(ed: I’ve updated this post. I first posted it on February 5th but have updated it several times since then for both my own editing purposes and to update my thoughts as the John Friend/Anasura controversy, which inspired this post to begin with, is further revealed to us.)
“It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans…” lyric from “Coax Me” by Sloan.
Have I offended anyone yet? Great, I’m off to quite a start.
I really don’t have much of a right to comment publicly about yoga anymore. Let’s face it, my relationship with yoga these days has been tenuous. At best. I have found it harder both to practice and to teach yoga over the past few years. For a variety of reasons. And, if I am to be really, REALLY honest with myself, I have to admit that it all stems from MY stuff. I’ll preface this, then, by saying this blog has to do with yoga, ego (mine, yours, theirs), disillusionment, and discovery.
My practice of yoga started back in 1998. I had long been interested in religious studies for both academic reasons and more spiritual ones, leading to a practice of meditation, and was looking for a physical practice that would complement this. Yoga was the obvious choice. It would also nourish the scholar in me, which was probably the most appealing aspect, at least initially. It wasn’t long before I was devouring texts, wanting to know as much as I could about the roots and reasons of and for the practice. All of this was both very satisfying and challenging. It also wasn’t long before I decided to take the plunge and go for my teacher training.
Yes, there was a time when I was practicing full steam. Waking up in the wee hours of the morning to do sadhana at the most auspicious hour. Unable to move without discomfort on the days after an incredibly intense asana workshop. Crumpled up on the floor in tears of both joy and pain as I struggled valiantly through my practice. I had worked hard and had even been given my “spiritual name” from a highly revered guru. Finally, I thought, I had made it! I had become a warrior, on the good path, fighting the good fight Namaste! Om Shanti! Sat Nam! The commitment was, at the time, quite palpable.
I’ve also been a petty decent teacher through the years as well, all things considered, teaching in several different centres around the world, challenging, and being challenged by, students from all different backgrounds and levels. When I look back on all that I have done, I realize that I have been very blessed with the opportunities I have had and I am so very grateful for them. However, it has been physically harder for me to deal with the pain and discomfort scoliosis, which affects me from my thoracic spine to quite literally the soles of my feet, often brings to practice, at times leaving me in significant pain by the end of class as my students, meanwhile, leave the studio thanking me, all shiny and new, beaming with calm, peaceful energies. How happy I am that my students have had such a lovely practice. And, oh, how resentful I can be! I know EXACTLY what all of you yogis are thinking right now so you don’t have to say it. I already know. Let’s just be brutally honest here again, okay? ALL MY STUFF! MY responsibility from the physical pain to the resentment. I get it, I know, I’m an absolute work in progress. I know that I am in a place where personal practice should trump teaching right now, IF I could only find my personal practice again. You see, I’m one of those who got too comfortable with teaching as practice, letting the practice part slip away. And now, on a hiatus from teaching, I’m not doing yoga, in the physical sense, at all. Of course, there have been other contributing factors as well. I have spent the past 5 years balancing my responsibilities as a mother with my responsibilities as a full time university student, first at the undergraduate and then the graduate level. There has also been the fact that, after 10 years of teaching yoga, sometimes more on and sometimes more off, I still struggle to make a decent living at it. This last bit, if I am to be completely honest, has left me feeling quite bitter about, and at times angry WITH, yoga. And that’s all ego-based, of course. Yoga, yoga, yoga. What am I to do with you? What are YOU to do with ME?
It has also been harder for me to practice in an environment of “rising star” teachers, which, admittedly, is connected to my own *stuff,* once again. But really, when the hell did yoga become about “rising stars?” Yes, gurus in India have long been revered and the teacher-student relationship long taken very seriously. It is hard to compare “Yoga in India” with “Yoga in the West,” simply because most practitioners in the West are not exposed to the historical and cultural context of yoga within its Indian context (both religiously and culturally). And one of the critiques that could be made of some (not all!) of those here in the West who choose to immerse themselves “fully” in Hindu, Buddhist or other practices is that they often (NOT always!) pick and choose the practices they engage in, as though at a buffet table of spiritual practices, without having the cultural and religious context and RESPONSIBILITIES that often come with such practices. Again, I have to say that I am not talking about everybody here as there certainly are a great many people who are very committed to such paths and who take their involvement very seriously. But there is certainly some truth in what I am saying. As someone myself who has been exposed to such a tradition through marriage, initiated into it, in fact, I’ll say that I absolutely do not claim membership, and certainly, not nearly, claim to be a part of the particular culture of which I am associated, outside from being married into it. But that’s neither here nor there and, in fact, I will save this whole conversation for another day. But what I am talking about with yoga as it is today is something quite different. We now have teachers like Bikram Choudhury, claiming (rightfully or wrongfully: I’ve never practiced Bikram yoga so I won’t make that call, but I will say the thought of it doesn’t sit well with me at all) ownership over the yoga sets taught in Bikram Yoga and going after those he feels have infringed upon this perceived ownership. This has left many yoga practitioners asking how anyone could ever attempt to claim ownership over such practices. Bikram and associates, who have made such claims against others before, have recently been informed that their lawsuit won’t stand in a court of law, but the outcome of this still remains to be seen. And then there’s the yoga product marketing machine: a multi-million dollar industry of products YOU JUST NEED, never mind the fact that yoga is really about non-attachment to such things, and the fact that for many, many, many years yogis did just fine without such distractions. So, we have Kathryn Budig, a revered yoga teacher in her own right, who posed nude in various asanas to promote “Toesox,” the result being some gorgeous black and white photography, and a good dose of controversy over “how far was too far” to go that struck right at the heart of the yoga community. This is just one example, albeit arguably an extreme one, of how yoga and products associated with yoga are marketed today. Let’s face it, there isn’t much about marketing that isn’t ego based. For any of us, fully dressed or otherwise. Combine this with the fact that mainstream yoga has become overwhelmingly associated with physical practice (with many, many, outstanding exceptions, of course!), resulting in an environment where yoga studios are essentially competing with fitness studios, unintentionally or otherwise, when promoting themselves, and unfortunately we now have an overly-saturated market of anything and everything “yoga.” This has led many to declare “Well, at least the masses are getting yoga! At least it’s out there!” While I can say that I agree with this sentiment to a point, I can also say that mostly I just don’t. Let the backlash commence!
And then, unfortunately, there are allegations of abuse within the greater yoga community, leading to the downfall of several prominent teachers over the years. John Friend, the latest teacher to face serious allegations, has certainly not been the first teacher to find himself in such a position. He has also not been the fist teacher to seemingly be revered by his followers. To what extent I could argue he has been “revered” (my word), I cannot say. Having never met the man, I base my assumption, and it is only an assumption, on discussions I have had in the past with Anusura yoga students and teachers about their practices. My own experiences with teachers, including some very charismatic ones, have included circumstances that have arguably led to an abuse of power. I am not suggesting that this abuse of power involved anything quite like what other teachers have been accused of, and, quite frankly, my opinions are only representative of MY opinions and interpretations of my own experiences, no one else’s. But I am saying that it is certainly possible for a yoga teacher, especially one highly revered by his or her students, to forget to keep both feet on the ground and to start believing that THEY are the conduit of powers so deep and mysterious that the rest of us could only dream of ever rising to their level. But if these teachers. those revered so highly that they forget to keep their feet on the ground, were really, REALLY, honest with themselves, they’d have to admit that the 3-ring circus created around them has very little to do with yoga. They’d have to admit that it’s all THEIR stuff, really. And they’d have to be careful to realize, as well, that when one believes and puts so much emphasis on all the great hype surrounding oneself, that when the proverbial shit hits the great hype fan… well the fallout ain’t gonna be pretty. The way that John Friend has dealt with this situation thus far is, unfortunately, only adding to the fallout, a fallout that includes the justifiable resignation of some highly regarded Anusara teachers, themselves seemingly very much in shock, trying to reconcile their own feelings and practices. Friend’s indiscretions are shocking, shameful and ethically wrong on many levels. In truth, that description is a gross understatement. But my point isn’t to analyze this particular situation. Rather, it’s to say that this whole environment of teachers who are held in such high regard by their students, an environment constructed by teachers and students alike, is very dangerous. For everyone involved.
In the end, though, I have to realize that most of what I have written here has very little to do with yoga. Yoga is yoga. For many that means that yoga, in its purest form, is a spiritual practice, a practice initially transmitted from the gods to the chosen, most sacred practitioners who passed down their teachings orally and then, through Patanjali and others, via revered text. It is a practice that helps us get through all our junk and gunk ideally leading us to the very core of WHO we are. It is also very much a human construct, one that has been deconstructed and reconstructed to suit the needs of those using it over and over and over again. Let’s face it, had yoga remained in its earliest form, I would likely not be here discussing it as it very well may have never seen the light of day outside of India or, at least, Asia, and it would certainly not be a practice that most women, or anyone else outside of particular lineages for that matter, would ever be exposed to. It had to be deconstructed and reconstructed to become accessible. Arguably, it had to be Westernized, Americanized even, to reach the point it has today. That’s the way it goes with us humans. It’s what we do. In the end, I have to realize that it’s not what yoga has DONE to me. It is, perhaps, what I have or haven’t done with/to/for it. And all that other stuff, the “current state of yoga,” all of it, none of it impacts yoga one iota. Yoga won’t be affected by lawsuits or scandal. It’s not worried about some black and white photos. It’s not even worried about whether or not one individual has gotten pretty mad at it lately. Because yoga is whatever we want it to be, because it is fluid and flexible as we mold it in our hands, it is also nothing beyond our own perceptions of what it might be. It is what it is and it is not what it is not. And it is simply our own perceptions of it that make *it* what it *is,* and what it’s *not* and that cause us to react to it the way that we do. The end result is that yoga, like most other things, is nothing more than what we experience it to be and that experience will always be both very personal and, at the same time, illusory. It is what makes yoga so wonderful. The problem with yoga today isn’t yoga. The problem with yoga today is, and likely always has been, us. For me, this means that I am responsible for reconciling my own practice which, in great part, is why I wrote this post and why I started this whole blog. What will become of my practice from all of this remains to be seen. But I will definitely keep you in the loop.
John Friend’s quite frank, but also very lacking, response to some tough questions, posed by Waylon Lewis of Elephant Journal: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/02/my-interview-with-john-friend-regarding-ijfexposedi-accusations/
about the allegations themselves: http://www.yogadork.com/news/john-friend-head-of-anusara-wiccan-leader-sexual-deviant-pension-withholding-homewrecker-the-accusations/
I leave you with this song… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mnLF6c8bLA