De-mystifying the Guru: The Case of John Friend and Anusara Yoga

Do these leaders misuse their power because they have risen to such great heights that they have lost touch with reality, or have they risen to power because their egos knew no bounds in the first place?
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How many times have we heard the story of the religious or socio-political guru outed for his failings involving sex, money and corruption? The community is shocked. The higher-ups resign. The rest of the members aren't sure what to do: they either overturn the guru, instituting a democratic decision-making process, or they go down with him. In the case of Anusara Yoga founder John Friend, the jury's out.

I'm sure the feeling was similar at Kripalu in 1994 when the yoga and wellness center's guru-teacher-leader, Amrit Desai, was found to be having a number of extra-marital affairs:

Over the course of the next years, the community would go through a complete death and rebirth. Many of the senior members would leave ... The entire organization was restructured... But... the guru had to leave, and the idealization had to be irreparably broken.

I am glad for their sake that their community sorted through the issue and came out whole on the other side.

As for John Friend, I've read the accusations and it certainly seems that he is a fallible man, and that his situation is very much like that of Desai: he is a man who was supposed to behave with great purity of intention, and did not. The Anusara community is certainly extremely disappointed in and angry with their leader, for good reason.

Alleged special (supposedly 'Wiccan') sexual circles with teachers and students, including married individuals whose partners were not aware or had not approved? Frozen pensions with no notice and backdated paperwork to cover it up? Allegations of personal marijuana deliveries received by his assistants all over town? What was he thinking? (As to his response that the freezing of pensions was just a mistake, Friend worked as a financial analyst until he began to teach yoga full time in 1986, so that excuse will not hold.)

Fortunately, the studio where I practice yoga was founded over 40 years ago, before Friend's method was a twinkle in his own eye. So while it espouses the alignment principals of Anusara yoga, its spiritual practices go far deeper into the lineage of Muktananda and the gurus of India.

Now, who they were sleeping with, I don't know!

Oh, wait. There it is:

In 1983 William Rodarmor wrote an article... charging that Muktananda had engaged in behavior at odds with his own teachings and with wider societal norms. In 1985, [his disciple] Nityananda stepped down... and started his own organization."

Unfortunately it seems the 'guru complex' is indeed widespread.

It causes one to wonder: Do these leaders misuse their power because they have risen to such great heights that they have lost touch with reality, or have they risen to power because their egos knew no bounds in the first place?

Certainly, one factor in the 'guru-ization' of religious leaders, spiritual teachers, politicians, and even therapists who seem to be permitted to act above the rules that govern the rest of us, is that people are so beholden to them than no one will speak out against them. Another factor is that human beings are unfortunately often all too happy to be led into wherever they think they will be safe, loved, and taken care of.

We must be more discerning: It is always important to put our religious and spiritual leaders' advice and behavior in perspective rather than losing ourselves within it... and to not be surprised when religious leaders are flawed and spiritual teachers are human.

Ideally, those leaders would also take greater responsibility for their behavior and their attitude toward their position of power, becoming more responsible and ethical within it.

I am curious to see what Vira Yoga and other Anusara-affiliated yoga centers will do with this information and its fallout. I suppose that if the teachings can be separated from the man as some have suggested, then the principles of Anusara yoga can still stand even as their articulator steps down (or at least moves slightly out of the picture).

I do have to wonder if most of the high-ranking and very involved teachers didn't know what was going on, and if they resigned amidst the scandal because they were first learning of Friend's alleged actions, or because it had suddenly became public knowledge. I suppose I can understand that under certain types of peer pressure, public outcry provides the reason for the exit that has not yet otherwise been made:

"It was my social life, my professional life and my practice life. Resigning felt like I was ripping apart the seams of my identity and yet I didn't feel like I could...continue to work for change from within [the organization]." - From Christina Sell's letter to her students as she left Anusara, parting ways with Friend

Most disturbing has been my discovery that there are "high-ranking yoga teachers'" at all! And that Anusara is not only a method for achieving physical alignment or spiritual peace but is actually a company and a brand with by-laws! I would never have thought of it that way, and hearing it described as such was a remedy for my naiveté.

Still, if I understand it correctly, yoga should not be something you 'join' or 'leave.' It should not be an organization or a company. It should be a seeking of insight, tranquility and inner contentment. So if this whole issue provides any silver lining, perhaps it is simply to remember that.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Amrit Desai resigned in 1999. He resigned in 1994.

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