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Letter from Douglas Brooks ‘Godfather of Anusara’ on John Friend Controversy

in YD News

Douglas Brooks, scholar of religions and Hindu Tantraism, and longtime colleague and companion of John Friend, shares, in a lengthy letter, his personal thoughts on where he stands in the wake of the Anusara controversy, and offers his take on “guru” worship.

Via Elephant Journal, which also published an interview with Dr. Brooks.

My relationship to Anusara Yoga began on the day John Friend and I collaborated to create the name. We’d met a few years before that when we had each been invited without conditions to offer our work in the context of Siddha Yoga.

I like to joke that I am Anusara’s godfather, though we all know that I know next to nothing about teaching methods of contemporary hatha yoga.  I write today to comment on my role in the recent disclosures and the controversy that continues to unfold.

Let me begin by saying how my heart is heavy and that I am truly sad for the community of Anusara…so, so many friends and folks who might call me “teacher” or “scholar,” and for my old friend, John who I know is suffering.  I feel compassion for him, but I chose not to stand beside him during the current Anusara event in Miami.  I wanted to support the Anusara community who gathered from around the world. And my colleague, the brilliant and compassionate Dr. William K. Mahony, I know did everything he could to bring dignity, honesty, and beauty to the subject under discussion. I was personally invited to teach in Miami, but declined. Allow me to explain why.

Last week I was involved in hours upon hours of conversation in which my counsel was requested.  I presented vigorous and sometimes blunt argument and commentary.  I never intended to be incendiary, indulge in vitriol, or create an agenda.  I have no desire or intention to bring down John Friend. Quite the contrary, I attempted to offer a beginning to the remodeling of Anusara in a dramatic, perhaps drastic way—one that would allow John to be re-admitted into the conversation of his peers as a teacher, perhaps even as a leader.

I argue with passion, as anyone who knows me knows, and I tried and will continue to make my points with transparent revelation of any personal interest.  I love my friends.  My friends asked me for my help.  I am sure not everyone in that circle of deep conversation either knows me or appreciates my style.  Some may suspect my motives, so all I can do is let the record of words speak as the best evidence of my honest intentions.

To be clear, John called me with real pain in his voice to ask me with humility if I would “stand with him” because he felt the need to speak at the Miami event.  He wanted me as a teacher of yoga students to teach in some capacity with him and others, to share the stage.  But it was primarily because my advice was so contrary to the notion that John should sit in the seat of the teacher and that my primary suggestion involved creating an entirely new model of leadership that I declined to participate.

(Bill Mahony was spared this long week of private conversation and entered the room in Miami without any ties to the current situation.  Bill acted out of pure generosity, integrity, and decency. We spoke very little before he made his decision due to our mutual obligations, and since the invitation to him came at the 11th hour, such as it was.  I am not going to presume to speak for Bill except to offer my unqualified support for his great effort and admiration for his scholarship and his amazing heart.)

John—during the period after these serious allegations were made—argued for his participation in the seat of the teacher.  That, I believe, was a mistake, because as a practical matter I believed a number of teachers would take umbrage at this decision.  It is impossible to say if the alternative(s) proposed–and I don’t mean only “mine” but rather that I only speak for myself here by saying that it begins with John choosing not to teach—would have produced a better result than the current situation.

Let me summarize my practical counsel, for which I take complete responsibility, which was not in agreement with other views.  I presented an argument in the way an academic or a counselor would, and I believe that the august members of this circle are each perfectly capable of making up their own minds.  To suggest that I persuaded them or in any way cajoled them, I believe, would insult their great gifts.  These are all smart, dedicated, and good people, many of whom have been true friends to me and, I am privileged to say, have studied with me as a teacher.  I have only admiration for all involved in the conversations and honestly respect those who supported John’s conclusion that he should teach as their own good sense of what was best for all.

My arguments cut deeply into the history of yoga traditions, the transmission and invention of contemporary hatha yoga, and my understandings gathered from personal experience and from the wisdom of my teacher.  (In a word: my own teacher was by any measure an authentic proponent of a particular tradition of south Indian Tantra, whose views I readily acknowledge are in some variance–often with dramatic differences—from so-called “traditional” or we might say “purist” views.  There are as many “Tantras” as there are authentic proponents and I make it clear when I am representing my teacher’s tradition or that of the academic study of religions.  The latter attempts a fair and deeply empathetic effort to explain all views with honesty and clarity.  Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, but as a scholar-practitioner I see no basic conflict between these projects.  In fact, I see academic and spiritual studies as entirely complementary.)

Last week, I argued there was another way to Occupy Anusara, to provide the space to bring John the help he needs for his eventual re-admission to his community gracefully as a peer among his students.

My premise was simple: if John did not assume the seat of the teacher in any respect for a decisive period of transformation, then Anusara Yoga stood a better chance of preventing fracture and confusion in the community.

Here’s my take on larger matters.  The allegations of misconduct directed at John are matters the gravity of which cannot be diminished. Whether he is guilty of any criminal behavior is entirely beyond the purview of this conversation. What we must consider are community standards and expectations of leadership within a model of authority created by Anusara’s sole proprietorship and the model that involves the de facto recognition of a guru, the teacher of extraordinary gifts and value.

I believe a fundamental issue here involves the relationship of authority and power within the history of yoga, even the history of contemporary hatha yoga.  In sum, I oppose in principle the notion that any one voice can claim authority to speak for others and represent them without mechanisms of accountability to those represented.  In sum, I oppose tyranny of any kind, any model in which one person is the superior over all other “equals.”

In practical terms, another way to describe this despotism is through the model of the “guru,” by which I mean nothing more than only one person in community, the Kula, possessing an authority of inordinate determinative powers, worldly and spiritual.

In my own tradition, which my teacher called Rajanaka Tantra, no single human being could maintain the seat of the guru.  The guru is a plural, never a singular.  When I advised John years ago—when he chose not to associate with my teacher’s tradition—that was the right thing for him to do. He wanted to be a “big tent” and to permit individuals to create their own spiritual identities under a “Tantric-inspired” teaching.  I told him that was great, that I would be happy to explain different traditions as an educator.  No one need subscribe, “align,” or agree with the advocacy of my own tradition, which would be presented alongside all others as a peer.  Further, I advised him not to attempt to create any “new” Tantra of his own. In 2005 or so, which is when these conversations occurred, he agreed that Anusara Yoga was a style of hatha yoga, and to his credit he has always maintained that he is not a guru much less an “enlightened being.” Without engaging in any further discourse here about the lofty and sublime notions of the guru, the guru-principle, etc., my concerns were practical as well as ideological.  Any guru situation that implies or manifests a position of spiritual superiority is, as I see it, deeply vulnerable to corruption.

This points to our next conversation.

I argued in 2005 that with me or without me: John must define Anusara by gathering an increasing number of “senior” teachers, acknowledge their gifts and the authority they possess, and so create agrowing circle of peers in which he sees himself as only another peer. He would then be held accountable, diffuse power from himself, effectively dissolve the innately corrupt model of the one guru that claims equality for all but actually vests power in only one person. Again, I am not interested here in a lofty examination of the “guru-principle.” I am instead explaining how my own teacher taught that the “one guru” model is an inadequate model for human organization.  We, as human beings, may claim divine or spiritual experiences of all sorts but we always answer to each other, we never relinquishour human responsibilities to anything less than collaborative authorities.

John refused my suggestion, claiming that all of his teachers were equal and that my idea was “hierarchy” and his “equality.”  Rather, I explained that my idea, which was my own teacher’s understanding of the guru, was an acknowledgment of deference to those who have earned their credentials under critical scrutiny in a model that means only to increase the number of peers, insists on inclusion in all decision-making, works the messy business of authority by making sure that no one person holds the reins. Rather, the “seat of the teacher” moves with all the members of the Kula, the community.  Many have heard me lecture about this concept: we in Rajanaka Tantra do not believe in the oneness of authority.  We believe that the divine is only discovered as and through our vulnerable, flawed, and human nature.  If this means that “God” is just as incomplete, unfinished, and uncertain as we humans are, then so be it.  The difficult and sometimes flawed business of using our minds and hearts to the best of our abilities together is the Rajanaka notion of a spiritual life of community.

Anusara as John created it, in my opinion, created “equality” among his students but averred implicitly to the notion that the sole proprietor (in this case, John) is the singular source of all authority.  John need not consult or he might consult, but Anusara is his business and in the most mundane and utterly practical way this not only a Western business model—but also another example of a guru model.  And if it is not really a presentation of the guru, it is the perception of gurus as authorities that is too real to ignore.

I am not rejecting the concept of a great teacher to which one defers with commitment, devotion, and love. Rather, I am insisting that gurus are accountable to their students for the entirety of their actions. No one gets a pass.  This understanding may be considered anathema to some traditions of the guru that speak to the abilities of a human being to become “Shiva in human flesh” or whomever is the manifest form of perfection (whatever might be meant by that).  Now, in our society, the sole proprietor of a business has total control, which means one must submit to the control of the given product (in this case, “Anusara”) to that principal.

The worst justification of despotic rule invariably comes from a model that vests too much power in one person, because these are the makings of a “cult.”  My teacher taught me that as we learn together, truth is a collective and collaborative experience that must include the possibilities of doubt and error.  To hold the seat of teacher is also to give it up and share it, that our jobs followed the old adage: “to surpass the master is to repay the debt” in such a way that no one individual would ever be regarded as the one in power.

Now to the present. Last week I argued that Anusara could begin with a revolution that displaces this practical model of the de facto guru who has singular control over the teachings and identity of the organization. Occupy Anusara could have been “led” by John if he declined to take the seat of the teacher, realizing that he had violated the community’s trust (no matter the truth of allegations) and that his style and form of leadership had made Anusara yet another cliché of the fallen guru cult that so easily identifies yoga and/or of the powerful man who has fallen and asks for forgiveness.  I argued to spare John any public humiliation but demonstrate through his actions rather than words that he is serious about his personal issues and that Anusara belongs to the community he has fostered.  It neither meant to protect nor spare him a comeuppance, because he will face his own issues as time unfolds.

From the outside, Anusara may look like another guru cult, like it or not, even if that is a “false” understanding. Let’s keep it real. The idea was to give John a better option by removing himselfentirely from the teacher’s seat, to change the model of what it means to practice Yoga. My argument maintained that Anusara could actually revolutionize the narrative of yoga itself if the styles of contemporary hatha yoga are to be spared the cultic accusations that are naturally leveled against “fallen gurus.”

It matters not whether John claimed to be a guru; it matters not whether this perception is a misunderstanding of the guru-principle. What does matter is that human communities need to organize with accountability that creates mechanisms and standards of behavior that apply to all.  Further, it could be that Anusara Yoga becomes an example rather than the cliché or the cult.

The details of how such a new model of shared authority and credible voice were not further pursued, because John insisted that he present at his Miami event.

The Miami event was long planned and his self-disqualification would have all sorts of practical and business consequences.  My idea may have been too idealistic or impractical.  But somehow if John were to disqualify himself from teaching and make sure not to allow this event to become a prematureforay into forgiveness and redemption, he could at some time in the future be re-admitted to the community as a teacher of stature. I argued last week that John had, at least temporarily, lost authority to speak for his community and to teach in his community. The damage to Anusara would be made worse, I suggested, if he took the seat of the teacher because some would surely take an ethical stand to dissociate from the organization because he had not sufficiently separated the man from the message. I thought this the better strategy, and anyone inside our conversations knows I made this argument repeatedly.

Just as importantly, the yoga world needs an example now of a new model of the teacher who leads a large organization.  I suggested that John himself could provide that model by reframing the narrative of the “guru” in truly democratic terms.  The community would rally to John’s healing rather than forgive him before the serious matters of the allegations are better understood.

John argued for his role, for the need to speak, and I argued perhaps too vociferously that he had lost that prerogative to make that decision for the community. As I see it, that’s how it went down.  I’m sure there will be different versions of this understanding, just like there are those who believe John had every right to speak, and needed to.  I respect all of these differences of opinion.  It was not my job, as I see it, to do more than offer an understanding, because I was asked to be involved.

I am deeply sad for all of the yogis and teachers who have suffered and are suffering now in the Anusara community.  I am so very sad for my friend John.  I wish him every good thing, health, and prosperity.  I have not commented here on the substance of the allegations, or any admissions of behavior.  Adults have relationships, all sorts of things happen in life, and these situations are not all the same. Everyone’s private life deserves our respect.

It is our public life to which we are held especially accountable and, as leaders of communities, we must meet the standards of conduct established by community.



21 comments… add one
  • Fab

    Read the comments…there is more good DB stuff.

  • Linda-Sama

    oh my god. what a bunch of crap. egos. megalomania. they ALL need to be in treatment,

    • Surya Kai

      Ah yes, what is crap to one is beauty to another and vice versa.

      And Yoga is indeed “treatment”. Even based on the oh so mainstream Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders you will find Yoga as a cure to many mental ailments.

      What is important here is that those practicing the therapy of Anusara feel settled in an understanding that allows them to continue along on their own path, now free from a Guru.

  • The perspective of a “regular joe” practioner. It called “A Jobs And A Friend” and posted to day on my blog http://www.sonofapostman.com

  • Yvette Dorr

    When we treat human beings as God we create the exact opposite. The only worship should be of God the rest of us (who are teachers) are just opening a door to get closer to God. When people worship teachers, gurus ect. the ego takes over. Human beings can’t handle worship because of the ego. Worship, pray, listen to, be advised by, God. Not a person leading a yoga class, however big that class might be.

    • bellur

      exactly especially one that basically stole everything he taught from someone else…

  • Deb

    Pitfalls & Awakenings, 101

  • Jennifer

    This is no surprise that this is happening to a person and a style of yoga that came from the world of Swami Muktananda, Gurumayi, and Siddha Yoga.

    I would be suspect of any teacher and/or style of yoga that comes from this lineage – and there’s a few of them.


  • Terry

    The thoughts of Douglas on this issue are thoughtful (though WORDY)…..and, they are worth attention…..when one thinks one is God….one may get into trouble…..Egos are rampant in yoga, for sure….which for me, is very disturbing…..I hope that the students kept one’s ego in check.


  • Jim Coughlin

    Seems to me many people are tip-toeing around the real issue here.

    John Friend abused power. As his power grew he abused it more. He appears to have violated professional ethics by having unrestricted and promiscuous sex with students and employees (which could easily be classified as sexual harassment in most states). He has admited this trangression. He didn’t adhere to the basic simple principles of yogic displine – yamas and niyamas – Satya – Truthfulness, Bramacharya – Restraint – specifically sexual restraint. Just to name a few. Thus – he had NO BUSINESS even saying he was a YOGI or a Yoga teacher. He’s nothing but a hypocrite and a charlantan in my mind. Acting “as if” just to get what he wants. He was driven to get his selfish desires met first and foremost. Makes me very angry to see all these “senior teacher” comments going on and on about what they learned from him. He appears to be a sick man neeeding serious therpay and treatment. A man who appears to have become drunk with power and his own PR – a tragic story perhaps. But, he’s an adult – he knows the code of ethics – he crossed the line -more than once – more than 100 times – then he just decided all on his own that he was bullet-proof and that a line never existed.

    He fell as a result of the “Kleshas” of yoga – the “Pitfalls” – the first being “Avidya” – spiritual ignorance. Yes – he could talk a good talk – but he was ignorant of PRACTICING spiritual princples. He HURT people in relationships deeply I’m sure – just to satifsy his unending lustful urges for more. So much for Ahimsa – non-harming. He craved sex and the party life – so much for RAGA – Desire. He avoided confrontation when people tried to call him on his behavior (DVESA – avoiding the unconfortable). ASMITA – his EGO was totally out of control. And lastly – Abhinevesah – the fear of losing it all – he knew deep down I’m sure that it was going to happen. And it has.

    Maybe I’m stretching a WHOLE lot here. I never met the guy. But from what I read, from his letter, from the letters of other teachers, from the reporting on this subject – it’s disgusting, pathetic and sick. And the problem is it affects the INDUSTRY as a whole. That’s why professional standards exist in most industries.

    I know that no one is perfect. WE are human. But this guy was totally out of control and anyone that can’t see that is just blindfolded.

    John Friend is as far from a “Yogi” as anyone I know. Perhaps he can bend over more than other – and stand on his hands. Perhaps he can talk a good talk. But the man does not practice yoga. Not at all.

    That’s my vent.

    • I feel it took a lot of courage to write this . You are speaking the truth and you are correct that the fall of John does affect the entire yoga community weakening our credibility.

    • IRM

      That is a brilliant summary of all the things that went wrong, form a yogic perspective – I would like to see this highlighted in an article, so more people can find the right vocabulary to process this!

      John Friend’s transgressions are not limited to craving sex “in his private life” as some people have said. He was a public figure and took advantage of all the power that came with it. So when some of the teachers & commenters ask to protect his privacy and not to judge him for that, it sounds very misguided to me. We need full accountability here!!!

      I also think for many of the women who were intimately involved with him in whatever way, it will be very hard to come out into the open. They will fear getting blamed, and they probably feel embarrassed or ashamed already for having gone along with Friend’s power play in this way.

  • I commend you Douglas Brooks for giving an insightful and wise counsel to the Anusara community to vest power in the group within rather than following the ‘cult models of the one ruler’. Crisis is a hidden opportunity and it appears that John is not seeing that this is his opportunity to reboot his samskaras and become a peer instead of a leader who is off balance and leading the whole pack down the tubes. The practice of yoga is now under intense scrutiny that was touched off a few weeks ago by the NY times review of the publishing of William Broad’s book, the Science of yoga, Risks and rewards. This book exposes the dirty yoga secrets about injuries and yoga myths such as deep breathing creating an oxygen increase in the bloodstream. I saw the injury potential as a possible downfall to yoga’s popularity many years ago. I have a website called http://www.yogainjuries.com where yogis can take a survey designed to collect accurate information about what is happening across the board.
    I am very impressed by your model of creating a community based yoga system that does not allow one person to be the leader but instead calls upon the voices of all in collaboration. I did go to several of John Friend’s workshops and read his teacher training manual where I digested the organic energy and muscular energy concepts as well as the surrender to grace aspect of the teachings. I found the practice to be very similar to Iyengar with some added insights into opening the heart and connecting all the loops and spirals. It was still infused with what I call too much thinking and too many right angle straight poses that contort rather than align the spine. Many people are so uncomfortable when doing yoga and one guy I met at one of the workshops called Anusara by a new name he called it …………. I ‘m A Sore A Yoga. It was funny but not really because so many people are causing harm by doing simple yoga poses they think are safe.
    Just like all of nature, we are not composed of straight lines or right angles and our body simply does not move that way. I set out 20 years ago to create a form of hatha yoga that supports the curves of the spine and stabilizes the joints wherein all the poses simulate how we use the body in real life. I am a body worker and yoga teacher and I was injured doing yoga poses which led me to listen to my body and create a safer way to do yoga effective by correcting postural imbalances. I have been observing and treating yogis for over a decade who are suffering from SI joint pain and instability from doing the right angles of plow, straight legged forward bending and also twisting with the lumbar in flexion. ( an extremely dangerous way to engage your body) My practice is called YogAlign and it is growing rapidly. Your insights on the way Anusara can restructure has been very helpful to me. I am meeting with my teachers and as YogAlign is growing, we are planning on following your principles and avoiding the all one leader pitfalls that have now befallen Anusara. The feminine principles of collaboration as opposed to domination are spreading; strengthening our inner-connectedness and community based power structuring. Dictators are falling across the planet; even in yoga.

  • Marina

    Dear Dr Brooks, are you sure you heard pain in Mr Friend’s voice when he called you?
    Or…It just his ego was oozing from a narcissistic injury (from being exposed)…nothing else, so do not take it to close to your heart…
    I never met him, but I bought ? 9 or ?6 – do not remember – DVD s from A-a Inc website – they were supposed to be a “prerequisite” to everything…after watching 15 min of the 1st dvd, his narcissism was so in [my] face, I could not continue and forgot the idea of working on the certification….donated the kit…
    The main point of my comment is to respond to your, Dr Brooks, notion: it is one’s own business what s/he does in his/her private life. I absolutely concur, BUT…in Mr Friend’ s case it was abuse of the position of power and it was abuse of the position of trust. He portrayed himself as a teacher. According to the publicly available data (if he did what he was accused of – but you do not seem to dispute the facts in the accusation, you just note, paraphrasing, it is not anybody’s business to judge a man’s doings in his own bedroom), he has involved his students and his employees in his sexual pursuits (does not really matter how TANTRIC they were presented to be). If he were to use women who were NOT his students or subordinates, as I see it, it would be truly his business (and, just may be, Mr Friend partner’s and his counterparts’ husbands/boyfriends’ matter as well). As the situation was reported, in my mind, it is similar to sexual exploitation by a psychotherapist… the fact that it was allegedly “concentual”, means nothing, as he was in the position of power and trust. But, of course, narcissists do not care… as Mr Friend did not. Dealings with the Pension plans of the employees is just another piece of his ” portrait of a narcissist”

    another comment..I think, people who enabled this person’s behaviours, although they might have acted trying to be loyal to the friend and the teacher, but, in the end, they (by omission) participated in his wrong-doings…This will be hard to come to terms with I imagine, but here is the place to truly practice forgiveness…

  • Brian Smith

    Douglass brooks is a hack. He wants to flush Anusara Yoga down the toilet so you will buy his bullshit “rajanaka yoga”. Douglass Brooks is Just like John Friend. He has been covering up for JF for years.
    These so called “enlightened” people are HACKS.
    I would never pay to listen to Douglass Brooks!

  • Krishna Barney

    Hey Douglas can you explain if you broke ties with JF in 2005 then why:
    Fingerlakes Yoga Retreat
    with Sue Elkind, Naime Jezzeny & Dr. Douglas Brooks

    June 14-17, 2012

    Join Sue & Naime for an intimate lakeside retreat in upstate New York. Hours of playful and instructive Anusara Yoga is accompanied by inspiring lectures in Rajanaka philosophy with Dr. Douglas Brooks PhD, one of the world’s leading scholars of Hindu Tantrism. Journey deeper into alignment, pranayama, and meditation while enjoying the company of like-minded hearts. Downtime is filled with meaningful conversations; hiking on wilderness trails, canoeing on the lake, and/or simply rocking away on the porch. Join us for a special time to cherish, a well-deserved gift to yourself. And just as summer days hold secret promises that may be invisible to the naked eye, so too does your Yoga practice offer the promise which you choose to keep!

  • Krishna Barney

    you broke ties with john friend? why are you touring around the country to events with anusara teachers?
    To a complete outsider like me it still looks like you are involved with anusara.
    Since you were so close with john friend you must have know how he treats people.
    You think the way JF treats people is nice?
    Why are you trying to spread this mumbo jumbo to the masses for profit along with these ansuara yoga teachers.
    i was looking at your tour schedual http://www.rajanaka.com/schedule.html
    do you find it odd that ansuara inc is selling your book http://www.anusara.com/index.php?page=shop.produc
    6 books including yours on the Bhagavad Gita a book you can get at Hare Krishna Temples world wide for basically free or a donation. You can read the Bhagavad Gita online for free.
    What affiliation do you have with The International Society for Krishna Consciousness?

  • See Through

    This article says the same thing over and over. I think I might have been able to write it in two paragraphs.

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