Guru's past: Yogaville visit opens old wounds

The Hook/April 21, 2005
By Lisa Provence

A disgraced yoga master is coming to teach a workshop at Yogaville, the Buckingham County ashram of the late Sri Swami Satchidananda, who endured a sexual scandal of his own. The planned visit has reopened wounds of former followers of both men.

Former disciples allege the gurus have something in common besides yoga: preaching chastity while taking sexual advantage of female devotees-- with one major difference. Yogi Amrit Desai ultimately admitted his transgressions; Satchidananda, who died three years ago at age 87, did not.

A handful of Desai's former followers from his Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, now live in the Charlottesville area. Word that he'd be teaching Amrit Yoga April 28 at Yogaville brought back painful memories of exploitation they wanted people to know about-- as long as their names weren't used.

"He preached brahmacharya-- celibacy for single people," says a former Desai devotee. "Yet he sexually abused a number of women who were disciples." All this allegedly while married with three children, says the disgusted former follower.

While Desai was taking a $155,000 salary along with royalties from tapes and books, his disciples were encouraged give up wealth and live simply, according to an Anne Simpkinson article, "Soul Betrayal," in the magazine Common Boundary.

"He exploited the disciples for millions, and then lied about it when confronted," fumes another source, a Charlottesville nurse who lived at Kripalu for 10 years. Although she left before the yogi's misdeeds were discovered, the nurse is still angry.

"I was so sick from fasting and malnutrition, I ended up in the hospital," she recalls. "I wanted financial stability and a family--" things she says weren't possible at Kripalu without the Yogi's blessing, which was rare.

Some of those who had worked at Kripalu for 20 years sued. As part of their settlements, they are not allowed to discuss details of Desai's improprieties.

When the nurse and now mother found out about the betrayals by her guru, "I was furious and I cried my head off," she says. "He's never apologized or owned up to what he did."

Not true, says longtime Desai disciple Lila Ivey at the Amrit Yoga Institution in Salt Springs, Florida, who adds, "We hear that all the time."

Ivey says that Desai, now 73, resigned from Kripalu in 1994 and wrote apology letters to every member. "He will talk to anyone who calls and meet with anyone," says Ivey. "When is apologizing enough?"

Ivey doesn't deny Desai's mistakes. "He owned up to them. He lost his life's work. He was sued and humiliated. It's amazing to see him hold that posture with dignity and grace."

Certainly Desai's past is not a problem for organizers of the four-day Yogaville event.

"He's just going to be here for a weekend," says spokeswoman Swami Karunananda. "If we thought it would be a problem, we wouldn't have invited him."

The centerpiece of Yogaville is a giant pink and gold-toned temple, known as LOTUS, or Light of Truth Universal Shrine, which celebrates all faiths. It opened in 1986 on a plot of land donated by popular 1970s musician Carole King.

The late Swami Satchidananda, "the Woodstock Guru," had great respect for Desai, according to Karunananda. Making a weekend of the Desai event costs $495 and includes a private room with shared bath ($320 for a tent site).

"We're not interested in having an article," Karunananda tells a reporter. "It doesn't serve any purpose. I have no further interest in talking to you."

Yet one former Satchidananda follower believes the controversy might have stopped festering if the Woodstock Guru had responded to the allegations. Several women alleging sexual indiscretions by the Swami protested before a speech he made at the Omni in 1991.

"I don't think it's as much the sex as the abuse of power," says a former Yogavillian also requesting anonymity. "With a guru, you have a trust," she says. "The Swami said he was a celibate."

This former devotee talked to some of the women who claimed to have been abused and believed them. She says that not only was the Swami not forthcoming about the allegations, but he criticized his accusers.

"I think an apology is what the women were looking for-- an apology and an admission"-- instead of "slandering them by saying, 'This is a crazy woman, she's disturbed.'"

The former disciple left Yogaville over this "betrayal" and says many at the ashram either didn't believe the allegations against the Swami-- or tried to cover them up.

"It was really painful," she says, "and I think it happens more than people like to admit." She wonders if spiritual disciples are a little too trusting. "I guess absolute power corrupts absolutely."

While the former devotee believes it's healthier that Desai admitted his indiscretions, others think it's time for those disillusioned by their gurus to just get over it.

"It's sort of like blaming your parents," says Ivey in Florida, where she's now a volunteer in Desai's community of about 15 followers. "They were all adults and made a choice. His teachings are about love and healing."

Educational DVDs and Videos