Hearts breaking at the ashram

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Photo:TALES of personal grief, heartbreak and broken relationships continue to emerge in the aftermath of admissions of secret sexual relations between the spiritual leader and some of his female devotees at the Shiva School of Meditation and Yoga, Mt Eliza.

In the past week several new accounts of relationship breakdowns attributed to the actions of the school’s founder Swami Shankarananda have been described on a website established by his former followers.

The owners of the leavingshivayoga website have told The News that they have been advised publishing personal testimonies “does not interfere with the ongoing work by the Victorian police or other counselling work that the women may be engaged in”.

The three latest accounts of life at the school – a residential ashram in Tower Rd – have been made by people who wish to remain anonymous, although their identities are known to the publishers of the leavingshivayoga website.

“The hurt and confusion in the Shiva Yoga community has been staggering and we have been saddened by how it has negatively impacted some of the couples whose partners were involved, but the management committee at the ashram is still sticking to its policy of total denial,” the publishers told The News.

“In recent days they have even taken to taunting ex-members on Facebook with silly quotes and pictures. They have also forbidden their remaining members to look at the leavingshivayoga website or from meeting with ex-devotees, which is being painted as ‘keeping bad company’.”

Allegations of sexual impropriety by Swami Shankarananda with more than 40 women attending the ashram were revealed late December 2014.

At that time the school’s management committee said it had advice that no laws had been broken but would provide free counselling for affected ashramites and had formed a sub-committee to write a code of conduct for everyone working for the ashram, including Swami Shankarananda.

Swami Shankarananda issued a statement that, in part, said he had “profoundly underestimated the impact” of the tantric sexual activities of his own spiritual leader “and my own. I recognise at last their disastrous effect. I vow to stop this behaviour. Indeed, it has been stopped already”.

Swami Shankarananda apologised “to the community and to anyone who has been hurt by my actions or even by hearing of my actions”.

The apologies and explanations did little to stop hundreds of people deserting the ashram’s regular Saturday night “satsang” (assembly) and prompted former supporters of the swami to reveal details of the inner workings of the ashram, including its economic base and tax exempt status.

In the latest string of “testimonials” published by the leavingshivayoga website, a man ascribes his decision to speak to the minimal attention given to the effect of revelations of the swami’s actions on male members of the school.

The man, who wants to explain how the alleged sexual impropriety had affected male devotees, said he had been involved with the Shiva School “for well over a decade and I saw Swamiji [who is also known as Swami Shankarananda and Russell Kruckman] as a kind of ultimate father figure, the ideal spiritual man, and I trusted him absolutely”.

“But the sad reality is that nearly all the male devotees of Shiva Yoga were treated like dogs.”

The man goes on to describe having to make an appointment to “seek [Swamiji’s] advice on my most pressing spiritual problems” but doubts he received “a full hour of his time” in a decade. In the less than five-minute meetings “he would brush aside my question, patronise me and then send me packing…”

“I was permanently mystified by the fact that the women seemed to be able to walk in and out of his room at will without even knocking and demand his attention for hours on end about the most ridiculous trivia,” the man continues.

“The position of the men at Shiva Yoga can now be seen for what it was, that of the useful idiot.”

The man says Shiva Yoga women “were educated to believe that it was perfectly acceptable – and even a secret spiritual practice – to lie to the face of her partner, and the pressure was on her to maintain an illusion of normality in her relationship”.

“I have to live with the fact that I have sat in Shankarananda’s room asking him for help and advice because there is something ‘wrong’ with my relationship, and meanwhile he was having sex with my partner. I feel traumatised and like a rape victim might.”

The man said he was “blown away by the dignity, compassion and understanding” being shown by male friends from Shiva Yoga who were “in the same boat, and in the face of this disgusting betrayal”.

A woman responding to the man’s letter said she was “one of the women” and had been “outraged and horrified when first approached for a sexual relationship”.

However, it had been “explained to me that what was happening was ‘a shakti thing’ and was simply the natural enfoldment of our guru disciple relationship”.

“I would often talk to him about feeling that it was wrong for me to cheat on my partner, to which he would reply with things like ‘oh baby, this lies outside the boundaries of the normal world. You can’t look at it with worldly eyes. You’re exploring the shakti with your guru and it’s not cheating’.”

The woman said she had been told having sex “was a quick path to healing and enlightenment and that I would only get the real benefits if I let it go further sexually”.

“I am now going to a counsellor who specialises in sexual abuse and, after hearing what happened and how, she said it was classic predatory behaviour and that it constitutes emotional as well as sexual abuse.

“For any of the women who were involved who have not admitted it to anyone yet – and I’m sure there are a lot – I want to tell you not to listen to the feeling that’s keeping you silent.

“I thought I was never going to tell anybody about my experience. Partly because it was drummed into me, but also because I was ashamed and embarrassed and I thought that anyone I told would think I was disgusting and wouldn’t understand.

“That hasn’t been my experience… Admitting it and speaking about it has been transformative and incredibly healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was trapped under a heavy weight that only started to lift once I spoke about it.”

One day later, a second woman contacted leavingshivayoga admitting that she too “was in a sexual relationship with Russell [Kruckman]. I did not disclose that relationship to my partner because I believed that it was somehow ‘outside’ the parameters of how I would conduct myself normally within a relationship, as if it were taking place in some magical land separate to the reality of my life and the reality of my own inner values”.

“It was supposed to be some divine and mystical experience; it was not. In fact, it filled me with confusion, with self-loathing and completely destabilised me for a long period of time.”

The woman said that she too had been cautioned about telling her partner because “it will create unnecessary pain and suffering for everyone”.

The woman said that she finally confessed to her partner as the relationship with “Russell” had become “a huge obstacle between us”.

“It was a truly humbling experience to be on the receiving end of his relief and … to confirm for him [her partner] that his uneasy feelings were valid and then to experience his forgiveness, love and protection.”

She hoped other women would “find the courage to first face yourself and then face the person next to you that has stood by your side through it all … there is nothing like the relinquishing of the strings that Russell has pulled for a great many of us, for way too many years”.

“There is a life after SY that is actually far more peaceful and connecting; to your own inner being.”

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