When a special issue of Vanity Fair recently ran an advertisement insert by Donna Karan and listed in "our favorite classes" a yoga institute in Manhattan, Rick Ross, a controversial cult fighter, began calling up the media. Why was Donna Karan endorsing the Integral Yoga Institute, he wondered. Didn't she know it is associated with Swami Satchidananda, the 85-year-old guru based in Yogaville, West Virginia?
A long time critic of the Satchidananda, Ross, based in Phoenix, Arizona, is retained by the family of a New York law student who a few months ago attended the yoga classes Karan would later list as "our favorite..."
The student cut off connections with her family after she moved to the ashram, allegedly married an ashramite 30 years older and began living at the ashram situated on a 600-acre prime property.
After seeing the April issue of Vanity Fair, Ross got in touch with the media, discussing the law student and resurrecting many of the sex scandals that have swirled around the guru since Satchidananda zoomed into the limelight during Woodstock in New York in the mid-1960s.
"Is Donna Karan promoting a controversial cult?" asked MSNBC's Jeanette Wall in a June 8 feature. A spokeswoman for Karan's DKNY said she had never taken the course.
A spokeswoman at the Donna Karan Company said Karan is "a big fan of yoga and she has been doing it for years, sometimes by herself and sometimes with her private instructor."
Patti Cohen, a spokeswoman, said Karan had no knowledge of any of the allegations surrounding Swami Satchidananda and if she had, "she would never, never would have endorsed the yoga center." And indeed as "not endorsed it", just mentioned it in "our favorite places."
Ross's discussion with MSNBC's Wall regarding charges of old sexual misconduct against Swami Satchidananda has angered the Ashramites who in discussion with rediff.com damned the cult-fighter.
Swami Ashokananda, the ashram president, alleged it is "being harassed by Ross, who is a criminal, a convicted felon, who has some kind of vendetta against us."
But Ross stood his ground.
"He is blowing smoke. They want to divert attention from the real issues here. The only reason why Ashokananda would be able to bring out this information is by checking out my Website where I have explained my past," Ross said.
Ross, 46, has admitted in newspaper interviews that he was given four years probation for a bungled burglary when he was 20.
Ross, who is known for his stand against many Bible groups and the Church of Scientology, has posted newspaper and magazine articles about Swami Satchidananda on his Website (www.rickross.com). While most of the articles list detailed sexual allegations against the Swami, they also carry his categorical denials, and glowing testimonials from his disciples. Ross has uploaded many of the old allegations, and added the new complaint.
Swami Ashokananda strongly insisted that "the allegations were false and time will prove that and that lawyers are involved in dealing with Ross."
Ross began investigating cults when his Jewish grandmother hysterically complained to him that she has been getting calls from a group called Jews for Jesus, saying that she would go to hell if she did not embrace Christ.
Embracing world religions is the theme at the Satchidananda Ashram, which has chapters in more than 80 cities and towns across the world. Nearly 200 of Satchidananda's followers live on or near the ashram at Yogaville. The ashram and its properties are worth tens of millions of dollars.
Among the Swami's well-known devotees are pop artist Peter Max, who has illustrated several of the swami's books, composer-singer Carole King, jazz musicians Paul Winter and Paul Horn, and Gerald Blitz, founder of the Club Med resorts. Such renowned physicians as Dean Ornish and Michael Lerner, who advocate alternate medicine, recommend Satchidananda's brand of yoga.
The Swami, often seen in sandals, a robe and a flowing beard, used to fly a helicopter and lives in a modern brick and frame house, built by his supporters. "Satchidananda has harmed a lot of people, traumatized many followers, destroyed and ruined a lot of families. Many people call him a cult leader," Ross alleged.
"He misrepresented himself, took advantage of these women in vulnerable positions and he says he's supposedly celibate but he's not," Ross added.
Ross said when he visited the ashram with the parents of the student, he found "the worst case of mind control" he had ever seen. The student, whose name is withheld at the request of her family, did not speak independently and seemed to be coached by responding to secret signs by her "captors," he said. The family was unable to meet with her privately, he added. The CUNY student attended IYI classes for a brief period before Christmas break in 1998, Ross said. She had a close relationship with her family, was planning marriage with her long-term boyfriend and looked forward to practicing law.
After attending the classes she decided to participate in a one-month residential program at Yogaville. But the program never really ended for the student, whose name is being withheld, at the request of her family. In a matter of weeks, from within Yogaville, she abruptly decided to drop out of law school, isolate herself from her family and friends.
"The family is devastated, too stunned to talk, they are too afraid that any statements they make will be misconstrued and will result in offending them and their daughter and will subsequently delay her return even more," Ross said.
"When a beautiful, sexy, glamorous woman like Donna Karan endorses something, everyone wants to follow suit," said Ross who agrees that Karan might not have been aware of the scandals surrounding the swami.
But he still believes that Karan had a responsibility to research the place and its leader before she included it in her favorite classes.
Swami Satchidananda has not said anything about the law student or the reassertion of old allegations, but in the past he has vigorously defended himself.
"They know it is all false," he had said about eight years ago. "I don't know why they are saying these things. My life is an open book. There is nothing for me to hide."
Susan Cohen, a Connecticut mental health therapist, said Satchidananda took advantage of her when she was a student between 1969 and 1977.
"It would be very healing for everyone if Swami Satchidananda would address the issue publicly and stop denying it," she said.
Cohen left the community and married. Today, she has a greater perspective on her past. "It is psychologically very damaging to women to have this happen with a father figure," Cohen said. "The fact he will not address this publicly is a big part of the problem."
And it is not what the path to yoga advocates. "It's a terrible contradiction in yoga. Yoga is supposed to be open and dedicated to the truth."
Another follower, Sylvia Shapiro, who could not be reached, has said in interviews that she was a 19-year-old student in California when Satchidananda asked her to accompany him on one of his trips to visit followers around the world in 1971.
"He was my guru and it was very exciting to be chosen for this," said Shapiro, now a New York lawyer who is married and has two children.
On the trip, Shapiro was taught to wait on Satchidananda. She learned to cook Indian food, to photograph his public appearances and to give him his twice-a-day massages.
'In Manila, he turned it from a massage into oral sex,' Shapiro had said in an interview to the Richmond-Times Dispatch in 1991. 'I was very upset. He didn't want to talk about it. He said he knew best and I shouldn't worry about it.'
Shapiro said it was the most stressful time in her life. The greatest influence in her life, her guru, who taught his unmarried followers to remain celibate, was urging that she have sexual relations with him. 'I tried to do what he said and not dwell on it,' Shapiro said. 'I really loved him like a father. I didn't want to make him angry."
The relationship continued for nearly a year. Then she married another follower and she and her husband confronted Satchidananda about the allegations, who denied it and privately told her to tell her husband she had made it up. She and her husband then left the Integral Yoga Center in New York.
'There is good in his teachings for the individual and for the community,' Shapiro had said, 'but those parts get sacrificed because he can't be honest about this area.'
Until December 1990, Joy Zuckerman, who refused requests for this interview, was living in Yogaville, where she was known as Swami Krupaananda. She left after a friend confided in her that Satchidananda had made sexual advances toward her the previous summer, according to news reports done at that time.
After that, Zuckerman has started an organization for former Satchidananda followers called Healing in the Truth. She had organized protests in Charlottesville and Montreal, where the swami made speeches.
'Initially, I felt he was the role model I had needed,' Zuckerman had said. 'He said he was just here to serve humanity and had no ego or selfishness.
'I think very subtly, he switched the teachings so they were there to serve him.'
Zuckerman said after she left Yogaville, she asked Satchidananda to return a $ 20,000 donation she had made to the ashram in 1979. She said at that time that lawyers were negotiating on the return of the money.
Satchidananda supporters alleged Zuckerman has a vendetta against the swami and at that time the accusations had disappointed the followers but had not disrupted the work there.
'We've heard all these rumors and stories,' a follower named Chidananda had said. 'We have no reason to believe they are true. I have no problem believing his word over theirs. So far, I have seen him respond only with compassion and love, particularly towards Joy. He doesn't know why she is doing this, but he is praying for him.'
'Of course I am angry. I feel betrayed. He is not what he said he was. I just wanted him to come out and tell the truth and focus on the positive things he does,' Zuckerman had said at that time.
'His teachings are great; I just don't want him to take advantage of anyone else.'
Satchidananda would not speak to this correspondent and in earlier interviews, when the allegations were swirling around him, he had said he does not usually respond to criticism. 'There is no need. If the public wants to believe that, they can believe it' (referring to the allegations).
'They are free to feel this way,' Satchidananda had said of his accusers. 'If they don't feel comfortable with me, they can go learn from someone else.'
Satchidananda had also said he was not looking for praise or blame. 'I believe God is using me as an instrument. I am just there, like a river is there. Those who want to come and take a bath may do so. Those who do not want to, do not have to.'
In the new scandal, too, Satchidananda's disciples are standing by their Swami.
One of the followers at Yogaville, said on the phone that the 'allegations' were ''always lies, made-up stories circulated by vicious individuals, hell-bent on destroying the swami's reputation, probably goaded by a rival swami's followers, who are jealous of Swami Satchidananda's success," said Gyanananda, 36, who refused to give any more information saying that, he was "sure he would be misquoted anyway, so why bother?'
Another devoted follower said he was "confused" about these stories because to his knowledge, "this is the greatest place on earth to be. It's wonderful, it's a haven," said Sudharman Senton, 59, who said he has lived in the ashram off and on for the last twenty years and has raised his two children there as well.
Jean Sundlie, 50, who handles the advertising and marketing for the ashram, said the place is "everything you can dream of and all the people there are people you can imagine are the best humanity can offer." Sundlie said "the allegations were simply not true" and Swami Satchidananda is the "most amazing man, gentle, kind and dignified".
One of the followers contacted at the Integral Yoga building in Manhattan, laughed at the allegations, saying "Criss-Cross has got it all wrong." When corrected on the name Rick Ross, unfazed, the woman, Dharmini, said, "I know. I just call him criss-cross because he criss-crossed stuff."
"I can't acknowledge what happened in the past. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is in God's eyes, our karma will be fruitful based on this moment -- this moment that I am talking to you and we are connecting," said Dharmini, who added she was originally a Saibaba devotee.
"Yoga is the most beautiful of all the swami's teaching. He teaches the old way -- 1,000 years old -- and the beauty of it is that it has no competition and its integrates the mind and the body to get peace," said Dharmini, who has been a teacher at the center for 25 years now and refuses to give her age merely saying, "I'm an old soul. I've been here before many times."