Monday, April 16, 2012

My Two Cents on the Anusara Scandal – Yoga is Serious Business; Don’t F*ck with It

Broken Heart by Gonadhunter on Deviantart
I’ve been following the Anusara scandal with fascination from the beginning. But I haven’t felt moved to blog about it until now. As an outsider to the Anusara community, it didn’t feel right to be pontificating from the sidelines. After all, there were hundreds of thousands of people who had been intimately involved with Anusara. Many of them had much painful news to process, and it felt inappropriate to heap on yet more commentary.

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 Business

There’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 It 

Which 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 Important

 I 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.


  1. worth the read ;-)

    joining what now? a medieval indian village? LOL ;-)

    and esp liked,

    "Consider the fact that maybe the Buddhists have something valuable to offer as they grapple with questions of suffering...."

    and i my depreciated two cents ;-) that even the buddhists are "grappling"

    ie, we're gonna have to work on this questions, and answers...

    really nice article, carol, thanks ;-)

    1. Thanks, Adan. I'm not Buddhist, although I've learned much from the teachings, so am not sure how the "grappling" plays out in that community.

      I do know that I've found it humorous moving from being into the yoga community, which is so insistent on love-and-light-and-positivity-all-the-time, into a Buddhist gathering where group discussion started out with a cheerful invocation of, "OK, now that we've meditated and had tea, let's talk about suffering and death!" And people were really into it.

      Somehow, at least in my limited experience, I haven't quite hit the happy medium. But maybe that's another delusion . . . :)

  2. Lovely, prescient thoughts Carol, precisely the mode of self and cultural reflection and discretion that is so necessary right now and has been so lamentably absent. Not only in Anusara, but across the board.

    There is a strange thing happening, and it has brought a lot of pain and bad choices, but is in the end the shifting of a culture. We have been changed by yoga, but we are also changing it. There is plenty of reason to think this could be an incredible good. But there is also the difficulty of business over truth, sales over students, myth over integrity. It remains to be seen what will happen to American yoga, whether we can as a culture grow up enough to look at its hard spiritual truths in full or will continue to manipulate it as packaged nirvana.

    As economy changes, as taxation and branding changes, as the process of becoming a teacher changes we're faced with a point blank question of whether teaching is a 'career' or a 'calling', practice is a spiritual path or a business, and studios are cultural, spiritual places like a church or private enterprise like everything else. There is a sense in which we've tried to have both. It becomes, when we do, a false promise and a blind manipulation, a cult. A psychological lie is necessary to hold that up. The questions are hard and the ramifications big.

    But people are asking them. That is our yoga.

  3. Hear, hear. Ever since I started teaching here in my little corner of the Midwest, I've had to undo the damage done to yoga's "reputation" by the bendy, blissed-out imagery. People are scared to try a class because they're afraid they aren't flexible or skinny enough, or they think they might be asked to engage in some sort of religious practice. Almost every new student apologizes to me when I introduce myself, or has an anxious look when I ask everyone to sit crossed-legged at the beginning of class.
    I try to stress my common-sense approach and let students discover their own connection to the practice...rather than dictate how they are supposed to be feeling. What do I know about the baggage they are bringing to class?
    Yoga has so much to offer the thinking student. I'd rather they engage on an intellectual and physical level, because that's when (in my experience) people start to get it. I'd like to think I help them start the process, but really the work is all theirs--the delightful and the difficult.

    1. I'd like to take your classes, Brenda!

      The apologies and anxiety you describe are remarkable. If that level of insecurity is normal, and I think it is (although people aren't necessarily usually so open about it), then that's more evidence to show how important it is to be honest about teaching yoga in ways that help us ground and know ourselves, as opposed to selling us ideologies that play on our fears and weaknesses. (And both the "body beautiful" and "mystic East" sales packages do just that, I'd argue.)

  4. Indeed, but what makes people in such numbers ignore their better judgement and commit to such a faux sub-sub-sub-genre? This phenomenon spans many cultures and many eras. Mostly I believe that the cause is from sporadic and spontaneous instances of confabulation which are reinforced communally within overlapping paradigms of spiritual mythology and didactic ascesis.

  5. An insightful post. Interestingly, the one Anusara Instructor I've met/practiced with/been taught by, resulted in quite a few passive aggressive and deceitful instances (on her part) camouflaged in "bliss and love".
    It was a very disheartening experience (which is funny since Anusara is all about the "heart"...).

    Of course, my situation is mere consequence- I know there are many fabulous Anusara instructors- but it's interesting nonetheless.

    (ps- thank you for clearly stating that what JF practiced was not wicca. I appreciate it very much).

    1. While I never took the idea that JF was really practicing Wicca seriously, I did initially find the pretense funny enough to enjoy repeating the phrase. The whole claim to be "Grand Master" of a "Wiccan sex coven" (one with its own logo, yet) struck me as too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

      But of course, I never took Shiva-Shakti Tantra seriously, either.

      Later it occurred to me that if we keep repeating "Wiccan sex coven" as this story grows and spreads, it does start to stick onto Wicca itself. So to the extent that I make references to it in the future (which I don't expect to be much), I plan to keep noting that this was clearly NOT really Wicca - and hope that others will do the same.

  6. great piece, Carol. thank you for sharing your insights. for me, by far the most disturbing thing was the abuse of power (well, that and the gross commercialization of yoga). the truth of suffering is real (the First Noble Truth)! if we refuse to acknowledge it, we will only create more of it.

  7. As always, a considered and sound weighing in.

    Yes, yoga is serious business but perhaps we might also consider that she's been dressed up in funny costumes by children who find her fascinating and shiny and she makes them happy; she is their favorite toy. She is available everywhere and everyone has one and wonderful and prized as she is, she is also taken for granted, relegated to the status of one that is there for the taking, do what you want with it. Sometimes that goes badly.

    We might consider what an otherwise intelligent man did with a cigar in the oval office, what family men did to other family's savings and investments, men of the cloth crossing the line with members of the flock, how trusted family members and grade school teachers have trespassed upon children, what officers of the Peace sometimes do to innocent citizens. This is yoga and that is a nation's moral standing, a child's innocence, a trusted adviser who can't be trusted, a religious father of the flock who is horny and twisted or desperate for attention. Yoga is not alone. Life is serious business. Yoga's use is in recognizing who we are and what we have to do manage that, to understand that.

    Terrible things are done quietly to vulnerable people under the banner of our greatest trusts regularly. JF is exposed because half a million people or so followed and paid for one path under one leader and his people. And because someone finally broke. He was exposed once and now again. Transparency is necessary and it worked. He is no longer powerful. It's done.

    Yoga has not changed. But like all things it is subject to the manipulations of the practitioners.

    We have good and kind and moral leaders, investors who will protect our investments, teachers and family who raise children with compassion, military and cops and secret service who will die to protect the innocent, men of the cloth who live to guide others toward God and happiness.

    It's all there too. It's all the business of recognizing our fragility, of helping us find ourselves in a safe way. Something that has not changed in our human condition is the need for that. As you pointed out in an earlier post, many unsung teachers are doing the job seriously. John Friend is a symbol of insecurity and its evil twin.

  8. It is interesting to note that the Shiva/Shakti Tantra is closely associated with the seven chakras and the nature of the body. It is an interesting study, and a vast philosophy.

    Each of the chakras is associated with a Shiva and a Shakti, represented as a Lord and a Goddess. These are Brahman, Vishnu, Rudhra, Ishvara, and so on - each a different aspect of God. The shiva/shakti part explains the manifestation of, and roles we play as individuals. The Shakti (Goddess) is the power of, or manifestation of the consciousness of the Lord. The goddesses are not sluts - they are the consorts of their lord.

    Paganism tends to worship the divine feminine, and prakriti (nature). Eventually this goes down hill into a cultist ceremony, until there is some sort of fertility rite or sexual orgy. We'll at least they are not drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their latest sacrifice, but they once did. The communion ceremony of Christianity was a replacement for the pagan one.

    In this case, I think the Shiva/Shakti Tantra package was seen as a sexy way to sell the product of Anusara. I liked John's "Sacred Geometry" package.

    I think that John Friend simply fell from "Rock Star Syndom", the same thing that brings down many gurus of the new age movement. Same thing happens among the organized religions too.

    Sexual liaisons with subordinate teachers, and especially with students is a violation of the code of ethics of a yoga teacher. Adultery is a another matter, forbidden of one who professes to be teaching spiritual truth. Misappropriation of money takes the issue to an ever greater level.

    Fame, Fortune, and the opportunity it brings to exploit young social climbers who will do anything for a backstage pass...

    1. "Paganism tends to worship the divine feminine, and prakriti (nature). Eventually this goes down hill into a cultist ceremony, until there is some sort of fertility rite or sexual orgy. We'll at least they are not drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their latest sacrifice, but they once did."

      I'd like to know where you've attained this information as I would have to disagree with such a narrow-woefully misguided, statement. Neo-Pagans may draw from pre-christianity beliefs, however Wicca as a religion (which is the point of discussion for JF) is only 60 years old and is NOT based on human sacrifice and sexual orgies. I would also go so far as to state that pagans and human sacrifice are a tenuous link unfounded by archeology and historians (but encouraged by the media and Christian backlash).

      I strongly recommend reading more on the topic before making such damaging and dismissive statements.

    2. I would argue that the more pernicious instances of "rock star syndrome" very much involve "believing your own bullshit." It goes beyond simply taking advantage of willing groupies because you can and becomes elevating this basely self-interested activity into a benevolent act of consorting with others elevated enough to be allowed into your exceptional inner circle.

      Re pagans, Eco Yogini has already spokes to this more knowledgeably than I could have. I would point out, however, that some "traditional" Tantric practices were pretty out there themselves. According to one scholar, for example, the medieval Hatha yogis were so far "from the Ahimsa (non-violent) tradition of the polished Brahmanical yogins that they participated in all manner of blood rites, including human sacrifice."

  9. Common sense and practicality with a touch of pragamtism in viewing the subjective surroundings....Brilliant! Great article, Carol. Well worth the read.

  10. This was posted somewhere and I am an ex-inspired teacher. I found it one of the more articulate analysis of events and feelings so far.

  11. Hi Carol.. Yes..sad but true.. You may go back to our first comments about the JF development when it broke - My thoughts on the debacle are essentially unchanged. I wondered then - why all the shock when time after time / and through centuries and cultures the formula remains the same: STRONG CHARISMA + PURPORTED SPIRITUAL ANSWERS multiplied by DEVOTEES, taken to the power of AUTHORITY /divide by MONEY and subsequent POWER STRUCTURES and the product always comes out to equal = BLIND ARROGANCE and its remainders (power structures trump stated mission; blind preservation of structures at any cost, hiding/lying/deep denial to the end). The JF story mirrors exactly the sad tale of many of our political and religious leaders (think 8 out of 10 of male gov officials and the Catholic Church, for example, for like moral/mission breakdowns amid onlooker shock and horror. This story is old as the hills - and always just a little more sad when directly linked to spiritual life (as opposed to civic). Which "costs" us more? Hard to say... . Lesson? In government, love, friendship, religion or ANY "human relational practice" - Don't Give Your Moral Compass Away for any claimed "Greater Good". The true Greater Good resides already (and had always resided) within your heart. When in doubt - Be still, Be Silent and Listen Deeply
    . The Truth will emerge.

  12. hey Carol, Good job. i too have been watching from the sidelines, tempted to comment but censoring or withholding most of what i might really have to say if i were totally blunt and honest, out of compassion for those more deeply affected. there is definitely an element of abuse in John Friend's actions - abuse of trust, abuse of others, abuse of self; also a significant amount of hierarchy in the Anusara community, and not a meritocratic hierarchy either, or things would never have gone as far as they did. the central issue to me is about self-empowerment, the healthy kind, which scandals of this sort always challenge us to recognize as the only real vaccination we can have against this kind of virus - because that's what it is, a consciousness virus that feeds on lies and on each participant's self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness, whether we play the victim or the perpetrator in any particular drama.

  13. As a Yoga practitioner we all felt disappointed by the Anusara Scandal and had a lot of questions. I think this article answers most of them.Thanks.

  14. This is such a great spot-on article, and I say that as a Certified Anusara Teacher who resigned on Feb 15, 2012. You get to the heart of so many issues instead of getting mired in the titillating sex scandal part of it, which is really, as you so astutely point out, a symptom rather than the cause. Although I touched upon these same issues in my "Leaving Anusara" resignation on elephant journal, you posit them in a fully fleshed-out & cogent manner. It is so clear.

    Many of us had our own ways of thinking & teaching in the community, yet loved the alignment system & the community itself. This made it really hard to leave, even though we discretely rolled our eyes at the Shiva-Shakti Tantra Primer & had a whole host of other issues creatively & financially with Anusara. Thank you so much for this piece. I don't know how I missed it a month & 1/2 ago. So glad to see it now - it is just as relevant now as it was when you wrote it...

    1. Thanks, Susanna. Although we've never met, your voice has always been one that made me pause and remember that no matter how irritated I felt about Anusara back when it was still the hottest and fastest growing yoga method in America, there must have been good things going on there too because there were such intelligent, creative, and thoughtful people who were into it. Others have also told me how they loved their own particular teachers and community and just put up with the central big top circus tent scene - which was initially all I saw from the outside.

      It's exciting to see more and more Anusara-trained teachers taking the opportunity to step into an even more independent, creative, and authentic space - I have read about some of your recent work online and it sounds wonderful. Best wishes.

  15. karmadogg hits some very salient points that I'm surprised weren't more central to the article. It wasn't simply a case of a manipulative rock star - JF constructed power structures that prevented any meaningful challenge to his authority. This goes beyond simply believing one's own BS and rationalizations. More or less, JF built an authoritarian religion. At the end of your article, why pick on Eastern religions? Many parallels could be drawn with fundamental Christianity and other traditional religions.

    1. It sounds like you may have more information than I do about the internal power structures. Given that Anusara was not a residential cult, and was in fact very decentralized geographically, it's hard to understand precisely how the control mechanisms operated. A little has come out on this publicly, but not all that much.

      The point about Eastern religions at the end was not to suggest that they are intrinsically more authoritarian, prone to power abuses, etc. than others. Rather it was to say that within the yoga community specifically, their Orientalized variants have a lot of cachet - witness "Shiva Shakti Tantra."