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 www.yogadownload.com.