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…