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John Friend’s Official Response to NYTimes ‘Yoga Mogul’ Article – Rebuttal of Falsehoods

in Business of Yoga, Public Display of Yoga, YD News

On July 19th The New York Times published an article in the Sunday Magazine entitled “The Yogul Mogul”, an in-depth look at Anusara, Inc., it’s leader (the mogul) John Friend, and essentially framing the overall big picture of the thriving state of this modern day yoga industry. It was not a fluff piece, and many Anusarans, a positive bunch by default, responded in protest to some of the less than flattering and some say false details. Below, as promised, is John Friend’s official response. Here it is folks! Via his blog:

John Friend’s response to the NY Times article

Dear Friends,

Blessings of love to you from Europe, where I just completed a magnificent 6-week tour of Denmark, Germany, France, England, and Italy. It is so marvelous to witness the luminous evolution of Anusara yoga in Europe in just the last 5 years. This growth in sophistication and excellence of our yoga school in Europe is directly reflective of the outstanding efforts of our certified teachers for whom I am very grateful.

As you all know, last Sunday the New York Times published an in-depth piece on Anusara yoga and myself. It is my understanding that it is the largest article on yoga ever published in a major newspaper. It is deeply honoring to have such an extensive article published in the New York Times on yoga, particularly Anusara yoga. For me, it is another clear sign that Grace supports Anusara.

The overall public response to the article reflected on the Internet has been positive, and given the great scope of the Times readership we can assume that in the least the publicity will positively expand Anusara yoga’s name recognition. As is often the case with major journalistic stories, the article includes positive as well as some negative points about both Anusara yoga and about me. At best, one might say that the article was “balanced” journalism. Yet at the same time, an obvious over-emphasis in the article on Anusara’s apparent business and commercialization focus might — in the worst case — turn someone away from yoga entirely. This negative reaction is due to the irony that today when a business is strictly money-making, commercialization is applauded and the corporate mogul is praised for his acumen, yet when a business is also part of a spiritual endeavor, the same level of success can be seen as suspect.

In helping to create this article over the last few months I met with the author several times and gave her unprecedented journalistic access to my business and to my personal life. My hope was to not only present a great story about Anusara yoga, but to present the greatness of yoga in general so that it would spread Light around the world. I made every effort to work with the journalist and the fact-checker, so that Anusara yoga was represented honestly. In some instances I was able to clarify and correct, while in other instances, my efforts for clarification were ignored and sometimes even argued with. I believe that there were several instances in the article in which information was twisted in order to make the article sensational and juicy.

I have absolutely no problem with others publicizing pieces of information or stated opinions that are not positive about me, if they are true. I take full responsibility for my actions and words, and I am open to having my faults pointed out to me. I don’t claim that I am faultless or that “everything is good” in my organization. My central point with the fact-checker and the journalist when verifying the story was to only print what was true, but unfortunately that did not happen. So, I am proud and deeply appreciative of our community members for responding in a dignified and honorable way to this article by speaking the truth of their own direct experiences and also for clearly noting some of its blatant falsehoods.

I certainly understand that no article will ever be able to convey the full truth or greatness of Anusara yoga. However, there were several significant falsehoods in the article that I want to directly address:

1. FALSE: Anusara yoga is primarily designed as a business to make a lot of money.

The truth is that I started teaching yoga in the 80’s in order to share my love of Spirit with others. (Back then no one associated yoga teaching as a lucrative business enterprise!) The primary purpose of Anusara yoga has always been to help bring more true happiness, health, and divine beauty to the world. I left a well-paying finance job in the late 80’s to teach yoga full-time, which was an enormous financial sacrifice, in order to work in the field that I loved most.

Fortunately, Anusara yoga became increasingly popular, and so I began hiring people to help me serve the growing numbers of students and teachers around the world. With my business school background I have always run the company in ways that are sustainable and are in alignment with my yoga philosophy and ethics. The business is designed to fundamentally support the yoga school and community, not the other way around. Furthermore, I believe my integration of yogic principles into my business practices is one of the key contributing factors in the tremendous success of Anusara. I live by my yoga principles in everything I do – my personal relationships, my leisure time, and my work. It is not like I practice yoga philosophy only on my sticky mat. Yoga is my life.

Although revenue for Anusara has steadily increased over the years, so have related expenses. I now have 20 employees and a lot of overhead, so annual profits are low, and yet we are financially solid and everyone is happy, which cannot be said by a lot of other small businesses these days.

Although some say that Anusara is “commercial” it is worth emphasizing that in 13 years of business I have done almost no paid advertising in newspapers or magazines for Anusara yoga. Anusara’s tremendous growth has been almost entirely through word-of-mouth or by third party free advertising. The quality of our services and products speaks for itself, and that is what has given us an ever-expanding, positive reputation in the yoga industry.

Another important point to make clear here is that no one is barred from taking class or advancing as a teacher in Anusara yoga due to financial restrictions. If someone cannot pay for services or products at that time, I either offer a scholarship, a donation, payment plan, or work-trade. No one is turned away from Anusara yoga based on their current inability to pay. Again the focus is on helping people, not on making money.

2. FALSE: Anusara yoga has watered down the tradition of yoga.

The truth is that with the integration of Shiva-Shakti Tantra (Kashmir Shaivism) and the Universal Principles of Alignment, Anusara yoga is one of the most sophisticated hatha yoga systems ever designed. In addition, the standards of our certification program are in many regards the most rigorous in the industry. Our curriculum which is among the most extensive of any hatha yoga school is directly supported by some of the preeminent yoga scholars in the world including: Douglas Brooks, Paul Muller-Ortega, William Mahoney, Carlos Pomeda, Mark Dyczkowski, Eric Shaw, Sally Kempton, Christopher Chapple, Christopher Tompkins, and Harish Wallis. No other hatha yoga school in the world has such an illustrious and high caliber assembly of yoga scholars and professors supporting them.

3. FALSE: I ‘trash talk’ other yoga styles, and I have bad feelings with Iyengar Yoga.

The truth of the matter is that I find the good in all styles of yoga. I never negatively speak about other yoga styles, nor does any other Anusara yoga teacher. At the same time, the truth is that some styles are physically-oriented, while others are more spiritually-oriented. Some styles are more sophisticated in terms of methodology while other styles are very simplistic. That is the context of the analogy that I spoke of in the article when I said that students can choose “fast food” vs. “refined dining” when choosing a style. (And I do eat fast food on a special occasion!) Of course, I think Anusara yoga is more effective than other styles of yoga, and that is why I practice it! Yet, all styles have something positive to offer.

I left Iyengar Yoga because I have significant philosophical differences with Mr. Iyengar. Yes, Mr. Iyengar can be very tough, but I do not have a problem with his fierceness. I have never had ill feelings toward Mr. Iyengar or his family. I think Mr. Iyengar is one of the greatest hatha yoga teachers of all-time. In my opinion after studying with him and his senior teachers for 10 years, I think Mr. Iyengar is incredibly generous with his knowledge and energy; he is a virtuous man; and he is an innovative yoga genius. As my students will confirm, I publicly honor Mr. Iyengar in almost every workshop I teach.

The article also claims that I have “distanced myself from Gurumayi.” This is completely unfounded and in fact I privately invited the author to my “puja”, (my altar in my home) and my library where Gurumayi’s pictures are abundantly displayed. Gurumayi pulled back from public view in 2005 for unknown reasons to me, and I have not seen her since. However, even if I ever have disagreements about how the SYDA Foundation (Gurumayi’s religious organization) is operated, my love for Gurumayi is unwavering.

4. FALSE: Anusara yoga is essentially Iyengar yoga.

Yes, there are many similarities between Iyengar Yoga and Anusara yoga in terms of asana sequencing, emphasis on precise postural alignment, and discipline as a basis of studentship. Yet, the truth is that Anusara yoga differs in two fundamental and significant ways from Iyengar yoga. Anusara yoga is based on Shiva-Shakti Tantric philosophy, while Iyengar yoga is based essentially on Classical Yoga (Patanjali Yoga Sutra). Tantra focuses on removing the differences between the world and Spirit, while Classical Yoga tries to separate Spirit and the world. Secondly, Anusara yoga uses principles of alignment universally as the basis of aligning the asanas, while Iyengar yoga uses discrete, separate alignment points for each asana. In terms of fundamental philosophy and key methodology, Anusara yoga and Iyengar Yoga are distinctly different.

5. FALSE: Anusara yoga is a cult around John Friend.

The truth is that Anusara yoga was designed by me to be defined as a kula (close-knit community), not as a guru-oriented yoga school. I consciously named it “Anusara” (‘following your Heart’), not “Friend Yoga.” It is fundamentally composed of a community of yoga teachers and students aligned to the same philosophical vision and principles. The emphasis in Anusara yoga is clearly about community and not about John Friend. The statement that ‘John has his teachers proselytize’ about Anusara yoga is a ridiculous falsehood. All of our teachers enthusiastically teach the method and then let the results and the students’ direct experience speak for themselves.

Also, the statement that ‘men and women press hotel-room keys into his (John’s) hands at workshops’ is flat-out not true. That has never happened. This statement was NOT presented to me by the fact-checker for validation, and if so, I would have said, “Hell no!” I would never publicly say that a student has offered me unconditional sex, even it were true, since that kind of Rock Star behavior is not something I support, and it clearly gives the wrong impression of Anusara’s ethics. The other anecdotal references intended to paint a particular picture of my relationship with the Anusara staff and Anusara yoga teachers are also so off the mark that I can only assume that the author may have skewed certain incidents to fit her predetermined assumptions about me and Anusara, or in an attempt to “balance” the story.

Of course, the Times story will have “legs” and will undoubtedly be referenced for a long time to come, which means some of the misrepresentations will be repeated again and again. If you practice Anusara yoga, then simply remain steady in the truth of your own direct experience of our yoga. Do not be swayed by rumors or comments of those that have little knowledge of Anusara yoga. Purely respond to what you know from your own experience of your Heart. In this way, we all represent the voice of our own truths.

Lastly, may we wish all yoga styles blessings of well-being and success. Any increase in yoga is good for the whole planet. All yogis need to unite as a global yoga community. If the yoga schools can not get along in harmony, then how can we expect world peace?! Please focus on the light of your own teachers and community, and avoid getting involved in conversation about other styles that you know little about. If you have never practiced Anusara yoga before, then tell your local Anusara yoga teacher that you read this blog, and I will cover your first class as a gift. Then you can make your own opinion. In any case, may you all be happy and have love in your lives.

Blessings of the Truth,

John

If you missed it, here’s forefront Anusaran Elena Brower’s Response:

Great ones:
I’m going to give a really simple, straight-up talk at Wanderlust on this subject at my “Speakeasy” engagement at noon this coming Sunday.
If you cannot make it there, I offer the following.

Resonance of any real sort can only happen where there is some semblance of receptivity, of softness. Any rigidity around our beliefs, opinions, and assumptions will bias us against the very things that help us to grow. The unfounded claims made in the NYT article (a disappointing and unnecessary bunch of claims, actually) portray a rigidity, an unwillingness on the part of Ms. Swartz to receive and report on what’s really happening in this moment, with this teacher, and this very resonant practice.

What is happening? A healthy swath of the yoga population is very interested and involved in the growth of Anusara. Comprised of intelligent, caring, focused, respected professionals, parents and creative luminaries who’ve found physical healing in the architecture of the practice, most are also finding a real understanding of their human-ness in the philosophical underpinnings of this method. They’re also discovering their own beauty and worth as the teachings uncover elegant answers to the hardest questions regarding personal integrity, self-acceptance, real relationship and self-study. And these people want to share what they know, and inspire refinement in the world around them, via their own clarity. So Anusara is indeed growing. But it’s not just the “Mogul” in question who is growing it, nor is it growing for financial reasons alone.

It took me exactly 4 years, the length of my Cornell education, to become Certified in Anusara. And I was in personal debt, traveling around, finding my way in new cities, so I could study with John and other senior teachers. And, as teachers of this method, after hundreds of hours of study, we are technicians and architects of the body; we’re always refining our articulation of the heart and spirit in a way that is digestible and accessible, and we are tasked to put our own experience into our teaching at all times so it’s authentic and true. And John Friend sets the bar as the example of all of this.

Furthermore, John always – ALWAYS – honors his lineage, his teachers. He remains super respectful of Mr. Iyengar, and his puja in honor of Gurumayi is where he goes to connect and do his own heart-work. He is not in this for the money, as those close to him know; he lives simply, and carefully. He is in this for the act and delight of helping, of lighting the path, of true service.

Christina Sell said it best in a blog post from several months ago, “The Art and Culture of Anusara yoga is about recognizing that when we are moving with integrity toward what matters most to us, to that place where we have no back doors, to that place where our intention meets our commitment and our actions— then we are in the flow of Grace, and that state of mind and heart is Anusara yoga. And you can be sure that state is going to get hot and that you are not going to get there by being casual.”

Nope. At one point in 2002, I was indeed getting casual about all of this, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. I’d yet to be certified, and I was showing up late to classes when John would come to New York, and was just disrespectful in general, and it got “hot” and challenging. I was scattered, over-extended and unfocused. Via his unwavering example of care and attention to me and my progress, John helped me to see my capacity for serving my own students and opening my own heart, so I could create space for others to do the same.

Anusara is a path of SERVICE; doing what we love, lighting people up, and watching them go about their lives with more integrity, calm and openness due to their practice. It’s not that exciting, from a journalistic point of view, so Ms. Swartz had to go ahead and fabricate the bits about the hotel room keys, the hilarious cult comment and even the bit about teachers proselytizing. I get it. But go ahead and ask my son in a few years how it’s all going with him, having had a mama who tells the truth and is there for him – because she can be there for herself fully.

Or ask my parents about when I really began seeing and respecting them; they’ll tell you it was fairly recently, when I finally truly took on the tenets of this practice and started bringing the more challenging aspects of my life right into my heart and having real compassion. And perhaps ask my students what it’s like to have a teacher who walks in there every time and – with John Friend as her example – offers her whole heart, in glory or total confusion, in the spirit of helping them see their own. Maybe that would’ve been something to report on. THAT is John’s best work.

RESPECT,
Elena Brower

Earlier

John Friend Responds to ‘Yoga Mogul’ Status

John Friend: The Man, The Myth, The ‘Yoga Mogul’

20 comments… add one

  • wow. I actually have something in common with John Friend. We’ve both been misrepresented in print. who knew?

  • Thanks for keeping us up-to-date on this, YogaDork. I’ve come in late. I read this entire rebuttal and your excerpts from the NYT article, which didn’t seem too shocking to me–it’s a business–big surprise. Seems like a pretty ethical, purposeful, and caring business to me. It wouldn’t have ever gotten anyplace if it wasn’t run like a business, and it wouldn’t have inspired so many people.

    Should I go back and read the NYT article, or is that a waste of time now? What I’m most interested in reading is the author’s response to John, which I’m sure we can depend on you to dig up and tell us about.

    Thanks,

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal.com

  • Thanks for the in-depth post, yogadork. I have always liked what I have seen/heard about John Friend and his style of yoga (they all seem so….friend-ly and happy!), but now I like him more. Seems like NYT should direct its ire at, um, other kinds of yoga that are not quite so enamored of the spirit and are more into patenting sequences and competition and so on, although I am not sure who that would be.

  • “For me, it is another clear sign that Grace supports Anusara.” – if Charleton Heston was still alive he could play JF…I can see it now, Charlie as JF walking down the mountain in flowing robes and holding the tablets containing the yamas and niyamas….

  • i think his response is gracious, affirming and heartfelt. go john, go anusara!

  • Yeah, ummm… “Grace supports Anusara”. As opposed to supporting yoga in general? People in general? Why is Anusara getting supported by Grace so specifically?

    *Can we get a reality check in the Anusara aisle please?*

  • Humm, maybe someone needs to fact check my take on Anusara…:) http://www.yogadawg.com/styles3.htm

  • q

    “it’s fearless reader”, “it’s leader”, etc. Grammar people. It is “its leader”. Well, NYT had an article yesterday “Yoga’s Serious. Except When It’s Not.”

  • Congrats on your mention in the Times!
    Fabulous blog!

    xoxox,
    CC

  • I have known John Friend since 1989 (21 years) and was actually there in the ashram in India when he did that yoga demonstration on that rickety platform. He was that very same kind, humble, intelligent, generous and light-hearted person as he is now , a global leader in the art and beauty of yoga. I was head of the hatha yoga department in the ashram at that time and had been teaching Iyengar Yoga for 15 years myself. I had the great privilege of practicing daily with him, taking his workshops, and watching him do yoga therapy with people in the ashram who had pain, and injuries. He did it all with a great sense of deep caring and playfulness. His work ethic is unbelievable, working non-stop from morning to night with no ulterior motive but to simply
    ” serve” others. That was his greatest joy.
    His intention then ,and even now, was never for financial gain-although it doesn’t surprise me a bit that more and more people want to support Anusara Yoga. I know i could never pay John enough for what i have gotten from this practice. You used the words
    “commercialized for his own gain”; “drumming up business”; and “selling his american cocktail”- and it is so far from the truth. It breaks my heart to hear you “spin things” to make it juicier for your own gain. And John didn’t pick “the right time” to start Anusara Yoga. It was the result of decades of study, hard work, and practice that got him in touch with his “divine nature” not his “entrepreneurial nature”.
    And, to disrespect John’s integrity by mentioning that he is divorced along with “woman passing him hotel keys in workshops” insinuates something that is so out of character from his moral values. I think you owe him an apology for misrepresenting him in this way. It’s not the truth.
    And in the end, it is not about John, it’s about a practice that is life enhancing. Whether you like John’s hula-hooping outrageous playfulness or not, it doesn’t matter. We can go home and practice these Anusara Universal Principles of Alignment not only for the inner and outer body -but “in our lives”. And if you did that you might even end up getting a license plate that says “MAGIC”.
    Sarala Troy, Certified Anusara Instructor

  • Sabine

    Wow, it would have been so much better for Friend not to respond. Just admit you have to make a living. And he makes a very, very good one, which is not something to be ashamed of.
    Yes, if you decide to create your own Yoga school you have to make it special. The loopy universal principles of alignment are just loopy – and did not work for me. Again if Anusara works for people, it’s cool, actually it’s great to find something that works for you, but also be clear about it what it is you’re getting yourself into.
    But I really could without Friend’s whining, the article was very positive about Anusara.
    Personally, I am not happy were a lot of American Yoga is going these days:it’s too commercial and the idealization of the ideal Yoga body. In the end it’s really about the personal journey (see Sinead’s comment) and not about the $16/hour Yoga class or the perfect padmasana. Asanas are just one path. And I love Yoga – Friend’s approach not so much.

    PS: Oh, and yes I know out of person experience once it become an Anusara yoga studio, other styles/teachers are out.

  • Shrimani

    If I were John Friend this would be my entire rebuttal: “I am not doughy!”

  • Geomancer

    This rebuttal makes me think that Friend gave the NYT reporter “unprecedented journalistic access” to his life with the expectation that he would get a fluff piece (to borrow Yoga Dork’s term). When the reporter delivered something more probing and incisive, it rubbed him the wrong way. I agree with Sabine’s estimation of the article as being positive about Friend and Anusara yoga, and I think that this response makes him appear thin-skinned and controlling.

  • Elizabeth

    I was sad when I read the article, because it does not accurately reflect John as I know him (admittedly not as well as many people), the Anusara teachers I have had the pleasure to study and practice with, and the Anusara kula in general. I don’t think there is anything wrong with making a living in yoga–I want my yoga teachers to be able to pay their bills and thrive, not just eke out a living–but I also know that none of my Anusara teachers are in it for the money. (The idea that anyone becomes a yoga teacher to make the big bucks cracks me up.) I value the extensive opportunities to study yoga history, philosophy, and source texts with scholars and practitioners, including many of hte people John named in his letter (Dzykowski–okay, I can’t spell that one–Wallis, Thompkins, Pomeda, Kempton, Brooks, and more).

    Long story short, John and the Anusara teachers I personally know are honest people trying their best to live in line with their ethics. Anusara and its teachers AND students have improved the quality of my life immeasurably. I have learned more about myself in Anusara yoga than I have in my world travels, extended formal education, and Girl Scouts combined. I value the support of the community, and love that we all cheer when anyone in the kula does well in any endeavour.

    Anusara, like any other style of yoga, might not be the best fit for you. If that is the case, I hope you have the blessing of finding the style of yoga that best speaks to you and I wish you well on your path. Otherwise, maybe I’ll share an Anusara workshop or class or experience with you sometime down the road.

    Namaste.

  • In response to my previous response I can now say the article was bull shit. I just did a workshop with the man himself this weekend and all I can say is massive spirit, massive heart, full of knowledge, funny, extremely down to earth yet manages to humility. The NYC times article is a real shame as it could sway the mind of someone who isn’t open enough to finding out for themselves. It’s like stupid gossip that acts like a virus infecting any good are truth in anything. Its necessary to ask questions so we don’t enter systems in blind faith but it’s equally as necessary to find out the answers for ourselves. From what I can tell the Anusara kula is a kula because that is what they do. They support each other. John Friend seams to be genuinely attentive to everyone and makes it his business to be everyone’s friend. Isn’t it funny that his name is Mr Friend?! I don’t know how he was taken up so wrongly or why – ???. He’s charismatic but far from the yoga rock star, politician, evangelist that the article claims him to be. From what I can see in the short time over the weekend he is the real deal, a Modern Yogi.

  • Wow, people talk so much sh*t. It’s a shame he even had to respond to such ridiculous accusations.

    And it’s also a shame that the whole idea of being prosperous is still threatening to some people. As if you can’t be spiritual AND make money. Let’s all be dirt poor and eat out of garbage cans, cause that’s just so spiritual.

  • Angel Clawson

    See the guy for what he really is. A greedy, arrogant, manipulative, egotistical, overly-ambitious, self-serving businessman who chose to exploit yoga to gain fame and fortune. Judge him not by his words but his actions.

  • Elle

    Angel… So named by the grace and elegance of her words!
    Wow, if you ever have the pleasure of meeting John Friend take the time to be open and free of all other opinions. Coming from a true cynic I can honestly say I was floored by his knowledge, humor and kindness. See and believe your own heart read and question the authors.

    Peace and love

  • Liliana

    Thank You, wonderfully said with love, gratitude & respect from the Heart, just the way it should be from a student to the teacher. However I would add at the end, we find inspirations and John Friend has been that to many, but the real work was done only and fully by the Grace of YOGA! and this is for all who practice it with surrender, respect, heart open … and really go for it, and not only with labels or personal names.
    ~ Namaste ~

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