Wellness tourism, one the industry’s fastest growing sector with a 10 percent rise this year, promotes travel for one’s health through psychological, physical, or spiritual activities – or all three.
In this super stressed modern world, wellness tourism is highly appealing as it encourages travellers to practice mindfulness and to “find their centre.” The positive uptake and exponential growth have made wellness tourism a multi-billion dollar market.
This brand of travellers is mostly carefree and less discerning, with just their wellbeing on their minds. But a recent controversy may have just thrown a spanner in the works.
Last week, news emerged that 14 tourists have claimed sexual assault by guru at Agama Yoga, a yoga centre located on the idyllic island of Koh Phangan in Thailand.
On its website, the wellness paradise described itself as “a true spiritual university whose core principles are centered in bringing the authentic roots of yoga to life through courses, workshops, and retreats, at campuses around the world.”
“We guide students to cultivate clarity and spiritual refinement, thus empowering the individual with a balanced approach to living. Providing support to an aspiring student who is willing to live to their fullest, we provide the roadmap for the journey towards awakening,” it claims.
Agama Yoga exists under the watchful eyes of its teachers including its charismatic leader “guru” Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, whose real name is Narcis Tarcau.
The centre offers yoga courses, a variety of workshops including astrology and metaphysics, retreats, and teacher training.
This includes a Tantra workshop which aims to teach students how to “transform lovemaking into a liberating spiritual experience” and “develop deeper, longer orgasms.”
But 16 former pupils and staff (14 women and two men) got more than they bargained for.
According to The Guardian, they said they felt a “sex cult” was operating inside the retreat and that it has been happening for 15 years.
The 14 women, from the UK, Australia, Brazil, US, and Canada spoke to The Guardian on the condition of anonymity. Three claimed they were raped by Tarcau while the rest alleged he sexually assaulted them in the name of helping them achieve enlightenment.
“The alleged assaults included Tarcau penetrating women with his fingers against their will, aggressively groping them, or performing sex acts on them without consent. When they said ‘no,’ the women claim Tarcau would say ‘I know what’s best for you,’ before forcing himself on them,” The Guardian reported.
Both male and female students claimed the culture of inappropriate sexual conduct was “endemic” at Agama Yoga. At least two senior male teachers have also been accused of sexual violence.
But they stayed on for years due to what they claimed was “brainwashing.”
This is not the first time controversy has rocked the wellness tourism industry.
Last year, yoga teacher Uma Inder was accused of using the world famous Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali to operate a cult from 2008 until she was fired in 2016.
Like Tarcau, she groomed potential members with promises of “enlightenment,” a process that included verbally and physically assaulting members and sleeping with students.
“She frequently compared herself to Jesus and said she was God, Kal, and Death. Uma told devotees they will feel ‘raped’ by working with her and that they’d actually become Uma while making love.”
Initially, Yoga Barn founder Meghan Pappenheim dismissed the complaints as a “witch hunt” against Uma. However, it was later revealed that Pappenheim had sent Inder a formal “Cessation of Cooperation” letter on May 24, 2016.
On its Facebook page, Agama Yoga posted up a series of status updates regarding the incident, the earliest being July 26, 2018.
“Considering the severity of these allegations, Swami has taken the decision to step back from all his administrative and teaching responsibilities in order for the situation to be investigated without additional provocation,” it wrote, adding that it will “focus on the important tasks of restructuring our internal policies and reflecting on the current situation.”
Then, on Aug 5, 2018, Agama Yoga head of school and founding member Ananda Maha, whose real name is Dr. Mihaiela Pentiuc took to Facebook to ask, “Is the current media war authentically fought in the name of supporting the women who have been affected or is it aimed at closing down the school?”
Pentiuc added, “We at Agama, we encourage women to come forward. We want to listen, help and assure their privacy. How can we offer these, if the school is constantly demonised? Please let me remind everyone that these allegations are against individuals and not against the school.”
On Aug 11, 2018, the centre wrote yet another status claiming a high-profile hate campaign has been launched against Agama Yoga and that “the entire yoga and healthy living community in Koh Phangan is now under threat and scrutiny.
“The relentless hatred is spreading like an infectious disease in all vicinity as well as internationally.”
Agama Yoga has since launched an independent inquiry.
Meanwhile, Tarcau, as well as the senior male teachers, is believed to have left Koh Phangan after allegations first surfaced in July. Agama Yoga has confirmed it has “removed” all accused male teachers as well.
In its latest Facebook status update, the center said it was also critically reviewing both the entire sexual Tantra curriculum as well as the yoga curriculum and working relentlessly for the reconstruction Agama Yoga.
This article originally appeared on our sister site Travel Wire Asia.