Give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn
anything or anyone that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.”
~David Whyte, excerpt from “Sweet Darkness”
Tonight is the New Moon before the Vernal Equinox: a dark time in which we struggle raggedly towards the balance of equal days and nights, alternating between hope and despair. Here in Vermont it is a time of difficulty and confusion, of deep ruts in the muddy roads, of misguided robins pecking in the ice, of freeze and thaw and freeze and thaw. And here in my heart things are similarly confusing and conflicted as I try to sort out the events of the last two weeks within Anusara Yoga and see where I stand, what I stand for, and where I belong.
Of course, the balance point (whether the Spring Equinox or a clear-cut and definitive decision) towards which we doggedly journey is illusory; no sooner do we arrive at that sought-after moment of equipoise do we realize that, as T.S. Elliot writes, “Except for the point, the stillpoint/ there would be no dance, and/ there is only the dance.” As anyone who’s ever stood in tree pose knows, there is no definitive arrival at a perfect harmony, only an all-absorbing teetering and then descent. This, by the way, is good, for contained within the descent (and dissent, I might add) is the possibility for uprising, and so the dance goes on.
And so, teetering towards the threshold of Spring, steeped in the potent potential of this New Moon (called in the Yogic tradition “Maha Shivaratri”), this is where I stand: in the darkness, wavering, struggling, and yet absolutely certain about at least one thing. I know definitively that even as we enter this season of increasing light, some things must wane. There is a lot of decomposing that must happen for the new sprouts of Spring to take root.
Some of you who study with me here in Vermont may (blessedly) have no idea what’s been going on within Anusara Yoga these last couple of weeks. If you’d like some background, here are some links:
A lot of things have already been said by many articulate and insightful people; I do not wish to be repetitive. What follows is simply my experience and opinion.
Suffice to say, John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga, has admitted to some ethical inconsistencies in his personal and business life, some of which I consider to be more problematic than others. The allegations about which I am most concerned have to do with the way the business (and brand) of Anusara is organized and run and the apparent abuse of power therein. It is terribly sad, disappointing, and frustrating to realize that some of things I have been sensing for quite a few years are true, and actually worse than I had imagined (please see, in particular, the link above to Amy’s article in “Elephant Journal”).
However, none of this changes the fact that, for me, Anusara Yoga the method is a powerful, profound, and potent healing modality that has helped me (and, I hope, many of my students). None of this changes the fact that John Friend is an excellent asana teacher and that I owe much of what I understand about hatha yoga to him and to the various other extraordinary teachers whom he has trained and with whom I have been fortunate enough to study. And none of this changes the fact that I have experienced a great deal of personal growth and positive transformation having taken part in many Anusara workshops and trainings over the last eleven years. These are treasures for which I am grateful and I will not forget their source.
Since I became “Anusara-Inspired” in March of 2007, just about five years ago, I have had misgivings about how Anusara Yoga the business is structured, starting with the trademark I legally was required to use on all my printed material. As an anarchist activist who came up in the world of collectives and anti-copyrights, this did not sit well with me. Also, the longer I studied Anusara, the more standardized the curriculum became. I noticed my teachers were teaching more and more in sound-bytes and less in their authentic, original voices. I was able to rationalize all this because the teachings were so good and helpful and true, and therefore, perhaps, worth protecting and even controlling. However, more and more it seemed to me that the non-dualist, non-hierarchical Tantric Shaivite philosophy of personal freedom and creative self-expression, which supposedly was the underpinning of Anusara Yoga, did not match up with Anusara’s way of doing business. In fact, I wondered if “yoga” and “business” even belonged in the same sentence.
And yet, because the asana practice was so healing and empowering; because the teachers were not only skilled and effective, but also open-hearted and inspiring; and because I wanted to keep going down a path that would allow me to share what I was learning with others, I stuck around. This former dumpster-diving, thrift-store-shopping anti-capitalist paid my annual dues; paid to travel around the country to go to workshops and trainings; and even paid for fancy yoga clothes and gear so that I could try to fit in with, what seemed to me, to be the increasingly image-obsessed, materialistic culture that had sprung up around these age-old teachings of yoga. (Well, okay, I didn’t try that hard, but it was enough to bring back visions of junior high that I thought my confident, empowered adult-self would never have to re-visit.)
In 2010 when John came out with “Shiva-Shakti Tantra,” his rather simplified version of the philosophy I had been studying with Douglas Brooks, Paul Muller-Ortega, and others, I was saddened and disappointed. And worried. There was no need to create a new, copyrighted, watered-down version of these outrageously elegant, effective, and subtle teachings, refined over many centuries. Unless, of course, one was trying to sell it.
When I heard that John Friend was beginning to charge Anusara teachers 10% of their earnings on yoga-related products they developed (DVD’s, books, etc.) I felt even more discouraged and disheartened. Although I have heard arguments for why this is warranted, I think it is an unnecessary and unfair policy, especially given the fact that if one holds certification in Anusara Yoga, one has already paid tens of thousands of dollars to Anusara, Inc., continues to pay annual dues, and is unlikely to be actually earning very much money themselves. More and more I was realizing that Anusara is not so much a school of yoga as it is a business. Which is fine if that’s what you signed up for. But I had never wanted to be part of someone else’s business. I love yoga. I love Anusara Yoga! Maybe it was naïve, but I just wanted to share that love with others in an effort to make the world a more peaceful, kind, just, and healthy place.
Part of what has always appealed to me about Anusara is the sense of community. I like the idea of being connected with a group of people who also love yoga and also want to share it with others. Over the last ten years, I have made many dear friends within the Anusara Kula and met many wonderful individuals at trainings and workshops and gatherings. I have been blessed to study asana, meditation, and philosophy with many wise and effective teachers. However, I would not say that I have felt a profound sense of “belonging.” This has less to do with the individuals who I met, and more to do with the over-all culture of elitism projected by Anusara and by the predominantly white, affluent western yoga world in general. This new concept of “yoga culture,” as I perceive it, has more to do with branding, image, and consumerism than with yoga. As more people literally buy into this “culture” the stronger it becomes. This is not something I can stand for or with.
However, as recently as this past summer, I was inspired to try to change things from the inside out. I could envision Anusara Yoga minus the putting-of-people-on-pedestals. I could imagine Anusara Yoga with a stronger commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility. I could picture ethics of social justice, sustainability, and ecological awareness becoming cornerstones of how Anusara chose what products were sold and promoted at its gatherings. I imagined seva (community service) becoming an integral component of the Anusara training program. I envisioned an income-dependant sliding scale for workshops and trainings and more thorough outreach to populations less likely to try yoga. I pictured a general atmosphere of sharing, collaboration, collectivity, and egalitarianism. I thought, as Gandhi so famously said, perhaps I can “be the change” I want to see in the world.
I’ve known forever that I feel more at home with folks who have a little dirt under their fingernails; whose connection to the Earth is palpable, political, and ecstatic; who have an awareness of and a commitment to social justice; and who generally share knowledge and experience as the gift that it is, rather than a commodity to be trademarked, controlled, and used to turn a continual profit. It is with these kinds of people that I feel a profound sense of belonging and an ability to be my true authentic self. But, I am also a boundary-walker, a web-weaver… perhaps, I thought, I can be someone who helps to bring some of these values to the yoga that I love. And maybe I’m not the only one who feels this way! Maybe this is my role! Maybe this is how I can fit in with Anusara in a way that feels authentic and aligned with my ethics and integrity. Maybe, I thought, I can be a voice for the Earth, for social justice, and for a more collective and less hierarchical process within Anusara. And for the first time since I begrudgingly and with a sense of having completely “sold-out,” wrote that first “tm” on one of my posters, I felt hopeful and inspired to actually try to get certified in Anusara Yoga.
However, a month later, the day after I was approved to enter the Anusara certification process, Elena Brower, a teacher I deeply respect, left Anusara Yoga. I had a bad feeling about it. Something was more deeply wrong than I had thought. I waited and listened, feeling uncertain and confused. More teachers left. And then, just two weeks ago, everything exploded. The degree of power-abuse within the system of Anusara, Inc. was larger than I had ever imagined (again, please refer to the above links if you have no idea what I’m referring to). Some will find ways to excuse this or to believe it can be remedied. I do not think it can be excused. I hope it can be remedied. For me, however, I see it as the symptom of much larger problem, one that goes way beyond John Friend’s personal choices.
Sometimes things are better left to decompose. If an apple is rotten you don’t try to inject fresh apple juice into it to save it. You put it in the compost heap and it turns into soil which then creates the opportunity for something new and never-before-seen to grow and flower and fruit. It is important to honor the natural cycle of things.
When we put the rotten fruit of the business of Anusara, Inc. in the compost, the seeds of its core truth remain intact. The teachings of yoga that have been passed down through the centuries and across cultures and continents remain viable, even though the package in which it was contained does not. As I release my business relationship with Anusara Inc. and John Friend, I know that the seeds of what I have learned are still alive. They will be passed on. My teaching will not change, until, that is, I learn something new and inspiring to incorporate and share. What I have learned from John and other Anusara teachers about asana, philosophy, meditation, and pranayama, will not go away. What I release is an unhealthy and deeply flawed business arrangement, and an unwieldy and unfair power structure upheld for too long by fear and acquiescence. Though it did not affect me as deeply as it did some, is still not something behind which I can stand in good conscience.
So, I resign from my status as “Anusara-Inspired.” And I am still committed to “being the change” but on my own terms, not the terms of someone else’s licensing agreement. I will continue teaching hatha yoga and meditation classes. I will continue to offer sliding-scale yoga classes as an attempt to make yoga accessible to a more diverse array of people. I will continue to do my best to weave in pertinent issues of social justice, sustainability, and ecological awareness into my classes. I will always be a student and I will do my best to be a teacher who is effective, humble, approachable, kind, and willing to learn from my students, as well as from my own mistakes.
This series of unfortunate events that has so deeply rocked the yoga world is not, as I wrote above, actually all about John Friend and his personal choices. John is a human, who, just like the rest of us, has made some mistakes. In fact, we can all learn a lot from these mistakes if we decide to. This “situation” is indicative of a deeper, more insidious problem in the way yoga is being presented in our contemporary western culture. It has to do with the dangerous intersection between yoga and capitalism, (an edge which I acknowledge that I also choose to walk simply by charging money for yoga classes) and it has to do with the use and abuse of power, a theme which is all too common throughout our society. Hopefully we will all take a lesson from this example as we move forward.
It is entirely possible that Anusara will re-sprout into a new and very wonderful form. There has been talk of trying to restructure it, of separating John Friend the man from the “brand,” and even of possibly making it into a non-profit organization. I hope this happens and I commend the brave, patient, and steadfast ones who are sticking it out to see what good can happen. I don’t, however, see myself as part of this restructuring. There is too much of a likelihood of certain patterns being replicated. But, I wish those folks the very best. I’m sure I will still want to study with them since, as I hope I’ve made clear here, it’s not the method of Anusara Yoga I stepping away from. I love Anusara Yoga the method. It’s the business of Anusara, Inc., the hierarchical paradigm that invites the abuse of power, and the culture of elitism and spiritual materialism it has helped to perpetuate that I cannot stand with or for.
To John Friend, who has taught me so much, I send gratitude and also compassion. He has offered all of us a great teaching (not a new teaching, but a great teaching) about power. Let us never forget it.
On this New Moon of Shivaratri I pray not for balance, for that is impossible. I pray instead that I may dance this dance of wavering, of falling and of rising up again, with grace and certainty and trust. I pray that the Anusara Kula finds healing, rest, and when it’s time, bright new beginnings. On this Night of Infinite Compassion, Shiva’s Night, the dark threshold into a new season of light, I cast what is no longer sustaining to me into the great cosmic compost heap. May it be transformed into something nourishing, beautiful, and authentic that furthers the embodiment of freedom, creativity, compassion, and love in the world.
Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again
on an open sky.
has to be
so you can find
the one line
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
in the ashes
of your life.
You are not leaving,
You are not leaving,
even as the light
fades quickly now,
you are arriving.
you are arriving.
~ David Whyte