Yoga: Another Day, Another Scandal

I love yoga. If you’ve spent any time reading this blog, you know that. I’ve spent more than half my life engaging in this powerful, life-affirming practice, and I credit much of my current health and well-being to the cumulative benefits of yoga over the years. I am and will continue to be a cheerleader for yoga. Yoga, however, is getting beat up in the media these days, and I feel compelled to respond to the various allegations coming to light in recent weeks.

First, author William Broad came out with a book that points out the potential for injury. His NYT article, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, has showed up everywhere.

On the heels of Broad’s article and book, a well-known teacher, John Friend, has been embroiled in scandal. Friend developed a yoga system known as Anusara, meaning “flowing with grace,” building a huge following and training a number of teachers. After Yoga Dork published allegations of sexual and financial impropriety, Friend has decided to resign as head of Anusara, Inc., and is taking time to reflect on his behavior. William Broad, who now apparently is the spokesman for all things yoga, gleefully weighed in on his assertion that yoga originated as a sex cult (not true — I’ve included a rebuttal here), and why should we be surprised?

In my years of study, I have encountered many teachers, both male and female. I have never encountered inappropriate behavior on the part of a teacher, and I believe that most teachers demonstrate a sincere desire to observe yoga’s ethical practices, the yamas and niyamas, which read similar in some ways to the Ten Commandments.

Still, success and adoration can blind even the best teacher to integrity, and John Friend is not the first to fall from grace. Sadly, this has happened more often than it should.

I will not excuse or defend Friend’s actions, some of which he has admitted to (he disputes others). A teacher-student relationship is a sacred one that must be handled in the same manner as a therapist-client or doctor-patient relationship is. I hope that Anusara survives as a practice, because it is worth preserving. While Friend must face the music, his work remains admirable.

Many who surrounded Friend enabled his behavior to continue by lying and covering for him. Those who studied with him had a responsibility to recognize where the teachings contradicted his actions. Like a dysfunctional family covering for an addict, Friend’s behavior continued because people didn’t dare speak out.

This dysfunction also shows up in the discussion about William Broad’s book. While I don’t agree with everything he says, we should be talking about injuries in yoga practice. My primary audience for this blog is women at midlife, and we need to take particular care to avoid injury, especially if we have other conditions such as knee problems, back problems, osteoporosis, etc.

I know of many teachers who want to “challenge” their students to “overcome” their self-imposed limitations by pushing their bodies further. Yet when I taught in a corporate environment, my observation was that most students pushed themselves too hard already — and I needed to gently bring them back, showing them the place where effort and self-compassion meet in the middle. Forget “Om” as mantra; mine was “safety first.” Don’t get me wrong, we worked hard, but we worked with loving care, too.

If you find yourself drawn to a yoga practice, and I hope you do, find a teacher who will help you work hard but stay relaxed and injury-free. And for God’s sakes, if a teacher shows any evidence of impropriety, find another teacher. If you have to sacrifice your integrity or values in a yoga class, it’s not the place for you. Do not do any pose that causes you pain (discomfort is okay, pain is not), regardless of what the teacher tells you. Be curious, but also be discerning. It’s your body, mind, and heart — take care of them.

 

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