‘Coercion and rape’: Investigating my yoga school

Warning: This article accommodates descriptions of sexual assault

BBC journalist Ishleen Kaur became a passionate yoga trainer with Sivananda, one in every of the generous yoga movements on this planet, till a annoying social media post led her to speak a total lot of allegations of sexual abuse spanning decades, fair correct as much as the speak day.

Since I realized yoga in my mid-20s, it had change into a mountainous section of my world. Care for lots of devoted yogis, it became no longer fair correct an declare class for me, but a strategy of lifestyles. I did no longer fair correct declare classes at my native Sivananda centre, I volunteered to cook and trim there too. Sivananda teachings influenced each and each element of my existence.

But then in December 2019, I obtained a notification on my phone. It became a post in my Sivananda Facebook community in regards to the motion’s slack revered founder, Swami Vishnudevananda.

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

She wrote that after she within the extinguish came upon the energy – decades later – to memoir this to the Sivananda administration board, “the reactions ranged from silence, to the strive to silence”.

I in fact fetch now interviewed 14 females who recount abuse on the fingers of senior Sivananda teachers, lots of whom fetch no longer spoken about this to household and chums, let on my own made it public. I in fact fetch additionally spoken to a conventional workers member who says her concerns weren’t addressed by the Sivananda board.

My investigation has uncovered claims of an abuse of energy and have an effect on within the organisation I as soon as held so dear.

I vividly endure in suggestions my first day on the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, southern India, the attach I educated as a yoga trainer in 2014. On the wall became a generous photo of Swami Vishnudevananda, Sivananda’s slack founder, and the actual person Julie would shuffle on to speak.

His teachings had been so powerful that many yogis renounced all worldly connections and dedicated their lives to the organisation.

I will even understand why. I became going thru a in fact no longer easy time and Sivananda gave me a brand original-came upon peace. The asanas – or postures – gave me physical energy; Sivananda’s principles of karma, sure taking into consideration and meditation nourished my soul.

image copyrightIshleen Kaur

image captionIshleen on the Sivananda ashram in Kerala

In 2015 I married a man who became living in London. I felt daunted by the premise of transferring to be with him there, till I realized there became a Sivananda centre in Putney, no longer removed from our original dwelling. My husband would joke that the centre became my first cherish, no longer him.

image copyrightIshleen Kaur

image captionIshleen on the stage at a Sivananda demonstration

Two months after Julie Salter’s Facebook post, two Sivananda board contributors flew in from Europe to focus on with the Putney workers. I hoped they would reply no no longer as much as about a of the a form of questions I had swirling around my head. But their response became imprecise, and they also appeared defensive real thru the Q and A that adopted.

I knew I would fetch to communicate to Julie myself.

At the foundation from Unusual Zealand, Julie became 20 and travelling in Israel when she first came upon the teachings of Sivananda. She mercurial turned into immersed within the lifestyles of the motion, and in 1978, moved to its headquarters in Canada.

Vishnudevananda became based mostly there and Julie became asked to change into his deepest assistant, something she on the foundation regarded as a privilege.

image copyrightJulie Salter

But she says her schedule became brutal. She worked from 05: 00 till nearly dead night time, seven days a week – all with out pay. She says Swami Vishnudevananda turned into unpredictable, on the total shouting at her.

“So obviously, my indulge in boundaries had been getting an increasing selection of weakened,” she tells me.

After which occasions took a darker flip.

One day when Julie became working in Vishnudevananda’s dwelling, she came upon him lying down paying consideration to devotional tapes. He asked her to lie down next to him. When Julie said she did no longer understand what he wished, he suggested her: “Tantra yoga” – a yoga apply which has change into connected to spiritual sex, but simply capacity practicing spiritual enlightenment thru deep relaxation. Nonetheless, Julie says Vishnudevananda had easiest ever referenced it in theoretical phrases, real thru a lecture.

“I said: ‘I originate no longer understand,’ and despite every thing in my body and suggestions asserting, ‘No’, I did lay down. After which there became the sexual contact. After which after that, I became downstairs as soon as more, working, and in total disgrace – and every thing else – anguish, self blame, guilt.”

Julie says she became coerced into a form of sexual acts, at the side of penetrative sex, for more than three years.

Uncover more

  • Sivananda is a originate of classical yoga which emphasises each and each physical and spiritual wellbeing
  • Founded by Swami Vishnudevananda in 1959 in Montreal, Canada, and named after his guru Swami Sivananda
  • There are nearly 60 Sivananda ashrams and centres in 35 worldwide locations around the field and nearly 50,000 educated Sivananda teachers
  • Several other high-profile yoga gurus fetch been accused of abusing their situation in contemporary times, at the side of Bikram Chaudhry, Pattabhi Jois, and Bhagwan Rajneesh

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

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

She now considers Vishnudevananda’s actions to fetch been rape, as her situation made her sick-equipped to consent given the “energy dynamics” at play.

image copyrightJulie Salter

image captionJulie with Vishnudevananda

“I became rather isolated, I became living on the other aspect of the field from household, anything I knew within the previous. I became financially dependent on the organisation.”

I then spoke to 2 females who had answered within minutes to Julie’s Facebook post, alleging Vishnudevananda had abused them too.

Pamela suggested me Vishnudevananda raped her real thru a retreat in 1978 at Windsor Castle in London, as she became lying in a deep voice of relaxation, known in yoga as corpse pose.

Lucille says he raped her three instances real thru the mid ’70s within the Canadian ashram. She says the important thing two instances she naively justified it as tantric yoga, however the third time he gave her money and he or she felt “love a prostitute”.

Vishnudevananda died in 1993 but it absolutely took Julie another six years to search out the energy to shuffle away the organisation.

Her easiest hope is that, by talking out now, she can attach others from suffering within the manner that she did. Because as I became to seem at, Vishnudevananda also can fetch died, however the abuse of Sivananda devotees did no longer die with him. Julie’s Facebook post had opened a floodgate.

I’ve since spoken to 11 females who fetch made serious allegations against two other Sivananda teachers, one in every of whom the BBC believes is silent gripping within the organisation.

Among the silent allegations is an memoir by Marie (no longer her right name), who says she became groomed by one trainer – who we are in a position to no longer name for pleasurable reasons – over lots of years. She says she became in fact puzzled when their relationship turned into sexual but felt she had no need but to shuffle at the side of it. After more than a 365 days with none sexual contact from him, she remembers one occasion when he came into her room uninvited. Silently, he obtained on top of her, penetrated her, ejaculated, and left with out asserting a word.

5 other females fetch suggested me that this connected man sexually abused them. They save no longer know each and each other but their tales all apply the same sample of grooming and assault.

Catherine (no longer her right name), became fair correct 12 years dilapidated, and attending a Sivananda kid’s camp in Canada within the ’80s when she said the instructor first took a sexual hobby in her. She says the actual person would rubdown her and touch her bottom. When she became 15, he began touching her more explicitly, grabbing her between her legs and touching her breasts. She says the closing time he assaulted her she became 17. She became taking a nap and woke as much as search out him on top of her. She left the organisation that day.

Any other complainant says she became assaulted by the identical man as no longer too long within the past as 2019.

We contacted this man and supplied him the alternative to reply, but he has failed to address the allegations we have establish to him. The BBC understands he is silent actively inflamed about Sivananda in India, though the organisation denies this.

The opposite trainer accused of abuse is Maurizio Finocchi, additionally incessantly known as Swami Mahadevananda. I in fact fetch spoken to eight females about their allegations against him. One of them, Wendy, became working as Mahadevananda’s deepest assistant within the Canada headquarters in 2006.

One of her jobs became to print out his emails and settle them to his cabin. On the day in ask, he known as her to bring the emails and his breakfast thru to his bedroom the attach he became sitting up in mattress. As she handed him a tray, she says he grabbed her arm and flipped the sheet support, below which she realised he became masturbating. She says he then ejaculated onto her arm.

“And I fair correct endure in suggestions feeling that I became nearly no longer human to him. I became in fact a capacity to an dwell.”

Wendy says if females approached senior workers to memoir being concerned – and in some cases, prison – behaviour, the workers would forged it within the framework of a spiritual educating known as “guru’s grace”.

“If something became problematic or complex – and I am talking about even administrative issues… but certainly around sexual kinfolk and questionable relationships – that you would possibly be suggested: ‘No, the true fact that you’re having a distress is actually ‘guru’s grace’.

“As in you’re being taught some more or less a pragmatic lesson.”

We contacted Mahadevananda to give him the alternative to reply the allegations, but our seek files from went unanswered.

The BBC has, on the other hand, seen a reproduction of an electronic mail he sent to a lawyer who has been crowdfunded by a Sivananda community Facebook community, known as Project Satya, which I turned into a member of. In the electronic mail he apologises for what he calls his “misdeeds”, and promises to “endeavour now to no longer full it as soon as more”.

Any other thing I needed to cherish became, how phenomenal of this did Sivananda’s administration already know?

Julie tells me she within the extinguish came upon the energy to memoir her abuse in 2003 when she attended a gathering with a member of the Government Contributors’ Board (EBM) – the board created by Vishnudevananda to act as Sivananda caretakers after his death. She says that board member became Swami Mahadevananda.

“We had been there for a whereas, but customarily he acknowledged that he had known about it for years.”

Swami Mahadevananda is one in every of the other teachers who faces sexual abuse allegations – but on the time Julie did no longer know this.

Julie says she suggested four more board contributors about her allegation over the next few weeks.

The trustees tell that Julie talked about her allegations with them in 2003. Nonetheless the BBC has seen an electronic mail from Mahadevananda in which he confirms he did meet Julie at that time. He describes it as informal, but says after this assembly the allegations turned into “starting up files”.

In 2006, Julie attended a mediated assembly with EBM, the attach discussions over some more or less monetary support for her took position. The abuse allegations had been additionally raised.

The trustees suggested the BBC that each and each facets had been delighted with the outcomes on the time, but Julie says nothing ever materialised. So the next 365 days Julie’s solicitor wrote to the board trying to salvage compensation and threatening a claim for damages.

In response, she obtained a letter from the EBM’s solicitor questioning why Julie became elevating the matter so long after the alleged abuse.

Sivananda train that after the assembly with Julie they began enforcing protocols for contributors and guests designed to give all and sundry an actual ambiance in which to communicate out about such allegations.

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

image copyrightGetty Photography

image captionVishnudevananda, pictured here with Peter Sellers, at possibility of settle ‘peace flights’ to locations of war

As for Mahadevananda, our investigation has came upon 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 girl on the EBM on the time, suggested us that in 1998/99 she obtained a phone call from the director of the Delhi ashram in tears. The director suggested her that Mahadevananda became walking around with out his trousers – which Saradananda took to mean in his lingerie.

When she phoned to distress Mahadevananda, he explained that wasn’t fair correct. He wasn’t in his lingerie – he became bare. And that wasn’t his easiest revelation.

“He suggested me that he hadn’t extinct anything below the waist, and he had strategy into the position of job the attach [the Delhi director] became working and masturbated in front of her.”

Swami Saradananda, deeply afraid, says she raised this on the next EBM assembly.

She says all recording units had been switched off and the secretary sent out of the room.

Mahadevananda became speak and he or she says he confirmed her memoir became correct.

“And he said: ‘But when she doesn’t desire me to full it, OK, colossal deal. I’d no longer dwell it any further.'”

When she interrupted to ask how they had been going to address Mahadevananda’s admission, one in every of the board replied: “Neatly, he already said he’s no longer going to full it any further. What dwell you need? His blood?”

Within about a months, Saradananda obtained a fax telling her that she had been voted off the board. We establish this allegation to the EBM but they did no longer reply.

Saradananda’s revelations would possibly perhaps well memoir for the shortcoming of surprise Wendy faced in 2006 when she suggested a senior member of workers within the Canadian headquarters that Mahadevananda had ejaculated on her.

His response, she says, became: “Damn, no longer as soon as more.”

The workers member suggested her now to no longer fright – the organisation had organized for Swami Mahadevananda to fetch counselling.

“I wasn’t conscious that in Canada this will likely be defined as sexual assault. And I wasn’t conscious at that time that this can even fetch been taken to the police,” Wendy suggested me.

Thirteen years later, the EBM did within the extinguish compare Mahadevananda, and then launched his retirement of their month-to-month magazine – a retirement which they’ve acknowledged they’re funding. The honor said the government board thanked him for his “devoted and frightening carrier”.

Carol Merchasin, the lawyer crowdfunded by Project Satya, says she has spoken to 25-to-30 females who fetch alleged sexual assault against Sivananda workers. She says she has came upon each and each one of them to be credible.

In the case of Catherine, she questions why the incident became no longer reported to the police as soon as the Trustees turned into attentive to the allegations. When, decades later, her folks came upon out and confronted them, Carol says they suggested them that nothing will likely be shunned evidence.

The EBM has suggested us the instructor who’s supposed to fetch abused Catherine and others has been suspended from responsibilities whereas they compare. But we have been suggested by several sources that he is silent inflamed about Sivananda’s Indian ashrams, and after I known as the Kerala ashram, I became suggested he did actually declare a plump course there earlier this 365 days.

The EBM declined to be interviewed, but sent us an announcement which we space out here in plump:

“The Board of Trustees fully sympathises with folks that came forward and provides any particular particular person that feels that they also can fetch been suffering from the habits referred to within the [BBC investigation] its assurance that this would possibly perhaps no longer tolerate abuse or omit infamous behaviour. It apologises unreservedly for any historic errors which it made in addressing the allegations detailed within the [investigation].

“Because these allegations, Sivananda has commissioned an honest investigation, and has appointed pleasurable consultants who fetch helped to verify and put in drive safeguarding policies, and establish in position acceptable practicing. The Sivananda Organisation has established a confidential reporting facility for any individual who’s anxious about abuse. It is a ways an absolute priority for the Sivananda Organisation that any individual coming into contact with it, in no matter capability, is safeguarded from abuse or suffering. The Sivananda Organisation is a monastic speak dedicated to physical, psychological, and spiritual successfully being and is committed to the security of all of its contributors.”

I in fact fetch seen four of the investigation experiences into the instructor we are in a position to no longer name, all of which dwell that on the balance of probability the survivors are credible and their testimonies are fair, and that two of them did memoir their abuse to the EBM.

In April I returned to the Putney ashram the attach I had spent the closing five years as a trainer and devotee. But this time I did no longer shuffle internal.

It struck me that the all-drinking nature of Sivananda that had attracted me became additionally what also can possess it so abominable. The females I in fact fetch spoken to all suggested me it became straightforward to lose a strategy of truth, which made it more difficult to ask what became going on.

And I am conscious that real thru our investigation the females who came forward had been all Westerners. But it appears there are additionally Indian survivors – I’ve seen emails from females detailing what occurred to them but they had been too anxious to communicate to me.

As for myself, or no longer it is over for me and Sivananda.

Investigation produced by Louise Adamou

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