With picturesque beaches and healing workshops, Koh Phangan is an international escape for thousands of Kiwis. But the Thai island is now under the cloud of #MeToo amid sexual assault allegations —the latest in a string of scandals that have struck the heart of yoga and its devotees. Anke Richter uncovers a paradise lost.
When the sun sets over the Gulf of Thailand, soft drum beats can be heard on Zen beach where dreadlocked travellers juggle poi sticks.
Koh Phangan is a small tropical island famous for its laid-back hippie vibe, healing workshops and full-moon parties. Cafés serve magic mushroom shakes and detox clinics offer colonics with organic coffee enemas.
The latest toxin that's being flushed out is not a psychedelic drug, but a so-called "sex cult".
Agama, one of the world's largest yoga training centres that was a business magnet on the island for 15 years, is closed as it addresses sexual abuse allegations.
Its guru Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, a Romanian native born as Narcis Tarcau, is understood to have left Koh Pangan.
In July, 31 women publicly alleged sexual abuse at Agama. Fourteen women told the Guardian last week they were sexually assaulted by Tarcau, three of them said they were raped.
Hundreds of Kiwis have passed through the school.
One, a 36-year-old woman, did about 12 months total of yoga teacher training at Agama over five years.
She tells the Herald on Sunday of going to Tarcau's house for a "healing meditation".
"Afterwards, he kissed me and started taking off my clothes without asking," she says.
"There was a lot of pressure for sex, even though I said no."
She managed to leave before anything happened but what really disturbed her was a senior teacher's reaction.
"[He said] 'Like wow, how did you manage to leave without making love.' I felt really naïve.
"Swami is very aggressive and manipulative. There was all this subtle pressure to sleep with him and other teachers the higher you go in the school. Men are told that women want to be 'taken'."
Women were also encouraged to have sex with other women in threesomes "because yin and yin together are good" but gay male sex was not encouraged.
"The brainwashing is subtle but relentless. If unwanted sexual advances or worse happened, and the woman wanted to bring it up, she was told either that she needs to be more open and work on her heart chakra, or that she is attracting this kind of experience. It's her karma to work through this, especially if it happens more than once."
She left in 2012 because it was getting "too messed up".
Graphic designer and yoga teacher Naomi Gibb from Wellington also studied at Agama over five years.
She says she had many sexual invitations from men, including Tarcau and other teachers.
She was in a relationship and says she "didn't go for the bait".
"I was very careful not to be alone with him. He has quite a strong power. Other women were in a different situation to me and more vulnerable."
The 42-year-old says that the last time she was on Koh Phangan, she heard about one of the senior Agama teachers who raped a woman without a condom during a massage . He later started a school abroad.
She is happy that the dark underbelly of this institution is finally being exposed.
Canterbury woman Donna Farhi, who runs yoga workshops internationally, is supporting several women overseas who have been molested by well-known teachers.
"We will look back at this era with shame, like the therapeutic profession will look back at the 40s and 50s. The code of conduct has been poorly defined."
"#MeToo has arrived in the yoga world, and it's about time."
The dress code is white.
It calls itself "a true spiritual university" and there's an Enlightenment Hall and a Healing Centre.
It's based near the Buddhist temple.
Tarcau started Agama in 2003 with former partner Mihaiela Pentiuc after he was deported from India where he faced sexual abuse allegations.
Tarcau and Pentiuc - now known as Ananda Maha - were students of Romanian guru Gregorian Bivolaru, a convicted rapist who is on the EU most wanted list, accused of human trafficking.
Agama provides workshops, retreats and teacher training to thousands every year.
The most popular course is a month-long yoga introduction for about $700 and there are now Agama centres in India, Colombia and Austria.
Many devotees volunteer and teachers usually don't get paid but earn participation to their next course through a points system.
Nancy Ellen Miller, a Canadian writing coach who spent a decade at Agama, says Tarcau had convinced his inner circle a third world war would occur in 2012.
She had heard several students donated thousands to build an ashram (a spiritual or religious retreat) on a mountain in New Zealand which he could retreat to.
It is understood Tarcau sent a senior student here with the cash but nothing materialised.
It is not known what the money was used for.
Miller says there were other bizarre practices – like staying for up to a week in pitch black huts drinking only milk.
"Some left that school and ended up in psychiatric wards."
The thought of going back to the island makes her physically ill.
"Once it's shut down, I think it will be easier to visit. I am worried that this kind of subjugation to women will continue until it is finished for good."
Miller is planning a book about her time at Agama.
"I was always internally disgusted by Narcis' behaviour and I buried the feelings", she says.
"I walked into that school with progressive ideas about beauty and femininity and my own sexual body. But after spending a couple of years at Agama, I began to believe that feminism was partly responsible for destroying romantic relationships between men and women. This is not sacred tantra."
Masculinity workshop were also held in which men learned how to pick up women and practised their skills in local bars.
A former student told the Herald on Sunday it involved the practice of negging - how to build a woman up, then take her down.
Before the sexual abuse allegations went public, a group of former and current Agama teachers, students and staff members – half of them men – delivered a manifesto to the school to try end all sexual misconduct and investigate it.
The student says they had meetings with Tarcau.
"He said he did it all for a higher good."
Eventually Tarcau, who weighs well over 100kg, agreed to sit behind a desk for private consultations so that women would feel safer around him, another student says.
Agama's trademark slogan Choose Evolution has now disappeared from a white wall outside the school.
Two years ago, someone graffitied "we wash brains" on the wall in protest.
The first sexual assault complaint to an authority was filed by a British woman at the Thai embassy in Melbourne.
The woman, a sexuality coach, had attended Agama for several months each year from 2010 until 2015.
Her statement dated August 17 and seen by the Herald on Sunday reads: "I went to him for healing. He convinced me that having sex would help me."
She says that in 2014 she was in bed with Tarcau when he raped her.
"I am still dealing with the trauma of this."
Last week, an Australian woman in her 30s made a complaint of rape in October 2016 to the Koh Pangan police.
Hours later the military and Thai police reportedly raided the yoga retreat.
He is believed to have already fled.
The country has a three month statute of limitation for rape charges.
The alleged assaults are alleged to have happened in private sessions and intimate interactions between students and teachers rather than in yoga classes.
They were often recommended to students by top female teachers and the community's mother figure Pentiuc, a homeopath from Romania.
Pentiuc, who is now head of the school, published an open letter on the school's website and Facebook page after the allegations came to light which said "We are changing. Change also takes time. … We have acknowledged our deep remorse."
It said that the male teachers had been removed from the school and they wanted women to come forward for an internal independent investigation.
She did not want to be interviewed for this story while Agama's "internal independent investigation and the official police report" is still under way.
Other yogis who came out of Agama and started their own schools and workshops are now either under suspicion or have had to publicly denounce their affiliation – a purging of emotional and confessional posts from redemption to vicious attacks on social media.
Last month, Agama's licence was suspended by the US-based Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit trade association, until further review.
A European woman heard about the sexual harassment when she was a manager at Agama and saw the warnings on TripAdvisor.
She claims safe sex wasn't practised and Chlamydia was going around the school at the time.
"I witnessed the whole process of how that was silenced and not brought to the open."
She finally walked out with two managers.
In the 31 public testimonials about Agama, sexual misconduct allegations were also made against the head of the Austrian school, Serkan Temel.
The school closed temporarily and Temel called the claims false and rumours, in a statement which has now been removed from the school's website.
"This unfortunate situation is nothing more than a failure between lovers," he said.
What has stopped many of Agama women from coming forward is their mistrust of the local police on Koh Phangan and the deep-rooted culture of victim-blaming in Thailand.
After the rape and murder of a British tourist in 2014 Prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said: "There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere."
He added, "Can they be safe in bikinis…unless they are not beautiful?"
There was also fear of being attacked by Tarcau, even in a metaphysical way – he seems to still hold power over the victims because of his hypnosis skills.
This week Agama issued a lengthy statement apologising "once more for any harm that any Agama teacher may have caused".
It urged victims to share any allegations or information about the case with police as well as its third-party investigator.
"While we are doing our best to establish the facts regarding each accused individual, we acknowledge that as a school, we have failed to ensure a proper procedure to report discomfort or potential abuse and a proper procedure to ask for the written consent of students to engage in sexual relationships with teachers.
"Although in normal life the police would be a natural resource for reporting abuse and sexual encounters between adults do not require written consent, we acknowledge that – as a tantric yoga school – we should have done more to ensure safety. We deeply apologise for this. We are taking immediate actions to correct this."
It was changing procedures to keep any abuse from happening. Changes include:
• Teachers and students who want to have sex must sign a consent form valid for three months, to be renewed every three months.
• A commission will be set up for students to report issues.
• Training will be offered on sexual misconduct, boundaries, and consent, authority power dynamics, and trauma consequences.
• Review process of teachers and staff are being strengthened.
• The sexual Tantra and yoga curriculum will be reviewed "in order to assess any potential gender bias".
• An online survey with former employees, teachers, and students will be conducted to understand what needs to be changed.
While it restructured, it would temporarily close during low season with a view to reopen in December and would publish the results of its internal investigation publicly.
"Heartfelt gratitude for all your support and understanding, for your blessings and expressed hope for Agama's survival and growth as a better and stronger spiritual school," the statement read.
"We are committed to bringing this work to fruition and will make everything we learn a part of ensuring a safe space for spiritual evolution. Your words of gratitude for the authentic teachings, for your beneficial experiences and personal transformation, stand at the core of our motivation to relentlessly work for the reconstruction of our beloved Yoga school."
On Friday night, one of the yoga halls at Agama burned in a blaze.
It is unknown how the blaze started.
The roof has gone and the white walls now black with soot.
Local woman Elisabeth Graf from Austria who writes for the news site my-khophangan.com visited on Saturday morning while staff were trying to clean the remains out.
"It was a sad sight in the pouring rain. It is to early to tell if it was arson."
Koh Phangan is split into the "conscious side" on the west coast where most of the yoga takes place, and the "unconscious side" on the East, where the full moon party tourists go wild.
#MeToo has turned to #SriToo in the village Srithanu where the Agama campus is based.
Last week, the centre was still open but was like a ghost town.
The Herald on Sunday attended a drop-in yoga class that usually holds about a hundred students in the high season. There were no other students.
The teacher is from Brazil and talks about divine energy. Her eyes light up when she talks about Pentiuc's upcoming birthday celebration at the half moon.
In the toilets, signs for disposing paper start with "You are a conscious being".
A handful of women come out of their eight day women-only "Complete Femininity" workshop that usually attracts around 30 people.
"It's fantastic and really empowering", one of them says before she gets on her scooter.
Tarcau's alleged transgressions were never once discussed in the workshop.
All videos of Tarcau, his biography and the newsletter archive have disappeared from the institution's website, stating it is "going through some temporary restructuring".
The school closed a clothing store it had on site and cancelled an upcoming teacher training and month-long yoga course.
The school had "spiritual movie nights" once a week. Last week, they were showing a Mother Theresa movie.
There has been a sudden exodus of farangs, as the foreigners are called.
"It's hard on the local businesses", says another local yoga teacher Sunny McGill.
"They are torn between morals and money."
Businesses nearby include massage places and vegan restaurants that also sell jade eggs to strengthen pelvic floor muscles. Residents also made money from renting their homes.
Some of them were asked by Agama to sign a petition to stay open.
There is also an organic shop next door to Agama.
The Austrian manager first denies an association with Agama before he defends it and dismisses the sexual abuse allegations as "jealousy from other yoga schools".
"We are pretty much finished."
Days after the scandal broke, a separate tantric workshop on Koh Phangan was shut down by police when they heard cathartic screaming and mistook it for exorcism.
Naked swimming is now illegal at Zen Beach, which used to be the unofficial nudist hang-out.
McGill, 39, who is Thai, opened a yoga studio across from Agama in December.
She criticises the "Agamis" for being culturally insensitive towards their Thai neighbours who are not as sexually open and promiscuous.
"It now makes Thai people see yoga as something evil or sexual", says McGill.
Trauma therapist Gemini Adams who lives on Koh Phangan part time says she tries to "clean up after the Swami" by offering womb healing circles to her "sisters" on the island.
She has written an "Ode to Swami" that she will perform at the next Phangan Slam and belongs to the group Boycott Agama.
"The yoga world here is rife with distortion, but not enough psychological and somatic training."
In their first outrage, the activists had planned to print T-Shirts with a photo of Swami that said "Don't support rape" – to hand out for free to new arrivals at the ferry.
The recent trouble in paradise is just the tip of the iceberg.
Like the film, media and legal industry, the wellness business has come under scrutiny.
Before Agama, Bikram Choudhury, the pioneer of hot yoga was accused of rape in the US in 2013.
The women are still pursuing civil cases. Choudhury has dismissed them as lies and fled the country.
Earlier this year, the latest shock in Yoga Land was the posthumous fall from grace of K. Pattabhi Jois, the Sanskrit scholar who developed the Ashtanga yoga style which is taught in many studios around the world.
He died in India in 2009, long before one of his female students posted an explosive #MeToo statement online.
Eight more women told their stories of sexual and physical assault by him to cult and yoga expert Matthew Remski for an upcoming book.
In one case, senior students talked the victim out of calling the police.
"There was a thick culture of excusing and obfuscating that buffered him. Unlike the #MeToo stories that come out of the entertainment world, the level of rationalisation and even spiritualisation of abuse in yoga is extraordinary", says Remski on a call from Toronto.
"A whole network of people surrounded Harvey Weinstein to cover up and enable him. But nobody regarded him an enlightened spiritual master or thought he was healing sexual trauma. Power is still the primary currency here, misogyny is the context and rape culture is the landscape."
In January, a Czech court sentenced Jaroslav Dobes, dubbed Guru Jara, and his aide Barbora Plaskova to over seven years in prison for raping six women during seminars at his Poetrie esoteric school that taught yoga, Tantra, astrology and energy work
He promised to get rid of their "blocks" during intercourse when the women were not able to control their bodies and react after an initial breathing exercise.
In June, the head of Shambhala International, one of the largest western Buddhist organisations with meditation centres in over 30 countries, had to step down after a report that he had sexually abused and exploited some of his most devoted female followers for years.
And two weeks ago, Sri Prem Baba – a celebrity guru from Brazil – was confronted with sexual abuse allegations.
"It's crazy what I see after 10 years in this profession", says Matthias Schwenteck on a call from Sweden where he just ran a workshop.
"I am so over all this woo-woo stuff."
He and partner Robyn Dalzen are co-founders of the School of Consent with American sex educator Dr Betty Martin.
Her "Wheel of Consent" teaches clear boundaries and self-awareness when it comes to physical touch and personal relating – a modality that should be taught in high schools, says Schwenteck.
"Even if my workshop feels off for only one person, then something is clearly wrong in the whole dynamic. Many practitioners don't have this in place and lose perspective of being in service, especially when there's a constant access of 'fresh meat'."
As an emerging Tantra teacher offering private sessions, the 49-year-old German has encountered "edgy situations" in the start as well.
"We desperately need a self-regulating professional organisation. Our work is not written in books. We learn from people."
Schwenteck was part of TNT (The New Tantra), a sex school with a radical approach from Holland, until he pulled out, becoming one of its fiercest critics.
"I have witnessed retriggering of trauma, serious cases of brainwash and shut-down of those who speak up – the individual being compromised for the sake of the group. So many people don't realise their abuse when the majority have an amazing beneficial experience."
He started the Facebook group "Tantra Not Trauma" – which has become the unofficial #MeToo platform of the sexual healing scene with over 5000 members.
"Some of the stories I hear there should be taken to the police", says Schwenteck.
Bestselling author Rachel Brathen, who has over two million followers on Instagram as #yogagirl, has started a campaign for women to send her their #MeToo stories confidentially.
"I have been aware of misogyny, abuse and harassment going on within the yoga world for years," she says.
She collected over 300 accounts of transgressions.
'I wish that I could go back in time'
Donna Farhi regrets not speaking up after she was physically assaulted by a yoga teacher.
The incident happened in Boston in the 1980s and she fell into a deep depression afterwards.
"I wish that I could go back in time and change my response to this instance", says the 59-year-old from Balcairn in north Canterbury.
She says she didn't report the incident or speak about what happened because of the global status of the yoga guru who is now dead.
She now advocates for "consent cards" which students put next to them during a class to indicate whether they want to be assisted hands-on in a pose.
Farhi, who was born in the US, now teaches yoga internationally with two to three month tours. As well as running retreats, she trains yoga teachers and is a keynote speaker at international yoga conferences.
She also uses her power to boycott schools or a venue that hosts someone with a history of unresolved unethical behaviour.
"Unless their business suffers, teachers who abuse their privilege have no intention of changing their behaviour.
"The common denominator in many cases is the male teachers' complete ignorance of the implicit power imbalance."
Farhi, who wrote a book on ethics for Yoga teachers Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship, is providing advice to the Yoga Alliance in drafting their new Code of Conduct– standards that will effect over 80,000 teachers worldwide.
She has also written blogs about the #metoo movement in the yoga world and is supporting several women who have been molested by well-known yoga teachers.
Keeping yourself safe
Donna Farhi's tips:
1: Trust your visceral gut reaction. When a predator has violated you, your body knows. Don't second-guess yourself.
2: Immediately stop what you are doing and leave the class or workshop. Make a statement that everyone can hear such as "Mr B, you just raked your hands all over my breasts while I was in that yoga posture. This is sexual molestation."
3: Tell a friend from the class or family members immediately afterwards what happened to corroborate your story. Be on the alert for "context confusion".
4: If you are at a yoga studio, make a complaint to the director or staff at the registration desk. Follow this up with a letter. Go to the nearest police station and file a formal complaint.
5: If you are offshore, for instance in India, go to your nearest consulate. If you've been raped, you may need to go to a hospital to secure DNA samples. If you have returned home, a report to your resident police station may be referred to Interpol.
6: Surround yourself with support outside of the organisation in which the abuse occurred. You need a clear thinking elder whom you know is not invested in perpetuating the status quo.
7. Rehearse those steps before you enter into a retreat, workshop or class.
The Agama Survivors group is encouraging victims of sexual assault to write to email@example.com.
Organisers say submissions are strictly confidential and received by a counsellor. Support and legal help is offered, according to the group.
Anyone wanting to contribute to Nancy Ellen Miller's book can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you need help?
If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the Safe to Talk confidential crisis helpline on: 0800 227 233 (08002B SAFE) or visit https://www.safetotalk.nz
Alternatively contact your local police station.
If you have been abused, remember it's not your fault.