Last week a royal commission began investigating claims of widespread abuse at the Satyananda Yoga Ashram on the NSW central coast during the 1970s and 80s. One woman, identified as Shishy, testified the director of the Ashram, Swami Akhandananda, cultivated an environment of sexual abuse and manipulation. She also accused the director of coercion, in one case pressuring her into intercourse with a 14-year-old boy.
It's alleged that Akhandananda preached sex as a form of spiritual enlightenment and created an environment where victims felt they would be shamed for speaking out. At the time of writing five women and one man had given statements detailing abuse and are now seeking compensation from the ashram.
Although the case is shocking, it's not rare. Sexual abuse in the yoga community has been a quiet but persistent issue since the practice came to the west in the 19th century. Even Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the first widely popular yoga text Autobiography of a Yogi, was dogged by sexual abuse accusations before his death in 1952.
In recent years similar cases have emerged. Victims have spoken of abusive behaviour being justified by ashram leaders as sexual culture, and of having nowhere turn after said abuse. These recurring statements highlight an issue of reporting, control, and protection within a culture that continues to grow but remains largely ungoverned.
But it's an issue that extends beyond the ashram community, and abuse within more casual classes does exist. Facebook group The Yoga Activist - People and Teachers Against Sexual Abuse in Yoga is one of the few online communities dedicated to issues around abuse in yoga classes. Group administrator, Rachael Fallon, told VICE that the site has received a lot of attention.
"Within the first 24 hours of posting it I had messages from woman all around the world, sharing heartbreaking stories of teachers abusing them sexually, emotionally, and spiritually. Not in Ashrams in India as we would like to assume, but in Yoga Studios in Western cities from well-known teachers."
Where ashrams create a physical isolation, victims in crowded city classes are often subject to a culture of silence. "It's a billion dollar industry and business owners and yogis alike don't want to scare students away and lose revenue," continues Rachael. "No one in the yoga community wants to discuss the dark parts. They view these open discussions as negative, and they turn away in denial, acting shocked when major headlines come out in our communities of sexual misconduct and abuse".
Lucas Rockwood, from crowd-funded project I Am My Own Guru, is also seeking to change perceptions around mainstream yoga. He believes that even in a class environment, too many people see it as a religion run by charismatic gurus. The group is vocal about the dangerous role gurus can play, stating on their site they seek to "not only stop the abuse, but to stop the blind-faith guru system altogether".
"There are no ethics committees or watchdog groups for yoga students, and yet teachers with huge power and influence are clearly taking advantage, and in some cases, even assaulting their students who came to class to get fit or relieve stress," Lucas told VICE.
Australian yoga directory Findyoga.com.au conservatively estimates there are over two thousand yoga studios and teachers currently practicing in the country. Like the rest of the world, the industry has boomed locally but regulation and certification practices haven't developed at the same rate.
There are different degrees and levels of yoga training. A quick Google search returns dozens of training options that can have you calling yourself a practitioner in weeks. And while many require hundreds of logged hours before one can qualify, they're almost all simply paid courses where a credit card number is the primary prerequisite for submission.
Rachael notes, "Imagine you hate your job. Imagine if you want to change your career you may have to go to school and invest years, and money to get a degree. Imagine you have great body, and you do yoga poses well. You can pay $3000 and become a teacher in one month. Now you have 30 ladies in a yoga class every day who all think you are evolved, spiritual, special and each one pays you $20 for a one hour class. Imagine the power you could have?"
Obviously not all yoga academies are money-making schemes, and organizations like the Australian Yoga Academy are regulated and require trainees to undertake extensive and exhaustive training. But unlike teaching or other forms of physical therapy, there isn't a standardized process of certification. And although a lot of good people devote their lives to the practice, it leaves room for those with less wholesome ideas. There is more regulation around being able to pour a beer at a bar than open someone's chakras.
Until now the issue of abuse and the reporting of it has been largely unexplored. The royal commission provides real promise that the subject will remain visible after the inquest is over. This is needed, because while there is nothing wrong with seeking new experiences and perspectives, the reality remains that the blind faith we place in authority figures sometimes leaves us vulnerable to those who don't deserve our trust.
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