The Vicious Vocal Minority vs. John Friend.

Via Dr. Katy Poole
on May 19, 2012
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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


About Dr. Katy Poole

Katy Poole, Ph.D. helps yogis who have a thirst for deeper experiences of samadhi discover it in Sanskrit, which is not a dead classical language that only geeky academics who hang out at Berkeley or Harvard can decipher. Rather, Sanskrit is a vibrational technology with which to enter higher states of consciousness. It’s the gateway drug that causes addiction to effortless meditation. And it aligns your biorhythms with the pulse of nature at its source. Dr. Poole offers a free online introduction to Sanskrit video course that you can access at her website:


9 Responses to “The Vicious Vocal Minority vs. John Friend.”

  1. Thank you, Katy. I miss you! You could say I've been part of that VVM, I guess, though I haven't been that vocal. Turns out that we weren't really a minority, it's just that hundreds were still too unsure to speak up. Mourning is an understatement. Turns out that yoga is so much harder and deeper without a perfect teacher to give you all the answers. And yet, it's also cheaper, more real, and more do-able, if you let it be. Uncertainty means maturity. Knowing that no one has the answers except for me. My next project; bringing yoga to the people without all the shaming and guilt that normally comes with a powerful teacher's messages. Let them discover what's good for them… no more shaming commandments or universal rules IN ANY STYLE OF YOGA. As my eyes opened, I realized that it's everywhere, not just in Anusara. But it doesn't need to be anymore. Love to you, Erin

  2. Rogelio says:

    If we rely on our inner voice, that means we have to be quite to listen, if we allow life guide us in the path, journey we should take (what should we practice today on the mat and in our daily life), then maybe we would not glorify normal human beings to do the thinking for us….yes we need a teacher to learn what and how to learn but the real learning is in our practice. MY main teacher is very good, but he is flawed just like the rest of us, he is still working on his stuff….i admire him for his hard work and also realize that we are all trying our best , that means making mistakes…. Our Guruji, in india lives a life that is exemplary. and after 70+ years of yoga he is still working on his stuff….
    John F. is no AMMA, and after this he will not be as "big as Her"…..

  3. JoeC2K says:

    Katy, Thanks for your excellent and thought provoking article. I'll add my observations on this "scandal". Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is quoted as saying that "yoga is not easy"… and I don't believe that he was referring to asanas but to the yamas and niyamas. These are the most fundamental limbs and also the most difficult to realize in one's life (at least for me). This vocal minority should look at themselves in the mirror and ask if they are realizing the yamas and niyamas in their life. Somehow, not surprisingly in the material oriented West, the emphasis on the very foundation of yoga has been devalued. I believe that we're witnessing the collapse of Anusara yoga as one would witness the collapse of any structure built upon a shaky foundation. Moreover, to refer to this a scandal is sort of ridiculous as you allude to in your article. He's broken no laws and he created Anusara yoga. Though I would find it refreshing if he would just burn all his bridges and speak his mind… Also, while I understand your assertion that this vocal minority is looking for a more democratic direction in yoga, "a movement led by the people, for the people and of the people", I don't believe that is positive nor is John Friend empowered to "let them have it" and it's a delusion to believe this. I'm not sure if you believe this is a positive step or you're only stating your observations but it goes against thousands of years of evidence that a guru is needed to light the way (and I'm not claiming that John Friend is or was a guru) and that practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya) are essential in cultivating a tranquil and liberated mind. I don't believe that a movement led by the people will bear the fruit of tranquility and liberation.

  4. Katy Poole says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comments everyone. To respond to some of the points you raise, JoeC2K, I tackle the "guru" question first. I'm a firm believer in the "guru principle," having spent over 16 years apprenticed to my spiritual teacher, having submitted to the "higher mind" of academia (and my PhD adviser who was definitely a "guru" in that he made me walk through fire), and having to eat lots and lots of humble pie at the feet of my Sanskrit and Vedic chanting teachers in India as a young woman living there alone. But this relationship is very difficult and very Indian (or Asian in general) in its requirements. (I think I had to really become "Indian" in order to fully get it.) It requires you to surrender totally and trust, while being asked to stretch beyond what you think is possible for you. At the same time, it exposes you to the humanity of the person that you've elevated to "god" status in order to accomplish my former statement. I don't care who your guru is and how impeccably they embody the yamas and niyamas, s(he) is limited by her humanity. And when you realize that, it's an earth-shattering experience. (Please read Chogyam Trungpa's brilliant chapter on the guru in "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism." He said it best.) The natural response is to think that you've been duped, that you were misled, and that you've been exploited. The anger is tremendous. On the other hand and with time, you realize how much you gained from your willingness, your surrender, and your faith. The guru just held the space for that and you realize that it's ultimately the disciple who has more power with her humble dedication than the guru has with his/her position.

  5. Katy Poole says:

    (Part 2: Sorry for the lengthy response. If you're still with me, here's the rest of it:)

    Having said that, I don't see anyone in the western adoption of yoga prepared to take on a real guru relationship, nor do I see anyone fit to serve as a guru in the same context. We simply don't have the culture for it. We're Americans—like it or not. We demand equality and to be on the same level as everyone else—even if we've done nothing to earn it. With this, we're either doomed as a civilization or we're inventive. The American spiritual experiment—when we examine the history of spiritual movements in this country from across traditions—is one of bold individualism and egalitarianism. We're better when we come together as equals and do what Americans do best in the world—serve the less fortunate.

    In this regard, I think the real problem with yoga isn't about the guru or John Friend serving in this role, but the fact that it became big business, which brings out the other side of the American culture—greed, corruption and material gluttony. Anusara, with all its beautiful spiritual platitudes, was and is, in fact, a for-profit corporation. People wanted to be up on that stage for the exposure and potential riches that would bring as much as they longed for it for their own self-esteem. (All the people who made it on the stage have big yoga teaching careers now. I admit I wanted up on that stage as well for the same reason—and John definitely dangled that carrot in front of my nose several times with his promises to incorporate my Sanskrit program into Anusara. That desire for something big and glittery and materially plentiful doesn't escape any of our notice or longings—especially in an society that operates on an economy of more and the necessity of more.) I personally think John Friend's downfall had nothing to do with his habits—although they didn't help—but with his desire to create "The Center." His eyes got too big for his stomach. He wanted more and in the wanting of more, he dropped the ball. He neglected something that came around to bite him in the butt. I have no idea what that was, but in his pursuit of more and more someone got left behind and became angry enough to destroy him. Otherwise there truly are worse offenses occurring in the yoga "industry," but no one is as bothered by them because it's difficult to love a corporation. John, on the other hand, was deeply loved and admired. He was an easy target to bring down and destroy as a result. The "yoga" corporations are less warm and fuzzy. And I'm sure their officers are jumping for joy at his demise. Now his method is up for grabs and profits.

    What I mean by a movement by the people, etc. is a return to the real spirit of the land yoga has found itself in and the values we at least profess, but don't always achieve. We have to realize that "giving is the new getting." If yogis spent as much time actually serving someone as they do attending endless "teacher" trainings, festivals, spending money on the latest Lulu outfit, and so on, there would be a real revolution. I know this sounds very "high and mighty" and exposes me for the kind of attacks we love to see on elephant, but I have to say the best moment in yoga's history here was when it wasn't a business, when it was a significant part of a consciousness raising effort, and when people taught in church basements. In this regard, I remember my first yoga teachers. They were holy people. They didn't bounce in to a class, ignore all the students and their needs, and show off their poses. They were present. Simply. They walked their talk. And they didn't do it to become rich.

    It may be the movement I allude to requires more of a "guide on the side" in the American context than the "sage on the stage." I'd like to see it go truly back to its roots where no one could teach without a thorough education in the Vedas, in Sanskrit, in Ayurveda, and with an emphasis on real studentship—which in the traditional context always required service first. But the likelihood of that happening seems remote to me, unless the big business side of yoga implodes, which it may as the trend dies.

    As far as "tranquility and liberation" are concerned, I would tend to agree. At the same time, these kinds of dark episodes always lead to growth as the Sanskrit prayer says—"from delusion lead me to truth, from darkness lead me to light, and from death lead me to immortality. Om peace, peace, perfect peace."

  6. cathywaveyoga says:

    I just read some convoluted letter on yogadork and wondered where is some response or different take on EJ? AAHH, here it is. Well, here it is. As different as night and day.

    I thought the freezing of the pension fund could be a felony.
    While JF wishes to return the Anusara want shim out. Though he did invent the brand the worth decreases with his intention per his teachers. Thus its in his own interest to renounce it and sell out. Though who will know until the next chapter.
    My thoughts were how about some apologies instead of immediate business negotiations. Wrong again!

  7. DavidDodd says:

    The new yoga revolution will come when method and technique are seen for what they are: 'props' for practice, 'props' that we in the West – true to form – have commoditized, and 'props' that through this commoditization have for many become a hindrance rather than a support for realizing yoga. And this will be facilitated by teachers who have the compassion and ability to move beyond the ideals of technique and support us in working with our own experience in way that is personal and authentic, and recognizes our autonomy and our interconnectedness.

  8. […] some of the difficulties that arise within these relationships. And it is significantly inspired by what has been happening with John Friend and […]

  9. […] He is a victim” (cue tears here). He is being made a scapegoat by people like me, you know, the “vicious vocal minority” (John’s words actually) who write about him non-stop in the Elephant Journal. And now the […]

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