Travel Guides – ‘Coercion and rape’: Investigating my yoga school

Ishleen Kaur

Warning: This article comprises descriptions of sexual assault

BBC journalist Ishleen Kaur was a passionate yoga trainer with Sivananda, one of many greatest yoga actions on the earth, till a disturbing social media put up led her to uncover a number of allegations of sexual abuse spanning many years, proper as much as the current day.

Since I found yoga in my mid-20s, it had change into an enormous a part of my world. Like many devoted yogis, it was not simply an train class for me, however a lifestyle. I did not simply train lessons at my native Sivananda centre, I volunteered to prepare dinner and clear there too. Sivananda teachings influenced each side of my existence.

But then in December 2019, I acquired a notification on my telephone. It was a put up in my Sivananda Facebook group concerning the motion’s late revered founder, Swami Vishnudevananda.

A lady known as Julie Salter had written that Vishnudevananda had sexually abused her for 3 years on the Sivananda headquarters in Canada.

She wrote that when she lastly discovered the power – many years later – to report this to the Sivananda administration board, “the reactions ranged from silence, to the attempt to silence”.

I’ve now interviewed 14 ladies who allege abuse by the hands of senior Sivananda lecturers, lots of whom haven’t spoken about this to household and mates, not to mention made it public. I’ve additionally spoken to a former employees member who says her considerations weren’t addressed by the Sivananda board.

My investigation has uncovered claims of an abuse of energy and affect throughout the organisation I as soon as held so pricey.

Short presentational grey line

Short presentational gray line

I vividly keep in mind my first day on the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, southern India, the place I educated as a yoga trainer in 2014. On the wall was a powerful picture of Swami Vishnudevananda, Sivananda’s late founder, and the person Julie would go on to show.

His teachings have been so highly effective that many yogis renounced all worldly connections and devoted their lives to the organisation.

Story continues

I may perceive why. I used to be going by way of a really difficult time and Sivananda gave me a brand new-discovered peace. The asanas – or postures – gave me bodily power; Sivananda’s ideas of karma, optimistic considering and meditation nourished my soul.

Ishleen at the Sivananda ashram in Kerala

Ishleen on the Sivananda ashram in Kerala

In 2015 I married a person who was residing in London. I felt daunted by the thought of shifting to be with him there, till I found there was a Sivananda centre in Putney, not removed from our new residence. My husband would joke that the centre was my old flame, not him.

Ishleen on the stage at a Sivananda demonstration

Ishleen on the stage at a Sivananda demonstration

Two months after Julie Salter’s Facebook put up, two Sivananda board members flew in from Europe to speak to the Putney employees. I hoped they’d reply a minimum of among the many questions I had swirling round my head. But their response was imprecise, and they appeared defensive throughout the Q and A that adopted.

I knew I must communicate to Julie myself.

Originally from New Zealand, Julie was 20 and travelling in Israel when she first got here throughout the teachings of Sivananda. She shortly turned immersed within the lifetime of the motion, and in 1978, moved to its headquarters in Canada.

Vishnudevananda was primarily based there and Julie was requested to change into his private assistant, one thing she initially thought to be a privilege.

Julie Salter

Julie Salter

But she says her schedule was brutal. She labored from 05:00 till nearly midnight, seven days per week – all with out pay. She says Swami Vishnudevananda turned unpredictable, usually shouting at her.

“So of course, my own boundaries were getting more and more weakened,” she tells me.

And then occasions took a darker flip.

One day when Julie was working in Vishnudevananda’s home, she discovered him mendacity down listening to devotional tapes. He requested her to lie down subsequent to him. When Julie mentioned she did not perceive what he needed, he instructed her: “Tantra yoga” – a yoga observe which has change into related to religious intercourse, however merely means working in the direction of religious enlightenment by way of deep rest. Nevertheless, Julie says Vishnudevananda had solely ever referenced it in theoretical phrases, throughout a lecture.

“I said: ‘I don’t understand,’ and despite everything in my body and mind saying, ‘No’, I did lay down. And then there was the sexual contact. And then after that, I was downstairs again, working, and in total shame – and everything else – anguish, self blame, guilt.”

Julie says she was coerced into varied sexual acts, together with penetrative intercourse, for greater than three years.

Find out extra

  • Sivananda is a type of classical yoga which emphasises each bodily and religious wellbeing

  • Founded by Swami Vishnudevananda in 1959 in Montreal, Canada, and named after his guru Swami Sivananda

  • There are practically 60 Sivananda ashrams and centres in 35 international locations world wide and practically 50,000 educated Sivananda lecturers

  • Several different excessive-profile yoga gurus have been accused of abusing their place in recent times, together with Bikram Chaudhry, Pattabhi Jois, and Bhagwan Rajneesh

Guru is a BBC investigation by Ishleen Kaur and produced by Louise Adamou. Listen to the podcast on the World Service/BBC Sounds, on The Documentary or in Hindi

The guru-disciple relationship, identified in yoga because the guru shishya parampara, is an unstated settlement that the follower will give up to the guru’s needs.

She now considers Vishnudevananda’s actions to have been rape, as her place made her unwell-geared up to consent given the “power dynamics” at play.

Julie Salter with Vishnudevananda

Julie with Vishnudevananda

“I was quite isolated, I was living on the other side of the world from family, anything I knew in the past. I was financially dependent on the organisation.”

I then spoke to 2 ladies who had responded inside minutes to Julie’s Facebook put up, alleging Vishnudevananda had abused them too.

Pamela instructed me Vishnudevananda raped her throughout a retreat in 1978 at Windsor Castle in London, as she was mendacity in a deep state of rest, identified in yoga as corpse pose.

Lucille says he raped her 3 times throughout the mid ’70s within the Canadian ashram. She says the primary two instances she naively justified it as tantric yoga, however the third time he gave her cash and she felt “like a prostitute”.

Vishnudevananda died in 1993 nevertheless it took Julie one other six years to seek out the power to depart the organisation.

Her solely hope is that, by talking out now, she will save others from struggling in the way in which that she did. Because as I used to be to find, Vishnudevanada might have died, however the abuse of Sivananda devotees didn’t die with him. Julie’s Facebook put up had opened a floodgate.

Short presentational grey line

Short presentational gray line

I’ve since spoken to 11 ladies who’ve made critical allegations towards two different Sivananda lecturers, one in all whom the BBC believes continues to be lively within the organisation.

Among the stunning allegations is an account by Marie (not her actual title), who says she was groomed by one trainer – who we won’t title for authorized causes – over quite a few years. She says she was actually confused when their relationship turned sexual however felt she had no alternative however to associate with it. After greater than a yr with none sexual contact from him, she remembers one event when he got here into her room uninvited. Silently, he acquired on high of her, penetrated her, ejaculated, and left with out saying a phrase.

Five different ladies have instructed me that this identical man sexually abused them. They do not know one another however their tales all comply with an analogous sample of grooming and assault.

Catherine (not her actual title), was simply 12 years previous, and attending a Sivananda youngsters’s camp in Canada within the ’80s when she mentioned the trainer first took a sexual curiosity in her. She says the person would therapeutic massage her and contact her backside. When she was 15, he started touching her extra explicitly, grabbing her between her legs and touching her breasts. She says the final time he assaulted her she was 17. She was taking a nap and woke as much as discover him on high of her. She left the organisation that day.

Another complainant says she was assaulted by the identical man as just lately as 2019.

We contacted this man and supplied him the chance to reply, however he has failed to deal with the allegations we’ve got put to him. The BBC understands he’s nonetheless actively concerned in Sivananda in India, though the organisation denies this.

The different trainer accused of abuse is Maurizio Finocchi, also called Swami Mahadevananda. I’ve spoken to eight ladies about their allegations towards him. One of them, Wendy, was working as Mahadevananda’s private assistant within the Canada headquarters in 2006.

One of her jobs was to print out his emails and take them to his cabin. On the day in query, he known as her to carry the emails and his breakfast by way of to his bed room the place he was sitting up in mattress. As she handed him a tray, she says he grabbed her arm and flipped the sheet again, beneath which she realised he was masturbating. She says he then ejaculated onto her arm.

“And I just remember feeling that I was almost not human to him. I was really a means to an end.”

Wendy says if ladies approached senior employees to report worrying – and in some instances, legal – behaviour, the employees would solid it within the framework of a religious instructing known as “guru’s grace”.

“If something was problematic or confusing – and I’m talking about even administrative things… but certainly around sexual relations and questionable relationships – you’d be told: ‘No, the fact that you’re having a problem is actually ‘guru’s grace’.

“As in you are being taught some type of a priceless lesson.”

We contacted Mahadevananda to offer him the opportunity to respond to the allegations, but our request went unanswered.

The BBC has, however, seen a copy of an email he sent to a lawyer who has been crowdfunded by a Sivananda community Facebook group, called Project Satya, which I became a member of. In the email he apologises for what he calls his “misdeeds”, and promises to “endeavour to not do it once more”.

Short presentational grey line

Short presentational grey line

Another thing I wanted to understand was, how much of this did Sivananda’s management already know?

Julie tells me she finally found the strength to report her abuse in 2003 when she attended a meeting with a member of the Executive Members’ Board (EBM) – the board created by Vishnudevananda to act as Sivananda caretakers after his death. She says that board member was Swami Mahadevananda.

“We have been there for some time, however principally he acknowledged that he had identified about it for years.”

Swami Mahadevananda is one of the other teachers who faces sexual abuse allegations – but at the time Julie didn’t know this.

Julie says she told four more board members about her allegation over the next few weeks.

The trustees deny that Julie discussed her allegations with them in 2003. However the BBC has seen an email from Mahadevananda in which he confirms he did meet Julie at that time. He describes it as informal, but says after this meeting the allegations became “open information”.

In 2006, Julie attended a mediated meeting with EBM, where discussions over some kind of financial support for her took place. The abuse allegations were also raised.

The trustees told the BBC that both sides were pleased with the results at the time, but Julie says nothing ever materialised. So the following year Julie’s solicitor wrote to the board seeking compensation and threatening a claim for damages.

In response, she received a letter from the EBM’s solicitor questioning why Julie was raising the matter so long after the alleged abuse.

Sivananda say that after the meeting with Julie they began implementing protocols for members and guests designed to give everyone a safe environment in which to speak out about such allegations.

We asked them why they continue to revere the man who sexually abused her. The “Sivananda Organisation honours its lineage and its teachings”, was their response.

Peter Sellers and Swami Vishnudevananda on a Peace Mission in Belfast, September 1971.

Vishnudevananda, pictured here with Peter Sellers, used to take ‘peace flights’ to places of conflict

As for Mahadevananda, our investigation has found evidence that the board knew about his alleged sexual impropriety as early as 1999. Because he himself admitted it to them.

Swami Saradananda, an American woman on the EBM at the time, told us that in 1998/99 she received a phone call from the director of the Delhi ashram in tears. The director told her that Mahadevananda was walking around without his trousers – which Saradananda took to mean in his underwear.

When she phoned to challenge Mahadevananda, he explained that wasn’t right. He wasn’t in his underwear – he was naked. And that wasn’t his only revelation.

“He instructed me that he hadn’t worn something beneath the waist, and he had come into the workplace the place [the Delhi director] was working and masturbated in entrance of her.”

Swami Saradananda, deeply disturbed, says she raised this at the next EBM meeting.

She says all recording devices were switched off and the secretary sent out of the room.

Mahadevananda was present and she says he confirmed her account was true.

“And he mentioned: ‘But if she would not need me to do it, OK, massive deal. I will not do it any extra.'”

When she interrupted to ask how they were going to deal with Mahadevananda’s admission, one of the board replied: “Well, he already mentioned he is not going to do it any extra. What would you like? His blood?”

Within a few months, Saradananda received a fax telling her that she had been voted off the board. We put this allegation to the EBM but they did not respond.

Saradananda’s revelations might account for the lack of surprise Wendy faced in 2006 when she told a senior member of staff in the Canadian headquarters that Mahadevananda had ejaculated on her.

His response, she says, was: “Damn, not once more.”

The staff member told her not to worry – the organisation had arranged for Swami Mahadevananda to have counselling.

“I wasn’t conscious that in Canada this might be outlined as sexual assault. And I wasn’t conscious at the moment that this might have been taken to the police,” Wendy told me.

Thirteen years later, the EBM did eventually investigate Mahadevananda, and then announced his retirement in their monthly magazine – a retirement which they have acknowledged they are funding. The notice said the executive board thanked him for his “devoted and inspiring service”.

Short presentational grey line

Short presentational grey line

Carol Merchasin, the lawyer crowdfunded by Project Satya, says she has spoken to 25-to-30 women who have alleged sexual assault against Sivananda staff. She says she has found every one of them to be credible.

In the case of Catherine, she questions why the incident was not reported to the police once the Trustees became aware of the allegations. When, many years later, her parents found out and confronted them, Carol says they told them that nothing could be done without evidence.

The EBM has told us the teacher who is alleged to have abused Catherine and others has been suspended from duties while they investigate. But we have been told by several sources that he is still involved in Sivananda’s Indian ashrams, and when I called the Kerala ashram, I was told he did in fact teach a full course there earlier this year.

The EBM declined to be interviewed, but sent us a statement which we set out here in full:

“The Board of Trustees totally sympathises with those that got here ahead and affords any particular person who feels that they may have been affected by the conduct referred to within the [BBC investigation] its assurance that it’ll not tolerate abuse or disregard inappropriate behaviour. It apologises unreservedly for any historic errors which it made in addressing the allegations detailed within the [investigation].

“As a result of those allegations, Sivananda has commissioned an independent investigation, and has appointed legal experts who have helped to review and implement safeguarding policies, and put in place appropriate training. The Sivananda Organisation has established a confidential reporting facility for anyone who is concerned about abuse. It is an absolute priority for the Sivananda Organisation that anyone coming into contact with it, in whatever capacity, is safeguarded from abuse or suffering. The Sivananda Organisation is a monastic order dedicated to physical, mental, and spiritual health and is committed to the safety of all of its members.”

I’ve seen 4 of the investigation stories into the trainer we can not title, all of which conclude that on the stability of chance the survivors are credible and their testimonies are truthful, and that two of them did report their abuse to the EBM.

Short presentational grey line

Short presentational gray line

In April I returned to the Putney ashram the place I had spent the final 5 years as a trainer and devotee. But this time I didn’t go inside.

It struck me that the all-consuming nature of Sivananda that had attracted me was additionally what may make it so harmful. The ladies I’ve spoken to all instructed me it was simple to lose a way of actuality, which made it more durable to query what was happening.

And I’m conscious that in our investigation the ladies who got here ahead have been all Westerners. But it appears there are additionally Indian survivors – I’ve seen emails from ladies detailing what occurred to them however they have been too scared to talk to me.

As for myself, it is over for me and Sivananda.

Investigation produced by Louise Adamou