If the NYTimes wanted to paint the picture of a joyfully Self-absorbed yogi overlord reclined in his cushy chair, tended to by doting assistants while amusing himself with his own sound bites of wisdom, well they sure did a good job of it, down to the photo caption “Boss pose”. Not to say this gargantuan article on the Anusara underworld, it’s fearless leader and the consequential yoga “industry” is an all-out bashfest, but if John Friend and Co expected a glowing profile congruent with the touchy-feely, heart-melty “Yoga of yes” manifesto, well that’s not what they got.
Mimi Swartz, author of the piece, does a bang-up job of inserting enough journalistic license to place John Friend – the man, the myth, the mogul – somewhere between a rock star, a politician and an evangelical priest, with the full range of character connotations for each. If you haven’t had a chance to peruse the ginormous, and possibly longest NYT yoga article to date, we’ve done the duty of extracting a few of the highlights from “The Yoga Mogul” – such an understated title! A few questions to keep in mind (don’t worry you won’t be quizzed): Is this an inspiring story of monetizing your passions? A swipe against the mushrooming John Friend/Anusara empire? A general commentary on the effects of a $5.7 billion a year and counting worldwide industry? Is yoga itself getting a spanking? We can understand how some Anusara devotees might be pissed, but what are they most pissed about?
The very first line sets the tone:
There is so much going on in John Friend’s life right now that an assistant once teased him about waking just before dawn and calling to ask for coffee, only to be reminded that he, Friend, was in Quito, Munich or Seoul, while the assistant was back at home base in the Woodlands, a cushy suburb north of Houston.
On the Anusara Boom and Friend’s yogapreneur status:
On the road and at home, Friend also keeps tabs on all the ancillary businesses he has created in the last 13 years, since Anusara was born: his global Anusara expansion (Studio Yoggy, one of the biggest yoga-school chains in Japan, will be offering Anusara yoga classes); his Anusara publishing ventures (he has commissioned a history of yoga and continues to work on his own book, albeit sporadically); and his Anusara yoga-wear business (Friend has his own line, but also works with Adidas, which is using Anusara yoga trainers in its worldwide yoga push). He is also financing historical yoga research in Nepal and Kashmir.
On the success of the Anusara style and why Friend is essentially the antithetic super power to Bikram Choudhury:
“Anusara is positive,” Friend said, resting his head on the back of his chair and absently caressing one of many highly polished orbs on an adjacent table. “It’s accessible. Easily applicable. And yet it has depth and sophistication.”
Consider those religions that focus on sin and damnation, on discipline instead of joy. “Fundamentally they say no,” he told me. “While Anusara is a yes.”
AND a no? Maybe Bikram’s alter-ego. Franchise is a franchise is a franchise.
Friend also discourages Anusara studio owners from including other forms of yoga at their schools, lest they dilute his brand. As one former associate, Douglas Keller, put it, “If a particular McDonald’s store chooses to start serving spaghetti, McDonald’s can decide to revoke its franchise.”
(sorry, that polished orbs part had us in stitches). Mimi going for the gizzard.
Instead of joining a megachurch, you join the Anusara kula, Sanskrit for family. Like Osteen, Friend has found a way to attract large numbers of people by softening the hard edges of a rigid ideal and by applying the full force of his personality to achieving that goal.
Friend entered the room almost imperceptibly but was soon surrounded by his students, who giggled at his responses and were eager for his touch. (One sign that Friend, who is divorced, has reached rock-star yogi status: men and women press hotel-room keys into his hands at workshops.) Unlike many, more severe yoga masters, Friend worked the crowd like a contestant on “Last Comic Standing”…
Yikes. OK back to…Money, Money and Merchandising!
Anusara Inc. currently has about $2 million a year in revenue, though Friend says, “We spend as much as we bring in, so we have little profit.” An Anusara prospectus from the spring predicted that revenue could double by 2012. Friend is the sole stockholder in the company and pays himself a salary that is just under $100,000 — a fortune in the yoga world.
At a Melt Your Heart, Blow Your Mind workshop in Hollywood last year
The stage featured pots of multicolored zinnias, along with statues of the Hindu gods Americans tend to favor: the elephant-trunked Ganesh, remover of obstacles; and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and beauty. In an adjacent hallway, yoga books, Anusara T-shirts and DVDS, Hindu statuettes and Om refrigerator magnets were on sale.
On le Cirque du Anusara:
Before anyone ordered food, Friend started in on another dharma talk/monologue about the Center, or as he put it, “the home of the kula.” There would be a soundstage and theater for yoga events, along with editing facilities for live streaming video, the better to teach in India as well as Peoria. There would be a 1,000-square-foot retail boutique too. In his prospectus, Friend described the Center as the main artistic training venue for Anusara yoga globally, which would also serve as a place to “make living art, to turn every day into an art project. Shri is the lustrous beauty which turns your mind to the Divine.” Along with Anusara students, there would be filmmakers, musicians, poets, acrobats, dancers and rock climbers.
It’s a yoga hoedown!
The article also includes Mr. Friend’s long and impressive personal history with yoga, how he cut his teeth on the Iyengar method, and how his enterprising spirit bore him away.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? This is all so much to digest, we know! So chew slowly. If you’d like a little commentary a la carte, as you might imagine there’ve been several responses from the shakti gallery.
- Christina Sell is a tad pissed off about the “inaccuracies”.
- Amy Ippoliti is miffed but overall positive on the marketing message.
- More “yes” gratitude at aligningwithgrace.blogspot.com
- Read the take from awesome blogger and Anusara yogi at It’s All Yoga, Baby.
- 10 Things You Need to Know About Pierre Bernard, ‘The Great Oom’, America’s First Yogapreneur
- Stefanie Syman Answers Your Questions on ‘The Story of Yoga in America’ Past, Present and Future