Jeff and Shaleia Ayan, the leaders of the Twin Flames Universe—something akin to a spiritual reality show that alleges to be therapeutic—will tell you that it’s not a cult. Some former members will tell you that it is. And Alice Hines—the investigative journalist who wrote the Vanity Fair article “Inside the Always Online, All-Consuming World of Twin Flames Universe”—has a nuanced view.
Hines’ Dec. 2020 article became the basis for Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe, a three-part documentary series out on Prime Video on Oct. 6. The show introduces viewers to the Twin Flames Universe, Jeff and Shaleia, former members of the community, and concerned friends and family.
Hines serves as a narrator of sorts, recounting the course of her reporting. “A twin flame is like a super spiritual soulmate, someone who is actually the other half of your soul,” she explains of the ideology. “So there’s this divine component to it, where this connection that you have with your twin flame supposedly continues across multiple lifetimes. And it’s an idea that’s really gaining currency.”
The idea of twin flames itself has been gaining traction alongside a fascination with the Twin Flames Universe. Vice published two articles about the community as Hines was reporting her piece. And on Nov. 8, the docuseries Escaping Twin Flames arrived on Netflix.
How Jeff and Shaleia built the Twin Flames Universe
Jeff and Shaleia met online through a mutual friend in 2012 and started dating. Shaleia was living in Sedona, Ariz. at the time, and Jeff came to join her there. They started making videos about their relationship. Shaleia later joined Jeff in Hawaii, where they would start a blog called Awakened Intimacy. Eventually, they settled on the Twin Flames Universe, which purports to help people find their one true love. For Shaleia, it was an opportunity to share her spiritual practices with more people. For Jeff, it was an opportunity to grow a business.
“Twin Flames Universe is a product of new-age spirituality and how millennials are ever more interested in that, as well as Gen Z,” Hines says in the show. “Mass media and social media has supercharged the spread of their organization.”
Within the Universe, there is a private series called Twin Flame Ascension School—this is the quasi-therapeutic reality show. Community members buy a subscription to these classes, which are recorded meetings of groups of students. It’s an infinitely scalable business model.
One former member, Kay, was paying $111 a month for the cheapest class that they offered. She couldn’t afford anything more. “A lady literally walked me through the process for signing up for a PayPal credit card,” she says in the show. “I was 18, I had never owned a credit card in my life. She was pushing me to do it. Thank God I got declined. It seems more that they’re interested in the money than they are interested in helping people and making sure that they’re OK.”
The Twin Flames Universe also grew through coaches: Individual members of the community who offered one-on-one guidance and therapy groups. While coaches kept all of the income that they make from classes, they were also expected to recruit more coaches. When a new coach joined, they were asked to buy the library of classes, which cost several thousand dollars.
What does the series reveal?
Jeff and Shaleia didn’t invent the Mirror Exercise, but it became Twin Flame Ascension School’s key teaching. It teaches assuming responsibility in place of blaming others, and often moves pronouns around to reassign the blame in a situation to the person experiencing the problem.
“If you’re constantly being told all of this is your fault,” Hines says in the show, “you really lose track of reality and who you really are.”
Jeff and Shaleia ordained the twin flame matches through directives that they said they received from God. If one of the flames didn’t accept the pairing—say, if they weren’t part of the Twin Flames Universe—people were encouraged to cross boundaries. A man not involved in the community filed a restraining order against his ex, who believed he was her twin flame.
“The energy was there to be more of the aggressor,” Arcelia, a former member, says in the show. “Because one of the things you see a lot in twin flames is a push-pull dynamic where the twin flame is a ‘runner’ and the other one would be a ‘chaser.’”
The Twin Flames Universe also espoused the idea of a “divine masculine” and “divine feminine.” They believed that within a pairing, at least internally, one partner must fill each role. The community was largely comprised of straight women, and once Jeff and Shaleia started matchmaking, they started questioning members’ sexual orientations and gender identities.
They pressured people who thought they were straight to reconsider whether they might be attracted to the same gender. And they pressured individuals within same-sex couples to transition.
“It doesn’t look like conventional conversion therapy, because we’re so used to Christian conversion therapy in particular using really anti-trans language,” sexuality and gender historian Jules Gill-Peterson says in the show. “But then when you look at the purpose to which that’s put, I think it starts to look a lot less progressive or a lot less inviting.”
Where the group stands now
In 2020, when Hines was reporting her story, the organization’s private Facebook group had 14 thousand members. A couple dozen of them left after the Vanity Fair piece came out. Today, the Facebook group has more than 40 thousand members.
During the course of making the docuseries, the producers reached out to Jeff and Shaleia several times to request for comment. They did not respond.
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