Integrity, Interrupted? More On the Anusara Controversy

No good scandal comes without important lessons for those affected by it. In this case, the matter of integrity takes center stage—the integrity of a leader, his senior teachers, and the broader yoga community of which we are all a part. The recent, very public outing of the questionable behavior and business practices of Anusara Yoga’s charismatic leader, John Friend is a gold mine of juicy lessons, timely reminders, and issues that the yoga community should be discussing. With the implosion of one of the most profitable yoga empires ever, we are left with the question, at what point are we required to admit our mistakes and take responsibility?

Let’s start with how we got here: guru complex. There is an old Zen koan, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The basic idea is that “meeting” implies the Buddha is separate and outside yourself, which makes it an illusion. We need to let go of thinking that we should be looking outside of ourselves for truth and/or divinity. However, most of us are not so far along our paths that we no longer benefit from the guidance of a wise and experienced teacher. The trick is to remember that the best teachers show us our own reflection. One of Friend’s own teachers, Dr. Douglas Brooks, warned him of the dangers in setting up a system where there is one absolute leader. His teachers had taught him that the temptation for the solitary leader to begin to believe in their own superiority is too great. They teach that the community is the guru and that enlightenment is a collective effort where we each share and learn from each other’s gifts and weaknesses.

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Many senior teachers who resigned their Anusara certification within the last year were vague about their reasons; they honored their own truth without harming Friend in the process. Now some have taken another brave step and are owning up to what they knew, what they suspected, why they stayed, and why they left. Amy Ippoliti admitted to feeling out of integrity with Anusara for some time, but afraid to make a move, and Elena Brower went so far as to admit lying to cover up for Friend.

It happens, we are human, and we succumb to the call of ego, power, and desire; but there comes a point at which the line is crossed from the human nature of imperfection to blatantly unethical behavior. It is hard to answer what exactly should be done to take responsibility for that behavior in order to regain some integrity, but owning up to it would be a good start. Friend himself has tried to maintain control, giving interviews that glossed over deeper issues and offering even less substance to the greater Anusara community. He also continued with plans to lead a “Dharma of Relationships” workshop in Miami last week. His reason for not passing the class onto one of his remaining teachers: he felt it would be “ irresponsible.” On February 16, he claimed he would take a leave of absence from being the head of Anusara “ within the next ten days.” That is the last that has been heard from him up to this point.

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It is hard not to wonder just what he taught in that workshop; examining the higher purpose of our relationships is something our society could really benefit from. Still, there is another old saying, “consider the source.” The astounding inappropriateness of the timing is a powerful reminder of how blind we can be when it comes to our own shortcomings, and how earth shattering it can be when we suddenly get a truer glimpse ourselves.

If we are going to practice what we preach, we need to find forgiveness and even some compassion for Friend and the mess he has created for himself. Integrity can’t be measured or tested for; we can’t regulate it or require it from others. The best we can do is try to always maintain our own integrity, use discernment in all situations, and remember that we are all equally divine.

What steps do you think John Friend needs to take to restore his own integrity and restructure Anusara in a positive way?

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