February 13, 2012

Anusara Teachers’ exodus.

A conversation with Bernadette Birney: on Anusara, Authority, Dissolution & Creation.

An inside view of a bumpy path.

The below wet-ink conversation with Bernadette Birney concerns “the John Friend / Anusara yoga situation.”

Bernadette is an Anusara yoga teacher, and announced her resignation just today. Her letter, and (a senior Anusara yoga teacher) Noah Mazé’s letter, are at the bottom here (shared by direct permission).

We just did this conversation via skype. I’ll leave the time stamp in, and BB doesn’t like to cap stuff…but in the interest of getting this up quickly, here ’tis.

It’s all rather raw, both grammar-wise and heart-wise.

~ Waylon Lewis, ed.

Bernadette Birney: what a day. what a week.

Waylon Lewis: Yah, hard to know what to say. I’m not even really involved as are you and so many others and yet I’m burned out and continually a little sad, depressed, about stuff.

bernadette birney: yeah, i know what you mean.

[2/12/12 4:10:55 PM] Waylon Lewis: I think everyone out there who isn’t like you or other teachers in the know just wants to know something basic: what’s been going on over the last day? Tons more teachers seem to be leaving.

[2/12/12 4:12:18 PM] bernadette birney: Well, I believe that John Friend teaching at “The Dharma of Relationship” was just too much. I know that it was for me. Many of us were working to prevent that from happening.

[2/12/12 4:12:40 PM] Waylon Lewis: Clearly. But he agreed not to teach that, right?

[2/12/12 4:12:47 PM] bernadette birney: No.

[2/12/12 4:12:56 PM] Waylon Lewis: Oh.

[2/12/12 4:13:01 PM] bernadette birney: He insisted on teaching asana at the event.

[2/12/12 4:13:05 PM] Waylon Lewis: That’s nervy.

[2/12/12 4:13:14 PM] bernadette birney: Yeah.

[2/12/12 4:13:16 PM] Waylon Lewis: Oh I heard he wanted to teach asana but not the lecture aspect.

It’s probably hard to unplug from being loved and go off, as he’d said he would do, and practice and work on himself. So even if the feedback he’s getting is critical, that’s a positive for him–clearly he seems to need a push to work on himself.

[2/12/12 4:14:30 PM] bernadette birney: Yes, I believe that’s true. It was entirely inappropriate for JF to be teaching anything to anyone at this time. He needs to take a sabbatical and get help. I had great hopes that we could help him and the community but he wouldn’t let us, and ultimately we had no power

[2/12/12 4:14:52 PM] Waylon Lewis: So is there reallllly room within Anusara for you all to take the reins

[2/12/12 4:14:57 PM] bernadette birney: no

[2/12/12 4:15:01 PM] Waylon Lewis: It seems like no: many of you have decided to leave and form a new tribe? I mean you all have been so closely knit.

[2/12/12 4:15:46 PM] bernadette birney: I had hopes that we would actually be able to reform from within, but the Interim Committee was impotent. JF owns the corporation and invested no power in the committee. I do have hopes of aligning to become a part of something that is greater than just me.

[2/12/12 4:16:36 PM] Waylon Lewis: Well, you’re pretty great.

What I’ve been primarily interested in, here, having seen this sexual craving play out with varous spiritual teachers and yoga teachers over the years is how can the Anusara community and more generally the greater yoga community and more generally the greater “mindful” community, spiritual communities, learn from this?

(If we don’t learn from this, history tells us we’ll repeat this)

[2/12/12 4:18:28 PM] bernadette birney: Well, I actually have an answer. We must turn away from the guru model that still dominates in many yoga traditions.

We must learn how to invest in our own power and authority rather than conferring it onto the teacher.

Yoga is always about power. An unethical teacher misappropriates power. A good teacher gives it back to you. And that applies to every kind of misuse of power, not just sexual.

[2/12/12 4:20:24 PM] Waylon Lewis: Yes! Love that. Right on…Beautifully put.

Hold on for a sec, it’s 4:20

Sorry, joke in poor taste considering the various allegations.

[2/12/12 4:21:39 PM] bernadette birney: i don’t offend easily. (:

Waylon Lewis: And the guru model isn’t the whole root of the problem. As you say it’s about seeing the guru (or wisdom, goodness generally) within. We are not fundamentally lacking, and the guru or teacher is not fundamentally perfect.

[2/12/12 4:23:11 PM] bernadette birney:

One of the things I’ve observed is that I have been a part of a community that keeps quiet. We are have been so busy conferring authority onto JF that we forgot our ability to use our voices.

[2/12/12 4:23:26 PM] Waylon Lewis: I’ve been meaning to write about my view of this matter, since some group of our readers seem to mistake my interest in not attacking but being clear on what is wrong and how to go forward and improve as support for John.

[2/12/12 4:23:44 PM] bernadette birney: No, no teacher or human is going to be perfect–not even the one within!

[2/12/12 4:23:56 PM] Waylon Lewis: Exactly. Anusara and many other communites are rather worshipful, dumbed down by the charm or charisma of their leader instead of awakened and inspired by it.

[2/12/12 4:24:18 PM] bernadette birney: My problem with JF wasn’t that he was human–it was the lack of transparency, and the fact that his actions did not reflect his remorse.

[2/12/12 4:25:06 PM] Waylon Lewis: Exactly. But you’re rather mature. I think many made the mistake of putting him on a pedestal. We have to stop doing that to our teachers. Every yoga conference I go to, I see a lot of dumbed down worshipful googly eyes aimed at every celeb yogi.

Transparency and honesty and genuine interest in waking up is vital. We have to look for teachers like that—and even then we don’t worship them. From the Buddhist pov, the root of the problem here is theism. Buddhist talks a lot about non-theism. And it’s useful teachings, since Buddhists like everyone else are suckers for rock star spirituality.

[2/12/12 4:25:25 PM] bernadette birney: As a community, after jfexposed, we needed to clean the wound, dress the wound, heal the wound. Instead, too many people wanted to sit around singing kumbaya, sending love and light.

[2/12/12 4:27:10 PM] Waylon Lewis: …and, too many wanted to attack the wound and throw salt on it.

Neither approach—defensiveness/ignorance or blame/anger helps heal a wound. At all.

{} Bernadette: They did not get that we needed to hold JF accountable for his actions, for his own good, and for ours. Compassion is not always warm, fuzzy and cuddly.

{} Waylon: Yes! Tough mother love is anything but warm, fuzzy, cuddly, just ask my ma!

[2/12/12 4:27:35 PM] bernadette birney: Yes, it’s prevalent in the community, and I get it. Who hasn’t at some time or other just wished that somebody would just tell them what to do?

[2/12/12 4:27:59 PM] Waylon Lewis: Not I, frankly. I always found the atmosphere around the Buddhist teachers I grew up around to be really silly and ridiculous.

[2/12/12 4:28:47 PM] bernadette birney: Well, I am a tortured soul who wishes it every now and then, and then gets really pissed when someone actually dares to tell me what to do. (:

Good on ya for yer good common sense.

[2/12/12 4:30:04 PM] Waylon Lewis: Well in Buddhism we’re trained to disagree with the teacher if his/her advice is stupid or dangerous. And we’re trained to always keep critical intelligence, because that’s what true friendship/loyalty/devotion looks like.

That said again we’re trained in all that because we fuck up devotion and get theistic like everyone else…it’s human nature. Heroes are easy to put up on pedestals. And then we tear them down, like it’s their fault they aren’t perfect.

John was never perfect.

[2/12/12 4:32:08 PM] bernadette birney: That is very much in keeping with the tradition in which I am reared. To be perfectly honest, although I have loved and admired JF, the teacher of my heart, my true teacher, has always been Douglas Brooks–who adamantly refuses to sit above his students, and instead raises the bar on the conversation among friends.

John was never perfect. I don’t fault him for that.

[2/12/12 4:32:49 PM] Waylon Lewis: But let’s not transfer our idolization to anyone. We can study with masters like Brooks without looking up to them.

[2/12/12 4:33:01 PM] bernadette birney: I fault him for fucking it up so royally after he fucked it up.

[2/12/12 4:33:07 PM] Waylon Lewis: Yes! I was just im’ing with Jeannie Page who I respect and often disagree with (and she’s always right in those cases, seriously) and was saying same thing.

I said “I just think if he had been encouraged to open and clarify rather than defend and lawyer up from the beginning this could have been better for all. He could have been a great example of accepting blame, responsibility, and exhibiting enthusiasm for waking up here.”

[2/12/12 4:34:03 PM] bernadette birney: one of the hugest problems in the Anusara organization is that there has only been a one-tiered power structure.

So, when it all blew up, we were all sort of trained to wait for somebody else to fix it because most of us were waiting to be invited into somebody else’s conversation about what to do instead of taking the initiative to generate a conversation ourselves.

[2/12/12 4:36:01 PM] Waylon Lewis: Well this is a great conversation…this is the conversation I wish we could all explore. Non-theism. Protected by our ongoing critical intelligence, dropping hero worship, we can cut the likelihood of future such situations.

[2/12/12 4:36:02 PM] bernadette birney: Yes, you are so right. Instead, there was a lot of silence, and a vacuum of leadership.

Then there was spin.

Then there was huge manipulation of the committee, and a lot of divide and conquer games.

[2/12/12 4:36:17 PM] Waylon Lewis: Yes. It’s felt a bit like politics, instead of spiritual path.

Well so you’re all taking leadership now, so that’s great…a great gift to be forced to accept.

Ironically, the best politics would have been to just warrior up, open his heart and go on retreat.

[2/12/12 4:37:33 PM] bernadette birney: Yes, I sort of stepped up like an unlikely leader, I guess. I was so certain that somebody needed to do something.

He could have come out looking like a hero. He had very good advice from truly brilliant members of our community.

He just wouldn’t take it.

Hey, I’m being really frank with you because I respect your integrity. Thanks for your vote of confidence.

[2/12/12 4:39:54 PM] Waylon Lewis: Well you’ve been who I wanted to talk to, here, you and Noah…

…because it seems like too many of those in the Anusara community, or formerly in the community, have been largely silent.

And then on the outside, too many have been attacking, gossiping, blaming, almost enjoying this.

There have been too few like you who love and respect John but have fundamental obvious problems with what’s happened and are now offering your independent, middle-ground voices. Neither worship / defense or hate / gossip—just personal openness and wisdom. That’s the way to heal this wound and form a new, wiser, independent community.

The blessing of running something like elephant is I get criticized 100 times a month. It’s not fun, and some of the criticism is mean-spirited and full of projection…but most of it serves to wake me up and help me keep elephant on course.

For all of us, our spouses or best friends serve that same purpose. Real friendship is not support. Real friendship is honesty with love behind it, not hate.

[2/12/12 4:41:48 PM] bernadette birney: This whole time, I just went with my gut. I felt some kind of inner guidance the whole way. Maybe there’s actually something to this yoga thing. (:

[2/12/12 4:42:05 PM] Waylon Lewis: Well, you’ve put yourself out there in a sane way and in this context that’s leadership, and I and many others have a longing for some sort of sane touchstone right now, and very little has been offered by anyone.

[2/12/12 4:42:30 PM] bernadette birney: It’s tough, too, in the yoga world where calling for accountability gets condemned as judgement.

[2/12/12 4:42:48 PM] Waylon Lewis: Well there has been a lot of judgment and prejudgment that hasn’t been helpful, or even accurate. Discernment is what we’re all after, as Carol Horton has said.

Going with our gut is the theism-killer…the best way to be non-theistic. Listen to our own wisdom and power. That’s what we all have to emulate and continually remember…or we’ll find ourselves in such a situation once again.

[2/12/12 4:43:52 PM] bernadette birney: i still think that the method is hands down one of the most healing modalities out there.

My teaching is not going to look different tomorrow, you know?

[2/12/12 4:44:29 PM] Waylon Lewis: Hah. I interviewed Katie and she did it to me live on camera. It was intense.

I was a doubter.

[2/12/12 4:44:50 PM] bernadette birney: what, like shoulder loop or something?

[2/12/12 4:45:40 PM] Waylon Lewis: Oh, sorry, I was thinking Byron Katie’s teachings! Too much coffee.

You’re talking about Anusara of course. Yes, I’ve never been attracted to Anusara but I’m sure the teachings attracted so many amazing teachers and students for a reason.

[2/12/12 4:46:55 PM] bernadette birney: oh, she is fantastic. a few months ago i got obsessed with her and disappeared for days into her videos on youtube. she is out there doing really good work.

Yeah, the community is everything to me.

Even resigning was in many ways an offering of love to the community. Do you know what I mean?

Waylon Lewis: Well, Noah and a whole host of others including yourself (we’ll include your letter, and Noah’s, both with direct permission) left today.

How can this leaving be an offering of love to the community, as you say?

Where are we at? How can we heal and go forward, from your pov? What does your gut or wisdom tell you, personally?

[2/12/12 4:49:15 PM] bernadette birney: it was a call to us all not to slide back into unhealthy relationship. that was what i could see happening. The only way forward for the community is for individuals to reclaim their power, and to be unafraid to speak out.

[2/12/12 4:49:57 PM] Waylon Lewis: Yes. Who all left today? I’ve heard of maybe five.

[2/12/12 4:51:58 PM] bernadette birney: let’s see: Noah, Sarah Faircloth, Emma Magenta, Elizabeth Cronise, Lara Demberg Voloto. Some of these teachers are prominent and well respected.

And me, of course.

[Ed’s note: also just now: Michelle Synnestvedt, Anne Libby, Jonathan Shoemaker]

Update: Emma’s letter. “John has demonstrated his unwillingness to take any meaningful responsibility for his actions or work with the community to effect real change.”

[2/12/12 4:53:23 PM] Waylon Lewis: Are there more to come? Or is the next step that the teachers who have left and the community that’s left and the community and teachers who remain will just begin the process of healing, and John will go off and work on himself?

[2/12/12 4:53:34 PM] bernadette birney: oh yes. There will be many more to come.

[2/12/12 4:53:49 PM] Waylon Lewis: Just messaged with Noah, he invited me to share his letter. Everyone’s tired.

Many more teachers and students will leave, you mean?

[2/12/12 4:54:02 PM] bernadette birney: yeah, we’re all really fried. I’ve been in pretty much around the clock contact with a sort of fellowship of teachers for the last week.

[2/12/12 4:54:55 PM] Waylon Lewis: Again I’m not in the Anusara community but just dealing with this and knowing many folks concerned with it a bit has been exhausting…I’ve found meditation, dog walks and friends and baths and exercise, biking to be only saving grace!

[2/12/12 4:56:18 PM] bernadette birney: many more teachers. I don’t know about students, if they will leave Anusara. Mostly, students show up to practice with teachers they really love. My guess is that among students we’ll see more loyalty to individual teachers than to anusara. As opposed to leaving a tradition, they’ll just stay with their teacher.

[2/12/12 4:56:37 PM] Waylon Lewis: Right. Like a hair salon.

[2/12/12 4:56:43 PM] bernadette birney: I’ve turned a lot to friends, and to my practice.

[2/12/12 4:57:07 PM] bernadette birney: Yeah, like a hair salon. At least–i think that’s how it will go.

[2/12/12 4:57:30 PM] Waylon Lewis: Okay. Anything else we shoudl bring up or touch upon?

[2/12/12 4:58:31 PM] bernadette birney: just that it is a potent time. From all the dissolution will come creation.

[2/12/12 5:01:07 PM] Waylon Lewis: Okay. Thanks, BB. Deep (but not worshipful) bow!

[2/12/12 5:02:01 PM] bernadette birney: Ha! Thanks for creating an opportunity to open the conversation wider than it has been. Superduper appreciative of that.

[2/12/12 5:02:45 PM] Waylon Lewis: You bet. Hopefully there’s some point. It seems like I just get hated on lately (I know it’s a vocal minority) for trying to put constructive stuff out there. It’s possible to be constructive and critical, both!

[2/12/12 5:03:31 PM] bernadette birney: Hang tough, baby. It hurts but just keep walking your talk. The world needs more like you.

[2/12/12 5:03:52 PM] Waylon Lewis: Well, I’ll have children soon enough.

Now get outta here…step away from the computer!




Here’s Noah’s letter:

Dear Beloved Anusara Kula,

The time has come for me to transition away from my professional ties to John Friend. In this past week of sitting on the Interim Committee and devoting countless hours to a grueling process of attempting to envision Anusara Yoga’s future, I was hit hard by the realization that I simply have no desire for a role in this challenging but hopefully fruitful evolution. I am about to broaden my horizon, and I’m deeply excited to share this news.

I am and will always remain ever grateful for all of the teachings I have received from John Friend, and I wish him only love, and the very best of luck with his personal recovery and professional development. Anusara was founded on solid principles of alignment, and my deepest wish is that these principles will guide the organization and its community members for many years to come. I will dearly miss being in the great company of my beloved Anusara kula. Fortunately though, I will be just around the corner, endeavoring to live the teachings, do my practices, teach and live life with joy, integrity and accountability. I remain a certified Anusara Yoga teacher, despite the fact that I will be surrendering my license. Further, in an effort to serve all of my students who are counting on studying Anusara Yoga with me this year, and those who are enrolled in my programs throughout the world, I will fulfill my obligations to you and offer all scheduled Anusara programming through the end of 2012. These programs and teacher training hours will count for anyone accruing credit to become a licensed Anusara Inspired or Certified teacher; and I will encourage any of my students who endeavor to walk that path.

I am much less interested in drawing the distinctions of yoga methods, and far more interested in the value of what every method and every teacher offers. I am interested in, and more in love than ever, with YOGA!

I will always aspire to keep great company, and am very excited to focus more on collaborating and teaching with my dear friends Christina Sell, Darren Rhodes, Elena Brower and Amy Ippoliti. I will keep you posted about these exciting offerings as we solidify our plans. The upcoming teacher development and Group Mentorship program, Good to Great, will also be a School of Yoga program, which I will offer with Christina Sell, and program hours will also work towards the Yoga Alliance 500 hour registry. Tracy and I have been working for many days and many hours on trying to help the current situation in Anusara. We leave you in the very best hands with the members of the Interim Committee.

I am proud of having been an Anusara teacher for the past decade plus. I am proud of what we have all created. I am so proud of you. I see incredible potential for what all of us can create. I will see you on the mat and in your house online! Live your highest truth, and keep it real.

Respect and with all my heart,




Here’s BB’s letter from this morning:

My Resignation Letter

Beloved Friends and Colleagues,

Just Thursday I wrote an open letter in which I urged you not to give up, and not to quit. Today, it is with a heavy heart that I sever my professional ties to John Friend. As for my efforts in achieving the right to the title Certified Anusara Yoga Teacher–they have been honestly earned. I own them. They belong to me.

In the aftermath of the discovery of John Friend’s professional and sexual misconduct, I maintained–right alongside my sense of heartbreak and anger– hope. It was my hope that the Anusara community could rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. It was my hope that we would move from opacity toward transparency. It was my hope that we would move in the direction of a new, healthy, power structure.

It was my hope that we would hold John accountable for abusing our trust when he decided to “heal” his students with “sex therapy”. The lack of a transparent investigation on this topic is troublesome to the extreme. I have conducted my own investigation, and have good reason to believe it is true. I have a high regard for the people who confirmed this for me.They are not yet ready to publicly come forward.

I have gratitude for what I learned from John Friend. I am also clear that the responsibility for my own integrity rests upon my own shoulders.

This signifies the end of my hopes for reform. I have lost confidence in our ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries within the organization. Without our ability to set boundaries, there can be only the façade of change, and no actual change. Following such a course, Anusara yoga will slide back into what I now recognize as deeply engrained, unhealthy habits. This saddens me greatly.

I will continue to teach the Universal Principles with passion. I fully expect that since this is John’s mess, and we are all experiencing the fallout of his poor choices, that Anusara will do the right thing by honoring all of my students’ programming hours.

I will continue to be a presence in the community that I have devoted myself to for over a decade. My ferocious love for you is–and shall remain–a constant.

With love,

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