In February, the yoga world received a wake-up call and an opportunity for honest reflection.
An anonymous website claimed unsavory business and personal actions by Anusara yoga founder and teacher, John Friend. What does this complex story reveal about modern yoga, celebrity culture, our own vulnerability and our personal yoga practice?
Seven years ago, I traveled to the spectacular beachfront town of Encinitas, California, for a special “Teachers’ Immersion” with John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga. One evening, we gathered to watch The Wizard of Oz, preceded by John’s excited request that we stay alert for the film’s profound messages.
As you’ll no doubt recall, the scarecrow, the tin man, the lion and Dorothy make a harrowing journey to the Emerald City, where they expect the great Wizard of Oz to give them the crucial element they believe they lack—a brain, a heart, courage and a way home. They overcome demons, doubt and dangers before reaching the wizard’s throne room—only to find an ordinary man disguised behind an amplified voice, thunderous puff of smoke and fierce lights. Once the posse captures the witch’s broomstick, the wizard affirms each of the victors for their brain, heart and courage—and sends them on their way.
Fast-forward seven years and we watch the end of the film again, this time in real life. The greatest surprise? That so many are surprised by the ending.
John Friend established Anusara yoga in 1997 after many years of studying, practicing and teaching yoga intensively. He chose the name Anusara from a passage in the Kularnava Tantra that can be loosely translated as aligning with the “flow of grace” or “following your heart.”
John called forth dedicated yoga practitioners and teachers to form a “merry band” in which diversity and self-expression were encouraged. Over the next 15 years, Anusara yoga grew to thousands of teachers around the world and many independently owned Anusara-focused yoga studios. The Anusara website proclaimed it as the fastest-growing form of yoga in the world.
Why the rocket-paced growth? Anusara is known for its systematic approach to alignment and bio-mechanics, a Tantric “life-affirming” world view, the “heart themes” woven into classes, a philosophical scholarship and a friendly community atmosphere. John is widely respected for his huge contributions to modern yoga—particularly his gifts in teaching asanas, communicating Tantric philosophy and building community. Anusara yoga grew from his enormous desire to help people experience the joy of being alive—of “co-participating” with the life force, rocking the shakti and flowing with grace. All this stemmed from his belief that we all could “touch the sky.”
Haven’t we all felt that thrill of feeling fully alive? What if you could feel that every moment of every day?
Even if you know all about the shadow, even if you’ve fallen hard from a broken heart, how can you not long for that perfect light?
That’s the seductive song of the spiritual highway. Remember Dorothy and company’s first glimpse of the Emerald City? It took their breath away, made all the terrors seem worthwhile. Their belief in an all-knowing wizard called them forward.
From a distance, the world of Anusara yoga seemed booming and blissful. John was touring worldwide to fire up yoga communities that local Anusara-trained teachers were cultivating year-round. Certified Anusara teachers were featured prominently in every Yoga Journal conference. John headlined yoga festivals, where he took the stage like a seasoned rock star. He stepped into the philosopher role and named his own version of Tantric philosophy. He announced concrete plans to build a long-envisioned yoga center in Encinitas near Paramahansa Yogananda’s famous center.
Beneath the surface, organizational and curriculum is issues were growing. Last January, several prominent Anusara-certified teachers publicly and respectfully parted ways with John Friend and Anusara yoga. Eyebrows rose and speculation spread. Yet calm voices reminded us that it’s normal for a long-time student to part from their teacher and that John himself had respectfully shed his Iyengar affiliation to teach what was true for him. Alert but steady, yogis returned to their mats.
Then, in February, all hell broke loose. Someone anonymously posted photos and accusations that John Friend had been sexually involved with several people who were employees and/or, students, some married. The site also alleged that he had moved money from the employee pension fund to support Anusara projects and was leading a “wiccan” group within the Anusara community. While the website quickly disappeared (before I personally saw it), the damage was done. The throne room curtain was pulled back and the mortal wizard revealed.
Whether expressed first as anger, shock, betrayal, empathy, disgust, victimization, patience or numbness, emotions among John’s students and affiliated teachers were raw.
Hearts broke open.
Publicly, John admitted to some accusations and tried to explain. While some Anusara certified teachers resigned their licenses immediately, most Bay Area teachers waited. Local yoga students continued coming to class as usual—either unaware or unaffected.
A group of long-certified teachers stepped up to work with John to manage the crisis, protect the Anusara name and set Anusara on firm footing. The approach sounded simple: separate the Anusara brand from the founder, create a teacher-run school, lead an ethics review of John Friend and keep the Anusara community together in a more democratic form. Dozens of people devoted vast time and energy to the cause. As of this writing, several teacher groups have come and gone without success and no specific plan has been announced.
In the Bay Area, yoga classes continue, with or without the Anusara name. Officially, the Anusara office in Texas is open, run by long-time employees, “with no involvement from John Friend.” The website talks of a future teacher-led school and lists affiliated teachers around the world. An Anusara spokesperson said that John is teaching as an independent Hatha yoga teacher and will not be teaching Anusara yoga, training or licensing teachers in Anusara yoga.
What do we do with a much-admired man who set out high expectations for himself, his students and the Anusara community—and who turns out to be an ordinary mortal?
To whom is he accountable, and for what? Do we respond with compassion or demand accountability? Can we see an ordinary human falling short of perfection and hold him accountable for the choices he made and their consequences? How do we “look for the good” without ignoring the painful realities?
As the drama intensified, there were no easy answers but plenty of heated conversations.
Meanwhile, grief swept in, the ultimate heart softener. For some people, the grief has been intense and long-lasting. Loss of a personal teacher, loss of their inspiration, structure, community, sense of common purpose, loss of innocence, loss of hope. For some, this was their first experience with massive disillusionment, an abrupt wake-up call to see the world and themselves more clearly. For others, it was another sad chapter in a familiar story: a celebrated, powerful man falls prey to the perils of fame and adulation.
As thousands of eyes turned to scrutinize one man’s shadows, many yogis also turned inward to face their shadows. Call these samskaras, patterns, stories or lifelong challenges, each of us has our own shadows that we can bring into the light. Years of looking for the good in ourselves and others can provide a strong foundation to confront our shadows. A steady asana or meditation practice can cultivate stamina for dealing with uncomfortable experiences.
In the tornado of intense emotions, yoga practice supported a modicum of steadiness in the community. Like the symbolic Nataraj, who dances full on in the center of the fire with dreadlocks flying, emotionally charged yogis in the inner circle of Anusara actively cultivated a clear, steady gaze to see it all and make their own choices.
So, who is the wizard and where is the road?
Where do we go with all this? What have we learned? Rather than provide answers, I’ll pose some questions to consider.
Are you prone to pedestals?
Many in the Anusara community have acknowledged putting John Friend up on a pedestal to some degree—easy to do. John needed none of the wizard’s lights, smoke and loudspeakers to fire up a room full of yogis. He helped people feel safe, strong and alive in their bodies, heal long-standing injuries and do physical feats they never dreamed possible. He inspired people and established a community where many thrived, but pedestals are dangerous for all concerned. Do you tend to place people above you? Can you respect someone for a particular quality without assuming they have other abilities? How can you value yourself, no matter what?
How do you react when someone fails to live up to your expectations?
People projected onto John all kinds of expectations about how he should serve them as a teacher, mentor, leader, role model, human. These unmet expectations intensified feelings of anger and betrayal when unflattering information about John was revealed. Are you aware of the expectations you set for the people around you? How do you respond to new information?
How do you hold the qualities of compassion and accountability?
Are you quick to judge, or do you let people off the hook too easily? Do compassion and accountability feel different in your body? Would you like to integrate them more fully? Express them differently?
Where are you out of alignment with your highest intentions?
It’s tempting to focus on people in the limelight who stumble or fall. What are your intentions for your own life? What is your ethical code and are you living up to it?
Can you hear your inner teacher?
How dependent are you on the voices around you? Are you cultivating a relationship with “the true teacher within”—on and off the mat? Can you track your breath and your body’s sensations while following instructions in a yoga class? If the voice inside sounds like common sense, it’s probably your inner teacher. Anyone who insists that you override your inner teacher and trust them while you (or they) torque your body into intense pain is not a guide you can trust.
Where are you giving away your powers of discernment and choice?
Charismatic teachers and leaders, pedestals, authoritative voices and overly broad trust can all lead to us giving away some of our power to see with our own eyes, find our own truths and make wise choices. Where are you vulnerable? How can you be more alert?
If we call yoga a spiritual practice, does that mean every yoga instructor is a spiritual teacher?
While John Friend consistently called yoga a spiritual practice, he did not, to my knowledge, proclaim himself a spiritual teacher or guru. When you go to yoga class, are you aware of the role you want your instructor to play? Are you aware of your assumptions and projections? Your yoga teacher is trained to teach hatha yoga asanas (physical postures and movements). She may also be trained in meditation, pranayama or yoga philosophy. That training does not automatically make her an expert in anything else, like love, relationships or anger. That said, many yoga teachers have deeply contemplated important life questions and have explored them through their yoga practices and the advice of wise beings. They may simply be wiser than the average human. Their insights and reminders may be extremely useful to you—or not. Are your filters active, even when you’re in post-savasana bliss?
How do you want yoga to serve your life?
Rather than leap onto the next charismatic teacher’s path or dive into the next complex curriculum, now may be a good time to reconsider how you want yoga to serve you in living your life.
Given that, what teachers, trainings, texts or tools—if any—do you want to support you? Where are the gaps in your practice?
One Anusara teacher told me that watching her reactions to the recent events revealed the gaps in her own practice. If the fruits of a strong practice include being more responsive and less reactive, more open-hearted and less fearful, more authentic and less posturing, how are you doing? Can you get some honest feedback from the people around you?
How can we counter the “celebritization” of yoga and yogis?
We live in a celebrity-loving culture. We’re trained to choose the restaurant with the line out the door or the festival getting the most buzz. We’re trained to think bigger is better, internationally known is better than locally respected and beauty indicates health and wisdom. What does this mean for your yoga practice? There are many fantastic yoga teachers in the Bay Area, some of whom don’t focus on marketing or don’t wow you with their stage presence and personal charm. Is it time to seek out new teachers or a smaller class where you may get new ideas or more personal attention?
How can yoga teachers and other guides sustain a solitary path of deep practice and self-inquiry?
What is truly possible for a yogi supporting hundreds or thousands of people in an intense teaching schedule within a modern culture of constant over stimulation, photo and video shoots, marketing, media and general mayhem? How does a yoga teacher keep students growing and their rice bowl full and make time consistently for meditation, study, self-inquiry, sleep, healthy personal relationships, time in nature and complete rest? How can we create a yoga culture that supports deep, sustained practice—especially for our teachers?
On that sleepy night in Encinitas in 2005, very few of the dedicated Anusara yogis stayed awake through the end of the film to be reminded that the great wizard is an ordinary human and that we already have—and are—everything we need. Few saw the wise teacher challenge the seekers, affirm in them the noble qualities they could not see in themselves and then send them back into their lives strengthened by the journey and the wizard.
Yoga is, among other things, the art of living our aspirations.
John Friend stoked, in many, our highest aspirations. Through the yoga practices, we’ve discovered so much and grown so much. We’ve embedded new patterns in body, mind, and heart. Maybe someday we’ll leap over the rainbow and touch the sky.
Carolyn Brown practices yoga on rock ledges, fallen logs, sand dunes, lush meadows…and occasionally a mat. Find kindred spirits through Earth Ecstatics in Action on Facebook or email [email protected].
Editor: Maja Despot
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