French police last week arrested more than 40 key members of the Atman Yoga Federation, a network of yoga schools present in some 30 countries. It claims to offer followers a path to higher consciousness through tantric practices – but former members told RFI they were psychologically manipulated and pressured into sex.
At the Mahasiddha yoga school in Rishikesh, northern India, students sometimes end tantric sessions with an “angel walk”: passing, eyes closed, through a corridor formed by their classmates, who reach out their hands to stroke them as they go.
Practices like these, encouraging students to let go of inhibitions and linking physical intimacy to spiritual growth, made tantric yoga seem “new and exciting and totally intriguing somehow” to Silke, who was 21 when she discovered it in October 2019.
Like many westerners, Silke – who is from Germany – had travelled to Rishikesh in search of a purpose. A recent graduate exploring India, she gravitated towards the pilgrimage town between the Himalayas and the Ganges and came across a flyer for the Mahasiddha school.
She ended up doing a six-month course there, which she describes as a “pretty intense experience”. She couldn't imagine what was to come.
The network was born in Romania in 1990, shortly after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Its founder, Gregorian Bivolaru – now 71 – had taken up yoga at a time when it was still mistrusted in Communist Romania. He spent the final years of the regime in and out of prisons and psychiatric hospitals, accused of distributing pornography and said to have a personality disorder.
By the early 2000s Bivolaru was again under scrutiny from the Romanian authorities, suspected of sexual relations with minors and tax offences. To his supporters, who knew him as “Grieg”, it was a witch hunt.
In 2005 he successfully argued that case to authorities in Sweden, where he was granted political asylum. Now in exile, he expanded Misa throughout Europe under various names: Atman in some countries, Natha or Tara in others.
Scandals continued to follow, with students in several countries describing sexual abuse, coercion and exploitation – including being filmed without consent and made to conduct explicit video chats for paying customers.
But despite an international arrest warrant for human trafficking, issued by Finland in 2017, Bivolaru and his supporters refuted the allegations at every turn – even going to the European Court of Human Rights to argue they were being persecuted.
By the time Silke became involved in the group, it had ties to around 100 associations in 30 or so countries.
After her course in India, Silke took lessons at Atman-affiliated schools in Germany and Romania for a total of three years.
One summer, she told RFI, she went to the group's month-long camp in the Romanian beach town of Costinesti. On arrival participants were told to pose naked for photographs and videos, she says – and later, female attendees were expected to take part in group sex that was presented as a ritual to honour a Hindu goddess. People who didn't want to participate faced questions, according to Silke.
She also describes listening to women giving lengthy accounts of enjoying sex with a “boyfriend” – who turned out, in fact, to be Bivolaru. She believes now the exercise was intended to wear down students' boundaries and normalise the idea of sleeping with their so-called guru.
“It's getting you ready,” Silke says.
A spokesperson for Misa refuted those allegations, telling RFI that campers were asked to pose in swimsuits for the purpose of documenting the physical benefits of their yoga practice.
The alleged orgy is a “myth”, the representative said, denying that the group organised any such rituals and stressing it wasn't responsible for any acts students chose to undertake on their own.
Separately, Sorin Turc, who teaches at the network's schools in France – where it operates under the name Yoga Intégral – told RFI that sexual acts were never part of its classes.
“The erotic practice is for each person in the privacy of their own home or with their partner,” he said. “But it's not in public.”
In fact the worst of the group's abuses were taking place behind closed doors, former students say.
Stella, a British woman in her 30s, had attended classes in several countries when she was selected to meet “Grieg” in June 2019.
By this point the guru was hiding out in the outskirts of Paris. Stella told RFI she and two other women were driven blindfolded to a house where they were made to hand over their passports, bank cards, phones and even clothes.
After around two weeks, she says, Bivolaru finally emerged: “He opened the door, gave us a hug, and I remember thinking he looked very old and very frail, kind of weak – and thinking: 'I do not want to have sex with this man, I do not find him attractive, I do not want to do it'.”
According to Stella, a male follower told her to “transfigure him into the divine being that he is, this is a great opportunity for you”.
Later she was summoned to Bivolaru's room, she tells RFI, where they had sex. Stella says he told her they should drink each other's urine; he urinated in her mouth and she did the same to him.
“That's the kind of climactic point,” she says. “And then we lay down, and he started snoring in his sleep.”
'Something doesn't fit'
Silke too told RFI she was brought to Paris to have sex with Bivolaru, three times.
But it was what she saw him do to someone else that made her finally question his mastery.
“He was calling an underage girl into his room,” Silke says. “She was 16.”
The girl was there with her mother, a long-time member of the group. According to Silke, from outside the room she could hear Bivolaru yelling at the teenager because she had broken off from giving him oral sex.
“And that was when I started to go like, there's something that doesn't really fit.”
She is among several survivors to speak publicly against Atman. Former members' testimonies to the French authorities prompted them to start investigating the organisation earlier this year.
When French police carried out raids against Atman in Paris and other parts of France on 28 November, they found 26 people who they believe the group was holding.
Forty-one people were arrested, 15 of whom were handed preliminary charges a few days later. They include organised human trafficking, kidnapping, sequestration, rape and “abusing the weakness of a group” via psychological or physical subjection.
Bivolaru is said to be facing the longest list of charges. If convicted, he risks spending the rest of his life in prison.
“It makes me feel safe,” Silke told RFI after the arrest. “To just know that he's locked up and he can't do anything anymore.”
But convincing followers that they are victims won't be an easy task, says Sophie, a Frenchwoman in her 30s who spent five years in the group.
“I was really lucky to escape this cult, because a lot of people don't,” she told RFI.
“If someone had said to me at the time, 'you're in a cult, it's dangerous, get out', I would have felt sorry for them. I would have said, 'you don't understand what we're doing. We're working for the divine.'
At the request of the interviewees, RFI is not publishing their full names.