In early February, a website went up that contained damaging information about John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga. The website disclosed how John had illegally stopped his company’s pension plan, had marijuana delivered to the Anusara corporate office, and had slept with a female employee and some Anusara teachers. Though the website was taken down in less than 48 hours, the damage was done. In a few days, after the initial shock wore off, Anusara teachers began to resign.
Though the press has covered John’s sexual liaisons, very little has been written about his abuse of power. The Anusara system was structured in such a way as to give John an enormous amount of power over his teachers and he lived up to the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
When I received my Anusara certification in 2000, the system was new and the requirements, though demanding compared to many other yoga styles, were not as rigorous as they became in later years. Many more-recently certified teachers spent two or more years and tens of thousands of dollars to obtain their certificates which enabled them to become licensed Anusara teachers. Unfortunately, when they obtained their licenses, they became trapped. Many based their livelihoods and reputations on being Anusara teachers. If they angered John, he could take away their licenses; they could still teach yoga, but not use the name Anusara. If a teacher taught at an Anusara studio and lost her license, she could also lose her job. In addition, people who lost their Anusara licenses were often shunned by other Anusara teachers, so a person who lost her license also lost friends and connections.
More troubling were Anusara’s philosophical changes over the years. When I was certified, the philosophy was tied to an ancient set of teachings. Several years ago John decided to change the philosophical backbone of the system and cobbled together pieces from several schools to form a new Anusara philosophy that focused on the positive aspects of life. With this change he removed all constraints that acted as checks to his power. His newly created philosophy lacked the depth and sophistication of the older teachings and promoted catch phrases like “Look for the Good” and “Align with the Good.”
These phrases are very nice on the surface, but they became a means of control. Anyone who disagreed with John was not aligning with the good. If someone spoke badly about Anusara or John’s actions, they were not looking for the good.
In the last few years, as John’s behavior became more problematic, people did not object. If John treated a student poorly at a workshop, many assumed he had a bad moment or a bad day and let it go. They did not talk with others or question, because that would not have been looking for the good. Now as people compare stories, they see patterns of behavior that were not apparent when they attended a workshop or two a year.
This is not as cheery as most of my articles, but the idea of positive thinking versus reality is a point I have been pondering since before I left Anusara in 2007. Though I have my glass half empty days, I am happier when I see the glass as half full. Yet positive thinking can be taken too far and used to mask or ignore an unpleasant reality. Where is the line? What can be disregarded as trivial and when do we need to take off our rose-colored glasses?
I was once told that a purpose of yoga is to polish our lens, to remove obstacles and veils so we can see reality more clearly. As many Anusara teachers discovered, looking only for the good may be pleasurable, but life is much more nuanced with a broad range of emotions and experiences. Just as a negative attitude can mask the small joys in life, a falsely positive attitude can hide problems better faced than ignored. In the end, reality will be what it will be and one of the challenges and joys of a full life is to view it clearly.