To his followers, he was “Grieg,” their guide through tantra yoga toward enlightenment and a higher state of consciousness. For European police, Gregorian Bivolaru represents a far more sinister figure: a master manipulator accused of sexual abuse and exploitation.
The arrest this week in the Paris region of the 71-year-old yoga leader and 40 others marked the culmination of a six-year police manhunt involving Interpol. The sweep, led by a French police unit that combats crimes committed by sects and which mobilized 175 officers, also freed 26 people, described by French authorities as sect victims who'd been housed in deplorably dirty and cramped conditions.
On Friday, 15 of the suspects were being presented to a judge who could hand them preliminary charges. French police have for months been investigating a range of suspected crimes, including rape, human trafficking, illegal confinement and preying on followers as part of a sect.
It wasn’t possible to reach Bivolaru, who is in custody, and it wasn’t immediately clear if he had legal representation.
Accounts from alleged victims detailed in the French media portray Bivolaru as a guru who coerced women into sexual relationships under the guise of spiritual elevation spanning decades and continents.
A German woman recounted her alleged entrapment when she was 21. She described to Liberation newspaper a grooming process that allegedly included being photographed and filmed naked before her abduction and coerced sexual encounters in a Parisian house.
The group also fostered deep mistrust among its followers against the external world, especially the medical community, urging them to reject COVID-19 vaccinations and other medical procedures, according to her account. Another victim, a French woman, told France Info about a five-year ordeal where tantra yoga was fused with astrology and parapsychology to allegedly manipulate members into non-consensual sex under the pretext of spiritual practices.
Bivolaru’s group, initially known as MISA (“Mouvement pour l’Intégration Spirituelle vers l’Absolu”) and later as the Atman yoga federation, allegedly engaged in non-consensual sexual activities under the facade of tantra yoga teachings, according to a French judicial official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Despite expulsion from international yoga federations and legal scrutiny for prostitution, sexual slavery and human trafficking, the group's “ashrams” were centers for indoctrination and sexual exploitation, disguised as spiritual enlightenment, according to the official.
Bivolaru is Romanian but also has Swedish nationality, according to the French official. One of the group’s supposed ashram’s appeared to be exclusively dedicated to satisfying his desires, with women taken there from other places, the official said.
MISA said in a statement on its website in Romanian that Bivolaru had been targeted by media campaigns since the 1990s to “discredit and slander” him, calling any charges against him in France “absurd accusations.”
The Atman federation described the situation to The Associated Press as a “witch hunt,” disclaiming responsibility for the private lives of students and teachers at its member schools. They also highlighted that some member schools had successfully won cases at the European Court of Human Rights, demonstrating human rights violations against them.
However, a 2018 ruling by the court, as seen by the AP, seems more to underscore how Bivolaru's multinational activities have served to hamper efforts to apprehend him. He had obtained political refugee status in Sweden, thereby delaying legal proceedings in Romania.
The scope of the alleged abuses spanned across Europe, entrapping young women in a web of sexual and psychological control. Finnish media reported systematic sexual exploitation at Bivolaru’s Helsinki yoga school, and in 2017, Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation issued an international arrest warrant for him for alleged aggravated human trafficking.
In Sweden, despite being granted asylum in 2005, his alleged activities continued unchecked. Investigations by TV2 and the BT newspaper in Denmark in 2013 further exposed alleged exploitation within yoga centers run by Bivolaru and an associate, where young women were sexually exploited and filmed without their knowledge in purported tantra and sex rituals.
A former member of the Natha Yoga Center in Denmark, in an account to the BT newspaper, described women being treated like slaves, overburdened with chores and sworn to silence.
The woman alleged that the exploitation extended to the distribution of films, including one sold at gas stations across Denmark and another shot on a ship in the Black Sea.
In France, yoga retreats held in and around Paris and also in the Alpes-Maritimes region of southern France sought to make people take part in sexual activities, the French judicial official said. Attendees testified that women were forced to pay for the stays by doing video sex-chats and that men were made to do chores, the official said.
Bivolaru’s transition from yoga guru to international fugitive is a narrative laced with legal twists.
After fleeing Romania in 2004 amid charges of sexual misconduct with minors, he obtained asylum in Sweden, evading extradition. Romanian authorities later accused him of leading a criminal network within MISA, exploiting followers through extortion and sexual abuse, and using his spiritual influence to control and isolate them.
He was sentenced in absentia in Romania in 2013 for sexual relations with a minor, but wasn't imprisoned until his extradition from France in 2016, leading to a brief imprisonment followed by release on probation. The Romanian state was later mandated to compensate Bivolaru with 50,000 euros for delays in his trial.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Jari Tanner in Helsinki, and Stephen McGrath in Sighisoara, Romania, contributed to this report.