Is There Anyone to Blame?

Via Kelly Grey
on Mar 6, 2012
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Having been duped by spiritual teachers before, I empathize with the stream of dismay expressed by the Anusara community of teachers and students.

To have built an identity, a reality, based on something you think to be real, only to find out it is not, is painful to say the least.

But, is it really fair to scapegoat John Friend for what an entire Kula created? We all have our blind spots and I suppose somewhere, there may be a few innocent devotees out there that are truly shocked—but I have to wonder how some of the long timers missed everything up until now.

Or did they know all along, but found it was more advantageous to stay and ignore it?

And isn’t it honestly a powerful business move to disconnect now?  To take the angle that somehow they have been deceived, and somehow they will move forward with new motivation and integrity?

I went to one class with John many years ago and I have to say I actually left angry.

I went in excited to take a class with someone new and I walked away feeling like I had been bombarded with a lot of noise and nonsense and ego. And it wasn’t just John. It was a whole room full of ego.

I kept thinking of Pantanjali’s second sutra ‘yogas-chitta-vrtti-nirodhah’….that yoga is the cessation of the mind stuff, as people clapped and cried and did tricks and posed and talked the lingo of bowing to the heart….

And as everyone bowed to their hearts and wept and shared, I left the room feeling angry and hollow, and for the first time ever in a yoga class, bored.

I spent the rest of the weekend with David Swenson, an incredible yogi, who did not once have us gather around to watch him do tricks, did not mention the heart, sometimes barely said more than the Sanskrit name of the next pose, and I felt the fullness and stillness and heart of the practice—because it was simply about the practice, not the teacher.

A fellow teacher from Sivananda Yoga Farm once talked about his nervousness teaching—how he thought he had to come up with something interesting or profound to say while teaching.

But then he realized that the practice—the actual practice was profound in itself—and all he had to do was get out of the way.

As the popularity of Anusara Yoga grew, I have to say it felt to be American consumerism at its finest.

Buy enlightenment here—along with tricks on how to do a handstand, how to look good in your new Prana tights and the special bonus, along with your purchase, is an entire spiritual community to call your own and feel special in.

And we all want to feel special.

It also reminded me of high school and the popular group that I found myself in, only because I liked to play sports. Everyone hated everyone ultimately, everyone was jockeying for position, and everyone was insecure and bad mouthing their supposed best friend.

Even though I loved sports, I eventually disconnected from this group to go get high in the park and draw instead…because it was all too disheartening.

And years ago, I actually sat and listened to one Anusara teacher talk about John and how they felt he wasn’t very deep at all. This same person, however, continued to teach and reap the benefits of association with him, until now.

I also listened to this loving community of Anusara bad-mouth my own teachings and studio for years. I stopped teaching advanced yoga classes years ago because I could not support the aggressiveness and superficial intentions of practice—that yoga was just about tricks.

I also got tired of watching people hurt themselves. In response, the Anusara teachers would actually tell students that if they wanted to stay stuck and not move forward  they should come to me.  Otherwise, they could do the ‘real’ practice with them.

The hard and more honest question that I think John’s teachers and students should be asking is, “Why was I drawn to this style? How did I benefit? And how much did I want to actually be in John’s shoes?”

And, honestly, “How is this serving me now to break ties and jockey for a new position — possibly even better than John’s, because after all, he is the human guy that supposedly screwed up; somehow I will be different.”

A cult leader is nothing without its followers—and they create each other.

And a principle of Ayurveda is simply, “like increases like,” or another way to say it is, we are drawn to what we are familiar with.

And the dynamic that is occurring within this Kula right now, is nothing new.  It is an old and deep psychology that is bound in fear and survival. It is no different than Jesus being crucified by his followers, Osho being poisoned, or the cult I joined years ago—when the leader went crazy and the students who fought for her love hours before, suddenly dismissed her as a freak, to start their own cult.

I honestly have to say that I always have more respect for the people who throw themselves out there—crazy or not—out on that messy limb of life and try to create something from their essence.

More so than the ones who take and take and take and then dismiss the roots, the one who gave them their boons.


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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About Kelly Grey

Kelly Grey grew up on the east coast and wandered out west early on to find her home in the desert. She has been teaching, practicing and studying yoga since she was 15 years old, starting with TM and chanting with the Hare Krishnas on the Washington lawn, after getting kicked out of the Smithsonian for having no shoes. / She has advanced certification in Sivananda Yoga and as an Ayurvedic Practitioner and teacher. She studied Bikram Yoga and Astanga yoga intensively and is a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist. She is also a licensed massage therapist and Reiki master and received certification in India in Pancha Karma therapies and Abhyanga. / Kelly opened up and ran Yoga Shala in Arizona for eight years and started many programs still existing today in the local community colleges, private colleges and health clubs. / Her love is the river. Her guru is her dog, Penny Lane.


65 Responses to “Is There Anyone to Blame?”

  1. diane says:


  2. Word, honey! says:

    Thanks for this. I have experienced the high school glamour-competitive-cliquey thing not just w/ Anusara but w/ ALL corporatized yoga. This thing has blown so fast as a market! it's shocked me — esp. when I moved to a much bigger city where there was MORE yoga of all kinds — how yoga has attracted the WORST aspects in people and the worst aspects of our culture. Now with egg on their faces they mewl and whine about "everyone makes mistakes" and "JF is only human." Even Waylon, the owner of this personal site, defends JF and his fav followers like Elena Brower. It's gross. And yes, while everyone makes mistakes, we don't ALL make THOSE mistakes: cult-like behavior, worship of a self-styled guru, materialism and vanity. I didn't, and you didn't. As a fad, yoga has become the equivalent of step aberoics and Jane Fonda with her headbands and black-and-purple-striped outfits saying "feel the burn, girls!" in the eighties. I hope to see more people like you calling this stuff for what it is — awful. Crass. Yes, disheartening. Very high school. Icky.

  3. Laurie says:

    Oh, Kelly, you are awesome! Thank you.

  4. Grace says:

    Loved this article, thank you.

  5. Livia says:

    very very interesting and i appreciate the honesty. and also well written and clear. i think this however is overgeneralized…not your own personal experience because obviously you feel how your feel and are entirely entitled to that. what i dont think is fare is to lump the whole of anusara practitioners and teachers together. who are you to decide what is the "real yoga" for some people doing a fun party trick (and yes i agree with you thats what the advanced asanas are in the end) can open someone up to their authenticity. i have seen it….multiple times. i am sorry but i think your piece reflects a very age old dissapute in the yoga world….ego. its as old as nature versus nurture in psych. i just dont think the cultivation of ego is a bad thing. in fact ones psychological development is dependent on it. then one must also cultivate witness capacity and the two work together for healthy development and discernment. what john lacked was witness in my opinion. he fell prey to his vision and never set up checks and balances for that vision and so he got consumed. i hardly think the teachers who have left are abandoning there roots. and frankly that argument is manipulative and classic enmeshment. are we not allowed to differentiate? i appreciate your insight around injury and the issues of the cult but on the whole…not exactly what is going on.

  6. Wow, as a member of the Anusara kula for the past 4 years, I can honestly say this has never, ever been my experience. I've only practiced with John twice, and those experiences were nothing but empowering and uplifting, nothing ego-driven or cultish. And my experiences with my own kula, here in San Francisco has been nothing short of that of a family. I have met only wonderful, loving and open-hearted people… not egos, not hateful people. I have practiced all sorts of types of yoga, but Anusara simply is the one that resonated the most powerfully with me, no differently than other yoga types resonate more with other people. One of my best friends resonates mostly with Forrest Yoga and good for her. She has found what feels like home to her. Anusara has and continues to feel like home to me. That does not make me a snob, a huge ego, or a cult follower. Having been inside the community, I completely reject the notion that it was or is anything close to a cult.

  7. Leslie says:

    Thank you for this post. As an older (as in years on the planet) Anusara teacher, I can say I've witnessed and agree with much of what you write about. And, as one who in the last 7 years has focused on the students one might not see in a 'regular' class (those with injuries, medical conditions, out-of-shape, etc.), I find myself well beyond the 'tricks'. As I read, I nodded. Only when I reached the 2 paragraphs where you speak out about the 'dissing' of your style by others, did I pause and wonder about the pent-up anger behind your post. Your disappointment is clear and understood; but your message didn't need it to carry it's weight.

    In defense of Anusara, I have met many genuine and dedicated people; people who are not about being in the 'in' crowd or where the next 'trick' was coming from. And, I have seen students benefit from both the uplifting nature of the practice and the alignment taught.

    p.s. I also agree that our spelling and grammar is deplorable —

  8. Omiya says:

    Thanks for this article. As an outsider to the Anusara community, I am sorry but it certainly has the appearance and trappings of a cult, though a mild one. I also decided to "try" a weekend with John Friend. I felt like an outsider at this weekend because it felt like a huge adoration love-in of Mr. Friend. Adoring yoga students looked up at him with shining eyes as he went on about Hindu spirituality and gods and goddesses (incorrectly). The yoga was not fun and he only paid attention to his serious students. I learned nothing. I felt nothing. He did not have the presence of a true yoga teacher. It felt a bit like Tom Cruise in "Magnolia".
    I also have been to David Swenson's workshops. He was so amazing and kind, he radiated warmth and acceptance in a huge studio full of people.
    There are some amazing people who are Anusara teachers, they are great teachers and wonderful human beings. But the Anusara "kula" and Mr. Friend do not reflect the quality of their members. The Anusra movement disenchanged many yogis who thus avoided Anusara classes. Too many things went on in those classes that had nothing to do with yoga ("theming", demonstrations with clapping, identical language, the Invocation, etc). The classes demanded that one identify fully with the movement.
    Anusara, as a concept and a trademark, is not yoga. John Friend is not a guru, and he was not a very good teacher — he only taught one limb of yoga. The physical asanas. It is better that he is gone, and the teachers can now get on with re-learning how to teach yoga as it really is, 8 limbs and all.

  9. Awakening says:

    Hello awakened,

    Check out even Leslie Kaminoff's take on the cult-like apsects of AY culture. Glad you exp. is so positive, but please respect that maybe there's been something massive out there going on you judt don't know about but is/has been, nontheless, real.

  10. West says:

    I think you are "spot on" about people "wanting" to feel apart of something bigger than themselves and often suspending reason/rationality to be apart of a group (Kula).

    For me, I like to think about my education with regards to the Chakras. You don't want to be always open as that leads to addiction and detachment from reality. You don't want to be always closed as that leads to depression and failure to grow. The Chakra needs to be "flowing" open and closed continuously.

    As for JF and Anusara, my suspicions were on alert when all I ever heard people talk about was open-heart and love. It came to no surprise that something nefarious was going on. Sad, but just another example of addiction and detachment from reality.

  11. hhmmm says:

    I enjoyed my time in AY but also was put off by all the bliss-speak and love-talk. It reminded me too much of evangelical Christians. I'm also skeptical of any yoga or practice that makes claims of thousands and thousnads of lives changed and They Have Found Healing….It sounds like an ad for snake oil to me…or…. a cult….I'm glad if people had good experiences, but the rapturousness of the followers combined with the sleaze of the leader and the infighting and complicity of his closest acolytes certainly raised red flags for me.

  12. Justin says:

    This article is…interesting. I don't agree with most of it, but I do respect your feelings about this topic. I'm not so much angry, as I am saddened that you have had these experiences with Anusara. For me, it was the opposite. I've felt nothing but love and support from this community during the times when I needed them most. So, it is a little hard for me to relate. And, I've had a friend of mine as me, "Is this a cult?" I admit, I got offended at first, but I can see how people can think that. One man standing before hundreds of people telling them what do, and the entire room moving in sync with each other… Yes, it may look a little weird. But, he's a teacher. He's instructing us on how to get into these poses. If we did things whenever we wanted, it would be chaotic and noisy. And, a waste of time for everyone. To learn things in life, it's beneficial to have structure and noise reduction. And as far as the "tricks"…how else would we get into handstands, Vrschikasana, and other fun poses? If there were no "tricks", wouldn't we just be standing in Tadasana all day?
    Again, I am sorry that your experiences with Anusara were not as beneficial as mine were. Or anyone else's who can resonate with this style of yoga. The cool thing is…There are TONS of yoga styles.
    Individually, we just need to find our niche!

  13. yogasamurai says:

    Sure glad a woman is saying this!! Because when I do , all I get back is more feminist hate speech. Thank you Kelly for stating some rather obvious truths about the entrenched power dynamics within guru-disciple organizations.

  14. SQR says:

    This is an interesting dynamic- the idea that "The Kula" screwed up. It's one of those generalizations that fails to take into account all the people who didn't screw up, which, given the growth Anusara has seen in recent years, is the vast majority of the folks teaching it. The whole "cult" accusation thing is another one of those generalizations… "Western Medicine", Capitalism", and "Christianity" are all things that would fit the definitions floating around the comment forums. Then there are all the people who didn't call it a "cult" (or a pyramid scheme) while they were there but are more than happy to call it one now that they've left for the next "Yoga, Inc." There are even folks saying the Anusara "inner circle" used psy-ops to discredit any opposition or dissent… really? Because if they did, they sucked at it.

    Maybe the truth is not so black and white- maybe the "leader" (along with certain "enablers") screwed up, but the method works, and produced lots of teachers who do a good job every day. Maybe the people who were immature and "cliquish" would have been that way wherever they ended up, and maybe the visionary, generous, and helpful people would have made their towns better places, "Kula" or not. Maybe they still will.

  15. tati says:

    I'm so sorry you had these experiences with this Anusara community. No one should feel treated like this. I only want to say that not everyone is/was like that.

  16. myinnermystic says:

    Each experience is unique, as you say, and our lives and our hearts will be touched in different ways by different people. I want to respond directly to your insinuation that Anusara is a cult tradition. Yes, John Friend is the founder of a beautiful yoga tradition. He is regarded as a rock star, as a revolutionary, and as an influential teacher. He has touched the lives of many. I have never been in his physical presence and he has never personally or directly touched my life. Yes, my teachers teach in the Anusara tradition, but my teachers teach on their own two feet and their individual life experiences and journeys shape their teaching. Most importantly, my journey is my own, my yoga practice is my own, regardless of who is teaching the class I attend and in what tradition I practice. For me, the John Friend controversy is just clatter and background noise. My journey continues regardless.

  17. Lifelessons says:

    There is a terrible problem when people have turned American yoga into their religion, but it is also a business. There are pockets of good experiences and bad ones, as people attest here, but overall, religion and pofiteering don't match. The lessons are everywhere in other religions. Jesus turned over the tables of money-changers at the temple for a damn good reason. There may be good in the practices of devout people, but there are also now, in yoga, the worse aspects of both organized religion and corporatism. There was a protestant reformation partly because the catholoc church was accepting/demanding money to secure one's place in heaven. Perhaps there will be a reformation of the corporatist yoga.

  18. Continuallyamazed says:

    Given the fact that Anusara Inc. wanted to sell itself as "the fastest growing brand of yoga in the world" — given that they wereextremely aggressive about image management and watched social media like a hawk for negative comments or criticism, and the fact that employees were pressured — and pressured one another – to respond positively (and anonymously, often posing as students) on those social media sites (like this one, or FB, or other places) to counter and drown out any negativity (see Bernadette Birney's last entry on EJ) — given the fact that known "infidels" were obsessively tracked and slandered (see Doug Keller's multiple commentaries) — I am now extremely skeptical of any overly defensive or OVERLY positive tributes to Anusara yoga these days. What ever good is going on in real-time, online, it's a shitty scam. And while those who criticize AY have nothing to gain, professionally or monetarily, those who defend often are protecting themselves in some way — money, image, professional plans 00 often ways you don't know and can't tell, online.

  19. AiSquad says:

    Thanks for some other fantastic post. Where else could anyone get that type of information in such a perfect manner of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m at the search for such info.

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