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Stewart J. Lawrence

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European Yoga Porn 'Cult' Establishes a U.S. Beachhead: Where Is the Outrage?

Posted: 10/30/2012 12:00 pm

It calls itself the "Movement for Spiritual Integration in Absolute" -- or MISA -- and is reputedly the largest "yoga" movement in Europe, claiming some 40,000 members in more than a dozen countries. But it's actually a dangerous personality cult whose "supreme spiritual leader," Gregorian Bivolaru, has been accused of coercing or seducing hundreds of vulnerable women into producing hard-core porn videos, abandoning their spouses, and in some cases, becoming strippers and prostitutes -- all in the name of "liberating" the female body and bringing MISA members into intimate communion with the "Divine Goddess."

On its face, the group might sound like an obvious fraud, even a criminal one. But it has escaped prosecution to date, in part because Bivolaru, who first founded MISA in his native Romania in 1990, was persecuted under communist rule. For years many of his countrymen, including influential members of the Romanian elite, as well as human rights groups like Amnesty International, have treated Bivolaru as a "victim" worth defending. Thousands of Romanians have marched and protested on MISA's behalf, and after the communist regime fell, and the new authorities still decided to arrest him -- this time, on sex crime charges -- Bivolaru somehow escaped from prison and wound up in Sweden. There, after what most independent observers consider a sham investigation, the Swedish government granted him political asylum.

The full extent of MISA's alleged criminal activities may never be known. However, based on testimony from group defectors -- first presented on the website, exmisa.org -- MISA's development parallels that of other, more notorious yoga cults. One obvious forerunner is the movement surrounding the Indian mystic Bhagwan Rajneesh (aka "Osho") that flourished in the late 1980s, just as MISA was getting started. Bivolaru, like Rajneesh, has claimed a special channel to the Divine Source that endows him with God-like powers, including the ability to channel spiritual energy and telepathic insights to his followers via mass gatherings and virtual "hook ups" that appear intended to induce MISA followers to surrender their will and identity -- and in some cases, their life savings -- to their beloved "guru."

But Bivolaru is no mere Osho copycat. While his forerunner often created an environment of sexual licentiousness, Bivolaru is unique, perhaps, in placing a self-styled "Tantric" eroticism at the center of his group's theology, suggesting that all human, especially female, sexual inhibitions must be removed to allow the Divine spirit to flourish.

Defectors who have shared their testimonies, which form the basis of the criminal case that is still pending in Romania, say that MISA typically recruits young women, often still in their teens, with the promise of a better spiritual life. The initial pitch suggests that the women will learn "esoteric yoga" and begin to live in a larger "movement" setting that will nurture them in ways that their families alone cannot. Once separated from their loved ones, however, members become more susceptible to peer pressure from older MISA members and are slowly drawn into a series of deepening and more compromising personal commitments, frequently backed up by written contracts that the members are led to believe have the force of law. Sometimes the pressure -- and the threats -- are far more overt, but despite their growing doubts and discontent, many feel too vulnerable to "escape," defectors say.

In the early days of MISA, according to charges filed with Romanian prosecutors, Bivolaru and his chief lieutenants were known to engage in sex with underage girls, some in their early teens. (In fact, Bivolaru himself took one of those teenage girls as a lover and ersatz spouse, and she still accompanies him). However, as the group expanded to Scandanavia and the UK, and became better known -- and more notorious -- it appears to have grown more cautious about respecting traditional age limits. Still, MISA's goal and modus operandi apparently continues to be the recruitment and active sexualization of its female members, both for the personal pleasure of Bivolaru and his inner circle, and even more important, as a means of generating additional large-scale financing for the group, defectors say.

For example, one prominent MISA activity -- which the group describes euphemistically as "karma yoga," or service -- involves young female MISA members being sent to Japan and other countries to work as pole dancers and strippers. The women are usually housed in confined, overcrowded quarters and their movements strictly controlled, defectors say. MISA leaders are said to generally confiscate their passports, leaving them without any practical means of escape. Under the terms of their contracts, all of the funds garnered from these activities must be surrendered to MISA. The women dance, and receive tips, but according to a 2004 Romanian indictment, are also expected to perform sexual favors for clients that request them. According to public testimonies, some women have performed as strippers again and again, often returning to Japan for repeat stays lasting months, or even years.

Another, even more prominent and public MISA activity, consists of the two annual spring and summer retreats held on the Romanian coast, on the edge of the Black Sea. These activities are open to regular MISA members, but are also one way the group recruits new members. Newcomers to the gatherings must provide photos of themselves in bikinis as well as proof that they are free of sexual diseases before being allowed to attend. According to testimonies, MISA leaders use these "applications" to size up potential sexual conquests, and also to make decisions about who to approach to get more involved in MISA's less publicly known activities, including a nude "Miss Shakti" beauty contest that in past years has featured live sex on stage, as well as the shooting of hard-core porn videos, for sale in selected European markets, often without the knowledge of the participants, and in most cases, without compensation.

One of MISA's better-known porn videos, "Water Ecstasy," showcases Bivolaru's rather bizarre view that women -- and their male lovers -- can achieve heightened states of spiritual consciousness through what amounts to pornographic "watersports" or what MISA calls "urinary orgasm." The videos typically feature voluptuous and heavily made-up naked women dressed up in the likeness of the Hindu goddess Shakti, surrounded by one or more men, playfully engaged in various form of sexual foreplay. In some of the videos, a male lover gently induces the "goddess" to urinate into his mouth. In others, pairs of lovers engage in ritualistic sex overseen by a spiritual guardian -- Bivolaru himself, it seems -- who prophesies about the Divine "purpose" and meaning of their acts.

Thanks to past exposés, including the work of high profile defectors like Cecilia Tiz, as well as a 2009 Finnish documentary, The Dark Side of a Tantric Cult, activities like these have increased the pressure on Romanian authorities to move more aggressively against Bivolaru and his top lieutenants, many of whom are women. However, MISA, with support from high-level friends in Europe, has shown remarkable staying power. In 2008, the European Yoga Alliance and the International Yoga Federation expelled MISA, calling it an illicit "business front." MISA's response? It set up a separate and competing European yoga federation comprised of its member organizations in countries like Denmark and the UK, and began sponsoring its own international conferences to refurbish its image. And earlier this year, Bivolaru managed to get part of its original indictment by Romanian authorities dropped, even as MISA members, including a group of well-known European porn stars, led by Mihai Stoian, a top Bivolaru aide, were being expelled from South India for illicitly filming graphic sex videos.

In fact, even as public criticism has grown elsewhere, long-time MISA members have managed to set up shop in several cities in the United States in the hopes of taking advantage of America's sprawling and unregulated yoga industry. Just as Osho did in Oregon in the 1980s, with disastrous results, MISA's operatives have deliberately chosen small- and mid-sized cities (Glendale, Arizona and Des Moines, Iowa) and regional metropolises (Las Vegas, Nevada and Atlanta, Georgia) away from crowded yoga industry centers like Los Angeles and New York, presumably where they can slowly, and without much scrutiny, recreate the kind of cultish "Tantric" communities they first fashioned in Romania, and in a host of other European countries where MISA operates under a variety of names (for example, NATHA in Denmark, and TARA in the UK, to name just two).

According to my own field investigations, conducted just three months ago, MISA has already begun recruiting American women to participate in the same kinds of shady activities that have led to criminal charges against Bivolaru and his top lieutenants in Romania. And they have done so without the knowledge of U.S. federal authorities and with the tacit blessing of the Virginia-based Yoga Alliance, which has granted several top MISA "teachers" a formal "certification" to teach "yoga." Two of the better-known American MISA teachers, Ileana Stefanescu and Ofelia Mohr, make no secret of their close ties to Bivolaru and to other senior MISA leaders responsible for recruiting and supervising women to participate in MISA's sex activities in Romania, and Stefanescu, at least, is a former active participant herself. And yet both women appear to come and go as they please, and to operate on U.S. soil without scrutiny -- and indeed, like MISA elsewhere, with relative impunity.

Are any of MISA's "yogis" actually guilty of a crime? That remains to be proven legally, of course. But MISA's existence -- and the tolerance and even favor it continues to enjoy -- is suggestive of how, in today's yoga world, the boundary line between authentic spiritual and sexual exploration, on the one hand, and pornographic sexual exhibitionism and crass sexual exploitation has broken down. MISA continues to engage in unsavory and illicit sexual activities, some of which clearly resemble global sex trafficking. But with Bivolaru safely ensconced in Sweden, and Romanian authorities clearly divided, it's unclear who if anyone is authorized to stop or constrain it from spreading.

And what of the United States? Right now, there's no discernible yoga constituency, or set of constituencies, that might serve as a front of advocacy on these issues. American yogis, including the women who overwhelmingly dominate its teacher corps, have steadfastly resisted attempts by public authorities to intervene in yoga teacher training or to impose guidelines on how yoga might be regulated or taxed. The unregulated anarchy of the yoga movement may be guaranteeing it freedom from excessive state control. But as the MISA case demonstrates, it may also be providing the kind of loose "cover" that weakens public accountability and oversight of the yoga industry and that could end up allowing hundreds and perhaps thousands of vulnerable women to be placed at greater risk for abuse and exploitation. Surely there's more to yoga sisterhood than this.

Correction: An earlier version of the post incorrectly stated that Ofelia Mohr is a "well-known participant" in MISA's summer sex-related activities in Romania.

 
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