One year after a sex abuse scandal erupted on the idyllic Thai island of Phangan, the New Age center where dozens of women say they were raped is drawing students again under a new name.
A surge of new students has been seen at Agama Yoga since it rebranded itself Phangan Yoga last month, just over a year after former students and island residents branded it a “rape cult” where female students say they were promised spiritual healing only to be coerced into sex or raped by its founder and his instructors.
After reopening late last year following a brief closure it said was to reorganize internally, Agama has continued to operate. It is currently advertising courses through next year, most for THB5,000-13,000, at the same address where Phangan Yoga is now listed on a nearly identical website created last month. New signs with that name have gone up around the campus, located a few minutes inland from Phangan Cove on the island’s west coast.
“This is not acceptable. Agama is hiding its name on the road to lure women into free classes under a fake name,” said Gregory Self, who leads a group of concerned island residents.
Self is part of the Boycott Agama Yoga, a 1,300-plus online community that says it wants to see the school closed and Narcis Tarcau, its founder and self-styled swami, brought to justice. Late last month, Self and others complained to local police that Agama was operating under a name that wasn’t legally registered. They say officers came to visit; police deny that’s what brought them there.
Tarcau, who fled Thailand days after the accusations splashed across international media, has denied any wrongdoing. By many accounts, Tarcau has since returned to the island. In a video lecture last month that appeared to be filmed in Agama’s hall, he said that he was about to leave Koh Phangan but would return in December.
Repeated efforts to interview Agama representatives and Tarcau in the past three weeks were unsuccessful. We wanted to hear their side of the story and find out if their response to the allegations had changed. We wanted to find out if the school had changed its practices or was taking any additional measures to safeguard its students. In the past 24 hours, multiple telephone calls, emails and Facebook messages went unanswered.
In his online lecture last month, Tarcau briefly touched on the scandal, saying the Bible taught him to respond to “difficulty” by “surrendering to God.”
Facing accusations from dozens of women, Tarcau has maintained he did nothing wrong and blamed people for not understanding his healing methods.
That angers accusers such Sasha – not her real name – who says he raped her when she was his student. Reached for comment recently, she said it “astounds” her that a man facing so many accusations continues to run the school “without any shame, acknowledgment of his past behaviors, or any apologies.”
Sasha left Agama in 2017 after four years as a student there, during which time she says Tarcau raped and sodomized her. She said the painful experience has resulted in years of PTSD symptoms including hyper-vigilance, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and social isolation.
“It was not only the rape that I had to process, but also the years of psychological abuse, control, manipulation, hypnosis and brainwashing that I had been exposed to by Narcis Tarcau while under his care, while he was supposedly healing my past traumas…,” she said.
She is one of six women who gave first-hand accounts to Coconuts Bangkok of sexual violence they say was perpetrated by Tarcau. More than two dozen other accounts have been reported elsewhere.
Sasha, who is no longer in Thailand, said her attempts to file a complaint were greeted with skepticism by island police, who never filed it as a real complaint and instead wrote an incident report that questioned why she didn’t “flee,” “fight back,” or complain sooner.
Only one other woman is known to have tried to file a report, but that was after she had returned home to Australia. Until earlier this year, in May, rape had a three-month statute of limitations in Thailand.
Island police acknowledge that they never investigated any of the claims.
But since those claims spread widely last year in media accounts around the world, the school no longer seemed able to attract many students, according to members of the Boycott Agama Yoga group. Agama had also been advertising space for rent in its compound.
“This time a year and a half ago, many people would be walking around the island in their Agama outfits. They were a strong presence on Srithanu Beach. Now the school, its restaurant and shop is almost always empty. No one would dare to wear Agama outfits, even if they remain supporters,” Self, the Boycott Agama leader, said.
Nonetheless, Self and others have kept watch on the island, where boatloads of youth arrive monthly to melt inhibitions away at its famous Full Moon Parties and search for self-discovery.
Agama advertises itself as a “true spiritual university” where past traumas can be healed. Through classes, workshops, retreats and a 24-level program, students can learn what’s described as the “authentic” roots of yoga and spiritual philosophy as well as a “balanced approach to living.”
So when former students and employees of the school started speaking out about alleged sex abuse in July 2018, it sent shockwaves across an island famed for its many yoga and spiritual retreats.
The allegations first aired in July 2018 – 31 by one account – and became widely reported in the mainstream media. The Guardian talked to 16 students and staff who described Agama as a “sex cult” that “facilitated sexual assault, rape and misogynistic teachings” … “in the name of helping them achieve enlightenment.”
The school’s controversial teachings revolve around sexuality and male dominance, according to former Agama students, teachers and the sect’s texts. But while other advocates of mainstream tantric yoga practices insist sexual activity plays a relatively small role, multiple Agama students described an unrelenting emphasis on sex.
“All of [Tarcau’s] advice that he ever gave students involved sex. Sex was the answer to every psychological, spiritual, emotional, physical problem,” Nancy Miller, a former student-turned-teacher told Coconuts Bangkok last year.
Miller recalled a time she consulted Tarcau for help in finding a long-term partner. She remembered the guru telling her to “give herself to men” and to “have and have as many partners as possible in as many Zodiac signs as possible.”
Ava – not her real name – a former manager at the school, who arrived at Agama in 2010 as a shy young woman hoping to immerse herself in yoga and spirituality, was constantly pressured to submit to Tarcau sexually, and said she was ultimately raped by him under conditions similar to those of Sasha.
“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,” she told Coconuts Bangkok.
Ava said that despite repeatedly making clear her lack of interest in Tarcau, she was “constantly pressured by him” for sex. She said that she found the six-foot-plus swami “very frightening.”
“He was constantly asking me during our work meetings like, ‘Why don’t you have five lovers? What’s wrong with you?’ and just really chipping away at my confidence the whole time,” she said. “This went on for two years. 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.”
“I wasn’t with him very much, but one of the last times I was with him he raped me,” Ava said.
Different accusers repeat similar details of being persistently pressured to have sex with Tarcau and other senior male teachers.
Another former student told Coconuts Bangkok she fought off an instructor who tried to force himself on her. Flavia Tibucheski, a former student who also worked there until 2016, said she was pressured into sex with Tarcau, who refused to stop when she repeatedly asked him to. A fifth student said Tarcau assaulted and digitally penetrated her once when she went to consult with him as her teacher. Tarcau’s former girlfriend, Mihaela Lakshmi, alleged that Tarcau beat her.
Like many of the accusers, Sasha said she spent a long time – years, in her case – turning down advances from the “swami” until she finally felt pressured into submitting.
“I was desperate to find healing, which they all promised he could do,” she said.
In 2016, Sasha learned that Tarcau’s method of “healing” wasn’t optional. Though she had previously consented to sex, she made it clear that she would not this time.
“Without asking, [Tarcau] grabbed my body and tossed me onto the bed, then he physically forced me to lie face down, removed my underwear but left my blouse on and… used his force to insert his penis into my anus, from which I felt great pain,” she said. “I kept telling him he was hurting me… I asked what he was doing to me… [but] he did not reply,” she said.
Broken and depressed, Sasha finally left the school in 2017.
According to former students and Agama texts seen by Coconuts Bangkok, the school’s teachings are rife with misogynistic messages about women’s subservient roles to men. Male acolytes were said to brag about their sexual conquests of female students.
“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.”
Using condoms is spiritually forbidden, according to Agama’s Tantra Level 2 guide. Titled Venereal Diseases and Tantra, it says: “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 infections as serious as syphilis and HIV due to their spiritual vigor.
Many students and teachers have said they contracted venereal diseases during their time at Agama, including Deva Temple and her boyfriend Sean Goddard. In a Medium article published last year, Temple wrote about her experience being encouraged to practice polyamory and contracting chlamydia.
“Narcis Tarcau is a very sick man… As long as the belief systems which teach that women are secondary to men, that the feminine is less divine than the masculine … are held in our hearts and minds then we are complicit in the harming of all of humanity” she wrote.
At the height of the scandal, an unknown vandal spray-painted “rape cult” over an Agama sign.
Last month, Phangan residents noticed that the Agama poster outside the school had been replaced with another reading “Phangan Yoga” or simply “Yoga.”
The new site shows photos of other senior instructors, including board member Khushru Mistry, who has himself been accused of forcing himself on more than one student.
None of the accusations led to any criminal investigations.
Though police have paid several visits to Agama during the past year, they never investigated the accusations of abuse made against Tarcau or other instructors.
Sasha said that island police displayed a particular resistance to handling her claims seriously, even refusing to write Tarcau’s legal name down in their notes and only referring to him as “swami.”
Cultural attitudes and a weak legal framework are often blamed for the failure to adequately take accusations seriously or properly investigate their claims by the police.
Nearly nine out of 10 rapes in Thailand go unreported, with only 4 percent of actual accusations resulting in an arrest warrant being obtained.
Sasha said earlier this month that recovering from the trauma is still an ongoing process. She’s still “deprogramming” from the cult and working toward resuming her career. Still, she wants to increase awareness so other women are spared her pain.
“I am re-engaging into a social life without controlling cult programming and without a toxic cult community. I am now doing activities which I used to enjoy before being involved in the cult,” she said.
Anyone with direct experiences or knowledge of misconduct at Agama should contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.