Toxic Marketing: When Yoga Goes Bad

It has come to this: Anusara the Brand versus Anusara the yoga.

It pains me to write this opinion piece because I have teachers who I love on both sides of the argument. Now that John Friend has agreed (sort of) to exit the company he built, people believe we can put this house of cards back together. Perhaps it can be saved, but why would anyone want to?

First, let me state emphatically that nothing is happening to the Universal Principles of Alignment ™ which John Friend defined and trademarked under his company’s name. These physical cues existed when Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar taught them years ago to John, and they existed in Ashtanga when he learned them from Richard Freeman. John simply re-packaged the cues and then charged royalties for using them. For example, Inner Spiral ™ was formerly called Inner Rotation, but now it costs about $10,000 in teacher trainings and royalty fees of 10% of your income to use the new term. There are some who would say bad karma is created when you steal and profit.

Secondly, nothing is happening to the “Heart Language,” which is the term for the poetry-like talk Anusara teachers are known for weaving in and out of their classes. Nothing is happening except that former Anusara teachers are now free to either do this non-stop talk, or to shut the f up and let the yoga take center stage.

Students have been voting with their feet by abandoning local classes for Vinyasa, Bikram and other styles where you actually move your body instead of listening to a centering for 25 minutes of an hour class. Anusara workshops are thriving with 30-plus students a pop, but local daily classes are dying and taking down studios that cannot survive with less than 10 heads per class. I went to one local class here in Denver where the teacher spoke for 45 minutes. I cannot make this stuff up. I had a panic attack and left. To spare her feelings, I blamed it on the incense.

In my case, I have been able to support one or two Anusara classes per week on my schedule where six students in the room is a good day. The most popular time slots at this local studio get at the most 12 students and once I had 16, which makes me a local Anusara Goddess. I also teach Vinyasa style classes which often average 45 students. My largest daily class was 60. The only difference, really, is I talk less in Vinyasa.

Now Anusara, Inc. is on the ropes. Its founder, John Friend, was a very bad boy and I won’t go into details because it just doesn’t matter. At first, he refused to separate himself from the company so the teachers and the methodology could continue. Committees were formed, then they were either fired by him or they quit because he would not cooperate.

He had promised to get therapy, and went to Barbados with a Colorado teacher instead (if there was any therapy involved, it happened while she wore a bikini – or less). He had promised to listen to the very real concerns teachers expressed about sexual harassment, shaming, favoritism, royalty fees, and certification issues such as how some teachers are approved without a video after a night of partying, then last week he fired all of the most recent committee and placed himself back in charge. That created a wave of resignations which apparently surprised him. Surprise! People think you are behaving badly or that you have lost your mind.

After losing nearly the rest of his company in just 24 hours, John agreed last night to separate himself until an Ethics Committee clears him of charges. That last part is very important, because other than stealing the pension funds of his employees (in fairness, he claimed it was a mistake, or that he was just borrowing the money, but federal investigators saw it differently) he technically has not done anything illegal. There was a lot of sex, but sex among adults, even screwed up married ones who howl at the moon, can be consensual.

So what are we fighting for? Is this “brand” worth saving? Hundreds of teachers were psychologically damaged and their incomes were devastated. The style, now seen under a microscope, was flawed. Once teachers had a chance to consider the ridiculously dogmatic approach to how they taught Anusara Yoga, their world view has been chipped away. The freedom has created an insurgency of free-thinking people who are teaching yoga, instead of supporting a brand.

This is the bottom line: People are more important than a brand. If nothing else, that is what the last few months have revealed. Going back to the dogma, to the trademark fees and to supporting a cult-like leader (because if you really believe that John Friend is going to stay away from the company he created, you are high) seems insane. At least it does to me. I am proudly teaching what I think is best after 1,500 hours of yoga trainings. And you might like to know, I am going to finally, shut the f up in the yoga room and give the students what they want: a practice.

Michelle Berman Marchildon is the Yogi Muse. She’s an award-winning journalist, a former corporate executive and a survivor of 50+ years of life. Known as the “Erma Bombeck of the Mat,” Michelle is the author of the memoir “Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Wiser and Stronger through Yoga,” and a Columnist for Elephant Journal and Origin Magazine.  She is an E-200/500 RYT with Yoga Alliance and teaches Aligned Vinyasa in Denver, Co. Even though she is uber-fabulous, she is NOT an Ambassador for Lululemon, and has been promised she will never be one. You can take her with you on your computer or I-thing by downloading her classes from


  1. Brad Yantzer on May 21, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Michelle, Thank you. You rock.

  2. chrispy bhagat singh on May 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Oh, Holy Blue-Faced Krishna!

    Thank you, thank you and thank you… I’m not an Ansura teacher, devotee or even fan (and to be completely honest, I gave it about 15 classes before I realized that the teachers couldn’t shut the fuck up, and that I wasn’t really allowed to do the yoga they were describing (using the Ashtanga foundations I knew, and better anatomical terms than ‘loop’ or ‘spiral’) because they just wouldn’t let us do yoga, but had to tell us how great it was gonna be – but that never happened.

    Oh, and ‘overcoming fear’ by teaching beginning students Handstand it simply irresponsible. Having untrained students do ‘partner work’ requiring physical touch and manipulation (often with complete strangers) is also so much a part of what I experienced, that quite frankly, at least how it’s taught in ATX, led me to believe it was a very unsophisticated method, and highly inappropriate.

    I’ve been saying and bloggin’ since the get go to dump the brand and teach the yoga. Like you said, it’s Iyengar+ with some sappy themes overlaid, and way too much “listen to me, watch this, clap for that”… What happened to doing your own practice, with yourself, in yourself. We talk all the time about the ‘ego’, yet I’ve never seen such ego and goal driven teachers and students!

    Yes, I do have a stake in it – I’m a male teacher, not looking to get laid or have that vibe in the room; I’m trying to create open clear spirituality, while always dissuading folks from believing it is ‘religious: thus, a ‘fuckin’-his-students-wiccan-leading-cervix-manipulating-to-cure-a-migraine’ loser like JF impacts my world.

    Thanks for speaking from discernment, not sycophancy!

  3. Michelle Indianer on June 3, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    I feel the UPAs were the original bait and switch of ANusara. Sure they are great, but universal??? THey certainly served to have the teachers feel special leading to the pyramid scheme you talk about in your more recent article. You might want to check out my comments on KWB (under Scott Newsom’s post) is an excerpt:”As a relatively naive yoga student who did not have a historical perspective I took in the gospel of UPI as some sort of yoga truth. Again like all truths (I believe I learned this from Douglas) they are true until they aren’t. Like when you need to go to a chiropractor or use the refinements or just allow a person to turn inward to notice their own body and it’s response.
    But what I am really attempting to address is the myth behind John’s creation of something universal. There has been a lot of negative talk about John’s misunderstanding’s and misappropriation of what he named Shiva Shakti yoga, and many people have said they really weren’t into that . BUt I think I have just hit upon the sacred cow. I could hear many anecdotal stories, perhaps from everyone who has been touched by these principles and still it would not address my concerns that they were swallowed whole and like the poison swallowed by Shiva, if not digested and truly examined will continue to be poison.”
    At any rate, I sure enjoy reading your POV!

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