Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Edward Helmore

‘Shame and betrayal’: sexual abuse within the spiritual healing industry comes to light

Dried leaves in a wooden bowl.
Dried guayusa leaves, which are frequently used in the production of psychedelic ayahuasca compounds. Photograph: Beata Predko/Alamy

Shamanic healing or opportunity for ritualized abuse? A lawsuit filed in New Mexico last week alleged that a “shamanic master” assaulted a woman during an “energy medicine” training session in March.

The claim, which is being investigated, could shed more light on what some say is a dark side of some trends in modern spirituality, especially those that involve the ceremonial use of often intense psychedelic treatments.

The woman in New Mexico, who was identified in the complaint only by the initials MG, says she paid thousands of dollars to the Four Winds Society and the Chi Center to become a certified energy medicine practitioner with “an extraordinary life of health, purpose and inner guidance”.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Santa Fe New Mexican, says that the woman had scheduled a session with an unidentified Peruvian “wisdom keeper” and “shamanic master of energy training” and informed him that she had been sexually abused as a child. The man indicated in Spanish he understood.

But after he directed her to lie down on one of the beds in his room at the Chi Center, the shaman used the healing session for “his own personal interests or gratification”. The lawsuit alleges that at least two other women had similar experiences with the man.

A senior teacher at the center told MG that “what was done to her was not a standard part of the healing session” when she raised her concerns, according to the suit. The Santa Fe county sheriff’s office has said the woman had not completed a sexual assault nurse examination because she “had left the state and waited to report the incident via telephone from California”.

The shaman had by then left the US, flying from Houston to Panama, and the Santa Fe sheriff, Adan Mendoza, said a criminal case was “challenging” because the accused shaman was from overseas.

Still, the accusation follows in a long line of claims against spiritual gurus which indicate that some shamanic master practitioners may engage in sexual abuse, a troubling tendency previously associated primarily with more mainstream religious practices.

Last year, Jeffrey Glattstein, a shaman in Georgia, was accused of sexually assaulting staff and clients, including at least three women who said they had been assaulted “under the guise that he would be healing and helping them”. The defendant then filed claims against two former employees under the state’s anti-defamation Slapp laws that later failed.

Sex scandals in spiritual or self-enlightenment communities are hardly novel, says Patrick Paul Garlinger, a former lawyer and the author of a 2022 essay titled The Spiritual World Has a Sex Abuse Problem.

“We are seeing an increase, and part of that is the expanding number of people donning the mantle of spiritual teacher. But this also has a long history, in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, in New Age circles, and there are obviously parallels with the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church.”

The proliferation of spirituality, coupled with a willingness of victims to come forward in the #MeToo age, has created the conditions for an increasing number of claims coming to light. “The power differential of a master-teacher, who is treated as enlightened or ascended in some way, is often used as the justification for why this isn’t abuse,” Garlinger says.

Scandals within such organizations date at least to 1983, when Richard Baker, then the head of the San Francisco Zen Center, was fired for having affairs with several students. A decade later, Amrit Desai, the spiritual leader of the Kripalu yoga school, was similarly brought down. More recently Bikram Choudhury, the founder of a popular form of hot yoga, was sued for sexual assault in 2016 and fled the US to Mexico.

Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, was accused of abusing students in 2016; three years later, Sakyong Mipham, the leader of the Shambhala Buddhist meditation organization, was exposed and the Zen master Joshu Sasaki, accused of abusing students, was said to proselytize that the path to inner peace was to touch his penis because “true love is giving yourself to everything”.

The increased use of psychedelic drugs like ayahuasca, often amid claims of promoting spiritual growth or emotional healing, and an increase in shamanic tourism, could also be exacerbating the issue.

Ayahuasca ceremonies, usually held at night, involving drinking a sticky brown liquid – a brew of two Amazonian plants – followed by vomiting before the drugs take effect, often involving powerful visions. In such circumstances, consent to any form of sexual contact is not grantable.

In one instance, a supposed taita, or shaman, Édgar Orlando Gaitán, was convicted in a Colombian court of raping women and three cases of sexual abuse of minors with disabilities, some during “traditional Indigenous” therapeutic practices.

Academic Daniela Peluso has warned of “increased abuses of power, intercultural misunderstandings, the proliferation of inexperienced shamans, and vast power differentials that have fueled the unacceptable reality that ayahuasca ceremonies can become potential spaces where sexual abuse can occur”.

The shadow side of the ayahuasca scene led to a code of conduct co-authored by Peluso that “aimed to assist individuals within the psychedelic community to understand the common scenarios that can lead to abuse during ayahuasca consumption”.

The authors warned that “mutual cross-cultural misunderstandings and misconceptions between healers and participants can create confusion at least, and can be brutally manipulated at worst” under the guise of spiritual empowerment or through the use of “charm spells”.

“As ayahuasca’s popularity is increasing, alarmingly so are incidents of the sexual abuse of women,” they wrote, noting that “the majority of such cases involve the abuse of female participants by male shamans”.

This, the authors added, “is especially harmful and shocking considering many women who drink ayahuasca are seeking healing for sexual traumas suffered in the past”.

A separate study published by Psychedelic Invest warned: “Many of the people running these programs are not qualified to be working with people suffering from the after-effects of trauma. Others do have qualifications, but overstep important boundaries because they believe they are entitled to.”

But a code of conduct is a poor substitute for avenues for complaints and redress. Garlinger writes that the master-student relationship is problematic from the outset, especially when the approach to sexuality is unarticulated.

“There’s a lot of shame and a sense of deep betrayal within a setting that is deeply meaningful,” he says. “These abuses are difficult to investigate, and historically there has been an effort to silence victims, reframe their experience as part of their spiritual growth, and a need to protect the teacher and institution.”

• Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organizations. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.