Shielded for Decades, A Yoga Leader’s Alleged Sexual Abuse Finally Comes Under Fire
In the yoga world’s latest #MeToo episode, activists are rising up against the spiritual institution that failed them
In January, I reported that one of the world’s most celebrated yoga empires was shaken to its core by a single Facebook post. Julie Salter, 63, had turned the polished branding of Sivananda yoga inside out by writing that its founding saint, Swami Vishnudevananda, had sexually and physically abused her during the 11 years she’d spent as his unpaid personal assistant, prior to his death in 1993. The organization has responded by launching an independent investigation, and individual centers are debating whether to remove the guru’s portrait from its altars around the world. But they’ve also posted reaffirmations of his wisdom on social media and are moving ahead with a project to release more of his archived sermons.
But allies of Salter who still identify with Sivananda yoga have issued a startling rebuke to their former leaders. They’ve rejected the terms and scope of the Sivananda-appointed investigator and launched a crowdfunded inquiry of their own called “Project SATYA.” (“Satya” is a Sanskrit term for “truth”; the acronym stands for Sivananda Accountability Truth-Seeking Yogic Action.) The DIY effort is like rank-and-file Boston Catholics hiring their own gumshoes to investigate abuse in their archdiocese. To date, SATYA says that it has received 19 complaints and has completed seven formal interviews. For the dissidents of Sivananda (“Shee-vuh-nan-da”) — as for activists following the Harvey Weinstein trial — Salter’s testimony about her famous abuser isn’t a story about crimes long past. It spotlights a living network of complicity and cover-up that has paved the way for a current leader in the Sivananda organization, Thamatam Reddy, 53, to mimic the founder’s corruption.
Salter’s story has become emblematic of a deluge of institutional abuse crises in the unregulated yoga world, where charismatic patriarchs have routinely assumed spiritual control over the bodies and labor of their devotees, enabled by classic cultic modes of deception and manipulation. It’s also become a case study in whether the #MeToo movement can mobilize communities against the institutions they believe have failed to protect them.
Yoga Alliance — the largest nonprofit credentialing body outside of India — has struggled for decades to address industry scandals. As another round of abuse revelations crested in January 2018, Shannon Roche, then the chief operating officer, issued a stark collective confession in a video message released to over 100,000 members, Reddy included.
To date, three of the global yoga schools inspired by Swami Sivananda’s 1930s mission are now known or alleged to have been headed up by sexual predators.
“There’s a deeply troubling pattern of sexual misconduct within our community,” Roche said, “a pattern that touches almost every tradition in modern yoga. Every human being deserves to practice yoga free from abuse, harassment, and manipulation. In honor of those who have spoken up, and in honor of those who have been too hurt to speak, we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now.”
“Almost every tradition” is not an exaggeration. To date, three of the global yoga schools inspired by Swami Sivananda’s 1930s mission (one being Sivananda yoga) are now known or alleged to have been headed up by sexual predators. Sixteen women are on record describing Pattabhi Jois, the late founder of Ashtanga yoga, assaulting or digitally raping them under the guise of “adjustments.” The international Iyengar world is struggling to strip a senior teacher, Manouso Manos, of his tenacious social capital after an internal investigation found a decades-long history of assault. Hot yoga founder Bikram Choudhury has been accused of rape and sexual assault by several women. In January, Pamela Dyson, a former secretary of the late Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, known as “Yogi Bhajan” and the founder of Kundalini yoga, published her memoir. It opens with her description of almost bleeding out on an airplane sitting next to Khalsa, caused by the abortion she’d had months before in India. Khalsa was the father. She wakes up in a London hospital wondering whether to risk telling the staff about the abortion, knowing it would expose Khalsa as a fraud. He towers over her and tells her to pray.
For the first GEN feature, I interviewed Salter and two other women about their experience with the supposedly celibate Vishnudevananda — born Kuttan Nair — who has been lauded for decades as one of the leading lights of the global yoga boom. Pamela Kyssa described Nair raping her, and Lucille Campbell described Nair sexually abusing her, witnessing an instance of sexual abuse against another, and hearing from still other students regarding their abuse experiences. Other interviewees included two women who accused Reddy, one of Nair’s most prominent protégées, of sexual harassment and abuse in incidents dating back to 2011. According to an email statement from Sivananda yoga spokesman Jonathan Goldbloom, Reddy has “vehemently denied” these stories. Since publication, two more women have come forward with testimonies of sexual abuse by Reddy.
How a #MeToo Facebook Post Toppled a Yoga Icon
An ex-disciple of Swami Vishnudevananda detailed more than a decade of sexual and psychological abuse
Lydia Coquet, 46, describes Reddy sexually abusing her in 2000 in the South Indian ashram where he was leading a teacher training. In an interview, Coquet said that Reddy flattered her yoga postures and her body, saying that her olive complexion and dark hair made her look like “a beautiful Indian girl.” But while she was caring for his daughter as part of her unpaid ashram duties, he would order her to visit his room at night. She remembers kissing and touching. “We did not have sex, but quite close,” she said when recalling numerous instances. Coquet was confused about the ethics of it, about the rule that students and staff were meant to be celibate at the ashram, and about the portrait of Nair’s guru, Swami Sivananda, hanging over Reddy’s bed. It was even more confusing, she said, because Reddy was in a leadership position, and his Indian staff all praised his virtue. She didn’t know Reddy was still married. Coquet was scared that he might dismiss her from her position if she didn’t comply. She came back night after night as he demanded. This slashed her sleep to just a few hours per night, which made her daily duties difficult. She was afraid to tell anyone about what was happening.
“I kind of fainted or something in the asana class,” she says, recalling her tearful fatigue while practicing yoga under Reddy’s instruction. “I got up from the floor and he came to me… ‘You’re just too weak, too emotional’” she remembers Reddy saying. After that, Coquet says, Reddy ignored her. By email, Goldbloom wrote that the organization had not yet heard this allegation. “We encourage the complainant to bring this matter to the attention of Ms. Plamondon”, he wrote, naming the independent investigator appointed by Sivananda yoga.
A second testimony against Reddy comes from a woman who was a minor at the time of the incidents. Some details of her experience were first published in Montreal’s Le Devoir on February 26, using the pseudonym “Nadine,” which I will use here as well, as she wishes to protect her privacy and that of her family. Nadine describes Reddy sexually assaulting and harassing her in the 1990s when she was aged 12 to 17. In interviews conducted in January and February, Nadine and her parents told me that two current Sivananda executive board members were informed of the abuse story almost 20 years ago. One of those executives, Mark Ashley, was still on the Sivananda board when Reddy was promoted to the board in 2016 and is still on the board today. He did not respond to a direct request for comment via email, nor to a request made to the board.
Reddy is currently in India, where Sivananda maintains several ashrams. After I requested a comment from Reddy and the executive board about the stories from Coquet and Nadine, the board issued a statement on Facebook that Reddy was under internal investigation. A subsequent statement said that he had been relieved of executive and teaching duties. A statement from Goldbloom confirmed that Reddy was being investigated, and added that “it is inappropriate for the leadership of the ISYVC [International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres] to comment while this process is underway.”
According to a reporter for We the Women, a South Asian feminist news outlet, Reddy abruptly canceled a public event scheduled for February 16 at the Delhi Sivananda Centre. The reporter had planned to ask him on camera to comment on testimony published in GEN, and her own research. A staffer at the front desk confirmed the cancellation and said that Reddy was en route to Chennai. Reddy has not responded to five requests for comment.
Within Sivananda, Reddy is known as a workhorse for Nair’s legacy and a charismatic channeler of his posthumous will. It’s considered a boon to study with him or assist the lucrative training programs he leads. On Sivananda’s ashram circuit, Reddy goes by the spiritual name “Prahlāda” — a prince in Indian mythology who survives numerous attempts on his life by his maniacal father and grows up to become the virtuous and popular ruler of the kingdom.
The prince part fits: Former members describe Reddy as perennially youthful and energetic, and also, by turns, approachable and aloof, playful and imperious. But he’s not the iconic figurehead that his mentor Nair was. To the outside world, he’s a blank slate. His photo entry on the Yoga Alliance international registry is empty, and, unlike almost all yoga professionals of his status and influence, he has zero social media presence. He’s kept a house in Toronto and taught yoga at the Toronto Sivananda center for decades, and yet is virtually unknown within the city’s broader yoga scene. Whereas Nair spent his career barnstorming his messianic message and bolstering his public image through celebrity events and publicity stunts, Reddy has been able to stand behind the curtains and pull the levers. One insider, who did not wish to be named, called him “a brilliant administrator… one of the best I have come across in my career.”
The new abuse accounts, taken together with those previously reported, indicate that Nair left Reddy and his colleagues with more than a license to print yoga money. Nair also left, it appears, the potential for normalized predation, cover-up, and spiritual hypocrisy. Interviews suggest that two board members may have known about the testimony from Nadine against Reddy in the early 2000s, and did not expel him from the organization. Another interview suggests that in 2006, Reddy in turn covered up for one of those same board members when he was accused of sexual assault. Adding it up, abuse in Sivananda yoga appears systemic, intergenerational, and organized. It has torn at the fabric of the community that helped build its utopian vision and left some long-term devotees feeling blindsided.
Lara Marjerrison has been a Sivananda student for almost two decades. The ashrams, she explained, had always provided a refuge from her own survivorship of abuse and a safe haven for her young son. “My very first response was to feel nothing,” Marjerrison told me by phone from Toronto when asked how she felt hearing the reports on Reddy. “It’s what I did when I was a kid and I was in danger — which is to feel nothing, say nothing — because the consequences of saying something were so terrifying at the time.”
The new abuse accounts, taken together with those previously reported, indicate that Nair left Reddy and his colleagues with more than a license to print yoga money.
Marjerrison started bringing her son to the Sivananda world headquarters in Val Morin, northwest of Montreal, when he was eight. She’s one of the many community members I spoke to who are feeling shock transform into rage. When asked how she felt about Reddy, she addressed him directly. “You betrayed me,” she said. “You lied. You caused harm to innocent people. How could I have trusted you? I trusted you with my child. I believed this place was the safest place on earth. It was safe from all of those things that I’ve spent my life trying to get away from.”
Seeking to stanch the wounds, Sivananda leadership launched their independent investigation on January 21, hiring Marianne Plamondon of the Langlois law firm in Montreal. Her initial mandate was to investigate the accounts of Salter, Kyssa, and Campbell. By email, Plamondon said that she could not comment on the investigation. On February 11, Salter and Kyssa received an email from Plamondon stating that “the first objective of this process is to search for the truth, to determine whether Swami Vishnudevananda committed the alleged acts.” The email presumed that the women would want to meet with her. By email, Salter, Kyssa, and Campbell have all said they’ll refuse to meet with Plamondon. But they are continuing to speak with each other and with former Sivananda members.
They’ll also be speaking, they say, to Project SATYA. In its first three weeks, the GoFundMe drive to support it has raised almost $11,000 of its $20,000 USD goal, with many donations coming Bernie Sanders-style in increments of $25 or less. The fundraising copy asserts that Sivananda executives were aware of abuses for years and did not act and that Plamondon’s scope does not address issues of “potential complicity” of executive members. By email, Salter signaled her hope that the project will “contribute to greater clarity, truth — and healing for all — in a truly safe container.”
After Salter posted her testimony in December 2019, she reached out to old friends and confidantes for support. One was Danny Kastner, who as a first-year lawyer represented her request for compensation after she left the group in poverty and ill health. Kastner assured Salter of his support going forward. When I later contacted him to verify the details of his legal work for Salter, he told me that he’d grown up in Sivananda yoga, had moved away from the group as a young adult, and suggested that Salter’s story was the tip of an iceberg.
After our exchange, Kastner called up Nadine, one of his best friends from the summers he spent in the group’s Kid’s Camp at Val Morin, 60 miles northwest of Montreal. He had borne witness to her story since they were teenagers a quarter-century before. He told her about my investigation and gave her my contact information. One of the first things Nadine said when I spoke to her by phone in mid-January was that she was shocked to hear that Reddy was abusing others, not to mention recently. She’d always thought she was the only one, and that it was ancient history.
Now 39, Nadine was eight years old in July 1989, the summer her parents first brought her to Kid’s Camp. Mom and Dad were interested in vegetarianism, yoga, and meditation, and it seemed like a wholesome family getaway. As schoolteachers, they were recruited for childcare tasks and activity supervision. The camp kids were an international bunch — from Israel, Russia, Hungary — and their natural camaraderie seemed to reflect the universalist message of Nair’s yoga. They slept about 12 to a tent, separated by gender and grouped by age. They went canoeing and tramped through the forests. But they also followed a disciplined schedule that mirrored the adult program of daily yoga and meditation sessions. Nadine remembers that first July and the five that followed as the highlight of her year, every year.
Nadine said that when she turned 12, the simple pleasure of Kid’s Camp began to be overshadowed by increasingly confusing encounters with Reddy, a prominent 26-year-old staff member at the time. When August came around, her family would stay on at the ashram, finishing up their staff duties. As one of the only kids hanging out, Nadine was assigned to work in Reddy’s office.
“I just cannot remember how it started,” Nadine said. She described that at some point it became common for Reddy to ask to massage her, and she would comply. “I do remember that it seemed normal. It didn’t seem weird.” Nadine explained that there was a culture of innocent touch and massage among the teens and pre-teens at the ashram. For a while, she said, Reddy’s behavior seemed to fall within that spectrum. But she also remembers feeling uncomfortable when they were alone and strange that he would touch her butt. “I felt like I was supposed to accept it,” Nadine said. “But I didn’t like it.”
One day, Nadine woke up from a nap with him lying directly on top of her. “That was the nail in the coffin,” she said.
Nadine also remembers that age-inappropriate talk became a regular occurrence. Reddy praised her body, Nadine said, and told her about things he had done with other women. He complimented her as a hard worker, comparing her favorably to other girls, who he put down. It was all uncomfortable, Nadine said. “But I also felt a sense of importance. I felt like ‘He’s sharing this with me, I must be really mature,’” she continued. At the time, Nadine said Reddy was “extremely popular. He’s very charismatic. So all the kids — they wanted to be close to him.”
Nadine said Reddy’s boldness escalated over time. He intensified the innuendo. He took her on errand runs in the car and crudely compared her body to the bodies of other girls. While she was working — cleaning or painting the temple — he would walk by and casually touch her breasts. Bizarrely, he also started verbally degrading her, saying things that made her feel confused, ugly, and ashamed of her body. “It’s ridiculous that, at 15, I didn’t have the comprehension that what he was doing was so horrible,” Nadine said.
While she was at his house one day, Nadine said Reddy had her lie down so that he could massage her, and he then unclipped her bra. Reddy’s wife — with whom Nadine was close — came home unexpectedly, and he leaped up from sitting on Nadine and vanished into the bathroom. “I really felt scared,” Nadine says, remembering that was the moment it all became clear. “I felt like I was doing something wrong. Like I had been complicit with things that were wrong.” Reddy’s wife did not respond to an email request for comment.
The next summer, Nadine says, after she saw Reddy paying attention to a younger girl, she told her story to her friends. Danny Kastner was among them. Sometime later, Nadine says, Mark Ashley, a Sivananda administrator, phoned her to discuss what he’d heard. His daughter was part of Nadine’s group. Ashley told Nadine that she should speak with the Sivananda lawyer. “I was angry with him,” Nadine told me. “I remember him telling me that I was very angry and that I shouldn’t be angry. Why was I so angry?”
“It was awful. I remember not feeling safe, not feeling good,” Nadine said. “I remember telling him that Prahlad shouldn’t be there.”
The last time Reddy assaulted Nadine was when she was 17. While visiting Toronto for a few weeks that summer, Reddy and his wife invited Nadine to stay with them in their quarters at the Sivananda center. While there, Nadine helped mind their young daughter. His behavior toward her hadn’t changed, she said. He would try to grope at her breasts while she was working at the computer, but she grew increasingly defiant. One day, she woke up from a nap with him lying directly on top of her. “That was the nail in the coffin,” she said. She got up and called Kastner to ask him to pick her up.
Kastner remembers picking Nadine up that day. “I was furious about what happened to her,” Kastner wrote in an email. “I’ve only become angrier over the years in seeing the organization’s refusal to take responsibility.”
Years passed. Nadine became a mother. Nadine’s own mother continued to volunteer for Sivananda from time to time. At the request of Reddy, she traveled to one of the ashrams in India to help with a training course. But when she got back, Nadine couldn’t keep silent any longer.
“Prahlad had broken our trust,” Nadine’s mother said in an interview, recalling her feelings when Nadine first told her the story. “I couldn’t believe that he had continued molesting my daughter every summer.” She took great care to not shame Nadine. “I’ve always said to her that she’s not the person responsible for what happened,” she said. “I felt terrible. For her and for us.”
In an interview, Nadine’s father told me that upon hearing her story, he drove from Montreal to Val Morin to address the leaders. “I realized he was a sick individual,” he said, remembering his confrontation with Reddy, “because he had said ‘Yes, that happened a long time ago. We were both young.’”
Nadine recalls receiving a handwritten letter of apology from Reddy. When the letter arrived, the whole family read it. Nadine remembers Reddy suggesting that the abuse “was a mutual thing, like we were both young and did stupid things that we regret. I remember it upset me and made me feel like I was complicit in it and that it was something to be ashamed of.” Disgusted, she threw the letter away.
On the same trip during which he confronted Reddy, Nadine’s father says he also spoke with Maurizio Finocchi, known at that time within the organization as Swami Mahadevananda. Finocchi was Reddy’s superior and widely acknowledged as Nair’s spiritual heir. He had a seat on the executive board at that time. Nadine’s father remembers Finocchi listening with kindness and concern, and indicating that the organization would look into the matter. He left Finocchi hopeful that something would be done, but there was no follow-up.
A recent Facebook post from Finocchi’s one-time assistant suggests that if Finocchi neglected to hold Reddy accountable, Reddy later repaid the favor. On February 14, Wendy Freeman posted that in 2006, Finocchi exposed himself to her while she served him breakfast in his quarters at Val Morin. “When I approached his bed with the tray of food, he held my arm and flipped the sheet back,” she wrote in the post. “He was naked from the waist, masturbating. He ejaculated on my arm.” When she reported the incident to Reddy, she said he “asked me to keep quiet, advising me that the executive board of ISYVC was aware of an ongoing ‘problem’ with Finocchi, which they were apparently ‘dealing with’ in some way.”
I interviewed Freeman, who was known by the name “Veena” while in the organization. “I nearly threw up,” she said, recalling the assault. “I pulled away, put the tray down on the bed, went into his bathroom. I will never forget: He came into the bathroom to clean himself, and we stood side by side at the basin, looking in the mirror at each other. It is one of the low points of my life.”
By email, Sivananda spokesman Jonathan Goldbloom shed light on how the board members dealt with Finocchi and how long it took. “Lanny Alexander was appointed by the EBM in May 2013,” Goldbloom wrote, “to look into allegations being made regarding Swami Mahadevananda, then an executive board member. Following receipt of Lanny’s report, Swami Mahadevananda resigned from the organization in June 2013.” Alexander was identified in my previous GEN story as a New York lawyer and Sivananda student who has done legal work for the organization. She did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
In the summer 2013 edition of Yoga Life, the organization’s in-house magazine, a quiet notice from the editors states that Finocchi was stepping down “in order to move on to a contemplative life in seclusion in India.” The notice said the executive board thanked him for his “devoted and inspiring service.”
By email, Goldbloom was defiant. “Despite the bias conveyed by everything that you have written so far about the organization, the sexual and psychological harassment policy of the organization does work and no one is above it: Allegations were investigated, and the consequences were in accordance with the policy, which was applied to this important EBM member as it would have been to anyone else in the organization,” he wrote. (Goldbloom’s acronym refers to the Sivananda executive.)
But emails I obtained show that a similar complaint of indecent exposure and public masturbation was made against Finocchi in 2001, 12 years before his resignation, and sent to an administrator of the Sivananda ashram in Trivandrum, South India. And in a 2006 email, Finocchi, who by then led Sivananda operations in India, seemingly discouraged the public posting of a new sexual harassment policy generated from within the organization. “Swamiiji does not think the policy needs posting up,” his secretary wrote. “We can have it for use in difficult situations but we do not need to go toward this commercial world type thinking.” I repeatedly attempted to reach Finocchi, now 81, via email and phone but was unsuccessful.
Almost every major yoga group now hobbled by abuse crises offers trainings through schools credentialed by Yoga Alliance. Reddy is a Yoga Alliance member, and Sivananda yoga has credentialed 89 separate training programs through the nonprofit. The Yoga Alliance listings for those schools do not name faculty members. This means that, up until the date that the executive sidelined him last month, a member of the public could have applied for training with no idea that Reddy would be leading it.
In an interview, Yoga Alliance CEO Shannon Roche said that this data gap would soon be closed. She also said that public, corroborated allegations about a Yoga Alliance member could trigger an investigation, even if the survivors were not Yoga Alliance members. It would depend, however, on the survivor’s wishes. “I don’t want to cause someone harm by trying to do something good,” Roche said. She said that under guidelines released at the end of February, it might be possible to sanction an entire school if its leadership is compromised.
So far, the Sivananda story sheds light on what psychologist Jennifer Freyd calls “institutional betrayal,” in which the effects of interpersonal abuse can be worsened by the organization that enables it.
The lingering question, however, is about government licensing. Yoga Alliance can expel members found to violate their code of conduct. But in this unregulated industry, no one can stop a sanctioned teacher from setting up his yoga shop with or without Alliance approval. The U.S.-led nonprofit has long advocated on behalf of its members’ distrust of the government. “I don’t believe that the government has a role to play in spiritual practices,” said Roche, summarizing her organization’s firm separation-of-church-and-state stance.
When asked whether not being protected from a known abuser might be more disruptive to spiritual practice than regulation could ever be, Roche tread a careful line. “What we need,” she said, citing education and community empowerment, “is a full toolbox with the right combination of tools.”
So far, the Sivananda story sheds light on what psychologist Jennifer Freyd calls “institutional betrayal,” in which the effects of interpersonal abuse can be worsened by the organization that enables it and further complicated when the organization itself tries to investigate or mitigate harm. The problem of institutional betrayal, Freyd told Connecticut Public Radio in an interview about systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church, “is not just that individual institutions are failing to prevent abuse, but when they respond poorly, that’s associated with increased physical and mental suffering for the survivors.”
Freyd also researches the features of what she calls “institutional courage.” She recommends organizations that earnestly wish to reform first comply with criminal laws and civil rights codes. Executives should “cherish” whistleblowers, conduct anonymous surveys, educate themselves and their staffs on violence and trauma, and bear witness to all disclosures with sensitivity.
So far, online activism in support of Salter and the other women suggests is that if Sivananda yoga, the organization, isn’t up to Freyd’s challenge, Sivananda yoga as a community might be.
Allies of Salter and the growing list of women who have come forward have connected through a dissident Facebook group with 2,000 members and counting. (For scale, Sivananda yoga serves 300,000 people a year through 11 ashrams located in eight different countries, 31 centers in 18 countries, and 40 affiliated centers in 26 countries,” according to an email sent by Sivananda’s spokesman. Sivananda's Val Morin headquarters lists $8 million in assets for 2017.) Dissidents are demanding that board members resign and that program leaders stop venerating Nair. They’re pressuring yoga celebrities to boycott Sivananda retreat centers and acknowledge the abuses. They’re forming online squads to post safety warnings on Tripadvisor and other consumer review sites, and pouring over Sivananda’s charitable tax filings, looking for irregularities.
The dissidents’ most sophisticated response, however, has been Project SATYA, formed in response to suspicions that Plamondon’s mandate may not fully investigate the truth, may retraumatize participants, or both. They’ve enlisted retired lawyer Carol Merchasin to head up the effort. Merchasin is quickly becoming known for her work in the spirituality industry, mostly Buddhist Project Sunshine, a survivor-led report on generations of abuse in the Shambhala International Buddhist organization. That effort has imploded the erstwhile proud institution and led to the resignation of spiritual celebrity Pema Chödrön from the group’s leadership.
By email, Kastner sympathized with the drive behind SATYA, which expects to publish their findings in August. Kastner’s Toronto firm is often hired for workplace investigations but is not currently engaged in any matters nor parties relating to this story. He expressed how such investigations can be fraught with misaligned incentives. “When an organization refuses for decades to take abuse allegations seriously, the trust of the community is shattered,” he opined. “It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that abuse complainants refuse to participate in an investigation controlled and paid for by the organization.”
“It’s like coming out of this weird performance. All along as you were in the play, you weren’t allowed to talk about it. You had to be quiet. You were the audience but also part of it somehow.”
But Kastner also expressed concern about Sivananda survivors opting to speak with SATYA over Plamondon, the Sivananda-appointed investigator. If Reddy’s accusers don’t sit with Plamondon, Kastner worried, “The organization gets to say: We investigated, no evidence was found — since no one came forward — and therefore no action is required.” When asked whether he himself would speak with Plamondon to corroborate Nadine’s story, he said that he “absolutely” would.
In response to dissident demands, Sivananda centers in Paris, Orleans, and Munich have all taken down large devotional portraits of Nair. A few long-time presenters at Sivananda ashrams have announced the cancellation of their programs in solidarity with abuse survivors. Anneke Lucas, the first woman to publish her direct experience that Ashtanga founder Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted students, is scheduled to present at the Bahamas ashram in July. Lucas, the founder of the #MeToo yoga support group on Facebook, is making her contract contingent on using her teaching time at the ashram to address the abuse and its implications directly as a trauma survivor and advocate. Meanwhile, admins for Sivananda’s online assets appear to have been firewalling against criticism, blocking comments and banning users who post the GEN article or who simply ask questions. On February 29, devotees of Sivananda yoga created a pro-Reddy and Nair Facebook group.
‘Yoga Guru Pattabhi Jois Sexually Assaulted Me for Years’
It took me 20 years to reclaim my agency and overturn the shame
Sivananda spokesman Goldbloom’s official statement, however, conceded the stress caused by allegations, and sought to reaffirm the organization’s values, “which are about promoting health, wellbeing, healing on all levels, peace, joy and spiritual realization,” he wrote. “We intend to continue to offer trainings and symposiums on trauma awareness, health and healing, peace and spirituality, and to promote these values through our programs, publications and all other channels.”
Beyond the skirmishes, the activism seems to be helping many former members revolutionize their understanding of spiritual community and integrity. Dissidents are staking a claim to the moral center of their former church and questioning the broader yoga industry’s allergy to stricter regulation and accountability. As it develops, the story also joins a larger experiment in whether the #MeToo movement can go beyond naming abusers to exacting justice from the institutions that enabled them.
“Being able to talk about it has allowed us to do something like a huge collective debriefing,” said Jens Augspurger, one of the dissident group’s moderators. Augspurger is a doctoral researcher in yoga studies. “It’s like coming out of this weird performance. All along as you were in the play, you weren’t allowed to talk about it. You had to be quiet. You were the audience, but also part of it somehow. And now finally we come out, and we can speak to the people who sat to the left and right of us. And now we’re realizing: ‘Okay, there’s some strange shit going on.’”
Nadine’s mother has maintained her relationship with Sivananda, continuing to attend programs and occasionally teaching. For her, it’s partly an act of moral vigilance. She still sees Reddy occasionally. “It’s a reminder,” she told me, describing her attitude toward him. “Every time you see me you’re going to remember that I’m the mother of Nadine and of what you did.”
“I don’t know if any type of punishment will make them think about those things,” Nadine’s father told me when asked how he felt about it all in retrospect. “I think everybody was very naive. I definitely was because I never even thought that this would be possible.”
“I really did have to do a lot of work on myself,” said Nadine, when asked how her history has impacted her. She takes pride in having made something of her life, after a rebellious adolescence and being a single mom. Her first degree was in social service, where she learned to intervene on behalf of victims of sexual assault and to understand the wounds it makes.
“In my studies, I recognized myself, and it helped me normalize how I had been feeling,” she told me.
Kastner’s friendship was also a rock for her, Nadine said. When out of disillusionment, he turned his back on Sivananda yoga, where he too had grown up, “he reminded me of the severity of what had happened to me,” she said. “He was standing for me in his principles.”
When asked about her ideal outcome in coming forward, Nadine was blunt about Reddy. “That he stop abusing women,” she said by phone. “Through Julie’s post and comments, I found that he had assaulted other women. I feel it’s a duty and obligation to the other women.”
Nadine also reflected on the reasons why she didn’t press criminal charges at the time. She wanted to protect Reddy’s wife and child, she said. Sending him to jail would have broken their hearts. She had thought that her phone call with Ashley would have stopped Reddy, or that something would have come from her father’s confrontation with Reddy and Finocchi at Val Morin.
Lara Marjerrison doesn’t know how she or the community will ultimately process the news. “It was always the place that I knew I could go back to,” she told me, remembering the Sivananda she once knew. “I knew that the people that were there were beautiful. I knew the natural environment was serene.”
She loved how her son could be fearless on the Val Morin meadows. She remembers how fond he was of Reddy. “He was running around and playing with other kids and he came back to me. I was just laying under an apple tree. And he said, ‘Mummy, this place is amazing. I can just run free. I can just be free.’”
When asked about the SATYA project, Marjerrison indicated support. “I believe what they’re doing is worthwhile,” she texted, as she waited to pick her son up from school. “If not the community — who?”
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 email@example.com.
Lede Image: Photo illustration by Tessa Modi (Image credits: Vicente Méndez/Getty Images, Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images)