BBC Journalist Investigates Abuse in the Sivananda Yoga Organisation
Ishleen Kaur had been a teacher with the centre on Felsham Road
A BBC journalist has written a detailed account of abuse allegations concerning Sivananda, one of the biggest yoga movements in the world, which has a centre in Putney.
Ishleen Kaur worked at the centre on Felsham Road as a teacher for five years, having visited Kerala in 2014 to be trained, and was a passionate advocate of the discipline until a social media post led her to investigate a number of allegations of sexual abuse within the global organisations over the past few decades. There are nearly 60 Sivananda ashrams and centres in 35 countries around the world and nearly 50,000 trained Sivananda teachers.
No indication has been given that any of the allegations refer to sexual abuse at the Putney centre or by teachers who are employed there.
She says, “Since I discovered yoga in my mid-20s, it had become a huge part of my world. Like many devoted yogis, it was not just an exercise class for me, but a way of life. I didn't just teach classes at my local Sivananda centre, I volunteered to cook and clean there too. Sivananda teachings influenced every aspect of my existence.”
However, a Facebook post on the Sivananda Facebook group she saw in December 2019 on informed her about allegations that had been made by a woman called Julie Slater concerning the movement's founder, Swami Vishnudevananda.
She claimed that she had been abused by him over three years at the Sivananda headquarters in Canada and when she reported the abuse to the Sivananda management board, some years later, they attempted to silence her.
Early in 2020 two Sivananda board members visited the Putney centre to talk to staff there about the allegations including Ishleen Kaur. She said, “I hoped they would answer at least some of the many questions I had swirling around my head. But their response was vague, and they seemed defensive during the Q and A that followed. I knew I would have to speak to Julie myself.”
After talking to Julie, she was prompted to investigate the organisation further and she interviewed 14 women who told her that they had been abused at the hands of senior Sivananda teachers one of whom the BBC believes is still active in the organisation in India. Many of the accusations related to the centre in Canada.
Carol Merchasin, a lawyer crowdfunded by Project Satya a Facebook Group of former members of the organisation, says 25-to-30 women have given her credible accounts of sexual assault against them by Sivananda staff.
A statement issued by the Sivananda organisation’s board says, “"The Board of Trustees fully sympathises with those who came forward and offers any individual who feels that they might have been affected by the conduct referred to in the [BBC investigation] its assurance that it will not tolerate abuse or disregard inappropriate behaviour. It apologises unreservedly for any historic mistakes which it made in addressing the allegations detailed in the [investigation].
"As a result of those allegations, Sivananda has commissioned an independent investigation, and has appointed legal experts who have helped to review and implement safeguarding policies, and put in place appropriate training. The Sivananda Organisation has established a confidential reporting facility for anyone who is concerned about abuse. It is an absolute priority for the Sivananda Organisation that anyone coming into contact with it, in whatever capacity, is safeguarded from abuse or suffering. The Sivananda Organisation is a monastic order dedicated to physical, mental, and spiritual health and is committed to the safety of all of its members."
Ishleen Kaur says she visited the ashram in Putney this April although she did not enter commenting, “It struck me that the all-consuming nature of Sivananda that had attracted me was also what could make it so dangerous. The women I have spoken to all told me it was easy to lose a sense of reality, which made it harder to question what was going on.”
We have asked the Sivananda centre in Putney for comment.
The BBC investigation by Ishleen Kaur and produced by Louise Adamou is available on a podcast which can be accessed through BBC Sounds.
July 9, 2021