this from nothing, he’s a fucking genius, and you have to give him that,” one former employee said. “You have to know, there’s nothing normal about him.”
Yoga, vaccine misinformation, and secret Nazi research
During the Cold War, American scientists built on Nazi research to perfect antigravity technology for flying saucers but suppressed the findings because of their potentially ruinous effects on the fossil-fuel industry.
At least, that’s according to Gaia’s documentary series “Deep Space,” one of more than 8,000 titles the company has in its eclectic and growing catalog of alternative media.
There’s yoga-centric material like instructional videos. There are videos, called “Transformation,” about spirituality and faith. “Alternative Healing” hosts various pseudoscientific claims, including that alternative medicine can defeat cancer and that vaccines are linked to autism. At the far end of the spectrum is “Seeking Truth,” a wild collection of conspiracy theories and outlandish claims. Conjecture about secret plots, chemtrails, and “powerful elites” abounds — an entire section of the site titled “Cabal,” featuring sinister puppet-master imagery, purports to expose “shadow governments” and “strategic deception.”
The disparate strands are unified by Gaia’s mission to empower an “evolution of consciousness” among its 697,000 members and a rejection of the “mainstream narrative” — for just $11.99 a month.
It’s a world apart from the yoga mats that Gaia began with.
Until five years ago, Gaia was Gaiam, one of the world’s top yoga-lifestyle brands. Jirka Rysavy had founded it in the late ’80s, helping to popularize the ancient Indian practice stateside and building a business that included yoga equipment, mail-order exercise videos, and other “conscious” products. Around 2009, Gaiam began developing a streaming service, and it ultimately decided to spin off the yoga business.
The Gaiam brand and yoga-equipment unit were sold to Sequential Brands Group for $167 million in 2016. Gaiam continues to be one of the most popular consumer yoga brands, with its products sold at tens of thousands of stores across America. Rysavy stayed with the video-streaming part of the business, which would operate under a new name, Gaia.
The sale left Gaia with an overflowing bank account, a leaner team, and a narrower focus, energizing the CEO and employees who were kept on. It also precipitated deeper cultural changes. Gaia continued to offer yoga content but leaned harder into fringe conspiracy-theory and new-age material. “There was this very narrow narrative he was focused on,” one source said. “It almost felt like a curriculum for a religion.”
Gaia’s representative said that its “content covers mind/body/spirit and is meant to appeal to a wide variety of individuals” and that the majority of its current viewership is for yoga and “Transformation” content. But as a repository for such a broad range of alternative content, Gaia has created a powerful platform to draw users deeper into its shadow worlds. They might come seeking yoga tips but leave convinced that giants once roamed America and that secret information in their own DNA can be activated by music.
“Gaia made me so fascinated by” conspiracy theories, a former employee said. “What’s the behavioral road in which you tumble into these? Because once you tumble into one, you tumble into all of them, and Gaia connects them.”
The celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson and the actress Vanessa Hudgens at a launch event in April 2015 for an apparel partnership between Kohl’s and Gaiam.
Jennifer Graylock/Getty Images for Kohl’s
Gaia has sometimes sought to encourage users to move along this spectrum, motivated partially by financial considerations, some former employees said. “We’d start with super soft, spiritual stuff … then slowly, that would recommend them content that’s a little bit more extreme,” one said. Gaia is also cautious not to overwhelm users with content from outside their preferred lane, cognizant that many yoga devotees are as likely to be repelled by claims of “cabals” as they are to become converts to the “Seeking Truth” cause.
Crucial to Gaia’s success is Facebook’s sophisticated advertising-targeting tools. Gaia has pumped tens of millions of dollars a year into the social network’s ad machine to build out its audience.
While Facebook now says it’s cracking down on misinformation, it touted Gaia’s prowess using its tools to target new users in a 2017 case study. It boasted that Gaia “found that by revising its video strategy to use Facebook’s mobile best practices, it captivated its audiences and encouraged them to subscribe to its streaming service.” A Facebook representative declined to comment.
Welcome to the crystal palace
When Gaia was producing a documentary about “Blue Avians,” employees were instructed that promotional material had to be approved by the Blue Avians themselves, six sources said. It struck some workers as an unusual request.
That’s because Blue Avians are, according to Gaia, an “extraterrestrial species” that “exists beyond the confines of space and time” — raising puzzling logistical challenges for the employees. In practice, sources said, Rysavy served as the conduit for “feedback” from the extraterrestrials. Gaia’s representative said this is “false, unfounded and without merit.”
The quandary is just one of the ways Gaia radically differs from more conventional workplaces.
In Louisville, Colorado, near the trendy mountain town of Boulder, Gaia’s 12-acre campus and open-plan office are festooned with extraordinarily large and arresting crystals. To rejuvenate themselves, the 130-odd employees can walk a vast stone labyrinth, or step outside barefoot to ground themselves on the soil. There’s a meditation room and regular yoga sessions. Workers hold ceremonies to mark the solstice and the equinox, they burn sage indoors, and shamans have visited the office. Numerous sources were effusive about their coworkers, their open-mindedness, and Gaia’s mission of expanding human consciousness.
“First day, someone next to me cried a lot … She had been attending a meditation session at lunch,” a former employee said. “Apparently it was a very spiritual experience.”
Some workers engaged in more ambitious metaphysical projects. One group retired to an employee’s mountain house to communally meditate in an attempt to make contact with extraterrestrial life, sources said. Other employees practiced special prayers and rituals to try to control the weather and make it rain to combat wildfires, according to multiple sources.
It’s a culture that Rysavy deliberately cultivated.
At the end of 2016, employees were confronted in end-of-year reviews with a document informing them that Gaia was determined to weed out unbelievers. “There is no room at Gaia for individuals who reject our mission or feel cynical about our goals … or our content,” it read. That alienated some long-standing employees who had signed on to sell yoga, not extraterrestrial cover-ups.
For less spiritual workers keen to fit in, there’s a surreal kind of corporate conformity. “People realize it’s their livelihoods … They make themselves present, they start putting the crystals on their desks, they engage in the conversations, they attend all the corporate events. Some of them start believing some of the stories,” a former employee said. “It’s just putting on a face, putting on a mask.” Today, Gaia’s employee base is split along lines similar to its content: Some are passionate about yoga, others follow “Transformation,” and a subset fully embraces “Seeking Truth” philosophies.
Employees also grappled with earthly corporate issues. Rysavy, who controls 81% of the company’s voting shares, retains a tight grasp on decision-making, allows little room for dissent, and is intensely financially driven, a stance that some workers felt was at odds with Gaia’s utopian rhetoric. Sources described executive infighting and said Chief Financial Officer Paul Tarell was sometimes verbally aggressive toward employees. (Gaia said that it conducted an investigation and took “swift action” and that it takes “claims of employee misconduct seriously.”) Workers were sometimes laid off with little warning or explanation, sources said, leaving some fearful for their jobs. (Gaia said that “employment decisions are made with utmost care.”)
When conspiracy theories meet workplace concerns
Among Gaia’s shimmering crystals and leafy plants, deeply uncanny concerns have circulated among the more paranoid employees.
Unfounded rumors have gone around that Rysavy is surveilling workers. While some baselessly speculated about hidden microphones, others believed that this spying was more supernatural: The CEO was invading their dreams.
Eight former employees said colleagues had told them that they thought the company’s founder used varying psychic techniques to force his way into their minds, to alternately spy on or manipulate them.
It’s emblematic of how at Gaia, concerns about corporate culture have combined with a workforce primed to believe in the supernatural to create a perfect storm of workplace misinformation and fear.
The company can be intensely secretive, sometimes sharing little with the rank and file about strategy or why things happen, numerous sources said. (Gaia disputed this, saying it “makes every attempt to be transparent and communicative.”) Cellphones are forbidden at company meetings, and Rysavy seems viscerally opposed to being photographed.
Among Gaia’s most suggestible, “Seeking Truth”-following employees, it’s fertile ground for rumors. There are “a whole bunch of people who join the company because they’re interested in things like conspiracies and actually believe conspiracies,” a former employee said. “You put them in an environment where the management doesn’t want to tell them what’s going on. And you end up with a whole lot of wild stories and people not trusting things.”
Gaia’s headquarters in Louisville, Colorado.
Many of the untrue claims concern Rysavy, who has told some employees that he has unusual abilities including spoon-bending and astral projection, according to eight sources who said they heard him make varying claims. (When asked what powers Rysavy had, Gaia said that “this claim is false, unfounded and without merit”.) Baseless claims of levitation, mind-reading, and walking through walls by Rysavy also swirl among some rank and file.
“He told me he had been psychic since birth and his mother was also psychic,” said Silvana Isaza, a former customer-relations employee. “Because of the existing belief systems people at Gaia had, it opened the door to a lot of the silent fear and control to work … They felt like he was spying, intimidating, or psychically attacking them.”
Gaia offers employees blood tests, prompting speculation that the company could be secretly testing or manipulating workers’ genetic data. Some employees have worried, without evidence, that the building’s energy is adversely affecting pregnant women. Another unsupported claim that sources heard is that Rysavy installed a machine on the roof to psychically monitor employees.
Even the office crystals — a source of aesthetic and spiritual wonder for many employees — have been accused of manipulating the building’s “energies,” with a few workers going so far as to refuse to use certain entrances because of the enormous gemstones placed there.
Gaia also has links to the biotech firm Telomeron, on the same campus, that’s researching life extension; some employees suspect Rysavy is searching for the secret of immortality.
Sources said this paranoia varied depending on employees’ beliefs and department, with more level-headed workers like engineers far less likely to be swept up in magical thinking. Gaia said that all such conspiratorial claims by employees were false, adding that “Gaia does not monitor employee conversations, regulate beliefs or free speech, and therefore cannot comment on conspiracy theories or discussions that someone may or may not have had.”
Rysavy has also battled wild rumors in public. In 2018, the high-profile conspiracy theorist David Wilcock parted ways with Gaia, accusing the firm of promoting “Lucifer propaganda.” The claims spurred a torrent of hate mail toward Gaia, including death threats, and the company briefly hired an armed security guard to defend the office. Wilcock ultimately apologized to Gaia, saying that he did not believe Gaia does this and that his resignation letter had been “taken out of context.”
Gaia also filed a defamation suit against Patty Greer, a onetime content producer and crop-circle aficionado, over allegations that the company had targeted her and other critics with covert energy weapons, the local news outlet Westword reported. The case was settled the following year. Wilcock and Greer did not respond to requests for comment.
New-age mysticism and the far right
A few years ago, Gaia’s content director Jay Weidner claimed on a podcast that Black people and Native Americans had lower IQs because of “inbreeding.”
The remarks sparked outrage among employees — some expressed disbelief at how he could work for a spiritually enlightened organization while professing such beliefs — and highlighted an unnerving confluence of the new-age movement and the far right. (Weidner ultimately left Gaia and didn’t respond to a request for comment. The company said it “does not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”)
Parts of the spiritual yoga community have embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory, and some wellness influencers have bought into extreme-right-wing coronavirus claims. This seemingly contradictory convergence has played out within Gaia and reflects how fringe ideas that were once simply oddball can now be fraught with political emotion.
Some employees enthusiastically discussed QAnon in the office and its latest claims of a coming crackdown on elite pedophiles by President Donald Trump. “It was sort of part of the zeitgeist and in the air, what QAnon posted last night,” one said. Some workers would read Infowars, the right-wing conspiracy-theory site run by Alex Jones, at their desks. Workplace chatter sometimes turned to “false flag” conspiracy theories about mass shootings, illuminati theories, aliens, anti-vaccination falsehoods, biblical prophecies, 5G concerns, and other fringe theories. Gaia said it doesn’t “monitor employee conversations or regulate individual beliefs.”
“You’d have conversations with people about the most crazy conspiratorial stuff, and everyone treated it like it was normal,” a former employee said. “You kind of became institutionalized to a degree, so things that were very bizarre became normal.”
Gaia hosts videos by David Icke, the veteran conspiracy theorist whose claims about a race of lizard people controlling Earth have been called anti-Semitic. His videos for Gaia explore the idea that humans live in a false “matrix” reality. Reached for comment, Icke accused Insider of promoting “fascism.” Gaia said that it couldn’t comment on Icke’s beliefs and that none of its content is anti-Semitic.
A pandemic business boost
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across America, Jirka Rysavy has pushed for employees to keep coming into the office.
Gaia erected dividing walls to partition spaces, increasing the legal number of employees allowed in the office, and its status as an “essential” media organization meant it avoided Colorado’s office closures. (Even before lockdowns, the CEO, curiously, was old-school in his opposition to employees working remotely, sometimes prowling the office to ensure workers were at their desks.)
Employees’ beliefs about the pandemic are mixed, as is mask-wearing in the office. “I know employees whose families lost grandparents,” one source said, “and I know people who think it’s a complete hoax.”
Gaia’s representative said that the company follows all local health and safety guidelines and that employee beliefs “are not the business of the Company and are not mandated or necessarily shared.”
A live-events initiative Gaia launched before the pandemic is on hold, but otherwise business is flourishing, bolstered by a shift in focus from growth to profitability and by an audience stuck at home, searching for answers in a confusing world. “The biggest thing that we saw was the fact that people were — pardon the word — captive after they signed up,” Tarell, the CFO, said during an earnings conference call in November.
Revenue grew by 28% year-over-year, to $17.5 million, in the third quarter. The company even turned a rare profit as it added more subscribers than expected and saw growing engagement and retention. Analysts point to its library of unusual and arcane content as a key asset in an increasingly crowded video-streaming market. “People want content, and they want content where it’s easy to consume, and I think you’re seeing a lot of streaming companies pop up,” said Eric Wold, an analyst at B. Riley Securities. “What’s key, though, is having unique content.”
Many of Rysavy’s former employees are effusive about his financial intellect and foresight. “One of the things that fascinated me about Jirka over time — he’s incredibly intelligent, and he has this ability to look five, eight years out and understand how he can put a puzzle together,” one said. “Very, very few people I’ve ever worked with or ever seen can do that.”
Gaia predicts that by 2024 there will be more than half a billion households around the globe paying for video-streaming services, with over 360 million of them interested in Gaia’s content, and that it could snap up as much as 7% of that market. That’s 26 million possible members having their consciousness expanded by Rysavy’s unique vision.
“If they can get to a million, several million, they can do extremely well,” Wold said. “A few more years’ growth at 20%, 30%, at an already profitable level, is very attractive.”
But as awareness of the dangers of misinformation grows, some ex-employees now express concerns about their role in spreading conspiracy theories through their work at Gaia — and how normal it all seemed at the time. “When you see a bunch of other people that are promoting something, and they are professional, and they’re so certain of what they’re doing,” one former worker said, “you don’t really question it.”
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