My Life As A Monk (Part 2)
Burn It To The Ground - By Ondine Savage
Reading time: 6 minutes
Continued from Part 1 (Read HERE)
I remember the day I knew it was time to flee the Ashram. I was looking into my future, and all I could see was me living out the rest of my days at the monastery, like many of the other monks I was studying with. A sense of deep unease filled my body, and I knew this was no longer the path I wanted to be on.
After years of emotional manipulation, bullying and coercion at the hands of the Guru, the once fiery and quick witted young woman I had known myself to be, was a mere shell of her former self. My nervous system was shot from living in a perpetual state of fear at the Guru’s fluctuating moods, and the callousness with which he could cut you down at any time.
I needed to make a decision. Was I going to remain living like this for the rest of my life? Or would I dare to break free and live on my own terms? I already knew the answer deep in my bones, but I was going to have to muster every last drop of courage to extricate myself from the Guru’s iron grip.
It wasn’t going to be easy. Not because I was afraid of how he’d react, although that was also true, but because it meant I must stand strong in my conviction and not allow myself to be swayed. I had to remind myself that I knew what was best for me better than he did.
Many monks who had left before me, chose to slip out in the dark of night with no explanation, never to be seen or heard from again. And it soon became clear just why they had disappeared without a trace.
I requested to speak to the Guru in private. As I approached his office door, I hesitated and took a deep breath before knocking. My heart was beating wildly. It felt like I was about to walk into a lion’s den, and I wasn’t sure what to expect; kind Guru figure or unhinged emotional abuser.
As I told him of my plans to leave, I tried to read his facial expressions for clues as to how he was taking the news. I don’t recall his initial response, but I do remember that over the next few days, he expressed different reactions to my decision; disbelief, anger and paranoia were all part of the emotional blackmail cocktail. He also labelled me disloyal, dishonest, inadequate and a host of other derogatory slates on my character.
Within moments, I had gone from belonging within the arms of a spiritual community, to being an outcast, no longer considered worthy of the group’s attention, and ostensibly tossed aside with disdain. I had committed the ultimate sin by wanting to leave and be the decider of my own fate.
And by showing my cards, the community had also shown theirs. It was clear their acceptance was purely conditional. As long as I behaved in the way they wanted, I was welcome. As soon as I began showing signs of having my own mind, I no longer was.
When the Guru realised I wasn’t going to change my mind, he shifted tactics. He tried to convince me to go and see my family temporarily. According to him, that was all I needed, a little family time, and then I would be ready to return to the fold.
One of the more unnerving parts of living under his “guidance”, was that he never sent any of the monks out into the world to teach as was custom in yogic culture.
Traditionally, a disciple would not leave their Guru’s side without his express permission. A student could spend 12 years under their tutelage before being considered ready to depart into the world to spread the teachings of yoga and dharma. So I knew what I was about to do was unorthodox. But I’d also never agreed to or imagined I’d stay for such a long period of study.
I’m certain everyone who entered the ashram believed it was a temporary experience. We would be there for a time, learn all that was required to reach our highest spiritual potential, and then we’d take our leave, just like any child eventually leaves the safety of their home to go out and live their life.
But the Guru had never voluntarily sent anyone anywhere. He was too self-serving for that. He lured people in with his charismatic charm, showered them with affection, and then once they were fully committed, he’d threaten to withdraw his affection if they didn’t behave according to his mandates. Strategies of a cult leader 101.
And because cult’s tend to encourage members to cut social bonds to family and friends, they end up having to rely solely on the group for social acceptance. Which is why many of the monks remained faithful (and silent) by his side, never questioning his intentions.
Periodically, he would suggest we were almost ready to be sent out to different parts of the world to set up our own yoga schools. He would go into great detail, painting a picture, getting us all to imagine what it would be like. Eventually, I worked out it was all a lie. There were monks who had been by his side for 15, 20 and 30 years respectively, and they hadn’t been, and weren’t going anywhere.
It was also confusing trying to figure out what his true objectives were, as he was an expert at hiding his intentions under an umbrella of spirituality.
For example, we often practiced Tapasya’s.
Tapasya’s are considered “austerities” in the world of yoga sadhana. Practices to strengthen and fortify the body, mind and spirit. Sometimes it was fasting, other times it was taking cold showers in the middle of winter. Whatever it was, it usually involved something you didn’t like doing very much.
I believe he would sometimes use Tapasya’s as a way to deliberately break our will instead of strengthen it. If we were just a little bit broken, then we would be more malleable and easier to manipulate.
One of his favourite psychological tactics was to deprive us of sleep. He’d often start a spiritual lecture late at night and go on until the early hours of the morning, expecting us to remain fully alert and able to absorb the teachings. But at the first sign of a head nod or accidental snore, we were instantly humiliated in front of the group and then punished by being told to leave the lecture and not return.
Had I been more bad ass, I would have purposefully fallen asleep in order to get thrown out. But I was too much of a chicken, as his wrath was mighty and enough to stop you from trying anything remotely clever.
Other times, he would haul us out of bed at 4AM in the middle of winter to go down to the Ganges river to plunge into the ice cold water. I remember my heart stopping as the shock of frigid water swept over my body. I would shiver so violently it was like having an epileptic fit.
Once, I was cleaning up the embers from an outdoor fire pit which we would use to perform havans, (fire ceremonies) from the Vedic tradition. That day, my task was to take the left over ashes, place them in a bag and leave them in a storage area of the ashram. Half an hour later, the storage building went up in flames. Some of the embers were still alight in the bag. I burned the entire building to the ground.
I felt racked with guilt and remorse. I couldn’t believe I was capable of such a thing. Had I not realised some of the embers were still burning? Actually, yes I had, but I went ahead and left them there anyway. Looking back, I can only think my subconscious wanted to burn the whole damn place to the ground.
Even though the ashram received insurance for the fire (because the Guru claimed it was an electrical fault), I handed over my life savings as a way of releasing myself from the guilt I felt at destroying part of my spiritual community. He gladly took my money, just as gladly as he took apartments, cars, motorbikes and basically anything of value his students owned that he could benefit from financially.
He put many of his students in precarious financial positions by asking for expensive gifts, which they didn’t feel they could deny him. You see, nobody says no to the Guru. Then he ensured we were left with almost nothing, except to stay by his side and work for him like obedient serfs. I had already given over my power, and now I had just given him my life’s savings. He had the upper hand and all the control. I had nothing.
But the most unforgivable acts were the ones he presented as Tantra Yoga. He would convince young women that came into his care that he would initiate them in the ways of this sacred path, ultimately taking advantage of the opportunity to have sexual relations with them. Some of these relations were consensual, but I imagine many, like mine, were not.
I’m sure he never once thought of the irreparable damage he caused to the many young women in search of spiritual enlightenment. He abused his position as a “teacher” for his own greed, and created such confusion in their minds that they often left not just the ashram, but their own spiritual journeys.
The mind reels at the severe breech of trust and the lack of awareness he had around the trauma he inflicted. The women who trusted him were abused emotionally, mentally and sexually by a narcissist in the robes of a spiritual leader.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new.
Over the years, the yoga industry has been rocked by shocking allegation after shocking allegation. This behaviour occurs primarily among male spiritual leaders, which speaks volumes to the deafening silence that still protects men when it comes to sexual assault and rape.
It happens often enough and is silenced often enough to know we still live in a rigged system that uses spirituality as a guise for men to exploit their positions of power for their sexual gratification.
Some of the most prominent yoga teachers in the world have recently fallen including; Bikram Choudhury, John Friend, Kausthub Desikachar, Rodney Yee, K. Pattabhi Jois, Swami Satyananda and my Guru.
One week after I left the Ashram and went home, a group of ex-monks decided to take their story to the Spanish press and my Guru was exposed on national television.
There was a lengthy investigation, but in the end no charges were pressed, given the haziness of the law once someone reaches the age of consent and willingly enters into the tiger’s lair.
At the time, I wasn’t strong enough to lend my voice to the cause, but I can now.
He’s still out there teaching and influencing young spiritual enthusiasts.
So, I carry this bag of burning embers and place it at your feet Javier Plazas (Swami Shankaratilaka). May your ego and pretension be burned to the ground and your karma served in ample doses.
“Fundamentalism, of any type, is always prescriptive. It claims to be the sole arbiter of The Truth, and it attempts to define reality for you. It does not honour your soul’s knowing or respect your sovereign right to choose your own path”