A Natural Yoga Disaster – Churning the Ocean

I have been practicing yoga for over 20 years and the recent yoga controversies in both the Anusara and Ashtanga worlds have provided hands down the best conversation we’ve ever had in the yoga world. If you know me, you know how much I love natural disasters for the powerful revelatory processes that they are. I hope it is not too insensitive to say that this “disaster” has in many ways been a great thrill! Because here we are, the demons and the gods churning the ocean, fearing our own mortality. And yes we have conjured up plenty of Halahala  (poison), but if we believe in the power of myth, we know that Amrita (nectar) will eventually follow. Keep churning. Keep listening. Keep watching. This process is a little like opening a bee-hive to see how the nectar-honey is made. Of course, there are more and less graceful ways to do this – may we all err on the side of grace.

Growing Doubt  (background for the conversation)

Over the past year or so many Anusara teachers grew concerned about the direction that John was taking Anusara Inc. As the sole proprietor of the for-profit business, he was making business decisions that many teachers felt were out of line with the fundamental principles that we all know and love (and practice and teach daily). It also seemed to some teachers that John’s personal choices were not consistent with the ethics of Anusara Yoga. This summer I emailed John my concerns about what I felt were inconsistencies with his teaching and his actions. I was personally uncomfortable with his repeated use of phrases such as “Trust me implicitly” and “I know you’re steady, I know you’re with me, I can trust you”, especially when I wasn’t feeling his steadiness or trustworthiness at the time. I was also uncomfortable with his lectures on relationships (they did not ring true to my own experience) and his newly developed Shiva-Shakti philosophy. Several other teachers including Elena Brower, Christina Sell, Darren Rhodes and Amy Ippoliti also approached John with their concerns at varying times over the course of the Fall/Winter and when their concerns were not addressed, these teachers chose to resign their Anusara license.

The Power of a Name

Just to be clear, the way it works is that each certified teacher pays $80/yr for the license to use the registered, trademarked name “Anusara”.  [No more, no less – as might have been insinuated in misinformed internet gossip]. By paying for this license we help protect the “brand name” integrity such that the use of the word Anusara represents a meaningful standard of excellence in the wider world of yoga. Indeed the Anusara certification and licensing process upheld one of the highest standards of modern yoga teacher trainings around the world. A year ago John informed all of the licensed teachers that to insure this high-level of integrity we would be required to pay an additional 10% of our profits made off of all materials that used the licensed name Anusara. Also, these materials would need to be cleared by the office before release. Many teachers felt these policies were unfair. To date, as far as I know, John has not actually implemented the 10% rule (as in, no one has paid any royalties). Also as far as I know there is no copyright/trademark/exclusivity to practice or teach the METHOD of Anusara. So those teachers that choose to forfeit their license, are still free to teach the method and remain a Certified Anusara Teacher. [This is detailed information I realize, but might be helpful in understanding as future changes are made to the meaning of the trademarked name Anusara.]

Opening the Beehive

In early February a former staff member of Anusara released a slew of private correspondence between John and other teachers/staff. These emails were illicit and private and contained plenty of unsavory information regarding two secret relationships he had – one with a married staff member, another with a married student. While John was open about his relationships with both of his long-term girlfriends (both his students), many felt that secretly sleeping with students/staff crossed a line in that 1) It is not inline with the code of ethics that our yoga community has agreed to regarding personal integrity and relationships and 2) these secret relationships, their revelation and his reaction to the revelation threatens the integrity of the name of Anusara – which so many of us have built our livelihoods around.

Last month I joined John in Miami for two days for an advanced yoga practice to see for myself how he was reacting to all this. What I found was that he was emotionally torn apart and remorseful that he had “ruined” the name of Anusara for so many of us, but also that he was still feeling a good amount of righteous indignation and victimization at the revelations and the Anusara teacher community’s reaction. While I was personally wanting a more vulnerable response from John, I also felt great compassion for his personal situation (outside of the impact it will have on my own experience as a yoga teacher and on my dear Anusara yoga community.)

Fallout

Recently John stepped down as CEO of Anusara Inc. and he has hired a new CEO to manage the company while an advisory committee of certified Anusara teachers figures out how to transfer the entire affair into a teacher-led non-profit organization. At the moment our community is divided among the supporters and skeptics – over 90 teachers have surrendered their licenses in protest to John’s behavior (people are upset with the actions revealed in the emails, but even more so by his response to the revelations).

I have been traveling during most of these recent events and have had the great gift of time and space to contemplate these events without feeling any urgency to respond with action. I absolutely believe in the efficacy of the method of Anusara and I am fully committed to teaching the method under any name. The legalities on all sides will take time to sort out and we (teachers and students) are learning a ton in this process.

Self-inquiry and accountability are huge for me right now, and I am continuing to process my own relationship to John over the last nine years.  One unforeseen blessing of these events is the way in which I finding greater clarity in many other relationships in my life.

It is an exciting time in the yoga world. We are always free to choose, and these recent events highlight that freedom in a precious and quite wonderful way. The question is, how can we use our own personal failings to stand up and open to a deeper experience of abundance and possibility? That’s a practice I hope I never give up.

The Conversation

Christopher Wallis addresses “Factual Errors” in NY Times Article: Yoga and Sex Scandals
“The issue with the NY Times article is that it is attacking Yoga, as a whole, and completely lacks true factual integrity. It is written by someone that knows very little about the origins of Tantra and Yoga.”

Why This Might be the Best Thing to Happen to Anusara Yoga – By Katrina Ariel
“I think this might be one of the best things to happen to Anusara. It has the potential to actually save Anusara yoga from losing itself within one man’s vision. Not that it was a bad vision at all, but yoga is about union and expanding perspective, so it’s only right that the vision of Anusara continues to evolve.”

Grounding Anusara – By Matthew Remski
Grounding  Anusara 2:  A Brief Ayurvedic Follow-Up Consultation – By Matthew Remski
“Modern yoga culture is dominated by overdetermined methods and systems protected by branding and copyrighting. Branding and copyrighting amplifies a more traditional fixation upon “authenticity” and “completeness”. As those who have invested time and money and emotional ballast into the Anusara meme try to sort out the value of their stake, there’s a rising chorus emerging that suggests the Method is yet pristine, still universal, embodying a preternatural authenticity and completeness. While understandable, this reification will only strengthen the root of continued commodification.”

Grounding Anusara Yoga – a Rebuttal – By Cate Stillman
“Kula is a simple teaching of that it takes a community to do yoga. It takes a community to know who we are. It takes a community to see and support our growing edges.”

Scandal in Yogaland: Let’s Not Draw the Wrong Conclusions - Philip Goldberg
“So, while Anusara is not an ordinary business, it is also not a traditional guru-led organization; and John Friend is not an ordinary teacher or boss, but he’s not a swami or a guru either. This illustrates the ambiguous position of modern yoga in general.”

An Open Letter to Anusara, Inc. & the Anusara Community - Douglas Brooks
“The “standards” of Anusara must organically be reformulated without any single organization representing the method. Why? Because then “Anusara” can create a long lasting, community-based legacy that is entirely dissociated from the perceptions of the past and recognizes that irreparable harm cannot be undone.”

Yoga Coalition A group of recently resigned Anusara teachers are attempting to organically re-organize.

Whose Yoga Is it, Anyway? (Vanity Fair article regarding a recent controversy in the Ashtanga World)
“Krishnamacharya taught hundreds, maybe even thousands, of students, and there are only six who are well known today. “The students chose them,” she says. “The future of yoga is decided by the students, and whoever will bear the torch of Ashtanga yoga will be decided by the students. I don’t think we need to try to control it. We just need to sit with the uncertainty of it.”

 

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