I have many friends who hitched their stars to the Anusara comet, and I’ve been listening to their stories over the past few weeks. I listen from my own experience in extracting myself from the sphere of charisma: it hurts, it is humiliating, and yes – through therapy and hard work, it can be a turning point in the evolution of personal integrity. I talk quietly with these friends for a long time. For many, the sorrow and embarrassment is taking a hopeful arc. There’s a lot of courage emerging through the process, and our general discourse around what works and what doesn’t is rising in quality and subtlety. This is a very good time for modern yoga culture.
Through the multiple Elephant Journal and Huffington Post posts we’ve seen, I think many of the best points about the situation have already been made. In no particular order: all idols must fall, messengers get shot, authoritarians are surrounded by enablers, corporate enablers have too much skin in the corporate game to call bullshit, Pollyanna philosophies conceal massive shadow and doubt, apologies are authentic to the extent that they don’t preclude true reparation, and the tension between private behaviour and public expectation amplifies our good-self/bad-self splitting in the age of the spectacle. All in all, I think the ethics and psychodynamics – the content – has been well covered.
But I’ve slowly become interested in what the story has to tell us about the logistics and structure (the form) of community itself. I have always doubted not only the stability but the ontology of an organization seemingly dependent on outsized-personality, air travel, conference-centre love-ins, resort town festivals, and the see-saw economics of scarcity (“There’s only one John Friend, and I have to get close to him, because everybody including him says I must, even if there’s 700 other people in the room”) and plenitude (“Shri will pay my credit card bills!”).
The instability of the pre-fall Anusara is now clear: every authoritarian and personality-cult structure will reveal its shadow in this panoptic and hyper-democratized age. But the ontology? Am I saying the Anusara community didn’t exist before its flood? No – it surely did, and richly so, for those who felt part of it. The point I’d like to make is that it seemed sustained by a distinctly late-capitalist vibe: ungrounded, easy-credit-fuelled, dispersed across the internet, cohered by branding, conference calls and corporate-speak, and splattered across the vacay-destinations of our warming globe. Behind the Stepford-wives tantrism of Anusara’s recent years I saw our shared movie set of consumer desire, pomo alienation, and simulated relationship.
To me, Anusara as an organization was far more shaky than the always-quivering cracks of its idol. It seemed systemically fragile through the exuberance of its self-promotion. It reminded me of some of the greatest insights of Baudrillard and Foucault: the spectacle of power always conceals a lack. The clothes of the emperor amplify his nakedness.
But you don’t need to be a Continental philosophy nerd to sniff this out. Consider this: as of this posting, the Anusara website is still up, currently floating in ephemeral denial – a stage scrim concealing the ghost town of the abandoned corporation. The website is literally hiding an absence, and I think we’re all wondering whether that absence was always so cold. All of John’s “Ignite the World” tour dates are still posted. (As long as the website is up, I think it would be cool if someone hacked it and renamed it the “Ignore the World” tour. That’s what John’s personal brand has been doing for many years – ignoring the broader community, ignoring wealth disparity, ignoring the rising floodwaters in Calcutta as his tours gobble up jet fuel.) Laughably, pathetically, the home page also still touts the Anusara-Manduka corporate tie-in as though it contributed to world peace. “Collaborating is a passion of mine. Our highest motivation in this partnership is to serve, wanting students to have a deep experience of their own Divine beauty”, quoth Friend – talking, of course, about his endorsement of rubber yoga mats. Ahem: Divine-Beauty-Experience-Catalyzing Rubber Yoga Mats, that is. Foucault was bang-on: ironic doublespeak isn’t hiding. It’s always right there in front of our noses, concealing a vacuum of integrity.
Through the years I heard many Anusara folks speak about being “deeply grounded” in the philosophy of Kashmiri Shaivism – or later, John’s nouveau-tantra of Shiva-Shakti. Philosophies come and go – that didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the misuse of the notion of “deeply grounded”. Other than Diogenes, Epictetus, and the artisans of phenomenology and existentialism (including that of the Gita, if we read Arjuna’s dilemma in a very modern way), there are precious few philosophers and philosophies that “deeply ground”. Most do the precise opposite: erecting play-structures for our conceptual faculties, mouse-wheels for the enjoyment of beguiling language. What deeply grounds us are the ecologies of food, relationship, and the day by day confession of I-don’t-know-what-it’s-all-about-but-I’m-doing-the-best-work-I-can. It is a most wicked irony that a philosophy of abstract non-dualism can become a toxic mimic (cf. Derrick Jensen) of “groundedness”. To me, this speaks to a powerful need for mystification in postmodern spirituality. Perhaps the absence of embodied connection involving homes and food and the daily grind is so unconsciously painful, the best analgesic is the most florid jabberwocky.
Carlos Pomeda and Douglas Brooks – along with many thoughtful Anusara practitioners – may object here, and rightly so, perhaps. After all, Kaismiri Shaivism’s non-dualism blossomed out of a householding culture that sought to divinize the everyday, to utilize both good and bad experiences towards self-reflection, to banish the banal, eradicate boredom, ignore the glitter, and elevate the smallest and most inconsequential to the level of cosmic radiance. But to me, “grounding” a transnational yoga brand in the smartest Tantrism you can dust off and resuscitate is the height of a very sad irony. It encourages people, in my opinion, to think and talk about exactly what they want – relationship in a revisioned world – while ushering them through a corporate culture that actually dissociates from relationship and reinforces the banality of power that pervades their lives. I have always been uplifted by the content that Pomeda and Brooks have to offer to the general yoga community (and I’m particularly grateful for Brooks’ call for a new kind of yoga leadership). But I think they’ve been a little blind to the form that that content has utilized. This is absolutely forgivable: the whole realm of mass-market-air-miles-teaching is very fresh and new to us all. It will naturally take some time for us to realize the disjunction between what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it. I hope that this moment brings some insight in this department.
One of the first, and quite understandable, responses we’ve seen from Anusara practitioners is the desire to separate the man from the method. This may well be possible, and I hope that the effort accomplishes the important work of democratizing authority within the community. But I see two dangers embedded in this damage-control approach. First – that the method becomes as reified as the man (as in: “Anusara was channeled from the Great Beyond through an imperfect vessel”), and further, that this reification continues to isolate the community from the richness of the Nonusara world. A method can be as idol-hollow as a man. It would be very easy to crown the method as shadow-free in the same way that John became unimpeachable. This would be unfortunate.
But I think the best Anusara teachers won’t make this mistake. They will fold this method into their teaching toolboxes beside many other equally powerful tools, and they will use each tool like an artisan for each unique therapeutic task. I also think the best Anusara teachers will start to speak about the “universal principles” in a relativistic way – they are useful to the extent that they communicate the accessibility of yoga to flesh and emotion, and useless to the extent that they dictate how postures or philosophies should be performed in order to “align”. My hope is that the method does not become what the man became: something that people rely on within the realm of belief, something that can shatter or be taken away. It reminds me of one of Kierkegaard’s key critiques of religion: If you depend on it and it can be stolen away from you by force or disillusionment, you are living in unconscious despair. So says the Dane.
I heard of one Anusara teacher who was in the last stage of her certification process – many years and tens of thousands of dollars in the red to an “Anusara Mortgage”. She had just put the bubble-packed DVD of her final class assessment in the mail to California on the morning the story broke. Soon after, she got an e-mail saying that her adjudicator had resigned. Her bubble-pack would probably never be opened. Soon after that, she heard that the administration office had shut its doors, and the lead admin person had walked away. So perhaps the bubble-pack never even made it through the nailed-shut mail slot.
This dead-DVD-letter-in bubble-wrap story is poignant to me: someone sending moving images of themselves teaching to be reviewed by teachers they may have never met. The images are burned into plastic, encased in plastic, and wrapped in plastic filled with air, and then trucked to a plane. (Talk about vata aggravation and the fossil-fuel complex!) The moving images reveal what the presenter wants to present of themselves to some arbiter of presentations. But in a sense, who was every really going to see them? Nobody really sees images anyway. What we see – and I mean “see” here in the sense of “feel” – is relationship. And relationship doesn’t happen by correspondence, nor can it be “certified”.
The pedagogy that stays with us through our lives depends upon that familial intimacy that informed our earliest discoveries. I learned to read in my mother’s arms. I learned to throw a ball by feeling my father’s body throw a ball. I learned social navigation by watching them interact with each other and strangers. In the triad of the family, each member watches the other for years, attuning, mimicking, dialoguing, responding. The triad of virtues here are as necessary as they are autonomic to the biological bond: personal attention, time, and love.
Up until Vivekananda (who burst onto the scene exactly as publishing and photography began to crystallize the imagery of global yoga culture), this familial triad was the central model for yoga and vidya transmission in Indian culture. Student, teacher, and the teacher’s daily life would spend years within the same household attuning to each other, dialoguing, responding. The original meaning of gurukula involved a house, family, cohabitation, and utter transparency. If you wanted to learn Ayurveda, for example, you lived with the doctor and ground the herbs and peeled the ginger and stirred the kitchari and simmered the ghee and boiled the milk tonics and watched the clients come and go and saw how the doctor ate and bathed and paid the farmers and loved his partner and guided his children. The worldview and method of Ayurveda would be as much transmitted to you through your residency as through your shloka-chanting or your studies in pulse analysis.
Contrast this to the kula we find in the ICU today: it is precisely this close and transparent relationship that is suppressed by the logistics of a transnational corporation. Corporate imagery relies, in fact, upon distance and opacity, and the almost sexual friction of brief meetings and projected connections. I remember from my own guru-swooning days the erotic charge of spending even a minute alone with the Master. It felt illicit and important, but only because it was so rare. It concealed much more than it revealed: this was its seduction. The more hidden and inaccessible John Friend became, the more his star rose. And you really never got to see if he still loved you in the morning.
Guru: we never really knew you. It all reminds me of a woman I met twenty years ago who used to listen to the hum of CBC radio at 3am, when it was off-air, convinced that she was hearing Leonard Cohen singing to her, and her alone.
Is it really any wonder that transgressive sex (whatever this means and according to whomsoever’s standards) is at the centre of a dissociative and disembodied corporate structure? Isn’t sex the simplest language the body has for reintegration? For the vast majority of Anusara practitioners, John Friend was no more visible or touchable than the Wizard of Oz. Sexual intrigue, soaked with longing and guilt, is the shadow roiling behind the curtain of chaste celebrity.
John has logged a lot of air miles. He’s eaten a lot of airplane food. He’s stayed in hundreds of hotels. He’s met tens of thousands of people — briefly. From an Ayurvedic perspective, I’d put big money on him being maha-vata-aggravated: intense creativity, boundless energy, dissociative avoidance strategies, and some definite reality deficits. He has that 1000-yard stare. But he’s on the ground now, and I hope that along with talk therapy (which is only marginally effective for vata aggravations featuring a lot of wind-bag-ism) he gives himself a lot of oil massage, applies anuvasana basti every afternoon (you can look it up), and eats a lot of blended root-veg soup. I also hope he stays in one place for a good long time. Gardening would probably be incredibly healing. And, I think, some kind of physical culture that would help with boundary issues and authenticity, like contact improv or capoeira. Soup kitchen work is probably also a plus. I really wish him the best.
As I wish warmly for all of my Anusara friends. For I’ve seen so many of them tangibly improve their physical and emotional health through their practice these long years, and I’m sure these advances in clarity and sensitivity will now be strengthened, not lost. Frankly, bunches of them have been off the Anu-island in their hearts for so long anyway: I can think of several who have been enthusiastic about their self-study and teaching and service but have long rolled their eyes when speaking about Friend or grand gatherings or the expenses, or the certification process. And that’s the Achilles heal of corporate culture: the silent majority probably isn’t buying it, even if they feel slightly owned by it. It is quite warming to know that in our hearts, we’re always smarter than the Man. Acting smarter is tough part. We’re all working on it.
I had a friend who used to say: “95% of everything is crap”. I’d like to salute my Anusara friends who have been working that shining 5% down to the bone: alone, at home, late at night, early in the morning, with their partners and families and school committees, through their physical injuries and emotional doubts, through the ground of their lives. Your work — your ecstasy and dirty laundry together — is now part of our shared cultural equity. Thank you.
I also know several Anusara practitioners who have been quietly developing local communities that day by day detach them from the corporate model in concrete ways. One colleague of mine in Toronto opened an “Anusara-inspired” studio several years ago, and has gradually extended the breadth of what she offers to include many Nonusara modalities. But what warms my heart most about the transformation in her model has been her burgeoning social activism – the most notable gap in Friend’s portfolio. This fall, for instance, she camped out to hold the space of mindful witnessing at Occupy Toronto, and spread its messages through social media. Now she’s contemplating how to diversify the voice of her future teacher trainings to include more local mentorship and to challenge the ways the yoga community privileges some voices over others.
I can’t wait to see what happens next for folks like her. They’ve seen the mold they were formed in shatter, and now they are free to sprout in any direction at all. Knowing my friend, there might be a soup kitchen in the works. And — an exploration of practice and studio culture as a means of interrupting the dominant cultural and corporate paradigms that abuse power and turn a blind eye to oppression. And — an expansion beyond the simplistic binaries of Shiva-Shakti to celebrate the fluidity of identity and experience in more inclusive ways. And — most of all — a philosophy that describes whole experience, rather than concealing the pain we so desperately need for our empathy to be unleashed.