The international yoga organization -- some consider it a cult -- takes to court an ex-member bent on airing sexual allegations.
BY WILL HARPER
Before they sought enlightenment from the Kabbalah or Dr. Phil, celebrities flocked to the teachings of the guru: Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the spiritual leader of Siddha Yoga Dham of America, or SYDA. Meg Ryan, for instance, is rumored to keep in her wallet a picture of the guru, who supposedly bestows upon her followers a powerful spiritual jolt through something called "shaktipat."
The international yoga organization's West Coast base is here in Oakland, near the Emeryville border, and SYDA devotees own or rent more than a dozen properties in the surrounding neighborhood, near the meditation ashram.
SYDA has a turbulent history, with allegations of sexual improprieties by some of its male leaders, including its late founder, Swami Muktananda. According to a lengthy 1994 New Yorker article, Muktananda regularly broke his vow of celibacy and had strange sexual interactions with female devotees.
Most former members interviewed by the New Yorker feared retribution and thus insisted on anonymity, but over the past decade, ex-SYDA members have come together in Internet chat rooms and on a Web site, LeavingSiddhaYoga.net, to share their own stories of abuse or disillusionment with what they now describe as a cult.
Last week, SYDA staffers from the Oakland ashram -- including former Black Panther Ericka Huggins -- were in Alameda County Superior Court trying to get a restraining order against a disillusioned ex-disciple, Yair Schers. Was SYDA trying to simply silence a critic, as Schers claims, or did its local leaders have a legit reason to fear him?
Born in Israel in 1955, Schers spent twenty years of his life with SYDA worshipping first Muktananda and then Gurumayi. For years, he worked at SYDA's Catskills headquarters and later at the Oakland ashram. Then, about three years ago, local ashram managers asked him to leave and not come back after an elderly member accused Schers of pushing her. Schers adamantly denies the accusation and says the managers didn't let him give his side of the story. Around the same time, he says, SYDA managers were trying to make his girlfriend (now his wife), Alison Cliatt, leave him.
It was a painful time, recalls Cliatt, who was raised in a SYDA family and she felt as if she was being asked to choose between her boyfriend and her church. The angst, she says, rekindled painful memories from five years earlier, when she was in her early twenties and a high-ranking SYDA lay teacher, she claims, used his position to seduce her. As Cliatt recounted in a nine-page affidavit filed in court last week, the teacher -- whom she had known and admired as a spiritual leader since she was fifteen -- brought her to his hotel room, lay her down on the bed, undressed her, and had sex with her. According to Cliatt's affidavit, the teacher claimed "that the sex was a way for him to transmit knowledge to me."
Cliatt kept up the affair with the married teacher for a few months. She recalls feeling conflicted about the affair, which she now considers abuse, and even wrote Gurumayi about her troubles, but never heard back.
Recalling these memories and feeling betrayed, Cliatt sided with her boyfriend and left SYDA. Since then, Schers and Cliatt have devoted an enormous amount of energy to calling and writing SYDA leaders, hoping to get them to confront the alleged abuses in the organization. But along the way, leaders claim, Schers crossed the line between free speech and harassment.
"This is about a really angry guy ... who is really scary," says Lisa Abbott, general manager of the Oakland ashram. SYDA's security chief says Schers has made hundreds of threatening phone calls over the past two years. Staffers have also caught him in the wee hours outside the ashram, leaving fliers on cars. When SYDA leaders bump into him on the street, they say he yells at them (usually things like "Shame on you," judging from the papers filed in court). "He gets right in your face," Abbott says.
She adds that Schers keeps insisting SYDA confronts issues it has already confronted. Abbott says that the teacher who allegedly had an affair with Cliatt was asked to leave SYDA after it came to light. Cliatt and Schers say that no one ever bothered to tell them this in spite of their numerous letters to SYDA leaders on the topic.
In the end, Schers agreed not to contest the restraining order as long as SYDA's lawyers didn't try to censor the allegations of sexual abuse in the couple's affidavit. It was no small concession -- though, as Abbott points out, many similar accusations can be found on the Internet. The couple's documents include a sworn declaration from ex-member Radha Bridges, who says that, when she was 26 years old, Muktananda forced himself on her. One time, she says, he stuck his flaccid penis inside her and stayed there "a very long time." Another time, she alleges, he took her aside, inspected her vagina, and remarked, "Good yoni."
But while SYDA's leaders and lawyers let that revelation stay in the public record, they insisted on having another reference struck from Schers' declaration. It was a passing reference to a well-known cable TV personality and best-selling author who used to date an East Bay woman in SYDA. The TV personality is also a woman, see, and is in the closet. Abbott explained that she didn't think it right for this person to have her name dragged into a case that had nothing to do with her. And although Bottom Feeder knows the woman's name because he got a copy of the declaration prior to the hearing ... well, hey, even a bottom-feeder can't always regurgitate the trash he consumes.