What now for the Guru Model?

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Revelations that the former leader of Satyananda’s Australian ashrams abused children for decades have shocked the yoga community worldwide. Meanwhile, police are investigating the spiritual director of two more Australian ashrams amidst claims of sexual abuse. Is it time to do away with the guru model? 

Well-dressed and articulate, former corporate high-flyer Sandra* knew nothing of yoga when her “stress doctor” recommended three weeks at Victoria’s Satyananda Ashram.

“I looked around and thought it was a cult,” Sandra recalls. “But Atma, the head of the ashram, made me feel safe. By the end of the trip the practice had worked its magic and I was hooked.”

Sandra went on to become a yoga teacher. Bolstered by the strength she found through her practice, Sandra eventually sought therapy to deal with sexual abuse she’d experienced as a child. “I relied on the ashram as a refuge,” she said. “The sense of community and belonging drew me in, especially when I felt I didn’t belong anywhere on the ‘outside’. I trusted Atma, and even though she was quite intimidating, she firmly held the space for people to work through their stuff.”

Last year, the Australian Government investigated sexual abuse at Satyananda’s other Australian ashram. Victims recounted decades of sexual abuse not only by the ashram’s spiritual head, Swami Akhandananda, but going back as far as Swami Satyananda himself. The youngest victim was six years old. Witnesses told of forced abortions, genital mutilation and being passed around to different teachers. It appears that many senior teachers knew what was going on and either looked the other way, or in some cases, directly facilitated the abuse.

Sandra recalls her horror on reading of Atma’s response to a former victim during the hearings. “A witness testified during the commission that she’d told Atma she was concerned about the Swami’s behaviour,” she says. “Atma said words to the effect of, ‘Well you know those girls can be very flirtatious.’ I was furious. As anyone who has been sexually abused knows, it is common to think it was somehow your own fault. I couldn’t believe that someone I trusted could have known something was up and chose to blame the victim. It felt like a betrayal.”

The list of gurus accused of sexual misconduct is like a roll call of the who’s who of the yoga community. From Swami Muktananda, Yogi Bhajan and Swami Satyananda, right up to Bikram Choudhury, Anusara’s John Friend, Kausthub Desikachar, and Kripalu Yoga’s Amrit Desai: sexual misconduct in yoga is so common Patanjali should have given it its own sutra.

How, we ask, in yoga communities built on the tenets of non-violence (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya) and sexual ethics (Bramacharya), can abuse still occur, let alone remain hidden for decades? Sadly, since news of abuse at Satyananda’s ashrams emerged, another two yoga ashrams have come under investigation by police, this time pertaining to allegations that the Director of Shiva Yoga centres in Victoria Swami Shankarananda (American Russell Kruckman) had inappropriate sexual relationships with up to 40 members of the community. Former members of the community describe being coerced into a sexual relationship with Kruckman, to be kept “secret in line with age-old Hindu Tantric scriptures” and threatened with being ostracised from the community if they refused.

Is it possible for communities affected by abuse to recover? Or is it time to re-evaluate the guru model?

Clash of cultures: the Eastern guru model in the Western yoga world

Former President of Yoga Australia, Leigh Blashki, has taken a leading role in establishing ethical codes of practice for yoga teachers and yoga therapists in Australia. Having dedicated much of his 35 year teach career to bringing traditional Eastern yoga practices to the West, he has seen first-hand how enthusiasm to adopt an “authentic” yoga culture can lead to the misuse of power.

In Indian culture the teacher is held with deeper awe and reverence than we do in the West. Culturally, they’re taught not to question those with a perceived level of power. If the guru says, ‘I want you to do these things’ the assumption is the guru must know.”

Although in the West we are much more likely to question authority, we also have high regard for the concept of authenticity. Therefore, if a teacher announces that a certain practice is an authentic part of the yogic path, we may be less keen to question it. “Part of the marketing of certain yoga communities is we have a traditional Indian spiritual community, we wear saris, etc.” says Blashki. “I believe Russell [Swami Shankarananda] has taken those affects of Indian life which have suited him. I have no idea about his real self, but I can only suspect that if someone has genuinely had a form of true awakening, this behaviour doesn’t even enter into their minds.”

Is the Eastern idealisation of the guru something Western spiritual communities need to explore? This is an issue that the U.S. Buddhist community, The Zen Studies Society, was forced to grapple with after revelations that former Abbot Eido Tai Shimano had abused female students.

In the wake of the scandal, the organisation went through a radical change in values, says current abbot Shinge Chayat. In a journal article Confronting Abuse of Power, Chayat and other spiritual teachers spoke about the effects of abuse in spiritual communities.

Trouble begins, Chayat says “when no one is allowed to question things—especially in an Asian patriarchal structure that discourages transparency… We’ve had to learn how to question authority, and see all the aspects that led to a structure of a secret society and the elevation of one human being to a god-like status, which created a situation where no one felt safe to ask questions.”

Linking sexual abuse to “spiritual growth”

Swami Akhandananda’s victims told the investigation that he frequently cited the abuse as necessary for their spiritual growth. Similarly women involved in the Shiva ashram described how Kruckman initiated sexual relationships under the guise of spiritual attainment. “When he first approached me, I was outraged and horrified,” said Medha Murtagh, an ex-member of Shiva Yoga. “He explained to me that what was happening was ‘a shakti thing’ and was simply the natural unfoldment of our guru disciple relationship.”

“I would often talk to him about feeling that it was wrong for me to cheat on my partner, to which he would reply with things like, ‘You can’t look at it with worldly eyes. You’re exploring the Shakti with your guru and it’s not cheating.’  I was told not to talk about it to anyone, ever.”

Vulnerability and the imbalance of power

A common feature of many abuse cases is that the victims had often gone to spiritual centres as a refuge during times of great personal vulnerability. Many, like Sandra, had histories of sexual abuse.

In the five rape charges against Bikram Choudhury, some women have claimed that Bikram “rewarded male teachers who brought him willing consorts.” In 2002, after four women filed formal complaints with Austrian police about Kausthub Desikachar (grandson of Krishnamacharya), citing sexual, mental and emotional abuse, the North American branch of the Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation revealed that Desikachar had used “his knowledge of personal histories of sexual and emotional trauma in an attempt to initiate sexual relations.”

“We’re looking at what can be seen as the worst abuse, which is sexual,” says Blashki. “I’ve never seen, nor heard of a good excuse. People say, ‘Well they were consenting,’ but when there’s a power imbalance, there’s absolutely no excuse. When people are fragile of ego and need to be recognised, it makes them feel attractive when the teacher shows particular interest in them,” says Blashki. “We need to educate newer students that ‘special attention’ from a teacher is not something they should be seeking, nor something that teachers should be offering.”

A culture of silence

In Shinge Chayat’s experience, elevating spiritual teachers to a noble height “can give rise to a situation where people are afraid that if they question something or speak out, they will be ostracised. What’s going on is often veiled in secrecy; practitioners may feel or sense something happening in a community, but the culture discourages questioning.”

Ex-members of the Shiva and Satyananda communities have spoken of the additional sense of betrayal they felt when community members chose to keep silent about the abuse, and effectively enabled it to continue.

“One of the more disturbing aspects was that some people in positions of power apparently knew what was going on and were actively trying to keep it secret and perpetuate the status quo,” says former Shiva member Stephanie*. After 17 years as part of the community, the revelations caused her to question everything. “If you’ve seen the film The Matrix, it was exactly like what happens when you take the red pill; I was suddenly falling down the rabbit hole into a harsh new reality where everything that I believed in and held dear was revealed to be an illusion. Each day brought more shocking revelations, and it hasn’t stopped yet. I thought I was a member of a loving community in a beautiful special world, but it was really just the mask over a nightmare.”

The ‘Orphan’ Archetype

Yoga teacher and psychotherapist Stephen Cope knows better than many what it’s like to have this illusion shattered. In 1994, he had lived at the Kripalu Yoga Fellowship for almost 10 years when the community was rocked by their beloved teacher Amrit Desai’s admission that he had had sexual relations with numerous female followers.

In his book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Cope writes about the “orphan archetype,” which is common when people come to a spiritual community seeking an idealised idea of family. “‘Orphans’ bring a tremendous amount of projection into their relationships with their teachers,” Cope writes. “We fall in love with our teachers, and with our communities, and as a result we do not see them at all clearly.”

Beyond human

The problem is that this projection often goes both ways, says Cope. “If the teacher is not aware of his own unresolved needs to be highly praised, and adored, he or she may begin to believe the idealisations of the students.”

“We tend to elevate teachers to a noble height and refuse to see their human failings until they have manifested in difficult and dangerous ways,” says Chayat.

When the teacher and student are unaware of own subconscious motivations (whether it’s the student’s desire to surrender their will, or the teacher’s desire for admiration), “it is only a matter of time before the situation collapses under its own weight,” Cope writes. “The powerful forces of idealisation are suddenly transmuted into a bonfire of devaluation, hatred and rage, usually coming on the heels of some dramatic revelation that the teacher, the hoped for god-man or god-woman, is really all too human.”

Is there an ideal Guru-student relationship?

“My teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself,”  the Buddha famously said.

During my own yoga teacher training, I was taught that the teacher’s role is to encourage students to develop a relationships with their own “inner guru”—not just the teacher’s. What struck me in researching this article was how, over and over, students were actively encouraged to surrender this inner wisdom to the guru.

Ideally, says Cope, the guru stops this from happening via “optimal disillusionment.” “The best teachers eventually leave the students, or demand that the students leave them (while still being available for occasional “refueling”), precisely so that the student can discover and rely on his own connection with the source. The teacher’s final role is to awaken the lotus of the heart, so that the student’s own consciousness is called forth.”

Respect without worship

Sadly, some practitioners feel that the yoga taught by their former guru is tainted. However one yoga sangha that has not only survived, but thrived, is the Bikram community. One Bikram studio owner I spoke to said it helps that the general public are largely unaware that the “Bikram” is actually a person. And while studio owners respect the trademarked practice, some now actively disassociate themselves from Bikram himself, and have quietly removed photo of him from the studio.

Is there a way to pay respect to our current teachers and lineages while resisting the urge to elevate them into demi-gods? One way would be to focus on the principles of the practice, rather than the deifying the personalities behind them. Many yoga centres feature prominent images of their gurus, living and dead, and invoke their names in chants and prayers. But does this focus on an individual encourage an inappropriate “mistaking the finger for the moon,” or is it a natural aspect of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion?

“From the Western perspective acknowledging our teachers is still important,” says Blashki. “But you can explain where certain teachings come from without putting the teacher’s photo everywhere. This can come across as the hubris of either the teacher or the student who aligns themselves with them.” In some cases ostentatious devotion can actually be a hindrance. “I’ve seen many out there effectively held back from reaching their own potential and discovering ‘who I am’ as a teacher because it’s all about devotion to the guru.”


How can communities regain trust?

  1. Step down

While spiritual leaders who either perpetuated or condoned the abuse remain in power, it is hard to see how a spiritual community can retain trust among students, let alone credibility. This can make or break a community; if the community revolves around something more than just one person, it has a better chance of survival.

  1. A genuine desire to listen

In order to move forward there must be genuine acknowledgement of wrongdoing and the pain people have suffered—rather than: now that we have been found out, we’re going to be apologetic. When some victims from Satyananda’s ashram first came forward, they were threatened with legal action. Eventually the organisation offered a “Haven [fire ceremony] for healing,” although, as one former child victim at the Satyananda ashram bluntly told the Australian Government investigation, “I don’t think that they can just light a fire and say, ‘Hari om’ and think that everything will be forgiven and forgotten.” More recently, however, The Satyananda Yoga Academy have set up a task force to respond to the investigation’s findings.

  1. A peer group for spiritual teachers

“All teachers ought to have a clear supervisor, like psychotherapy,” says Blashki, who has his own supervisor and acts in that role for junior teachers. “Sangha is important, but it’s quite different to supervision, where the person being supervised is really called to account with a depth of honesty of sharing that often can’t occur in sangha.”

“As teachers, we need to be very conscious of what our own emotional and psychological needs are, and we need to try and meet those in healthy ways rather than pretend they’re not there,” says Lama Palden in Confronting Abuse of Power.

  1. Engage a third party + separation of power

“When all the power in a community is in one person’s hands and that person is supported unconditionally by others, including board members and senior students, there’s no way you can say, ‘Hey! This is wrong. We have to make some changes here.’ It can’t happen,” says Shinge Chayat, who as a member of The Zen Studies Society leadership created an ethics committee which sits separately to the board.

One of the problems within the Shiva community, says Stephanie, was that “the very people in charge were exactly the ones who shouldn’t be there. When a demagogue decides to surround himself with yes-men then this is what you get, and in the world of yoga the very principle of the guru practically guarantees it.”

By contrast, the Kripalu community has flourished in the wake of Amrit Desai’s departure, due in no small part to their engagement of a neutral third party to help them re-assess and recognise their leadership structures.

But for some, nothing can repair the betrayal of trust by their teachers and senior members of their yoga communities. “It is time for us all to do away with the modern myth of The Guru,” says ex-Shiva member Stephanie. “It has failed over and over, leaving thousands of wounded people in its wake.”

Medha Murtagh agrees. “Teachers and mentors are great, but I will never again surrender to an individual who claims to be closer to God than me. I don’t think God would have designed the universe so that we’d need a middle man to access him! My personal experience tells me that the age of the guru is over.”

For many modern yogis, the very word guru is a relic, with its 1970s connotations of free love, communes, and tasteless lentils. But have we simply replaced the guru with the “super teachers” feted on Instagram? Have we shaken off guru-worship only to replace it with worship of the “yoga-lebrity”? Is there still room, in this vortex of yoga-selfies and branding, for the inner teacher to reign supreme?


*Some names have been changed.



How to end Sex Scandals in the Yoga Community.


Author: Alice Williams

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikipedia

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Alice Williams

Alice Williams is a Melbourne author and yoga teacher. Say hello on The Twitter or The Facebook! Read more from A.V. Williams…

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anonymous Oct 15, 2015 1:53pm

The "Guru model" you refer to, in actuality was done away with by the last actual Guru-Guru Gobind Singh Ji Maharaj, in 1699. Guru Ji, acceded from the mantle of "Guruship" to give life to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, which are the recorded teachings for mankind to regain its way. One need only adhere to the instructions as laid out in the SGGS Ji, which are totally non -sectarian, in order to reach the goal.

anonymous Oct 14, 2015 10:22pm

“Is it time to do away with the guru model? ”
Um, with all due respect, it was time a log time ago … but it persists like parasite preying on the gullibility and insecurity of people alas …

anonymous Oct 14, 2015 7:04am

Alice, Wondering why you have a picture of Osho at the top of the article, yet you do not mention him at all. This would imply that he also was associated with this type of abuse.

    anonymous Oct 14, 2015 11:06pm

    That one's the editor's pick, Chris!

      anonymous Mar 6, 2016 5:57am

      Using a picture of Osho in this article was unprofessional and uncalled for. There are plenty of pics of Bikram and the others available on the net… so this is just more smear journalism. You have lost me as a reader. I mean, can you imagine using a pic of the Dalai Lama for this article? I didn't think so… such a lack of integrity… such a lack of truth. 🙁

anonymous Oct 13, 2015 7:02pm

Good Article. You may not know, but Satyananda Ashram, after apologising at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in December 2014, and stating they were setting up an Institutional Taskforce, and would treat victims with respect, then attacked victims at the Royal Commission Oral Hearing Day in April 2015 – claiming six had exaggerated their evidence with an eye to monetary gain, and that they had evidence that a 7th (myself) had given evidence contradictory to statements I had made previously. None of these claims held water – and all that happened that day is that they needlessly attacked victims. Surprisingly, they also started giving supportive statements about the role of Akhandananda's consort (known as Shishy) to the Royal Commission. Shishy has been banned from the Ashram for over 20 years due to her role in the abuse, yet all of a sudden she was flavour of the month – with the Ashram claiming she was a major support to the victims – an opinion not shared by the survivor witnesses! Such a statement is just another insult to survivors, who are surely the people who would know and who should be the ones speaking of who was supportive and who was complicit. Shishy, simultaneously, started singing the Ashram's praises to the Royal Commission – claiming it was reformed and very different to what it had been in the past. Given she has been "banned" from going there, it is questionable as to why and how she could claim this. It cannot be from personal experience. The formation of an Institutional Taskforce is no guarantee that the right thing is now being done – just as the formation of the Ashram's Working Together Taskforce in early 2014 did not ensure the right thing was done by victims in the lead up to the Royal Commission. They were involved in the threats of legal action. Since the formation of the Institutional Taskforce the Ashram has also issued an aggressive "Media Release" in April this year, which I believe contained false and defamatory statements, and obviously was aimed at again trying to stop the public conversations of victims and their supporters. Making these institutions truly accountable, democratic and transparent is essential if the dangers of the Guru Model are going to be contained.

    anonymous Oct 14, 2015 11:08pm

    Thanks for the heads up, Bhakti. I did see something on that, but there wasn't room to go into detail, unfortunately. Also, although the piece looks at the Satyananda and Shiva case studies, I didn't want to focus too much on one particular group, but rather to use their examples to talk about the issues more generally. But you're right – I think a lot of people are watching closely what (if any) significant changes are made after the Royal Commission.

anonymous Oct 11, 2015 8:46am

I guess these so called yoga teachers taking refuge in these communities to fulfill their desires. Any student-teacher relationship may it be a school or spiritual is knowledge sharing. May be the teachers are taking the advantage of weak mind of a student. If the student feels threatened by the behavior one should walkaway. I doubt if there is anything called sex for spiritual attainment. They are only taking advantage of a weak mind. Believe your instincts, gut feeling, even animals smell danger. There is no point giving in and complaining. Nobody needs a middle man to reach GOD, if one has faith in GOD he is everywhere.

anonymous Oct 9, 2015 9:44pm

Really good general advice. I would add that the student’s responsibility is to take the teaching(s) then go. Getting involved with any teacher on a personal level can easily lead to negative/destructive perceptions of the whole process, regardless of which specific tradition a person is working in/with. I have been fortunate in having great teachers (who were both always straight and tough. (I was amazed, for example, that Munindra–who was of small stature, could generate such discipline and respect when teaching even short retreats. ) I notice that Rajneesh (in your picture) is now called “Osho.) His writings are very good–his ashrams emphasized unabashed sexual activity–which was presented as part of the path of his teachings. Is that good or not good–I think neither. I believe it was just what it was; and, presented an opportunity (to irritate his neighbors at Poona.) Take the teaching and run–try it on and see how it fits. Be well. Be happy

anonymous Oct 9, 2015 6:03pm

I agree that it's confusing, personal, spiritual
evolution. It is happening and is the backdrop to
all physical and nonphysical existence. All these
painful issues you discuss surrounding our spirit guides, however they manifest, is obviously a part
of it. If it is a human guide, it's still human, approach with awareness of that fact. Shout this out to all. They have sometimes gained energetic
and divine power before they are able to be wise
with it. Sexuality and sexual abuses are common in human life whether awakened to nonphysical energy or not. This is part of our evolution from
physical beings. The anticipation is an entry to a loving, nonphysical experience of the Prime Creator. Here on Earth we have the luxury of time and a daily predicability couched in creaturehood to become positive about our abilities to be healthy creators of communities and etc…
We have the blessing of nonphysical energies to support or development. Yes our guides are learning from their experience as a conduit for it.

My advice, avoid entering into ANY sexual relationship that is not based upon truth of love and committment to that person. In honest interaction. Don't just have sex with a person who is not prepared to share their lives exclusively with you alone and to make it known to all others.
Otherwise all parties involved are using you.

This principle can be applied to anyone, that's why we enter into binding contracts workwise.
Honouring the process of finding the right person or path to unite with. This includes friends. Protect and care for yourself first, then share what you have openly and honestly. Then it us ok if you find you are not compatable. Do not use others for any purpose. Love yourself, respect yourself and this will be reflected in your life perfectly as possible in the human imperfect form.

I love you all as I love myself, asking only what is good for you. If that's me HALLELUJAH!
if it's not don't try to fake it or use me. I'll figure it our eventually and it will take time for all involved to heal because we are being assesses day to day in development and "no one gets out of here alive" physically speaking. Be aware of your day of reckoning according to your personal view.
Go forth and be all that you can be, what else can you? You are God, Goddess, Allah, All That Is, Source, resourcing itself as You in this Now Moment if your LIFE! YES!

anonymous Oct 9, 2015 4:10pm

lol get to close to a fire you get burned,,stay to far away and you won't get any heat….This is a very personal topic…the guru disciple relationship is as personal as falling in love..from the inside…i respect lineages and ancient traditions..you must do the practices and look to the guru within…death is the true guru..work out your salvation with diligence the Buddha said…

anonymous Oct 9, 2015 9:49am

Good article. this is a very interesting and difficult topic. I don;t know as much about the yoga/Indian guru traditions as I do about the Tibetan angle, but you could have just as easily written this article about Sogyal Rinpoche and other Tibetan lamas. The dynamic can be remarkably similar.
The question in both cases becomes whether, and to what extent the guru relationship is essential to the tradition. The answer will be different depending on the doctrine of the tradition.
I have no doubt that many, myself included, have experienced both tremendous value from eastern contemplative traditions while simultaneously feeling that something is off in the power dynamic. The very structure is deeply susceptible to abuse.
Personally, I have been trying to really look at my own experience, and I find that the elements that cross into "Religion" are the problematic ones. Faith is a tricky thing. Much of the wisdom that I have experienced does not seem to come in any direct way from the parts which require faith.
So perhaps the guru model is outmoded in a world that seems to need it's wisdom with ever diminishing levels of dogma. Though I wonder if these traditions can survive that kind of shift.
Thanks for the thougthful piece.

    anonymous Oct 14, 2015 11:12pm

    Great point. In some ways that relationship is so informal, that to over-regulate could be to de-personalize it. But as you say, the very structure is susceptible to abuse. I guess the thing is for both students and teachers to be aware of their own vulnerabilities going into the relationship – though those vulnerabilities are often only visible in hindsight.

anonymous Oct 9, 2015 6:45am

Alice..well written and insightful article. The Guru must be watched by the student for sometime, maybe five years, before accepting the Guru as your teacher. The Guru ,in turn, watches the student before accepting the student. This is the traditional method as practiced in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. The student should watch the caliber and quality of the Guru’s students and the qualities of the Guru. Unfortunately, this practice has fallen by the wayside in both directions of Guru and student. I would suggest that a willing would-be student find a guru or Lama who is not affiliated with a large organization and is rather “hidden”….that Lama can be very beneficial to one’s development.