Will Anusara—and John Friend—survive the scandal?

The dust has finally settled in Anusara-land. So we held a roundtable with yoga intellectuals Stefanie Syman and Neal Pollack to discuss the fall-out and the future.
John Friend anusara scandal
(Photo: Yoganonymous.org)


The dust has finally settled in Anusara-land. John Friend has stepped down as CEO and appointed a successor, Michal Lichtman, who many regard as a John Friend proxy, or pawn.

Lichtman will now be charged with healing the wounds within the community and restoring the image of a tarnished brand.

What’s left is a collective yoga-world sadness, because whether you practice Anusara, Iyengar, or Ashtanga, it’s hard to be let down by something you look to for inspiration and guidance. Our mantra of late comes from Latin, not Sanskrit: “Corruption optimi pessima” or “Corruption of the best is the worst.” Or at least if feels that way.

For an eagle-eye view of the controversy and for clues on where to go from here, we checked in with two of the smartest yoga intellectuals we know—Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body, and Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude.

Stefanie Syman and Neal Pollack
Stefanie Syman and Neal Pollack

Should we have seen this coming?
While we expect politicians to cheat and lie, we don’t expect it from yoga gurus. But maybe we should, says Syman, citing a long history of fallen gurus in America, usually involving sex or money. “Yogis seem to fair not much better than politicians, and often worse, when it comes to resisting temptation,” she says.

“Nearly every guru that gained a significant following in the last forty years and, really, dating back to Pierre Bernard, the first American guru, has been accused of abusing his power,” she says. “Basically, yoga does not seem to inure American teachers against human nature.”

High expectations also may blind us to warning signals we’d otherwise see.

“Many observers of the yoga world had long suspected that there was something fishy in Anusara-land,” says Neal Pollack. “It grew too big, too fast, and with too much fanfare.” But the yoga world was silent until it was too late.

Where does Anusara go from here?
“Part of the problem with Anusara is that it worked hard to distinguish itself as a particular “style” of yoga that was, if not superior to all others, then at least more well-developed. But it’s not,” says Pollack, “Now that we’ve seen the man behind the curtain, it may be hard to return to the ‘Principles Of Joy.’”

But if Friend and the Anusara community take the time to really reflect on the issues that led to the scandal, they could conceivably create a new, more honest and authentic path for the discipline. Couldn’t they?

I think Anusura will lose steam for awhile, but I wouldn’t assume that it won’t survive or thrive in the future. Friend strikes me as sharp and charismatic,” says Syman. “That said, it’s hard to say what form it will take.”

Pollack agrees. “I hope that John Friend comes through this crisis, makes whatever amends are necessary, and re-engages with his yoga practice in a calmer, humbler way,” he says. That seems like the right prescription for both Friend and Anusara.—Lisa Elaine Held

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