My heart goes out to the Anusara yoga community in the wake of the controversy surrounding its founder John Friend, especially Elena Brower, a longtime Anusara teacher, who wrote a compassionate article yesterday about the situation for the Huffington Post. By now, tales of Friend’s sexual indiscretions, affiliation with a Wicca coven, drug use, and alleged illegal employee pension freezing have hit several blogs, including HuffPo, Yoga Dork, Elephant Journal, and beyond.
Photo: I snapped this photo of my, then, new friend Elena Brower in NYC in 2010.
One might guess that as a blogger, yoga teacher, and someone who tends to get a wee bit protective of modern yoga, I must be outraged, hurt, or shocked by such news. One would be wrong. I wish Friend’s misconduct was more salacious for me. This isn’t an article quoting a flippant Bikram Choudhury talking about bedding his students, at which we all roll our eyes but think little. This is creepy “sex therapy” with students, witchcraft, drugs, and illegal employment practices at the hands of the creator of one of the largest and most profitable schools of yoga in the world. It’s “breaking yoga news,” and, yet, it all feels very ho-hum to me. Maybe I am a jerk or jaded (or a jaded jerk)?
Sadly, I’ve seen or heard it before (different details, same abuse of power): gurus behaving badly. Brower, too, wasn’t shocked. There were two camps inside Anusara, she explains, and while I’m not affiliated with Anusara, I relate to what she says from the standpoint of the yoga industry, and its experience of gurus falling from grace, in general.
There were the ones in John’s closer circle who “knew” of his penchant for women, partying and fun; I’m from that camp. None of us were shocked to see that evidence, although admittedly it was disturbingly graphic and veered from embarrassing to awful to deeply sad…Then there were the ones who had absolutely no idea about any of it. Those folks are devastated at John’s breach of ethics and morals. To them, this whole situation feels like the earth-shattering discovery of the end of the sky on the Truman show.
The difference between these groups is twofold: accessibility and experience. If you’ve never had access to the man behind the curtain pulling the levers of the image of the great and powerful Oz (as senior teachers and staff close to a celebrity teacher do), you might forget that he’s just a man behind a curtain, susceptible to the same vices as anyone else. Amplify his power and those vices can swell in proportion if he’s not “walking the walk” each day, as a teacher and perpetual student of yoga. Experience, too, plays a role in how yogis react to this type of news. In the beginning, we’re attached to our favorite teachers, studios, and styles of yoga. They change our lives. We may have trouble discerning the personal experience of yoga from the people disseminating it. If they fall from grace, we’re crushed. Who can’t relate to that?
For this reason, John Friend remains a compelling teacher, reminding us to understand our own yoga path, rather than projecting or attaching our beliefs onto a certain person or ideology. I’m reminded of the Buddha teaching his first students, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” This also explains the exodus of Brower and many Anusara teachers in the months leading up to Friend’s fall. One assumes they finally saw too far behind the curtain and couldn’t reason with it anymore. These teachers are undoubtedly disappointed and sad, but it’s also clear that their commitment to their own path has not faltered. They love yoga. They’ll continue to teach it. Perhaps their integrity, and that of all of us, just got a little steelier, more resolved, and less compromised, by witnessing the grave effects of what happens when we brazenly ignore it. (One hopes). There’s a saying that everyone has something to teach you, even when it’s what not to do.