How a journalist devotee helped expose sexual abuse at Sivananda Yoga

Ishleen Kaur considered the yoga organisation as a second home until she launched an investigation that resulted in the BBC documentary ‘Guru’.

BySupriti David
How a journalist devotee helped expose sexual abuse at Sivananda Yoga
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Guru is a story of faith and devotion, it’s a story of betrayal and pain. This is how journalist Ishleen Kaur describes the BBC World Service Radio and BBC Sounds documentary podcast investigating allegations of sexual and emotional abuse at Sivananda Yoga, often described as one of the world's “most respected” Yoga organisations. It’s a story that Ishleen, who helped write and produce it, says “broke her heart”.

The reason why the investigation was such a personal journey for Ishleen is that she had been associated with Sivananda for six years and referred to it as her second home. It was more than a yoga school for her, it was a way of life.

However, the seemingly unconditional love she felt towards the organisation shattered when she learnt from a Facebook post in December 2019 about the sinister underbelly it bore.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Ishleen said, “Sivananda was my second home and its people my family. Imagine finding out that a family member was abusing one of your siblings, it was that wounding for me personally. When I finally decided to pursue the story, I knew this would be the end of my relationship with Sivananda and I think it has been more poignant than I had ever imagined. I have grieved the loss of something that I held very close to my heart. It's been difficult but I know it was the right thing to do.”

Over 15 months, Ishleen contacted 14 victims who confided in her their stories of cruelty, coercion, rape, and even the sexual assault of a child. They also claimed the organisation failed to respond adequately to the allegations.

The first of the three-part series, titled Guru: Living a Lie, focuses on the harrowing journey of Julie Salter, who accused the late founder of the organisation, Swami Vishnudevananda, of systematically grooming and sexually abusing her.

The episode carefully explores the tragic and complex internal war that Julie went through, not only as a young disciple and victim but also now as a survivor. When she had joined, Julie truly believed only death would separate her from the organisation she loved.

But after years of abuse, whenever she found herself wanting to leave, she said, Swami Vishnudevananda would fall ill and she would convince herself to wait until he got better. In the last few months of Swami Vishnudevananda’s life she recalled thinking, “I wanted him to die. I wanted him to die for my sake. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

When she did leave the organization after 21 years in 1999, six years after the Swami’s death, she barely made it out alive. She suffered from several ailments, including depression, insomnia, and extreme exhaustion.

In 2019, Julie wrote the Facebook post which would prompt Ishleen to investigate the yoga organisation in the hope that by speaking out she could save others from suffering in the way she did. And it did just that, because the abuse at Sivananda did not end with Vishnudevananda.

Now that the documentary is out, Ishleen hoped Sivananda’s caretakers would listen to those who have suffered at the organisation and have an open conversation with the rest of the community about how to resolve this crisis.

“But there’s still something that troubles me,” Ishleen added. “During our investigation, the women who came forward were all westerners. That doesn’t mean Indian women haven’t been affected as well. The thing is, it’s harder for Indian women, there is a cultural barrier that we come up against, the patriarchal grip on society is still very tight. My hope is that after listening to our series, any women who haven’t been heard will at least know that they are not alone.”

The second and third episodes, titled Guru: A Dark Legacy and Who Knew What and When, focus on the abuse that followed the founder's death in 1993.

Talking about how it felt investigating an organisation she was so closely connected to, Ishleen said, “Because I’ve been a part of this community, I could understand how hard it was for each one of them to detail their accounts of being sexually and emotionally abused. Some pre-interviews and interviews were tough, some cathartic, and all of them were helpful in a different way.”

She’s content though that she could carry out a fair investigation and ask hard questions with some sense of sensitivity. “Personally, it's made me a better person,” she added.

In view of the allegations brought out by the documentary, Ishleen said, Sivananda Yoga has commissioned an independent investigation and reviewed and implemented safeguarding policies and training in the organisation.

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