Two former tantra students have opened up about the abuse they faced while seeking spirituality and enlightenment at a Thai yoga retreat that has been accused of being a ‘sex cult.’
Saskia Mahler and VijayaSree Feres detailed their experiences at Agama Yoga in Netflix’s new docu-series (Un)Well, which explores the dark underbelly of the global wellness industry.
‘There’s a massive element of danger when it comes to tantra,’ explained Mahler, who is a tantra student and teacher. ‘[There is] so much potential for abuse and pushing yourself over your boundaries. This was my own experience.’
The second episode focuses on tantra and tantric sex, including the accusations of abuse that have plagued the sexual healing practice since it gained popularity in the Western world.
David Gordon White, a professor of comparative religions at the University of California, Santa Barabara, explained in the episode that tantra is a religious thought and practice that first started in India around 500 A.D. It spread throughout Asia, and eventually made its way to Europe and the United States in the last 100 years or so.
Tantra has become synonymous with ecstatic sex and full-body orgasms in the Western world, even though the majority of ancient tantric teachings have nothing to with sexuality.
Mahler said she first learned about Agama Yoga when she was comparing spiritual schools in India and Thailand, explaining she was ‘seeking the higher truth of everything.’
Agama Yoga, which was located on Koh Phangan Island in southern Thailand, was advertised as a dream ‘destination for your soul.’
It was founded by famous spiritual guru Narcis Tarcau, who calls himself Swami Vivekananda Saraswati and is referred to as ‘Swami’ for short by his followers. He has been accused of running a ‘sex cult’ and widespread sexual assault against his students, allegations that he and Agama have denied.
‘Agama is a well-known school for tantra, especially the sexual aspect of tantra. So many do come to Agama and seek healing, especially on a sexual level,’ Mahler explained.
‘I was really hoping to learn to control this anger that I carried, which was mostly against men, through trauma that I have with my father from very early childhood. I really admired the Swami and opened myself up to him emotionally.’
Mahler said Tarcau offered to give her a yoni massage; yoni is the Sanskrit word for the female sexual organs. He told her it was ‘to release my pelvic area, to crack open my energies, to gain more power over my personality, and to solve these issues of my childhood.’
‘Many women do receive them, and… they shine,’ she said. ‘They are so beautiful. They embody themselves as so confident, and so it’s like, maybe there is something about that, that might help me.’
Mahler said there was never a discussion about what was going to happen or boundaries, recalling how Tarcau had pushed her even farther than the massage.
‘He was like, “Oh, you know what is the best way to massage the yoni is using my lingam,” which is his sexual organ,’ she said. ‘You have to be a good student and trust this person, and I was so scared to lose this road that I created with him.
‘And without any consent, he completely abused me on every level that you can. I don’t know if I can use this word, rape. I definitely can say that I felt sexually, emotionally, absolutely abused.’
Rachel Bernstein, a marriage and family therapist and a cult specialist, explained that Mahler is not alone in her experiences — with the expert noting that the abuse Mahler faced is actually incredibly common with spiritual leaders like Tarcau.
She told producers that gurus and other group leaders who are so ‘revered’ take advantage of their dedicated followers, and hide behind ‘exotic’ language to make it seem as though traumatizing experiences are actually all part of the journey towards enlightenment.
‘When you have somebody going into a place like Agama, with a leader who is so revered and so known, who can take it to any level that they want, you don’t know that you’re being exposed to things that are actually traumatizing to you. And they’re there just to help you. They’re there to undo your blockages,’ she explained.
‘People like [Tarcau] hide behind the language. If you’re calling body parts by foreign and exotic names, you’re going to think it’s a technique because it comes in another language. So, rape isn’t rape, that it’s sexual healing, and that a sexual assault is for enlightenment.’
In response to the allegation, Agama said in a statement that ‘”yoni massage” is not an activity advertised, promoted, or taught by Agama.’
Vijayasree Feres, another former Agama student, had a similar experience, only she was pressured to take part in group sex at the end of her retreat.
‘Two years later, I’m still not sure. Was it abuse or not? Because it had spiritual connotation,’ she explained.
‘I was a part of a six-week intense program that was called the “Tantric Initiation” that was basically working on finding the truth of who we are that involved a lot of sexual tantric things along the way.
‘The final ritual was a group sex ritual. And from the first date, I was saying that was something I feared and didn’t want to do.’
Feres said the backlash she faced for not wanting to participate in the ritual was immense, and she was ultimately peer pressured into going through with it.
‘There was a lot of reaction very strong towards me, shaming me, basically, and telling me that I had to stop playing the good girl. I had to stop pretending I was dedicated to the path if I was not ready to really put in the effort,’ she recalled.
‘After six weeks of being blamed and pushed down, I felt so pressured I just broke down. I was like, well, you know what f**k you. I’m just going to do it,’ she said, crying. ‘I’m gonna f*****g prove to you that I can do it. And so I did.’
Bernstein explained that in groups like Agama ‘there is social pressure’ and people are told there is something wrong with them, and they need to look inward if they are uncomfortable with something being done in the community.
People are preyed upon with the notion that ‘it’s all part of the journey and unless you keep going through it, you’re never going to get what you came for.’
‘I’m one of the lucky ones,’ Feres insisted. ‘So many of my dear friends have been abused to [a] sometimes really deep extent, going to rape, and are still trying to heal from that.
‘When you go through such an experience, you’re not just raped of your whole being, you’re also raped of your spirituality because you’re with somebody that was supposed to lead you to God. And it’s like God betrayed you.’
In a statement responding to the allegation, Agama said: ‘There are no group sex rituals included in the curriculum at Agama. Of course, people remain free to do whatever they like in their free time.
‘Our teachers guide with great care. Participants are repeatedly advised and trained from the beginning to evaluate for themselves how deeply they participate, or not. All participants are respected in their wish to remain as private and independent as they choose.’
The yoga school also addressed claims that it is a cult, saying: ‘While charismatic leaders like Swamiji enjoy a certain respect, he refuses to be put on a pedestal, On the contrary, he rather acts like a good friend.’
In 2018, The Guardian reported that 14 tourists had claimed they were sexually assaulted by Tarcau at the Thai retreat. Amid the scandal, disturbing audio of Tarcau that was supposedly recorded by one of his students appeared online.
‘I would have said, “What you are saying is your, your cervix is hurting; when you are penetrated deep, you have cervical pain. I can solve that in five meetings,’ a man can be heard saying on the recording.
‘I can say like, I can open your yoni like a flower, you know, and so on. And it’s so difficult to restrain when, you know, I could make this woman happy in one week, you know, this woman could blossom. And like why wouldn’t I do it if I can?’ he continued. ‘This thing is happening less and less because I’m getting older and older.’
Agama said in a statement that ‘the recording doesn’t indicate in any way that Swamiji would have committed abuses or that he would be up for abusing anyone.’
Michaela Boehm, who is Gwyneth Paltrow’s trusted intimacy and sexuality teacher, said people need to be careful when they are choosing tantra practitioners to work with.
‘There is certain dangers in the world of tantra, and it’s really, really important that you do extra, extra diligence in choosing somebody or going to a workshop,’ she explained in the episode.
‘Because we are dealing with sex and sexual engagement, and relational engagement, it can get really, really messy in the worst-case scenario. In the best-case scenario, you can learn some great things that you take home into your life and with your chose partner.’