So unless you’ve been in some sort of meditation cave for the past two weeks, you’re most likely aware that there has been some heavy drama in the yoga world. In short, allegations against John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga, have surfaced. At first derided as rumours and gossip, it turned out that there was some truth in the claims, enough for the Anusara community to take them seriously. Senior teachers who knew about and enabled Friend’s unethical behaviour and misconduct have started speaking out, and a new wave of teachers have given up their certification. By all accounts, it appears that in the wake of these events, Anusara, Inc. is assessing its ethical code of conduct, leadership and business structure.
I’ve been sitting back and watching the story unfold. It’s definitely complex and confusing, so I’ve done my best to distill the most substantial information and weave together a concise narrative. I’ll continue to develop this timeline as new information and perspectives arise.
Here is a rough (and in no way conclusive) guide to the Anusara situation:
Feb 3: YogaDork posts a list of accusations against John Friend retrieved via an anonymous tipster from a now defunct website called jfexposed.com. The website included information that Friend lead a Wiccan coven, had sexual relations with students, withheld pension contributions, and gave drugs to students.
Feb 7: After a few terse days full of speculation, uncertain commentary from bloggers and questions about the validity of the original source of information, YogaDork releases pension documents secured by another anonymous source. Anusara, Inc. is given the opportunity to prove the documents false, but chooses not to respond.
Feb 8: Friend issues the first official letter to Anusara Yoga teachers. He writes, “The truth of the matter is that there is some accuracy within the accusations, yet there are also many falsehoods and completely twisted exaggerations that place events grossly out of context… Please accept my deepest, most sincere apology for any poor personal decisions or actions that might have inspired this vicious attack—one that has certainly caused distress and damage while calling into question the integrity of our school.”
Feb 8: Elephant Journal publishes the first post-accusations interview with Friend, giving us the closest thing to a public statement. “Over the course of my private life I have had consenting sexual relationships with women, some of whom have been my students and also my employees, some of which included married women… It’s not fair for me to explain the intimate details of each relationship in a public forum, nor do I want to further violate the privacy of others as has been the case by this malicious attack. The most important thing to say here is I made some mistakes, yet my intent was never to do harm.”
Feb 11: A second letter from John Friend to Anusara teachers leaks, in which John Friend states that he’ll continue making public appearances. “I want to inform you all that I am currently in close communication and process with a core group of teachers, Anusara staff, and advisors about taking positive steps toward healing and bringing a new structure to Anusara with formal teacher representation. ” A letter from the interim committee reveals plans to establish a new Ethics Committee and a Leadership Committee, indicating a shift towards becoming ” a teacher-driven organization and away from a John Friend-centered yoga school.”
Feb 11: Anusara Yoga teachers start to speak up: responses from Desiree Rumbaugh, Ross Rayburn and others are compiled by YogaDork. Rumbaugh says, “It came to me today that the way we can all be of REAL service right now and going forward, is to discontinue expressing so much anger and upset and instead go back to focusing on being great teachers. Teach Anusara Yoga the best way you know how. Separate your teaching from the man who inspired it and BE THE CHANGE.”
Christina Sell (a long-time Anusara teacher who gave up certification in Fall 2011) states on her blog:
“Did I know facts about covens, pensions, etc. and fail to expose them? No.
Had I heard rumors? Yes.
Did I mention them publicly? No.
Did I give feedback privately and repeatedly? Yes.
Did I protect John Friend by withholding my suspicion and comments from the public in forums like my blog or other articles? Yes.
Was that right or wrong? Did that enable the dysfunction or spare the innocent? I am still not sure, honestly.
Am I bit upset that my ethics are called into question because of my yoga teacher’s actions? Yes.”
Feb 12: Another wave of the Anusara exodus begins, as certified teachers Noah Maze, Bernadette Birney and others state their resignation. Birney, who has emerged as a pillar of strength and clarity via her own blog, contextualizes her thought process in a “wet-ink” Skype conversation on Elephant Journal.
Feb 12 – 14: Despite concerns from the Interim Ethical Committee and others, Friend is present at a previously scheduled intensive in Miami called, ironically, “The Dharma of Relationship.” Professor William Mahony offers the philosophy component of the workshop, while other senior teachers lead the asana practices and Friend participates as a student, according to this account from another workshop participant.
Feb 13: The first mainstream coverage of the situation appears on the Huffington Post, The Anusara Yoga Scandal: Can a $6 Billion Industry Salvage Its Image? Writer Stewart J. Lawrence reminds us that “guru charlatans with bizarre power agendas have ruled the yoga world for generations.” While the article is hyperbolic and more than a little scathing, Lawrence also looks at the bigger picture of the story and places it within the context of North American yoga: “As the increasingly ugly Anusara scandal unfolds, yoga and yogis in America seem to be approaching yet another defining moment. Do the movement’s most sincere and thoughtful leaders have the strength — and above all, the humility — to push their industry to reform its ways?”
Feb 14: Amy Ippoliti, who left Anusara Yoga in January, further illuminates her reasons for departure on Elephant Journal. “…my choice to leave was a refusal to enable John to continue operating in unhealthy ways. One’s conscience demands that we recognize when complicity compromises our simple sense of decency. Yoga teaches us to forgive, but it also teaches us to discern. I’ve learned that to forgive too soon is to exacerbate the problem.”
Feb 14: Scholar and “godfather of Anusara,” Douglas Brooks, calls for Occupy Anusara in a conversation and statement on Elephant Journal. “The allegations of misconduct directed at John are matters the gravity of which cannot be diminished. Whether he is guilty of any criminal behavior is entirely beyond the purview of this conversation. What we must consider are community standards and expectations of leadership within a model of authority created by Anusara’s sole proprietorship and the model that involves the de facto recognition of a guru, the teacher of extraordinary gifts and value.”
Feb 16: Elena Brower, who was in the first wave of the Anusara exodus, speaks to Blisstree about her departure. Her responses are careful and opaque: “What I really want is the healing of this whole yoga community, as the teachers are going their separate ways. I think it would be an even better idea to all band together and try to help instead of running away. I pray for healing. I know we can create it.”
Feb 16: John Friend announces he’ll be stepping down in a letter to the Anusara community: “I will be stepping down and taking a leave of absence for self-reflection, therapy, and personal retreat in order to take care of myself, and consider the next best step for myself and Anusara. Professional counselors and advisors will help me to determine the duration of my sabbatical.”
YogaDork is also keeping a running timeline of developments, with a detailed (and growing) list of teachers who are leaving the Anusara fold.
Stay tuned as events unfold! Gratitude to YogaDork for having the courage to break the story in the first place, and to Elephant Journal for following up with key conversations. Much light to everyone in the Anusara community who has been hurt, confused, angered and saddened by these developments.
Many people have pointed out that this kind of scandal and abuse of power has happened before in the yoga world. There are countless examples, but recent incidents include the fall of Amrit Desai and the restructuring of the Kripalu community the mid-90s, Rodney Yee’s escapades in the early 2000s, and the ever-controversial Dahn Yoga movement. What makes this story interesting, I think, is the role of bloggers and social media in getting the story out. While it was difficult to separate fact from fiction at first, the speed at which we can access and convey information allows for an open process (not necessarily transparency, but a greater platform for people to have their say).
Around the world, old structures of power and outdated regimes are crumbling. It’s clear that Anusara, Inc. is based on a model which no longer serves practitioners. This is actually an exciting time of creative destruction for Anusara. The greater yoga community is fortunate to be able to witness, support and learn from this.