Rebirth into Adulthood for the Yoga World?

Last night at my regular Monday night class at Abhaya Yoga – an Anusara studio- there was a palpable feeling of change in the air. Sometimes change feels welcome, sometimes scary, sometimes refreshing, sometimes threatening. For the many people who have thrown themselves into Anusara Yoga over the past few years, the current scandal can feel downright heartbreaking. Anusara’s promise to bring spirit back into yoga – sort of a ridiculous need in the first place- has invited people to bring much more than their down-dog into their yoga practice. The “Kula” , the word used for community, has been a source of amazing love and support for people around the world. There has been such “sizzle”, such remarkable razzle-dazzle over the past few years as the Anusara scene has swelled. The big teachers are bonafide celebs now, and in just a few years the brand of Anusara Yoga has stood on a platform with lineages that span generations as if it is an ancient tradition or something other that what it has been: a moment, an explosion, an appearance.

Anusara has been, up until now, a fantastic collision.

Imagine the popularity of yoga colliding with the money of the yoga industry colliding with a population of people hungry for Spirit colliding with a generation of people longing for a strong father, colliding with an industry of shitty quality yoga classes, colliding with a very in-depth, complete method of physical yoga taught by a whole crowd of charismatic teachers and a very well-oiled business model and training system, colliding with a celebrity-crazed culture, colliding with a time in history where anything with enough money, PR and marketing can be presented as something significant.

It was a perfect storm. So is the current flap.

Don’t get me wrong if I sound like I am shitting on Anusara. I am not. Both of my regular classes in NYC are in Anusara studios. I go to Anusara classes regularly and absolutely love to lead retreats with Anusara teachers like Ellen Saltonstall. Anusara teachers are rigorously trained and supervised and by-and-large safe and effective classes. This is saying a lot given the current yoga industry with its countless untrained inexperienced teachers and studios around the world.

Anusara is fine, it’s just an infant. A huge infant. A huge infant that perhaps doesn’t see itself as an infant. In some cases it’s an infant that we have put into the place of our cosmic mommy or daddy.

When we look at the thousands of years of yoga’s evolution, Anusara’s life span is teeny tiny. It is drawing on older things, but what John has tried to do is very new and very radical in so many ways. And he, along with the other leaders in Anusara have done an amazing job of it. But it’s an experiment- a work in progress. That doesn’t make it less than great- it just means that it is something still in the development phase.

With all the money at stake, and the livelihood of countless teachers and yoga studios, Anusara has not been allowed to be the experiment that it has been. Anusara, and it’s leaders almost instantly became icons. They couldn’t really be otherwise.  When people are shelling out thousands of dollars and buckets of blood sweat and tears for the sake of teacher trainings, “inspired status”, and certifications, they cannot bear to think that what they are investing in is anything less than sun-kissed, allmighty endorsed, here to stay.  I knew we were in trouble when Yoga Journal put John Friend on the timeline of Yoga History with Patanjali.

Years ago, I was doing an interview with Baba Ram Dass and asked him what he thought of the explosion of yoga’s popularity in the West. Here’s what he said:

Hatha yoga is one type of yoga… I think the teachers of yoga in the west are heaping bad karma on themselves. Their students come for something and they direct them into something else. If they see yoga as stretching, then that teacher is leading souls astray. They have made the yoga achievement-oriented. “Look, how well I can do it”. They’ve taken a beautiful method and westernized it. When you get something from another culture and then acculturate it to your own culture – you’re not learning.

The main westernization factor with the current crisis has to do with the western marketplace culture. What is done and what is taught and what becomes “the thing” has more to do with what people want than what people need.

I also knew we were in trouble when I heard reports about the Wanderlust festivals. Yes people love music. Yes people love yoga. Yes people love to get drunk and stoned. Yes people love to be in a beautiful place. And yes -people will pay for it. So -boom- let’s put it all together! And -boom- it’s the thing.  And because it is endorsed by and attended by and taught by prominent “yoga teachers”, and plenty of people come, and it makes a ton of money, it gets expanded and done again next year and within a year it is put on the stage with other significant yoga things.

We are in a culture where things, people, and practices attain prominence via clap-o-meter. If it’s popular, it’s there. And it has a website. And it looks good. And to be in it’s proximity it feels like something. For now. When something is popular, it has a glamor. It has it’s own buzz that is often beyond it’s substance. But glamor deludes. That’s what glamor is. This is all fine-and-good and harmless when it comes to Lady Gaga or something that we know is going to be fad. But with yoga, people are hungry. People are hungry not just to buff their buns, but to know God, to experience wholeness. Collision.

Being a part of anything big and fabulous and energetic creates a buzz, but if you talk to anyone who has been on a honest spiritual path for awhile- like more than 20 years- they will tell you that things come and go. Practices, scenes, teachers, come into and out of prominence. There are things that stay, but we have to hang in there to see what they are. The current situation forces us to pull away from the sizzle and really experience the steak. It’s a chance to grow up and sober up and experience the deep heart of inner work.

The actual process of spiritual evolution is not very marketable. It is not quick. It is not sexy. It is a blood-and-guts process of trial and error. Trial and error isn’t very packagable. But it is wonderful and it’s fruit is so beautiful. Sadhana is true, the path of healing and freedom is true. And it must be true, and it must be thorough. We were the ones who put the infant sensations of the day in their positions. Now we “in the kula” get to learn from this and walk forward. It’s all good. I’m not worried. I’m sure if we check back in in 30 years we will all be just fine.

If we are shaken by the current flap- it’s up to us to step back and rest in the broader, more ancient, tried and true tradition of yoga that Anusara is a very young, popular sprout within. It’s time to grow up and stop looking for a daddy or a mommy.

Anusara has made the word Grace a household name for the yoga world. Now it’s time for us to rest in that Grace and trust that Grace. Rumi wrote:

I was a mineral for thousands of years. I died and became a plant. I lived as a plant for thousands of years. I died and became an animal. I lived for thousands of years as an animal, died and became a man. When have I ever lost by dying?

Anusaris, yoga people, hang in there. We are in good good hands.

9 replies
  1. Manoj Mehta says:

    Thanks Harshada! This is by far the best commentary I have read so far on this whole Anusara flap (as you call it!). Also, you have managed to put into words what my feelings are around this whole issue. I hope many, many people read your contemplation.


  2. julianne says:

    I concur entirely — it is sad that this has happened, but however egregious, It seems to me that the principles and traditions and everything that is brilliant about the Anusara system may well have an opportunity to indeed flourish. I can’t help but think of a child learning to walk with the help of their parent, and one day, they are on their own, and low and behold, they are now free to run. Rockit. JH

  3. Ellen Rennard says:

    Don’t know why you’d link to the Huffington Post article which is full of misinformation. Otherwise, I like the idea of pulling back and providing a broader context, a larger view. There is no question but what there are much larger forces at work in the current explosion in the yoga world (interesting the way that word, like “bomb” and “smash hit” can have more than one meaning, eh?). Another you didn’t mention is the way America has become increasingly polarized — so you are seeing lots of people taking sides for or against Anusara and John Friend. There’s a lot of fear, too, which has been around since 9/11, and plenty of projection going on now that shadows are visible. Last, there are very different reactions from Anusara folks who practice in other countries. The fireworks seem to be mainly made in the USA.

  4. Sakshi says:

    Bravo Harshada! Excellent synopsis of the westernization of an ancient tradition ~ we are all just babes in the woods : ~ ) It’s Surya Namaskar 100x’s ending in Child’s Pose for me from now on! love & light, Sakshi


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  1. [...] the Anusara community, I think this excerpt from a recent blog sums it up well (click here for the full article, a good read): “The actual process of spiritual evolution is not very marketable. It is not [...]

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