By Kara-Leah Grant & Lucinda Staniland
The last few years have been awash with yoga scandals as well-known yoga teachers and gurus have fallen from grace.
I’m not going to add any commentary to this article, it’s simple a list of scandals that have happened over the years. If you know of any that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list.
This list is in no particular order except that of my mind and my research. Bikram’s on the top, because he was top of mind when I started the article, and it went from there.
I’ve also kept details brief so as to avoid a 4000 word behemouth of an article, and linked to relevant YLB articles underneath each name.
1. Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga
Five women filed civil suits against Bikram in 2013 alleging incidents ranging from sexual assault to rape. The cases have yet to be heard. Bikram is famous for making off-colour sexual remarks.
- The NZ Bikram Yoga Community Responds to the Bikram Sex Scandal
- Benjamin Lorr on Why he Didn’t Write about Bikram & the Sexual Assault Allegations in Hell-Bent
- Is Bikram Choudhury really an alien?
- How Bikram Yoga Evolved into Evolation Yoga with Mark Drost and Zefea Samson
2. John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga
In February 2012 an anonymous website went up alleging John Friend was guilty of leading a Wiccan Coven, having affairs with married students and Anusara teachers, messing with his employees pension fund and mailing marijuana to himself and expecting employees to deliver it.
John Friend has since relaunched himself with a new brand of yoga called Sridaiva Yoga.
- If you can’t publicly own it, don’t do it (easy to say right?)
- Why yoga teachers are either shot, or placed on a pedestal
3. Dr. Kausthub Desikachar, grandson of the godfather of Western Yoga, Krishnamacharya
The Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation made a public statement on September 22, 2012 saying
…we’ve been made aware of the varying allegations of sexual, mental and emotional abuse against Dr. Kausthub Desikachar. [editor’s note: the allegations were made by four teacher trainees.]
Upholding this tradition and approach in the field of Yoga and Therapy, the Krishnamachraya Healing and Yoga Foundation are taking these allegations very seriously.
Seven months later, Kausthub was back with a new website, and a letter explaining his new beginning:
I realise that some of the decisions that I have made in the past have not been consistent with the high standards that I usually set for myself. I also fully understand and acknowledge that these have had far reaching effects, way beyond myself. There is no way of changing this past. I wholeheartedly repent for what has happened.
4. Amrit Desai, original founder of Kripalu Centre
Amrit, married, confessed to three affairs in 1994 and was forced to resign as spiritual director of his own ashram. While Amrit’s website makes no mention of the affairs or his expulsion from Kripalu, it does says that:
In 2000, after a period of personal reflection and sadhana, Gurudev founded the Amrit Yoga Institute, first located Sumneytown, Pennsylvania and then moved to its current location in Salt Springs, Florida.
Kripalu survived the falling of it’s guru and founder, and restructured its organization to be led by a professional management team, including people who had long been ashram residents. It has thereby became;
“The first traditional yoga ashram founded on the guru-disciple model to transition to a new paradigm of spiritual education.”
However, their website makes no mention of the scandal that almost destroyed them, summing it up in just one innocuous sentence.
In 1994 Yogi Desai resigned as spiritual director of Kripalu.
5. Osho, also known as Bhagwan Shree Rajnees
Oh Osho, where to start? While he’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity as a spiritual leader some twenty years after his death, Osho was a complicated man who got in all kinds of trouble.
It’s alleged he was involved in, or aware of, everything from tax evasion, immigration fraud, prostitution, drug-running, drug use, and he worked his followers to the bone. In India, he was known as the ‘sex guru’, and in the States as the ‘rolls-royce guru’, owning more than 90 at one time.
6. Rodney Yee
In 2002, Rodney was accused of having affairs with some of his yoga students. He divorced his wife of 24 years, Donna Fone, and went on to marry his former yoga student, Colleen Saidman
“In the past, I think I was conveniently ignorant,” says Yee, who has apologized for previous infidelities. “I was pretending to myself that I wasn’t sexual in class.” Now he turns down yoga retreats where the students hang out with the instructors all day, the very setting that gave rise to his affair with Saidman. NYmag.com
7. Swami Muktananda
Oh Guru, Guru, Guru began Lis Harris’ 1994 New Yorker article on the controversy surrounding Swami Muktananda, founder of the Siddha Yoga Path.
Introduced to America in the 1970s by Baba Ram Dass, Muktananda was known as the ‘Guru’s guru’ and was a widely respected teacher of meditation and yoga.
However, many of his followers have since come out and claimed that Muktananda allowed, even encouraged, guns and violence into his ashrams, and grew rich and corrupt from his devotees work efforts.
He also claimed to be completely celibate but it’s alleged that he regularly had sex with female devotees.
Michael Dinga, an Oakland contractor who was head of construction for the ashram and a trustee of the foundation, said the guru’s sexual exploits were common knowledge in the ashram. “It was supposed to be Muktananda’s big secret,” said Dinga, “but since many of the girls were in their early to middle teens, it was hard to keep it secret.” CoEvolution Quarterly
8. Swami Satchidananda
Swami Satchidananda made it big in the USA in the lates 1960s when he was flown in by helicopter to be the opening speaker at Woodstock Music Festival. He went on to found the Yogaville ashram in Virginia and Integral Yoga institutes across the country and, with thousands of devotees, including Lauren Hutton and Carol King, was somewhat of a ‘Yoga superstar’.
But by 1991, the situation had changed:
Protesters waving placards (“Stop the Abuse,” “End the Cover Up”) marched outside a Virginia hotel where he was addressing a symposium.
“How can you call yourself a spiritual instructor,” a former devotee shouted from the audience, “when you have molested me and other women?” New York Times
Satchinanda always denied the accusations against him of sexual misdemeanors, but many of his followers are reported to have left his ashrams and institutes after at least nine women claimed he had sexually abused them.
9. Swami Rama
Described as “a tall man with a strikingly handsome face” Swami Rama founded the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, based in Pennsylvania with centers worldwide, as well as various service and teaching organizations. He was also one of the first Yogis to be studied by Western scientists.
Journalist Katharine Websyter spent two years investigating the allegations of sexual abuse against Swami Rama, publishing an article in a 1990 edition of Yoga Journal that documented the experiences of women abused by Rama.
A final blow to Rama’s reputation came just after his death in 1996, when a jury awarded nearly $1.9 million to a young woman who claimed she had been forced to have sex with him up to thirty times when living at the Himalayan Institute in 1993.
He would fixate on a woman and make her a sort of valet, and then he would tell her it was necessary to perform these acts to further her spiritual development,” said Cliff Rieders of Williamsport, one of the woman’s lawyers. Inquirer Harrisburg Bureau
10. Paramahansa Yogananda
A yoga icon and founding father of yoga in the West, Yogananda introduced countless people to yoga with his renowned book ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’.
He was also one of the first Indian yogis to make the move to the USA, spending much of the 1920s and 1930s lecturing and sharing his knowledge of Kriya yoga.
There have been allegations that he fathered several ‘love children’ and that he ran a harem whilst on tour.
The swami had young girls housed next to his room on the third floor of the former hotel, and how they went in and out of the swami’s room at all hours, while older women were housed on a separate floor entirely. NHNE
However, DNA testing recently cleared Yogananda of fathering a child with a married disciple and evidence supporting the other claims against him is not well documented.
11. Swami Kriyananda
Born James Donald Walters, Kriyananda was an American univeristy student who read ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ and left everything to become a disciple of Yogananda. He later founded Ananda Sangha Worldwide.
However, Kriyananda was reportedly ‘thrown out’ of Yogananda’s fellowship and was later sued for violating their copyrights by republishing the writings and recordings of Yogananda.
He was also brought to court for the abuse of Anne-Marie Bertolucci, a former disciple, who claimed she was sexually abused by Kriyananda and another senior leader, and accused the fellowship of fraud. She won the case, and the Ananda Church was ordered to pay $1 million to Bertolucci as compensation.
The case was given added weight thanks to support from other ex-devotees.
After Bertolucci filed suit, a dozen ex-Ananda members stepped up to support her case. Six women gave sworn testimony detailing various forms of what they considered sexual exploitation by the swami. San Francisco Weekly.
12. Swami Akhandananda Saraswati
Swami Akhandananda was the spiritual leader of Mangrove Ashram, a Satyananda ashram in Australia, from 1974. In 1987 he was charged with 35 counts of sexual abuse against four girls, convicted and sent to prison. His conviction was later over turned by the Australian High Court on a technicality. The Swami died of alcoholism in the late 1990s.
This particular case has recently been re-heard by the Royal Commission Inquiry in Australia. The best summary I’ve found of this Inquiry – which has yet to make it’s final report – is on Matthew Remski’s website.
While this case was known in Satyananda circles for the past few decades, many who knew about it didn’t know the extent of the abuse. At the inquiry, it was also alleged that many of the other adults at the ahsram, in particular the Swami’s partner Shishy, were aware of what was going on.
Former child resident Alecia Buchanan testified that Shishy was often in the room while Akhandananda raped her. Buchanan was 15 when it began. She also said: “Looking back now, I’m certain some adults at the ashram knew Akhandananda was abusing us girls. We were always coming and going from his hut and other people saw this happening. We were often summoned very publicly over the loudspeaker by the receptionist or by Shishy’s personal assistant, Muktimurti, words to the effect of, ‘Shantibodh, go to swamiji’s office’ late at night.” From Mathew Remski’s article, quoting directly from the Royal Commission documents.
Plus, at the inquiry, fresh allegations have been made against Swami Satyananda himself of abuse, and allegations that his successor (Satyananda died in 2009) Swami Niranjananda entered into sexual relationships with at least one female disciple.
13. Swami Maheshwarananda
Another ‘Yoga Rockstar’ Maheshwarananda is the founder of Yoga in Daily Life a humanitarian organisation with ashrams all over the world, including here in New Zealand.
However, when on our shores in 2013 the spiritual leader was confronted by an angry former disciple and a TV3 news reporter, accusing him of abusing his female devotees.
Internationally Maheshwarananda has been feeling the heat as well. According to Madison magazine:
A whistleblower set up a website on which several women posted shocking testimonies of alleged betrayal by Swamiji. It appeared the monk, whom ex-followers say claims to be celibate,had routinely abused his powerful status to exploit young female devotees for his own sexual pleasure. While none of these claims would amount to sexual assault, people began to leave.
In Australia, a growing chorus of members demanded answers. By the end of June, 18 senior figures who had been part of Yoga in Daily Life for up to 20 years resigned. This included the entire board. Some were forcibly expelled; other attendees simply stopped coming. Some centres closed down.
14. Swami Shankarananda
The Guru and Director of the Mount Eliza ashram, Shankarananda has allegedly had sex with up to forty female followers.
Although Shankarananda never claimed to be celibate, or demanded it from his students, the revelations have still deeply wounded his followers and community.
A heartfelt blog post from Waverley Yoga Studio sums up some of the grief and confusion:
My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by the behaviour. Such an abuse of power and trust. And I feel for the women, the husbands and partners of many of these women whose trust has been violated, and indeed for the whole community. At the moment there are a great many people who have chosen to leave and there are still some sitting as his feet. I’m pretty sure all are feeling pain, as I am.
The ashram is now being investigated over allegations of sexual abuse according to Australian newspaper The Age.
15. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
The celibate leader of the widely popular Transcendental Meditation movement, known as the ‘Giggling Guru’ for his high pitched laugh, has been accused of seducing his followers, one of whom has written a book, Robes of Silk, Feet of Clay, about her experiences.
Once adored by The Beatles, all but one of the band broke contact with him over accusations he tried to rape Mia Farrow.
At the time of his death in 2008 the Maharishi had amassed a considerable fortune and lived in a luxurious two hundred room manison according to UK newspaper The Mirror.
It was alleged in 1987 by the Telegraph newspaper of Calcutta that five boys died after being used as guinea pigs at the Transcendental Meditation “medical institute”, which was searching for cures to diseases such as cancer. The allegations were never proven. The Independent.
16. Jivamukti Teacher Ruth Lauer-Manenti
This case came to light in April of 2016, after Slate published an article detailing sexual harrassment allegations against senior Jivamukti teacher Ruth Lauer-Manenti.
Matthew Remski followed up a few weeks later with a more detailed article that included an extensive interview with Holly Faurot – the student who had brought the suit – and also comments by Jivamukti owners Sharon Gannon and David Life.
The allegations name not just in the suit, but also Gannon and Life and studio director Carlos Menjivar as co-defendants for their role in ‘coving up and condoning’ Laurt-Manenti’s actions. Remski’s article is well-referenced, including links to the documents filed with the courts.
The allegations have cast a light on the operating practices of Jivamukti.
17. K. Pattabhi Jois
Since his death in 2009 a steady stream of incriminating photos, videos and stories have been circulating about Jois, the beloved guru of the hugely popular Ashtanga tradition.
The key accusations are that his adjustments were dangerous, fear producing, and injurious, and that Jois sexually harassed his female students.
Video evidence of Jois’ dodgy yoga adjustments was originally posted on Youtube and Vimeo but has since been moved to a private server after devotees had it removed. The story has also received coverage from Matthew Remski, Elephant Journal, and YogaDork, and a scathing obituary of Jois featured in The Economist.
18. Swami Sathya Sai Baba
This recently deceased Indian Guru was said to have up to 50 million followers, who referred to him as ‘God on Earth’. He was most well known for his miraculous manifestations of holy ash, as well as jewelry and precious objects, and claimed to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi. India’s president and prime minister both attended his last birthday party.
However, for the last forty years there has also been a growing tide of accusations against Sai Baba, primarily that he sexually abused many young boys under his care. He has also been accused of faking his manifestations, money laundering, and murder.
A 2004 BBC documentary, The Secret Swami, featured interviews with former followers who claimed Sai Baba had sexually abused them. One of the men is quoted as saying:
He took me aside, put the oil on his hands, told me to drop my pants and rubbed my genitals with the oil. I was really taken aback. BBC News
19. Ösel Tendzin
Tendzin was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the first Westerner to lead an international Buddhist sect. In 1989 it was revealed that he had AIDs, and that he may have knowingly passed this on to his sexual partners, many of whom were also his followers. A Tibetan high priest quoted in the NY Times said, “He might have passed this on to many, many people.”
Tendzin was quoted as saying that he had discussed his illness with Chögyam Trungpa, and left their conversation feeling that he ”had some extraordinary means of protection.”
Tendzin’s community were distraught at what many of them considered to be the morally reprehensible behavior of their teacher. In her PhD thesis, “Collective identity and the post-charismatic fate of Shambhala International”, Lynn Eldershaw quotes a student of Tendzin as saying,
I was very distressed that he and his entourage had lied to us for so long, always saying he did not have AIDS. I was even more distressed over the stories of how the Regent used his position as a dharma teacher to induce “straight” students to have unprotected sex with him, while he claimed he had been tested for AIDS but the result was negative.
Tendzin of AIDs related illness in 1990, aged 47.
Do you know of any other incidences that we need to add to this list? Email us with links to sources.