When I was 19, the Watergate scandal broke out in the news. During the process, the depth of the cover-up was disclosed. The members of ex-President Nixon’s staff were on the whole a group of well-educated, brilliant, and talented people who were willing to go to any lengths to cover up the illegal actions approved and ordered by Nixon, including breaking and entering. Some were willing to fall on their swords for him, destroying their careers. Some even landed in prison. I mention this because it was a watershed event in my moral development. For many years afterword, I wore a “Question Authority” button on my backpack. Watching the events surrounding Watergate and the 1972 presidential elections has served me well in keeping my suspicions up when joining groups or falling into group-think. It has, also, unfortunately kept me from always being able to totally join in the joys of a group, leading me to often being the gadfly or the scapegoat leader (saying the things no one else wants to hear).
I am writing this partially at the suggestion of an ex-Anusara teacher and friend who has been questioning how she stayed loyal for so long to John Friend, even at great personal expense. She has asked to remain anonymous, which I understand totally. This has been a paranoid and punitive organization, as we have heard from both Amy Ippoliti and Christina Sell, with little room for disagreement or true inquiry. I have noticed since the story first broke how many Anusara-identified people used anonymous or bizarre pseudonyms instead of identifying themselves when responding to blogs (and how many of them have used abusive language and personal attacks to express their points of view). This fearfulness is contagious. I, too, feel a bit fearful in putting my opinions out. I hope that writing this article will be a help to my friend and other people who may be caught up in their confusion about how to react, and will also allow me to let go of some of my own doubts about my ability to see clearly.
We have seen the exodus of many teachers the past three plus weeks. At least some knew what was going on at the center of the organization. Prior to this, at least some of them participated in allowing John to continue his actions, covered up for him, and betrayed their own ethics to do so. As Elena Brower states, there were at least two camps, the “in the know” and the “had no idea”, and apparently there was for the last few years always a threat and a promise as to what camp you may be asked to join. There were also people close to the center of the organization who were in between these two poles, some who had suspicions but were lied to when they went to check them out with their friends or John, and those with suspicions who lied to themselves in order the stay in the “merry band”. The same situations must be true of many of the teachers and students who are staying with Anusara or are contemplating which way to go. All too many teachers were uncomfortable with John’s behaviors but didn’t give up their licensing, resisted having their livelihood disrupted, or their fame and stature threatened. All the certified teachers were treated a bit like children, for example with being obliged to give him (John) first creative say in any products we made going forward and then 10 percent of any revenue we generate from said products, and told how to structure each and every class. Most of these rules were kept secret from the students. When I tried to ask about them I found myself hitting a brick wall. Some of these teachers tried but didn’t persist in speaking up against unfair actions or unwise behaviors. Many stayed for years even when they saw that John wasn’t going to listen to their feedback. Some developed pain syndromes or other health issues, and still they stayed until the full (maybe) disclosures came. Almost all of them say that they still love John Friend. I have no idea what this word “love” means in this case. These are teachers respected by their students. They are pillars of the Anusara community and often big name folks featured in Yoga Journal.
It is clear that what has happened with John Friend and the Anusara organization has been a co-creation and that it can not be lain at the feet of one person. It perhaps largely evolved out of a situation of good feelings and projected self-esteem bouncing back and forth in all directions within the community and especially within the innermost circle. I myself have never been a chosen one in the center of a group with a leader who displayed the characteristics described by Amy Ipolliti and others: entitlement, arrogance, lack of empathy, and a feeling that he deserves special treatment (i.e. that rules don’t apply to him). My personal experience with this dynamic has been in a couple of romantic relationships. Also, for many years my brother was in the Church of Scientology and I have been impacted both by his behaviors while in the church and by the wisdom and wholeness he has achieved by removing and then healing himself.
When first falling in love with a person or powerful teachings (such as in Anusara), there arises a “mergy” symbiosis, where everything is wonderful and “all good”. Problems arise when a person is incapable of seeing the whole after the initial “in love” phase, and the object of love takes on one pole of the all-good/all-bad split. As I discussed in a previous post, this sets up the stage for projections and Projective Identification. Too many positive projections create a fertile ground for severe inflation, especially in situations where there is either an unhealthy ego structure of there is a lot of power to play with.
For a while, this reflected esteem can go back and forth, and everything can be most wonderful. But the inflation can get so big and overpowering that people will begin to speak their truth. Thus begins the bad half of the split, resulting in name-calling, devaluation, rejections, betrayals, and cheating. Unfortunately, the good half of the split is quite addicting, and just like a gambler, an irregular reinforcement schedule can keep a person hooked in the cycle of overvaluation/devaluation. Then comes the cycle of self-degradation, putting up with ever more obnoxious behavior, and, eventually a collapse. Returning to personal example, in one case I left the state of California in order to get out of a relationship because I found myself returning to it over and over. The root cause of staying is usually a lack of good self-esteem and a misguided belief that the other person or the group is the root cause of all good feelings. The blessings that came out of my own pain and heartbreak became deeply motivating to learn about personality disorders when I completed a fellowship in substance abuse treatment. I wrote about my experiences in dealing with personality-disordered addicts, and learned to deeply empathize with them during the fellowship.
Perhaps the teachers at the center of the organization would benefit from looking at how the glow of “fame” from the name and the organization and the promise of what it might bring them created an inability to honestly assess what was happening to them. The mutual admiration that occurred between John and so many of the senior teachers perhaps allowed them to remain under circumstances that seem now to be intolerable, and then to act in directions far beyond anything to do with yoga or integrity (of leadership) or spiritual teachings. My guess would be that some of this occurred on a conscious decision level, and some of it was deeply buried. After all, when we look at this mutual admiration and benefit process directly in the current light of the facts, it must be more than a little embarrassing to face up to.
People keep asking me why I care so much about all this. I’m not an Anusara teacher and my livelihood doesn’t depend on it. I have been exploring this within and what I keep coming back to is three things: the kula/community and friendships I’ve gained which I would prefer not to lose; that this is as close as I’ve come to being drawn in to something like a cult which has led me to deep self-inquiry; and, perhaps most importantly, I am a student who had my preferences for who taught me thwarted by John Friend on behalf of one of his favorite teachers. He came in to my local community and lectured about a “new paradigm” where there would be cooperation and mutual assistance and abundance for all rather than competition. He told us that a studio owner must learn to live with a studio teaching the same things moving in down the street because there were enough students for all. This lecture occurred after he had demanded that this favorite teacher be part of the Immersion I was in the middle of (or that Immersion must be cancelled).
A few month later his “new” paradigm got tested when a non-local teacher was scheduled for a teacher training at the studio that I mainly practice out of. Instead of allowing this guest teacher (I won’t mention names, this is his story to tell) John backed up another teacher using the “procedures” reason and the teacher training I wanted to go to was blocked. This teacher he backed up in both cases as it turned out was a member of his Wiccan coven. These are the same procedures as Amy Ippoliti described being used in Japan. I contacted the teachers who were blocking it, copying John and telling them I thought this was dishonest and unethical. Within 15 minutes I heard from John, and thus ensued an all day back and for the email and phone conversation. Eventually I knew this was going nowhere and I ceased.
I learned so much from my beloved Psychodrama trainer Dorothy Satten. She once told me that I had to learn to give people a chance to redeem themselves. That has been difficult for me to do, but now I do give people this opportunity. Telling them what they have done that has upset me, or letting them know where I feel betrayed or unheard by them, I allow them to tell their side of the story and often can reach either clarity or closure. I give them a chance, maybe two. The problem comes up when I find myself repeatedly giving them chances, listening to excuses, not seeing any changes in their behavior toward me, or finding myself apologizing and accommodating in a one-way fashion (e.g. when it seems to always be my fault). Perhaps a big part of the problem in the situation with Anusara stems from when teachers accept branding as part of their certification. As far as I understand it, objects, not people can be branded. Maybe the process of accepting the brand crated an internal dissonance that didn’t allow these bright and talented people to see and think clearly.
I often tell others that, in my experience, a relationship will end when it ends. I find that it takes careful and repeated self-inquiry to get closer and closer to the truth of whether a relationship continues to serve me in being fully my best self. I learned from Dorothy Satten that it is very hard to leave when we find ourselves in a “toxic bond” with another. These are very strong bonds that usually form based on old unresolved issues. Many people only leave a “toxic bond” situation if there is another person to bond with; another lover, teacher, parental figure, or guru. Few do the hard work of looking within and leaving without knowing where they will land. Few have the confidence to believe that they will land on their own two feet, that the safely net made up of their personal competence, goodness, friendships and family will offer support. Dorothy also said that good mental health isn’t a state where we never give ourselves away or betray ourselves; good mental health is when we notice that we have given ourselves away sooner and thus can pull ourselves back to our truth with less delay. Dorothy also said that being a therapist is a good place to hide. I would paraphrase that by saying being a yoga/spiritual teacher is a good place to hide too!
From the outside it is impossible to know the internal process of another, but we are well served by people who at least attempt to tell their stories. I was very grateful for the disclosures made by Yoga Dork and Amy Ippoliti and other smaller ones I’ve read. Until these I felt a bit crazy, isolated, and paranoid about what I saw occurring in my local kula. In other words, I have experienced unnecessary suffering of being cut off from the truth over the last year. These disclosures have aided in my ability to bring love to my suffering and thus feel greater compassion for myself. Unfortunately, I am sure there are very many more stories like this that will be revealed. I am also grateful for the on-going and deepening external processing by Christina Fronsolo Sell. They have offered us a glimpse of the co-created world of an unhealthy narcissistic web of relationships. I am sure many will be served in the same way by disclosures made by other teachers and students as they arise.
We live in a time where the risks of unhealthy narcissism are perhaps greater than ever. With the touch of a button on our computer we can have our 15 minutes of fame. I spend a lot of time every day telling people to stop texting wars and wait 24 hours before posting emails. So many Facebook postings in this current crisis from my perspective have been ill advised. We are still learning about how to use the new social networking sites. They are here to stay. No longer is there a strong editorial presence in the bulk of what is revealed on blogs. Our enemies and people we have hurt can look into our phones and email accounts, following our trails of conversations and betrayals. This is for the good and the bad. Certainly we need to begin to use our yoga to stop and think before we post and before we push our send button.
Elena Brower, recently wrote: “Yoga Dork with all due respect: That salacious, desperately sensationalized voice with which you wrote the article “breaking” the story about John was not amongst your relevant contributions to the yoga world thus far.” I have to strongly disagree and say instead that I believe that although the way the story broke was salacious and sensationalized, and therefore not artful, it was a strong gift to the whole world of yoga.
In my opinion, John Friend may find in the long run that he owes Yoga Dork a debt of deep gratitude for this disclosure. My professional experience has been that only this level of exposure and humiliation will give someone with the behaviors and attitudes John has reportedly displayed the opportunity to clean out the rot and be truly healed. The amount of shame that he will need to endure to truly change could be huge and disabling, perhaps bringing him to his knees. It will need to remove the cloak of shiny armor that he put on some years ago. Unfortunately I am not encouraged that this process will happen for him anytime soon in light of the recent letters he has sent to the community about his revised schedule and about the changes within the organization. In both of these letters are statements that indicate to me that the inflation continues unabated. In regards to the overly positivistic letter from the new CEO and that in the new advisory board is a (former?) coven member, I am not encouraged that deep changes will occur within the organization either.
There obviously is a strong urge to protect him by those who are in the habit of doing so, but this protection is not truly love. Love is a verb: it asks us to take action for those we love. This kind of reflection, when our friends and family really hold up a mirror without distortion, helps us reach back into our fullness. John Friend has synthesized an amazing and wonderful form of yoga that I am sure came from his basic goodness. I truly hope he allows himself to totally fall apart so he can find a way to this goodness again.
We would not be having this discussion or the recent disclosures from the teachers who have done so if this story didn’t break. None of the teachers that left publicly told the remaining students and teachers the deeper reasons why they did so until after the Yoga Dork revelations, except perhaps privately to their friends and special students. It has been like one big unhealthy family where people in the know are protecting the secret of the abusive parent in order to not be kicked out. It is time to leave our childhoods behind! We were all left in the dark and there was no room for public discourse. Many teachers are finding a deeper connection to their fellow teachers now because the cat is out of the bag and they can talk frankly. All those who have risen with John will have to go through the painful process of feeling the shame, falling apart, and only then healing. My wish is that after they have processed this, whether they stay or leave Anusara, we will hear their truth. Perhaps now we reach for the whole instead of just the good. A friend of mine says the path to the truth is messy. I would add that it is not for the faint-hearted, because it is a difficult and stony path filled with many potential pitfalls.
As I contemplated this article I realized for me nothing important that has been gained has been lost. I still love the Principles of Alignment (although I don’t see them as universal, they are excellent). These principles can also be a useful guide to our contemplations. First we Open to Grace and step into the present moment, noticing all that is here right now, not just what we wish for. We open to the good and bad, the pain and pleasure…awakening to the Ananda which is the loving acceptance of each and every present-moment reality. Next, using Muscle Energy, we can shore up the boundaries of the river of our thoughts and feelings, and that may at times reach flood level. so that we have an opportunity to deeply perceive them. With the Inner Spiral we can reach within and be still to meditate, contemplate, and journal. With the Outward Spiral we can talk to our friends, families, therapists, and teachers, and open to their points of view. Then, if there is enough stability, we can reach out with Organic Energy, experiencing the fullness of the moment and our wholeness. We may need to do these steps over and over. And thus the richness of our life can unfold
For a more complete overview on what’s been happening, please visit: Anusara Controversy: Overview and Timeline