May 19, 2012

The Vicious Vocal Minority vs. John Friend.

Photo: Patheos

“The show is not the show, but they who go.” ~Emily Dickinson

It’s amazing how much can change in a year.

This exact time last year, I was sitting next to a girlfriend receiving a pedicure and doing what I normally do: listening. She’d just returned from a gathering with John Friend, exuding the same excitement as when she made the varsity cheerleading squad decades before. Breathless and flushed, she shared all the details with me.

“You wouldn’t believe it, Katy,” she exclaimed with stars sprouting from her eyes like a Hello Kitty cartoon on acid. “He actually brought me up on the stage. Me! He asked me to demonstrate a pose and complimented me on how much I’d grown. I felt seen for the first time in my life.”

Offering occasional gestures of interest that I felt obliged to feign, I listened for a solid hour as the events of my friend’s proximity to greatness unfolded.

“He wants to be as big as Amma,” she proffered finally at the end. “And I can see it. He spreads so much love.”

Since my toes were already dry and a client in crisis had just texted me, I left my friend soaking in bubbles—blissfully content to be alone with her own reverie.

Flash forward a year later.

We’re sitting together at the same nail spa still talking about the same man, John Friend, whom I’ve never met but nevertheless have engaged in a vicarious love-hate relationship with through the highs and lows of my friend. I observe how her face has changed—how it now resembles the same face I wore after my father died tragically in a skiing accident. Where it once bore a banner of brightness, it now cast a shadow. She seemed sullen.

“That a-hole,” she whispered sharply. “My yoga teaching business is in shambles. My teacher-training enrollment is down by more than half it was last year. I don’t know if I should denounce my Anusara license or ride it out.”

The same hour passed. My toes were again dry and I left my friend soaking in bubbles that were popping everywhere.

What changed?

Of course we all know what happened, but what changed is at the source of what John Friend has called the “vicious vocal minority’s” ire.

It’s not just that people feel let down, that their businesses are suffering, and that he had sex with his students for god’s sake. (I know many yoga teachers—and so called “yoga” companies—who have committed far worse offenses that everyone knows about but isn’t as troubled by). Rather, it’s something else that’s caused my friend’s face to turn sour—something similar to the realization that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are roles played by your flawed parents.

Yet she’s still holding onto the hope that they might exist.

In a similar larger-than-life scenario, John Friend built a glittering stage that many longed to ascend like contestants on American Idol. Everyone I knew who was interested in yoga, it seemed, wanted to drink the Kula-aid—including myself. Anusara yoga teacher training programs and classes flourished everywhere. John painted a vision of a yoga utopia and propagated it with fit, sculpted, and divinely tattooed goddesses and gods who inspired its realization.

He constructed Anusara “villages” where large gatherings of people shared in collective effervescent Shri-filled moments. The future of yoga, it seemed, had officially arrived in the west. He even released a viral video announcing its imminent appearance in Encinitas—which the founder of yoga in this country, Swami Yogananda, put on the map and where everyone could partake in its new and distinctly Occidental incarnation on that same “stage.”

And now that’s over.

I have no doubt that John Friend will be “cleared” by an ethics committee of his own making, since he’s committed no felony. He’s broken no law. And technically, he owns the brand he created, along with its business that’s up to him ultimately to decide how he wants to run.

Yet given the continuing outcry whenever he foolishly posts his plans of action to move Anusara forward, I feel like he’s missing something crucial in all this. The vicious vocal minority is mourning the loss of a sweet ideal—an ideal that matters more to them than the person who most recently articulated it and being human, failed at fully holding it up.

At the same time, the unwillingness of this so-called minority to accept the sage-on-the-stage as the focal point for yoga’s idealistic projections any longer signals to me that the childhood of yoga in the west is officially over. And that its future is exactly what these rebellious teenagers are asking for: a movement led by the people,  for the people and of the people. 

I say he should let them have it.

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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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