November 8, 2011

What elephant journal Did Right [on the Anusara “Situation.” ~ Vivian Zalvidea Araullo

The sudden and public resignation this past week of some yoga teachers from the Anusara system shocked observers of the yoga scene.

It appears that YogaDork broke the story, and if that is correct, then kudos goes to her.

Even if I had initially dismissed the story as just another tempest in a teacup, jaded as I am by all the petty infighting in the yoga world (“My yoga is better than your yoga, Your yoga is not as spiritual as my yoga” etc., ad nauseam), this story kept tugging at my journalist instincts.

Here’s why: Yoga-generated revenue is expected to hit a whopping $3.3 billion in 2011, a conservative estimate reported by IBIS World Market research. It’s an industry that is still going strong even during an economic downturn, fueled by an estimated 16 million Americans.

Anusara Founder John Friend, dubbed the “Yoga Mogul” by the New York Times, is making lots of moolah thanks to seekers trusting him and his system to guide them to health, peace, maybe even spirituality and a sense of purpose.

If he’s won the trust of hundreds of thousands (by his own count), why then are some of his top teachers publicly deserting him? Even if the resignation letter was full of hearts and flowers, as yoga-speak tends to go, the fact is, it was one big spectacle bound to cause Friend pain and embarrassment. As one twitter observer asked, “Couldn’t this have just be done internally?” Indeed.

The whole thing had passive-aggressive written all over it. Something’s not quite right. Heck yeah, this is a story.

That’s when elephant journal showed its journo chops. It did its best to get the whole story.

After the public resignation story, elephant ran an open letter from another top Anusara teacher, a type of statement that people in the PR world might call “damage control.” With a lot of yoga-speak (unity, love, peace, unfolding mystery this and that, etc.), the well-meaning yoga teacher was essentially telling everyone in a nice way that they were all just gossiping and to shut up.

Really? You have famous teachers dumping their famous guru in public and talking about it is just gossip? Give us the truth! Or, if you want to say it in yoga-speak: satya (truth) is one of the yamas (ethical disciplines of yoga). It is yogic to seek and give the truth of the situation.

Enter elephant, seeking satya and scoring a real scoop: John Friend gives his side of the story.

In the transcript of the interview, I must say elephant had some alarming moments of sounding like a Friend apologist. I rolled my eyes at that poem-slash-farewell statement dedicated to the dumpers that elephant managed to fish out of the dumpee. Maudlin, but elephant’s market is probably poetry-reading types…so I guess that’s fine.

Did Friend give good enough answers? That should be left to the reader’s judgment. Were the questions hard enough? Yes, there were some tough ones in there, but elephant could have drilled down even harder.

elephant could have asked Friend about his recent venture with Manduka mats and how that benefits himself, his community, or the world in general in a spiritual and financial way.

In a way, Friend answered that question in his commercial for the mats, where he said: “You can certainly have an inner opening by a piece of rubber on your floor. Everything about this mat will lead to the very essence of heart.”

Any sane yogi knows the yogic path need not be lined with rubber mats.

While it is perfectly acceptable for a yoga leader to try and make a good living, aren’t they supposed to be held up to higher yogic standards? When does “making a good living” cross the line and possibly violate aparigraha? (Aparigraha, another yama, is non-covetousness, absence of greed for possessions beyond one’s need). Could this have been one of those dharmic reasons why the teachers publicly severed ties with Friend? Ah well. Just asking.

However, any critique of elephant’s interview is drowned out by the fact that it exercised due diligence and got the whole story as well as it could. It was first to fill the information vacuum, post-resignation, that was causing all the talk and speculation. It provided more than adequate coverage, that provoked (mostly) constructive, genuine, respectful thought and discussion. That’s the true job of journalism, and I admire good work when I see it.

Let me disclose that I am a supporter of elephant journal (I believe I give a paltry yearly sum) and am currently enrolled in advanced studies in the Iyengar yoga system, where I am the class laggard.

Yoga is no longer some fringe activity. It creates jobs, helps drive the economy and can make some savvy people wealthy. The people that lead this industry/business sector/spiritual movement/practice—or whatever you want to call it—need closer scrutiny on the financial and ethical fronts. Like any multi-billion dollar industry riding on the trust and pocketbooks of the public, it’s prone to abuse. So please look at it closely. Ask some hard questions, just like elephant did on the Anusara situation.

And please, before you drink that kombucha, make sure it’s not just Kool-Aid.


A journalist for more than 20 years, Vivian’s reporting has spurred legislation, triggered the dismissal of cabinet officials, disqualified a political candidate, exposed a paramilitary cult, and wreaked other similar types of mayhem in the Philippines that eventually earned her a death threat. She is currently head of news production and executive news producer of the North America news production group of ABS-CBN, a TV network with headquarters in Manila, the Philippines. She and her group recently won two Tellys, an industry award that honors the very best local, regional, and cable television commercials and programs. She’s worked for ABC News, Japanese broadcasting giant NHK, CBS in San Francisco, and is now trying to land a volunteer gig as a yoga teacher.


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