Lawsuit Accuses Woodstock Guru Swami Satchidananda of Rape

A new lawsuit alleges Swami Satchidananda sexually abused numerous women while running Integral Yoga.

Lawsuit Accuses Woodstock Guru Swami Satchidananda of Rape

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May 15th, 2024

The guru who opened the Woodstock festival has been accused of raping and sexually abusing several women according to a new lawsuit. Swami Satchidananda is the founder of Integral Yoga. He opened the Yogaville Ashram in 1980 in Virginia where hundreds of students have lived ever since. He originally founded the institute in Manhattan's Upper West Side in 1966.

Satchidananda has faced sexual abuse allegations for decades but the lawsuit by Carol Merchasin of McAllister-Olivarius is the first attempt to seek legal justice.

"Swami Satchidananda sexually abused at least ten of his female students from the 1960s to the 1990s," the lawsuit states. "The Institute stood by as this abuse occurred, failed to investigate, and actively encouraged it. By teaching young women to obey unquestioningly and requiring them to work closely alongside him, the Institute was an integral component of Swami Satchidananda’s abuse scheme." It goes on to say Yogaville continues to "profit handsomely from their association with Swami Satchidananda and his worldwide network of yoga organizations."

In 1991 former followers spoke to the press and even staged protests. The Richmond Times-Dispatch published "Ex-Followers Say Swami Demanded Sexual Favors." A few months prior the Montreal Mirror published "Teachers, Students Abandon Yoga Institute Over Accusations." As early as 1972 The Village Voice reported on the scandal at Yogaville. "Someone in Satchidananda's innermost circle told others that she had been having sexual relations with him for some time," they wrote.

The Village Voice article on Swami Satchidananda

The former students allege in the lawsuit they were strongly encouraged by Integral Yoga institute to disconnect from family and friends. They claim Satchidananda taught them to be obedient telling them, “Don’t think, don’t question.”

The lawsuit states that a "culture of complete obedience to Swami Satchidananda" revealed a dark side. "At the Institute, defiance was forbidden. Nonconformists were regularly castigated and summarily expelled. Swami Satchidananda brooked no dissent and demanded unwavering loyalty. He preached peace and acceptance in public but was frequently angry and demanding in private."

Swami Satchidananda Sexual Abuse Allegations

Sharon Norris began following Swami Satchidananda in 1969 when she was a college student. He soon hired her as his assistant and she quit college to work for him at the New York Institute. The lawsuit describes how Satchidananda sexually groomed and abused her. On July 20th, 1969 Swami Satchidananda told her to undress in front of him:

Swami Satchidananda then told Norris that a student must be completely naked in front of their teacher. Understanding this to be a metaphor, Norris replied that she was willing. [He} then instructed Norris to remove her clothes and stand completely naked in front of him. In a state of confusion, but fulfilling her expectations as a student and employee, she complied. Norris disrobed in a nearby bathroom and presented herself naked to Swami Satchidananda, who then embraced her, commended her for her obedience, and covered her body with a blanket.

Norris alleges that Satchidananda raped her the next night:

The next day, on July 21, 1969, Swami Satchidananda summoned Norris to massage his legs in bed. This time, however, as Norris massaged his legs, Swami Satchidananda pulled on Norris’s arms and signaled to her to lay down. Then, Swami Satchidananda sexually assaulted Norris. He forcibly penetrated her vagina with his penis.

"After the assault concluded, Swami Satchidananda instructed Norris to keep it secret because he was publicly celibate," the lawsuit states.

Norris complied at out of reverence for her guru and employer. Like other Satchidananda followers she had been taught to obey him.

The lawsuit states that the sexual abuse continued for years. He "demanded both oral sex and vaginal sex," it states.

Susan Cohen became involved with Swami Satchidananda's Institute in New York in 1969. She took classes and learned to teach Integral Yoga. By 1970 she worked as a receptionist, cook and yoga teacher.

She was required to serve Satchidananda meals and massage his feet. The lawsuit states he began asking her about her sexual experiences and during one discussion he "touched Cohen’s face and fondled her breasts without her consent." On another occasion, "Swami Satchidananda instructed Cohen to perform oral sex on him while they were alone in his residence at the Institute. He told her to 'use your mouth.'”

The lawsuit states that Satchidananda "sexually assaulted" Cohen on numerous occasions in the following years. Cohen, like other employees, feared losing her job and being ostracized from the community so she kept quiet while there.

Yogaville Ashram in Virginia

Cohen began speaking out publicly in 1991. She told the Montreal Mirror that he created a type of "spiritual incest" where a father-daughter relationship was formed.

Sylvia Shapiro was a 19-year-old student when her guru Satchidananda asked her to join him on a trip overseas. "He was my guru and it was very exciting to be chosen for this," Shapiro told the press. "In Manila, he turned it from a massage into oral sex," Shapiro told the Richmond-Times Dispatch in 1991. "I was very upset. He didn't want to talk about it. He said he knew best and I shouldn't worry about it." Shapiro said she loved him like a father and that the relationship continued for a year.

"Shapiro informed the board of directors of the Institute that Swami Satchidananda had sexually abused her," the lawsuit states. "In a meeting with the Board, Swami Satchidananda denied Shapiro’s story, accused her of lying, and said he was too old for sexual activity." It states the Institute then "drove Shapiro out from the community."

Joy Zuckerman told the Richmond Times-Dispatch she left after a friend told her Satchidananda had made sexual advances towards her. Zuckermand then demanded the $20,000 donation she had made to be returned.

"He put his hand down my pants and at the same time put my hand on his genitals," a woman named Leela wrote in 2023. She had traveled with him in the early 1970s and he had asked for a foot massage but instead made it sexual.

A woman named Sharada Thompson, Ph.D who studied with Satchidananda said he took her virginity at the age of 19. "I was giving him a massage in his room when he rolled on top of me and, without a word, had sex with me," Sharada wrote in 2023. "It didn’t take long. I was a virgin and barely took in what was happening. I went back to the room I shared with Shanti and completely disequilibrated."

Sharada Thompson, Ph.D with Swami Satchidananda

Satchidananda died in 2002 but Yogaville has been offering yoga workshops, meditation and retreats ever since. On average there are over 100 residents in the ashram.

The Times-Dispatch reported in 2015 that it was iconic artist Peter Max who first brought Satchidananda to the 750 acre Virginia property. He fell in love and a year later opened the ashram.

The Yogaville community has wrestled with the allegations ever since they first surfaced in the early 1970s. Many have staunchly defended him over the years. But as much as one-third of the community left when the allegations surfaced. Others have left Yogaville more recently in light of the sexual abuse allegations.

Yogaville has filed a counterclaim of defamation against the abuse survivors listed in the lawsuit. They are alleged to threaten anyone who speaks out with lawsuits.

-> Read the full Yogaville lawsuit here.