* Aspects of this story have been corrected since it was first published
This story contains graphic descriptions and sexual references.
Some former students and teachers of so-called "sacred sexuality" courses in New Zealand and overseas are accusing those running them of turning a blind eye to predators.
They claim they have suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse at courses costing thousands of dollars run by the International School of Temple Arts (ISTA), including at "Highden Temple", a sprawling Victorian-era mansion in rural Manawatū.
ISTA markets itself as a path to self-discovery, freedom and spiritual awakening through individual and group sexuality.
However, former Auckland-based tantra teacher Anna*, who joined ISTA for "professional development" but also to deal with past trauma, said the opposite was true for her.
On the first night of her Level 1 "Spiritual Sexual Shamanic Experience" in Israel, students were told to strip and shed their fear, judgement, anxiety or whatever was holding them back.
"It sounds freeing as you are getting naked, but I realise looking back on it now it was about disarming you of your discernment, disarming you of your idea of what's right or wrong. We were being initiated into the retreat," Anna said.
Exercises during the week-long course vary, but may include the "removal" ceremony just described, the "self-love" ceremony (public masturbation), the "sacred spot" ceremony (vaginal or anal massage in randomly assigned pairs) and "yoni gazing" in which female volunteers expose their genitalia to the rest of the group.
Participants who have done ISTA training in New Zealand and overseas have described how at "temple nights" each evening, people are free to approach others and make requests of them, usually sexual.
Israel's lead facilitator Ohad Pele Ezrahi - a former orthodox rabbi - was leading Anna's training, and she said she could "feel his eye" on her from the start.
He was there with his wife of 30 years, Dawn Cherie Ezrahi, who is also an ISTA facilitator, and his girlfriend (a Dutch woman in her 20s), but Anna said it was not long before he approached her at a "temple night".
He asked what her boundaries were and she told him "no penetration" - but then without warning, she says he pulled down her underwear and started performing oral sex on her.
"I was completely grossed out by that point and then he said, 'I know what your body likes, I know what your boundaries are'. And I thought, 'Maybe this is what my body wants', so I submitted.
"That was my Level 1 experience - I came in with trauma and I came out disassociated."
Ezrahi is not currently teaching, reportedly having taken time for "reflection" after an article earlier this year in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, accusing him and other key figures in the conscious sexuality movement of sexual abuse.
He has not responded to RNZ's questions about the allegation.
However, in response to Haaretz regarding a similar incident, he claimed everything described by the woman in that case happened as part of "role-playing games", not a personal interaction.
There was "no intention, heaven forbid, to harm or offend any of the participants" but he regretted this was her experience, he said, even if it was "not necessarily consistent with the facts".
An atmosphere of confusion, obedience and manipulation
ISTA appears to have suspended activity in Israel following the adverse publicity but not made an official statement regarding this.
One of the Israeli whistleblowers told RNZ that "as a young guy with no past trauma", he enjoyed ISTA Level 1.
However, he later realised some people were having traumatic experiences and there was no recognition of that by the leadership.
"They call it a 'container', right? It's a crazy environment. It's gradual, the activities get more and more extreme over the week. And you don't get to sleep a lot," he said.
"So all this creates like an atmosphere of people being very confused, being obedient, being very easily manipulated."
During five years doing ISTA courses both at Highden Temple in New Zealand and overseas, Anna had sexual relations with several leaders, facilitators, and other participants during "exercises", which she describes as "rituals and orgies".
"Everyone's doing it, so if you feel like there's something off with your discernment, then it must be you...
"It's like do-it-yourself gaslighting. They don't even have to gaslight you, you gaslight yourself."
Since 2017, all ISTA trainings in New Zealand have been held at Highden Temple in Manawatū, founded by New Zealander Bruce Lyon, who helped develop the ISTA curriculum and continues to facilitate courses and advise its leadership.
Highden offers its own six-week "Temple Training" course, which is separate to ISTA, although most of its teachers are also ISTA facilitators or graduates.
In response to questions by RNZ, Lyon said he was not aware of any complaints of a sexual nature involving Highden.
Under a new protocol adopted in November 2021, Temple Training teachers did not engage sexually with participants, he said.
Highden also advised participants to be conscious around sexuality with each other, as this could "sometimes be a distraction from their initiation process".
Tauranga-based sexologist and intimacy guide Ellie Wilde spent 11 years with ISTA as a student, assistant and facilitator - including at Highden Temple - but has now cut ties with it.
While ISTA purports to teach and practice consent, she felt boundaries were sometimes pushed.
"There were many times where I would be on the microphone trying to lead the group, guiding them toward feeling themselves more deeply, when I would get this this tap on the shoulder, like 'Hurry up, hurry up!'," Wilde said.
"There was this pressure to get them further along than I felt like they needed to be, in the programme. I felt we were rushing the boundaries part. I often felt this pressure to make things more sexual/intense/hyper than I felt they should have been."
She came to believe that allowing facilitators to have sexual contact with participants was wrong because of the inherent power imbalance, and became increasingly worried about what she saw as the lack of "trauma informed care".
When she tried to raise these problems with the leadership, she was dismissed - or attacked herself.
"I would often walk away from those conversations feeling like I was damaged or there was something wrong with me - whereas now I can see the alarm bells were going off inside me for good reason."
Wellington woman Bia Bliss, an holistic sexologist, felt like she had found her "tribe" in ISTA through trainings, festivals and volunteering at Highden.
"You go in there for a week and you come out with this whole new language and view of the world and the possibilities," Bliss said.
She set her sights on becoming an ISTA facilitator, the elite group who travel the world, teaching courses in exotic locations.
However, she admits there were red flags from the start.
She noticed those who "refused to follow the script" were sometimes publicly shamed.
At a Level 2 course at Highden Temple in 2017, Bliss said she suffered a violent, unprovoked attack from another woman, who grabbed her by the hair and cracked her head against another person's skull.
She felt that facilitators shut down her attempts to get redress and that some trainers refused to let anyone leave the room, even if they were distressed.
"So if you see someone else being called out, you're going to be like, OK, I'm just going to follow along with the programme because I don't want to be embarrassed like that person."
ISTA facilitators were free to have sexual contact with students, but students had to make the first move and the facilitator had to seek "permission" from the other leaders.
However, Bliss said this did not recognise the power imbalance.
Having grown up in a chaotic household, ISTA "felt like home" to her.
"For me it was comfortable. It was more more more intensity, more chaos, more dysregulation, more cathartic release.
"Why would I be here dealing with the the mundane when I could be in a container where I don't have to do anything? I'm told when to wake up, when to eat, when to take breaks, I didn't have to take any responsibility for my life."
A close friend of hers who had an abusive childhood told RNZ he felt sexually violated after being approached by two assistants during an exercise, while in a vulnerable state.
Bliss admits as an assistant, she found herself unconsciously manipulating students to whom she had an attraction, giving them "extra attention" until they gravitated towards her.
"I didn't know I was doing that because that was what I was observing that was happening in the so-called field. It was 'monkey see, monkey do'.
"Because that's what you do, you get to hook up with the cuties, you know, and also because I'm an assistant, I have more visibility."
'If you can't be a victim, there are no abusers'
Having already escaped a cult in her 20s, Californian life coach "Jane" (not her real name) never believed she would get sucked into something like that again.
"Realising that ISTA, which seemed like a dream come true and the answer to so many things, is actually a f**king nightmare, has pulled the rug out from under me," Jane said.
ISTA participants are required to sign a covenant, which includes the statement: "I agree to take full responsibility for the nature of my experience".
Jane believes this gives predators the perfect cover.
"If you can't be a victim, there are no abusers. If there are no abusers, that works really well for them because they get to do it without ever being held accountable."
When she first heard about an online campaign to raise concerns about ISTA, she thought she could help take those concerns back to the organisation and get change.
However, she no longer thinks that is possible.
Issues with ISTA
Because anyone can call themselves a sex therapist, there is no professional body to which people can make complaints.
However, some survivors, activists and conscious sexuality professionals have recently formed a group called Safer Sex-Positive Spiritual Communities.
They are collecting accounts of harm from people around the world, which they intend to collate and present to ISTA and make public via a website to advocate for change.
ISTA's Governance Circle - Triambika Vive, Elaine Young and Komala Lyra - declined an interview.
However, in a statement to RNZ they said ISTA was "committed to offering trainings that provide an opportunity for personal growth and transformation, held in an environment of care and support for our participants".
ISTA was "already in the process of updating systems and practices" when it became aware of "individuals wishing to share broader feedback".
"We acted on this and immediately began to upgrade and widen our avenues for receiving feedback."
It has contracted third party mediators and begun work on improving its intake process, faculty training and follow-up care.
However they also say ISTA has been the target of an online campaign of lies and misinformation "alongside some genuine grievances".
This has caused "significant financial loss, professional damage, and emotional distress" and they may consider legal action.
Highden Temple founder Bruce Lyon also declined an interview.
In a written statement to RNZ he said grievances could be heard by an in-house panel (including a clinical psychologist, lawyer and therapist) or third-party mediation was also available.
"While we do have facilitators who have had trauma training, the programme at Highden is not operating out of the therapeutic model.
"We require participants to be self-responsible when it comes to managing their personal process and we recommend they continue to work with qualified therapists who understand our approach."
An "open letter" statement on Highden's website posted this week acknowledges that in the early years they did not have "the infrastructure" to support those with historic trauma who became triggered during training, but there was now "a greater focus on care and support".
"Our teaching team are also engaging in external professional development trainings to support a deeper understanding of the impact of trauma and somatic awareness."
Former facilitator Ellie Wilde is sceptical that ISTA can be reformed.
"I think it needs to be burned to the ground first. Certain people need to go and it needs to come back out of the ashes and do things a different way."
The entire "conscious sexuality" movement needed an overhaul, she said.
"I want these places to become safer for people who want to experience them - it's still important work… But if you are going to work in this area, you need to be trauma informed."
What is the International School of Temple Arts?
It claims to be a non-profit "organism" - not an organisation, "a transmission of the life force, clothed in love and expressing creatively in the world" with a vision to "expand consciousness and sexuality across the globe".
It was founded by former supplements magnate Baba Dez Nichols in 2007.
After the Phoenix Goddess Temple in Sedona was raided and closed down as a "prostitution ring" in 2011, ISTA evolved into a global "movement" with no head office.
Its "faculty" is made up of facilitators, assistants and apprentices.
A rotation of three facilitators form a "Governance Circle" and there is also a "Wisdom Circle", who can be called on for advice.
It offers courses in "spiritual, sexual and shamanic" practices at temporary "temple spaces" around the world. In November, courses will be held in Poland, Bali, Croatia, the United States, Turkey, Mexico and Costa Rica.
It has previously held courses in Auckland and Tauranga but has used Highden Temple near Palmerston North as its New Zealand base since 2017.
The 124-year-old stately manor was built for for Walter Woods Johnston, the first MP for Manawatū and was subsequently a seminary for Catholic priests for 50 years before being turned into a wedding venue and then a "mystery school and temple".
As well as being a venue for ISTA programmes, Highden Temple runs its own six-week "Temple Trainings", under the auspices of ISTA facilitator Bruce Lyon.
Where to get help:
Victim Support 0800 842 846
Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00
HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - push 0 at the menu
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) 022 344 0496