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The legend of Bihar School of Yoga

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India’s most revered yoga centre abhors publicity and turns away casual seekers. Ullekh NP in Munger chronicles the legend of the Bihar School of Yoga

Gurgaon-based yoga instructor Shivchittam had trained at various yoga schools before he began teaching the discipline that has roots in pre-Vedic Indian traditions. He doesn’t look down upon yoga gurus who play to the gallery—after all, they deserve credit to some extent for popularising it among common folk, he feels. But he takes immense pride in his long and solid association with a school of yoga which, set up in 1964, is seen as the seat of a modern yogic and tantric renaissance, an organisation that famously shuns publicity.

Over time, the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY), headquartered in Munger, Bihar, on the banks of the Ganga, has built a reputation as arguably the world’s most acclaimed yoga training institute. At its high gates that guard the sprawling campus with magnificent buildings, guards and managers are not only unwelcoming, but rather suspicious of visitors turning up without prior appointment. “They are a closed group,” a friend had forewarned. But the reception at the gates of the world’s most revered yoga ashram is frostier than one would expect. A BSY employee named Swami Shiv Dhanyam, who spoke at the behest of Swami Dakshraj, a key administrator at the Munger ashram, also known as Ganga Darshan, later apologises for the “trouble and inconvenience”, saying the ashram is run by volunteers, who were extremely busy with various activities and preparations for the Yoga Day celebrations on 21 June. The affable yogi hastens to add that he prefers fax messages in case one is interested in attending a course at the school, not e-mail or phone enquiries

“Your first impression while trying to contact the ashram may not have been good. BSY doesn’t want people to go there without prior permission, and most people there would appear difficult when you confront them with the request of an unplanned visit… but that is not the complete truth. They are extremely tied up with their work to ensure the smooth running of ashram activities. People who have come to attend courses or experience the yogic lifestyle have to be taken care of well,” insists a person who has been associated with BSY for decades. His argument is that only those who really want to learn ‘authentic yoga’ turn up on the campus and at BSY camps.

“Often, people have to wait for a while till they get a response from the ashram, but they will definitely get feedback if the yogis are convinced that he or she is keen on learning and experiencing yoga not only as a form of physical exercise, but as a practice that enriches their spiritual and emotional well-bring,” he adds. This person doesn’t want to disclose his identity without permission from the authorities—which would obviously take time.

Another practitioner of what is popularly known as Munger Yoga dismisses the notion that the ashram exhibits traits of a cult organisation with its goings-on kept under wraps. She avers that what BSY tries to retain, and successfully so, is the ancient gurukul type of learning, under which students are constantly in close interaction with yoga teachers. “That also means that you don’t learn wrong postures and wrong breathing techniques. You end up learning the best system of holistic yoga—which combines all forms of yoga, from Hatha Yoga to Ashtanga Yoga, and you are also taught to adopt yoga as a lifestyle rather than as a form of aerobic exercise to keep fit physically,” she says, emphasising that ‘mass drills’ organised by some yoga gurus for thousands of people are sometimes counterproductive. Her critique makes sense, because at such gatherings, the teacher doesn’t get to either see or interact with pupils who often get their postures wrong and have nobody to correct them.

“I went to Munger because I could eat yoga, breathe yoga and sleep yoga,” says Shivchittam, who visits BSY every year for at least a week on each occasion. This yoga instructor—who says he instructs corporate employees as well as poor villagers on yoga—says that initially he too was shocked by what could be seen as the outright opacity of proceedings at the institution set up by Swami Satyanand Saraswati, a disciple of Swami Shivananda Saraswati, to promote yoga. Shivchittam asked many yogis why this was so. Why was it that BSY didn’t want to spread its message wider to attract more attention from people? So he asked. Swami Sankarananda Saraswati, one of the sanyasis at the ashram, offered him the answer: “There are two ways to go about doing things. One is to go to the people and the other is to let the people come to us. We follow the latter.”

Over the decades, more and more people—from common men to businessmen and celebrities to politicians—have come toMunger with a quest to learn ‘the yogi’s yoga’. The likes of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar used to be a frequent visitor. So are members of actor Salman Khan’s family. The institution has attracted people from afar, including the Middle East. As a yogi at Munger tells Open, “People from countries such as Turkey and Iran invariably come in groups of 50-60 and stay for months at the ashram to live the lifestyle of a yogi.”

Where History Sleeps

It is often word-of-mouth publicity that has beckoned people from far and wide to the yoga ashram at Munger, 180 km from Bihar’s state capital Patna. It is believed that the town, which houses a majestic fort, was founded by Chandragupta Maurya (340-298 BCE), after whom it was initially called Gupta Garh. Once upon a time, Munger was also known as Maudagalyagiri, named after a disciple of Buddha, Maudgalya, who had converted a rich local merchant to Buddhism. Some historians say the town could be much older and nay have been a dwelling place of aboriginal tribes called Mons or Mundas. According to a report, Munger was also where a yogi called Mudgala Muni had lived many centuries ago—and so it got the names Munigiri (‘hill of the muni’) as well as Munigriha (‘house of the muni’). Then this name was abbreviated to Munigir, then Monghyr by the British, and finally Munger in recent times. The seventh century Buddhist monk and Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang is said to have visited parts of Munger and had written that the ‘manners of the people are simple and honest; there are ten Buddhist monasteries with about 4,000 priests’.

Munger, 65 km from Bhagalpur town, was the seat of the Pala kings of the 8th to 9th centuries. It was occupied by Muslim invaders—in the 13th century by Muhammed Bakhtiyar and later by Sultan Muhammed Tuqhlaq, Bahlol Lodhi and others. A strategic military spot, thanks to its location on the banks of the Ganga, it was captured later by the likes of Babar, Sher Shah Suri, Akbar and even the Marathas in the 18th century before British forces established a base here in 1757, when British officer Eyre Coote arrived in Munger chasing Jean Low, a fleeing French adventurer after the Battle of Plassey, as some reports record. More importantly, the Ganga flows north only at two places along its entire length—at Varanasi and at Munger—making it a vibrant and hallowed spot.

In recent times, ‘invasions’ of Munger have been motivated by a spiritual quest—to learn yoga at an ashram where the core philosophy is that the discipline is not just a set of physical exercises, but a method to nurture the mind, body and spirit.

In 2002, David Robert Stone, an aspiring British sportsman who suffered from cerebral palsy, came to Munger. Besides physical disability, Stone, who would over the next 10 years become a double Paralympics gold medallist at cycling, wanted to overcome other odds, including his low self-esteem and related behavioural issues. He needed to “calm down”, says a ashram insider, and so he did after attending a “life course”.

Stone, who was given the name Alok Murti at the ashram, displayed a marked difference within days of joining classes that were meant to purge an individual of his ego and state of being emotionally disturbed. The Telegraph newspaper quoted him as writing in an ashram publication, ‘In the past I had tried to control my anger and that usually led to great explosion. Through my practice of yoga I learnt to be more aware of this emotion and to be more accepting [of] it. Yoga gave me a firmer base in the outside world.’ He had several months-long stints at the ashram from 2002 to 2011. According to a report, Stone had to perform backward-bending asanas like Dhanurasan, Bhujangasan and Chakrasan to ‘make his spine flexible and activate his nervous system’. To help cleanse his arteries and veins, Stone also had to undergo nadi shodhana pranayam, according to the report. The 1981-born Stone went on to win gold medals in a category called ‘disability cycling’ in 2009 and later in 2012, besides many other laurels.

“The rigour one has to undertake at the ashram is high. It is not that anyone can come and practise yoga like they do in typical morning sessions. Which is why the ashram expects people who are ready for it to reach out to them, and not the other way around,” says a senior administrator at the ashram. He adds that VVIPs and celebs who attend courses at the ashram are not accorded any special status. “They have to do things the way others do,” he says.

A senior minister in the Bihar government, a regular visitor to the ashram, says he is mostly tight-lipped about his experiences at BSY “by force of habit, not to hide anything”. “I don’t talk too much about it because it is not in the DNA of the institution to flaunt its feats and what one could achieve by living the ashram life. It has been highly beneficial to me and I have seen before my own eyes how their stints had helped many others transform their lives forever. It needs discipline and it is not what one should ideally advertise a lot,” he says. “Lack of transparency is a mistaken notion. They have chosen the path to stay low profile and commit more towards expanding the scope of yoga in offering solace to the needy and to those who live life in the fast lane and tend to destroy themselves thanks to modern lifestyles.”

New Postures and Techniques

One of the most notable achievements of BSY, contends Shivchittam, is to develop ‘Yoga Nidra’ as a potent technique. He is of the view that the potential of this form of yoga was never explored by anyone to the extent Swami Satyananda did. The BSY founder, according to literature provided by the Munger ashram, devised ‘Satyananda Yoga Nidra’ from traditional tantric practices. Satyananda Yoga Nidra is a pratyahara technique in which the distractions of the mind are contained and the mind is allowed to relax.

BSY claims this practice has had a profound transformative effect on practitioners. Elaborates a note by the ashram: ‘People feel that they are relaxing when they collapse in an easy chair with a cup of tea or coffee, a drink or a cigarette and read a newspaper or switch on the television. But this, in fact, is merely sensory diversion. Twentieth century research into sleep has proven that even entering into this traditional haven will rarely banish stress. True relaxation is an experience far beyond all this. For absolute relaxation one must remain aware. This is Satyananda Yoga Nidra, the state of dynamic sleep. It is a systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation. During the practice, one appears to be asleep, but the consciousness is functioning at a deeper level of awareness.’ In his book, Yoga Nidra, Swami Satyananda Saraswati explains in detail the technique he has developed. Points out Swami Niranjananda Swaraswati, Satyananda Saraswati’s successor, “In my early childhood, I was guided through Yoga Nidra by Sri Swamiji (Satyananda, the founder of BSY), and it is only now that I am becoming aware of the depth of the instructions and training I received.”

Several yoga teachers from various schools of yoga that Open spoke to admit that they refer to books published by BSY when they are in doubt. “Though I follow the likes of BKS Iyengar and Mysore Yoga, when I am in doubt about a certain asana, I immediately refer to books published by the Munger school. They have been able to adapt to the changing needs of individuals at a fast clip and they have done it without advertising themselves. However, those who want to learn ‘authentic’ yoga and experience the holistic nature of yoga still prefer to visit Munger. This is what I have noticed over more than a decade,” says a Bangalore-based yogi who has taught across the US and Europe for over two decades.

Though the Munger yoga school has so far maintained excellent standards in the discipline, one of its overseas concerns has attracted controversy. In Australia, at a royal commission hearing last year, Bhakti Manning, a woman who was at BSY’s Mangrove Yoga Ashram in that country, told the inquiry panel that she was sexually abused on three occasions by two senior BSY swamis. One alleged abuser was Swami Akhandananda, who founded the Mangrove Yoga Ashram. Akhandananda died in 1998, six years after an Australian court overturned a child-abuse conviction against him on a legal technicality. He had spent 14 months in jail, according to a report in The Guardian. Though BSY in Australia denied any wrongdoing initially and threatened to sue people who raised allegations against it, by the end of last year, it had apologised at the royal commission in Sydney to the victims. “We recognise and acknowledge that there has been child abuse in our history and that it has inflicted profound grief and suffering upon vulnerable children,” The Guardian quoted BSY’s lawyer as telling the commission. Meanwhile, Swami Shiv Dhanyam, who spoke to Open a number of times after the article on BSY appeared first on June 19, requesting that references to the RC enquiry be removed from the online version of the story, denied any wrongdoing on the part of the ashram and its leaders. He also wondered why so-called victims surfaced decades after alleged “incidents” took place.

Many well-wishers of the Munger ashram say it was just “an aberration at an overseas retreat run by a man long deceased” while maintaining that it hasn’t hurt the smooth running of the ashram anywhere else, especially in Bihar. “More and more people visit the ashram because they have found out about us through word-of-mouth and through benefits that others have gained living the ‘yoga life’,” says an administrator at the ashram. “Such incidents, like the one in Australia, bring shame and a bad name [to the school], and they shouldn’t have happened if they ever did,” he adds.

“Lately,” argues a long-time visitor to the Munger ashram, “with yoga being branded as a ‘Hindu phenomenon’ by vested interests, categorising it as an effort to spread the Hindu religion, some groups have started targeting yoga ashrams abroad. This is a vicious attempt that will only hamper efforts by people all over the world, irrespective of faith, to live a healthy life. Yoga is a door to wellness of the mind, body and soul. It is much beyond religion.” With aspiring yogis flocking to Munger—ironically, the ashram is located in a state that has earned notoriety for being underdeveloped and crime-ridden—from countries across the world, including the Middle East, BSY retains its image as a centre of ‘holistic’ yoga. With even non-Hindus flocking in large groups for long periods of stay from far and wide, its brand is gaining popularity and favour. Shunning publicity only seems to have helped enhance its allure and mystique.

Interestingly, weeks after the article came out, Bakti Manning wrote to me and repeated the allegations against BSY leaders – both dead and alive – that she had made at the RC hearing which BSY vehemently denies. Manning writes: “The goings-on at the Munger Ashram, past, and more recent, in my view, are a time bomb waiting to go off. Given the number of people impacted and the changes in communication brought by social media, it will all inevitably be spoken of more and more widely. What is holding some back presently, is the cult indoctrination aspects, which see individuals having to let go of strongly held well indoctrinated views of the supreme role a guru in one's spiritual life - and the concept that such a great individual could possibly have had such base emotions and behaviours. Basically, the process of speaking out involves questioning one's whole spiritual belief system as well as talking of debasing sexual abuse. It is not easy.”

She adds, “I struggled with this - and really only have had the last remnants of belief and allegiance blasted away as a result of the Australian Ashram issuing an apology in early 2014, which triggered physical memories and past trauma, and made me see that it was just all so abusive and damaging. Though instinctively, I had never felt comfortable with recommending to anyone to go to stay in the Australian or Indian Ashrams or to attend Satyananda Yoga classes, I still held to many of the spiritual beliefs, and "felt" a belonging to the Ashram. I now realise, that deep down, I must have recognised the dangers of being part of it - and that is why I could not encourage anyone to get involved.”

Manning, who says she visited the Munger ashram, in 2012, says, “I realised (then) that I needed time away - and I had wanted to see the completed Munger Ashram as I was a part of the team that oversaw most of the building of that premises - so I went for a visit. I was treated well on that visit, though it did start to open my eyes, as a mature adult, and mother of two, I had far more maturity and experience of life. I was encouraged to come back for a longer stay - and to bring my sons. With the situation at home still difficult, and many life decisions needing to be made, I saw it as an opportunity to have a complete break, and give me the distance to work out what I would do. I think I also had questions about my spiritual perspectives on life, and needed to explore that. My 17-year-old son came with me. On this visit things were very different - and I came to see and experience just how de-humanising and controlling the treatment that most got was.”

She offers a description of herself while she was at BSY, “I was in the ‘inner circle’ of Satyananda's disciples and management team from November 1976 to November1983. I was 16 when I arrived. He required me to be a sexual partner - and I was one of many - some young, some older, some Indian, some foreign. When Niranjanananda returned from the US to become President in January 1983, it was clear to me that both he and Satyananda were pushing for me to have sexual relations with him too. I left as I started to feel extremely exhausted and lonely. Though I was still heading the Accounts Department, I was being treated very coldly by Satyananda.”

She also finds fault with what she calls vast amount of contradictory stuff that is published by BSY. “If you read widely in their publications, there are multiple versions of the same stories - full of contradictions. A prime example is the birth date of Satyananda himself. In my time in Munger it was always published as and celebrated as July 26th, 1923. In his later years, when he moved to Rikhia, Satyananda claimed his birthday was December 25th - same as Christ's. In the book Rikhiapeeth Satsangs Vol 2, he responds to a question about this disparity by claiming some people at the ashram had mistakenly published his birthday as July 26th in the past. This is an outright lie - he oversaw everything that was published and everything, including his birthday celebrations that happened in the ashram. Then in 2013, the Munger ashram republished a Divine Life Society publication - a souvenir put out in the 1950s by Satyananda's guru's ashram to mark Satyananda's 31st birthday. In this there are several references to his birth date being 26th August. So he must have claimed that as his birthday then - or at least told others and his own guru that that was the case. It is a minor point - it does not really matter when he was born - but it is indicative of the lack of honesty that seems to be central to the way this place operates.”

She goes on, “The Australian perpetrator (Akhandananda) was trained and supported by Satyananda - recruited as a teenager - according to stories, a poor boy who was labouring making stone chips for the road works. In our day he was one of his most celebrated senior disciples. Now they are trying to totally distance themselves from the Australian ashram. Yet the senior people running the Australian ashram today are people who have had deep involvement in the Indian Ashram, and have let their whole lives be dictated by Satyananda and Niranjan. They are staunch devotees. They claimed that India had no part in the way the Ashram acted towards the victims. But the documents subpoenaed by the Australian Royal Commission show that the Australian ashram's response to the victims of abuse in 2014 changed around the time accusations about Satyananda and Niranjan were aired - and that Niranjan (current Spiritual Head or Preceptor of the movement) was consulted, and that he appointed a Munger-based swami to provide oversight to that response. It was at this time that the Ashram moved from open communication to removing the conversation from their Facebook page and blocking and silencing victims.”

For its part, BSY denies all charges of sexual abuse and paedophilia on its campuses, saying such allegations are emanating from those opposed to the “concept of the Guru”. Shiv Dhanyam, who is known to be very close to Niranjan, told me so after the article appeared on June 19. The likes of Bhakti Manning contend that they found it difficult to speak out because they believed, for long, that their guru was god.

(This 19 June story was updated on 19 July with new inputs)