Ex-Followers Say Swami Demanded Sexual Favors

Richmond Times-Dispatch/August 2, 1991

BUCKINGHAM - Some former followers of Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Yogaville, say he used his influence as a spiritual leader to persuade some of his female students to have sexual relations with him. Several of the disillusioned followers plan to protest at a speech that Satchidananda is scheduled to give at a Charlottesville symposium today. The former disciples want the world-renowned yoga teacher to publicly address their accusations.

'It would be very healing for everyone if Swami Satchidananda would address this issue publicly and stop denying it,' said Susan Cohen, a Connecticut mental health therapist and former student of the swami who plans to join the protest.

'I feel that he took advantage of me,' said Ms. Cohen, who was a follower from 1969-77.

When Satchidananda was asked Wednesday about the allegations, he said, 'They know it is all false. . . . I don't know why they are saying these things. . . . My life is an open book. There is nothing for me to hide.' Satchidananda, 76, is a Hindu monk who teaches that the world's religions are paths to the same God.

In 1979, he started Yogaville in Buckingham County. Also called the Satchidananda Ashram , it is known for the Light of Truth International Shrine, devoted to world religions. In addition to Yogaville, Satchidananda has followers at Integral Yoga institutes in New York and San Francisco and 50 smaller teaching centers elsewhere in the country.

Nearly 200 of Satchidananda's followers live on or near the ashram at Yogaville . Many follow the swami's teachings by participating in local civic activities. Satchidananda teaches an all-encompassing form of yoga that emphasizes inner peace, care for others and a respect for all religions.

Sylvia Shapiro was a 19-year-old student of Satchidananda in California when he asked her to accompany him on one of his trips to visit followers around the world in 1971.

'He was my guru and it was very exciting to be chosen for this,' said Ms. Shapiro, now a New York lawyer who is married and has two children.

On the trip, Ms. Shapiro was taught to wait on Satchidananda. She learned to cook Indian food, to photograph his public appearances and to give him his twice-a-day massages.

'In Manila, he turned it from a massage into oral sex,' Ms. Shapiro said. 'I was very upset. He didn't want to talk about it. He said he knew best and I shouldn't worry about it.'

Ms. Shapiro remembers it as a stressful time. The greatest influence in her life, her guru, who taught his unmarried followers to remain celibate, was urging that she have sexual relations with him, she said.

'I tried to do what he said and not dwell on it,' Ms. Shapiro said. 'I really loved him like a father. I didn't want to make him angry.'

The relationship continued for nearly a year, Ms. Shapiro said. Then she married another follower and she and her husband confronted Satchidananda about the allegations.

Ms. Shapiro said he denied it and, in private, told her to tell her husband she had made it up. She and her husband left the Integral Yoga Center in New York, where they had been living.

'There is good in his teachings for the individual and for the community,' Ms. Shapiro said. 'Those parts get sacrificed because he can't be honest about this area.'

Susan Cohen moved to an Integral Yoga institute in Connecticut in 1970. She was 18.

'He was one of the best-known gurus in this country,' Ms. Cohen said. 'I was his student. He called us his spiritual daughters.' Eventually, she was assigned to be his secretary.

'He sexualized the relationship,' Ms. Cohen said. 'I realized that this wasn't right, but part of the teaching is obedience. When a person uses power this way, it is no longer love. It is abuse.'

Ms. Cohen left the community in 1977 and has been married for 13 years. She works at a mental hospital and is studying to be a mental health therapist. She says she has a greater perspective on her past. 'It is psychologically very damaging to women to have this happen with a father figure,' Ms. Cohen said. 'The fact he will not address this publicly is a big part of the problem. The secrecy reeks of dishonesty.

'It's a terrible contradiction in yoga. Yoga is supposed to be open and dedicated to the truth.'

Satchidananda said he usually does not publicly respond to criticism: 'There is no need. If the public wants to believe that, they can believe that.

'They are free to feel that way,' Satchidananda said of his accusers. 'If they don't feel comfortable with me, they can go learn from someone else.'

Satchidananda said he is not looking for praise or blame. 'I believe that God is using me as an instrument. I am just there, like a river is there. Those who want to come and take a bath may do so. Those who do not want to do not have to.'

Until December, Joy Zuckerman was living at Yogaville , where she was known as Swami Krupaananda. She left after a friend confided in her that Satchidananda had made sexual advances toward her last summer, Ms. Zuckerman said. Since then, Ms. Zuckerman has started an organization for former Satchidananda followers called Healing in the Truth. She has organized the protest at Satchidananda's keynote address today at the PSI Symposium at the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville.

Ms. Zuckerman, Ms. Cohen and other former followers staged a similar demonstration at a conference the swami gave in Montreal in May.

'Initially, I felt he was the good role model I had needed,' Ms. Zuckerman said. 'He said he was just here to serve humanity and had no ego or selfishness. I think, very subtly, he switched the teachings so they were to serve him.'

Ms. Zuckerman said that after she left Yogaville , she asked Satchidananda to return a $20,000 donation she made to the ashram in 1979. She said a lawyer is still corresponding with ashram officials about the money.

Satchidananda supporters have charged that Ms. Zuckerman has a vendetta against the swami.

'Of course I'm angry,' she said. 'I feel betrayed. He is not what he said he was. I just wanted him to come out and tell the truth and focus on the positive things he does. His teachings are great; I just don't want him to take advantage of anyone else.', said the accusations have disappointed the followers but have not disrupted the work there.

'We've certainly heard these rumors and stories,' Chidananda said. 'We have no reason to believe they are true. 'I have no problem believing his word over theirs. So far, I have seen him respond only with compassion and love, particularly toward Joy. He doesn't know why she is doing this, but he is praying for her.'

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