I’ve been practicing recently at a studio called People’s Yoga in Southeast Portland. A few weeks ago, they sent out an email announcing that all their “Anusara Inspired” classes are being renamed “Hatha Flow”. The reason for this change, as you might expect, is the recent scandal surrounding the founder of Anusara, John Friend. I won’t go into all the sordid details here, but it’s your usual cult of personality fiasco involving sex, drugs, financial wrongdoing, etc. What’s so surprising to me, through all of this, is not the nature of John Friend’s alleged transgressions, but the fact that other people are at all surprised by any of this.
Perhaps I’m more cynical than most, but it didn’t surprised me at all when these nasty accusations and revelations about John Friend started to circulate. Not that I know the guy personally. Rather, I’ve always been suspicious of Anusara for the same reason I am wary about Kundalini and Bikram — i.e., any school of yoga that involves the elevation of one individual (read: ego) to the level of a demigod is simply contrary to everything that yoga teaches.
It has always bothered me when yoga students flock to and around a teacher, almost as if that teacher is a saint who was put here on earth to bestow sacred wisdom on us lowly and lost followers. I’ve seen this happen more times than I can count, and, for whatever reasons, it’s often a cocky male yoga teacher at the center of it all.
But it’s not just egotistical teachers who produce a cult of personality. Sometimes it’s also the students who are the primary cause. After all, a charismatic leader is nothing without his or her devotees. I think this whole Anusara kerfuffle should make us question not only the elevated status of celebrity yoga teachers, but also our complicity in all of this as followers.
So why do yoga cults of personality arise? And why so frequently? I suspect that it has something to do with the power of yoga itself. So many people find strength, health, confidence, and peace in their yoga practices. It is nothing short of a religious experience for some. Perhaps this power of yoga, and its significance in our lives, can lead to a dangerous slide where we start to believe that the person helping us along in our practice is actually the one who holds the power. We may even come to believe that this person can do no wrong. Unfortunately, this unchecked belief can set the stage for a charismatic leader to do whatever he or she pleases–i.e., take advantage of others–with little chance of repercussion.
When I used to teach yoga, I found that quite a few students sought spiritual leadership or guidance from me (even if they didn’t always say so explicitly). This always made me very uncomfortable, because I felt totally unqualified to do anything more than teach asana. Plus, it called upon me to put on a kind of guru act, which always felt silly and disingenuous to me. I realize that teaching is, by its very nature, performative in many ways. As a teacher, one must often adopt a tone of authority and confidence. One should also learn to correct students in a manner that is simultaneously instructive and encouraging. But it’s easy to get carried away with this authority/power, especially if some eager students begin to feed your ego and tell you how great you are.
Lately, when I go to a yoga class and the teacher begins with a quasi-sermon about gratitude, forgiveness, healing, or whatever, I find myself becoming increasingly annoyed. I just want to say to the teacher, “Look, let’s drop the preacher act, and just get on with the poses.” It’s not that I don’t find spiritual value in my yoga practice. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I simply want to discover that spiritual value through my practice on my mat. I want to connect to the power of yoga through breath and movement, not the teacher’s “words of wisdom.” I worry, though, that too many yoga teachers are starting to buy into this idea that they are supposed to be eloquent spiritual leaders, that pontificating is part of the job, and that students want to hear a sermon at the beginning and end of every class.
As the Anusara scandal reminds me, though, there are plenty of students out there who do want to follow a leader. They want to give themselves completely to a school of thought, a community, or even a cult of personality. I have done this myself, as a new and overeager student who unquestioningly followed a charismatic teacher day after day. In retrospect, I can say that this blind devotion was unhealthy. But at the time, I guess it is what I needed. By growing out of it, and eventually learning from other teachers, I believe that my relationship with yoga has progressed and matured. Now, when I seek out a teacher, I’m much less impressed by charisma or athleticism, and more interested in finding a teacher who has the quiet wisdom that comes with years of experience.