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Explaining “Twin Flames,” the subject of Netflix’s disturbing new documentary

Escaping Twin Flames shows how a self-styled guru turned soul mates into a dangerous form of coercive control.

A young woman sits on her bed, looking at her laptop screen.
Former Twin Flames Universe member Marlee, a subject of the new Netflix docuseries Escaping Twin Flames.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Imagine a group that promises to help you find your soul mate. What could be more pure?

When I stumbled across the concept of “twin flames” years ago, my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes: On a niche corner of the web, a community of new age practitioners was trumpeting the idea of an intense cosmic romantic connection, at once both sexual and spiritual, that was stronger than any run-of-the-mill soul mate could ever be. To find your “twin flame,” you had to be uniquely attuned to the universe ... or else you had to pay people who claimed to be able to identify your twin flame for you.

On its face, this idea might sound like a straightforward scam, the type that often manipulates and commodifies new age practices and beliefs in order to rip off people looking for love. And it was: One “twin flame” guru named Jeff Ayan used the concept to fund a million-dollar lifestyle built from the profits of his (paradoxically not-for-profit) organization, the Twin Flames Universe, or TFU.

But the TFU is much more than just a matchmaking service and money-making scheme. Former members of the organization allege Ayan uses cult-like coercion and multilevel marketing tactics to control his followers. Over the course of its three episodes, Escaping Twin Flames gives us a truly disturbing, often shocking glimpse into the hold that Ayan exerts over his “twin flames” community — one that goes far beyond relationship advice toward controlling every aspect of his followers’ lives, with everything from their romantic partners to their gender identities dictated by his whims.

While Ayan and his wife Shaleia insist their group isn’t a cult, Escaping Twin Flames will at least ensure that you never think about soul mates in quite the same way again.

The “Twin Flame” builds on the double-edged premise of soul mates

It’s maybe important to include a disclaimer up top that even if you believe in true love, the way we’re about to discuss soul mates is not real. You’ll quickly see why the idea of a cosmically ordained perfect romantic match that you can literally never escape from can be both damaging and dangerous.

Advocates of “twin flames” point to various Hindu teachings and other Asian spiritual practices and writings as evidence that the theme of cosmically aligned soul mates has existed throughout history and across cultures. The specific “twin flame” notion, however, was first popularized in 1999 thanks to American New Age spiritualist Elizabeth Clare Prophet, through her “pocket guide” book, Soul Mates and Twin Flames: The Spiritual Dimension of Love and Relationships.

Prophet’s approach to soul mates draws on the Hindu belief in karma and the Buddhist concept of yin and yang, but also fits thoroughly within an evangelical Christian view. She argues, complete with Bible verses, that you can’t find your perfect match until you are aligned with God. “It is our relationship to God and our Higher Self that holds the key to finding and becoming one with our twin flame,” she writes. In other words, one’s twin flame is more than just a soul mate. The relationship is a manifestation of a person’s relationship with the divine, and the two of them are meant to help each other continue along a mutual path to enlightenment.

Prophet claims that our separation from our perfect soul mate is a punishment from the divine because of our rebellion against “cosmic law,” so all of us are seeking to get back into the universe’s good graces so we can reunite with our other half. It’s a concept seen everywhere from Plato to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Here, let Marisa Tomei explain.

Proponents of “twin flames” have developed even more esoteric versions of Prophet’s particular narrative. One of the most popular threads is the claim that only 144,000 actual “twin flames” exist — so only 72,000 couples throughout history have qualified. The number 144,000 happens to be huge in niche religions, thanks to its significance in the biblical Book of Revelation. It’s also not a whole lot of people, in total. (And if you’re thinking that gatekeeping who gets to be a super-special twin flame is a good way to get people to invest in the notion that they are “chosen” for something rare and divinely ordained, well ... just wait.)

The core characteristic of Prophet’s vision of the “twin flame” is that it’s permanent. “The thing about this karmic marriage or relationship that you are into is that you can never get out of it,” she writes. “No one in heaven or on earth can separate you from your twin flame.”

This proclamation is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it practically promises the believer a happily ever after, if they can only recognize their twin flame and align themselves accordingly. But on the other, as we’ll soon see, this pressure can potentially be devastating to someone involved in an abusive relationship, who’s then led to believe they’re destined to be tied to that person forever, or anyone on the receiving end of romantic delusion from a true believer who unilaterally determines that person to be their twin flame.

Witness one very discomfiting comment on a “twin flame” blog from 2019: “I met my twin soul, and she is 50 years younger than I am ... I’m wondering what it means for someone (i.e. my twin soul) so young and inexperienced in this life.” There’s no good outcome at all here, buddy!

All of this is the general backdrop to the “twin flame” phenomenon. It sets the stage for the entry into the field of a self-styled guru who learned about “twin flames” from his girlfriend and then turned it into — well. You’ll see.

It only takes one shaky spiritual concept and a manipulative guru to make a coercively controlled group

Jeff Ayan studied business at Western Michigan University before moving to Hawaii in his early 20s, where he went by the name Ender Ayanethos and styled himself as a “lifestyle design entrepreneur.” His decade-old website, with its assertions that “His mission is to inspire you to live a conscious, heart-centered lifestyle now,” reads like a spiritual leader in training, while his contemporaneous social media, with mantras including “I always get what I want” and “I’m a leader, and when I express my ideas I’m just describing my reality. I’m not concerned with anyone’s approval,” implies a more dominant, assertive side to his personality.

Ayan met Shaleia — real name Megan Plante — online in the early 2010s. They quickly married and moved to Michigan. According to YouTube videos the couple made, as shown in the documentary, Shaleia first introduced Jeff to a number of new age practices like tarot reading and twin flames, which he quickly adopted. Although Shaleia was the one who introduced Jeff to the concept, Jeff has clearly made himself the unquestioned leader of the Twin Flames group.

The relationship between Jeff and Shaleia is intended to be the biggest draw of their Twin Flames Universe community. By branding themselves as the perfect couple, they’re also marketing their relationship as something they can teach others to have, and as vloggers they cultivated a steady audience. Since they created their YouTube channel in 2014 (styling themselves as “Jeff and Shaleia Divine”), they’ve gained nearly 30,000 subscribers and garnered over 3 million views. The TFU Facebook group reportedly boasts 40,000 members and counting — members who may have been drawn in simply because they were searching for information about love and attraction to people outside of the group.

Their success led to the publication of a book about twin flames and a coterie of coaching services for those interested in pursuing the “twin flame” path, all marketed under the group Twin Flames Universe. As taught by Ayan, the idea of finding a “twin flame” rapidly evolved into a whole lifestyle largely dictated by his teachings and trainings. And these trainings were expensive. As reported by Sarah Berman and Sian Bradley for Vice in 2020 and 2021, respectively, costs to participate in TFU courses and workshops ranged from $699 to $4,000, and came with intense pressure to level up.

It’s impossible to overstate what an abrasive personality Ayan has, as captured extensively on film in Escaping Twin Flames. He frequently speaks in a grating, mocking voice. He asserts to queer members of the group that queer identity isn’t real, and appears unfazed when members break down sobbing in conference calls. He berates, interrupts, and belittles group members, including his wife, whom he often talks down to and forbids from speaking. At one point, he describes throwing Shaleia down on the bed and forcing himself on her.

The Jeff/Shaleia bond is supposed to be the glue keeping the group together. In reality, the documentary captures video after video of Shaleia sitting silent, only to be immediately shot down or talked over when she does speak up. Their relationship comes across as anything but idyllic; if anything, it frequently seems strained and forced.

Ayan allegedly instructs members of the group to aggressively pursue their purported other halves at all costs. The thinking goes that being someone’s “twin flame” trumps everything else happening in your life — even if you never agreed to be co-opted into the “twin flame” concept to begin with. In Escaping Twin Flames, when one group member is dealing with the fact that her alleged twin flame is a man who was living in another state, in a relationship with another woman, and about to have a baby, Ayan tells her, “None of that fucking matters.”

According to one former TFU member, multiple members of the group had restraining orders because Ayan essentially encouraged them to become stalkers and to “aggressively pursue” the object of their affection. When she received a restraining order, she alleges, Ayan and other TFU coaches told her the restraining order didn’t actually exist, implying that she could overcome it with her mind.

Jeff and Shaleia Ayan have repeatedly insisted, both in statements to Vice as well as statements posted on their website (and included as disclaimers at the end of each episode of the Netflix series) that they are not a cult and do not engage in cult-like practices.

Yet Ayan’s attempts to insist he wasn’t a cult leader actually drove some members to the opposite realization. “Jeff told us to watch Seduced and The Vow and write a whole essay as to why Jeff is not a cult leader,” a former coach named Keely says in the documentary. “Every point we were coming across when we were doing this research was pointing to the fact that he was, in fact, a cult leader.”

In fact, over the course of Escaping Twin Flames, Ayan does a litany of things that are a veritable bingo card of cult tropes:

  • He insists that only he, out of everyone on Earth, is enlightened enough to tell who a person’s twin flame is. Cult leaders nearly always purport to have a special spiritual power that makes them unique out of all other spiritual guides.
  • He separates members from their families, often by convincing them that their families have been abusive to them. This is a classic form of cult control. The documentary series introduces us to a support group of mothers who have all been fully or nearly entirely separated from their children due to their involvement in the group.
  • He institutes a rigorously controlled lifestyle regimen, dictating everything from how members should eat and exercise to when/if they should get married. One couple, who ultimately wind up leaving the group together, get married after just two months of dating after Ayan tells them they are soul mates.
  • He creates a system of isolation that deems anyone not in the Twin Flames Universe community a suspicious or unenlightened person who isn’t to be trusted. This is described as “energy leaks” in the series — the idea that any energy you give toward anyone who’s not your twin flame or not a member of the community is wasted, a “leak.”
  • He claims, as countless cult leaders have, to be the reincarnation of Jesus. As Ayan leans more into the idea of Twin Flames Universe as a religious nonprofit, he increasingly styles himself to resemble Jesus, growing his hair long and remarking on his resemblance to the biblical representation of Christ. (Ayan is white, and not Jewish.)
  • He facilitates “healing” sessions that emphasize personal failings and serve as an ongoing form of coercive control. This is similar to the process of many other cults, such as Scientology’s infamous auditing sessions. Former TFU members report being forced to do healing sessions that last up to 24 hours. These sessions as well as a routine practice called the “mirror exercise” are designed to keep members in a constant state of turbulence and upheaval, excavating personal trauma and issues that may or may not be real, all in order to maintain a state of crisis and further dependence and reliance on the guidance of Ayan, the coaches, and other members of the group. According to the docuseries, Ayan presents members’ personal problems as manifestations of how broken and damaged they are as individuals.
  • He arranges relationships and marriages within the group, essentially ordering certain members to get together by virtue of telling them that they are one another’s twin flames. The entire concept of a “twin flame” is that it’s unique and permanent, and the entire basis for Ayan’s alleged spiritual powers is that he is the only one who can identify a person’s unique permanent cosmically ordained twin flame. Yet multiple members are initially informed that their twin flame is one person, only to have Jeff change his mind and assign them a different twin flame, often after the first person has left the group.
  • He pressures members to invest more and more money in the program, either by “leveling up” to become a more central part of the organization, or by purchasing yet another product offered by the group. While he and Shaleia bragged about driving Porsches, living in a mansion, and wearing designer fashion, they encouraged members to shell out thousands of dollars to purchase group materials and training sessions. One former TFU member reports spending $20,000 just to become a certified TFU coach.

“Those who stayed ended up going deeper and deeper,” one former TFU member says in the documentary.

In one aspect, The Twin Flames Universe community goes much further than typical cults might: Ayan insists that certain members are either “spiritually masculine” or “spiritually feminine,” and that they need to accept and express their true gender. This pressure frequently escalates into pressure for members to convert to a different gender expression altogether. Since Ayan denies the existence of homosexuality and nonbinary identity, this trick makes it easier for him to more effectively arrange relationships between members of the community, most of whom are women.

It also, of course, is an extreme form of coercive control, and it can’t be overstated that the modes of coercion in this group have nothing to do with actual trans identity. Indeed, one former member of TFU who is trans left the group because she saw through Ayan’s attempts to coerce members into artificially changing their gender expressions. Another former member named Angie found herself first being pressured to accept that she was “spiritually masculine” and to dress and style herself as increasingly butch. After developing a crush on another woman in the group, this escalated into pressure to live and present as a man, including changing her name. Angie finally broke and left the group, resuming life as a cisgender woman.

One of the most heartwrenching stories recounted in Escaping Twin Flames concerns a young woman named Marlee who joined the group at the age of 19, only to be told by Ayan that her twin flame was a random stranger who had messaged her on Facebook. The man turned out to be 11 years older than Marlee, with no job, severe mental health problems, and a criminal record. Nevertheless, Ayan coerced Marlee into moving to a different state in order to be with him, even though in her own words, “I did not like this guy; he was creepy.” In one video early in their relationship, a sobbing Marlee relates the criminal problems her new twin flame is having, clearly distraught. “Everyone has issues,” a supremely unbothered Ayan tells her. “You should look at this as the prequel to your union.” After living like this for three years, Marlee ultimately concludes that “the person who I thought was my twin flame was just some random guy I was forced to be with.”

Other TFU members were coerced into moving across states to live with their twin flames, even if they’d just met. Some were coerced into changing their names or getting gender reassignment surgery or other related surgery. The group also seems to institute hierarchies of abuse, with higher-level coaches passing along to newer members the abusive tactics and orders Ayan used on them. One member, according to the documentary, died by suicide shortly after joining the group. The group, according to Escaping Twin Flames, disclaims that it’s not a mental health treatment group, but internally enforces the idea that members should look to its teachings for all their mental wellness.

It’s important to remember that higher-up members of TFU are most likely also subject to intense forms of coercive control and persuasive tactics that keep them from questioning their role in the group too deeply. But there is hope. Nearly all of the former TFU members featured in Escaping Twin Flames, including several members in positions of authority, departed from the group after exposés of the group appeared in Vice and other media outlets. The impact of Escaping Twin Flames debuting at No. 1 on the Netflix Top 10 in its first week of release can’t be overstated. Even if it can’t reach everyone who’s committed to the Ayans and their community, perhaps it will reach the next person looking for cosmic answers to life’s questions — before they become a target for a self-styled guru with anything but divine intentions.