MOT: The dark side of a tantric cult
YLE, TV1, Oct. 5th, 2009 at 8. p.m.
Reporter Riikka Kaihovaara
Voiceover (VO), Riikka Kaihovaara: At the end of August, thousands of people gathered to meditate at the Black Sea coast in Romania. Several Finns also took part in this yogic event. But behind the sunny facade there are sinister things going on.
Seppo Isotalo, human rights activist: "It has all the characteristics of a cult: one truth, one leader, and it isolates the dissident."
VO: The guru of this yoga movement is the Romanian Gregorian Bivolaru. He and his followers are suspected of involvement in human trafficking and production of pornographic films. This is a story about how people can be exploited under the disguise of spirituality.
Episode title on screen: The dark side of a tantric cult.
VO: Yoga is an old exercise method, with roots in the traditions of India. Its' well-known aims are human spiritual growth and well-being. In recent years, yoga has become secularized, and for many it has become an everyday recreational sport.
But some yoga schools still guard the old spiritual heritage of yoga. One of them is a school named Natha, which has about 200 active members in Finland. The yoga course offered by Natha lasts almost twenty years.
'Jenni' (ex-natha member): ”The first impression is quite benign. - - They teach very original yoga, very ambitious hatha-yoga. So it's not like some stretching for grannies like at many other places. - - "They start with the basic spiritual teachings at the very beginning. - - You are positive and honest and so on."
VO: What is visible to an outsider looks happy and sunny. - But the deeper a student proceeds, the more cultish it gets. The school has been kicked out of the International Yoga Federation. - The teachings at Natha are esoteric, revealed only to the insiders. They are not supposed to talk about the exercises to outsiders. That is why the ex-natha members interviewed in this program wished to remain anonymous.
'Jenni': "On the one hand, it was exciting and motivating that, the knowledge was shared in small droplets. - - And then, little by little, the teaching started to include religious elements, like consecration of the yoga exercises, prayer and such."
'Marina' (ex-member): ”Natha seems to have a draw on people that are somehow interested in spirituality and want to dedicate their lives to it, and... who then wish to abandon everything that has to do with so-called ordinary life."
VO: MOT has got hold of some of Nathas internal study materials. The lecture notes give many kinds of advice about yogic life. Natha aspires to influence how the students cure their illnesses, how much they weigh and what they eat. Natha followers are for example encouraged to purify themselves by vomiting. That was too much for Marina, who quit Natha for good.
'Marina': ”Well, I've had an eating disorder, and I had thought I never want to vomit again. And I think it was sick in other ways too - as if the human body could not tolerate some delicacies like a piece of cake now and then. That can't really be that bad spiritually!"
VO: Natha also teaches tantra. Tantra is a religious philosophy that aspires to permanent bliss or spiritual enlightenment. Tantra may also include sexual exercises.
Johanes Suoranta (spokesman of the Natha school in Helsinki): ”Natha teaches classical tantra, eroticism as a spiritual path, or how to harness the creative energies of eroticism for you spiritual growth. Before everything, it emphasizes love as a necessary prerequisite for practicing tantra, and also as a certain goal to strengthen love. - - A tantra course includes yoga- and meditation exercises done in class, and the erotic exercises are given as homework for loving couples to practice."
VO: The Natha school includes closed groups like Vira-groups for men and Shakti-groups for women. One of tantra's basic ideas is that, through Shakti, a woman may discover her inner erotic goddess. Jenni was quite surprised at the videos shown in her tantra class.
Jenni: ”I thought the women in the pictures looked very pornographic and grossly made up, with silicone breasts. I then said aloud that, I don't really really think these kinds of pictures represent any kind of female divinity. The teacher of the course reacted with complete astonishment that I was presenting criticism like this."
VO: The most devoted Natha followers live in ashrams, or spiritual communities. There are also children living in these centers. - This farmhouse in northern Själland (Denmark) is familiar to many Finns as well. - Danish yoga practitioner Kim Schmock bought this farm in the late 1990's. Alongside Schmock and his female partner, several Natha members moved in. Gradually the farm slipped away from Schmock's hands and it was turned into a yoga ashram, where Natha organized camps and retreats.
Kim Schmock: “I mean, I was helping, I was part of it, so at that time it seems right. I mean, everything was, at that time fine, nice, everybody was helping each other and it was also in good… what was that… in good spirit, somehow.”
VO: Four years ago Schmock suddenly realized that something was wrong.
Kim Schmock: “You get involved more and more and they are controlling, suddenly, your life, you know - and all the expectations they have: 'You have to do this, you have to do that', and suddenly you don’t have time to your friends, you don’t have time to your family, they get - they will be your family - and actually, when you realize this, it’s often too late.”
VO: Kim Schmock wanted to break away from Natha. He tried to sell his farm that had turned into and ashram to the Natha school.
Schmock: “Well, the, lawyer was, of course, sending them offers. - And in the end they said no thanks, and instead of leaving the property, they occupied the place, saying 'it’s our place'.”
Schmock (walking around the property with Kaihovaara, showing a window): “This - they broke when I was there in March, they broke in through the window when I was alone there.”
VO: Kim Schmock had to leave his home. He now lives in a trailer a couple of kilometers from the farm. Schmock is still paying for the mortgage he took to buy the property, and he is almost broke. The ownership of the farm is being contested in court.
Schmock: “My whole life have been quite of a mess the last couple of years. Compared to a normal life, I mean, this is quite chaotic, because all what I earn goes to the lawyers and for paying, for, for my property.”
(Screen text: MISA = Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute)
VO: The roots of all Natha schools lead to Romania. They are part of a Romanian yoga movement called MISA. At the end of August, about 3,000 yoga practitioners gathered at MISA's annual summer camp in Costinesti on the Black Sea coast. Among the participants were about 30 people from Finland. - To be accepted to the camp, every participant has to send tow photographs, presenting her- or himself in a bikini or swimming trunks. (From women, a bikini picture is required.) Participation in the camp is also conditional on clean test results for syphilis and HIV. These same requirements apply also for Natha's summer camps in Finland.
VO: Outside the event enclosure, we managed to find MISA's spokesperson Crina Calek.
Crina Calek: “Our yoga school has opened other schools in countries like Danmark, Finland, or Italy, Spain even Argentina, Germany, England a lot of other countries.”
Question to Calek: “And what is the relationship between Misa and the other schools?
Calek: “Specially there are also like Misa just that they are in other language other countries but it´s the same school, it´s the same thing, we are teaching the same yoga.”
VO: The climax of the Costinesti camp is a meditation spiral formed by thousands of people.
Calek: “Depends on every participant what you can have a very but affective feel lot of love, communicate with god, mental clarity, a lot of different states.”
Kaihovaara: ”And what is the final goal of Misa?”
Crina Calek : ”To communicate god this is for every person who cames here this is the final this is the purpose of yoga actually.”
Kaihovaara: ”And what God is it?”
Calek: ”The only God. The only God that exist. The God the father this is the God.”
Kaihovaara: ”But a Christian God or...?”
Calek: ”The Christian God, it's the same. It´s I mean you cannot talk about different Gods.”
VO: At the end of June, the Finnish Natha school arranged a similar kind of spiral meditation at the Faces-festival in Karjaa (60 km west of Helsinki). On both occasions, there were attempts to prevented filming the event.
Voice from the background: "No filming!"
VO: After the meditation in Costinesti is over, a message is heard from the loudspeakers: "The ways of the Lord are inscrutable..." - The voice belongs to Gregorian Bivolaru, the Romanian guru of this international yoga school movement. He writes letters to his followers and prescribes them personal exercises like yoga, meditation or practical work for the yoga school.
VO: Bivolaru is openly worshipped also in the Natha yoga school in Finland. His picture decorates Natha's yoga hall and it is displayed at every event the school organizes. The most devout followers are given new names by Bivolaru. Renaming members is one way of binding them into the movement.
'Jenni': ”According to Grieg he is criticized because there is an international conspiracy against him. - Then there were the UFO-stories: that space beings called Vrillons are being contacted telepathically, and stuff like that. I could not see the connection to yoga anymore. - I said I can't believe this. But then I was told I must believe, that when the guru says it is so, then so it is. In a way you are forced to make a choice: either you accept the guru or you don't. I then chose not to accept."
VO: In 2004, the Romanian secret service arrested Gregorian Bivolaru. The following year, he was officially charged of several crimes, for example sex with a minor, tax evasion and illegal border crossing.
VO: Bivolaru managed to escape to Sweden, where he applied for political asylum. The Romanian authorities requested his extradition to Romania to face the charges in court. The request was handled by the supreme court of Sweden.
VO: The events drew the attention of European human rights activists. Among others, the chairpersons of the human rights committee of the Finnish parliament, Ulla Anttila and Kari Uotila, published an appeal in support of Bivolaru.
The Swedish supreme court ruled on the case in October 2005. The verdict was that Bivolaru shall not be extradited to Romania. The court reasoned that, in his home country Bivolaru would not receive a fair trial. - Towards the end of the same year Bivolaru was granted political asylum in Sweden. After that, he disappeared underground.
VO: In 2007, Bivolaru and several of his followers were indicted again. The new case was prepared by DIICOT, the Romanian government's special bureau against terrorism and organized crime.
Narcisa Kelemen (DIICOT spokeswoman): “ During the 2007 Gregorian Bivolary together with twenty other persons were indicted and sent to court by DIICOT, charged with several crimes among which organized trafficking in human being, outrage, disturbing public order and fraudulent border crossing.“
Kaihovaara: “And how big is the case?”
Kelemen: “The case is huge, (there) are many persons involved, and thousands of documents.”
VO: According to witness' testimony, Bivolaru forced his followers to perform in erotic video chats and sent women to Japan to dance at striptease-clubs. Most of the money from this sex work went to Bivolaru and MISA yoga schools. - Nobody has been convicted yet, because the trial has been postponed over and over again. The defendants have denied the charges.
Crina Calek (MISA): “We hope we will win because we know that we are right. There was many many abuses against yoga schools here in Romania. And this is the reason for it why Gregorian received the political asylum in Sweden, because the Sweden justice considered that the accusation that the Romanian prosecutor brought to him were not true.“
VO: The leader of Finland's Natha school is Daniela Dae from Romania. The indictment accuses her of having participated in human trafficking. During the process Dae and about 20 other defendants have been disjoined from the main case.
Narcisa Kelemen: ”The person is under an investigation in a separate criminal file disjoined from the case before the court. Unfortunately at this moment taking in to consideration the stage of the investigation I cannot provide more information regarding this person.”
VO: Seppo Isotalo, a Finnish human rights activist has followed the unfolding of the trial in Romania. For almost two years he tried to help MISA in its' struggle against the authorities.
Seppo Isotalo: ”I met these happy people, many of whom had been through crises. - I visited these trials in Romania many times, and they always put me up with some charming person."
Kaihovaara: "How did they treat you?"
Seppo Isotalo: "I was given a special treatment. Pretty girls were around all the time to look after my needs, and I thought that oh no, this is like in a museum: you may look but do not touch."
VO: In 2007, Isotalo met the movement's guru, Gregorian Bivolaru in a secret location in southern Sweden.
Seppo Isotalo: ”I soon realized that, I was dealing with a very great personality. Not a bad person, but a great person."
VO: Present at the meeting was Madalina Dumitru, the girl who according to the Romanian indictment was sexually abused by Bivolaru when she was still a minor.
Isotalo: ”Madeleine was there, the girl who had been Bivolaru's mistress when she was 14. She was dressed very sexy. - It was a most peculiar occasion; first we had to sit down and wait for him for several hours. And when he showed up, the people in the room jumped to kiss his feet. I didn't."
VO: Where is Gregorian Bivolaru now? According to the Swedish tax registry, he has changed his name to Magnus Aurolsson. An address search by that name indicates that, he lives here in Karlskrona (Southern Sweden).
(Picture of Kaihovaara in a staircase, going up stairs to an apartment door, ringing the doorbell. Long wait.)
Kaihovaara (talking to herself): "I can hear sounds from the flat. Someone is moving about in there, but they're not opening."
VO: Bivolaru has every reason to hide. In April 2008 an international arrest warrant on him was issued throught Interpol. Despite everything, he has not been brought to face justice. Sweden still refuses to help Romanian authorities.
VO: As night falls in the Costinesti resort, the yogis gather for another spiral meditation. - In the center of Costinesti, Gregorian Bivolaru has built a house where some participants stay overnight. This so-called Shakti-villa is surrounded by a high fence, and the gate is locked. - When he still lived in Romania, Bivolaru used to receive young women for private meetings in this house.
(Picure: Two young women at the gate, which opens and they enter the house.)
VO: The next day, I meet two Finnish participants at the event's main tent, but they refuse my request for an interview. - This tent is the venue for the annual Miss Shakti -pageant, that determines the female yogi most representative of the ideal feminine Shakti-energy. Last year, Finnish girls took second and fourth place in the pageant.
Kim Schmock: “Natha - they always have this striptease and also in MISA, they have this annual event in the summertime where they have this Miss-Shakti -contest, and it’s very erotic - and this is part of the tantra.”
Picture: Costinesti beach, an abandoned freight ship in the horizon. Excerpts from a porno film.
VO: Behind the tantric facade, other things are going on. Not far from the Costinesti beach, an abandoned freight ship lies in anchor. Its' deck served as the location for the 2003 porno film "Exaltation of Pee". Masturbation in front of video cameras was part of the yoga camp's Miss Shakti competition.
VO: Exaltation of Pee is not the only porno film where MISA members are featured prominently. About a dozen films have been produced so far. At least in one of them we can see a Finnish yoga teacher among the performers.
VO: The latest films have been produced in Denmark, where the Natha school is lead by Romanian Mihai Stoian. He has performed in at least one porno film under the pseudonym Paul Diamond. Seppo Isotalo got to know Stoian when he was Natha's guest in Copenhagen.
Isotalo: ”There were two girls, who were sort of made available to me, and they acted as drivers mostly, taking me around Copenhagen. But the situation was immediately obvious: they were told to take care of this man. There is a very clear authoritarian atmosphere around Stoian."
VO: It was precisely the treatment of women in MISA that aroused Isotalo's suspicions. He started to criticize the movement. The relationship ended there.
Isotalo: ”There are things about this cult that are suspect, for example the sending of dancers to Japan. I've also heard they sell video porn. - These are critical points that require some investigation. Not because of pornography, which is not forbidden, but the terms on which these girls go to Japan to perform."
VO: Kim Schmock was an active member of the Danish Natha for eight years. During one Christmas holiday Schmock had a chance to witness MISA's fundraising.
Schmock: “In time, more and more things was revealed, you know, you get closer. - We were invited to a party and actually, this group of people there was, the whole group of girls was doing this erotic chat on the internet and their boyfriends also. - I know they're saying this is karma yoga work, but they get paid and MISA’s getting their share, and girls also get some money.”
VO: Schmock found out about the porno films accidentally.
Schmock: “Actually it was in Danish. The store, called Metro, they have this big boxes with films, you know, and I was walking around and looking in this and there was some erotic films also and I saw a picture of a girl that I knew and said “what is this?” - ”The contradiction is that they, they are not true to the, to the public about what is going on. I mean, if they have been denying this for years and when it comes out to the public - they said 'oh yeah, we’re very proud of doing these movies'. But you wasn’t proud just last year!”
VO: Last spring there was public outcry in Denmark when it was revealed that the city of Copenhagen supports Natha annually with 80,000 euros. The money was directed at a Natha center where pornographic films had been shot. - Public subsidies are available also in Finland. The sports board of the city of Helsinki supports Natha with about 30,000 euros yearly, to cover their rents and other expenses.
VO: There is no evidence that Natha has been involved in producing porn films or providing striptease-dancers in Finland. But the Finnish branch has taken part and presentied its' activities at sex fairs in Turku and Helsinki.
Johannes Suoranta (Natha-school Helsinki): ”By taking part in the Erotic conventions Natha has wanted to offer an alternative to the current, I could say distorted or limited view of sexuality. We offer lectures, information, and also certain performances, whereby we have wanted to offer elevated examples of how eroticism can be used in a loving, elevating, beautiful and aesthetic way, to present the viewers an experience that could awaken the heart so to say, and not just erotic energies."
But is it really about spirituality, or rather the fulfillment of selfish desires?
'Markku' (a former Natha-member; his statement read by an actor): ”When we were on this tantra camp, there was this male, highly placed person in the organization, who was teaching there. And he chose one young woman from among the students to sit beside him, on the grounds that she was somehow 'extremely spiritual'. I happen to know exactly that, there would have been 20 other women that were much more spiritual, but uglier and with a less attractive bodies."
Isotalo: ”I can't approve of these yoga teachers taking advantage of their pupils. I find it unacceptable. I could not even think about I, as a university lecturer, would take advantage of my students."
Kaihovaara's question to Suoranta: "I have received information that there have been sexual relations with the teachers and pupils in your school. Is this true?"
Suoranta (Natha Helsinki): "To begin with, we are talking about love, loving relationships. Sex serves love, and the relationship between two persons, be they members of the school or not, is always a matter between them, and if such relationships come about, we don't want to limit them by any means. Love is a very precious thing, and this school bases its' morals on the yogic principles, the ten central principles, which are actually pretty close to the ten commandments, which more people are obviously familiar with."
VO: The intensive exercises may shake the mental balance of the more fragile personalities. During Natha's summer camp, one person lapsed into psychosis and was taken away in an ambulance.
Members of Natha have been recommended to seek treatment from a Russian therapist who practices in Helsinki. One former Natha member tells us that, almost half of the Natha activists pay visits to this therapist.
Marina: ”When I sought this therapy for the first time, I was really depressed and anguished, and I just wanted to die. - Then I called him and started to frequent at his office. - At first, the therapist appeared to be a rather charismatic and a strong and kind personality, understanding. But towards the end of it he was very unstable and whimsical - you never knew what to expect."
(Picture: Excerpt from a 1994 documentary, where the therapist in question is whipping a woman's naked back and then holding her in his lap.)
VO: The treatment methods of the therapist favored by Natha have created a lot of embarrassment. On this video clip he is whipping one of his ex-patients. - Marina's therapy also started to go into a strange direction.
'Marina': ”It included all kinds of stroking, back massage, lap sitting and this meditation where we would just stare each other in the eyes, and not say anything. - This therapeutic relationship lasted for only a couple of months, may have been four or five months, and then we also had sex for about three months."
VO: MOT has learned that, the therapist has sexually harassed several of his female patients. Marina turned him in to the police, and after an investigation the case has been brought to the public prosecutor for consideration. A possible indictment would eventually be about sexual abuse.
'Marina': ”It's always abusive, if a therapist starts a sexual affair with his customer, because they should have their ethical obligations, that they are not supposed to touch their customers."
VO: The Russian therapist does not have Finnish qualifications to work as a psychotherapist or a physician. Therefore, he is officially not allowed to call himself a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist.
Kaihovaara, question to Suoranta: "What is Natha's relationship to this therapist?"
Suoranta (Natha Helsinki): ”Our school's official policy is that, we don't recommend any particular psychiatrist or any psychiatrist in general, so it is anybody's own choice."
VO: Natha teachers don't give their pupils orders, but guidance is given through recommendations. The members follow the guru's teachings. Critical examination of the cult's activities is difficult for an individual member.
Seppo Isotalo: ”Their view is that the outside world is evil. Television offers evil programs, the papers write ugly things. They are very strict about positioning themselves outside the world, just like all religious cults."
Kim Schmock: “I feel pity about the people getting in there, seeking some truth - you know, self-development, there is a possibility to do that. - But the problem is, if they get dragged in, so there’s living in the ashram and (they) get more and more sucked in, into the core. - They don’t have any job or education or career, and they never get started. - This is my concern: Young people get in there and they lose their life.”
MOT: The dark side of a tantric cult