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Paradise lost: Satyananda Yoga Ashram is the subject of royal commission hearing

Leader: Swami Satyananda Saraswati.When Sanatan Saraswati first arrived at the Satyananda Yoga Ashram more than three decades ago he thought he had found paradise.

Set at the foot of Mangrove Mountain in the lush NSW Central Coast hinterland, the retreat was a place of serenity and spirituality.

Then in his early 30s and disillusioned with mainstream society, he was looking for something more and thought he had finally discovered it among the small community of yoga devotees led by a charismatic director, Swami Akhandananda Saraswati.

“It was something almost magical,” he recalled from his home on Queensland’s Gold Coast. “It was so far removed from the rest of society and a lot of really good things happened there. It’s just that on the inside, at the core, something really rotten happened.”

The exact nature of what happened in those rolling green hills is the subject of a public hearing by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, starting on Tuesday.

The hearing will examine the Satyananda Yoga Ashram, which changed its name to Mangrove Yoga Ashram in 2012, and its founding director Swami Akhandananda Saraswati, who established the centre in 1974 and was later charged with more than 35 sex offences against four teenage girls. Found guilty on lesser charges of indecency, he was jailed in 1989 but his conviction was overturned six years before his death in 1997.

Sanatan, who spent almost 10 years at the ashram in the 1980s and ’90s, said many initially refused to believe the allegations about Akhandananda, who had been personally chosen by globally influentual yoga teacher, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, who brought his movement to Australia at the invitation of former television host Roma Blair.

“I was pretty smitten with the ashram for a long time,” he said. “It wasn’t until word got around that Akhandananda had been abusing the girls that I began to have doubts. Even when that happened I still stayed on in the ashram for some time afterwards, thinking that it was limited to just Akhandananda and the teaching of yoga was probably more important than the transgression of one guy.”

For Sanatan, now 63, the ashram presented a utopian ideal. Days were spent practising and teaching yoga, constructing communal buildings and tending to the ashram’s organic farm. The 120 adults and 30 children living in the community had no money, no news, radio or television. Alcohol and smoking were banned and everyone adhered to a strict vegetarian diet.

“It was an incredibly different life,” he said. “There was a lot of devotion. It’s very hard to describe to someone who has not experienced it. It was something out of the ordinary and definitely a cult but those who were in it didn’t see it as such.”

Dr Alec Pemberton, an honorary senior lecturer at Sydney University with expertise in cults, said spiritual seekers were often intelligent but vulnerable to exploitation.

“A charismatic leader can quite easily take advantage of them, especially in an environment which is physically and geographically isolated,” he said. “Unfortunately, these leaders can and do take advantage of their followers and often their authority is never questioned by other members of the group.”

Allegations of financial impropriety surfaced in the 1990s, when former ashram member Paul White claimed more than 100 people lost most of their life savings through donations to the centre, a registered charity.

Aaron Kernaghan, the lawyer acting for the ashram at the royal commission, said the claims of financial mismanagement were cleared and members were full co-operating with the current inquiry.

Ashram staff did not respond to requests for an interview but released a statement on the centre’s website, apologising to victims and their families.

“It was a period of devotion, trust and inspiration, which for many ended in disillusionment and great pain,” the statement read. “No doubt the failure of the ashram to publicly acknowledge these events has added to the pain and prevented many from finding a path to healing.”

While there are still a few original members of the ashram living there today, it is under new management and its operations include everything from weekend retreats for stressed city executives to diploma courses in yoga.

A history of the ashram published on its website for its 40th anniversary this year briefly acknowledges Akhandananda’s crimes and Swami Satyananda’s response: “If he is guilty, he will go to jail.”

Sanatan, who will attend the royal commission hearing this week, learnt some valuable lessons from his time at the ashram.

“It’s very easy to fall into the culture and not question some things which should be questioned and give up your power completely – well, almost completely.”

Correction: The first version of this story said thatSwami Satyananda Saraswati was the founder of the Divine Life Society.In fact, that was his guru, Swami Sivananda Saraswati.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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