Women come forward with sexual assault complaints against ‘yoga cult leader’

Women come forward with sexual assault complaints against ‘yoga cult leader’

Esin AŞAN - ISTANBUL
Women come forward with sexual assault complaints against ‘yoga cult leader’

Professor Akif Manaf and his students at the Yoga Academy in Istanbul.

While sexual assault is often considered an action committed by the predator directly forcing themselves on the victim, the chilling allegations against Turkey-based Azeri “yoga guru” Professor Akif Manaf have a twist. 

Manaf, referred to as a "grand master" after claiming to have learned yoga from Indian masters, has published many books and opened his own school, Yoga Academy, in Turkey. However, he is accused of fraud to the amount of 1 million Turkish Liras and sexual assault by many of his former students, who also claim he has become a "cult leader."

Manaf was recently taken into custody but released, albeit with an overseas travel ban. 

In a press release, he denied all the allegations, claiming that his students had assaulted him and were using his teachings and products to make money.

Manaf had become a national yoga phenomenon after moving to Turkey. His books have been read by many and his “yoga carnivals” were popular, especially among young women. After receiving Manaf’s instruction, many students have reportedly become dedicated to the yoga teacher, seeing him as the only guide for the correct way of living. 

Previously, a number of women filed unsuccessful lawsuits against Manaf, but victims have allegedly been too afraid to speak up publicly, with some particularly devoted students claiming that he would bring death upon people who abandoned his way. However, after the boyfriend of one of the victims made the first public complaint that started the investigation, several other alleged victims of sexual assault also began coming forward.

Manaf is alleged to have won the victims’ unconditional devotion and convinced them to engage in sexual activity, using hypnosis and deception.

It is claimed that Manaf made his students pay large amounts of money in order to become trainers in Yoga Academy. Some people asserted that Yoga Academy is not an actual institution and that Manaf’s PhD is fraudulent. He is also accused of hypnotizing his students and engaging in sexual intercourse with them, insisting that this would bring them “inner peace.” He isolated his students from their families, arguing that being alone was the only way to reach self-discovery. 

The teacher has also been accused of meeting with potential trainers in his office, where he applied a “special technique” that required students to massage his body and engage in sexual activities, claiming that the technique would open the students’ "chakras." 

Manaf was regarded so highly by some of his students that they would kiss his feet and fight over who would help put his shoes on and eat his leftovers. 

One victim confessed that she thought he was superhuman and that she “handed over her consciousness to him.” The woman said was too ashamed to tell her family about Manaf’s alleged assault, adding that she got a divorce after Manaf told her he had “seen” that her husband had cheated on her. The woman also said she was ashamed to have believed his words.

Zeynep Miraç of daily Hurriyet spoke to Meltem, one of Manaf’s former students. Meltem claimed she was brainwashed and that her dedication to Manaf kept her from resisting physical abuse and his requests for sexual intercourse. 

In time, she said she fell in love with him. “He first builds trust. When he saw I wouldn’t run away, he continued. In the end, it turned into physical abuse,” she said.

Meltem said Manaf was married, but only so that he could obtain Turkish citizenship.

“Every cult has the same methods. They shatter your standard of judgment. To them, your worldview, education and family are all unnecessary burdens,” she added.

Meltem slowly discovered that her absolute obedience was unhealthy, after watching videos about cults and reading stories about victims of yoga cults. 

She said she felt a need to distance herself, but even then had difficulty speaking up against Manaf, only succeeding in requesting a move abroad.

‘Like a machine’

Hürriyet’s Ayşe Arman spoke to the first accuser, the boyfriend of a victim, about how he understood what was happening. He told Arman that he was suspicious of how his girlfriend was turning into a machine, that she would do everything Manaf said, just like every other woman in the academy.

“All that happened is a social tragedy. If he told them ‘kill this person, it will evolve you,’ they would do it. They are all brainwashed,” he said. 

He said the women start as yoga students but that some of them become followers of Manaf, often after attending his seminars and building a close relationship with him.

“There are no images of what happened. However, naked videos of some of his students were found on his computer. Some of the victims are too afraid to speak up because of their families. There are others who do this voluntarily. They believe that he will give them energy, make them evolve faster. But he is deceiving them,” he said, claiming that Manaf’s titles were forged and that he had not even graduated from college. 

The accuser said he convinced many women who believed abandoning the Yoga Academy would be sufficient to escape Manaf’s clutches that it would be better to go to the police. 

Manaf has previously been the subject of accusations, but the large number of people that defended him ensured that proceedings against the teacher were not continued. Now, however, 13 people have agreed to testify against him.

‘I’m the one who was assaulted’

In a press conference held July 19, Manaf said all allegations were false, saying he himsefl had been assaulted by his students. 

“They approached me, wanting to get married. They would hug, kiss and squeeze me without asking. I never said I was the chosen one. I have the ‘master’ title because I’m an expert. There is no practice of hypnosis, either,” he said.

Manaf said the Yoga Academy was a peaceful environment that served the Turkish public.

“My purpose is to provide invaluable information. We don’t have a private life, we just serve people. On the academy’s website, there are writings that show how happy these women are,” he said.

He also claimed that the students that accused him had committed fraud. “I warned them. With my every warning, they threatened to blackmail me. They said, ‘Don’t meddle with this, or we will tell everyone that you harassed us,’” he said.

Manaf was taken into custody on July 16. He was released, but is barred from leaving Turkey until the case is closed.