|Broken Heart by Gonadhunter on Deviantart|
Now that the scandal itself has essentially played itself out and we’re onto the next wave of commentary and revelations (see the recent Daily Beast and New York Magazine articles), however, I feel like it’s OK for me to offer up my two cents.
Yoga is Serious BusinessThere’s been some incredibly good blogging in the past year or so satirizing various aspects of contemporary North American yoga culture – its pseudo-spirituality vacuity, commodity fetishism, and so forth and so on. And I love this, because it’s good for us in the yoga community to laugh at ourselves and our many foibles. It’s also important to remember, however, that yoga is still in fact serious business.
|Rock Balancing in Santa Barbara at Solstice by Oasis Design|
This is true in two ways. First and most obviously, there’s money, reputations, and livelihoods at stake. Although most people in the yoga biz aren’t getting rich (I was interested to see that John Friend himself was only pulling down $100K a year – not so much by today’s standards for a NYTs-anointed “Yoga Mogul”), their livelihoods are nonetheless on the line. And it’s not necessarily easy to transition from being a yoga teacher into some other line of work. Particularly in today’s uncertain economy, the nuts-and-bolts business side of yoga is for many people serious business.
The second way in which yoga is serious business is more subtle – but ultimately even more important. While most people start out taking yoga classes for not-so-serious reasons (e.g., to do a little stretching), many find out sooner or later that synching your body, mind, and breath can produce some pretty arresting results.
For example, I firmly believe that yoga is an effective tool for releasing repressed emotions stored in the body, which means that they’re also held in the subconscious mind. Which means that they’re really, really powerful, and play a critical, but usually unrecognized role in governing everyday actions.
This is part of what’s happening when people start talking about how yoga “put them in touch with their true self.” Working the body, regulating the breath, and focusing the mind can unlock a lot of critical personal information that our conscious minds and busy lifestyles normally keep out of sight. However, the very fact that it’s hidden from our normal understanding makes it all that much more powerful. Starting to unearth, recognize, and process those buried feelings is incredibly important work.
And this is, again, serious business. Because you’re dealing with something that, at least metaphorically, may be touching people’s souls.
. . . So Don’t Play Manipulative Games with ItWhich brings me to my main point. The problem with what John Friend did is not that he had consensual sex (even with married women, objectionable as that may be). The problem is not that he fancied himself to be practicing Wicca (which clearly was not really the case). Nor is it (of course) that he smoked some pot. None of that on its own would be such a big deal.
All of those actions (and more) represented serious problems, however, when you consider the context in which they occurred. This is the part of the story that the mainstream media (as well as many in the yoga community) doesn’t get.
I think that we can safely assume that the pre-scandal Anusara community had a lot – and I mean a lot – of people who sincerely put their hearts and souls into both the method and its founder and leader. Who open-heartedly and sincerely believed in John Friend and his teachings. Who believed that this community (“Kula”) represented something very special, perhaps even sacred, in their lives.
What I really hold against John Friend, and why I feel that this scandal was well deserved, is that he manipulated these people and lied to them. Not consciously, I’m sure. But smart people (and I’m sure JF qualifies) can rationalize anything. And charismatic people (and we know JF is one) can convince many, many others of the compelling beauty of their hypocritical rationalizations.
If John Friend had been like Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and been open about his sexual appetites and indiscretions, I could have accepted that. If he had said to his employees – hey, I love to smoke some weed sometimes, and would you mind helping me out with some deliveries? and they agreed, that would be fine by me.
If he had said to his employees: you know, I really want to raise cash for my big Encinitas project, and I can’t manage that and keep your pensions growing at this same level, so sorry, I’m going to freeze them – OK. That would be his right as a business owner.
But that sort of openness was never, ever the pattern. Quite the contrary.
Rather than an honest accounting for his actions, what we had was the deliberate construction of a feel-good, pseudo-spiritual philosophy (“Shiva-Shakti Tantra”) that was big on salesmanship and empty on follow-through.
Consequently, the serious business qua business side of yoga highly invested in, with a growing yoga empire. But that came at the cost of investing at all in taking care of the more important, second serious business dimension. And that’s the part that deals with respecting the hearts and souls of those who you are encouraging to believe in you.
So “the philosophy of intrinsic goodness” became the manipulative enforcement of a group-think culture in which you covered up as necessary to enable John Friend to do whatever he clandestinely wanted to do. Conform to the party line, or you’re blacklisted. Shut up and do what you’re told, or your teaching career is on the line.
“Opening to Grace” meant getting socialized into a scene where you learned to pretend that you’re always “in alignment” with the “bliss” of “the Universe.” Learning to lie, in other words, even to yourself. Because let’s face it – that’s just not the way that life is. Ever.
In fact, my theory is that John Friend engineered his own downfall because he believed his own bullshit. He felt entitled to Bliss, all the time. Hence he felt entitled to having a trio of beautiful women in sexy lingerie massaging his body and performing titillating pseudo-lesbian French kissing on demand. I mean, “the Universe” was in alignment with his desires, right?
What’s ImportantI admit that this post is an exercise in venting. Although I personally was never involved in Anusara, the scandal nonetheless makes me angry. Because fucking with the hearts and souls of those who put their trust in you is just wrong.
That said, there’s nothing to be gained by staying angry at John Friend. He’s just one man who made some poor choices. Hopefully he’ll learn from them (although judging from his most recent interview, no signs of that yet). But what happened involved a lot more people, and what’s at stake is bigger than Anusara. What matters is that both the individuals who were personally involved in this debacle, as well as the larger community that wasn’t directly involved in it, learn and grow from what happened.
As far as the individuals go, that’s not my bailiwick, so I’ll just say that I wish them the best. As far as the larger community goes, this post is already long enough, and the question of lessons learned merits its own piece. But I’ll offer up two thoughts that have been particularly compelling to me as I’ve watched this whole thing unfold:
1. Shiva-Shakti Tantra was a manufactured ideology that was very successfully marketed as a spiritual commodity. The fact that it was so popular suggests that it astutely filled a big socio-cultural demand. What was that demand? Put simply, it was for an easy-to-digest pseudo-philosophy to assure you that everything in your life can be happy and beautiful and wonderful. And you could feel assured that this was true because the package was supposedly stamped with the imprimatur of an exotic ancient Indian tradition.
Lesson learned? That the American yoga community needs to dedicate itself to the sometimes scary project of waking up to reality. Get rid of the Bliss-colored glasses. Maybe read a good newspaper. Consider the fact that Buddhists have something valuable to offer as they grapple with questions of suffering.
2. The more that the American yoga community remains enamored of romanticized, Orientalist ideas that promise an escape from the reality of living in this time in this culture, the more it’s going to be vulnerable to similar scandals. After all, John Friend has quite a list of predecessors: Amrit Desai, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Muktananda (who was, rather creepily, also Friend’s guru), etc.
Lesson learned? That while we should honor and learn from Indian tradition, we need to recognize and guard against our longstanding tendency to romanticize the “mystic East” and glom onto pseudo-traditional philosophies that promise to deliver us from the challenge of living in 21st century America.Yoga can help us with this. It’s a powerful tool for mind-body-spirit integration. But we need to think into how best to work with it in ways that best help ourselves and others – right now, in this place and time. This means that we need to stay grounded in the here and now, not sailing off into fantasies about joining some medieval Indian lineage and having “the Universe” smile on us just as we’d like, all the time.