Friday, July 23, 2010

My Two Cents on The Yoga Mogul and His Method

Best to read the article above before reading my entry:

Well, I suppose I might as well jump into the conversation about the New York Times Magazine article. This 5-page spread, from what I have been told, is the largest article on yoga ever printed in their magazine. So that is cool. And really, being featured in The New York Times is a pretty prestigious situation in which to find oneself as a person and as a method. So that, too is cool.

But there are, in my opinion, some un-cool things about the article. I am really not a person who likes to go point by point through such a thing to set right to wrong and to delineate fact from fiction. Although I must say, in this case, there are a fair amount of inaccuracies listed like:
  • hotel room keys being pressed into John's hand (which I have NEVER seen happen or heard of happening),
  • there being a cult of John (which there isn't since he is the biggest advocate of community over individuals that I know),
  • John being secretive about his personal history (which he isn't. He is open about that-- its just not usually very relevant to 300 people in a room learning to teach yoga),
  • John being easily distracted (he isn't- I have been in the back corner of room before while he is helping someone in the front row and he has given a personal adjustment to me),
  • how John has his teachers proselytize and so forth (he doesn't) and
  • that money drives his decisions. (which it doesn't--So much of the business has grown as a result of outreach and service, not profit.)
I could go on. I mean seriously, there are a fair amount of things that are worth exposing point by point in the article. But I am more of a context person when you get right down to it. I am more of person who cringes-- not at individual points-- but at the mood of something when that is off. See, I figure if the general mood of something is accurate, then the details are less important and more likely to be understood within the larger context. So, in general, I am more interested in context than content.

And that is what rubs me the wrong way about the article- the context of it isn't right. Well, let me at least own that statement a bit more personally than that. The context of that article doesn't match my personal experience of John or the method or the wonderful people I call my colleagues, students and friends. See, the thing for me, when I remember back to the early days of Anusara Yoga and what hooked me so deeply, was a very simple thing--John cared about me and I could tell he cared about his students. And no matter how big the organization has gotten, no matter how many countries we now have certified teachers in, no matter how many ancillary businesses have sprung up around John and the method, no matter what kind of car John drives or what kind of artistic expression he is into, that has remained the same in my experience. And no one, no matter how crafty, slick or hip their position or writing style is, no one will convince me that his care was (or is) part of some marketing plan for creating a yoga empire.

I remember one year after I had first met John he and I were talking about all the changes I had experienced over the previous year. He looked at me- I remember it like it was yesterday- he had been teaching all day and he was putting his mala on after he had changed clothes- and he said to me with very deep sincerity, "I am going to support you. I am going to help you in your practice, I am going to help you be a great teacher and I will always be here for you." You know the thing is, he kept that promise to me. He returned his end of the bargain a hundred fold in my book.

Have I had issues along the way? Sure. Do I think John Friend is perfect person? No way. Who is? Do I think the growth of our method has been challenging for our community at times? Absolutely. Do I think at any point in over 10 years since I have known him that he has ever wavered in that promise he made to me? Nope. Never. Ever. Not once. He has unfailingly supported me and helped me with things from big life issues to the technical details of hand placement in a pose to dealing with difficult students to refining my speech to rehabbing more than one injury. Again, no one will ever convince that was calculated in anyway.

And the thing is, I know I am not the only one he made (and kept) such a promise with.

You know, at the risk of sounded like I am drinking the kool-aid or like I am some kind of reformed "true believer", I must say that the majesty of the method just can't be understood from outside. From the outside, all that many people will let themselves see are the reasons that give them an excuse to doubt. I mean sure, John is not a conventional yoga teacher and he has a very "rock-star" kind of life, in a way. It doesn't take a genius to see that. But anybody who has ever been on the road with him knows its not exactly very glamorous. He is constantly changing time zones, keeping odd hours, teaching long days, answering his email and taking phone calls from his students at the end of a day when he might rather be doing something else. Why anyone who begrudge him financial compensation for the kind of work he does is really beyond me. But I digress.

So from the outside you will see the ways the method is pushing certain boundaries of expectations, of long-cherished biases of "what yoga is" and so forth and you can find reasons galore to discount it. Fine- a bunch of people in tie-dyed pants who say the word shakti a lot can seem a bit weird to the outsider. I get that... I really do. But those of us who have stepped into the current of the method and its teachings have found something quite extraordinary in doing so. We found inspiration, we found support, we found ways to bring these exquisite teachings to life and to practice them and to, in sometimes small and large ways, embody them. (And that someone who heard John give teachings about philosophy without "any real way to practice them" missed the entire context that he gave them in- a yoga class- was how you practice them is kind of ironic. I mean, we practice the teachings of spanda for instance EVERY time we enegage muscle energy and organic energy. We practice the teachings of trusting in the Source, every time we root our foundation or draw to the midline or move into the back body and so on. Our practice, at its highest, embodies the teachings. But I digress into content once again.)

See, I am passionate about this because I think we live in a time of darkness and doubt. I think it has become too easy to doubt and too easy to assume the worst and we are lauded in society for being distant, discerning, critical and so forth. And sure, things can go wrong in all kinds of ways but I think believing in something and trusting in something is a daring act and one that can engage our deepest self for our highest healing. How different that article might have read had the author interviewed those of us who have been changed directly from involvement with Anusara Yoga. How might the content of how its growing have faded within the context that radical shifts occur everyday because we are helping each other line up with Grace.

That's it. That's the thing. It works. And not only is Anusara Yoga bigger than John Friend but it is most certainly bigger than life on the road with John Friend. John has always said that Anusara Yoga is primarily about what each one of us is doing in our local communities and his work on the road is to travel and support our local work. When our local work is strong, when we are doing our best to grow together, to work together, to honestly confront our darkness together and to affirm our Light together we are in the current of Anusara. The outer forms are going to change. Count on it. This is a moving stream. But the essence is and always has been caring for ourselves and each other as the highest expression of Grace that there is.

Like that.


Marcia Tullous said...

Hi Christina!

Amen! and Thank YOU!!! I also felt bothered by this article because I do not feel that it was accurate. How can you write about something you really don't know about first hand? One workshop does not make for a full experience, for it is merely an introduction. It is not just about a weekend workshop with John. It is about the whole community and the experiences of deep opening we have had together. It's about how other teachers helping their students to open and come alive on a daily basis.

Don't get me wrong, I think John is amazing and has had a profound impact on me. However, I have had other wonderful teachers who have also impacted my life in a very big way and there is no denying that!

I hope there will be another, more accurate article to follow.

Love to you,

Donald said...
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Beej Galvan said...

A resounding YES! and blessings~

kayakgal said...

Thank you. I try to explain Anusara Yoga to my friends after always telling how profoundly it has changed my life. Then an article such as this comes along. I am so happy there are great teachers such as yourself setting the record straight.

Elisa said...

The Times wanted to seem "balanced." That's a good thing. But in the end the tone of the article wavered between naive fascination and somewhat mean-spirited skepticism. And that's not actually "balanced action."

Of course they were going to situate Anusara within this greater question of commercialization. But that is such a big debate, which covers everything from yoga mat wipes to yoga couture to yoga vacations, that I felt we were unfairly singled out. And really that's the topic of another article.

As you wrote, what rings most true for us, the practitioners of this method, is the community and not the individual. The essay was unfair in portraying a cult of personality around JF without at the very least highlighting the Bigger Picture.

To echo Marcia's comments: I have been teaching this method in bumf**k upstate NY for just over a year. There is now a community that was not there before. My students are friends with one another. They eat together, they have helped each other through some pretty horrible times, they have celebrated with one another.

One of my "crankiest" students recently confessed to me that as uncomfortable as he was and still is with the handstand partner-work, he believes that this was what ushered in the dynamic of care, attention, and communication among them. He said it was genius that we could create that kind of camaraderie in the classroom. And now it extends further. Outside of the classroom.

So when I look at my students (I could talk about my own experiences as well, but this comment is already too long), and how they treat one another, how they have created an alternative space in a place I did not think was amenable to letting such things grow, I feel deeply at peace with this method. I know we are doing the right thing. I am utterly clear that many people's lives are brighter because of it.

kgredman said...

Well put,and my gut reaction on reading was similar. However, I really appreciated the mention of how Anusara weaves the whole of yoga into the practice (not just stripped down asana) in an accessible way, thus opening the door to further exploration. I think this message outshines any of the mogul-ese, stardom and other possibly less flattering things in this article.

destroying angel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...

Nicely stated, as usual. You should send this in to the NYT. :-) I also took exception to the bit about JF trash-talking other methods, since he so explicitly discourages that kind of behavior. Oh well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. xoxo

There is no Plan B said...

I actually liked the article. I think whenever anyone gets popular on global proportions such as JF there will always be criticism and skepticism. I think is good for JF and everyone who considers themselves part of the Anusara community to look at how the outside world perceives us. Which in my opinion is where the balanced action is derived - understanding the perception and staying true to the practice.

OrchidAnenomae said...

Christina, I always appreciate your two cents. Thank you.

amy said...

I over that Anusara hit the mainstream in the NYT article. I loved whenwe were on the front cover of YJ eith the bright yellow and pink cover .... I have gratitude that specifics give rise to bird's eye views and I know that "opinions are like a--holes , everyone has one" and Truth prevails by attitude , alignment action" and when we spend more time steeped in what we DO know our energy dies nit need to convince another. Growth, expansion is not only forward motion. It pulsates. My own children editorialize their experience as my children. And to me, I could say they are so inaccurate need for defending or rationalizing or explaining. It is what it is. But that is their reality,now, this moment. I have the utmost confidence in myself as a parent and not to win a popularity contest with them as I have utter trust/ faith/ shradda that the distillation of the nyt article is for the greater good. I have gratitude for NYT for that end...expanding John's vision and it is what it is..."look for the good" and honor it as it is all supreme consciousness. Blessings to all of us ---the shiney lustrous pearls that we already are loomed together as a kula.

John's vision.

clairehg said...

Thank you -- from a devoted practitioner. Anusara has been so important to my life for the past 5 years (almost). ...very well expressed. Blessings.

Tal said...

Thank you Christina and Elisa for voicing what this article was missing - which is the essence of it all.

What people have received through their own engagement with Anusara yoga, and through being open to the teaching that John and teachers that he trained so generously offer has had a tremendous positive impact on many wonderful lives.

I am not a groupie by any means, just a fellow sister on this planet, who feels very deep appreciation for how my own awareness has shifted
in a way that improved what I now can offer to my friends, family and hopefully my yoga students too.

That for me is the essence of what Anusara Yoga is bringing to the world and I believe that's also why it's so successful. The message of 'open to grace' is truly universal and the method offered is answering a deep need for better clarity of body, mind and human spirit.

Bottom line for the writer is - 'look for the good' (or at least find a good editor) and for you anusaris and to John I want you to know that even if I never perform a single yoga pose again, or spend or make a single yoga dollar ever, I feel so blessed by how my life was touched by interacting with you all and I will always be forever grateful.

Praise the lord ;-)



leelee said...

what did the deleted posts say?

Shaka McGlotten said...

Hi Christina, I've always missed you when I've been back in Austin, but hope to come to Austin to take a workshop with you this fall. I wanted to respond briefly to your post and use it to think through a couple of other related ideas the article and your response bring up for me.

The first is that, in spite of what I understand as a fairly common stylistic stretching of certain points (like John's rockstar status leading to hotel cards pressed into his hand), I think the article is actually fairly balanced in the way it treats Anusara, emphasizing its positive philosophy and how its distinguished from other yoga styles, mostly in Anusara's favor. After all, one could write an article about yoga and not talk about Anusara at all. This piece actually offers enormous, largely positive exposure for the system. What I understand as part of what makes the writing uncomfortable for you, and I've talked to others in the NYC kula who feel similarly, is how it treats John. But again, here, I think John comes across as sympathetic, smart, articulate, as a man with ambition and a vision. Another minor point: I was actually surprised at how little John made! A little less than a 100K sounds like a lot, and it is for a lot of people, but for someone with the years of experience John brings to the table, along with his larger administrative role in the organization, this seems more than fair. As a 35 y/o professor I make about 2/3rds what he does, with way less experience!

The article also does a good job of situating yoga within a larger culture of consumption, which to me is part of its appeal. Within contemporary US and even global yoga cultures, yoga makes sense only through things like branding whether we like it or not.
But this leads me to a second point, or, really, a series of questions I've been mulling over that have to do with ideas about governance and democracy, capitalism and branding. As Doug Keller points out, though his quote appears a bit out of context, we (as Anusara-inspired or Certified teachers) only license a brand that is, properly speaking, John's intellectual property. I've been thinking through ideas about copyright, trademark, and democratic principles, and I wonder how we can begin to imagine modes of democratic governance and participation that mirror the same spirit of community Anusara promotes and inspires. To take a very simple example--your website and podcasts: if John feels that you are not adhering to the standards he's established, or if he simply believes you've said something inaccurate or that reflects poorly on the larger brand, it's within his power to have you remove it, at least as long as you’re in a contractually binding relationship to Anusara. Anyway, this getting awful long. This is a conversation I'm beginning to have with folks in NYC, and will look forward to having with others. My best,

Jordan said...

i too wonder what the deleted posts might have said...

not because i wish to read hurtful or insulting comments but because i find this article has sparked so much commentary and response and it is valuable to see the whole spectrum.

ponteirjh said...


Thank you for your quick and insightful post. A terrific defense of John and his dynamic style and wonderful method. I've enjoyed the ensuing conversation from practitioners as well. Astute and balanced. Like Anusara. Well done everyone. Namaste.

Candice Garrett said...

Well said. I didn't think the article was balanced at all. Nice to hear your point of view!

Brian Borchers said...

As someone way out on the edge (one of my teachers is getting a second certification in Anusara yoga and I've taken some classes with Anusara teachers visiting town), my reaction was a bit more positive. I thought that John Friend's statements in the interview provided a pretty clear picture of what's different about the Anusara approach, the brief history of how he got started was interesting, and the portrayal of him as a "rock star of yoga" was more "People Magazine" than "NY Times." Someone should probably contact the ombudsman at the NY Times about the "hotel room keys" stuff in the article, which seems to be utterly unsubstantiated gossip that plays into a particular stereotype about yoga guru's that I hate to see being perpetuated.

D. R. Butler said...

There was a link to your blog on Facebook. I was curious because I have a lot of Anusara friends (especially on Facebook) and I've known John since 1994 when we met in an ashram in India where we were both staying. I know what is real about John, and he is one of the best people I know.

Having some background in the media, the agenda is not always to present the truth. An expose revealing inner secrets is much more appealing and sells more magazines or newspapers or whatever than writing all nice things about anything. The reading public would much rather know what's wrong with something than what's right about it, and so that's what they get.

The publicity from being in the NY Times Magazine is huge in itself, regardless of anything written. If anyone wants to know the truth about John they can go see for themselves. The Truth is plain to see for those who have eyes to see. Others will only see their own projections anyway.

In first two comments following the June 1, 2010, entry of my own blog I answer a question about John Friend and Anusara yoga, and give my perspective on him and it. Anyone interested is invited to vist my blog at:

Hope you don't mind my mentioning this. I feel my own perspective is more valuable than the NY Times:) At least regarding the things I actually know.

All the best to you, and keep up the good writing. You speak from your heart, and that's all you need to be heard.

Christina Sell said...

Hey everybody! thanks for your thoughtful comments. I did not remove the comments so I have no idea what they said. I have never removed a comment on this blog, it is always the author of the comment, not the author of the blog!

Christina Sell said...

Oh- and yes,we have all kinds of licensing things with the name of Anusara Yoga (and you will notice, my podcasts do not say Anusara Yoga, they say, Live From the Castle and Practice Yoga with Christina Sell!)

USCJan said...

Thanks Christina, as usual, for YOUR great insights and excellent writing. Your blog = treat.

JHL said...

I've been practicing Anusara for 18 months and it's been helpful in improving my balance, flexibility, and core strength. I also find that it has had spillover effects of calming me down and softening my stress.

I wouldn't know John Friend from John Adams, but Friend has turned out to be all-to human. I'm curious as to your reaction to the more recent revelations about John Friend as it realtes to his ethical, personal and business behavior. I'm not asking you to retract your prior comments as no one has perfect information, but given what you now know, what do you think about Friend and the future of Anusara?

JHL said...

Hi Christina,

I'm not asking you to retract your prior observations about John Friend as folks never have perfect information, but in light of the most recent revelations relating to Mr. Friend's personal, business, ethical, and moral lapses, do you have any new thoughts about him and Anusara?