‘It broke me’: Life in an insidious NSW cult
GROWING up at the notorious Mangrove Yoga Ashram, then known as Satyananda Ashram, Sandra* was a victim of physical and mental abuse.
Last year, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found there were no policies to protect children at the ashram on the NSW central coast after hearing evidence of horrific child sexual abuse.
While Sandra did not experience sexual abuse, the treatment she endured while living there in the 1970s and 1980s has stayed with her forever.
This is her story.
I did not receive the nurturing that is needed as a child so that I could grow up to be a normal functioning person.
I did not have parents with me who loved me and guided me and whispered words of encouragement.
I was not brought up in a house nor a home, with nurturing parents and normal schooling, choosing to leave all of that behind and partake in an alternative lifestyle - it was thrust upon me.
Instead, my upbringing broke me. I might even go so far as to say that it fragmented me.
I went to live in 'the Ashram' at the tender age of four in the 1970s.
It was set among a beautiful backdrop in a valley in Mangrove Mountain, on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.
It appeared idyllic to my mother who was so keen to break free of mainstream society's old paradigms and forge a new way of living. One that appeared to hold no religion (they said they were non-denominational yet they 'initiated' their disciples into becoming 'Sannyasins', a Hindu belief). It was based on yoga, karma and organic food.
It promised the road to 'enlightenment' and thanks partly to the Beatles, people were swallowing that up with their lentils in the 60s and 70s.
One of the main rules of the Ashram was 'renunciation'. To become 'enlightened' you must 'let go' of all that you were attached to in the 'material world'- renounce your ego - shave your head and all wear orange clothes - renounce your attachment to your previous life and family - change your name and become 'initiated' with a 'spiritual name' (All names started with Swami and ended with Saraswati with a unique name in the middle.)
Renounce your family: This included the parents and children that were living in the Ashram, not just the ones that hadn't joined the Ashram/cult.
Who tells children they are not to love their own parents but are to worship the guru only? A paedophile who is breaking and grooming children, that's who.
Although I had a mother, she was unavailable to me from a very young age, (perfect practice for grooming.) Instead, I was brought up among the melee that was the "Ashram Kids" living in huts together or dorms, away from the adults.
We were punished for the smallest things and yet, not reprimanded for things that we should have been.
We had our heads flushed down the public toilets if we didn't brush our teeth (we had on average 100 people staying there at any given time with a row of toilets that everyone used and a row of showers with no privacy screen between them, much like a prison.) It was other kids that were ordered to do this to the un-brushed 'offenders', creating some form of hierarchy between the kids.
We would be beaten with a stick for talking on the hour-long bus ride from school and publicly beaten and shamed for small things such as saying something negative about our Guru's yet we were encouraged to be brats towards the adults in the Ashram thus creating an effective divide between the children and the adults. All effective grooming practices.
You daren't get sick as to get sick would result in being put in sick bay. Sick bay was a cement and brick room that was always cold and damp, no matter what time of year it was. It was away from everyone else and you weren't allowed to leave unless you were to go to the toilet.
You would have your meals brought to you - if you were even allowed to eat, as fasting was believed to help you get over whatever it was that you were sick from.
We had to get up at 5am to practice hours of meditation and yoga before school.
There were times when only the females had to bath in the creek instead of having hot showers like the men. It was below zero, there was frost on the grass and the water was so cold that it felt like it burnt your skin.
I remember crying and shaking and saying "I don't want to do this" and being told that I had to, just get in. According to the 'guru', women needed to be toughened up - which I now realise meant 'women are harder to break'.
How did I cope with all of this? I didn't.
I started to use drugs at the age of 14 and was in a self-induced coma for three days when I was 16. I have changed my name four times in my life. I can't stick to one profession. I can't really stick to anything.
I went from one abusive relationship to another. I find it hard to have long and strong connections with people. I have two children who have been my driving force to become a better person but I unfortunately had a child to a physically abusive paedophile.
No, I didn't know that he was a paedophile and as soon as I found out, I moved myself and my children away and have remained in hiding ever since. I would never want my children to suffer the way that I did.
I have tried so hard to try and make a normal and functional life for them. Sometimes when I can't get out of bed I wish that I was a better parent.
I wish that I could hold down a steady job, that I had some amazing talent that could lift us out of this hole of poverty that goes along with the inability to fit in with society, to form proper relationships, to hold down a steady job. But I don't, all I have is fragments of myself that I try to pick up.
I can only describe that it's like living with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for a lifetime. I tell people that it is like being punched in the face. That's the initial trauma. It knocks you down. Then you shake it off, you get therapy, you think you have dealt with it. And then, out of the blue, something triggers it again and this time, it's like being coward punched from the right side.
It knocks you down again, you shake it off, you are seeing it from a completely different angle this time. You think you have dealt with it. This keeps going, each time there is a trigger, it blind sides you from a different angle.
Each time you have to process it all again, just when you think you have dealt with it, it comes at you from yet another angle. It doesn't matter if you have gotten to a positive place with it, it comes back and knocks you over so you have to try and get yourself back up again.
This makes for hard living. It's not easy to maintain anything when this is happening throughout your life.
* Name has been changed
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis or suicide prevention support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp