Grounding Anusara 2: a brief ayurvedic follow-up

Via yoga 2.0 lab
on Mar 3, 2012
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by Matthew Remski


I’ve had a number of questions about the Ayurvedic riff in my last post on the Anusara situation. I had suggested that the bio-rhythm of a corporate/transglobal spiritual culture built on air travel, resort-land heart-openings, Shringlish, and gobs of marketing wind would be intensely aggravating to vata dosha. I suggested that John Friend might do well to take up gardening and turkey-baster an ounce or two of warm ghee up his rectum every afternoon to relax the vayus and bring him down to earth. But there’s quite a bit more to say here, and I won’t be as flip.

The principle behind my suggested protocol involves “the application of opposites”. The homeless, hyper-mobile, light, fast-paced, and breathless quality of the Anusara collapse can be pacified through various expressions of warmth, weight, stillness, moisture, regular stool production, oiliness, and familial cuddling. Ayurvedic therapy begins here: identifying a central imbalance, and applying  balancing/opposing forces to existing vulnerabilities. The most precious thing I learned from my teachers was ‘There’s nothing good or bad. A thing is always good-for, or bad-for.” The technique uses any tool available to correct qualitative imbalances in diet, asana and other physical pursuits, career path, relationships, meditation experience, and even spiritual path.

But here’s the problem that Ayurveda face as it tries to re-integrate with the new streams of modern postural yoga. The therapeutic application of opposites is antithetical to a culture that markets ideas of universality and ultimacy. The very notion of “Universal Principles” implies that a single thing can be good or right for everyone. Obviously, this is not true.

Modern yoga culture is dominated by overdetermined methods and systems protected by branding and copyrighting. Branding and copyrighting amplifies a more traditional fixation upon “authenticity” and “completeness”. As those who have invested time and money and emotional ballast into the Anusara meme try to sort out the new valuation of their stake, there’s a rising chorus emerging that suggests the Method is yet pristine, still universal, embodying a preternatural authenticity and completeness. While understandable, this reification will only strengthen the root of continued commodification, as we’re starting to see with the recent “restructuring” announcements from Michal Lichtman, which don’t really restructure anything at all. I’d like to address the “completeness” claim in a post next week, and how it amplifies the bullying of spiritual marketing, but for now I’ll limit the question to: “Even if Anusara is ‘complete’ and it ‘works’ – who exactly does it work for, and how?” That’s what Ayurveda can speak to.

Here are some first thoughts:

For those with chronically miserable self-perception, the Tantric assumptions of always-already-divine and the admonition to “Look always for the good” might be encouraging, in an Adlerian sense, or from the perspective of CBT. But for those who have developed heavy patterns of emotional stuffing or splitting, too much bliss-speak might be toxic. All constitutions are vulnerable here: kaphas may use it to suppress pain, pittas may use it to deny pain, and vatas may use it to dissociate from pain.

For those who feel alienated from community and withdrawn from intimate contact, the ubiquitous backbending of Anusara might indeed “open the heart”. Gentle thoracic extension is also a smart antidote for computer-back. Great. But for those with poor boundary issues or a history of compensatory behaviour, repeated backbending might exacerbate patterns of relational sacrifice. Let’s remember that consciously opening the sternum depends upon less-conscious abdominal extension: the baring of the belly to primal vulnerability. This might not be the best action to repeat in the context of a dysfunctional power relationship with a narcissistic guru, for example. And the pace at which backbending is tackled is important in discerning the almost-invisible threshold between “opening” and retraumatizing. In another vein, for the pitta-dominant, the constant adrenal-squeezing of backbending (if not antidoted by generous kidney-looping) may over-caffeinate, overheat, and bring a fanatical edge to a practice and/or belief system. Also: we do have back-bodies, folks. That’s where the shadows be. The forward fold of surya namaskar is an invitation to the sun to illuminate what we cannot see.

For those who have been rejected by their families and micro-cultures (as Shaka McGlotten astutely pointed out in a comment to my previous post), the surrogate tribe of the kula might be very welcoming. But for those who have not even attempted to integrate their familial tensions and wounds, this surrogacy can be a grand distraction while time passes, parents age, and estrangements deepen. In Ayurveda, this can also contribute to vataaggravation, as the life-story becomes less rooted, and memories (subtle earth element, along with supportive fats) dissolve.

For those whose angst is heavy, Shri can brighten a gloomy day. But for those who are existentially naive, Shri might lobotomize. For those who are insecure, the piercing heat of this bija mantra (agni), combined with the abstractions of its meanings (akasha), can whip up a good case of vata-pushing-pitta into udana vayu. This is in fact what gives that sharp tenor edge to charismatic speech, which is heavy on insistence, but sometimes scant on balance and detail.

For those whose homebody-ism aggravates the emotional and lymphatic congestion of kapha, a weeklong retreat to the Sierra Nevadas to do vigorous vinyasa while living out of a tent can be invigorating and catalyzing. (Come to think of it, all yoga retreats should offer constitutionally appropriate lodgings: no mattress pads for kapha, lavender sachets and rosewater candies for pitta‘s bed sheets, and lots of velvety pillows and binkies for vata.) But for vata types who never quite know where home is to begin with, traveling to practice yet more flowing movement will be even more ungrounding. And watch out for constipation: added altitude (space element) and dryness (air element) can be real corkers.

For those who have felt postmodern banality obscure the natural mystery of moment-by-moment life, Tantra can re-enchant. But for bliss-ninnies so wispily enmeshed in the etheric mystery that they cannot find their apartment keys, let alone effectively help others or contribute to socio-political change, Tantra can hyper-mystify.

For those who have felt disembodied by technology, the absence of physical labour, and the general pornography of a overly-visual world, rigorous asana might be the most enlightening practice available. But for those who feel the need to discharge their neuroses into grinning repetitive movements in the frontal plane on a 2×6 rectangle of rubber, asana can be profoundly distractive from relationship.

So it all depends – even into the realm of spiritual paths. Are the aesthetics of zen appropriate for vatas? Too cold and abstracting, perhaps. Is Iyengar good for pittas? It may satisfy a need for precise accomplishment, but it can also encourage anal fanaticism. (And hot rooms? Fuhgeddaboudit.) How about bhakti and kapha? Well – if they chant heating mantras at a good clip, this can raise a good therapeutic sweat. But if they loll around singing languorous bhajans and munching on ladoos under the Ganesh murthis, both mucous and lethargic self-satisfaction can accumulate.

In newage culture, we typically encounter spiritual paths in one of two ways: through marketing, or through word-of-mouth. Both tend to feel accidental, and neither of them are intersubjective. Meaning: we encounter the path as a thing we are told we want, rather than experimenting with a loose set of ideas and their mentors as a relationship we could develop. If we had Ayurvedic guidance counselors for every city, we could set up some kind of yoga chamber-of-commerce: “No – you don’t want to go to that guy, his fire will fry out your own. Try the kapha lady down the street: she’ll chill out your pitta.” Or: “It sounds like you have a real fascination with metaphysics. Maybe you can balance that out with a nice kitcheri cooking class, or by volunteering in a homeless shelter.” The application of opposites brings us deeply to wherever our conflict lies, and doesn’t allow a spiritual path to amplify our blind spots in flesh and thought.

Word-of-mouth is a better entrée into a spiritual path than marketing, because your self-selected friends may well be constitutionally resonant with you. But straight-up marketing pulls on the worst possible strings for anyone trying to dance freely of the puppeteer: insecurity, lack, alienation, we know the deal. We’re almost never sold what we need, but what protects our unexamined pain. So it’s really hard to choose the right path. You have to know yourself really well. But you don’t at first.

You can take an online test or fly to Albuquerque to have Dr. Lad read your pulse and give you some constitutional insight, and from there start to ballpark-estimate what might be right for you. These are good starts – on opposite ends of the commitment spectrum. But neither is enough. I tell my clients and students that finding out who you are constitutionally takes about five years of self-study and experimentation, utilizing the perceptual language of elements (bhutas), moods (gunas), and humours (doshas). Of course, five years is about twice as long as most folks stay with any particular brand of spirituality these days. I would imagine that many people leaving the Anusara fold at this point have stayed just long enough to find out what they don’t need. This is perhaps as it should be. A self-announced “universal” practice can serve very well as a static touchstone for your unique responses to it. As you change, and it doesn’t, you realize the vibrancy of your life outshines any imaginable system.

The other thing that I tell my classes is that in my opinion you also don’t know who you are constitutionally until you’ve observed yourself go through a major loss. Divorce. Death in the family. Or the collapse of a community. As the Anusara dust billows, some will stay the course with either faith or denial (kapha), some will thrust and parry towards justice or out of rage (pitta), and others will fly away in the spirit of unleashed creativity or dissociative avoidance (vata). It really takes all types.

But there is one universal-ish remedy in Ayurveda for emotional loss and vata-aggravation. No media after sunset, full massage with warm sesame oil followed by light sweating, a bowl of root-veg soup for dinner, sky-gazing through your window, and then child’s pose, until you feel fully where you actually are. Child’s pose: to feel in the bones that sinking and horizontal maternality that Shringlish and hyperphallic leaders and the whine of jet engines can so easily obscure.


Matthew Remski is an author, yoga teacher, ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. Please check out my new website, where you can peak at other posts, my novels, and books of poetry. With Scott Petrie I am co-creator of yoga 2.0, a writing and community-building project. I’m also involved in the 21st century yoga project, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey.












About yoga 2.0 lab

Matthew Remski is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Yoga Teacher Trainer in Toronto. His latest book, Threads of Yoga, is gathering international acclaim. He's teaching this online course starting 1/7/14. It's currently full, but there is a reduced-tuition option for auditing. The 12 weekly lessons will be available online for six months following the course. Participants receive a 130-page manual of notes.


29 Responses to “Grounding Anusara 2: a brief ayurvedic follow-up”

  1. Pankaj Seth says:

    Thanks for this, its eminently sensible. Its not uncommon to find persons calling themselves yogis or yoga teachers who are into hyper fitness, extreme veg/vegan diet, with the consequence that Vata is very high, breath is stuck in the chest and mind is going a mile a minute. The introduction of Ayurveda is a requirement for a stable Yoga practise.

    From the Ashtanga Hrdya (Vagbhata's Ayurvedic compendium, 7th century): "Ayurveda is like a parasol which protects against the sun, wind and rain while one makes their way towards Moksha."

  2. HJCOTTON says:

    I have been practicing yoga for a long time. If you are a skillful practioner and you listen to your body and to your mood, you learn how to sequence the asana practices accordingly without too much repetition. I balance my practice between inversions, backbends, standing poses, forward bends, twists and arm balances. I do more long holds and cooling practices during the summer months. I am for one can't do backbends or vinyasas in the evening as they overstimulate my nervous system. I think that jives nicely with Ayurveda, and it doesn't take rocket science.

  3. max Johanson says:

    Wonderfully written, subtly humorous, and embracing of a wider view by far of any analyses of Anusara I've read. Thanks.

  4. Rachel says:

    LOVE THIS! thank you :)

  5. Kate says:

    you wrote everything I've always thought but not had the eloquence to write; thank you so much for putting it all so beautifully! I hope this article spreads far and wide through the yoga community

  6. Scott says:

    Nicely said, Matthew. Universal principles, like cure-alls, will always been tempting, but snake oil is still snake oil even if you import it from India.

  7. KarenK says:


  8. Karin says:

    This is a eloquent, humorous and very insightful perspective! Thank you so much! I agree with KarenK, brilliant!

  9. Leslie says:

    Fantastic! Enjoyed this piece, very well written……. with fresh perspective!

  10. Wait! Did you say you wouldn't be as flip? That's a riot, Matt but I wouldn't have it any other way. Cause the opposite of humorless is humorous and what appears to be a grave topic deserves a sardonic spin. I enjoyed the discussion of the sister science coming to yoga gone wrong's rescue.

  11. matthew says:

    a few notes from Facebook:

    Brian Boyd ‎"[Backbending] might not be the best action to repeat in the context of a dysfunctional power relationship with a narcissistic guru, for example." … classic …

    Kate Henke ‎". . . I suggested that John Friend might do well to take up gardening and turkey-baster an ounce or two of warm ghee up his rectum every afternoon. . ." *LIKE*

    Christopher Wallis Well, the ghee line *sounds* insulting, but coming from an Ayurvedist, it's really not, it's a medicinal prescription!

    Wendy Borger Wisdom, not judgement…refreshing.

    Wendy Borger nope…ghee on the colon…really good!

    Brian Boyd I agree with Wendy … well, I haven't tried the colon treatment, but when I was using rope and ghee for neti, it worked like magic!

    Anah Reichenbach This is great. I have never looked at Ayurveda through the lens of everyday responses to universally offered practices. SO cool!

    Ann Fogal There's nothing like that 4 handed massage with the smell of sesame oil – it's like you're human stir fry sliding around a huge wooden wok.

    Wendy Borger Abhyanga! This is what Matthew is suggesting…a big oil bath to ground away that vata vitiation.

    Laura Jarrait Flora I love most of this as well, too, but I think his statement about the UPAs is off-base, no? Is it healthy for anyone to have their thigh bones forward? These principles refer specifically to how the physical body is best put into optimal alignment which does seem universal. How and to what amount they get applied to each person, that is not. I'd love to hear from others on this.

    Wendy Borger ‎@Laura. Yes! The Universal Principles of Alignment applied specifically to the individual as appropriate to create balance. This is not different from the informed application of Ayurvedic principles. Like increases like…always…but will be relevant in different ways to specific doshas, individual imbalance.

  12. matthew says:

    Excellent blog post/rebuttal from Cate Stillman:

    Dear readers,
    I’ve been asking by many about my take on the Anusara debacle. I wasn’t moved to write until I read this blog post : grounding anusara 2: a brief ayurvedic follow-up consultation by Matthew Remski. I commented on his blog below, and decided to paste it here for your perusal.

    In typical pitta-kapha fashion, I haven’t resigned… yet. I love the method. We’ll see if the ‘man’ behind the method is a true man, clears his name, and seeks redemption. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll last as an un-resigned teacher… or if there will be anything left from which to resign. I’m very intrigued with the shift in organizational structure, on a meta-level. I sense the guru-head teacher -CEO-paradigm is almost officially over and an explosion of teachings beginning.

    (On a personal note, a few years ago I found John’s teachings lacking depth and his responsiveness lacking integrity. I “left” John as a spiritual student then, without resigning, and took up with Craig Hamilton. Largely, because of this, I’ve been disgusted, but not heartbroken by the expose.)

    In any case, you might read Matthew’s post, before reading my response. You may find insights in Ayurveda and the Anusara methodology. Write your comments below.

    Dear Matthew,
    How interesting to connect around this topic with you. We’ve chatted before, but you might not remember me. As a Certified Anusara Yoga teacher and Ayurvedic Practitioner of over a decade, I’m fascinated by your post.

    First off, I don’t think your assessment is correct on John Friend’s doshic imbalances.

    My sense is it’s actually a pitta imbalance at the heart of it. Tamasic pitta in the manovahasrota. Detox. Gotu Kola. Kutki. Guduchi. Penance. This man needs bitter and astringent more than sour and salty. And not too much sweet for awhile.. unless we’re talking butter lettuce. Of course, you can stack a vata imbalance on top of that (& kapha too, for that matter), but at the heart of the vikruti, I’d bet on pitta. Take care of the vata with dina and ritu charya and the pitta with diet, herbs, and detox.

    Okay, that was just for kicks.
    The heart of the matter lies below. Please note, I write this out of interest in the methodology of Yoga and Ayurveda, and not in defense of John Friend.

    Can we know universal truths?

    I sense the grandiosity of claiming “Universal Principles” for you is limited to Anusara, but exclusive of Ayurveda. However, I sense you making the same claims of Ayurveda.

    What I find most interesting is a lack of discrepancy where you find discrepancy. For instance, you state, “Ayurvedic therapy begins here: identifying a central imbalance, and applying balancing/opposing forces to existing vulnerabilities.” And then you state, “The therapeutic application of opposites is antithetical to a culture that markets ideas of universality and ultimacy. The very notion of “Universal Principles” implies that a single thing can be good or right for everyone. Obviously, this is not true.”

    You are referring to the “Universal Principles of Anusrara Yoga”. In my understanding of the Anusara methodology is that:
    (1) Identify a central imbalance happens through what we call first principle in Anusara – opening to the largest perspective.
    (2) Use opposites to cultivate dynamic balance.

    The uniqueness is packed with the universality. Obviously, this is a meta-level question. We’re unlimited beings in limited form. The form has attributes. To treat imbalance, we go back to center – away from the pole we’ve been heading towards. There is no difference in the philosophical systems here.

    To Bend Backwards or to Root?

    Secondly, I strongly disagree with this: “For those who feel alienated from community and withdrawn from intimate contact, the ubiquitous backbending of Anusara might indeed “open the heart”.” I’m not sure where it’s ubiquitous to backbend in Anusara. Skillful Anusara teachers around the globe help their students move energy into their legs and generate apana vayu… especially when their students are alienated. Opening the heart comes in a variety of forms. As part of teaching first principle in Anusara, we consciously set our foundation (connection to Earth). We are well-aware of the stimulating quality of backbends and the grounding benefits of folding forward.

  13. […] of beauty, when yoga is an expression of beauty, discipline, sacrifice and love. Yoga teaches us to feel with our hearts and experience with our […]

  14. Chetana says:

    I was laughing out loud at the witty humour, and awestruck by your insight and eloquence. We need more of this type of dialogue about yoga, systems, coming to know ourselves and what we need through yoga and Ayurveda – not just becoming followers. I loved the line "the vibrancy of your life outshines any imaginable system". Om, Chetana

  15. rocket says:

    Hello there I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. I’m thinking about writing my own blog now Best Wishes.

  16. […] Grounding Anusara 2: a brief ayurvedic follow-up ( […]

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