At first glance, the TripAdvisor reviews for the Agama yoga school on Thailand’s Koh Phangan don’t look much different from those for countless other spiritual retreats scattered across the country’s tourist islands.
Adjectives like “genuine,” “authentic,” and “inspiring” paint a blandly positive image for those seeking enlightenment.
But keep reading and the vocabulary begins to change.
“Manipulation.” “Patriarchal control.” “Rape.”
Former students and employees of the school, many of whom first came forward for an article self-published on the website Medium in July, describe an atmosphere of intense, cult-like control, one in which sex with instructors is encouraged, students are forcibly assaulted, and the use of condoms is discouraged.
As of this article’s posting, the school’s founder, a yoga instructor and self-styled swami named Narcis Tarcau, is gone.
According to a source at the Thai Department of Immigration who spoke with Coconuts Bangkok on condition of anonymity, Tarcau crossed the land border with Cambodia at the Aranyaprathet District checkpoint at 8:45am on July 31, disappearing into the unruly border town of Poipet. Where he is now is anyone’s guess.
The disappearing act isn’t a new one. The guru has previously plied his trade in his native Romania, then Denmark, then India.
But for the past 15 years, the tourist island of Phangan has been his playground, home to a school where allegations of abuse have accumulated to the bursting point, finally spilling out at the seams.
A man of the world
Given the seriousness of the accusations and his growing international notoriety, Tarcau’s online footprint is surprisingly faint.
Most available info comes from the relatively insular yoga community, including the Romanian-language website of MISA Romania (the Movement for Spiritual Integration in Absolute), which describes him as a co-founder of the group who fell out of favor with former leader Gregorian Bivolaru.
Bivolaru, himself on an EU most-wanted list for a litany of human-trafficking and sexual abuse charges, at one point personally appointed Tarcau to establish the group’s foothold in Denmark, only to eventually cast him aside amid accusations of inappropriate behavior from trainees there, according to a 2014 article linked on the site.
Tarcau’s 1998-2003 sojourn in India is even murkier. MISA claims he was banned from the country following rape accusations, while four separate sources claimed he had been arrested there, but police in Uttarakhand State’s Rishikesh reached by Coconuts Bangkok reporters denied he had a record there.
It was in Thailand, however, where he seems to have enjoyed relatively complete freedom in establishing his own unique brand of Tantric yoga, one that emphasizes a decidedly male-dominated concept of sexuality in an atmosphere of cult-like loyalty.
Think as he thinks
“Most people see him as a god,” Flavia Tibucheski, a former student who served as the school’s operations manager until 2016, told Coconuts Bangkok in a recent interview. “The senior teachers believed him fully.”
Tarcau, a solidly built 6’5″, is a dominating presence by all accounts, both literally and figuratively. He is uniformly described as charismatic by former disciples, who point, in particular, to his unconventional lectures.
“He’d swear a lot. It would make people laugh,” remembers Ava*, a former manager at the school. “People would be like ‘wow, he’s a renegade, he’s relatable.’ So we all thought it was really cool.”
“He just posed the yoga framework in a way I had never heard before,” agreed Nancy Miller, a student-turned-teacher at the school from 2003-05. “It was very provocative for someone interested in spirituality. He really pulled you in that way.”
“This is part of the tradition of yoga — the guru is the father, so his students act like his children. They follow,” Miller said. “Speak as he speaks. Think as he thinks.”
Unfortunately, Narcis Tarcau was thinking and speaking about sex nearly all the time.
The school’s controversial teachings, which extend in varying degrees to other Agama branches around the world, revolve to a high degree around sexuality and gender roles.
But while proponents of tantric yoga insist that sexual activity plays a relatively small, if important, part in their holistic approach to well-being, students and co-workers at the Agama school describe a very different experience.
“All of his advice that he ever gave students involved sex. Sex was the answer to every psychological, spiritual, emotional, physical problem,” Miller said in a recent interview.
Multiple sources corroborated her description of an unrelenting emphasis on sex inside the Agama compound, an exercise in breaking down inhibitions to the point where sexual advances from teachers felt entirely unexceptional.
“Nancy, you have to give yourself to men, you have to seduce them with your eyes and have as many partners as possible in as many Zodiac signs as possible,” she remembers the guru telling her. It was the only solution, he insisted, to finding the long-term partner she sought.
Ava, who said she had repeatedly made clear her lack of interest in Tarcau didn’t get away with mere advice, however, describing being “constantly pressured by him.”
“This went on for two years,” she said. “Eventually, I just felt like I had no other option. I felt like I needed healing, and he convinced me that he was the one to heal me.”
Looking back, Ava, a painfully shy yet hopeful young woman when she arrived at the school, now sees the consistent pressure she faced with a painful clarity.
She was, she says, being “broken.”
The language of healing and sex as a cure-all was a constant, according to Tibucheski, who described a situation in which Tarcau insisted that only a tantric massage of her vagina could unblock her blocked “chakra,” or energy flow.
She acceded, eventually agreeing to a request for sex that came two hours into the session. When she wasn’t enjoying it, she asked him to stop.
“No, you’re blocked,” he allegedly replied. “You’re resisting. You want me to stop because it’s too much pleasure for you.”
At barely five feet tall, Tibucheski described a feeling of powerlessness with the much larger Tarcau atop her. “All I could do was keeping asking him to stop.”
Eventually, he did, though he approached her again and again in her remaining two years at the school.
Destiny*, another former student and employee, described an incident that leaves little room for interpretation.
“We had been intimate before … [but on this occasion] I clearly said I just wanted to talk. When I arrived at his house, he opened the door, pulled me inside, and stuck his fingers in my vagina and his tongue in my mouth.
“He’s a big guy. I just kind of froze and then went into protective submission. After less than 20 minutes, I made my excuses, trying to be funny, since that seemed safer than going into anger, sadness, accusation … and left.”
According to Stephen*, a senior staff member for more than five years, Tarcau had three girlfriends when they first met, but by the time the school was peaking in popularity, the guru was having sex with “more like two women a day.”
Not all were outwardly unhappy with the arrangement. One Agama enrollee, the only current student who agreed to speak with us, blithely confirmed the trysts were commonplace.
“I’ve always heard about this,” said Michelle*. “This person slept with the Swami, and this person … and they’re all really happy about it. It’s common knowledge amongst the community.”
Asked how many partners Tarcau had taken from among his followers, she offered her best guess: “At least hundreds.”
Ascending the ladder
While the stories of sexual coercion and rape might seem like obvious red flags to any potential acolytes, former Agama members spoken to by Coconuts Bangkok say the sexual initiations described are not introduced immediately.
Much as with better-known entities like the Church of Scientology, students are slowly graduated through levels — 24 in this case — only learning certain truths that might seem disturbing to a newcomer after first being groomed to accept the knowledge.
“It’s like a church,” explained Stephen, the project manager, describing what he saw as a form of manipulation. “They’ve created something that makes you feel left out when you don’t go.”
“People are always asking ‘Hey, have you done this?’ and ‘Why didn’t you go [to the group workshops]?” he said.
“By the time you reach level 3, you don’t really know what’s going on, so you want to go because you’re so curious. You want to be part of this elite group.”
Ava describes the experience as having a carrot continually dangled just out of reach.
“Every time you’re hanging out with people in the café, they’re like ‘wait until you get to this next level and you get this technique,'” she said. “It kind of kept you hooked.”
“There’s a lot of secrecy around everything,” Miller, the former teacher, said matter of factly. “For example, the higher-level students cannot talk about the [intense] lessons [they’re learning].”
Among the teachings introduced deeper in the program are precepts central to Agama’s concept of the “right way” for men and women to embody gender roles. They are not ones you will find in feminist studies courses.
In a recording leaked online by an attendee at a men’s-only group session at the school, Tarcau can be heard expounding on the way women have obstructed men’s path to enlightenment in various religions throughout the ages.
“Women are gifted to make babies. They aren’t gifted to be priests,” Tarcau says at one point in the hour and 15-minute recording. “Women can be witches … but priests? No.”
Another senior teacher at the school identified as Khushru Mistry takes the microphone later to complain about the way present-day society frowns on someone “playfully, sweetly” grabbing a woman’s buttocks uninvited, before going on to explain that “nagging” is at least as bad.
Such lessons were not confined to men-only sessions.
“Feminism has destroyed modern society,” Miller recalled a group leader saying at one meeting. At another, women were asked to match their own bodies with images of nude women a teacher had selected from pornographic magazines.
“We were told feminism is a load of bullshit. We were told you follow your man and do what he says,” Ava said. “At the end of the meeting, I think they asked for volunteers to cook for swami.”
Those attitudes bled through at every level, students said.
Broden*, a male student, said he eventually left the group largely due to his discomfort with the misogynistic attitudes continually on display around him.
“I would hear them talking about women in ways that sounded like they were conquering them … like typical young guys but with a spiritual veneer,” he said. “I remember walking with a group of guys and one of them just said ‘I’m off tonight to fuck [so-and-so],’ and he had such a smug look on his face.”
Indeed, Broden specifically remembered a lecture with Khushru Mistry, in which the senior teacher endorsed the use of neuro-linguistic programming, a popular technique used in the so-called pick-up artist community. “It’s good for women to be seduced,” he said at the time.
“The sexual harassment was constant in the school. Senior male teachers encouraged it, and as “shaktis” [the yoga personification of female power], we were expected to be grateful for the attention,” explained Ava.
Almost unimaginably, the risk of these sexual encounters was amplified many times over by a mandate in the group’s own written coursework: no condoms.
One section of Agama’s Tantra level 2 guide titled Venereal Diseases and Tantra explains that: “The use of condoms makes the union on all levels impossible” as “the exchange of physical secretions is hindered.”
It goes on to explain that healthy yogis are resistant to infection due to their “high ojas,” a Sanskrit term meaning “vigor.”
The Agama way
Nothing about what is unfolding on Koh Phangan feels particularly unfamiliar to Rick Ross, a cult expert, deprogrammer and author, who’s been interviewed on the subject countless times. The secluded island setting is, he says, a much easier place to create the environment necessary for what he labels “destructive groups.”
“If you take people out of normal circumstances and put them on an island, surrounded by people who are locked into a particular leader, authority and mindset, they create … a false social proof,” he said in a recent interview from his office in Los Angeles.
“You completely control periods of time where they have no feedback other than the feedback they receive from other disciples, teachers, acolytes and devotees,” he continued. “You’re in control of what they’re seeing, hearing, who they’re interacting with. It can be very intense.”
It’s a reality Ava, now three years removed from Koh Phangan, knows all too well.
“No one is going to be interested in you if you don’t do the same as everybody else,” she said. “That meant dressing a certain way, acting a certain way. Then all the behavior becomes very normal, because people all around you are doing the same thing.
“I lost all perspective completely.”
And as with any cult-like group, leaving has meant excommunication.
“When I left, I was cast out,” she said. “I lost most of my friends, because they were still in it and they couldn’t [handle] the criticism. Everyone was told that I’d gone crazy.”
Broden*, the male student so troubled by the school’s predatory behavior, to this day insists that the good in the Agama system outweighs the bad introduced by Tarcau. But his forgiving attitude has made his exit no easier.
“The people were so blinded by Agama that they thought I’d gone kind of crazy,” he said. “A lot of my friends that year unfriended me on Facebook. When I left the island, I basically lost contact with all my friends.”
Rage, rumors, but little recourse
Despite a vociferous campaign by a handful of locals and the recent appearance of reporters for international publications in the neighborhood, as of this story’s publication, the Agama school remains up and running, though it’s impossible to say if it’s business as usual behind closed doors.
Emails, texts, and repeated calls to available numbers for the school have been unsuccessful in reaching them to obtain a response to the myriad allegations.
A series of statements released on the school’s official Facebook page, the last of which appeared on Aug. 18, explicitly admit no wrongdoing, but describe “remorse” and promise “change,” while simultaneously claiming they are being unfairly persecuted. A third-party investigation is ongoing, they insist, though the “response rate of the affected women is extremely low.”
The police, for their part, have evinced no great interest in the emerging tales, though insist they stand at the ready, willing to act should sufficient evidence present itself.
“We haven’t been informed [of the accusations] officially. No victims have filed a complaint,” Col. Sathit Kongniam, commander of the Koh Phangan police, told Coconuts Bangkok this week.
“If the victims don’t come forward, police don’t have the authority to investigate,” he continued. “If you look into it, [the alleged assaults] happened a long time ago. The statute of limitations for rape cases are only three months.”
And there’s the rub. With most alleged victims now back in their respective countries and many of the accusations dated in years, not days, Thai law makes prosecution exceedingly unlikely and the painful testimonies it would require potentially for naught.
Since the publishing of the Medium article, business has been booming on the local Facebook group Boycott Agama, where local residents and interested parties parse every rumor and fresh accusation now emerging about the school and its founder.
But with no legal recourse and no arrests, the rumors and gossip feel destined to remain just that.
On Tuesday, as we spoke to Col. Sathit, the Agama school was undergoing a surprise “inspection” by half a dozen police officers, a fact he failed to mention.
The visit, he said when confronted later, was routine. Unconnected to the myriad claims of sexual assault, or the disappearance of the group’s leader. A simple search for visa overstays. Nothing to see here.
Additional reporting by Andra Samoila in Bucharest.
*Certain names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of sources.
(Editor’s Note: TripAdvisor has removed the reviews that alleged rape at Agama Yoga. They remain visible in Google searches.)
If you have experienced sexual assault at Agama please write to: email@example.com
Subscribe to The Coconuts Podcast for top trending news and pop culture from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong every Friday!