Free Speech - Web Accusations Irk Yogaville

Daily Progress/January 27, 2003
By Liesel Nowak

For anyone searching for information about Yogaville or Integral Yoga on the Internet, a simple visit to, or other obvious Web addresses could direct Web surfers to information that leaders within the Buckingham County commune do not want people to see.

Those Web sites divert visitors to a third-party site that contains disparaging information about Yogaville, its former spiritual leader and the 750-acre Satchidananda Ashram in Central Virginia serving as headquarters for Integral Yoga International.

Matthew Cheng, the site's creator, says that Yogaville is a cult and that the site simply contains a warning about techniques the institute uses to recruit and retain members.

Yogaville's attorneys said that Cheng has no legitimate business use or need for the names Yogaville or Integral Yoga and that Cheng's use of the names infringes on the institute's trademarks. In effect, the institute wanted Cheng's Web site shut down. Both parties agreed to settle the matter in arbitration.

A recent decision by a National Arbitration Forum panel has ruled that Cheng has a legitimate, noncommercial and fair interest in the domain names at issue and that Cheng did not register the domain names in bad faith. Further, it ruled that Cheng's Web sites are protected under his First Amendment right to free speech.

The panel noted that to find in favor of Yogaville would 'radically undermine freedom of discourse on the Internet and would undercut the free and orderly exchange of ideas that the policy seeks to promote.'

The official Web site for the organization can be found at

Yogaville spokeswoman Swami Karunananda said it would be difficult to measure the impact Cheng's Web site would have on would-be IYI members or visitors to the ashram.

'It's sort of misleading to the people who are looking for information about us. & I really can't comment on how damaging it is, but the decision is certainly not one we would have hoped for,' Karunananda said.

As for being called a cult, Karunananda said the definition of a cult is not always clear. She added that all that is expected of the 150 locals associated with Yogaville and of the 'thousands' of visitors every year is a vegetarian diet and no smoking, drinking or drug use.

'As far as I know, there are a lot of different ways to define a cult,' she said. 'We're a totally open community. People can come and go as they please. There are no special requirements of people except for the basic yoga guidelines.'

Cheng's real interest in Yogaville lies with his sister, Catherine, a current resident of the commune. Much of the Web site includes information about Catherine Cheng's experience at Yogaville.

According to the Cheng family, who agreed to communicate for this story only through e-mail, a short trip to the ashram completely changed Catherine from an outgoing, fun-loving law student with a boyfriend and a loving family to a withdrawn, submissive robot, engaged to a man nearly 30 years her senior.

In December 1998, Catherine, then 23, went to Yogaville from New York over winter break on a yoga training scholarship. At first, the sabbatical was uneventful, the family said. Catherine called her family to let them know she was all right and that she would return to school in January. But by the time she was supposed to return, Catherine called to tell her parents that she would stay at Yogaville and marry a 50-year-old man who lived there named Swami Atmananda, a lawyer also known as Larry Gross.

Shortly after receiving the news, Catherine's father and brother went to Yogaville to see Catherine. They said they arrived to find a much-changed woman. Officials at the commune told the men Catherine feared them. According to the Chengs, after two days, father and brother were forced to leave the compound.

Soon afterward, Catherine Cheng wrote letters to her law school boyfriend to break off their relationship, to her friends to tell them that she had chosen a new Hindi name, Meenakshi, and to her father asking him to bless her upcoming marriage to the swami.

By February 1999, Catherine Cheng was completely estranged from her family. The next month she married Gross. And Matthew created his Web site.

For three years, the Cheng family has maintained the Web site, which also includes links to stories detailing sexual assault allegations involving Yogaville's now-deceased spiritual leader, Sri Swami Satchidananda Majaraj. The swami denied the allegations before his death in August 2002. Satchidananda was remembered by most for opening the Woodstock festival in 1969 and for his teachings of peace that drew comparisons to Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

Catherine and her husband, now known as Sundaram, still live at Yogaville. Sundaram continues to handle legal matters for Yogaville and its interests, according to the Chengs.Meenakshi is a certified Integra Yoga hatha teacher and conducts classes in Buckingham.

'We believe this case is an important victory for everyone's right to free speech and will help other families in similar situations,' the Cheng family wrote. 'It is an affirmation for the Web site that contains factual information that the group wants to keep secret - sexual abuse of nearly a dozen women, the organization shrinking by one-third since the accusations and despite the peace and tranquility the group preaches, it has sought to silence its critics by discrediting them, legal threats and lawsuits. In these ways, this decision helps all families and victims.' "

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