Byron Bay's strange 'spiritual retreat'
TUCKED away in the Byron Bay hinterland is a spiritual retreat promising meditation, yoga and a discovery of one's true self through a return to a simpler life.
But several women who spent time at the ashram claim it can be a strange and unsettling place, where vulnerable people give up their lives to immerse themselves in bizarre rituals.
Charmaine Selwood, from Bristol, in the United Kingdom had just come out of a relationship in Brisbane last April and found the Osho Samaya Ashram on Workaway, a backpacker jobs website.
"I was really drawn to the idea of escaping to an ashram to deal with my inner demons in a safe environment," she told news.com.au. "You work four or five hours a week in exchange for accommodation and food. It sounded perfect."
But the dream soon evaporated for Charmaine, who says she rapidly unravelled in the surreal world of the New South Wales commune.
'I WAS SHAKING, CRYING, HAVING A PANIC ATTACK'
When Charmaine, 26, arrived at the forest retreat, she was surprised to see a collection of old tents, caravans and a rundown building she claimed did not look like the photos on the website. She was immediately asked for $30, which she thought seemed "a bit funny".
Later, she realised many people there were ploughing much their cash into the commune.
The meditations were run by ashram leader Prem Samaya, who has led the retreat for more than two decades. Samaya is a charismatic man in his 70s or 80s who extols the teachings of the late guru Osho, but some visitors have expressed doubts about his unusual lessons.
He denies there is anything strange about the meditations, and says that while visitors are encouraged to donate to cover food and accommodation, it is typically only around $5 to $15 a day. While residents are encouraged to embrace the retreat by giving up their devices, they are also advised to tell friends and family where they are and provide an emergency phone number, Samaya adds.
It was when Charmaine took part in the "Mystic Rose" meditation with a group on her second day that things became truly disturbing for her. "It was 10 minutes of talking gibberish, 10 minutes of crying and 10 minutes of laughing," she says. "The meditations got really weird.
"It made me really uncomfortable how much people threw themselves into it.
"People would be screaming and shouting in people's faces, 'F*** you! I hate you!' then you'd have to say, 'I love you', and get quite sensual."
Later, she had a "full-on breakdown" during a session during in which the group was told to "dig deep into our emotions and into painful moments".
Charmaine began talking about her mother, and as others started sobbing, she lost control and had to walk out. "I was shaking, crying, having a panic attack," she says. "After quite some time, I calmed down and went back inside and everyone said 'congratulations', as I was no longer 'wearing my mask'."
Her friend Kim Grainger, 23, told news.com.au she was similarly disturbed by the "Humaniversity AUM [awareness, understanding and meditation]", which also "involved rapidly switching between extreme cathartic emotions", including anger, sadness, joy and arousal.
"There was no after-care or emotional support afterwards," says the young woman, who now lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
'WE'D ALL WEAR WHITE AND DO DANCING, SCREAMING MEDITATIONS'
Charmaine, Kim and three women who spoke to news.com.au under condition of anonymity claim there were often sexual liaisons between those staying at the retreat.
"There was a family, community vibe," says Charmaine.
Maria*, from Europe, stayed there in 2011 and told news.com.au she felt "many things that were not OK, which is why I left".
Aged 39 and having lived at other ashrams, she says she was concerned by the intense rituals and the number of troubled young people withdrawing from their friends and relatives.
Maria says the evening group meetings could be "explosive", as participants explored past trauma and psychoanalysed each other. After a few visits, she had seen and heard enough.
Julia*, who stayed at the ashram for a year in 2012 when she was 21, told news.com.au: "We'd all wear white and do dancing, screaming meditations."
She says some people would then continue the intimacy back at their cabins.
Relationships between residents were encouraged, the women say, which could often cause problems.
"It was extremely uncomfortable and intense as an observer," says Kim, who also stayed at the ashram for just a few weeks in April 2017.
BOOK BANS, FASTS AND SUPERVISED PHONE CALLS
Some stayed at the ashram for just weeks, others for years. Most largely shunned the outside world while there, giving up technology, communication and outside interests.
Julia, who handed over hundreds of dollars in her year there, says she became increasingly isolated.
There were regular days-long fasts, and she says she was praised in front of the group for her thinness.
Kim says visitors were "guilt-tripped" by the group into attending everything on the program, and she was "scolded" when she tried to skip a bushwalk to spend time on her own.
"Some residents were allowed to make day trips or multi-day trips outside of the ashram, whereas others, including myself, had to ask permission to leave. Permission seemed to be granted to those only who needed medical attention, or those whose outing would benefit the ashram financially in some way.
"Specific restrictions were placed on us, for example, at breakfast, porridge and fruit were served. However, you could only choose one or the other, not for rationing purposes, but because it was 'bad for digestion' to have fruit and grains together at breakfast.
"Living conditions were appalling ... washing dishes in cold water and watered down dishwashing liquid."
Beth*, a woman in her 30s based in Australia, says she found the ashram in a book on farm work, and liked the sound of working in a spiritual environment. "A lot was good about the actual meditations and the retreats they run," she says. "It was also a beautiful setting.
"Some people with a strong mind had the ability to ignore screaming, or not observe it, as a lot of it was only behind the scenes. So that is why some people will say that they had a good experience living there.
"I was encouraged to disconnect from the world, especially my parents and friends. It created a lot of distress for them and damage to our relationship.
"The ashram was not healthy for people who were vulnerable. People were told that they 'were not finished transforming' and encouraged not to leave."
'SHE WAS JUST SCREAMING IN THE FOREST'
Even more dangerously, Charmaine says people were encouraged to use alternative medicine.
"Me and three others at least were covered in self-inflicted scars," says Charmaine. "One meditation was dynamic, you have to explode and it was really traumatic. There was an elderly woman hugging her knees on the floor crying her eyes out."
When the group was told to move into a happy stage, the woman remained on the ground, sobbing.
Julia says she watched a woman have an episode and helped take her to hospital. "She was just screaming in the forest at the top of her lungs.
"The woman came back later and stayed there again."
The ashram, which now operates under the name Metanoia Gardens, emphasises that people with mental health issues and addictions are not accepted.
Charmaine's exit came after she began getting sick, less than a fortnight into her stay.
"These kinds of stories happen everywhere, all over the world," she says. "I am now part of a small group of men and women who are in need of being heard.
"And we are not resting until we are heard."
'THE LONGER YOU STAY, THE MORE YOU BELIEVE YOU NEED THE PLACE'
Kim says that for some time after her stay, she became anxious and her heart beat faster "when working in gardens, swimming in rivers, having a communal meal, or partaking in anything that reminded me of the ashram".
Julia had lived at the commune the longest out of the women who spoke to news.com.au, eventually leaving with a female friend under cover of darkness after a year subsumed in life at the retreat.
"The place is advertised as a school of life to help you go out and live a better life, but they're constantly trying to persuade you you're not ready," she says.
"Eventually, I came back to myself and who I was. You realise you are more resilient than you thought."
A spokesman for Lismore Council told news.com.au the council did receive complaints and conducted inspections in relation to unapproved structures and their use for commercial purposes.
The council issued orders to cease use of the premises, which it continues to enforce, and the ashram has moved location.
"As part of the evidence gathering process for compliance action, Council has been provided with statements from former residents of Metanoia Gardens that indicate they have left the premises for a range of reasons," the spokesman added.
NSW Police say they have not received any complaints.
THE ASHRAM'S LEADER RESPONDS
Prem Samaya told news.com.au in a statement that there was nothing strange about the ashram and that conditions are comfortable.
"We have no commandments; precepts, beliefs, sacraments, adoration to Prem Samaya (aka bowing, kissing his feet and so on) and people are free to leave whenever they choose," he says.
"Sometimes we ask them to leave for the protection of the ashram and this is the case of Charmaine and that is the reason why she wants to take this nasty revenge."
He says people "should not be here if they have mental health problems" and the young woman failed to disclose her issues in a questionnaire sent to all visitors before they arrive.
Samaya says people are not forced to give money but asked to contribute around $5 to $15 a day to cover amenities if they can. He says he has never encouraged people to have sex with each other but "might have given counselling" on relationships as a trained sociologist.
"I truly affirm that all the allegations against me, the ashram and my sharing at Sangha meditation are untrue, written and motivated by anger and vindictiveness for being asked to leave."
* Names have been changed to protect identities