August 1, 2010

Waylon Lewis: 1st interview w John Friend, alleged Rock Star Yogi, re: New York Times Magazine article.

Recently, John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga, was featured (and grilled, a bit) in The Sunday New York Times Magazine.

This is his first interview following what is probably the most popular, prominent article re yoga in recent history.

“We as a yoga community need to unite.” ~ John Friend.

Last night, following our breaking the story on John Friend’s response to the popular, controversial “biggest article on yoga in history” (er, yes, I’m quoting myself)—the Sunday New York Times Magazine feature article on John and his Anusara yoga community—John and I agreed to discuss in depth not only his thoughts on the article, but his thoughts on the future of yoga, the intersection of spirituality and Capitalism, and allegations of acting like a “rock star yogi.”

We went back and forth from 7:30 until just about midnight. Though I got tired, he showed no signs of flagging, despite simultaneously catching up with staff and enjoying dinner, and despite having just got off the long flight from Italy.

May the conversation below be of some benefit. ~ ed.


The below photo is previously unpublished, and comes via John directly.

Exclusive Photo: John Friend in meditation posture in a studio in Kyoto, Japan. “The Japanese students have some of the highest level of studentship (adhikara) in the world.” Used by permission.


Waylon Lewis of Walk the Talk Show interviews John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga, re: controversial, popular NY Times feature article.

Waylon Lewis, for elephantjournal.com:

When we first met, years ago, we toured the Boulder Shambhala Center [and Om Time] and talked about Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher who coined the term “spiritual materialism.”

I’ve heard that this subject is on your mind a great deal these days—and the occasionally snarky, mostly complementary feature article in this Sunday’s New York Times about you and dwells a fair amount on the burgeoning business empire and success story that is Anusara Yoga.

When is it unhealthy for money and our meditation or yoga or spiritual path to intersect? And when is it healthy? Sustainability, paying the bills, celebrating life is something we all want to do, after all.

What’s the defining difference, in your extensive experience, between Spiritual Materialism and, as Dr. Deepak Chopra told me in an interview, “making money selling peace instead of aggression”?

John Friend:

Hi Waylon. For me money is Shakti.

It is, essentially, power. You can use it to enhance life or to harm life. Money can be exchanged for things that bring happiness and freedom from suffering—food, medicine, housing, warm clothing. And it can be used to buy weapons and things that are harmful to life and binding to consciousness.

Because it is necessary to sustain life as we know it, and because it can be used as a means to happiness, pleasure, and power over others, it is in great demand! However, money is not non-spiritual or bad in of itself. It is a power, so it depends on the intention with which it is used. Therefore, in society I would like to see the most virtuous and conscious people have plenty of money, so that the greater good of the society would be best served.

Many people recognize the tremendous pull and allure of making a lot of money, since it is considered a means to fulfilling some of our most fundamental desires, including security. We all know instances of when the desire for money has corrupted someone’s ethical integrity, including spiritual teachers.

The intersection between money and any path, whether it is spiritual or material, is only unhealthy when it draws the mind and heart away from the highest intention of spiritual freedom. Does it help you to remember and move toward the interconnected Spirit, or does it draw you into only focusing on gratifying your individualist desires?

Waylon Lewis:

Love that. Personally speaking, I’ve found it to be a tough but worthwhile path, giving up gain or greed in favor of liking who I am, and having a clean, happy conscience. My mom was and is poor, but she’s happy.

I have many friends who spend their lives devoted to making money by pushing unhealthy products or ideas, then give a little back at some point, assuaging their uneasy conscience. I do not respect such a life path, even if it leads to fame and money. I respect those who, like you or Yvon Chouinard or my mother, a teacher, make money doing good.

Right Livelihood is a brutal path, sometimes.

"John Friend, headstand, 10 years old. 1969."

“John Friend, handstand, 50 years old. 2010.”

Waylon Lewis:

Reading the article, I thought it funny that your salary, quoted at less than $100,000, was considered a bit outlandish, as was the $150 fee for a three-day Anusara yoga course. Meanwhile, the most popular article on the Times right now (yours was top #3 when I looked a few days ago) is raising the notion of paying kindergarten teachers $350,000 a year—an idea I’d happily support.

Why is it that, as you say in your response to the article, there’s an

“irony that today when a business is strictly money-making, commercialization is applauded and the corporate mogul is praised for his acumen. Yet when a business is also part of a spiritual endeavor, the same level of success can be seen as suspect.”

Reading the Times article, which I liked overall, there’s some quality in the author’s attitude that in the Buddhist community we’d call “poverty mentality”—that she almost wanted you to apologize for being relaxed, happy, celebrating the positive side of life and yoga. That you shouldn’t be touring [so much]. That you should be modest.

Is it unyogic to be anything but ascetic? To want to celebrate life?

John Friend:

There is a common idea that spirituality should be connected with lack of material things: the less you have, then you can be more spiritual. Even the fifth yama in classical yoga, aparigraha, is often translated as the non-accumulation of material things.

However, I think it is not about possession. It is about mind quality to the object of the possession. If you are clinging with your mind to something you do not possess, then you are bound and not free. Aparigraha is then a non-grasping to possessions. Living simply without excess. I think that one can celebrate and explore life in all of its “magickal” [sic] mysteries without clinging, without hoarding or being greedy.

As a financial analyst in the mid-80’s my salary was not much different than what I make today, 23 years later. When I left that job to teach yoga full-time I had three years of loss in a row on my tax returns. At one juncture I moved back in with my parents to save money, but it was fine. Although I struggled financially at times teaching yoga I can say that I have always felt blessed.

One way that I have remained relaxed and happy is to always live within my means, even when I didn’t make much from teaching. So, even today I have no debt, and that helps keep the mind freer.

Because I feel financially secure and abundant I don’t feel pulled to over-charge or take more than I need. I charge less than many teachers even other Anusara yoga teachers! And I am not the highest paid employee in Anusara! It is all of a mind state. Everything is relative in this world.

Waylon Lewis

That question was too easy for you, most likely. So here’s a tough one.

I was just at Farmers’ Market, and an Ashtanga yoga friend had read the Times article about you, and while she likes you personally she agreed with the article’s assertion that Anusara teachers did proselytize (not that anything’s wrong with that), and that Anusara could be “clique-y.”

And she said that, in her experience, you were a rock star. Not in a bad way, but that everyone loved you and there were private parties with all the cool beautiful people and that you paid more attention to beautiful people. I know, however, that you’re awful proud of your community.

Do you think the Anusara yoga kula has room for improvement?

Have you ever acted in ways that you regret, in terms of the “rock star yoga teacher” allegation?

“I’m no rock star yogi.”

John Friend:

What is a Rock Star yogi? Yes, I am an “alleged” rock star in yoga.

I suppose that when the classes get full, then it the minds of the public you become some sort of a star. The connotation that allegations are made against me as being one who only parties with a bunch of beautiful people is something that I do not connect to. Every student is important to me, so I do my best to be accessible and open to helping them in any way I can. I endeavor to connect with every student, no matter the size of the venue.

Our community is tightly-knit and there is a real enjoyment sharing in the yoga practice together. I just taught in Denmark, Germany, France, England, and Italy and in every culture there is a desire for connection of like hearts. So, the kula is tight. The people that are closest to me are those that I can trust the fullest. At the same time, Anusara has no barrier to entry. I am constantly making mistakes in relationships so I am constantly learning and getting better. I am often too open and looking for the good in those who are looking out for themselves. It is by going through tests in relationships we find our dearest friends, those that we spend the most time with. So, Anusara is improving every day through amazing relationships. And no matter the level of a particular relationship we are often in delight.

Waylon Lewis

Fourth question: The article, overall, is really positive about you and Ansuara. I was particularly struck by the author describing you as embodying a combination of “bravado and vulnerability,” which seems to fit with Anusara’s mission, to “celebrate the heart.” There’s no shame about joy or exuberance in your community, which is a relief having grown up in a Buddhist community that told me to shut up and be smaller and not celebrate myself (I was a wild, crazy child). I’m particularly interested in your leading role, at this point, in shaping the future of yoga in America. In my opinion, and in interviews with Richard Freeman, Baron Baptiste, Seane Corn, Tias Little, Elena Brower, others—I’ve expressed a concern that yoga is becoming a lifestyle, an exercise, and little more.

As the article says:

“‘He was a man with a mission.’ The mission then was to reclaim yoga from the many U.S .teachers who were so consumed with the physical practice — it was all about the workout — that they sweated out any trace of spirituality.”

and as you say in your response to the Times, featured on elephant:

“At the same time, the truth is that some styles are physically-oriented, while others are more spiritually-oriented. Some styles are more sophisticated in terms of methodology while other styles are very simplistic. That is the context of the analogy that I spoke of in the article when I said that students can choose “fast food” vs. “refined dining” when choosing a style. (And I do eat fast food on a special  occasion!) Of course, I think Anusara yoga is more effective than other styles of yoga—that is why I practice it! Yet, all styles have something positive to offer. Lastly, may we wish all yoga styles blessings of well-being and success. Any increase in yoga is good for the whole planet. All yogis need to unite as a global yoga community. If the yoga schools can not get along in harmony, then how can we expect world peace?!”

I love that. Nothing’s wrong with exercise without spirituality—the joy of movement and heat is simple, fun, like enjoying fast food on occasion. But yoga offers something more—something like meditation, a tool through movement and breath and alignment to come back to the present moment, to open up and become ourselves, more genuine. Is this is the Grace you talk about? Is yoga without such Grace still yoga? Are you concerned about the future of yoga? If so, what are you, as perhaps the most popular teacher on the planet, doing about it?

John Friend:

From my perspective I see a lot of people wanting to go deeper into their hearts. I meet people every day around the world who love to feel the connection of Spirit within themselves and their relationships. People can align themselves energetically through yoga and revelations certainly occur. Grace is what I think of as the revelatory of power of Spirit. When there are balanced alignments, the curtains open. Align with the Divine in thought, words, and actions and Grace flows in. It is an alignment of body, mind, and soul that opens the curtains and lets the Light pour in.

I am witnessing this happening on a regular basis through the yoga practice. More and more people are seeking the energetic depths of yoga and moving away from the superficial aspects. So, I’m hopeful for the future of hatha yoga around the world…I see increasing numbers of people seeking inner light. My dharma is to inspirationally remind students of the highest purposes of the yoga practice in every class. When I remember the highest first, then I’m better able to serve the students in the delightful opening of the yoga practice.

Waylon Lewis:

To go with the Margaret Mead quote about small communities being the only folks to ever change the world, how can kula or yoga community—not just Anusara’s, but all yoga studios, students, teachers and communities working together, in union, help to save the planet environmentally, politically, and help to create a more enlightened society in this lifetime?


I love that you said, in your response to the Times feature:“I have absolutely no problem with others publicizing pieces of information or stated opinions that are not positive about me, if they are true. I take full responsibility for my actions and words, and I am open to having my faults pointed out to me. I don’t claim that I am faultless or that “everything is good” in my organization.”

In my experience, transparency or a willingness to listen to constructive criticism is key, spiritually and business-wise, to true success. I learned that lesson, strangely enough, from reading the “Last Train to Memphis” two volume bio, about the Rise and Fall of Elvis Presley. The dividing line for Elvis between happy success and miserable success was when his momma died: he no longer accepted criticism from anyone…and surrounded himself with yes men. And oh yeah, I learned from the examples of Allen Ginsberg and Trungpa Rinpoche, growing up. Both of them were controversial—and wide open about everything, which at least while they were alive had the effect of self-liberating any charges or criticisms from the outside.

I think you’re a helpful contemporary example of this, for us—how to handle criticism. You were just featured in the biggest paper in the world, in their special magazine, on their biggest day, in the longest/most prominent feature article about yoga ever—and you took it, good and bad, in stride.

So on behalf of elephant readers, and yoga practitioners, and meditators, and those who work to protect our planet in our daily lives through joyful mindfulness, I want to say thank you for your time. I know you’re just off a plane and have been working most of this night. Thanks for all your joyful exertion (symbolized by the tiger, in Buddhism).

John Friend:

Wow, your words are wonderful, Waylon. Thank you for dialoguing with me.

You just demonstrated how we can unite to literally save the planet from imbalance. You are open to other’s voices, and this is what makes lasting connection and community. Being receptive and open to life is the first principle of Anusara yoga. You cannot align with something if you can not sense where it is. By being sensitive and open to know Shri (the divine Beauty of Life) in an endless variety of expressions, you can tune into Grace in any situation. Firstly, Waylon, you are open to look for goodness in others and that brings a sharing of hearts, a connection of Spirit. So, through opening your heart to others, like you do, we shift every relationship we are in for the positive. When consciousness opens through body, mind, and soul then all of our actions become more life-enhancing. This is the way to make a lasting positive shift in society around the world: through one relationship at a time.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share a wonderful discussion about important topics in our society all sparked from the New York Times article.


John Friend at his puja, or shrine, at home.


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