To my yoga community—those who stayed in Anusara, those who left, those who were never part of it, and those who are working to save it:
The last few weeks have been some of the most exhausting, exhilarating, stressful and intense of my life, and I am grateful for the experience. I am tired but feeling good about having been part of this ongoing process to create an Anusara that is worth belonging to—one in which true power is in the hands of the teachers, and many opportunities exist for the larger community to participate in the process.
I know we have a long way to go. I know it will be an uphill battle. I know there is a large possibility that the hard-won commitments to an ethics investigation with real consequences and a true separation of the yoga school from Anusara, Inc. may dissolve once lawyers create actual documents. But still, I am honored to have been part of the progress thus far.
Here is my story:
In 2000, I met John Friend, the creator of the principles I had been learning from my teachers at City Yoga in LA. This started me on the path to becoming a yoga teacher. These principles continue to be an unfolding gift for me to this day. What I learned about the principles of alignment helped my own knees and lower back, helped me feel as if I was part of a wonderful community whose intention was to serve, and helped me feel confident that I could always help students get out of pain.
Along the way I observed practices reflecting beliefs I could not align with.
In 2003, I was excited to witness Anusara’s first big public photo shoot. When I saw the models John chose, and I looked around at all the different kinds of bodies in the room that were not represented, I thought,
“We have different ideas about inclusivity.”
A few years later, when I was trying to help resolve a conflict in another city, I wrote to John Friend about it. I suggested that we could create a Kula Committee in each city, that this committee could assign neutral moderators to help people find workable solutions to the conflicts that naturally arise in a business, and they could be available over time to oversee progress. When I saw that John chose instead to work it out himself, and because of his inability to follow up ultimately the problems continued, I realized,
“We have different visions of how people could be given power in this organization.”
A few years later, when I saw how difficult it was for teachers to go to the next level by developing books and DVDs, I realized,
“We have different views on how Anusara could grow.”
So when the recent events occurred, while I was disgusted and saddened, I was not shocked that John Friend and I apparently have different definitions of healthy boundaries. I tried to see if there were any opportunities for beauty in this situation, and when I posted a request for suggestions for a new structure, they poured in. I saw how many of us were dedicated to asking John Friend to step down as leader, and yet wanted the yoga school to remain, and I knew that Anusara would continue in some form. I wanted to try and help make it a better organization than it had been in the past.
My choice to stay was not because I felt I needed to be licensed on either a professional or personal level, or because I condoned John’s actions in any way. I stayed because (as I wrote in the letter from the steering committee), I believe that the yoga system and alignment principles that I have been studying and teaching for years have great value in the world, and I want to maintain the integrity of this system. I want students to be able to learn this system and teachers to continue to be able to be certified in it. I often think of our newer teachers, and of future generations of teachers and students, and hope that they too can receive the gifts from this system that I did.
And I wanted the new Anusara to have a structure that would allow power, information, and vision to flow from the outside in and then out again, with a group of elected teachers serving as the focal point and many groups with real power creating a web of connection between towns, and from towns into the center and back out.
My feeling about Anusara had always been that we lacked pathways to pass information on in an organized way.
What I wanted was to change this by sharing as much information as possible with the community right now, to help people understand the process, and to support people in their own struggles as they tried to figure out what to do. I suggested a Communications Liaison position to the steering committee as a step toward this, and they agreed.
Working with the steering committee meant there were many urgent email strings happening at any one moment, conference calls, always three fires and several more that we could prevent if we moved fast enough; we negotiated with John (relying mostly on Ross for this part), and with Michal, and then with Wendy; always with the calm, wise guidance of John Watkins. The steering committee stood their ground.
For much of it, things were so tenuous and ever-changing that nothing could be said publicly, without creating more confusion and possibly more anger. Michal left when she realized—understandably—that the nature of her business investment had changed. The teachers were going to be taking on the name Anusara, and John Friend had agreed to go through an ethics process that would involve rehabilitation, an approval process and possibly a certification process in order to be reinstated as an Anusara teacher, with no pre-determined endpoint as to when he could return.
So we ended up with a verbal agreement with John Friend and Anusara, Inc. to work toward our mutual goals: to save Anusara in a form in which people would want to stay—and one in which people might even want to return. What the final deal will look like, we don’t know. What I hope is that the Interim Leadership Team will take the next steps and get it down on paper with lawyers and business structure people; that their Communications Liaison will always be looking for opportunities to communicate with the community even before decisions are made; and that the structure I and so many had been thinking about for years with Regional Kula Committees will arise to create a web of connection and communication and power.
So many questions remain.
How will such an organization be funded if John isn’t teaching? Assuming he will be approved at some point to come back to teaching, how will the organization be any different from before? If there is real change, are we as a community ready to take on the responsibilities that come with power? Can we work through our own conflicts, can we run our own committees, can we find funding sources? Can we come to see doing seva as an essential part of becoming an Anusara teacher? Do we want to?
On top of being in the dark about what will happen, many in our community have expressed that they feel judged and attacked: those who left (how could you abandon us?), those who are staying and waiting (you drank the Kool-Aid) those who are working for change (you are getting nowhere and wasting your time).
My feeling is there was no single right choice.
As each of my friends resigned, I honored them. I knew they had become clear and were doing the right thing for them, as well as for our community: if real and lasting change happens, the people who left will have helped lay the foundation.
And without the people who stayed, those who sat in the discomfort of the unknown, some of whom gave us a whole day’s worth of energy by simply posting “thank you,” there wouldn’t be an Anusara to be fighting for. Their presence makes it clear to John and everyone that these negotiations are worth doing.
Stay strong in your choice. You can be confident that if you honored your highest truth, you helped. And maybe at some point there will be a different choice you want to make. Perhaps there will be a new kind of Anusara that will be worth coming back to. Or for others, that it’s clearly time to move on from.
The saddest thing in this transition is the damaged friendships. I haven’t been able to talk comfortably to many of my yoga friends. Most have left. They are angry and suspicious; they try and convince me to leave; they do not seem to understand or respect my choice. In these conversations I often feel defensive, sensitive and alone.
I hope that our friendships will survive these boundaries, once it is clearer what will arise from this; that connections will grow again like beautifully flowered vines climbing up and over walls. What we have in common is so much bigger than our different choices: we all cared, we were all hurt, and we all wanted change.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve you. I am also honored to have been around such extraordinary people as those on the steering committee, people able to be compassionate even while expressing their intense, heartfelt—and painful—truths. Learning how to do this might be the last great lesson I take from Anusara.
Thank you to the steering committee for putting your time and energy and hearts into this in such an inspiring way, and for being open to sharing whatever we could with the community.
It is time for me to move into a less fiery, intense, and public role: to focus on my prenatal teaching community and other endeavors that are my passion.
And if ultimately, there is a clear separation between Anusara, Inc. and the yoga school, and if John goes through treatment with professionals and an approval process to begin teaching again, then I want to continue to help create this communication web as part of the new structure—from every area kula in to the center and back.
I ask one thing of you as we move forward, my community: remember that we are all part of this ocean. Each of us is of course free to make our individual, unique waves. I love seeing waves that are big and bold and completely different and full of integrity. But please, never forget we are all part of this ocean. Your wave, or post, or speech in any form has a powerful effect on all of those who take it in.
No matter what barriers appear to be dividing us, whether we are resigned or waiting, angry or hopeful or patient, let us come from a place of compassion for each other. Let us reach out to each other, and listen to each other, and soften with each other. We are not that far apart.
Jessica Jennings, MS, is a yogi, a mom, and a teacher in Los Angeles. She loves to support prenatal yoga teachers who want to start classes in their neighborhood through the community Ma Yoga for Pregnancy, Motherhood & Beyond.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.