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.
I never tried Yoga Nadine, but I find this very interesting and it applies to any other practice. After all, everyone knows what is suitable for him and what is not. It can be anything.
That’s so true! Yoga is a microcosm for all of our lives. I think the problem comes in when we doubt ourselves and start to think that the teacher knows more than we do, or when we get into a “no pain, no gain” mentality that causes us to push ourselves beyond that which is healthy. In either case, our bodies can guide us as long as we listen to them with respect. Thanks for commenting.
It’s unfortunate that many of us aren’t knowledgable about the benefits of limit-settings. When we try to embrace a new way, we sometimes sucuumb to the not so great advice of our teachers. Yoga is a wonderful practice that offers us the opportunity to listen to our own intuitions. Another thoughtful blog, Nadine.
Thanks, Theresa. We live in a society that tries to convince us that we have to be faster, stronger, and better, all of which can be problematic in yoga. The more we can accept ourselves as we are and trust in the wisdom of our bodies, the more we blossom and open, and this helps to keep us safe.
I have not read Broad’s book, but when it came out and I heard the title, I felt a sense of foreboding. I was afraid that yoga as a practice was going to be attacked. “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” is an unnecessarily sensational title. Anything can “wreck your body.” Yoga is no different from any practice or any exercise–practiced beyond one’s bodily limits, it can be harmful. You’re right–if we see impropriety, if we are sacrificing our integrity or health ANYWHERE, we should step away. In my personal experience, I’ve never had a teacher push me beyond what… Read more »
Thanks, Tina. Leslie Kaminoff, an outstanding yoga teacher whose opinion I respect, wrote a wonderful and well-balanced review of Broad’s book. Like you, he’s concerned about the sensationalism, but he still recommends the book. I’m so glad you’ve had good experiences with your teachers, and I think most are conscientious and thoughtful in their approach. One reason I wrote this piece is that I have written so much about yoga, and I want to make sure that any readers considering a new yoga practice understand that care is required. I guess that even though I don’t teach any more, I… Read more »
I love Anusara yoga. It’s my favorite but I have a hard time finding anyone close to my house that follows this practice. I haven’t taken a yoga class for a while but it’s been on my mind a lot lately. I am walking and doing the cardio thing but it doesn’t have the same benefit as yoga. Thanks for reminding me I need to get my backside into the studio.
Ah, juggling all the exercise needs! I recently increased my cardio and added strength training to the mix, so the yoga is more for stretching and relaxation these days. It’s a bit of a challenge to get that well-rounded exercise regimen in, but I think that yoga, done correctly, can enhance our other routines and prevent injury.
…Tonight I’m going to try a “vino and vinyasa” class…75 minutes of yoga to rock music followed by a glass of wine! Definitely my kind of a class! 🙂
Nadine, many moons ago, I took yoga classes and they made me feel so much better. My headaches, backache, neck pain, they all seemed to disappear with time. I acquired flexibility little by little and didn’t struggle to reach my toes. But more importantly, I remember the feeling of well-being I was always left with after a class. I remember sitting on my yoga mat after class, sipping my tea, thinking, ah, relaxation at last! I love this line in your post: “,,,my observation was that most students pushed themselves too hard already — and I needed to gently bring… Read more »
Sounds like you had a wonderful teacher!
That middle path is hard to find when we are bombarded with messages to push harder and do more. The Buddha knew what he was talking about — he’s more relevant than ever!
Hi Nadine, good post. I like yoga (when I practice it). 🙂 And I agree with your comments about being safety first. I find that I have to really listen to my body and be brave to allow myself to modify. It sort of goes without saying that Yoga is a practice and you have to meet your body where it is and not try to “push through”. When things hurt it means you should “stop pushing”. 🙂 Love your thoughts. P.S. regarding the scandal…scandal is everywhere…it should be recognized for what it is: a single person’s decision to do… Read more »
Hi, Kimberly, thanks for weighing in! You are spot on about the proper approach to yoga. I hope that people can start to understand that modifications are not a sign of physical or mental weakness. Glad you’re taking that approach and showing respect for your body’s signals. Yay!
As for Mr. Friend, I admit to being disappointed with him, but more concerning is that we now have people saying that “yoga made him do it.” *eye rolls at the media* Yoga survived after the Rodney Yee scandal, and I’m sure it will survive this one, too.