Trigger alert: The following includes discussion of abuse and betrayal in Satyananda Yoga.
A Plea to ALL Yoga Teachers
To Satyananda Yoga Teachers
Tradition, parampara, is not set in stone: it is organic, ever-changing and evolutionary. [i]
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (RCIRSCA) heard testimonies about sexual abuse by Swami Akhandananda Saraswati, Swami Shishyananda Saraswati (Shishy), Swami Gorakhnath Saraswati, Swami Satyananda Sarawati, the founding guru, and his successor, current head of Satyananda Yoga, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati. The RCIRCSA concluded that Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s role as head of Satyananda Yoga worldwide gave him overarching authority at the Mangrove Mountain Ashram (and its centres).
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, international head of Satyananda Yoga, has failed to give guidance or leadership following the findings of the RCIRCSA. As a result, many teachers have floundered, through this lack of guidance from the leaders of this organisation, the Board of Directors of AYS, the Acharya of Rocklyn Ashram and the Satyananda Yoga Teachers Association (SYTA).
See the following statements from:
- Clare Leaney CEO, In Good Faith Foundation, Australia, and;
- Alison Geale, CEO, Bravehearts and Carol Ronken, Director of Research, Bravehearts
Many thanks to those teachers who have addressed the findings of RCIRCSA and publicly responded to the survivors.
Here are two examples of public statements:
- Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and Nirlipta Tuli 2014, founders of the Yoga Nidra Network, Where We Stand Now, and;
- Swami Avinashananda Saraswati, Apology to Satyananda Yoga Survivors 2015.
Some teachers have moved to different yoga organisations, or set up their own new organisation, with no mention of their training with Satyananda Yoga or their background in an organisation with a history of abuse.
Although it is now 7 years since the RCIRCSA, it is not too late to make amends.
The retrieval of many yoga traditions from an ethical abyss is both a contested and dynamic process. [ii]
Yoga Australia recommends that all teachers respond to the findings of the RCIRCSA and understand that sexual crimes occur and proliferate in the context of silence:
- Be transparent about the abuse that occurred within Satyananda Yoga; and
- Acknowledge the multiple testimonies, findings and recommendations of the RCIRCSA as they relate to Satyananda Yoga.
Yoga Australia also recommends that there should be public discussion of these issues by yoga teachers in open and honest dialogue and satsangs. Ignoring serious ethical and moral breaches, puts us in danger of reproducing the same dynamic of power, control and abuse, in a more subtle form.
Yoga Australia’s Member Statement of Acknowledgement (MAS) reinforces awareness of the potential for harm, and the importance of ethical conduct. Satyananda Yoga teachers are urged to write a clear statement responding to survivors. The harm done by disregarding them cannot be overestimated.
How an initiate of yoga engages honestly and authentically with an ethically compromised yoga organisation of which they are a part, while ensuring that their own humanity remains intact in the process, is of utmost importance. [iii]
Considering the RCIRCSA, it is important that teachers be honest and transparent, and creatively formulate and offer a yoga pedagogy based on the principles of truth (satya) and non-harm (ahimsa). This entails examining with an unwavering, single-minded awareness, those cultural practices which, not only masked, but facilitated the abuse.
To Yoga Teachers and practitioners of other lineages
The guru-disciple pedagogy, which is inherent in many schools of yoga in India, has proven to be a vulnerable juncture in the transmission of transnational yoga. Although there are many individual gurus that have made formative contributions to the practice of contemporary yoga worldwide, few organisations that support such a teaching model have managed to navigate the power dynamics without scandal and abuse. [iv]
We must, therefore, equip ourselves with knowledge about power, control, abuse and institutional betrayal in yoga, whether we are teachers or yoga practitioners.
Abuse in yoga is not confined to Satyananda Yoga. Similar abuses in many other yoga organisations have come to light, including the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, founded by Vishnudevananda, a disciple of Satyananda Saraswati’s guru Swami Sivananda [v].
A study of the Satyananda Yoga case is of significance to all yoga teachers and students irrespective of lineage affiliations, because of the interconnectedness of certain yoga practices across different lineages.
Yoga teachers and practitioners across all lineages are encouraged to study and learn from Case Study 21 of the RCIRCSA and respond to the survivors of abuse who shared their testimonies with such courage. This statement produced by Yoga Australia will assist you.
Yoga is an active and dynamic practice of truth (satya) and non-harm (ahimsa), and ultimately, it is a practice of liberation, not bondage.
To All Yoga Teachers
RCIRCSA Satyananda Yoga Case Study 21 is going to be one of the subjects of a course on Spiritual Abuse that is being developed by researchers for the SOAS University of London education platform.
The aim of the course is to tackle systemic abuse as outlined in CS21 of the RCIRCSA:
The Practice of Harm (hiṃsā) in Yoga
- Examination of Satyananda Yoga Case Study 21 of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (RCIRCSA) and subsequent Institutional Responses.
- Unpacking the Enabler, Bystander and Beneficiaries of Abuse in Yoga Culture.
- Ways forward for Yoga Teachers: Tackling and Uprooting Systemic Abuse in Modern Yoga.
The course will be offered in 2022, and is based on a model inspired by the work of the great South American educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, a form of praxis involving reflection, action and transformation, which Freire called conscientization.[vi]
Freire, dedicated his work: “…to the oppressed, and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side”.
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin.
[i] Pankhania, J. 2017. “The ethical and leadership challenges posed by the Royal Commission’s revelations of sexual abuse at a Satyananda Yoga ashram in Australia”. In Sunil Savur and Sukhbir Sandhu (eds.) Responsible Leadership and Ethical Decision-Making (Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, vol. 17) (p 116). Emerald Publishing Limited. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwrH-vQ6M6nsVk5IcDl5cHZ0MDg/view?usp=sharing
[ii] Ibid (p 115).
[iii] Ibid (p 117).
[iv] Pankhania, J. Hargreaves, J. (2017). “A culture of silence: Satyananda Yoga”.
[v] Merchasin, C. Pankhania, J. (2020) “Project SATYA Investigation Interim Report #3.” Project SATYA, Nov. 2020, projectsatya.org/Investigation-Interim-Report-3-Project-SATYA.pdf.
[vi] Hargreaves, J. Pankhania, J. (2021) “Institutional Responses to the Satyananda Yoga Case Study 21 of the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse”, Spiritual Abuse: Coercive Control in Religions, Department of Psychology and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Chester, UK.