Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis: John Friend, founder of Anusara yoga, re: Darren Rhodes, Christina Sell, Elena Brower—& lineage in America.
I’m honored to receive John Friend’s first statement about the seemingly sudden departure of three of Anusara yoga’s most senior teachers, all in the course of a week. It’s been pretty earthquakingly big news for the yoga community, and rather upsetting for many in the yoga world.
Tempest in the teapot? Much ado about nothing? Yes, but…the notion of lineage and how he and we handle it is vital to longterm health of real yoga.
And that’s big.
For those of us “on the outside,” it’s still fascinating—how does yoga, or any tradition for that matter, evolve and remain strong and deeply rooted, with integrity, in the modern West?
Can we communicate about difficult times both openly and without rancor?
As you’ll see below, I found John to be willing to be both specific and clarifying. That’s not an easy feat—to be specific without causing turmoil, and clarifying without coming off as too positive or suppressing criticism.
At the end you’ll find a link to a simple offering poem of blessing to Elena Brower, Christina Sell and Darren Rhodes. ~ Waylon Lewis, ed.
Waylon Lewis, to John Friend:
There’s so many questions. As a journalist and truth-seeker I of course want to ask real questions [not just do a fluff love n’lightey PR piece]. That said, it’s none of our business, quite literally.
But the many people who know about Anusara want to understand…such a big change brings up questions, fears, many of them valid. Openness dispels myths or gossip. Though of course we can never make everyone happy.
Above: John Friend & members of the Anusara yoga community: Weekend Workshop, San Francisco 2010. Photographer Nancy Dionne.
So: to begin at the beginning: for those who maybe do a yoga class here and there, but aren’t “in” any scene or community, what’s going on? I understand three of your senior teachers have resigned or moved on, shoved off to another shore, all within a week or thereabouts?
Yes, 3 top level certified Anusara yoga teachers resigned within the last week.
Without any context or insight into this matter it might seem like there may be negative turmoil in the Anusara kula.
However, I have been in regular communication with these 3 teachers, who are also my long-time friends, and this was a move to maintain their own personal integrity and the integrity of Anusara yoga. All three of these teachers have evolved their own styles over time, and now are wishing to be artistically independent.
This is exactly what I did when I branched away from Iyengar Yoga 14 years ago and founded Anusara yoga.
Essentially, every yoga school and style is distinguished by its philosophical view (darshana) and its methodology.
With these three teachers there grew personal differences of philosophy with Anusara yoga over the years.
So, to be truthful they could no longer use the name Anusara yoga to describe the philosophy or the technique that they were teaching.
We all openly talked about it, and so we are supporting each other in our own unique yoga styles.
One of our many readers who sent me questions…asked if there could be or would be a sort of Anusara Emeritus status for such teachers no longer directly involved or fully involved but who had deep roots or connections, friendship with your kula [community] or path, the Anusara tradition?
Yes, if a certified teacher decides to resign or I suspend a license, then the teacher is always welcome to proudly say that they were highly trained in the Anusara yoga school and that they earned a teaching certificate from me. That fact is forever, and the teacher should be proud of that accomplishment since Anusara yoga certification is considered the most rigorous of all hatha [physical] yoga teaching certification programs in the world.
They will always be considered friends of Anusara [and] to me unless they chose not to be.
Also, I have a category of “Anusara-Inspired” for teachers who want to be affiliated at a good standard, but not at a level of a certified teacher.
So: elephant’s mission is to help be an open forum for uplifted dialogue—whether we all disagree or agree is less important that that we can all be respectful. My general goal with this conversation is to get the “real scoop” out there, or at least what you feel comfortable talking about, not so that we can engage in gossip—but rather to clarify and dispel gossip.
Lineage is vital to the continuance of Buddhism, which I grew up in, as it is in Yoga. But even moreso in yoga in the West—it’s been huge business and there’s hundreds of studios and dozens of new traditions, if not hundreds [so lineage is vital to maintain integrity]. I think many of us are looking to you, as well as to Elena [Brower, one of the senior teacher who recently announced her departure from Anusara] and the others, as to how this “episode” or “situation” can help show us how to resolve such evolving differences in an open, kind, free but well-defined manner.
Has this been hard for you, emotionally, to see three dear friends and students leave?
Is it hard as a business (I use that word with respect—all yoga teachers want to live sustainable lives with “abundance” as many of you call it).
So will Elena, Darren, Christina be Anusara-inspired or some sort of formal title like that? Seems like it’s a huge part of their path.
With all honesty I have actually been very happy and excited for this new cycle for all of us. I am still friends with these teachers and I expect to be in open communication with them in working together to positively expand the teachings of yoga worldwide for many years to come.
Of course, any significant change in relationship brings a sweet sad pain, yet I am using the intensity of these feelings to help bring stronger unity and harmony to the whole Anusara community.
It provides a good opportunity for me and our kula to refine and clarify the philosophy and method of Anusara, so this then leads to a greater integrity in the name of our school.
Nice. I often feel that way in terms of challenges and confusions that arise within elephant’s growth as a (media) community—that they’re all opportunities to wake up and refine and learn.
Elena, Darren and Christina will certainly have their own styles now independent of Anusara yoga, so they won’t license the tradename, “Anusara-Inspired”. At the same time, I am sure that they will use some of the Anusara method as a basis of their style.
That is part of the evolution. Yet, the philosophy and method that they are now teaching will be distinctive from the Anusara yoga school of hatha yoga.
I should say that my teacher here in Boulder over the years, though I’m a bad, bad student, Richard Freeman, has seen many of his senior teachers “leave” so they could teach non-Ashtanga based yoga in their classes. So this sort of exodus or “moving on” happens in many communities.
It is up to each of us to be honorable of our past and our lineage. It is important to give credit, honor, and praise to the gifts from the paths of our lives.
And, it is honorable to clearly distinguish oneself so that we are not unfairly or improperly representing ourself with a group name in order to personally advance when we do not align with that group in fundamental ways.
This one actually comes from your colleague, my friend, Katrina: “Can you speak to your own evolution as a teacher? You left Iyengar yoga to follow you own heart, which eventually lead to the creation Anusara yoga. What does this say about the natural evolution of a teacher? Does it imply that at some point in their own evolution, that every teacher will branch off?”
In my own case, in the early 1990’s I was expanding my career as a nationally-recognized Iyengar yoga teacher.
However, I had met Gurumayi Chidvilasananda in 1989 and my yogic philosophical viewpoint changed. So, by 1995 I was no longer teaching the philosophy that was fundamental to Iyengar Yoga, and therefore I resigned to be honorable and dharmic.
I still honor Iyengar Yoga and Mr. Iyengar, and I will clearly tell students about some of the specific gifts that I received from that school of hatha yoga.
At the same time, I focus on the blend of Shiva-Shakti Tantrik philosophy and the Universal Principle of Alignment of Anusara yoga, which clearly distinguishes Anusara from other styles of hatha yoga.
So, a student can evolve to a point along their path where the characteristics of his or her own style of yoga are now significantly different from the direction (name) of the path that they had followed for some time. So, their path is a new direction and thereby a new name, so everyone can be clear about what style is being promoted and respresented.
Right, makes sense. But is this a financial consideration? I understand that Anusara, it seems fairly in principle (I don’t know the details), requires students who use Anusara‘s name, platform, site or books or DVDs or teaching programs have to pay 20%.
Is it that these teachers are “big enough” that they don’t want to pay it, they don’t “need” the Anusara brand? In other words, is this about business? Or is this, as Christina and Elena alluded, about dharma—differences in [spiritual] path.
Good question…There is a licensing of the Anusara yoga name for teachers who met a certain level of standard in their teaching. The essential reason for any licensing of a tradename is to help maintain integrity and quality control in the marketplace. Anyone taking a class from a certified Anusara yoga teacher anywhere in the world can expect a certain high standard. Because of licensing the name of Anusara over the last 14 years, it has greatly helped to give students confidence in the name on a global level.
Part of the requirement for licensing is a nominal annual fee. Any Anusara yoga products that a licensed teacher produces has a 10% royalty incurred since we help to distribute that product, which always provides more than 10% return to the teacher. So, there can be a financial benefit to being a licensed Anusara yoga teacher because the method is in high demand by our many students worldwide.
If a teacher chooses to go on their own, it is fundamentally because of differences in philosophy and / or methodology, not because they can make a lot more money!
Okay. I should point out that similar sorts of trades exist in my Buddhist community…local Shambhala centers for example support the mothership, the capitol so to speak, and the center or capitol supports the satellite centers a great deal.
Of course, this model is throughout history and time…it works. It is the village concept: Sangham, kula…
So: one recurring question or frustration was eloquently (actually, not eloquently at all) put by a community member I ran into just before talking with you at my local grocery store, Alfalfa’s. He said he eagerly went to read what was going on so he could understand, and (he was referring to Elena’s letter or comment, or both) was frustrated by the love n’light and thank yous but no specifics.
Many people share this frustration, and the articles on elephant have been no more specific. Everyone seems to be saying “it’s all good! it’s all love!”
Is this just spin, politics? I mean, these were major leaders within your kula or community? Can we talk about this evolution or change frankly?
Yes, the resigning teachers have been kind and gracious in their resignations.
Both Darren and Christina told me that they are now devotees of Lee Lozowick and so they are focusing on teaching his dharma instead of the dharma of Anusara yoga. That is specific enough I suppose for now. Students will have to now go to their classes and find out what the philosophy of Lee Lozowick is all about.
Elena told me that she does not teach Shiva-Shakti Tantra nor does she follow all of the princiiples of the Anusara yoga methodology, so it was not honest of her to use the name to represent what she is teaching.
I thought all of their reasons were perfectly valid and honorable.
Thanks for your bold clarity. It’s helpful and clarifying.
So, there really is no bad blood between any of us, nor any “falling out”. It is simply a matter of integrity. So, it will be up to the former Anusara yoga teachers to clarify their new methods. It would also not be honorable to continue to teach a method with a high degree of fidelity and yet never give the method or school any credit or support.
Interestingly, none of the teachers who resigned said they disagreed with a single element of the Shiva-Shakti Tantra or the Anusara method. They all simply said that they are not teaching the method so it would be false to advertise as such.
I thought that it was a very dharmic act on their part to make that statement and then resign. I was proud of each of them as former students since it showed good ethics in my view.
Right. Sad, but ethical and clear. So that seems good.
Any reason about the timing?
Darren Rhodes recently published a yoga book and wanted it and all other yoga products that he is creating to be independent of Anusara. So, I think that he had to make a dharmic decision about his professional affiliation since the book was just released. Darren’s resignation was supported by Christina on the same day.
Once he resigned, then Christina, his very close friend and fellow Lee devotee, followed suit.
Elena told me that Christina’s resignation spurred her to re-look at what she was teaching, and it was then that she determined that it was not Anusara.
Honestly this feels like a situation to me of, as the Karmapa in Tibetan Buddhism used to like to say, “Nothing Happens.” No drama. Or not much, in reality.
Yes, I teach and live opening to the full spectrum of things—suffering, adharmic ugliness…and yet having an allegiance to the goodness, beauty and love in the world. Being inquisitive, respectful, and seeking harmony is what I also align with.
I agree with that, you’ve always been fun, happy, positive and hopeful but still grounded and frank with me.
But the articles by your students, and by the departing people, seem really vague and positive, and many of the comments seem vague and positive…like folks don’t feel comfortable being simple and straightforward—as you yourself have been with me so far in this conversation: you’ve offered far more detail without drama in a situation that might seem on the face of it to be bad for you to talk about. So that’s leadership or a good example for all of us right there: we don’t need to be love n’lightey, that’s not real “Grace”.
One frustrated question from a elephant community member:
“Why don’t the people leaving feel free to openly discuss the actual philosophical or operational differences they have with Anusara. Why off limits? All reports so far are mostly sweetness and light “Everything is so wonderful we’re divorcing” pablum. These people were married to Anusara. What the difference between their approach to announcing this and political “spin”? I would say none. I’m not saying has to be rancorous, because it probably isn’t. But right now it all seems very ungenuine and false. Looking for a little truth & light instead of image politics.”
So…many folks out there seem to fall into two camps: 1) being super-positive about everything, almost Stepford wife-ish…looking on the bright side, no curiosity about what happens…and then others are judgmental, cynical.
I’d love for this, instead, to be a lesson for all of us that we can be inquisitive and questioning and respectful, not gossipy or drama-enjoying, but still clear about facts and how to improve or change as we go. Seems like you’re being clear with me and learning, changing as you go, refining the Anusara system and how it works as a business or brand.
Yes, communication has been a bit vague and positive since that is what Darren and Christina have said so far about the dharma of Lee Lozowick and how it differs from Anusara yoga.
It seems that maybe there is an expectation that people divorce between of some deep conflict in the relationship. However…
I think that it is possible that people can shift and evolve their viewpoints in different directions without conflict or negative feelings.
That’s a beautiful example for all of us and pull-out quote if it’s really true. Now that you’ve spoken I’m sure also everyone will be more relaxed about being open and transparent and positive, all at once.
Yes, and it is not my place to speak for any former teacher about the specifics of their own view and method. I am simply relaying some agreed upon facts with the teachers about why they choose to go on their own.
Perhaps this is a prana / apana kind of thing but, here’s another question from an Anusara yoga student: “Anusara has some pretty strict boundaries for its teachers (especially with the new approval being needed from the Anusara office for every media product produced by teachers and not being allowed to teach other styles), but we also teach about freedom and expansion. It also seems that many Anusara teachers or aspiring teachers are confused by the strict boundaries but teachings [about freedom].”
Part II of that question: “This overlaps into the philosophy world…Why did John bring Paul Muller Ortega in to teach his meditations when they do not represent acceptance of different ideas and methods as Douglas’s teachings do? It seems as though we have all been taught to find and trust the teacher within, but now we are told that we need to be initiated by a specific teacher (guru) in order to really learn to meditate. What am I missing? Does this have to do with why teachers are leaving?”
I should say that I don’t know anything about the above, but that in my Buddhist tradition we do commit to a particular path…doesn’t mean we can’t practice, say, Zen, or study Zen, but that we walk and complete and teach a particular path. This sort of commitment can be strange to Western students, perhaps.
“Strict booundaries” is a relative concept. Since 2002 it has been in the licensing agreement for an Anusara yoga teacher to get approval to produce yoga products using the tradename Anusara yoga. I am also making the presumption that if you want to be a licensed Anusara yoga teacher then you want to teach and distribute yoga teachings that are representative of Anusara yoga. So, I do not think that the requirements to use the Anusara name are overly strict or unfair.
Sounds good to me. If I want to use the Anusara name or brand, what I’m offering needs to be Anusara.
That is all. Simple, clean, honest.
Then a student who wants to take an Anusara yoga out of town can be confident in what they will be presented in that class…
Yes. You’re building something that I have been feeling like is lacking in yoga in the West…a sense of continuity or lineage so that quality teachings will be passed down generation upon generation. I wrote about that concern recently.
Yes, tradition and continuity of knowledge provides the platform to go to the next level in the upward spiral of consciousness embodiment.
I am not sure I understand [part II of the] comment…
I think he’s basically asking why they have to learn and practice one particular meditation method, as taught by PMO….as opposed to Douglas’ view, which is more open of various traditions?
There is no one particular meditation technique in Anusara yoga.
Okay then maybe it’s more a question about PMO being focused on one path instead of many?
Sounds like the person thinks that Douglas Brooks is more open than PMO to various paths. I disagree.
So…what we have here if a focused effort by yourself to create a clear path. A brand that’s also a spiritual path. We’ve talked before about how making a decent living is something all of us want to do…so I don’t see a problem with the “brand” aspect, we’re all in the world, not above it.
Those who don’t want to teach that path or practice that path, that’s fine, maybe sad, but they need to be clear about what they want to teach. If it’s consistent with Anusara, then they’re part of your community. If not, then they’re welcome to, with love all around, move on.
Right, it is just one spoke in the wheel. It is only one of many paths. And the path has clear delineations, so it can be more easily followed.
I am not saying that it is the highest path or the best path. It is just a clear path that will help to bring the student freedom.
Right…everyone is free to come and go. If you want to use the name Anusara yoga to teach classes, then that is fantastic and then are clear stipulations of our professional relationship.
To wrap up.
It seems that you’re doing a lot: you’re both yoga teacher, and spiritual leader in some sense, and business CEO all at once.
And what you’re doing is trying to create a clear system of teachings and a strong, joyful, supportive community with clear guidelines so they can walk that path.
My major concern or fear has been that “popular yoga” is too often exercise…with a little feeling of spirituality, but that’s it. And that’s fine.
But in-depth yoga, a path that involves meditation, that’s focused on stilling the waves of the mind, that involves more than a 2-week teacher training, that involves studying and practicing diligently for decades…seems to be fading.
So it seems like you’re trying to create a strong lineage (or brand, from a business pov) that’s consistent and offers quality, depth. What are you trying to do, generally, in refining what Anusara is and what it offers? Are you thinking about what Anusara and yoga generally will look like and offer in a generation, or two, or 10?
My focus with Anusara has always been to make it in-depth, refined, sophisticated, and incredibly effective…with impeccable integrity. I also have seen a lot of popular yoga being too often exercise-oriented, so I have given special focus on the spiritual motivation of the practice.
I have consciously set up the system and the refining curriculum of Anusara yoga to sustain high quality yoga teaching and practice for many future generations.
Thanks, John, on behalf of elephant’s readers, for your time. Hope I did an okay job of offering you a forum to clarify and communicate. We just passed the biggest yoga site in August in readership, so hopefully your clarifying answers will get out there pretty well. As a final “treat” for our readers, yesterday being Samhain—this conversation about honoring lineage and teachers seems appropriate—would you offer a brief haiku or poem or heartsong (in Tibetan, doha) for your friends Darren, Christina and Elena?
Waylon, thank you so much for this conversation. I am hoping it will help show people that there is a positive shift happening in the yoga world.
Well, it showed me that. Really made a lot of sense.
Ya, this is not suger-coating anything…that is the reality of what is happening in my world.
There is pain of change, but certainly no suffering. Things are better than ever in many ways.
Personally, I admire how you don’t seem to feel sorry for yourself when there’s all this criticism, doubt or controversy. I get a lot of criticism (I earn it, I’m sure) with elephant and it’s hard on me, sometimes. I keep going, though. Beaver of Prana and I sat down recently and he said “It’s the ones who don’t quit who get to contribute to the greater good.” Really helped me keep going.
Gassho, sir. thanks for your continuous cheerful exertion. Happy Samhain!
Thank you so much. Happy Samhain.
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