A Plea for Balance & Compassion.

Via on Feb 21, 2012

To all of us who have been commenting on the “Anusaragate” scandal:

Hi, I’m Benjy Wertheimer.

In the interest of disclosure, I have been connected to Anusara since 2000, and toured with John for years, playing live music for dozens of his events.

Thus one might say I am a member of the group “they” or “them.” I would probably fall somewhere between the cracks of the groups described by Elena – I had some of my own difficulties with John, concerns about the “detox/retox” phenomenon I saw (especially in recent years), yet was not close enough to see (and, in fairness, not open-eyed enough to discern) many of the highly questionable inner workings of John Friend and Anusara as they are now coming to light.

I am not beholden to Anusara or any particular system of Hatha yoga practice. I do think, from watching thousands of practitioners experience a great deal of benefit over the years, that the fundamentals of the Hatha yoga system of Anusara are really extraordinary and it would be extremely sad (and unnecessarily destructive) to “throw the baby out with the bath water” in the wake of this scandal.

And I want to make clear that I do not say this to disparage any other system of Hatha yoga practice out there. I think it is great to be alive at a time (and in a culture) where people have a wide range of systems to choose from, and to find an approach that resonates with us the most deeply.

As I said in my recent elephant post “An Open Letter to the Anusara Community,”

“I do hope there will be a forum in the not-too-distant future where the allegations can publicly be put forward succinctly, clearly and in as unbiased a way as possible (understanding that the charges cover very difficult terrain, spiritually and emotionally), and that John would be given the opportunity to fully and honestly respond to each and every one of them. In the meantime, it is not my place to stand in judgment. “

All that said, it saddens me greatly to see the labeling, ad hominem attacks, and generally vitriolic tone emerging from much of this discussion (on Huffington Post as well as elephant). I want to know the truth of the situation as much as anyone, yet it saddens me that many of the comments are feeding what I feel is one of the greatest enemies humans face: polarization.

As an example, these excerpted comments disturbed me greatly:

“emotionally retarded, over-priveledged (sic) white women who also happen to be “life-coaches” who teach “yoga”.”

“…these people were just insider rats who started deserting the sinking ship when they felt the stinking bilge-water rise to their knees?

This whole thing is disgusting.

And yet on their FB group pages, they just continue to stroke and back-pat one another, love love love, stroke stroke stroke.

Gross.”

(A note here: I would encourage thinking about the people on the FB group pages as humanly fallible, complex, and often confused people reaching out to one another in a very painful time–can’t we grant that much to each other?)

“mealy-mouthed and disingenuine (sic). She needs a good de-programmer.”

“Fuzzy, weird, narcississtic, intellectually flabbly (sic), untrustworthy people.”

“I think we have a pretty good idea what kind a person Ms. Elena is !”

“I don’t think it’s “we.” It’s THEY. I had know (sic) part in this, and many many did not. THEY put Anusara and JF up on a pedestal and demonized anyone who dare criticize. Now, When people rightfully criticize people’s ACTIONS, we’re accused of demonizing them, b/c that’s the long-standing black-and-white thinking within the culture.”

(Another note here: I agree that there has been–and likely still is–a lot of black-and-white thinking in Anusara, and I will be overjoyed to see that change.)

“What a spoiled brat sense of entitlement.

The AY folks need to grow and and (sic) learn to face the fires they’ve started.”

Please, folks. It’s not “us” and “them.” A lot of people–inside and outside of any particular connection to Anusara–are hurting a lot. We aren’t going to bring this to a more satisfying conclusion by labeling or demonizing one another. Yes, I think it’s critical to rethink the black-and-white model that was fostered in Anusara. Yes, it’s very important to get at the truth – leaving no stone unturned in the process.

And healthy, honest disagreement will definitely play a huge role in facilitating this quest.

But just as important–to me–is that we do so with balance, compassion and a recognition of our common membership in the larger human family. May we reach out to one another with a level of compassion that matches our intense desire to get at the truth.

With love and respect to all of us in this discussion,

Benjy Wertheimer

~

Editor: Kate Bartolotta

About Benjy Wertheimer

Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Benjy Wertheimer is an award-winning musician, composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist equally accomplished on tabla, congas, percussion, esraj, guitar, and keyboards. Benjy has toured and recorded with such artists as Krishna Das, Deva Premal and Miten, Jai Uttal, Walter Becker of Steely Dan, virtuoso guitarist Michael Mandrell, and renowned bamboo flute master G. S. Sachdev. He has also opened for such well-known artists as Carlos Santana, Paul Winter, and Narada Michael Walden. Benjy is a founding member of the internationally acclaimed world fusion ensemble Ancient Future. / Beginning his musical studies at age 5, starting with piano and later violin and flamenco guitar, Benjy has studied Indian classical music for over 25 years with some of the greatest masters of that tradition including Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, Ali Akbar Khan and Z. M. Dagar. Along with the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, Benjy was a contributing composer and member of the Zakir Hussain Rhythm Experience. / For over five years, Benjy scored music for the internationally syndicated NBC series Santa Barbara. His CD Circle of Fire reached #1 on the international New Age radio charts in 2002. Now living in Portland, Oregon, he now tours around the world leading kirtan with his wife Heather (as the duo Shantala). / www.benjymusic.com.

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50 Responses to “A Plea for Balance & Compassion.”

  1. Scott Newsom says:

    Well said. The vitriol gets in the way of the hard work that needs to be done just as much as the denial, misdirected blaming and failure to take responsibility (which is what mist people seem to be most upset about) does.

  2. Bryan says:

    Benjy, this is just a wonderful perspective. Thank you.

  3. matt says:

    Benjy, I disagree about the tone. I think it's a healthy path for people to have a place to get it all out. To vent their emotions, frustrations and disappointments. This is the Arab Spring of our little world here, man. At least they're not chasing John or any of his insider cronies into a storm drain in the middle of the hot Libyan desert.

    • Thanks for your input, Matt … there's definitely something to be said for catharsis, for "having a place to get it all out."

      But is it really necessary to call each other names, reduce one another to a group such as "emotionally retarded, over-privileged white women who also happen to be 'life-coaches' who teach 'yoga'?"

      Or, as was recently written in the Huffington Post, posting unclear/unsubstantiated allegations as "news" (e.g., the as-yet-unproven claim that John Friend would engage is "ritualistic sex with just about anyone who might find the pudgy 52-year-old an appealing bed mate") ?

      I think not … to me such characterizations and smears are simply (and unnecessarily) destructive and hurtful. At times I think publicly sharing this level of vitriolic venting hurts the writers as well … as Mark Twain said, "Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it's stored than to anything on which it's poured."

      And I of course deeply and respectfully agree with your last point – I am grateful indeed that none of this has descended into physical violence ….

      Thanks again for sharing your perspective, Matt – much appreciated!

  4. Rose says:

    Very well said Benjy. I considered myself involved in the sense that this is happening within the yogic community. My girlfriend said, "a rift has happened in the yoga community and perhaps we should all sit down and have an open an honest discussion." Blogs like this go a very long way towards making that happen.
    Tha being said, it would be wonderful if we all could look to our yogic practices to facilitate open communication. There has been a lack of ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truthfulness) going on in this situation and it is about for some transparancy. The only way to end the seemingly endless cycle of abuse is to acknowledge when we have been wrong and to apologize to those we have hurt.

    • benjywertheimer says:

      Beautifully said, Rose … I agree that ahimsa and satya have not been guiding principles in much of the discussion to date. And I often find myself wondering why it often seems to be so difficult to say that we are wrong …

  5. SQR says:

    As I've said on other comment threads, your voice is one of sanity and reason in a time when the opposite seems in fashion. There's a "CB radio" quality to these internet blog comments that I find a bit disturbing, but, like channel 19, there's also a decent number of folks with basic respect for others.

    My personal hope is the numerous teachers who’ve invested so heavily in Anusara can form something sustainable and move forward. The “product” would then be less about any one "leader", and more about the stuff that’s helped so many people. Despite the hot water Mr Friend is in, the community he started has spread a lot more goodwill than one might think from reading blog comments online. Therein lies a possible path…

    • benjywertheimer says:

      SQR, I really feel that there is an immense amount of good available from the groundwork already laid, and it's also abundantly clear that SIGNIFICANT change in the organization must occur to allow that goodwill to spread (and lend credibility to the teachers that continue to offer the teachings.

      Thanks for your kind words about my offerings!!

      • SQR says:

        No worries, mate… I look at these forums a bit like the syndicated right-wing AM radio talk shows- lots of fear, hatred and ignorance thrown around, but probably not representative of the country in general. As silly as some of the comments are, it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of people practicing yoga don’t care about the politics- if they get classes that help them along while preventing injuries it's all good. Regardless of one's position on "capitalism" and yoga, John Friend did manage to come up with a system to give students just that.

  6. Tanya Lee Markul says:

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  7. Matt says:

    Benjy,

    You are a true gentleman.

  8. Jill says:

    You should be asking why so many people reacted like they did to Elena's post and John's actions. With a 90% negative comments on EJ, Huff and YD, you would be more effective in digger deeper for the truth instead of branding the commenters as, "us versus them". That's you interpretation. Dig deeper Benjy, people are no longer going to blindly follow teachers or be seduced by their flowery yoga speak.

  9. lynne says:

    I think that when a community or "kula" over years and years gives off indications to other parts of the larger yoga community that it is hmmm let's say elitist, separate and their "own island"– this is the reaction that is created when all of sudden they decide that they want to be "part of the larger community"

    • benjywertheimer says:

      Indeed … as I have been touring over the past decade this is something I have noticed, and frequently the word "elitist" would come up when Anusara was mentioned (and, I must admit, other terms such as "arrogant" and "superior.").

      What I am hoping to do (with this post, with my offerings in general) is to reach out to all of us who belong to a larger community … the community of everyone on the human path seeking a deeper connection to consciousness, to transformation, to our highest potential.

      That said, it is also utterly understandable that there might be significant reluctance to include the Anusarians in the larger community on the part of those who felt excluded until things hit the fan. I would be very surprised if it were otherwise.

      It is my hope that, over time, these divisions could heal … that trust and faith in our higher aspirations could trump the wounds of the past.

      Many thanks for your insights, Lynne!

  10. SAL says:

    It's a bit worrying that you're so invested in tamping down those who are unhappy with the situation, as if it's a personal attack on you. Dissension and truth telling are very important; if Anusara folk had spoken out years earlier, JF and the Anusarians would not be in the situation you/they are in now. There's an element of revisionism/silencing/shaming about speaking out that speaks to the environment that JF created, I think.

    • benjywertheimer says:

      Thanks, SAL, for offering your perspective here. No one would agree more than I that dissension and truth-telling are important, and I have no doubt in my mind that had the ethos of honest dissension been part of the ethos of Anusara, much of what is unfolding now could have been avoided. Kudos to you for pointing this out so clearly.

      I will admit to a large idealistic streak in my character (OK,I'll be honest … I'm really glad I have it) that has motivated me to write these posts. Some might call me naive, and it wouldn't be the first time – I'm sure I have a pretty big dose of that in my constitution as well. But I do want to be VERY clear about my intention here.

      I have NO desire to tamp anything down other than the disrespectful tone, reduction to stereotype, or ad hominem/straw man arguments I have seen… I believe ADAMANTLY that one can speak out in anger and frustration with eloquence, respect and absolute clarity. Gandhi in particular comes to mind. It takes a little more time than venting, to be sure … but I am a great believer in the power of words to cause unnecessary harm.

      As for it being a personal attack on me, I'll sit with that for a while. I appreciate you bringing this perspective to light … thank you. I do not want to share in this forum from a stance of defensiveness.

      There's no doubt that I am saddened that many people I care deeply about are going through a lot of pain because of this. And I couldn't agree more with you about revisionism, silencing and shaming in the environment I experienced … it reminds me of something I often heard as a child: "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all."

      Such a statement is almost a definition of silencing and shaming someone for their true feelings. But my point, once again, is that there are several ways to communicate such feelings, and the choices we make about how we convey them can be the difference between (a) doing harm or offering useful feedback and (b) facilitating the reluctance or willingness of the listener to really hear the message.

      Many thanks again for posting here … I am not asking to silence anyone, simply respectfully requesting that we all say our piece with as much respect for one another as possible. And i understand that it can be a very difficult thing to do when we've seen egregious unethical actions, violations of trust, and are in the midst of painful situations such as the one before us now.

  11. Etienne says:

    It may be really hard for the AY folks to hear how disgusted the larger yoga community has beenwith them, for a long time, but they should hear it. They should hear it, in all its roughness. They should take it seriously.
    They're being brought down to earth and reminded that their shit stinks too, mate. It ain't pretty, but it's needed. Step back and let it roll, man. It's a long time coming.

    • benjywertheimer says:

      I hear you, Etienne. Loud and clear. The level of disgust needs to be heard.

      As I pointed out elsewhere, it is my hope that this disgust can be conveyed in a way that makes it more likely that it will REALLY be heard from a non-defensive stance, and that constructive change can emerge as a result. Yes … being reminded that our shit stinks too is an important lesson – because it's absolutely true in so many ways – but I'm coming from a place of hoping that the form of the message allows it to be fully heard and acted upon, not just reacted to.

      I appreciate you taking the time to post your thoughts – thanks!!

  12. Emily Perry says:

    Thank you for working to bring peace and calm to the situation. We can be critical without crossing the line, and we can bring compassion to the way we react and speak. Thank you for sharing!

  13. Saskia says:

    Thank you Benji! It's empowering to remember that how we react to situations says a lot about how we 'are' on the inside.

  14. Bob Keaty says:

    Much needed healing words Benjy, Thank you.

    I'm not sure that we should place such importance or high hopes on 'the truth' coming out, however. Much of what went on will probably remain in the dark and I anticipate accusation and counter-accusations to continue, maybe forever. We will never know what went on in JF's head or in the hearts and minds of people who indulged him by participating or just keeping silent. There will be a number of narratives coming out of this and we will select which one to tell and believe in.

    Life goes on and we move forward: I see this experience as bringing my little part of the kula closer together. The sadness and disappointment can be used to soften the heart and open us up to the love that binds us all together, to remind us of why we practice yoga and why we surround ourselves with the kula. For me, that is enough. It has been quite a long time since I was enamored with any strong leader: JF was no exception because I did not recognize a doorway of vulnerability in him that would have allowed a deeper connection to develop. I hope the nasty tone calms down because Mark Twain was right: the acid of hatefulness does most harm to our own humanity.

    • Etienne says:

      Ha! Mark Twain also said, Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.
      He said, Every house shouldhave a roomto curse in.
      It looks like EJ needs one!
      Twain would have little truck with all this bullshit. He knew the Gilded Age in his own time, and he would recognize the yoga world now as a spiritual Gilded Age, and John Friend ans a robber baron.
      Just check out his excoriations of the Christian Scientists.
      Wrong thinker and writer to quote, dude.
      What I see in this is you just want to stay in the tiny world you've chosen, have a big cry and hug together. And get even smaller.
      My hope for the yoga world is that it will clean up, toughen up, grow up, and open up.

      • benjywertheimer says:

        Hello again, Etienne!

        Interesting points … one of them being having a room to curse in! Perhaps that's a big part of what I'm after – a room in which we curse, fully vent and dive into catharsis …

        But does that room need to be a public forum? A truly worldwide public forum? Could we distill from our full expression those elements that might, given a little reflection, help to move things into a direction we want more?

        Speaking for myself, I would love to have a hug and cry with many people I know who have been impacted by this. Yup, spot on.

        But from there I would hope to expand, not shrink. To reach out, not retrench. Because I believe that is the path I would try to take in my efforts to clean up, toughen up, grow up, and open up ….

        Thanks for your clarity – much appreciated.

      • elephantjournal says:

        Etienne, we've now published at least 50 articles, mostly critical. You're welcome to contribute. I think what Benjy is asking for is dialogue, not invective. There's certainly no benefit to suppressing any controversy in mindful communities.

  15. Shell says:

    Benjy, you need to dig deeper for the truth. To brush aside the remarks of over 90% of the comments made against John and Elena, you are letting an opportunity to grow, pass you by. The yoga world is waking up and glittery yoga talk is going to be the first fatality. The 99% of the yoga world is waking up!

    • benjywertheimer says:

      Thanks for taking the time to post, Shell.

      To be clear, I have NO desire to brush anything aside, I only want to be a voice calling for respectful communication.

      As I posted before, I have a burning desire to get at the truth, though the realist in me isn't sure that it will ever really happen.

      May we all wake up … that's certainly what brought me to the practice of yoga in the first place!

  16. Excellent post Benjy. Did you have a chance to read my perspective, as a devoted student? I was striving for balance and compassion. Hope I succeeded: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/02/i-still-lo

  17. gail says:

    Beautifully said and absolutely, IMO, right on target. Also, just what I needed to read this morning. I am all for truth and disclosure, but name calling and polarization will not lead to a shared vision, which I believe people are searching for right now. BTW, I am a huge fan, love you, love your music, love your spirit. Thank you so much for helping us work this through in a constructive, positive way.

  18. benjywertheimer says:

    Beautifully put, Bob. I know that I'm very emotionally invested t in knowing "the truth" – and that it likely will never fully come to light. Who knows what kind of "closure" will ever be found here …

    Yes, it is my prayer that the nasty tone calms down (though I definitely understand why it's there) … that's what motivated me to post. Thanks again so much for chiming in!

  19. lauraplumb says:

    Thank you for great Yogic leadership here, Benjy. It is a wonderful reminder of your grace and compassion. Now when do we get to see/hear you and Heather live again in San Diego?

    • benjywertheimer says:

      Many thanks for your kind words, Laura! I find myself hoping both that the invective can decrease AND people in the Anusara world can hear some important things that are being said about how to be more inclusive of – and less removed from – the larger community of yoga.

      As I mentioned above, many people I've encountered on my travels have perceived "Anusarians" as being elitist, even arrogant and "superior." I'd love to see that change…

      As for your question, we'll be in Encinitas (at Jyoti Mandir) on Tuesday, May 15. Would LOVE to see you there!!

  20. Sarah Rubano says:

    Benjy, thank you so much for a refreshing & enlightened perspective. U are a good man…a beautiful example of one practicing off the mat. So important to stand strong as a community, and support each other (including John who has supported and inspired so many of us along the way). Hope to see u and ur lovely lady sometime this year. With love & respect.

    • benjywertheimer says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Sarah! It's always my hope that I can practice living with as much skill as possible … and that my practice off the mat exceeds my skills on the mat … :-)

      Hope to see you when we're in So Cal this spring … much love to you!

  21. Alan Shelton says:

    Benjy,
    Alan Shelton here. Thank you for this approach. I know that the barbs and arrows are hard to understand. It helps me to see that the level of maturity from which they spring is the entry point to the awakening path. So your article is beautiful in that it holds that doorway open. The question I ask now when I hear the disagreement about the particulars of this situation is the following: What has finding the right factual answer done for you on your path to awakening? Or, If you received your wish and John were punished exactly as you wish, how would you be internally nourished by that? For me this sort of pointer helps shine the light in the right place.

    • SQR says:

      "if John were punished exactly as you wish, how would you be internally nourished by that?"

      Well said. This cuts to the heart of the anger thing. Working from a more awakened place doesn't automatically mean condoning the offending behavior- it just means the start of a more functional response. You and I and everyone else is a living embodiment of God- the sooner we act like it and treat each other that way, the sooner our lives get better.

      • benjywertheimer says:

        SQR, the questions that Alan raises (and your statement about our being living embodiments of God) are wonderful, thought-provoking, and heart-provoking. Just the kind of elevation of the discussion I hope to see much more of.

        In gratitude,
        Benjy

  22. benjywertheimer says:

    Thanks, Carolyn!

    I too was heartbroken to see some of the invective and anger that has come out of this – that's of course why I posted. I am very moved by the story you told of the kindness and love you received from the Iyengar teacher – a blessing indeed!

    No, Anusara is not the man … nor is the community the man. I've long been very impressed with the love, spirit and talent of SO many people I've met in Anusara over the years!

    As I read more and more, however, it is my hope that many in the Anusara community can learn something (myself included, absolutely) from some of the angry posts out there … that perhaps we can see some of the ways that Anusara has, intentionally or not, distanced itself from (or somehow held itself above) the larger yoga community.

    Yes, as you say, we could really use the compassion of the larger community. But to me, just as important, is that people who see themselves as part of the Anusara kula reach out to this greater community compassionately/sympathetically/empathetically ourselves (REALLY trying to grok where people are coming from and what they feel), with an eye toward comprehending what the larger community may have itself experienced in the past …

    To my mind, doing so would be one of the best ways to heal past wounds and possibly prevent more in the future.

    Many thanks again for your heartfelt post!

    With love,
    Benjy

  23. SQR says:

    The blog post you linked to is well written and I enjoyed reading it. It seems like something EJ could run as an article- I'd like to see the points you raised get their own comment forum here.

  24. benjywertheimer says:

    Very much appreciate the way that you are framing this … and I agree with SQR that the angle you're pursuing hasn't perhaps had as much press as is warranted. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about this, and to see what comments would ensue as more people looked at this perspective.

    Many thanks!

  25. bhagat_singh says:

    Thank you for your reply and your thoughts that opened this part of the conversation. I've been very hesitant to have a 'voice' for a longer time than this issue, but feel called to speak what isn't being addressed.

    Is it inappropriate of me to ask you to suggest to Waylon – from your place as contributor here – to read my postings and link back to my original blogpost? I'm inclined to stay respectfully in the conversation, especially in light of today's announcements of Anusara's new direction and John's choices.

    Original post here, again, thanks for your voice and support. http://www.rockstaryoga.us/1/post/2012/02/compass

  26. bhagat_singh says:

    Thank you, appreciate the support. I will definitely consider holding these points in a larger conversation.

  27. benjywertheimer says:

    Bhagat, I would be more than happy to pass this on … I just took a look at the link you sent and will share that with Elephant. I believe that the business/legal implications of what happened should get more attention than they have thus far.

    I'll be honest: I think that John backpedaled a LOT in his letter. I was under the impression that he had offered at least of modicum of mea culpa, but the tone of the letter is that of a victim. I think it's true that the tone and means of breaking the story were not gentle, but I would hope that he would, after admitting that there was "some truth" to the allegations, be more willing to meet them head-on. Yes, there was anger and invective in how the allegations were brought to light, but my concern is that his current reticence is hot helping anyone, including him.

    As I said in my first post about all of this
    ( http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/02/an-open-le… ) :
    "I do hope there will be a forum in the not-too-distant future where the allegations can publicly be put forward succinctly, clearly and in as unbiased a way as possible (understanding that the charges cover VERY difficult terrain, spiritually and emotionally), and that John would be given the opportunity to fully and honestly respond to each and every one of them. In the meantime it is not my place to stand in judgment. "

    I still think that there is room for him to respond to the allegations directly, but I'm honestly less and less inclined to think that he will. I hope I'm wrong…

  28. bhagat_singh says:

    oh, thanks and praise – and wholeheartedly agree the letter is not appropriate – very passive-voiced and victimize and I even suggest a bit of 'greenwashing' in the improbable structure of becoming a 'non-profit'.

    A bit too simple to just see the 'oh, busted in the Corporate world, so Corporation Bad, Non-profit Good!. Doesn't seem very well thought out, and as Bernadette B suggest, a Steering Committee void of dissenting voices. Still seems that the camp is deeply addicted to the light and not willing to work the shadows.

    Fortunately for me right now, I'm deep in Sutras study, and I'm just getting that message, again and again – Discernment for Right Perception is essential for Clarified Attention. Give thanks and praise.

    Oh, and let's start a chat about getting you here to Austin to bless us with your music – what say you?

  29. benjywertheimer says:

    Thanks, Bhagat! I think we should continue this on a different thread … my e-mail is benjywertheimer@gmail.com. I'd love to discuss Austin and how to get you hooked up with Elephant and Waylon … he sounded quite interested in hearing your voice…

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