Lessons from the Anusara Crisis.

Via Philip Goldberg
on Feb 23, 2012
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Is It Time for Enforceable Standards in the Yoga Community?

One of the things John Friend told me he admired about my book,  American Veda, was its perspective on the guru sex scandals of the seventies. Ironically, his name is now being linked to those decades-old upheavals. There are obvious reasons for the comparisons, but they’re not exactly parallel, and the similarities and differences are worth looking at if we are to learn anything useful about the recent events.

The Anusara turmoil is similar to its earlier counterparts in that both involved clandestine sexual liaisons between a man in a position of power and authority and women of subordinate status. They also have in common a spiritual context. While Anusara can be seen as a leading brand in a major industry, the industry is not exactly software or automobiles. Nor are yoga teaching institutions the same as universities or, for that matter, medical clinics or spas. Despite the accelerating tendency to reduce yoga to a health and fitness discipline, it is also a spiritual tradition, and John Friend is one of the teachers who never lost sight of that. For those reasons, Anusara is not just any old business, and John Friend is not just another CEO.

That said, it must be emphasized that Anusara is very different from a traditional spiritual lineage, and John Friend is not a guru.

He was, no doubt, the undisputed leader sitting alone atop the Anusara edifice, but for all his superstar stature, he is seen primarily as a teacher and an entrepreneur, not a holy man.

No doubt, there were many who projected onto him qualities of wisdom and nobility that far exceeded reality, but that happens around celebrities and authority figures in every walk of life. John’s students and employees were not expected to surrender to his will the way chelas surrender to their masters. It was not assumed that John was incapable of mistakes or that disagreeing with him meant you were weak-minded or spiritually retarded.

In addition, John is not a sannyasi who has taken a vow of celibacy and is presumed to have kept it. He did not run an ashram where devotees were required or encouraged to be celibate. These are crucial distinctions, because one reason traditional gurus are revered is their presumed renunciation. They are seen as exceptional partly because they appear to be “above” not only sex, but also money, status and other transient satisfactions that drive the rest of us.

I am not aware of John Friend having made any such claims, or of anyone having made them on his behalf. The gurus whose dalliances shocked and wounded their devotees the most had violated sacred vows and had, hypocritically, demanded restraint from their followers. Presumably, the only explicit vows that were violated in the Anusara world were marital. That’s serious enough, but it’s not the double whammy of the guru sexcapades.

So, Anusara is not an ordinary business organization, but it is also not a traditional guru-centered sampradaya; and John Friend is not an ordinary teacher or boss, but he’s not a swami or a guru either. This points to the ambiguous position of modern yoga in general. Yoga occupies a space on a Venn Diagram of American institutions where business, education, healthcare and spirituality all overlap. In all such institutions, however, sexual relations between employers/teachers/providers and their employees/students/clients are either frowned upon or explicitly prohibited. In some cases, it’s left to individual institutions to set the exact rules and enforce them, while others are overseen by some kind of governing body. Perhaps the Anusara revelations will be a catalyst for the yoga community to develop a universal code of ethics, like the ones that govern physicians, psychotherapists and other professionals.

Of course, the only organization that even comes close to having the oversight structure of the American Medical Association (AMA) or the American Psychological Association (APA) is Yoga Alliance. YA does have a code of conduct that registered teachers agree to uphold. It includes the following standards (there are others):

  • Respect the rights, dignity and privacy of all students.

  • Avoid words and actions that constitute sexual harassment.

  • Adhere to the traditional yoga principles as written in the Yamas and Niyamas.

  • Follow all local government and national laws that pertain to my yoga teaching and business.

But YA is toothless. When a psychologist violates the APA’s ethical code, or a doctor falls short of the AMA’s standards, there are serious consequences. YA has no enforcement mechanism. Even if it wanted to respond institutionally to the Anusara events it would be a paper tiger. That would be true even if John Friend was registered with YA, and he isn’t. I know from speaking with YA officials that exploring ways to bolster teaching standards is a priority.

Recent events might also prompt a discussion of how to investigate ethical complaints fairly and hold transgressors accountable in some meaningful way. As American yoga matures and finds its place alongside other reputable healing and spiritual professions, the community might be wise to create its own credible enforcement mechanisms, before lawsuits or criminal charges force heavy-handed governments to step in. Taking action sooner rather than later would be consistent with Patanjali’s advice in the Yoga Sutras: heyam dukham anagatam—avert the danger that has not yet come.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta


About Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including “The Intuitive Edge," “Roadsigns: On the Spiritual Path,” and his latest work, "American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.” Based in Los Angeles, he is an ordained interfaith minister, a public speaker and seminar leader, and the founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates. He also blogs regularly on the Huffington Post. Visit philipgoldberg.com or americanveda.com for more information.


7 Responses to “Lessons from the Anusara Crisis.”

  1. Brent says:

    Does, "Avoid words and actions that constitute sexual harassment," mean that teachers should not sleep with their students, because if so, it is very subtly worded.

  2. Mary says:

    Anusara has an ethics code. It specifically allows romantic relationships with students, as long as they are "respectful"! Nevertheless, it appears John may have violated several provisions of the code. http://www.anusara.com/index.php?option=com_conte

  3. Dana says:

    From the Anusara website, "Ethical Guidelines"….."Many students look to the yoga teacher as a guide and mentor, not only for physical development, but for emotional and spiritual development as well. Students tend to project high ideals onto the teacher, so they often think the teacher is more spiritually advanced than they are. Consequently, the student will tend to trust and open up to the teacher in a more psychically vulnerable and more emotionally receptive way than in most relationships. This creates an inherent power differential between the teacher and the student. Because of this power differential, we must be vigilant to uphold the integrity of the seat of the teacher. We must never exploit the vulnerability of the student for our own personal gain or gratification. Clear boundaries must be established and maintained in our role of serving our students."

    This is the problem I have with people making light of Friend's admitted relationships with students and/or employees. He helped write guidelines that his teachers should follow, and pointed out valid reasons as to why teachers should not be involved with students. Even if someone is a "willing" participant. People tend to idolize their yoga teachers because they are opening up and experiencing new depths of their being. This can be confused with attraction and desire for the teacher. True guidance would be to deflect those feelings or redirect, not to encourage them.

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  5. […] Como profesores y estudiantes de Anusara, muchos nos acercamos al yoga buscando un espacio para ejercitar y empoderar el cuerpo físico. Descubrimos poco a poco que no estamos aislados, nuestra individualidad va más allá de nuestro vehículo físico y que nos es imposible separarnos de esa totalidad de lo que somos: el Yoga se convirtió en nuestra realidad. […]

  6. Joe Sparks says:

    What I find interesting, is the massive amount of restimulation, facsination and upset with this situation. If we were not hurt in this area we would stay relaxed and pleased, and figure out how to give JF a hand. Believe it or not, every other guy was probably jealous of JF and all his female admirers! And now are thanking themselves that it was JF and not them. You can hear this "collective sigh". Men carry this stuff, and are so throughly trained and conditioned from day one to not be human and try to fit in the "man box" it should not be too much of a surprise when this happens.
    This behavior will not end until we eliminate sexism, and all the other isms that target and oppress everyone. We can start by treating each and everyone with complete respect. JF is completely good! That will never change, no matter how bad he screws up! He still needs to apologise, to heal. But the same is true for you! We all need to come clean about our mistakes, it dosen't make us bad people. Everyone is doing the best they can. Find a community where the members help each other to heal and grow.

  7. SQR says:

    YES! Someone here who gets it! You and I and everyone else is a living embodiment of God- the sooner we act like it and treat each other that way, the sooner our lives get better, more fulfilling, more productive, and more fun! What are we waiting for?