In times of scandal, remember it’s about the teachings—not the teacher.
I never studied with John Friend, although several friends got their certification from his organization. I never even met the man, short of one brief phone chat to interview him for an article. But I understand the confusion many who love Anusara yoga are experiencing now, because roughly 20 years ago, when I was training to be a yoga teacher at Integral Yoga Institute, its guru came under the same kind of fire.
Here I was, eager to learn yogic principles like nonharming and truthfulness, while Swami Satchidananda, the guru at the head of this teaching center, was being accused of harming and lying aplenty. I don’t know if the accusations were ever proven, but the disciple who claimed she’d had a longstanding, not-really-welcome sexual relationship with the supposedly celibate swami was pretty convincing. Yet I went on to become certified to teach yoga in his lineage, and, to this date, I never miss the opportunity to praise in speech or writing where that yoga has propelled me.
I credit my adoration to a swami who was leading our teacher training. As the scandal swirled, he told us he’d given the matter much thought (as someone who’d ditched up his outside life for the swami, I imagine he’d pondered it completely), and ultimately decided that one question mattered above any other. Not – Did the person do what he’s accused of? Not even – Is there an explanation for the behavior that might explain or excuse it?
The question he’d asked himself and answered affirmatively, and that I subsequently did as well, is:
Have his teachings served me?
We live in a culture that always wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many people, for example, couldn’t enjoy Chris Brown’s singing at the recent Grammy’s because of his personal-life behavior, even though his voice was lovely. But my experience with that early yoga scandal convinced me that we can appreciate what we get from a person even though they prove to be an imperfect messenger.
Swami Satchidananda was a beautiful interpreter of the yoga sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, making esoteric teachings both entertaining and relevant for a modern world in a way that continues to animate my life. Similarly, John Friend inspired many people to their highest self, especially through teachings that emphasize attitude, alignment, and right action on and off the mat. The beauty of those teachings, organized and crystallized by Friend, will always remain. It is my hope that those whose lives have been elevated by his messages always remain in their lofty place, regardless of what recently transpired.
Meryl Davids Landau is a certified yoga teacher and the author of the spiritual women’s novel Downward Dog, Upward Fog, which was recommended by the Yoga Journal, YogaDork and Everything Yoga blogs, and is the current book club pick for the Goodreads Yoga Folks group. Foreword Reviews calls the novel “an inspirational gem that will appeal to introspective, evolving women.” Read excerpts here. Meryl also writes for O: the Oprah Magazine, Whole Living, Reader’s Digest and other national magazines.