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Satyananda Yoga Reeling from Horrific Details of Sex Abuse, Rape Allegations and Accountability

in YD News, Yoga Crime
Swami-Satyananda-Saraswati

Swami Satyananda Saraswati | image via satyanandayoga.com

We’ve seen some depressing things happen in yoga in recent years regarding abuse of power, abuse of students  – mentally, emotionally, physically and sexually – and even rape charges brought against some very prominent teachers including Kausthaub Desikachar and Bikram Choudhury. But this horrifying story out of Australia about a yoga movement led by Swami Satyananda Saraswati whose disciples systematically sexually abused multiple young girls while other members and followers knowingly stood by is somewhat beyond our capacity for belief. It’s astounding and despicable and unbelievably heinous.

The abuse occurred in the 1970s and 1980s but it’s just now coming to light under governmental scrutiny, and many, including the victims, want the Satyananda Yoga Ashram to be held accountable. Last week, Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse heard testimonies from nine women who were children during the height of the abuse, four of whom had testified in a 1989 case against Satyananda’s student Swami Akhandananda Saraswati who was allegedly the primary abuser at the ashram. Akhandananda was convicted at the end of the trial and sentenced to prison (he served 14 months and was released on a technicality). He died in 1997 from alcohol abuse.

The testimonies at the public hearings (held from December 2-10) describe Akhandananda as a monster who abused his power as a spiritual leader to prey on young girls living at the ashram, going so far as to have them groomed and primped for his acts of abuse, telling them it would aid in “spiritual growth” and threatening their lives if they told anyone.

Akhandananda’s cohort and assistant, a woman known as Shishy who was second in command and a guardian to the children at the time, also gave her testimony. Shishy has admitted, before the of the Royal Commission, to slapping the kids, which she says was considered to be an “honor.” Besides physical abuse, the alleged victims claim Shishy had also assisted in providing the young girls to Akhandananda, at the very least, knew about it and stood idly by.

Further details from Shishy’s testimony paint a horrific picture of an overall culture of abuse and sick behavior:

‘Violent discipline was an acceptable part of ashram discipline meted out by the gurus. It was represented as an “honour” to receive slaps from the teacher/guru,’ she said.

Shishy now 57, was at the ashram until 1985 and during that time had two abortions – one self-administered.

She had to drink Akhandananda’s urine as part of a traditional contraceptive method, she told the commission.

She also said Akhandananda sexually assaulted her with a double-barrelled shotgun and would punish her by digging out moles with a sharp pen knife.

Two of the moles were quite deep and he would not let her get medical treatment so ‘I stitched them myself with thin fishing wire’, she told the commission

One woman claims she was under the supervision of Shishy and Akhandananda as an early teen and fell victim to regular abuse at 16 years old.

Alecia Buchanan was 12 when her mother, then a drug and alcohol counselor at Gosford South Wales, became interested in yoga as a form of therapy and took an interest in the Satyananda Ashram in the late ‘70s. Buchanan testified last week that she was 13 when she became one of the children of Mangrove Mountain, living there under the supervision of Shishy and Akhandananda.

Buchanan, who also testified against Akhandananda in 1989, told the Royal Commission she was 16 when he began regularly abusing her (“he would order me into his quarters on a regular basis and direct me to pleasure him exactly how he wanted”) and would frequently ask her “if it felt good and whether I was devoted to him.”

She recalled that, often before or after he molested her, “he threatened me with his hand hovering near my face, mimicking a slap” and told her he would beat her if she told anyone, especially her mother.

The Royal Commission is investigating the response from Satyananda Yoga Ashram between 1974 and 2014 to the allegations of sexual abuse by Akhandananda. They are also reviewing:

  • The operation of the Ashram between 1974 and 1989 in relation to matters of child sexual abuse.
  • The systems, policies and procedures in place at the Ashram between 1974 and 1989, and currently, in relation to raising and responding to allegations of or concerns about child sexual abuse.

There have been terrible and questionable acts of abuse in the past, and as far as we know there hasn’t been any recent abuse within Satyananda these days, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about accountability, it’s about justice, and it’s about healing.

As APR, one of the women who testified said, those who stood by and let it happen need to be held accountable as well. “It was not just the times, or it’s not just the ‘70s. The adults need to own the choices they made,” said APR. “They were the ones who put the kids in that situation and they were the ones who stayed and by staying made it impossible for us to leave.”

As for the Bihar School of Yoga, its Indian-based headquarters sent a sharply critical email to the Australian Ashram slamming them for not taking responsibility for the sexual abuse allegations and potentially tainting the Satyananda name. The email went out in October before the case drew public attention.

“From our perspective, there is no accountability or concern for yoga in Australia,” the email read. “No one is prepared to take responsibility for the situation. After a lifetime of support for Australia, Swami Niranjan and the Bihar School of Yoga in disgust withdraw their support.”

Six of the nine victims have formally requested financial compensation – $1 million each – for the trauma they suffered and continue to experience. So far the only reparation they’ve been shown was an invitation to a fire ceremony at the ashram.

Mangrove Yoga Ashram, the home of the Satyananda Ashram in New South Wales, Australia is billed as the “largest yoga retreat centre in the southern hemisphere” which has been operating for close to 40 years. Swami Satyananda Saraswati, who passed away in 2009, is renowned for establishing the Bihar School of Yoga in 1964, touring the world and authoring over 80 books. He left his ashram in 1988 and never returned. Some of the testimony heard by the Royal Commission pointed to Satyananda himself as not only a participant but a god-like higher power that young girls would work their way up to depending on his sexual appetite and their level of devotion.

In so much, some members of the global yoga community are calling for a full on Satyananda boycott, including the methods, its books and its literature. Blogger and author Matthew Remski, in a recent blog post, lends his support to a boycott and touches on a pivotal breaking point we’ve reached in modern yoga – the need for transparency and the dangers of cult-like yoga faiths where power is too commonly abused.

Suffice to say: too many global brands of modern yoga are stained with scandal on a scale ranging from venal to obscene to abject. This does not mean that these organizations and their members haven’t been able to improve their transparency in the wake of failures, or that they don’t do good things in the world. But it does mean that all yoga schools — like all other institutes of higher learning — should at long last be disqualified as objects of faith.

This all may have happened decades ago, and the truth may be truly ugly, but as we move forward our hope is that this case coming to light may help us navigate our way through the modern yoga world with more consciousness, integrity and accountability. The very least we can do is speak up about it.

We’ll keep you posted on further details on the case as they develop. If you have any information pertaining to the case click here for the Royal Commission. You can also view the testimony transcripts at that link.

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19 comments… add one
  • A horrible story, and sadly it is unlikely to be the last one.
    Each and every big brands or worldwide structures are potentially nesting these behaviors. The key problem is power, or rather Power, that crazy not-so-little thing (opposite to the other crazy little thing) that leads to such abuses… when a being becomes almighty within a hierarchy, the dams crack, and this micro-society becomes a playground for whatever urges the leader has.
    Like this baboon group that was studied, a disease had killed all the top, most aggressive individuals, and the all group was suddenly a much more peaceful community.

    Abuse is not necessarily sexual, it is often “simply” mental and insidious which can be also destructive. As long as there will be these powerful, alpha baboon yogis or yoginis, with big hierarchies for them to prey and feed, these stories will occur.
    One, perhaps, should always be vigilant, whoever the guru is. Watchfulness is also a form of awareness.

  • NJacana

    Searching for Yoga philosophy podcasts in iTunes I found hundreds of his lectures. I was taken aback at the breadth of his knowledge and also his potty mouth. Googling found that he was banned from India and went to Indonesia, I think. Hungry for Patanjali/yoga philosophy left me with little choice, no classes in This town. So I decided to forgive and listen. Now I will remove him from my computer and iPod.

    • NJacana

      Oops, that was another pervert I was think of, Swami Vivekananda Saraswati. Tantra stuff.

  • Lee S.

    Here’s another article which shows more recent improprieties: http://guardianlv.com/2014/12/yoga-can-it-be-tainted-by-faulty-leaders/

    If you read Bhakti Manning’s statement and the transcript of it (Day 106 transcript) on the Royal Commission site, you’ll find that she was having sex with Satyananda for years in Munger, and then had a sexual relationship with Swami Niranjan for a year.

    I’m starting to think that all the media hype about “tantra” is true. It’s sex for people who are swamis and have been sworn to celibacy.

  • Todd

    Thank you; a horrendous situation and a much needed discussion. My heart breaks for those poor kids.

  • Elizabeth

    It is too bad that these sex scandals corrupt the true meaning of Tantra. It saddens me to think there are millions of people who equate Tantra with sex only, and with yoga-teacher-abusive sex.

    Please, those of you who do study yoga and want to learn the philosophy, go read Tantra Illustrated.

    • Fran

      Is that the title? Who is the author. I can’t find it in a search.

  • Fran: the amazing book that Elizabeth is referring to is called Tantra Illuminated, by Chris “Hareesh” Wallis. Highly recommended. http://www.amazon.com/Tantra-Illuminated-Philosophy-Practice-Tradition/dp/0989761304

  • Lila Tan

    See “Satyananda Exposed” on FB. Post on 5th January……Janaki’s Story. ….Janaki lived with satyananda from age 14…..

    • Ted Polderman

      The tragedy, behind the screens of course, apparantly started in 1967. Believe it or not.
      I was there during the ‘First International Training Course’ led by Satyananda S. I was there together with Janaki and many others. Many woman students left the course before the end, because of disgusting things of sexual nature happening there.

  • Camila

    Swami Satyananda was a saintly man, it was his disciple, swami Akandanada who was accused of sexual abuse. When articles such as this present a photo of Satyananda above a title relating to sexual abuse and continuously use his name in connection to a sexual predator, it creates indirect damage to Satyananda’s Bihar School of Yoga in India and his many faithful followers . Please be fair in the presentation of information.

    • I met Swami Satyananda several times.
      Like a disciple first and like a journalist after (I created and diected the revew SAnté Yoga for 15 years).

      I entirely agree with you. I even did n’t know about all this.

    • BootsZaraWalken

      You are misinformed. Check your facts before you comment.

      Swami Akhandananda was a chip off Satyananda’s block.

  • anonymous

    I have just heard today that the current leader/ head of BSY has sexual relationships with his followers and/ or resident “swamis”. What is shocking is the “false advertising” and hypocritical approach that has been adopted over the years, that the swamis lead lives of celibacy and restraint. I do not understand why the ashram chose to project itself as such, when the leaders and representatives (swamis) do just as they please. They are just power hungry Machiavellian human beings pushing the cause of their organisation. They will sacrifice anything, anyone that comes in their way to forward the organistiaon. Further, they have established educations organisations and charitable organisations which surely earn them massive tax breaks and donations from wealthy individuals. Even now, there is no apology coming forward to the hundreds and thousands of followers that they have let down and disgraced. Their teachings are just all talk – the teachers themselves are incapable of following.

  • Shivaram

    I too was attrackted to these frauds. If wants to know anything about our great religion and
    you google this, you will find a lot of discription from Devine Life Society.
    Within 8 years I had printed almost two boxes op papers from their site. After the visit of one
    his fake Swamis to my brother, I had no other choice than dispose them all. The name of
    this fraud was : Swami Sri Adhyatmananda. The only reason for his visit was to collect money
    as much as possible. He has the ability to hypnoties people, and let them do what he wants.
    Selling books and trying to contact as many as much people, so that he can hypnoties them
    and get as much money as possible. No one is spared . He does not care in what position you are , if he can collect than is his goal achieved.

    • sov

      Swami Sri Adhyatmananda has NOTHING to do with DLS. He uses/abuses their name. You can email or write to DLS and they will also tell you the SAME.

  • Power corrupts.
    Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
    Religious “businesses” are not exempt.
    And make no doubt about it … they ARE businesses.

  • Hari Om Tat Sat!!!
    I had seen and listened to Swami Satyananda more than one time. I have never met until now a personality of his status. His departure from this world is an irreparable loss to humanity at large. His system of Yoga, though for the sake of legalizing the system is called Satyananda yoga or Bihar yoga, is actually yoga in its true spirit. I can say with loud voice that His gift to humanity in the field of Yoga is the best suited to all. In absence of his system there is seen only chaos in the name of Yoga just to make money and nothing else.
    As controversy in Australia is concerned, I dare say that it sounds a planned campaign to defame swami Satyananda Ji’s personality and to damage the authenticity of yoga that Bihar Yoga is providing to the world. Even if there is some reality in it, then a questions comes as to why after such a long gap of years it is coming up? Even if there is some truth in it, we should look into the greatness of someone’s deed and not to play around few faults which give nothing but sucks energy to both who are against and who are in support.
    I request you all to stop this stuffless issue to save the spirit of Yoga and leave yoga as a system to bring harmony into life instead of taking it as a money making tools.

    I am sure that Bihar School of Yoga is surviving under the sound care of Swami Niranjananda; the great disciple of Swami Satyananda. All storm will calm down and the system of Satyananda Yoga is all safe by God’s Grace!!!

    Hari Om Tat Sat!!!

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