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Julie Salter in the 1980s when she was working as the personal assistant to Kuttan Nair, also known as Swami Vishnudevananda. Photo courtesy of Julie Salter.

How a #MeToo Facebook Post Toppled a Yoga Icon

An ex-disciple of Swami Vishnudevananda reveals a decade of abuse, sparking a crisis in Sivananda yoga that is still unfolding

EEarly on December 10, 2019, in the dark of her modest redbrick apartment, Julie Salter, 63, sat at a spartan desk before a glowing blue screen. The dialogue box displayed nine paragraphs that had incubated over the two decades since she left her position at Sivananda yoga — a global network of ashrams and retreat spas once rooted in hippie yoga evangelism, but now famous for yoga tourism and professional training. At 5:15 a.m., she clicked “post” on a testimony of sexual and psychological abuse committed by the group’s founding saint.

“With all the hagiography around Swami Vishnudevananda and his legacy,” she wrote, “with all the wistful wishes, beliefs, and projections, and looking at the ‘good’ done, let’s also face into at least a little of the hidden, the dark… ” Salter wrote that the 11 sleep-deprived and overworked years during which she worked as the personal assistant of Vishnudevananda until his death in 1993 left her sick and dependent. She disclosed that the supposedly celibate guru had “use[d]/abuse[d]” her sexually for three of those years — and that shame, secrecy, fear, and her sense of duty as he became chronically ill-kept her in service to him until she “was too broken to even know how to leave.”

As Salter’s post went viral over the following hours, it joined the broader wave of #MeToo activism in the yoga world that erupted in the fall of 2017, when Karen Rain disclosed that the late Ashtanga yoga founder Pattabhi Jois regularly sexually assaulted her under the guise of “adjustments.” (Rain wrote about her experience for Medium the following year, and 16 women are now on record as Jois survivors.) In 2019, Manouso Manos, a senior teacher in the American Iyengar world, was sanctioned by his community’s trade organization after an investigation determined he had sexually assaulted students over decades. And an arrest warrant for “hot yoga” pioneer Bikram Choudhury for failing to pay a $7 million judgment against him for the sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal of his business manager is now over two years old.

Salter’s yoga friends and colleagues from around the world joined various Facebook threads to recall her tireless, unpaid service to Sivananda (“Shee-vuh-nan-da”) yoga, and express both sorrow at her story and relief that she was finally able to tell it. Then, more women posted testimony about Vishnudevananda.

Lucille Campbell, 65, added to the comment thread, writing that she had “sexual relations” with Vishnudevananda in the 1970s, and that she knew of several other women who had as well.

And Pamela Kyssa, 62, wrote in the thread that the guru raped her in 1979 at a retreat at Windsor Castle outside of London. She was lying on the floor of his room after they had practiced yoga postures together, when Vishnudevananda “placed himself unexpectedly on top of me, pulled down my yoga pants,” she wrote. “That sense of being out of body, when you feel pulled back in by the alarm clock sounding… that is what my experience was… out of my body, coming in to my body with him on top of me.”

Julie Salter and Pamela Kyssa at Salter’s house. Decades after they left Sivananda, they reconnected in the fall of 2019, a few months before Salter’s Facebook post went viral. Photo: Laurence Philomené

BBorn Kuttan Nair in rural South India in 1927, Vishnudevananda was a catalyst of the 1960s, celebrity-fuelled, global yoga boom. He met the Beatles before they met the Maharishi. He gave yogic breathing tips to Mohammed Ali before one of the Frazier fights. He wrote a best-selling yoga manual and barnstormed Europe and the Americas, collecting disciples and donations for the dozen-plus retreat and meditation centers that popped up in his wake — from Montreal to Madrid, and Munich to Montevideo. In 1971, he was dubbed “The Flying Swami” for piloting a psychedelically painted Piper Apache “Peace Plane” from Boston to Ireland on a quest to resolve The Troubles. His plan was to “bomb” Belfast City Hall with leaflets. He picked up Peter Sellers in Dublin for the sortie. Then he flew onwards to scatter flower petals over the frontline of the Indo-Pakistan war. In 1983, he flew an ultralight over the Berlin Wall. He traveled with a homemade “Planet Earth Passport”. Date of birth: “immortal”. Eyes: “intuitive.”

Altruistic or not, Nair’s publicity events and photo ops might have been seen as crass were it not for his legendary pedigree. Back in 1949, in the ancient yoga oasis of Rishikesh, Nair was initiated as a monk and given his religious name by Swami Sivananda, a charismatic hero of India’s modern yoga movement. Nair quickly became Sivananda’s director of physical yoga classes, and in 1957, ventured westward, armed with a meme-able distillation of his master’s teaching: “Health is Wealth, Peace of Mind is Happiness, Yoga shows the way!”

From the start of his mission, public cracks began to show in Vishnudevananda’s proclaimed holism, collectivism, and renunciation of material pleasures.

Nair’s feel-good message recruited enthusiasts to something that seemed more holistic and traditional than the spiritual gymnastics that would eventually merge with aerobics and gym culture to dominate the yoga market. He boiled Sivananda’s religious edicts down into “Five Points of Yoga”: A full package of “proper” exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet (strictly vegetarian), and positive thinking. Nair also bolstered his authenticity by enforcing old monastic rules in his new cosmopolitan centers. Everyone in residence complied with a tight time schedule of devotion and “karma yoga,” a form of unpaid labor said to lead to a state of selflessness.

Nair seemed particularly faithful to Sivananda’s famous obsession with the spiritual virtue of rejecting sex. “Complete celibacy,” his guru intoned in a 1934 book dedicated to the topic, “is the master key to open the realms of Elysian bliss.” Accordingly, beginners in Nair’s ashrams committed to abstinence. Those who stayed made this sacrifice lifelong, sealed by ritual initiation and a spiritual name. Nair even went so far as to puritize yoga history, censoring his translation of a famous medieval yoga text so that its esoteric sexual practices remained hidden.

SSalter, Kyssa, and Campbell had moved in overlapping circles during their era of landlines and snail mail. Now, with their reports funneled together and instantly visible on Facebook, they were suddenly reconnected at the riverhead of a younger generation’s medium and disillusionment.

Within hours, their posts flushed out two more testimonies from women in their thirties, accusing one of Nair’s senior students of sexual harassment and assault. Thamatam Reddy, 53, known within Sivananda yoga as “Prahlad,” travels globally to lead the organization’s teacher training, which cost around $3,000 per head. When recalling their experiences in interviews, both women describe Reddy grooming them while they worked at Sivananda ashrams without pay.

An email sent through Communications Avenue, a Montreal public relations firm representing the Sivananda executive board (which consists of Nair devotees, and where Reddy serves as a member) acknowledged they had received testimonies in 2011 and 2017 similar to those posted about Reddy.

“We wish to point out that we have well-established policies and procedures for dealing with allegations of misconduct,” the email said, linking to a policy page. While Sivananda’s executive board said in a new email that they began creating an anti-harassment policy in the 2000s, a web-archive search appears to show that the verbiage related to sexual misconduct was not published until 2019.

“With regards to the allegations made by Julie Salter on Facebook,” the statement said, “we expect to be in a position to name the third party that will be conducting the investigation shortly.”

Six weeks after Salter’s post, the executive board announced they had hired Montreal lawyer Marianne Plamondon to “investigate the allegations made by Julie Salter and two other complainants.” Reached by phone in Montreal, Plamondon confirmed she had received questions via email about the scope of the investigation, whether its findings would be made public, and why Sivananda members with grievances against the organization would want to talk to a lawyer hired by the organization. Plamondon declined to comment during the call. In a follow-up email she wrote, “I will not make any statement to any third party either on the mandate that was awarded to me or the progress of the investigation.” The investigation, she wrote, was limited to “allegations that were made by three complainants about Swami Vishnudevananda.”

The executive board has not reached out to Salter, Kyssa, or Campbell about the proposed investigation. The last time they collectively contacted Salter was in 2007, when they sent her a letter threatening her with a defamation suit.

Julie Salter with Swami Vishnudevananda in Kerala, India in 1993. Photo courtesy of Julie Salter.

LLucille Campbell joined the community at the age of 17, in 1971, three years after her father died, during a time in which she felt “all alone in my life,” as she said in an interview. By 1974, she had become the director of the Vancouver Sivananda Centre. That summer, the center hosted a rural retreat. One day, Campbell says, she opened the door to Nair’s cabin and found him having sex with a female staff member.

“I closed the door,” she said. “I was totally frozen. I was 21. I was still very young. And then at meditation he told me how good I was and everything. I froze, I never talked to anyone about that.”

Soon after, Campbell took the renunciation and celibacy vows of a Swami. She was meditating and practicing yoga twice a day, doing deep breathing exercises, and working for free.

“My meditation was very focused on Swamiji because he’s the guru and the scriptures say the guru is God. But then I had a very funny experience of light that I didn’t understand. And Swamiji realized that I’d had it too, because after the class he told me I was an advanced student.” Campbell says that his flattery encouraged her to attribute the radiant light to Nair. “I thought it was transferred from the guru.”

“So I went very naively to give him a massage. I was not ever forced, but suddenly it became oral sex. What confused me is that he didn’t ejaculate. I thought that maybe he is doing this just to push the Kundalini [a yoga term for a mystical spiritual energy] up. Maybe it’s a type of Tantra yoga or something.”

None of this was openly discussed, Campbell said, but her reading at the time had exposed her to an old alchemical idea: That the male yogi who engaged in intercourse but “remained continent” could somehow sublimate the power of reproduction into spiritual ecstasy, leading to the “birth” of a new self.

The second time Nair asked her to perform a sexual act, Campbell’s response carried the echo of her prior meditations. She left his room feeling enshrouded in a large aura. “I felt I was walking in light.”

But when Nair asked for sex a third time, Campbell knew it was wrong and refused. In 1975, Campbell says, three women approached her to mention sexual incidents with Nair. Two of the women, Campbell says, were celibate initiates. She says that one of the two described her involvement in group sex with Nair, saying it was “fun.” The third was married at the time, and left the organization immediately after the guru propositioned her. Campbell remembers the spiritual names of two of the women, but did not wish to disclose their names or identities to respect their privacy.

“There’s a point where there is an absolute disgust,” Campbell said. “It took me a little while to leave, but I left.”

Campbell still teaches yoga in Montreal, but is allergic to the mystification that gave Nair such power. “Hormones and neurotransmitters,” she said, when asked how she now understands the aura and light she felt in his presence. “We do not understand all the effects of the emotions on the brain.”

WWith stories like Salter’s and Campbell’s in the shadows, Nair’s organization has for decades broadcast a wholesome brand through its network of meditation centers and ashrams that offer destination yoga vacations. At the Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California, visitors can walk the “Miracle Peace Labyrinth” or spend the day at the spa, slathered in oils for Ayurvedic massage. The Bahamas resort on Paradise Island is a hub for touring yoga celebrities, and the ashrams of India churn out round after round of graduates from the lucrative Sivananda teachers’ training course. (Over 45,000 graduates since 1969.) Nair’s beatific portrait, often larger than life, has always beamed down on temple spaces throughout the world, and the booklets handed out to staffers, guests, and trainees feature prayers that call on his name.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Nair’s public image. From the start of his mission, public cracks began to show in his proclaimed holism, collectivism, and renunciation of material pleasures. In 1971, followers took Nair to court over his plans to mortgage the organization’s midtown Manhattan center to pay for upgrades to his private plane. One exhibit letter filed with the New York Supreme Court case shows that his followers accused him of clerical sexual abuse of a student named Irene. The court dismissed the complaint.

“That sense of being out of body, when you feel pulled back in by the alarm clock sounding…that is what my experience was…out of my body, coming in to my body with him on top of me.”

In 1974, Canadian journalist Marci McDonald traveled to Nair’s headquarters in the Laurentians on a profile assignment. Her stinging title echoed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line about the rich — “Swami Vishnudevananda Is Not Like You and Me” — and her narrative detailed a scene of spiritual hypocrisy and psychological compliance. We see Nair trying to grandiosely demonstrate a precarious arm-balance pose, only to topple over, obviously out of shape. We gawk at the fancy cars available to him, hear him claim he’s too enlightened to be attached to riches, and we meet Gopi and Shyamala, two young female attendants, demur and exhausted, rushing to mop up spilled milk from his goblet.

McDonald ends the article with a scene from the eve of her last day at the ashram. On the path back to the dormitory, she came across a woman, stumbling shoeless through the rainy night. Through tears she cried out, “Swamiji, how could you?” McDonald realized it was Gopi. “Discovered, she is suddenly quiet, will take only my blanket to shelter her,” McDonald wrote. “She stays there, huddled under a tree alone in the rain.”

Reached by phone this past month, McDonald recalled that chilling moment. “Everything in my mind suggested sexual abuse,” she said. In remembering Gopi, who has since passed, she noted, “I all but spelled out my suspicions that he had abused this young woman.”

But it wasn’t the #MeToo era. “I was not surprised that Gopi wouldn’t confide in us,” McDonald said. “I’d have even been shocked if she had said, ‘Oh, he did this terrible thing to me. We’ve got to go to the police.’ I would have gone, but it would have been outstanding in that particular time historically for that to happen.”

“I guess my way of standing up for justice was to spell out what I saw and let people come to their own conclusions.”

JJulie Salter first arrived at Nair’s headquarters in Val Morin, Quebec in 1978, one year after entering his community in Tel Aviv and four years after McDonald’s article had been published. She arrived during a kind of heyday, with the ashram bustling with swamis and programs. But by 1982, Salter said, the staff was sharply reduced, worked to the bone, and some devotees seemed to be suffering from mental health issues. Nair himself appeared to be neglected and prone to fits of depression. A lifelong vegetarian with few people around at that point to prepare the South Indian food he loved, he often subsisted on things like cheese sandwiches, rice pudding, and tins of peas. He’d developed diabetes and was often in extreme pain. Salter felt a strong maternal impulse rise up toward him.

That year, Nair asked her to be his personal secretary. He set her up in his small house with a computer to take dictation for letters to his lieutenants around the world and a book that would never be published. The hours were endless. Salter said that Nair had “no biorhythm at all.” He’d stay up all night, demanding tea or soup, napping an hour or two, then jumping up again to make a call overseas. Added to this was constant international travel with Salter at his side, keeping track of every detail.

In accordance with his spiritual rules, Salter worked for the swami for decades without pay. Eventually, she was “too broken to even know how to leave.” Photo courtesy of Julie Salter.

In 1983, Nair started to ask Salter to massage him, and at one point asked her to lie down with him on the floor post-massage. “But I don’t understand, Swamiji,” she told him. “Tantric yoga,” he replied.

“The line was crossed,” Salter wrote in 2005, in personal notes reviewed by GEN. It remained crossed for three years. “Lack of boundaries… ungroundedness… obedience as I had heard taught in this ‘spiritual’ tradition… the limbo that could be mine if I broke with the teacher… I had heard the teachings where really disobeying/breaking with the guru is as good as spiritual suicide.”

Salter found her role as Nair’s attendant expanding despite being disgusted, spiraling into shame and self-blame. She described “deeply confusing roles — as student, secretary, often mother, some would say daughter, and sexual ‘partner’ — though ‘partner’ does not indicate what was really happening.”

Her sleep was whittled down to a few hours per night. She subsisted on juice and cookies while working or on the phone. She developed digestive and other issues. Once, Nair yelled at her for hours for mentioning she was tired. Another time, Salter said, Nair hit her across the face after falsely accusing her of having an affair with another staffer. The assault left a mark. She recalls telling a colleague the mark had come from an accident.

“On several occasions, I considered leaving but never did,” Salter wrote. “My level of exhaustion was acute for many years, with long hours of work and insomnia all mixed with the burden of secrecy.” One day, she said by phone, “I smelled fear really strongly coming off me.” Another time, she said, “I heard my brain ‘snap.’”

As Salter’s condition worsened, Nair’s dependence on her increased. She scrambled to keep his insulin regulated, to administer his dialysis as he traveled to and from India, to translate his slurred speech after he had a stroke, and to nurse him after a car accident that punctured his lung and broke his neck.

“I remember he kept saying, ‘My neck is hurting, don’t leave me. My neck is hurting, don’t leave me. My neck is hurting, don’t leave me.’ Like a little kid to his mother.”

TThe first Sivananda yoga event Pamela Kyssa attended was a fasting weekend in her hometown of London in 1979. She was 20 at the time. She described being “love bombed” by group members — a term used in cultic studies for the recruitment tactic of showering a newcomer with attention and affection to create an instant sense of indebtedness and attachment. Within a few weeks, Kyssa had given up her club nights to move into the London center. Nair came to town and gave newcomers their mantras — a private prayer to be recited constantly, to cleanse the mind of other thoughts. He also gave her the name “Padma,” meaning lotus. Kyssa gave away all her Kensington Market fashion finds and adopted the yellow robes of a novice.

On a group retreat at Windsor Castle, Nair called for her to massage him, which she did for two hours, after which they did yoga postures together, ending in a relaxation pose.

When she realized that Nair was lying on top of her and beginning to penetrate her, Kyssa remembered saying “Swamiji, I don’t want to get pregnant!”

“That was instead of saying ‘Get off me,’” Kyssa said in an interview. “What threw me off the sense that this was rape was that it wasn’t violent — pin me down and punch me or something and force himself in me and rip my pants off or something like that. I’m sort of embarrassed to be 62 years old and realize now that that was rape.”

In 1981, Kyssa was working at the Sivananda Yoga Ranch in upstate New York. A senior staff member summoned her to bathe Nair, saying that he was ill and needed help. While she was drying his feet after the bath, she said, he pulled her head toward his penis. She pulled her head out of his grip. “I stared at him with anger,” she said by phone. “I walked out. I realize now that this was an act of power. What the hell did he want?”

The year before Nair died, Kyssa went to Val Morin at New Year’s, determined to speak to the guru. She remembers that Salter was standing beside him to interpret his speech. (Salter does not recall the meeting.) Kyssa was struck by Salter’s condition. She looked like “an exhausted, little drowned rat, bless her heart,” Kyssa said.

Kyssa asked for privacy with the guru, and remembers Nair waving Salter away. Kyssa’s first impulse, seeing him so diminished, was to apologize for having harbored anger toward him for so many years. But she also confronted him.

“’It’s been very difficult for me to live with what happened, and I’ve had no one to speak to. It wasn’t okay that you were sexual with me.’”

“He cut me off and said, ‘I don’t remember! I don’t remember!’ He kept saying that quite loud.”

Piecing her story back together after so many years is a struggle, but Kyssa feels it’s essential. “I’m very much for coherence, and so to have incoherence within my own being is such a compromise,” she said.

“It’s really important to stand in truth. That’s the only way you’re going to heal.”

Pamela Kyssa describes the process of reconnecting with fellow survivors and speaking clearly about her past as feeling like “a movie that starts in black and white, and then the colors suddenly come in.” Photo: Laurence Philomené

WWhen asked over the phone if Nair had ever thanked her for her years of service, Salter paused for a long time.

“The only thing I remember,” she said quietly, “was that at the end of his life he did say: ‘Because you’ve taken such good care of me, you’ll be taken care of.’”

In 2005, Salter began communicating with her old colleagues on the executive board. She was struggling financially and with her health, and tried to request some form of pension or compensation from the organization.

The board’s point person in this exchange was Mark Ashley, 57, known in the organization as Srinivasan, and director of the Yoga Ranch. Over several exchanges, Ashley helped arrange a meeting between Salter and board members, and expressed the hope that “misunderstandings” could be straightened out. That didn’t happen.

Salter engaged a Toronto law firm to explore her options. In July 2007, Danny Kastner, an apprentice at the firm, wrote a letter to the Sivananda executive board on her behalf. Kastner had grown up in the community, attending kids’ camp in the summers at Val Morin in the early 1990s.

Kastner remembers the letter detailing Salter’s 22 years of unpaid labor and asserted that Swami Vishnu regularly sexually abused her, and that a number of senior staff were aware of it.

A draft copy of the letter obtained by GEN also said that after leaving Sivananda in 1999 without the board’s approval, Salter was diagnosed with exhaustion, heart palpitations, insomnia, and depression. And it recounted how two years of prior negotiations had yielded a crude offer of $300 per month to Salter until age 65. The letter proposed a one-time settlement of $600,000, which would avoid public litigation.

“He cut me off and said, ‘I don’t remember! I don’t remember!’ He kept saying that quite loud.”

By phone, Kastner explained that the proposed settlement amount was calculated to provide Salter with a house and a fund for upkeep. “I fully expected,” Kastner said, “that having explained how deteriorated Julie’s health was, and after reminding them of her sacrifice to the organization — which went well beyond the normal sacrifice expected of devotees — I felt sure that they would come to the discussion in the spirit of compassion based on the professed principles of the organization.”

But on August 27, 2007, Salter received a letter on behalf of the executive board from the Montreal office of Stikeman Elliot LLP, a law firm renowned for aggressive litigation. The letter denied Salter’s claims and declared that her work for Sivananda was voluntary and “motivated by her personal beliefs and faith.” It blasted Salter’s complaints as “frivolous” and “inappropriate, aggressive, and unfair,” and stated that “it is bizarre and suspicious that Ms. Salter is choosing to raise this matter 14 years after the death of Swami Vishnudevananda.”

The letter ended with a threat: “We reserve our rights to take all appropriate recourses in defamation against whoever we consider appropriate in order to protect the rights and reputation of Sivananda and of Swami Vishnudevananda.”

TThat brief legal exchange was enough to silence Salter and protect the Sivananda executive board from the wrath of its congregation for 12 years. But now, with a bedrock of #MeToo support behind them, online responses to Salter’s post have revealed a family-like global community ready to fiercely defend its own. Within days, one public and two private Facebook groups were set up as clearinghouses for pent-up frustrations and reform plans. Long-term members were soon talking about the possibility of a class-action suit against the organization for fraudulently representing Nair’s image and legacy.

The feeling was immediately revolutionary and showed that many students have taken the group’s teachings of selfless service and altruism to heart. The activism also seemed strengthened by the close bonds formed through volunteerism and during the notoriously austere Sivananda training programs.

At the heart of Sivananda’s rank-and-file unity is the boot camp-like experience of the organization’s teacher training course. Its 200-hour structure has provided the educational roadmap for yoga trainings throughout the wider industry. Its intensity is a crucible for indoctrination, lifelong bonding, or both. For four weeks, participants are awoken at 5:30 a.m., check in at six with their homework before morning chanting and a sermon, are led through yoga sequences at eight, work at cooking or cleaning till noon, and then attend lectures — some of which consist of documentaries of Nair. There’s more yoga in the afternoon, and top the day off with a night-time sermon. Two vegetarian meals are provided.

For Lara Marjerrison, 49, who has been doing yoga at the Toronto Sivananda Centre for 17 years, the brutal schedule of the course demanded that trainees support each other, resolve their conflicts, and appreciate each other’s idealism. “We didn’t have the opportunity to leave the table,” she said by phone. “I remember vividly looking down that giant yoga hall and seeing a hundred perfect, beautiful, aligned headstands and the harmony that radiated from that vision and from each person in the room and how much we had changed. It’s something I’ll never forget. For me it was a microcosm of what’s possible in the bigger world. If we are willing to stay at the table with one another. That peace is possible if we can just sit in the discomfort of our differences and communicate with one another with respect and dignity, acknowledge what hurts, acknowledge what we’re afraid of.”

“Jaya” doesn’t want her real name used for fear of possible repercussions. She has practiced at the Sivananda Centre in Paris for 20 years, and believes that the group’s hierarchy is now its Achilles heel. “The authoritarian structure makes you feel like a naughty child at school,” she said by phone. “And because you have lots of other naughty children that you’re hanging out with, you returned to that kind of crazy, childlike, euphoric transgression. We would laugh ourselves silly at one particular swami. We called her Darth Vader, with her haircut and these glasses and because of her rigidity.”

The underdog hijinks were part of what kept Jaya coming back. “But now,” she said, referring to the Salter crisis, “It’s real, proper abuse. We knew it really because we saw how they treated some of the permanent staff. Their authoritarianism bonded us in fellowship, and now we’re holding them to account as a group.”

Vishnudevananda with his disciples toward the end of his life. The swami died in 1993 at the age of 65. Photo courtesy of Julie Salter.

SSalter’s post appeared on a Tuesday. By Friday, the Sivananda executive board released a statement on Facebook acknowledging the testimony, alluding to their policies and procedures, and asking anyone with allegations to email them to Communications Avenue. Over the weekend, Christmas celebrations scheduled at several centers worldwide were canceled in favor of “satsangs” or lectures that would address the news and allow for questions. In Toronto, staffers at the gathering were reportedly given newly printed t-shirts that read, “United We Live; Divided We Perish.” One member reported on Facebook that the Val Morin headquarters were temporarily removing Nair’s portrait and name from the morning chants.

In New York, Ashley (who helped negotiate Salter’s grievance beginning in 2005) opened the evening meeting with a hagiographical account of Nair’s virtues, going so far as to quote Nair himself about the dangers of power and corruption and following a guru.

“Now there’ve been a lot of accusations that have come out,” Ashley said, according to an audio recording of the meeting that was posted online. “I have no idea if any of them are true or not true. I mean it is not for me to say. I think that if Swami Vishnu was here he would say, ‘This is true, that’s not true.’ And he would be the first person to apologize, and I can’t apologize for somebody…

“There’s absolutely no way of my knowing that, and I don’t know anybody else can know that except for maybe people who were there. And even for the people who were there: over 35, 40 years, the narrative changes.”

The remaining 90 minutes of the meeting consisted of group members — mostly women who cited decades of experience in the group — grilling Ashley with questions on what the executive board knew about Salter’s experience and when as well as what accountability processes the organization would be following.

“I think that is just too easy to put something on Facebook,” Ashley fired back. “People share some of their experiences and that becomes a trial, a judge, a jury, and it’s madness.”

He tried to end the meeting on a conciliatory note. “In terms of your processing,” he said, “this is very painful for all of us. If you have personal injuries that have happened in relationship to the organization, I feel a lot of pain for you with that and the fact that the things that happened and if they haven’t been resolved, we would like to resolve anything.

“The executive board has not enabled any corruption at all. Anything the executive board knows is going on, we act on it. When we don’t know what’s going on then we don’t act on it.”

Ashley ended the meeting by leading the group in a chant of om. He did not respond to a direct request for comment.

TThe two women who posted on Facebook that Reddy harassed them sexually reiterated their stories in interviews. Both requested that their names be withheld, with one citing privacy concerns, and the other fearing retaliation from the organization. Both described Reddy sexually harassing them while they were doing Karma yoga during training programmes he was directing at ashrams in two different countries.

One woman described how the harassment led to repeated hugging and groping while she was alone, cleaning the temple. “He did not ask me: ‘Do you want me, do you like me?’ No, he would just come and just do it.” She said she turned him back when he explicitly asked for sex.

“I don’t want this to be something that continues,” the other woman said. She described Reddy cloaking sexual harassment in the guise of offering spiritual advice and physiotherapy in private meetings with trainees, who are mostly female. “My intention for coming forward is to stop this type of behavior,” one said. “This would mean that this person would need to step down and get some proper help.”

“It’s real, proper abuse. We knew it really because we saw how they treated some of the permanent staff. Their authoritarianism bonded us in fellowship, and now we’re holding them to account as a group.”

Both women said that when they made their complaints known to Sivananda executives, they were referred to a New York lawyer named Lanny Alexander as a type of mediator for the organization. One woman describes Alexander phoning her at odd hours, asking her to prove her allegation, and eventually saying that if the woman wasn’t intending on taking legal action there was nothing to discuss. The other woman declined to contact Alexander. Neither testimony has apparently been fully investigated by any organization or company associated with the Sivananda executive board.

Ashley identified Alexander during his New York talk as a dedicated student of the organization who has been handling grievances for the “past 15 years or so,” but that she would no longer play that role because she was “too close to the organization.”

Communications Avenue, the PR firm, confirmed in an email that Alexander worked with the organization to develop and promote sexual harassment policies, and “has assisted in conducting investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct” for Sivananda yoga. In a follow-up email that asked whether Alexander had specific training in trauma awareness, Communications Avenue said that the organization “relies on other external professionals in relation to psychological and trauma counseling.” When asked who those professionals were, a spokesman replied “I don’t believe that it is appropriate to provide you with this information.”

Alexander did not reply to questions about her relationship to Sivananda yoga, her professional training, or how the grievance process works.

TThe weeks since December 10 haven’t been easy for Salter. In the aftermath of her post, “My body went into extreme stress response,” she said. She described being feverish, sleepless, not being able to eat, losing hair. Slowly, however, she’s been gaining strength, supported by her partner, going for long winter walks, and turning to cozy and crafty things like knitting and crochet.

“I want a safe space where people are heard, not negated, or treated as disposable,” she said. “On another level, it’s like: ‘Get on with it.’ I’m not really interested in that particular yoga group anymore.”

For Kyssa, the hurricane of online activity has been exhausting. But she also describes the process of reconnecting with fellow survivors and speaking clearly about her past as feeling like “a movie that starts in black and white, and then the colors suddenly come in.”

“It’s such a wild factor to have your familiar energy back again,” she said. “I thought I was just old. I mean — I am old. But what’s happening is that some familiar vitality is coursing through my body again. From me. It’s amazing. It’s amazing what happens.”

Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher and writer living in Toronto. If you have information you would like to share about your experience with Sivananda yoga, you can contact him at

Investigative journo: conspirituality & cults. Co-host at Bylines: GEN, The Walrus. More @

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