I shouldn’t be writing this article, I don’t really want to, but I need to in case it will help someone – even just one person.
Over the 42 years I have been a certified yoga teacher, I have read about abuses of power from rock star yoga teachers, Swamis, and others leading yoga. We read about these in magazines and newspapers, on the internet and social media, but nothing seems to stop it. When I read these articles I feel sick to my stomach, thinking of these innocent people being taken advantage of in horrific ways.
Recently though, it all struck a much deeper cord. Several women who lived and worked for the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre (where I completed my initial yoga teacher training) have come forward about being sexually and emotionally abused by Swami Vishnudevananda, my teacher. An investigation is underway. Now I really feel sick to my stomach – it is so close to home. (link to article is below)
(Notes: The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre was created by Swami Vishnudevananda, and is not related to the Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh ashram in India. Swami Vishnudevananda died in 1993.)
In a discussion with a few people about this, my husband Bob decided to research a bit more about Swami Rama, the source of his teachings from the Himalayan Institute. There had been hints of abuse, but he didn’t know to what extent. Sure enough, horrific abuses from him too (link to article below). It left Bob feeling disturbed, with an extreme disappointment over the massive cover-up while the Swami continues to be praised.
I don’t need to tell you all the stories of abuse – at the end of this article there are links to several. Some are from long ago and some very recent. I encourage you to read at least a few and educate yourself. If you have been benefiting from the well-being and peaceful feelings yoga practice gives you, you will also know that the yoga world is not perfect.
When students love yoga, they often want to share that with others, they get more involved in the center, and some get trained as a yoga teacher. That is exactly what I did. I was fortunate to have my teacher Dr. Hari Dickman, who was incredibly patient and kind, and not for one minute overpowering. I felt empowered by him and ready to share the incredible teachings he taught me. I continue to do that today. I only went to study at Swami Vishnudevananda’s ashram in the Bahamas to get the foundation and vocabulary in yoga so I could receive Hari’s teachings – otherwise I wouldn’t understand them. I am sure Hari would be horrified to learn of these abuses that occurred there, and would be grateful that I was not a victim to them.
In 1974 there was an article written about Swami Vishnu’s ashram in Maclean’s magazine (link below). Had I seen that article I would not have gone to the ashram. But I didn’t see it. As much as I was in my glory soaking up the studies in yoga at the ashram, it was not unusual to hear “Swami Vishnu” and staff yelling at each other. Orders were barked on and off throughout the day. Occasionally I was yelled at also, as were other students in the training. Of course there was also plenty of laughter, but still, I couldn’t help question how yogis could justify treating each other that way when the very substance of yoga is to be kind, to see the Divine in everyone, and to be at peace with oneself. These qualities are what had drawn me there in the first place. I was surprised the ashram was not the utopia I had expected.
After two months in the ashram and completing my advanced teacher training, I still didn’t feel confident about teaching, so I stayed with the organization for 3 more months to obtain more knowledge and practice. I was sent to the San Francisco center, the Hollywood center, and then to the Montreal center. While in Montreal we would go to the headquarters in Val Morin on weekends to help there. Staff often argued with each other at some of these centers too – it seemed to have become a way of communication among the staff.
I was fortunate in Montreal, because it was just me and the lovely young female Swami there. This female Swami was incredibly kind and never spoke with harsh words. We lived and worked closely for a month, teaching classes and cooking vegetarian meals for students. Unfortunately, she was one of the women who has come forward about being sexually abused by Swami Vishnu. I was living with her, never knowing. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night.
It was during these time when I worked at these centers that Hari invited me to study in person with him. That immediately became my priority so it was easy for me to leave Swami Vishnu’s organization. I was so ready to study in an atmosphere of kindness and respect.
Now, I need to point out the fact that celibacy is a requirement in many yoga lineages for people to become Swamis. It is equal to taking the vows of being a nun, priest or monk. It is supposed to be beneficial to reaching enlightenment. However, my teacher Hari was not celibate – he had been married up until the time his wife passed away in his 70’s. Nevertheless, Hari was regarded a very advanced yogi by many of the great yoga masters and Hari’s lack of celibacy was not a hindrance for his success in yoga. I wrote a chapter about celibacy in my book, Letters From The Yoga Masters, and how chastity is considered a sensible option for yogis as well.
The point is, I could trust the results of Hari’s hard work with yoga because he obtained a state of mastery using yoga techniques learned from the masters. He didn’t pretend he had lived a celibate life. He empowered me to succeed, and my success took nothing away from his success or mastery. He never abused me or was unkind. He never lied to me. I would have to say his tremendous ability to be humble, kind and ethical was much more effective in his mastery of yoga than any requirement to be celibate.
Which leads me to the teachings of Swami Vishnu. As much as I value everything taught to me by Swami Vishnu, how can I trust that his actual experience and knowledge is true? If he taught that we had to be celibate to succeed, while he himself wasn’t being celibate, or kind, or humble, then how can we trust his teachings? He didn’t follow the rules, and this applies to all who have fallen due to their inability to actually follow the teachings. It is a betrayal of our trust and it causes doubt when you realize your teacher wasn’t living the yamas and niyamas while implying they were. They were teaching from the ancient texts, implying they were experiencing the benefits of doing so.
Once you are living in an ashram or deeply involved in an organization it is often very difficult to get out. You have no money, no job, and often nowhere to go. You have dedicated yourself to the ashram or organization and then you find you have been betrayed. You feel powerless or trapped. I wish I could tell you every yoga ashram was honest and good like we want them to be, but they are not.
The ancient teachings of yoga in the classical texts are magnificent. The Yoga Sutras give us the tools to find our power. These sources teach us to be honest with ourselves and others. They teach us to give credit to the sources of your teachings – it keeps us humble and empowers them. They teach us to notice our thought waves, and if they are truth. The teach us to notice if we are making excuses for another’s inappropriate behaviour when they are in a position of power – this is delusion.
Buddha taught the Four Reliances:
- Rely on the message of the teacher, not their personality
- Rely on the meaning, not just the words
- Rely on the real meaning, not on the provisional one
- Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary, judgmental mind
Source: Rigpa Glimpse of the Day, Jan 23, 2020
No one in a human body is perfect, and it seems the more renowned they become, many abuse that power. Embrace the teachings, not the teacher. Study them and meditate on them to find their true meaning.
We are so fortunate to benefit from an abundance of access to yoga today, however, we must protect ourselves (and others if we can) from being misled or overpowered by a yoga teacher or organization, leaving us completely powerless. Please, let’s educate ourselves and investigate the school or the teacher we choose to learn from. There are many outstanding ones out there. Good ashrams too! It often only takes a few minutes to research. Make the time. We owe it to ourselves to invest in ourselves wisely. We deserve it.
In closing, I must thank three of my most influential teachers for being kind and joyful, never unkind, never flirtatious, and never abusive: Dr. Hari Dickman www.lettersfromtheyogamasters.com , Erich Schiffmann www.erichshiffmann.com , and Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani www.icyer.com
Thanks for listening. Mugs McConnell
Below are some useful resources.
RAINN – an excellent resource on anti-sexual violence. RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline https://www.rainn.org/
Report any abuses to Yoga Alliance. They work closely with RAINN and can direct you to support systems. They are implementing a very strict Code of Ethics for all registered teachers. They have a Sexual Misconduct Policy, and a grievance department to do investigations. https://www.yogaalliance.org/About_Us/Policies/Policy_Prohibiting_Sexual_Misconduct
Find Your Power. A helpful article to be empowered but to prevent ourselves from losing humility as we succeed at our teachings is to follow some of the wisdom in this article from The Greater Common Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_find_your_power_avoid_abusing_it
Articles referred to and others reflecting numerous abuses in the Yoga World, both recent and past.
Matthew Remski interviews the women who have come forward stating they were abused by Swami Vishnudevananda. https://gen.medium.com/how-a-metoo-facebook-post-toppled-a-yoga-icon-c25577185e40
MacLean’s Article on Swami Vishnudevananda, 1974 http://archive.macleans.ca/article/1974/12/1/swami-vishnu-devananda-is-not-like-you-and-me
Julie Salter: one of the women who has come forward regarding abuse from Swami Vishnudevananda. She was his personal secretary https://www.facebook.com/julie.salter.777
Pattabhi Jois: NYT https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/08/style/yoga-touch-consent-harassment.html
Bikram: watch the movie “Yogi, Guru, Predator” on Netflix. He has resumed teaching in Mexico and Spain, in spite of losing a massive lawsuit and did not pay the settlements to those he abused.
Bhagavan Shri Rashneesh/OSHO: Watch “Wild Wild Country” on Netflix
Swami Rama, Himalayan Institute: https://culteducation.com/group/1174-swami-rama/20071-the-case-against-swami-rama-of-the-himalayas.html
Rodney Yee: https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Yoga-guru-in-compromising-position-Celebrity-2836809.php He has since apologized for his behaviour, divorced and remarried.
Jonny Kest: Unwanted touch https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/11/reader-center/yoga-touch-reporting.html
Shambhala leader Sakyong Mipham: https://www.lionsroar.com/pema-chodron-steps-down-from-shambhala-position/
Swami Satyananda Saraswati and others of Bihar School of Yoga branch in Australia: https://www.news.com.au/national/children-were-raped-beaten-and-drugged-at-mangrove-yoga-ashram-say-victims-at-royal-commission-into-child-sexual-abuse/news-story/b691134b088671c20f3f41080bbf49c0