The stage has been set for the perfect storm: the charismatic leader, the devoted followers, the extensive trainings that require significant monetary investments to earn the right to claim your affiliation. The yoga community is once again abuzz with rumors, accusations, and worry over the integrity of a beloved guru.
For the last several years, John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga, has been gathering a loyal and devoted following. According to the Anusara principles, the practice is “grounded in a Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness” and is practiced with the intention of “align[ing] with the Divine”. Anusara teachers help students achieve this in part by setting a heart-oriented goal for each class and by applying the “Universal Principles of Alignment” (TM) to each asana. This approach has earned the brand the reputation of the ultimate representatives of shiny, happy, heart melting yoga.
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Despite this reputation, controversy isn’t new to the Anusara brand. Last year the New York Times labeled Friend the “Yoga Mogul” and compared him to a rock star, claiming female students flocked to him, giggling as they encircled him and pressed hotel keys into his hands. This depiction ruffled the feathers of many in the community, and senior teacher Elena Brower defended the organization and Friend in a comment on the YogaDork blog. Yet, less than a year later she announced she was retiring her Anusara certification.
Three more senior teachers followed suit, and the community became worried about what wasn’t being said. Things really began to buzz last week when an anonymous source created a website called “JFexposed” (which has since been taken down). The site made many allegations, including sexual misconduct, philandering, fraud, and drug trafficking. While Friend remained silent on the subject, YogaDork unintentionally ignited more controversy by posting a link to the site and outlining the allegations.
The controversy-within-the-controversy revolves around journalistic integrity in the age of instantaneous information sharing. YogaDork’s stated intention of the post was to open a timely line of conversation. In a later defense of the decision she again welcomed the community to come forward to verify or disprove the statements, as the Anusara organization wasn’t returning her phone calls. That is, not until they wanted the post taken down.
Over at Elephant Journal (EJ), fellow blogger Waylan Lewis took the stance that the anonymous allegations should not have been published without verification. Which is perhaps why Friend has granted him not one, but two interviews, one before he admitted that several of the allegations were true, and one after.
While the subtleties of journalist integrity among bloggers have yet to be worked out, it does appear that the Friend camp is in damage control mode. Friend has released a letter to his employees apologizing for any harm that may have been done to the Ansuara brand and promising to “reaffirm” his “devotion to the highest“.
It’s not uncommon for gurus to fall from grace, unable to stay balanced atop their pedestal indefinitely. No one is perfect, and eventually the less polished aspects of their personality and/or private life begin to show through the shroud of assumed purity. It’s cliché but true, the higher we place them, the further they have to fall. Which raises the question, why are we putting our yoga teachers and other spiritual leaders way up there in the first place?
The yamas and the niyamas lay out a code of ethics we would never expect a politician or a Hollywood celebrity to live up to. Yet it sometimes seems that we are willing to create a cult of personality around celebrity yoga teachers (or preachers, or whomever) and decide they are our conduit to the divine.
There is a Buddhist teaching to be a lamp unto yourself. It may not always be easy, but if we can remember to try to look within to find the light we seek, we may not be so disappointed when it turns out that someone else didn’t have it.
Unfortunately, in these situations some faithful followers are also hurt as their hero falls from grace. More than one yogi guru has been revealed to be all too humanly fallible in the not too distant past. So for some, the current controversy has a sting that is all too familiar.
A breach of trust is all the more bitter when it disrupts our faith in a person who we believe is living with a shared set of ethics.
What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding Anusara and John Friend?