Swami Loses Disciples  

Teachers, students abandon yoga institute over accusations

The Montreal Mirror/May 23, 1991
By Eleanor Brown

Some students and yoga teachers are leaving the Integral Yoga Institute [IYI] after a group of American women accused the movement's Virginia-based founder of sexual misconduct.

The Park Avenue institute "may fold", says yoga teacher Isobel Gow, one of the half dozen people demonstrating at a Saturday conference given by Swami Satchidananda, the guru who came from India in 1966 to found one of North America's biggest yoga-spiritualism groups. The institute is one of a handful of the swami's centers across the continent.

Says Gow: "Of all who are now teaching - one is loyal, the rest have left."

Adds yoga student Esther Williams, "No one has been able to get to him [the swami]. He doesn't answer phone calls or letters. I really just want him to address the accusations, to deal with it. He keeps saying we must have faith. Why isn't he addressing the issue?"

The swami did not speak to the demonstrators, and reportedly responds to questions about the accusations with the exhortation to have faith in his leadership or leave the group. Following his former secretary Sylvia Shapiro's accusations of sexual improprieties, the swami was quoted in the Village Voice newspaper in 1976 as saying: "Don't judge me, I am your guru. If you choose to believe it you can leave right now. Or, if you have faith, you can stay and continue in my service." He could not be contacted.

The Montreal institute's number is connected to an answering machine, which offers four summer yoga classes and a Sunday morning meditation gathering. Messages were not returned.

Says Gow: "We have a large influence as a yoga group. Some people have taken spiritual names. We give a percentage of our income, a lot of people "

A letter mailed across the continent of devotees late last year reads "many of us need to spend a certain amount of time in partial or major denial - some of us who had much invested in our affiliation with Swami Satchidananda tried to buy the 'party line' - and just think about the great good that he has been doing over the years."

Susan Cohen, now a full-time graduate student in social work at a Connecticut university, joined the New York section of the institute in 1969. Cohen calls herself a survivor, and says the supposedly celibate swami involved her in an "incestuous secret affair." She says the swami and his students work in a type of father-daughter relationship that leaves women confused and unable to say no, a type of "spiritual incest." Cohen says she gets phone calls from all over the country with similar stories.

Cohen calls the swami's community a "cult." She cites his demand for unquestioning authority, vows of obedience, celibacy, and the routing of money to the institute.

In 1978, Cohen and another swami gave up their vows celibacy to marry. They stayed on at the New York ashram - or community - another two years. "We weren't really given much of goodbye," says Cohen. "People are uncomfortable - when you're getting out of a cult situation, it threatens what they're doing."

Joy Zuckerman also left the New York ashram in December after 12 years -although for different reasons. "Most are afraid to come out," she says. "There's a certain investment you've made. Friendships, family, a connection to god you thought was connected to your relationship to him [the swami]."

"I feel I've been abused in many other ways," Zuckerman says. "I renounced everything, sold my home, left my family gave $20,000 which a lawyer is now trying to recover"

"I'm learning a very powerful lesson. Everything I was looking for out there is here in me. I don't need him to find my connection to god."


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