France arrests guru, 40 others in raids on yoga sect

France arrests guru, 40 others in raids on yoga sect

Some 175 police were involved in the arrests
Some 175 police were involved in the arrests

PARIS - French authorities on Tuesday arrested 41 people in raids against a controversial yoga sect, including its leader, the guru Gregorian Bivolaru, a source close to the case told AFP.

The sect is accused of numerous abuses under Bivolaru, who has been repeatedly in the crosshairs of judicial authorities in Romania, Sweden and France in the last years, the source said.

Bivolaru, 71, is a national of both Romania and Sweden.

The people were arrested in the Paris region and southern France and included other key members of the sect, the source added.

Some 175 police officers were deployed for the operation, during which 26 women -- several of whom were held against their will -- were freed, the source said.

They had been "kept in deplorable conditions" both in terms of space and hygiene, the source said.

- 'Spiritual mentor' -

The network, called Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute (MISA), runs several yoga schools and related operations.

On its official website, yogaesoteric, the group describes itself as the "largest yoga school in Romania and in Europe" and Bivolaru as its "spiritual mentor".

Its success "comes from a traditional rigorous approach of the yoga system, from a great number of both theoretical and practical aspects studied and the coherent integration of the yoga values and practices in the Western cultural environment".

Its tantra yoga section meanwhile includes tips on "amorous energy control techniques", "erotic postures" and on "the way to ecstasy".

The site also contains a page dedicated to "extraterrestrial civilisations".

A French judicial source said the sect had "several hundred" members, but no precise figure was available.

The arrests follow a probe into the sect launched by Paris prosecutors in July, on suspicion of kidnapping, rape and people trafficking among others.

A kidnapping charge can result in prison of up to 30 years under French law.

- 'Conditioning victims' -

The investigation was sparked by France's Human Rights League, a human rights NGO, which contacted the prosecutors' office after receiving statements from 12 former MISA members, a judiciary source said.

MISA, which became known as ATMAN after its expansion beyond Romania, 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", the source said.

Several women, of different nationalities, said they had been victims of the MISA organisation and its leader, the source said.

Women were encouraged to accept sexual relations with the group's leader and "to agree to participate in fee-paying pornographic practices in France and abroad", the source said.

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", the source said.

The Liberation daily, which first reported the arrests, said Bivolaru was apprehended in a house in Ivry-sur-Seine near Paris.

According to witnesses, the paper said, he brought female followers to the house for "sexual initiation" into tantric yoga.

- 'Pimping disguised as philosophy' -

The judicial source told AFP that so-called yoga workshops were paid for by women members via sex chats and by men with manual work.

The workshops were "clearly exclusively dedicated to the satisfaction of the main suspect's desires," the source said.

The case is "insane", a source close to the case added, because it involves "a group reminiscent of the Mafia and pimping disguised as philosophy".

The yogaesoteric website listed an address in Bucharest for the Romanian MISA association, and one in Vienna for the European ATMAN network.

Some 300 million people regularly practise yoga, according to yogaearth, a website dedicated to the discipline.

Practitioners list stress reduction, improved mood and mental wellness as main benefits.

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