French police this week arrested yoga guru Gregorian Bivolaru and 41 others on accusations of kidnap, rape and human trafficking.
Alleged victims were drawn in with promises of a spiritual awakening, only to be indoctrinated and mentally manipulated into sexual relations with 71-year-old Bivolaru, a judicial source said.
Bivolaru – who was already subject to an Interpol warrant – and the others were arrested during raids in Paris and other areas of France on Tuesday.
Twenty-six alleged victims were found living in “deplorable” conditions, the source said.
Bivolaru founded a network called the Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute (MISA) in Romania in 1990 before it became known internationally as Atman – the International Federation of Yoga and Meditation, according to French prosecutors and a website for Bivolaru.
A press release, attributed to the board of Atman Federation, and posted on Atman’s website, called the arrests “a slanderous witch-hunt against genuine spirituality.”
“Atman Federation is not responsible and not accountable for the private life of students and teachers of the member schools,” the release stated.
A press release attributed to the MISA Yoga School and also posted on Atman’s website describes the French school at the heart of the raids as part of the Atman network but an “independent entity, with its own management and organization.”
A French non-governmental organization (NGO) – Human Rights League – handed over reports from former members of the organization to a government agency that monitors and analyzes cult movements in France in July 2022.
The following month, the Paris public prosecutor’s office referred the case to the Central Office for Repression of Violence Against People (OCRVP) – a French government agency responsible for investigating alleged sects to see if any crimes have been committed, the judicial source said.
A judicial source said “numerous women of different nationalities claimed to have been victims of the activities of the MISA organization and its leader Gregorian B.”
The judicial source added that the school would lure victims in under the guise of tantra yoga, a branch of yoga based on Hindu traditions which centers around the awakening of spirituality via sexuality.
Then, the alleged victims said they would be mentally manipulated into accepting “sexual relations designed to suppress any notion of consent regarding sexual relations,” the judicial source said.
The judicial source said the alleged victims were told that consent was a reflection of the ego preventing them from reaching a state of spiritual awakening.
Victims claimed they were encouraged to “accept sexual relations with the group’s leader, and/or to subscribe to pornographic practices for a fee in France and abroad,” the judicial source said.
A judicial investigation was established in July 2023 into allegations of abuse of vulnerable persons by a member of a sect, kidnapping, rape and human trafficking.
It culminated in the large-scale operation launched on Tuesday involving a total of 175 French police officers across Paris and several other regions, which saw Bivolaru and others arrested.
Twenty-six alleged victims were found living in cramped and unhygienic conditions, the judicial source said.
Founded in his home country of Romania in 1990, Bivolaru’s network of schools later expanded internationally to countries in Europe, North America, South America and Asia.
On MISA’s website, it describes itself as “the largest yoga school in Europe.” It says Bivolaru is equipped with “encyclopaedic knowledge” and “huge practical experience.” MISA refers to Bivolaru as the school’s “spiritual mentor.”
“Since 1990, MISA Yoga School has opened yoga courses in more than 250 towns in Romania and 33 other countries,” the website states, adding that the total number of people who have practiced at the school sits at around 35,000.
“The yoga instructors are selected through theoretical and practical exams, and undergo a special training,” it adds.
The allegations are just the latest in a string of serious charges against Bivolaru.
He was convicted of raping a minor in Romania in 2013 and sentenced to six years in prison in absentia. He was extradited from France three years later in 2016.
However, he only served a year and three months of his sentence before fleeing Romania in 2017 while on conditional release, and resuming his practices as a yoga guru.
He is also on Interpol’s ‘wanted’ list for criminal charges of aggravated trafficking in human beings in Finland, a crime punishable by 10 years in prison.
Maya Szaniecki reported from Paris and Sophie Tanno reported from and wrote in London.