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
Early 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.