I was really excited to get a reply on my blog from Chelsea Roff over at Yoga Modern, about her interview with John Friend. With that reply was an invitation to participate in the discussion of kulas or cults. I found on that site this further reflection on that interview.
John Friend has been called a celebriyogi. So you better believe I was oh-so-relieved when a very down to earth and personable guy plopped down next to me on the couch for our interview at the Wanderlust Festival in Vermont. As soon as he started teasing me about astral projecting into the future (I mistakenly said we were at Wanderlust 2012 in my introduction), I felt myself relax and quickly took a liking to the “yoga mogul” as he’s been called. Ever since our conversation, my mind’s been all abuzz with thoughts about that tenuous boundary between cliques, kulas, and communities in the yoga world.
My reply was too long to be posted, so I post it here. I think that the way WordPress works, a link to this post will appear as a comment on that blog, so we should be covered. Here’s what I said.
Thank, you Chelsea, for replying to the post on my blog, the Considered Kula, sharing the interview with John Friend, and for explicitly inviting me to participate in this important discussion of community in yoga. As a sociologist and practitioner of Anusara yoga, I hope explicitly to struggle with such issues on my blog.
Thank you, also for your important disclaimers that raising the issue, courageously as you do, is not meant as a slight against any particular teacher or style. John Friend may be a lightning rod because of the tremendous growth an popularity of the style, because of the New York Times article “The Yoga Mogul,” and because of his decision to incorporate the style (in the business and legal sense). People may also wonder how anyone, in these troubled times, can offer a positive philosophy, and conclude that he must be selling something. Further, he promotes as the three main components of the style the universal principles of alignment, which to some seem unorthodox; the positive philosophy of Tantra, which historically has been maligned and misunderstood, partly because of its earlier proponents like Pierre Bernard; and “the kula,” this curious label for the “tapestry of hearts,” who are drawn to these other components.
How auspicious it is that we should be having this conversation on Guru Purnima, the Hindu festival honoring gurus, or in modern parlance “mentors,” for the fears this conversation arouses can partly be described by our modern and Western unease with ancient and Eastern conceptions of mastery, studentship and devotion. It is not only necessary, but I believe fruitful, to translate such notions to our spiritual context in order to advance in our practice(s).
Grounded in social science as you are (Ph.D.), and being a student of complex organizations and social movements (including religious organizations and new religious movements), I am inclined to take a critical perspective on such things, especially if they are “new.” But indeed, some of my thinking over the years has been shaped by my attendance, as a newly-minted sociology major, at a panel discussion by some professors (whom I would come to love) on the topic of religious cults, from the perspectives of their various disciplines. From the perspective of the early 1980s, “cults,” their influence over adherents, and “deprogramming” were very much on the minds of those who were teens or adults in the 1970s. It was very much considered a “social problem,” probably of the sort Barry Glassner would have written about in The Culture of Fear (2009; 1999) had he written it then. One of the professors suggested that the methodology of deprogramming were about as coercive as those used by some cults, and the perspectives to which people were deprogrammed were neither liberating nor freely chosen. In any case, every “new religious movement,” a less pejorative term, was once seen as a cult or rather as a sect, by the mainstream religion of the time. Indeed, as I was to learn later, in graduate school, in studying denominational organization, the Catholic church managed religious conflict by allowing the formation of religious orders, each with a distinctive “charism,” but still very much in the fold. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”
This is also an auspicious time for me to be writing on this topic, because the person who has been my main Anusara yoga teacher will be no longer, as she is moving out of the area for a new adventure with her husband and children. As I keep telling everyone, in this supportive season following the solstice, any sadness I feel over her departure, is overwhelmed with “delight in the joy of others” (the virtue of muditha, about which I would not have learned had she not encouraged me to go to a workshop with her teacher), and gratitude for the time our paths were able to cross. The Anusara yoga to which she introduced me was not limited by her teaching but expanded outward to the diverse expression of other teachers, and friends besides. I began to form my own friendships and preferences for teachers among people she did not know. Among the things I wrote upon her departure was that she was leaving me in good hands, my own. As this cycle has completed, I look less to which teacher I will now attach myself than to how my practice, on and off the mat, will grow from the inside out. For in the Anusara invocation, the reference to “Gurave” is to “the true teacher within and without.”
I do recall, earlier on, raising an eyebrow when she asked if I had ever “experienced” John Friend. The excitement and devotion she expressed seemed, to my perspective of that time, a little too glowing. But I can say, having spent two days (four sessions) with him in September, on the “Melt Your Heart, Blow Your Mind” tour, that it was justified and more. My experience was of a “regular guy” deeply grounded in everyday life, who is deeply knowledgeable and committed, and skillfully playful. It was not an experience of a luminous, ethereal being, but a down-to-earth teacher who was fun to be with. Because that’s Tantra, you know, is a way for ordinary people, “householders,” to experience the divine in their own lives, to playfully and artistically pulse between the material and spiritual, which in a non-dualistic view are part of the same reality.
Into that orbit rush hungry hearts yearning for a way to transform their own quotidian journeys, however diverse they may be. Sharing these experiences, they come to enjoy being together. I feel a kinship with people whom I may never have sought out. This is kula, a sharing of the excitement over how Anusara is relevant to diverse journeys. Can’t the world use a little bit more of civility, understanding, “looking for the good” in others, in short, love?
Of course, we share our “secret” handshake of manually spiraling the inner thighs when sitting to center at the beginning of each class. I say put secret in quotations, because of the playful, self-deprecating way teachers will refer to that practice. We have our jargon–most of it centering around the universal principles of alignment and tantric philosophy, and we’re aware of it. We play with it. We are encouraged to celebrate the distinctiveness of the style, while “looking for the good” in other styles, asserting what we know to work for us, while making peace with the others. For it is quite common for Anusara to be practiced as a guest among many other styles in any given studio.
The other things to which I can attest are how highly trained Anusara instructors are. This is a high bar, and rightly so, I think. Strong ethical precepts are visible on the Anusara website, and John Friend has articulated recommendations on “the art of feedback” to be given constructively to students.
Of course we are talking about human beings and human institutions, capable of flaws and foibles. As a sociologist, I sometimes wonder if greater evils inhere in collectivities than among individuals, who left to their own devices, would ordinarily do the right thing. But I have been encouraged by the Tantric view to look for the lesson and the light in even the darkest situations, so I don’t think it is a view naively ignorant of such possibilities. Rather it is one which always encourages a choice of one’s highest, such to crowd out our baser impulses. Some say that “guru,” the weighty one, sits in the darkness but encourages us toward the light, much as we encourage a seed to grow.
A seed I have discovered in a post on John Friend’s blog, marking the twelfth anniversary of Anusara yoga suggests that the style may not always be around. Philosophically, this recognizes the natural process of dissolution (associated with some aspects of Shiva). Practically, this avoids the problem in many groups that the imperatives of organizational maintenance compromise their original inspiration.
We always think about how belief leads to behavior, and less about how behavior leads to belief. If we smile, that releases endorphins which make us feel better. I think when we abide mindfully in kula, we have “practice” living in what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.”
In conclusion, while I am well aware of the fears and dangers of people who do things differently gathering in groups, my experience of these groups induces me to see them not only as beneficial, but also as transformative, of individuals, and therefore potentially of social structure.
I don’t think I would have started this blog had I thought otherwise.