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Coercion and rape’: Investigating my yoga school

BBC journalist Ishleen Kaur was a passionate yoga teacher with Sivananda, one of the biggest yoga movements in the world, until a disturbing social media post led her to uncover multiple allegations of sexual abuse spanning decades, right up to the present day.

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.

But then in December 2019, I received a notification on my phone. It was a post in my Sivananda Facebook group about the movement’s late revered founder, Swami Vishnudevananda.

A woman called Julie Salter had written that Vishnudevananda had sexually abused her for three years at the Sivananda headquarters in Canada.

She wrote that when she finally found the strength – decades later – to report this to the Sivananda management board, “the reactions ranged from silence, to the attempt to silence”.

I have now interviewed 14 women who allege abuse at the hands of senior Sivananda teachers, many of whom have not spoken about this to family and friends, let alone made it public. I have also spoken to a former staff member who says her concerns were not addressed by the Sivananda board.

My investigation has exposed claims of an abuse of power and influence within the organisation I once held so dear.

Short presentational grey line

I vividly remember my first day at the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, southern India, where I trained as a yoga teacher in 2014. On the wall was a magnificent photo of Swami Vishnudevananda, Sivananda’s late founder, and the man Julie would go on to expose.

His teachings were so powerful that many yogis renounced all worldly connections and dedicated their lives to the organisation.

I could understand why. I was going through a very challenging time and Sivananda gave me a new-found peace. The asanas – or postures – gave me physical strength; Sivananda’s principles of karma, positive thinking and meditation nourished my soul.

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