London, July 02 (KMS): A British journalist has unearthed a dirty nexus of an Indian yoga guru, Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati associated with Sivananda, one of the biggest yoga movements in the world, to have sexually abused several of his disciples repeatedly for years at the ashram headquarters in Canada.
Vishnudevananda Saraswati was a disciple of Sivananda Saraswati, and founder of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres and Ashrams. He established the Sivananda Yoga Teachers’ Training Course, one of the first yoga teacher training programmes in the West.
BBC journalist and yoga teacher Ishleen Kaur, investigated the matter as Sivananda was also the yoga ashram where she had sought asylum and solace.
“In December 2019, I received a notification on my phone. It was a post in my Sivananda Facebook group about the movement’s late founder, Swami Vishnudevananda. A woman called Julie Salter had written that Vishnudevananda had sexually abused her for three years at the Sivananda headquarters in Canada.
Julie Salter worked for 11 years as Vishnudevananda’s personal assistant, until his death in 1993. Salter and other women described their experiences to the BBC journalist and yoga teacher Ishleen Kaur as how they suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Vishnudevananda and some other gurus for years.
In 2007, Salter reported sexual abuse committed against her by Vishnudevananda to The International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, but they did not accept her allegations. In November 2019, Salter posted a personal testimony to Facebook, detailing the long-term physical, mental, and sexual abuse she received from Vishnudevananda.
The testimony prompted several other women to publish their own testimonies about abuse by Vishnudevananda and that prompted Ishleen Kaur to
Pamela Kyssa stated on Salter’s thread that Vishnudevananda had raped her in 1974. The next month, December 2019, the Board of Directors published an apology for not believing her 2007 allegations. The Board promised to run an independent investigation of the allegations made by Salter and others. The investigator, Marianne Plamondon of Langlois in Montreal, declined to comment on whether the results of the investigation would be made public, said Ishleen Kaur in her BBC post.
She said in her interview with 14 women who allege abuse at the hands of senior Sivananda teachers, many of whom have not spoken about this to family and friends, let alone made it public. “I have also spoken to a former staff member who says her concerns were not addressed by the Sivananda board, Ishleen Kaur added. “My investigation has exposed claims of an abuse of power and influence within the organisation I once held so dear,” she bemoaned.
“Originally from New Zealand, Julie was 20 and travelling in Israel when she first came across the teachings of Sivananda. She quickly became immersed in the life of the movement, and in 1978, moved to its headquarters in Canada where she had to suffer repeated abuse at the hands of Vishnudevananda for three years,” Ishleen added.
The guru-disciple relationship, known in yoga as the guru shishya parampara, is an unspoken agreement that the follower will surrender to the guru’s wishes.
Julie now considers Vishnudevananda’s actions to have been rape, as her position made her ill-equipped to consent given the “power dynamics” at play.
Ishleen Kaur said that then she spoke to two women who had responded within minutes to Julie’s Facebook post, alleging Vishnudevananda had abused them too.
Pamela told her that Vishnudevananda raped her during a retreat in 1978 at Windsor Castle in London, as she was lying in a deep state of relaxation, known in yoga as corpse pose.
While Lucille said, he raped her three times during the mid ’70s in the Canadian ashram. She says the first two times she naively justified it as tantric yoga, but the third time he gave her money and she felt “like a prostitute”.
Vishnudevananda died in 1993 but it took Julie another six years to find the strength to leave the organisation.
Julie’s only hope is that, by speaking out now, she can save others from suffering in the way that she did. Because as I was to discover, Vishnudevananda may have died, but the abuse of Sivananda devotees did not die with him. Julie’s Facebook post had opened a floodgate.
“I’ve since spoken to 11 women who have made serious allegations against two other Sivananda teachers, one of whom the BBC believes is still active in the organization,” Ishleen said.
Among the shocking allegations is an account by Marie (not her real name), who says she was groomed by one teacher – who we can’t name for legal reasons – over a number of years. She says she was really confused when their relationship became sexual but felt she had no choice but to go along with it.
Five other women have told Ishleen that this same man sexually abused them. They don’t know each other but their stories all follow a similar pattern of grooming and assault.
Catherine (not her real name), was just 12 years old, and attending a Sivananda children’s camp in Canada in the ’80s when she said the teacher first took a sexual interest in her. Another complainant told Ishleen Kaur that she was assaulted by the same man as recently as 2019.
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 knowledge”.
“The women I have spoken to all told me it was easy to lose a sense of reality, which made it harder to question what was going on. And I am aware that during our investigation the women who came forward were all Westerners. But it seems there are also Indian survivors – I’ve seen emails from women detailing what happened to them but they were too scared to speak to me. As for myself, it’s over for me and Sivananda, ” Ishleen Kaur added.