Modern Yoga: Turning a Blind Eye on Sexual Abuse Allegations?

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

More sexual abuse allegations have surfaced for one of modern yoga’s gurus, the late Swami Satyananda, following earlier proven abuses of his disciple and head of his Australian mission, the late Swami Akhandananda. While the allegations and extent of the alleged abuse are sobering, more noteworthy is the deafening silence in the US yoga community and widespread failure to acknowledge these allegations.

The Yoga Publications Trust, Satyananda’s publishing company, is responsible for numerous publications commonly employed by modern yoga instructors, practitioners, and scholars (e.g., the Muktibhodananda translation of Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Yoga Nidra). Matthew Remski has called for a ban on the publications until the outcome of the trial, which has been met with … overwhelming silence.

Why aren’t more yogis speaking out? Have we become desensitized from the plethora of sex abuse allegations and scandals found in yoga, other spiritual practices and religions, and, of course, politics and industry?

In recent years, abuse allegations against US gurus Bikram Choudhury and John Friend were made, both of whom have silently maintained their empires and personas, with the support of the yoga community. Other yoga masters have also been involved in sexual abuse scandals with their students, notably, Kausthub Desikachar, Sai Baba, Swami Shyam, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Rama, Swami Muktananada, and Amrit Desai.

Turning a blind-eye on abuse may be far more complex than desensitization. For some, the silence could reflect the difficulty of balancing satya (i.e., “what is true?”) vs. ahimsa (“don’t be so judgmental”). The inability to reconcile these may be complicated by another factor: Some teachers and practitioners may be concerned that to keep the brand (and perhaps, individual) identity intact, they must protect the lineage holders and remain silent.

For many in the yoga community, yoga becomes an integral component of our ego/identity. If we acknowledge the systemic nature of sexual misconduct among many of modern yoga’s gurus, we may fear the consequences too great to bear. Key stakeholders in the yoga industry—instructors, trainers, and business owners—may fear the threat to their bottom line and personal livelihoods. Yoga practitioners and consumers may also fear the judgments others could develop about our beloved teachers, practices and identities.

Other potential reasons for blind eye syndrome abound. We may feel uncomfortable criticizing those in power or feel unworthy to do so, not trusting in our own wisdom. Or perhaps, when our eyes flicker over painful headlines, as good yogis we conveniently choose “forgiveness” (i.e, forgetfulness), rather than “dwelling on the negative.”

Yet make no mistake: Turning a blind eye to the suffering inflicted by yoga’s gurus is exactly the same behavior that enables these behaviors to persist.

Our silence suppresses the truth in our heart-mind (bodhicitta) that connects with others’ suffering, longs for justice, and weeps for expression when we gag our instincts to speak out. Silence strengthens our own mental entrapment and dependency (samskara) along with the structures that enable oppression and suffering. When we focus excessively on the positive, turning our eyes from the pain and unsavoriness in our own hearts and the yoga community, we become participants in the cycle of abuse.

Despite the powerful incentive to turn a blind eye, authentic yoga practice requires truth in the service of liberation: Burning samskara, calling out the inner and outer oppressors, rendering justice, owning the shadow. Righting the balance.

Tremendous courage is required to see our teachers as flawed human beings, because it may mean relinquishing the hope that we will entirely transcend our own human suffering or become enlightened. Yet the reality offers a much sweeter promise. When we stop deifying gurus and engaging in magical, illusory thinking, when we can embrace all of ourselves—dark and light, we see reality as it truly is, and ourselves as we truly are.

As we recently blogged, speaking the truth (satya) in the service of justice is a natural outgrowth of engaging with our own samskara. For every abuse scandal in modern yoga, blind eye syndrome played a likely role. Clear seeing and speaking may require momentary sacrifice and discomfort, but is a minimal price to pay for your own safety, peace and liberation, as well as those of your communities.

Comments 8

  1. Great article on sexual abuse in the Yoga community, it was needed! They say that power corrupts, and as we’ve seen, time and time again, in all walks of life, the problem continues. In my 70 plus years , I have witnessed it several times. When I have raised the subject within the yoga community, the yogis and yoginis don’t want to talk about it at length because they don’t want to Judge(that dirty word). So many in the yoga community feel that JUDGING is taboo, yet they Judge everyday when they choose this or that. So in closing I would just like to say, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Thank you FDR! Yours Richard

  2. Well said! An excellent piece on some of the quieter and more insidious forces that prevent us being as vocal in our criticism of the perpetrators and in our support of the sufferers as we need to be.

    1. I was just browsing looking for ethics on yoga and came across on this article. I could not express my negative comment on a particular studio I just had experience a while ago on their website due to being afraid of repercussion as he knows my personal info, about touching students without prior asking if ok to do so. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable the way the instructor touching my fellow students, but it’s up to them to say so I guess… and I told him I’m ok to deter him touching me at the shavasana pose, on which on my other experience, students just left alone till it’s time to get up. I went home not feeling relax but bothered instead and cancel all my next appointments.

  3. Thank you for the article…

    I have been yoga practitioner since the childhood and became spiritual consort of Niranjan…at his own request some four five years ago…

    For me yoga then was few asanas daily…some Suryanamaskar…some pranayama…some yoga nidra…some study about tantra…and after mantra initiation mantra repetition…

    I was abused on the spiritual level by one of those coming out from BSY…obviously confirming Facebook friendship means being willing to do tantra with whoever…

    Which turned out to be hundreds and thousands of his fb connections…and I fell into filthy pit…

    Niranjan offered his help…obviously the tantric was close to him…his name was Dhruv Shaswat…

    What surprised me was ignorance of Niranjan.. .this paramahamsa…beyond all…and mostly out of his mind…and I’m went further down. .

    I began studying Torah…praying more…and learned all Niranjan does and teaches is wrong…he says few good things sometimes….but not good enough to outweight the wrong…

    And I learned …that all yoga and tantra is idol worship…expanding the mind into realms forbidden to human…animal and vegetation world…and I found tantra very filthy and Torah places emphasis on ritual purity…which Niranjan kept none..

    The question is..how come so many gurus are so immoral? Abusive? Because this mysterious kundalini is nothing else than snake…Satan…and we are not to listen to snake…but to the Lord…do not lie…do not steal…do not murder…do not worship idols…you imbibe filthy spirits from them…as forms can contain filthy spirits…or any spirits…

    This is what Niranjan told me last year…

    “We do something bad Pavla…” Niranjan said to me…” we use spirits on people…which can make them ill…but I did not know that…we always removed the illness…but we cannot now…”

    Sounds honest…but he knew…he could…or did …cause the possible illness with the spirit…it is called spiritual incompatibility…even low sorcerers know about it…

    Sivananda was removing spirits of illnesses…to cure people…and kept those spirits…but someone after him used them on a healthy person…someone very close to him…and after him another one…claiming he did not know…

    Dr. Shankardev from Australia…to whom I turned to in the end…could remove them too…not anymore…not only those spirits can be and are used badly…we are to observe Torah…which has 613 commandments…

    If two spirits unite…new breed is created….and they are those breeds which cause new illnesses…not right away of course…but with the time. That is the main reason for idol worship being forbidden…whatever happens on upper reason affects us down here…

    Just this I wanted to say…Niranjan is not only untainted…he is not what people think he is…

    “You do not know what it is like if people believe you are someone else…” he told me once…

    They awaken Satan…those gurus…tt is the reason for their immorality and downfall…as with Satan the only way is down…

    My facebook account was closed…and I was threatened with lawsuits…being accused of lies…as if dr. Shankardev was not with them in the past…

    1. Pavla, Could you please explain further with more understandable grammar. I am very interested in your experiences with niranjan. Did he abuse you?

  4. Yoga gives the adept the power to play around with the minds of disciples. In India Yogis and tanrics are looked down upon by the common people. There is a character called Asaram who is currently in prison on murder charges. Most yogis and gurus have a history of sexual abuse, drug abuse, financial impropriety or al, three.

  5. Great article! Well written and well thought out. My sister is a victim of swami Shyam’s abuse for the past forty years. Reading this article has been a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

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