By Lucinda Staniland & Cara Butler
Content warning: Some accounts of sexual abuse in this story contain explicit details and strong language that some may find upsetting or triggering.
Editors Note: This list was last updated on 22 September 2020. To our best knowledge, the information given here is accurate but there may be new developments which we are not aware of. Let us know in the comments if you notice something that needs to be updated.
The last few years have been awash with yoga scandals as well-known yoga teachers and gurus have fallen from grace.
And since #MeToo, a flood of new stories of sexual abuse in the yoga community have emerged.
Rachel Brathen, also known as Yoga Girl, has published more than 300 accounts of rape, groping, inappropriate touching, assault and harassment, and has received many more stories since.
And a KQED investigation found that “the yoga community is struggling to rein in sexual misconduct and abuse in its ranks.”
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 behemoth of an article, and linked to relevant Yoga Lunchbox articles underneath each name.
1. Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga
Bikram has faced a number of lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, assault, racism and homophobia.
In 2017, his former attorney, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden was awarded almost $7 million after alleging that she was sexually harassed by Bikram and then fired after investigating claims from a student that Bikram had raped her.
Three of the women who have filed lawsuits say that Bikram,
Nurtured a cult-like devotion among followers that allowed him to take advantage of female students. That devotion — and a fear of being exiled from the yoga community — kept victims and others from speaking up. ~ Los Angeles Times
Bikram has since fled from the United States to India without paying any of the money owed. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.
- 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. Manouso Manos
A prominent Iyengar yoga teacher, Manouso was accused of several instances of “inappropriate sexual touching” during classroom instruction, some of them dating back to the 1980s.
One woman said her yoga teacher, Manouso Manos, stuck his toe into her vagina through her tights while she was in a seated pose. Another woman said he stroked her genitals while she was performing a standing yoga pose. And yet another said he put his finger in her anus through her clothing while she was in a standing pose, bent over with her head toward the ground. ~ KQED
These allegations have “proven to be true,” according to the results of a 2019 independent investigation that was commissioned by the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States (IYNAUS).
Manouso has now been decertified as an Iyengar teacher and his membership within IYNAUS has been permanently revoked.
3. 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 employee’s 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
4. 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.
5. Amrit Desai, the 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 say 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 its 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 become;
“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.
6. Osho, also known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
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.
7. 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
8. 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
9. 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
Satchidananda always denied the accusations against him of sexual misdemeanours, 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.
10. 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 Webster 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
11. Swami Kriyananda
Born James Donald Walters, Kriyananda was an American university 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 overturned by the Australian High Court on a technicality. Swami Akhandananda died of alcoholism in the late 1990s.
This case was re-heard by the Royal Commission Inquiry in Australia which found that sexually abused and raped children. The Royal Commission’s 2016 report recorded the experiences of 11 survivors of child sexual abuse at or connected with the ashram and the response of the ashram to child sexual abuse. The best summary I’ve found of this Inquiry 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 ashram, 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 mansion 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.
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 Lauer-Manenti in the suit, but also Gannon and Life and studio director Carlos Menjivar as co-defendants for their role in ‘covering up and condoning’ Lauer-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.
Update: Matthew Remski has now written a book: Practice and All is Coming, about the cult dynamics and abuse in the Ashtanga community.
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 jewellery and precious objects, and claimed to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi.
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 behaviour of their teacher.
In her PhD thesis entitled “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.