Satyananda Yoga Mangrove Mountain Ashram under Child Abuse Royal Commission scrutiny

Abuses at the Mangrove Mountain Ashram are the subject of Case Study 21 at the Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. This page provides links to Royal Commission proceedings and news reports, and a summary of testimony at the public hearing. UPDATE: The public hearing concluded on December 10, and this page has been updated with a summary of the second week of testimony. The Commission is still reportedly receiving evidence and public submissions which will be examined before a report of the findings is released some time next year.

The Child Abuse Royal Commission website

The page for case study 21 provided live streaming of the public hearings daily. Transcripts for each day of the hearings can also be downloaded from that page.

The Royal Commission has a Twitter account and a Facebook page.

Hearings were held from December 5 to 12, 2014.

Satyananda abuse survivors also have a Facebook page.

The Royal Commission has a support services page with details of counselling services throughout Australia for sexual abuse survivors.

Public Hearing: Week One Summary

The public hearings commenced on December 2nd with sworn testimony from nine victims of the child abuse. The Commission heard accounts of children and youths subjected to sexual abuse, psychological abuse, violence, threats of violence, neglect, torture, separation from family and society, and slave labour. Some abusers were given legal guardianship of the juveniles they were abusing. Children and ashram residents were expected to unquestionably obey members of the hierarchy and to maintain a culture of secrecy. Chief swamis of the ashram were heard to have led a hypocritical lifestyle, indulging in activities forbidden to underlings, such as sex, alcohol and drug use. Indian based leaders from the Satyananda organization were also implicated in abuses, including its current head, Niranjan, and its founder, the late Guru Satyananda Saraswati. Victims told of their frustration with the current day ashram’s response to revelations of their victimisation, including legal threats against a survivor for publicly stating facts. The victims were subject to cross examination by lawyers for other witnesses and representatives of the ashram.

Guru, the late Satyananda Saraswati
Guru, the late Satyananda Saraswati

Testimony from abuse survivors was completed by December 5th, when the Inquiry began hearing testimony from a confessed abuser and other witnesses associated with the ashram.

On December 5, confessed abuser, Shishy, who was second in charge to Ashram head Swami Akhandananda Saraswati gave her account of being procured as a young woman and becoming the sexual partner to Swami Akhandananda. She was given special status as a Swami and appointed to a hierarchical role. The inquiry heard of her transition to groomer and abuser as she was given responsibility for child residents of the ashram who often lived there separated from their parents. Shishy spoke about her belief at the time that violent abuse of children was for the purpose of their ‘spiritual enlightenment’.

Shishy broke down during the hearing professing remorse, however the inquiry heard questions from victims and counsel on why she hadn’t reported abuses to the police, and nor had other representatives of the ashram.

Week Two Summary

The week began with continued cross examination of ‘Shishy’, who gave accounts being subjected to violent sexual assaults, including with a loaded shotgun. She alleged the Indian heads of the Satyananda organisation tried to arrange to have her killed when she spoke with police about abuser, Akhandananda. Shishy claimed she was under the complete control of Akhandananda and played down her decision making capacity and authority at the ashram. She admitted to being aware that the head Swami was having sex with underaged ashram residents and that she did not report it. She was asked about her career in the yoga industry following her exit from the Mangrove Mountain Ashram and her use of the Satyananda brand name and reputation in promoting her work.

Dr Henry Sztulman was yogi and ashram doctor at the time the abuses took place and reports he saw no evidence that children were being beaten and raped, and did not believe it at first. He was unable to remember a number of events, but had a very clear memory when it came to denying over prescribing morphine to juveniles at the ashram. The Commission heard that the NSW Medical Tribunal disciplined him twice in the past two decades for inappropriate prescribing of narcotics, once in 1995 and again in 2002. Fellow yogi, psychiatrist Dr Sandra Smith also told of initially disbelieving victims who reported abuse to her, and of being ostracized later when she became involved in reporting the abuse to police. Both doctors had significant memory lapses rendering them incapable of answering a number of questions. Dr Sztulman said he had not read any of the victims’ statements, but had scanned them to see where his name was mentioned only.

Administration assistant Muktimurti Saraswati who was assistant to Shishy at the time of the abuses also professed to being unaware of the abuses and not believing they took place. Victims claim she fetched them, sometimes at night, to take them to ‘massage’ their abuser. She said she never suspected Akhandananda and Shishy were involved in a sexual relationship, even though they lived together, or that the head was using drugs and alchohol. She described the ashram children as a ‘pack’ that the adults were frightened of. She admitted she had not read or followed any of the victims’ statements and attended a reconciliation ceremony at the ashram this year unaware of the allegations and the identities of the victims. In spite of testimony from eleven victims she says she still doubts the allegations and it has nothing to do with her. She believes they’re not entitled to compensation and that the publicity has tarnished her spiritual purity.

Director of Satyananda Yoga Academy Pty Ltd Atmamuktananda Saraswati told the commission that  Akhandananda continued to run the ashram even after being charged over sexual abuse allegations in 1987. She claimed underaged female victims were flirtatious, but also admitted she was aware supposedly celibate and abstinent Swami Akhandananda was an alcoholic who made a sexual advance toward her. She did not report either. 

Current CEO, Sarah Tetlow, acknowledged the Ashram’s response to victims earlier this year was inappropriate and inadequate, including the legal threats to victims. She said measures are being taken by the current ashram to protect child visitors, and the victims would be offered compensation. She was questioned over correspondence from the head of the Satyananda organization in India, on behalf of its head Swami Niranjan, making legal threats about the use of the company brand names and distancing itself from the Australian arm. Niranjan has been implicated in the abuses and other hypocritical behaviour within the organization. As was the movement’s founder, Satyananda.

Support Services for sexual abuse survivors

News Reports

A selection in chronological order:

Australian News Outlets

  1. Paradise lost: Satyananda Yoga Ashram is the subject of royal commission hearing, Sydney Morning Herald, Nov 29, 2014
  2. Gurus ‘gods’ to abused children at NSW ashram, The Australian, Dec 2
  3. Yoga guru plotted to murder child sex victim, abuse commission hears, The Australian, Dec 2
  4. Ashram apologises to child sexual abuse victims it threatened to sue, Guardian, Dec 2
  5. Guru accused of sexual, physical assault of children at ashram, Daily Telegraph, Dec 2, 2014
  6. Abuse victims reject NSW ashram’s apology, Seven News, Dec 2
  7. Ashram children starved, drugged, tortured, royal commission hears, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 3
  8. Yoga master subjected children to sex abuse at ashram, commission hears, Guardian, Dec 3
  9. Haunting images hide Mangrove Mountain Ashram child abuse shame, Daily Telegraph, Dec 3
  10. Yoga guru may have raped seven year old, royal commission told, The Australian, Dec 3
  11. Child abuse royal commission: Yoga movement did not view child abuse as crime, victim says, ABC News, Dec 4
  12. Child abuse royal commission: victim recounts being raped during ritual at Satyananda Yoga Ashram, ABC News, Dec 4
  13. Sexual abuse rife at yoga group, royal commission hears, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 4
  14. Yoga guru’s ‘handmaiden’ had sex with 14-year-old-boy, commission hears, Guardian, Dec 4
  15. Wild sex and abortions at ashram, abuse royal commission told, The Australian, Dec 5
  16. Yoga ashram abuse: guru’s handmaiden ‘desperately sorry’ for beating children, Guardian, Dec 5
  17. Royal Commission: Threat to kill Satyananda ashram whistleblower Shishy, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 8
  18. Yoga ‘handmaiden’ raped with loaded shotgun, The Australian, Dec 8
  19. Child abuse royal commission: Woman assaulted with double-barrelled shotgun at Satyananda Yoga Ashram, inquiry hears, ABC News, Dec 8
  20. Doctor saw nothing wrong at ashram where children were raped and beaten, Daily Telegraph, Dec 9
  21. Doctor denies over prescribing morphine to children at yoga ashram, Guardian, Dec 9
  22. Employee tells royal commission yoga ashram should not be ‘held to ransom’ by compensation demands, ABC News, Dec 9
  23. Ashram devotee ‘not sure’ child sex abuse happened, The Australian, Dec 9
  24. Royal Commission: Witness casts doubts over abuse, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 9
  25. Royal Commission, Mangrove Yoga Ashram children raped, beaten and drugged, News Ltd, Dec 10
  26. Indian bosses give Mangrove Mountain Ashram a slap in the face, Daily Telegraph, Dec 10
  27. Satyananda Ashram sex abuse victims want 1 million in compensation, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 10
  28. Satyananda Yoga Ashram apologises to abuse victims at Royal Commission, ABC News, Dec 10
  29. TV Report ABC 7:30, Dec 10
  30. Radio Report with audio testimony, ABC Radio, Dec 10

Indian News

  1. Children drugged, tortured and raped at Indian yoga guru’s ashram in Australia, Hindustan Times, Dec 3
  2. Hearing of Indian ashram sex abuse cases in Australia, Times of India, Dec 4
  3. Children drugged, tortured and raped by yoga guru, Hindi News, Dec 8 (Hindi)

Other International

  1. Australia’s underage yoga sex cult: the survivors speak out, The Daily Beast, Dec 9
  2. Yoga – can it be tainted by faulty leaders, Guardian Liberty Voice, Dec 9

8 thoughts on “Satyananda Yoga Mangrove Mountain Ashram under Child Abuse Royal Commission scrutiny

  1. Grooming and Denial- common with cults. Children staying with the guru- common with all these groups. Parents in denial- common with all cult members.

    20 years later.

  2. What really bugs me about all this, concedering the comments: nobody even cares. Happy Christmas!

    And thanks for caring.

    1. Hello Still Wondering, thanks for your comment and Merry Christmas to you too. Would you like to elaborate on ‘nobody cares’? Is there someone in particular you would like to care or show more care?

      If you’re in need of support, the RC site has that link to support services around Australia. There’s also some good discussion on the Facebook pages linked to above if you’d like to join in. And the International Yoga Alliance for Ethics is also tackling the sexual abuse issue head on. A great organisation. You’ll find a link to their website on their Facebook page.

      Cheers and best wishes.

  3. I just thought this thread would get more comments since this case, after all those years, is before the court and severally shocking. 

    Commenters on these blogs aren’t buying Serge’s shit on Esoteric Breast Masage so they can be cleared of male pollution, and will be ’eminating’ (sick) again after clearing® for a reason, but can’t proof it.
    His Brides on their copycat Facts site just outdid themselves with their latest ‘defense propaganda blog’ and can’t be bothered with contemplating the fact that these blogs where started to protect their girls from a man who obviously shows predatory behaviour, and married his pupil on who he practiced ‘Esoteric Breast Massage’ on, on top of it.

    It just bugs me that there are so little responses to a case like this which finally found his way to the justice system, after so many years. While it actually should bug Rebecca Poole and her lady friends. As a mother myself, I can also understand how hard it is to surround yourself with trustworthy people in a world as tough as this: so yeah, thanks for caring.

    I just hope some of these UM mothers will come to the same conclusion some day, instead of commenting on UM’s crazy Facts site. That’s all I meant, but it does bug me.


    1. Thanks for clarifying. I can’t say I know why this thread has had so few comments. I suspect it’s because my readers who are following the UM problem might not feel comfortable with commenting on an issue they’re not so familiar with? This post has had a lot of visitors, and I guess because I’m not directly affected by the Mangrove case, perhaps those visitors don’t feel this is the best place to comment.

      However, you’ve picked up on my personal drive behind covering both of these groups, and thank you for appreciating the common points. My fear is the Mangrove mess is UM, but a few years advanced. At Mangrove, able minded adults turned a blind eye to overt abuses, just like UM’s customers are literally paying money to have themselves and their daughters groomed. I don’t have it in me to let that go unchallenged, and the Mangrove case has been heartbreaking because NO ONE was protecting or believing those children. No one spoke up for them. I can’t let that happen again knowing what I know.

      Thank you for commenting, I wasn’t sure if you were a Mangrove survivor or a UM victim or observer and I wanted to know how to respond and whether you needed support.

      What is really encouraging is the discussion happening on Facebook, which has gone global. Some are still hanging on to the Satyananda cult, but there are some fine people talking about what went wrong and how to make sure it doesn’t keep happening. Those survivors who were abused over the past four decades have come of age, and can’t be silenced any more.

      I’d rather it didn’t take that long for the people harmed by UM, but hey, we can only do our best.

      Thank YOU for caring. Have a great family Christmas.

  4. There are many of us who care, but we’re not sure what we can say or do (it’s all been well said before by courageous, insightful Esther and many of her followers). It sometimes seems futile when the UM blind continue to dupe the blind, who trustingly believe judgemental distortions / lies about themselves & others. There’s enough nice people, good mindfulness and self care principles to hook well meaning truth seekers in, but then they gullibly accept disturbing “spiritual” principles which lead them down a dark fear based path. (UM books and other bizarre teachings are suspiciously unavailable on-line). If Esther’s accountability blogs encourage even one person to objectively question all and protect themselves or vulnerable others (especially children), then they’re worth it.

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