PARIS – Agnes Arabela Marques was only 15 when she met the leader of a controversial yoga sect accused of running an international tantric sex ring that used women as slaves.
“At first he seemed nice,” Arabela Marques said of 71-year-old guru Gregorian Bivolaru, who was arrested last week in Paris after six years on the run on suspicion of rape, exploitation, kidnapping and people trafficking.
“He was very respected, speaking with a very calm voice,” she told AFP in a video call.
The year was 1999 and Arabela Marques, a dual Romanian-Portuguese national, had just followed her older sister from a small town in Romania to the capital Bucharest to join Bivolaru’s Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute (MISA) yoga school.
The school, one of the first in a network that eventually spread to over 30 countries, taught tantric yoga, a practice loosely based on an ancient Hindu philosophy about achieving liberation through sex, among other rituals.
Any misgivings Arabela Marques had about the school’s teachings were allayed by the fact that among the students were “important people” like doctors and lawyers.
“I told myself I had nothing to worry about,” she said.
Naked beauty pageant
But things soon took a sinister turn.
Bivolaru invited her to his home, where she was pressured into performing lesbian acts with a dozen other women and then into having sex with Bivolaru himself, who was nearing 50 — all presented as part of her initiation into tantric yoga.
“We were told the sexual act with the guru was a consecration, that it was approved by God,” she said, but Bivolaru nonetheless warned her “not to say anything” about how she lost her virginity.
A year later, aged 16, Arabela Marques was one of around 300 women parading naked at a “Miss Shakti” beauty pageant on the Black Sea, with some even masturbating on stage in front of thousands of onlookers.
When the police moved in to arrest Bivolaru last week they freed over 50 women being kept “in deplorable conditions” at two overcrowded houses in the greater Paris suburbs.
They included nationals of Romania, Argentina, Germany, Belgium and the United States.
The police said the women had been “freed from a sect” and that they found sex toys, pornographic material and photos of Bivolaru.
At the guru’s own home in the southeastern Paris suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine they also found over 200,000 euros ($215,000) in cash, pornography and fake identity documents.
Ashleigh Freckleton, a 31-year-old Australian woman who joined a MISA ashram in Romania in 2018, took part in one of the French “initiation rituals”.
On arrival in Paris, she was taken with a group of other mostly foreign women to a house in the Paris suburbs with all the blinds drawn, where they were shown pornography, hypnotised and encouraged to take part in orgies.
Her passport and telephone were confiscated, she told AFP in a phone interview.
The women were also given Bivolaru’s urine to drink but Freckleton pulled up short at having sex with a man presented as “an enlightened being”.
“I knew I needed to get out,” she told AFP.
‘Reminiscent of the mafia’
Last week’s raid marked the end of a nearly-two-decade-long quest by authorities in at least three jurisdictions – Romania, France and Finland — to bring Bivolaru to justice.
In 2004, he fled Romania, where he was being investigated for sex with minors, for Sweden, where he obtained political asylum.
In 2013, a Romanian court condemned him in absentia to six years in prison but he avoided arrest until 2016 when he was arrested in France and handed over to Bucharest.
Within a year he was free, after securing early release, but was immediately the target of an Interpol search warrant after complaints from several Finnish women, who claimed they were forced to have sex with him in Paris.
It took six years before French police caught up with him last week and placed him in preventive custody, along with five other suspects.
A French human rights group has collected statements from 12 of his former followers alleging abuse.
One French judicial source told AFP that MISA, also known as ATMAN, taught tantric yoga with the aim of “conditioning victims to accept sexual relations via mental manipulation techniques which sought to eliminate any notion of consent”.
Women were pressured both to have sex with Bivolaru and “to agree to participate in fee-paying pornographic practices in France and abroad”.
One investigator said the group was “reminiscent of the mafia” with “pimping disguised as philosophy”.
Bivolaru, a trained plumber who spent time in a psychiatric hospital for distributing pornography in Communist-era Romania in the 1970s and 1980s, has denied the charges saying that the women he had sex with “loved him”.
ATMAN has slammed the investigation as a “slanderous witch-hunt” saying it is “not responsible and not accountable for the private life of students and teachers of member schools”.
MISA was kicked out of the International Yoga Federation and the European Yoga Alliance in 2008 because its commercial practices were judged to be “illicit”, a French judicial source said.
Bivolaru retired as MISA director in 1995 but remained its “spiritual mentor” according to its official website yogaesoteric, which includes tips on “amorous energy control techniques”, “erotic postures” and “the way to ecstasy”.
Several yoga schools and masters have been hit with allegations of sexual assault in the past.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2018 reported allegations by 14 women accusing the leader of one of the world’s biggest tantric yoga schools, Agama Yoga, of rape and sexual assault.
In 1991, the Indian yoga superstar Sri Swami Satchidananda, who opened the Woodstock festival in 1969 with chants of “om”, was accused by several American women of sexual abuse. – AFP