The Siddha Yoga Center in Tel-Aviv Israel with branches in Los Angeles and India is led by 65-year-old guru Itamar Oren, formerly known as Sage Narada. Oren's followers observe a strict diet, tithe to his organization generously and indulge in frequent enemas.
On the top floor of a dingy industrial building the guru lectures dozens of his devoted disciples while sitting on an elevated armchair. His devotees sway while chanting mantras amidst photographs of Oren hanging on the ashram's walls.
According to the group's website in 1992 Oren was "bestowed with the most coveted gift of every spiritual seeker - the supreme grace of becoming a Siddha, of attaining self-realization." And as such he is considered "a Siddha Master...endowed with the power to bestow the rare gift of shaktipat (the awakening of the divine spiritual energy)."
Oren's gift apparently includes the realization that enemas are somehow important for both the "body and mind."
The guru has recommended "Ganesha Health Center" in Tel Aviv for "colonic hydrotherapy." This business is located on Hayarkon Street and is owned by Anat Cohen. Cohen and her mother are both followers of Itamar Oren.
During the 1970s Oren was a member of the controversial Siddha Meditation Organization (aka SYDA Foundation) founded by Swami Muktananda, which has also been called a "cult" by critics. Oren's ex-wife Nurit Ilan introduced him to that group.
Itamar Oren's devotees dutifully follow his dictates. They bow to him. And the guru doles out advice to his disciples on everything from diet to personal relationships. Members of the ashram are also expected to perform "service works," which may include cleaning, cooking and tithes, which are typically 10% of their salaries. According to personal accounts Oren manages virtually every facet of his follower's lives, including their frequently strained family relationships. This seems to be part of what one devotee called "sharing his light with all other people."
Until recently Oren occupied a villa in Ganei Tikva, Israel. He now lives in Arad. The guru reportedly has 10 followers, mostly women, living with him. They do his housework, massage and at times even sing for him.
Ex-members speaks out
Former Oren follower Yoni Lerner told an Israeli news reporter, "If there is a black stain in my life, it is the period when I was in Itamar Oren's cult, a year in which I was not conscious. I can't understand how I, with all my rationality and skepticism, got involved in that," he said.
Lerner now lives in Tel Aviv. But six years ago, while he was a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he became a member of the Oren group through his girlfriend.
Lerner said, "She went there three times a week and our home life started to change...I remember one Thursday when I was sick...instead of staying with me, she went to the center. We didn't celebrate New Year's together, because she was at the center."
Following a string of arguments, Lerner learned to go along with his partner even though he "was appalled" and considered the center "a problematic place." He was afraid that being critical of the group would mean losing his girlfriend.
Lerner told a reporter that his girlfriend "got up every morning at five to meditate and chant the 'Guru Gita,' a song of praise to the guru," and "like all the practitioners, we had a puja altar, with a covering and incense. There was a picture of the master next to the altar. His picture was also in my wallet and on the keychain. Some of the people there had his picture on their car's sunscreen. The guru is everywhere, protecting us. His image also appeared in the book of liturgy that we read from. The whole thing bends your mind, shatters you," he explained. "My girlfriend surrendered herself completely," Lerner says that she "viewed Itamar Oren as a divine incarnation."
Isolation and control
Lerner explained, "Oren preaches that we should detach ourselves from our surroundings...I stopped reading books and newspapers, stopped watching TV, the news, going to movies, listening to music. I cut myself off from my friends, from everything. Life outside stopped being real for me... I would feel it wasn't part of me, didn't touch me, that everything that was happening was a lie, that everyone was engaged in vanities. You live from one meeting to the next in the center."
Oren also managed Lerner's relationship. "One of the biggest crises between us happened during a weekend near Lake Kinneret in which we were doing concentrated meditation. I came out of it shattered. My girlfriend was totally cut off; she didn't interact with anyone, me included. We talked to [Oren] about it...he is in the armchair and you are on the floor, never at eye level. He was very involved in our relationship."
Lerner also expressed serious concerns regarding Oren's control over diet and health. "Itamar Oren recommended that everyone have the procedure ["colonic hydrotherapy"] at least once a month," Lerner told a reporter. "He put people on a special diet of juices, and at that time people had enemas left and right, every other day. The whole atmosphere in the center was very supportive of this; it was said to be a liberating experience. Of course, all these diets and enemas entailed payment to the health center. A girl I knew well had a mental breakdown after the procedure and was afterward hospitalized. I refused to do it."
Another former member identified as "B." refused to undergo the treatments. "The people who did the program grew thin; they lost a lot of weight and looked weak," he says. "No one dared say anything negative on the subject. But behind the scenes there was all kinds of whispering about the effects of the program."
Personal history of Itamar Oren
Itamar Oren, formerly known as Sage Narada was born in Yemen as Yehiel Badihi. In 1949 at the age of four his family immigrated to Israel.
His brother Matanya says, "My brother didn't get along with Dad. He was a rebellious boy. As an adolescent, he went to a boarding school in a kibbutz. The brother explained, "What happened to Itamar stems from childhood...the family framework fell apart. It was a tragedy..."
Oren's ex-wife Nurit Ilan now lives in Toronto, Canada. She recalled, "Itamar always wanted to be a guru...he tried to be a guru himself. He behaved like a guru."
Oren became the dominant figure within a Siddha-linked ashram located in Jaffa, Israel. Nurit Ilan told a reporter, "When I started the ashram, Swami Muktananda wanted me to run the center, but Itamar took control. He said he had a gift for spontaneous speech and could sway people. He started to give talks instead of me and all my students became his students."
In 1974, the couple traveled to study at the Siddha Yoga ashram in Oakland, California. However, the swami-in-charge there was critical of his new student from Israel. "He was angry at him. According to Indian tradition, you cannot declare yourself a guru..." Nurit Ilan said.
Ilan told a reporter, "In 1977, we traveled to India and met Swami Muktananda. Half a year later, we returned to Israel and immediately left for an ashram in Vancouver, where we lived for four years. After that we went to India for a year. The swami died in 1982 and we continued with his successor Chidvilasananda in New York. In 1989 the couple moved yet again to Toronto, to study with another spiritual teacher.
Itamar Oren has a 34-year-old daughter named Shirit, and a 5-year-old grandson. He is not in touch with them. "He did not behave well to our daughter," Nurit Ilan said. "He cut off relations with her because she did not follow his path. He wrote her horrid letters. You can have spiritual experiences and experience hallucinations, but it's all a load of nonsense if that's how you treat your daughter," she said.
Oren maintained loose ties with his family. His brother, Matanya says, and "he was only interested in himself. I am not in touch with him..."
In 2008, according to the Registrar of Associations, the Siddha Yoga Association had about 60 registered members and revenues of NIS 256,000 in donations from unknown sources - possibly from the members' tithes - and NIS 25,000 from membership fees: each member pays an additional NIS 50 - NIS 100 a month. Oren is the association's only salaried employee; in 2008, he drew a salary of NIS 79,000.
According to former member identified as "B.," "They tried to market the cleansing program to the public at large - a few weeks of stringent diet and enemas. The program cost NIS 2,000. At the center, almost everyone did it. The moment the Master asks someone, 'Why aren't you doing it?' - he goes and does it."
Families have apparently suffered due to the influence of Itamar Oren, but they seem afraid to speak out. Some were recently interviewed, but were not identified by their full names.
One father has reportedly has not heard from his daughter for more than six months. "She ejected me from her life in the name of divine love," he told a reporter. "My daughter was 24 when she started going to the center...The change was gradual. She stopped dating, started to dress weirdly and set up a shrine for the guru in her room. She cut herself off from her friends. When the guru lived in Petah Tikva she went there to clean and tidy up. She changed very much. When she was here, I had the feeling she wasn't really here," the father said.
The father further explained, "I knew that if I were to say one bad word about the guru I would never see her again. I visited her in the apartment a few times. Each room has a small shrine to the guru, surrounded by pictures of him. At one stage, I tried to find more parents from the group. Some of them had no idea that the place contains a hidden layer of devotedness and addiction, that it's really a cult. I called one of the parents and my daughter found out. Half an hour later, she called to say she was breaking off relations with me."
The father has become increasingly distraught. "A few months ago I had an operation. I went to see her before the operation and found notes on the wall in her handwriting: 'Father is bad,' 'Father is against my path, I have no emotional bond with father.' I was stunned." He said.
Another parent identified only as "A" told a reporter, "My daughter adopted a very strict way of life and gradually everything changed. Whenever she agonized over something she immediately went to Itamar Oren. He started to guide her way of life - how to behave, how to continue her studies - and she just did as he said. I told her, 'I have the feeling that you are growing distant, that you are not with us.' At that time she came to her senses a little. She wasn't living at home and we couldn't know or control what was going on. Until she fell into those enemas and collapsed. One time I came to the center - they told me it was a sublime feeling and that the process cleanses you of all pollution. The treatments are very aggressive. They do a great many. She didn't survive long: she collapsed after two-three treatments."
The mother says that her daughter continues to pay tithes to the group and "claims it does her good, that it strengthens and teaches...And there is nothing I can do. The moment I object, she breaks off contact. He even tells them how many hours a night to sleep," she told a reporter.
"There were periods when I was sick. I suffered from high blood pressure, weakness, nerves. At one stage, I decided to stop getting upset. It's hard. I repress so much. I restrain myself. The main thing is for her to be in touch with me. Relatively, we have good relations. I hope one day she will understand that this is not the way," the mother concluded.
Researcher outlines danger signs
Matti Lieblich, a researcher from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem offered some insights regarding potentially unsafe groups.
She told a reporter, "The line that separates a destructive from a constructive process passes through the question of whether the teacher leaves an opening for doubt, whether he is capable of saying, 'I don't know.' If all doubt is repulsed or prohibited, warning lights should come on. If the teacher is not living in an environment that gives him feedback, if he is not part of a longstanding tradition that has rules, the danger that he will become intoxicated with admiration and power increases significantly. Often such a teacher develops a doctrine of his own."
Lieblich also warned about teachers that "tell the student which car to buy, intervene in his interpersonal relations, far in excess of all boundaries. Gradually, the teacher's influence goes beyond discussions about existential questions and enters areas where he lacks training and knowledge."
"There is 'us' and there is 'them,'" Lieblich said. "I have heard people in such groups give expression to ideologies that justify severe behavior toward 'them,' those who are not in the 'light.'"
Lieblich explained, "People come to spiritual groups because they are occupied with existential questions, questions that arise in periods of crisis and uncertainty. Most of the people are intelligent and complex. There is no research to support the view that people who join cults are weak and problematic."
Attorney Sharona Ben Menashe helps people hurt by cults. Ben Menashe told a reporter, "It is no simple thing to leave a cult. You need great psychological support and also economic support - it's easier if there are supportive parents. People who get out of cults are sometimes incapable of working."
Ben Menashe also explained, "It's like being held in captivity, but not knowing you are a captive, and believing that your captors are your alternative family. People in cults often frighten the members with irrational fears - that if they leave, terrible things will happen to them and their worst fears will come true. It is important to know that these are only phobias that can be treated."
Note: This is a news summary based upon an article "Spiritual Cleansing" published in Haaretz March 4, 2011 by Esti Ahronovitz