by Brittany Shoot
– Denmark –
Some people no doubt find it exciting to adjust to a new society or a new city. My time in Copenhagen – nearly nine months so far – has not been completely negative, but even as time passes and I meet more people, I don’t feel particularly at home or settled in my new country. I haven’t found a place to belong since I arrived.
It’s true that in some ways, Danes are a permissive bunch. You can go about your business here without being bothered, and private lives are very much treated as such. But as a vegan in a country where people incorrectly think of me as “that girl who only eats fish,” I’ve had a terrible time finding what I consider to be the most basic animal-free cooking ingredients. And as a radical feminist, my hairy legs and outspoken pronouncements are often met with curious stares and responses like, “I thought we fixed our problems in the ‘60s.”
Decades ago, Denmark was the first country to legalize the sale and production of pornography, and some believe that sexual attitudes are more relaxed in Scandinavia than in many other parts of the world. Yet among Danish authorities, there still remain strict moral and ethical standards about the limits of free love and open sexuality.
In May, after months of rumors and speculation, reporters at the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten (JP) broke the story that the Natha Yoga Center in Copenhagen is being investigated for being run by the Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute (MISA), an organization the paper calls a Romanian “sex cult.” (JP is Denmark’s largest daily newspaper and one of the country’s most reputable. Their breaking story was picked up by Danish wire services and syndicated by other respected media, including Denmark’s equivalent of NPR, DR). In Romania, MISA’s leaders have been charged with various counts of prostitution, sex trafficking, and anti-Semitism.
In Copenhagen, the local group runs the popular vegetarian café attached to the yoga studio where I’ve often dined. The café seemingly offers a tolerant environment even though devotees have long drawn strange looks from local patrons, who are often quick to note the female workers’ lack of undergarments or Tantra pamphlets placed by all the exits. The walls of the cozy buffet area are adorned with murals of naked women and flowers.
As vegetarian restaurants are numbered in Copenhagen, it has nevertheless remained popular. It is also one of the cheapest, most nutritious restaurant options in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Founded by Gregorian Bivolaru in 1989, MISA has a long history of controversy. A cursory search of the web reveals a variety of personal and legal allegations against the organization. Natha Yoga Centers, which are almost always associated with MISA, have also been in the midst of controversy for years. In Romania, Bivolaru has been charged with sex trafficking, sex with a minor, and tax evasion, as well as other indictments related to organized crime and illegal travel to avoid prosecution. Claiming he faced persecution and would not receive a fair trial if he returned to Romania, Bivolaru – known among followers as “Grieg” – has resided in Sweden as a political refugee since 2005.
Natha Yoga Centers are scattered around the Nordic States and the United Kingdom, luring young men and women with the promise of enlightenment. The international group often uses English as their primary language, targeting vulnerable travelers, backpackers, and expats – offering a place to belong. In cities like Copenhagen, where immigrants are treated with a mixture of confusion and hostility, it can be hard to find refuge with like-minded, accepting people. In the past, the Copenhagen center has hosted talks by renowned spiritual speakers like Deepak Chopra. For thoughtful young people seeking a greater experience in the world, Natha centers offer the promise of a diverse community and spiritual guidance. Unfortunately, there is nothing enlightening about coerced sex work or human trafficking.
The concept of the natha (meaning lord or refuge in Sanskrit) comes from ancient Hindu traditions in which a guru passes down information to disciples. Nandinatha Sampradaya, a denomination of Hinduism, also places great significance and value in yoga practice. However, among MISA literature, the connections between the ancient Hindu traditions and current yoga practices become muddled, if not completely obscured. The group’s literature often depicts women in bikinis or underwear engaged in sexualized yoga practice.
Occasionally, a MISA member defects and speaks out. One of Natha’s former Danish leaders, Kim Schmock, remembers an odd experience while shopping at a bulk goods store in Denmark. As he passed a row of adult films, he recognized several people from the center on the DVD covers. While pornography sales and production are not illegal Denmark, Schmock was nonetheless disturbed to see his supposedly enlightened colleagues on display – in more ways than one. In an interview with the Dialogue Center in 2006, he stated that group members are pressured into participating in pornography. Perhaps this should come as no surprise: Natha’s current Romanian leader, Mihai Stoian, is an adult film actor.
Schmock and the Danish Natha organization have had a tenuous relationship since he left the group several years ago. Both groups have taken one another to court for various reasons including property disputes and charges of vandalism.
Several of the center’s yoga instructors have worked as erotic performers, and some local Natha teachers have earned income as sex workers or actors in pornographic films. While Denmark may have lenient free speech rules about pornography sales and tolerant views on adult pornographic filmmaking, authorities are just as committed to prosecuting sex traffickers, pimps, and those who exploit underage girls. Since JP broke the story about Copenhagen’s shady center last month, follow-up articles have revealed that many of Natha’s local teachers are still active in the adult film industry as actors and producers.
Copenhagen officials are clearly dismayed at the local allegations, but their interest is not without warrant. To date, the Copenhagen Natha Yoga Center, which is registered as a public interest organization, has received over 600,000DKK ($120,000USD) in city funding.
While pornography may not seem inherently misogynistic to some, coercion into sex work is never acceptable. It is worth considering that a yoga center – a place to center oneself and find inner peace – should be able to support itself without profits from sex trade. Pro-sex rhetoric aside, it is also questionable how stripping leads to spiritual enlightenment.
It’s deeply unfortunate that center members have been pressured into participating in pornographic films. Natha’s actions jeopardize immigration for everyone – no host country should have to tolerate groups that move into their cities with the explicit intent of luring unsuspecting young people – often women – into sex work.
In the end, I find that I am back where I started—quite alone and seeking a place to share warm food and conversation.
About the Author
Brittany Shoot is an American writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. A longtime member of the Feminist Review blog editorial collective, her writing has also appeared in a variety of print and online publications including Bitch, make/shift, WireTap Magazine, and Religion Dispatches.
Brittany earned concurrent Bachelor’s degrees in Women’s Studies, Communication, and Psychology, and has a Master’s degree in Visual and Media Arts. She likes to think of herself as a recovering academic but suspects that another degree in animal ethics might be in her future. A vegan and empathic animal advocate, she hopes to eventually operate her own farm sanctuary. When she isn’t taking photos with vintage film cameras and eating avocados, Brittany can be found moonlighting as a teacher, pet sitter, and farmhand. Visit her website at www.brittanyshoot.com.