Where's Waldo?: John Friend guides a workshop into Warrior 1 (image via nytimes.com)

The latest (and apparently longest and most detailed) New York Times article on yoga came out this week, with a special focus on John Friend and the Anusara Yoga system. The article can best be described as a loose profile of John Friend, an exposé of Anusara, and an investigation into the state of yoga in North America, and as somebody observed on Facebook, it’s “not uncritical.” John Friend’s work is introduced as:

…his global Anusara expansion (Studio Yoggy, one of the biggest yoga-school chains in Japan, will be offering Anusara yoga classes); his Anusara publishing ventures (he has commissioned a history of yoga and continues to work on his own book, albeit sporadically); and his Anusara yoga-wear business (Friend has his own line, but also works with Adidas, which is using Anusara yoga trainers in its worldwide yoga push). He is also financing historical yoga research in Nepal and Kashmir. (NYT)

Stefanie Syman, the author of ‘The Subtle Body,’ offers commentary on John Friend’s celebrity status. “He has created his own community very self-consciously. Most charismatic teachers do that. What happens is if you are successful deliberately or inadvertently, a lot of students evangelize on your behalf and spread the word.”

Mimi Swartz, the author of the article looks at “the cult of John” and lightly compares him to “Joel Osteen, the magnetic evangelical megachurch minister with the feel-good message and a book-and-television empire.” As well, Anusara Yoga is placed within the current cultural context:

Some 16 million Americans now practice yoga, a 5,000-year-old mental, physical and spiritual discipline brought to us by Indian gurus. Nowadays there aren’t just hourly classes in major American cities but also in places like Deephaven, Minn., and Hattiesburg, Miss. “Namaste,” the traditional end-of-class blessing, has become a punch line. A school in Houston even offers “jello shots” after class. If yoga began as a meditation technique for people all too familiar with physical as well as mental suffering — with poses, or asanas, devised to assist in reaching a transcendentally blissful state — it has taken on a distinctly American cast. It has become much more about doing than being. More about happiness than meaning. It’s a weight-loss technique and a stress-management tool, a gateway to an exploding market for workout clothes and equipment.

In addressing some criticism of Anusara Yoga as being too capitalist, too culty, Swartz also notes that “yoga has become embroiled in head-of-a-pin type arguments. In yoga’s case it centers on authenticity. The fight over whether it is a spiritual or a physical practice has raged virtually since its inception, but now in the United States this question has been tinted with issues of competition, status and sweat.”

The article has generated a buzz in the blogosphere, with an outpouring of commentary by senior Anusara teachers such as Christina Sell and Olga Rasmussen. Many commentors on Facebook find that John Friend and Anusara Yoga are misrepresented. One thing for certain: the article taps into the complexity of yoga in North America, and the fascinating place in which yoga currently resides.

The article got me thinking about my own practice, and my relationship with Anusara Yoga. I have been practicing Anusara in Montreal for the past four years. I have no idea if the article accurately portrayed John Friend or not. I’ve never had the time or money to follow him around and study with him, but I attended a weekend workshop with him last year and enjoyed his presence. He seemed like a joyous and enthusiastic lover of life, and he looked like he’d be fun to hang out with.

But it seemed like an accurate positioning of Anusara Yoga, and fearlessly delved into the tension between yoga and American-style capitalism. And even though it’s my chosen practice, I definitely have some misgivings about how Anusara Yoga is marketed, franchised and portrayed, and its unabashed capitalist approach to yoga. It concerns me that Anusara is partnered up with Adidas for “adidas+Anusara” events, and that the current Adidas Yoga ambassador, Elena Brower, is offering yoga teacher training to Adidas instructors (essentially, teaching them the Anusara method, which will then be repackaged as Adidas Yoga). While Anusara theory claims to embrace diversity, I’ve found Anusara classes to be quite homogenous ~ mostly women, mostly white, mostly very fit, mostly more than middle class.

However, I continue to practice and I’ve even set forward on the long path to teach Anusara Yoga, having just completed a year and a half long teacher training. Somehow, I can set aside my intellect, my critical rational mind, and listen to how my heart and my body respond to the practice. My heart opens and my body becomes expansive, strong and flexible. On every level of my being, anything feels possible after I’ve practiced. It is how I connect to myself and the world around me. And so I continue.

I’ve also been fortunate to be able to study with highly skilled and inspiring senior Anusara teachers, who have so much integrity and talent. They don’t wear Adidas yoga clothes to class and I know that my class fees stay in my community, help support their livelihoods. After three weeks of traveling and experiencing classes with other teachers, I’m excited to get back to my regular weekly practice with my teachers, to learn from their insights and experiences. I’m grateful for the community of lovely people who practice in Montreal, who I see regularly in classes and workshops and around town at various events. I have nothing but love and respect for the people in my immersion and teacher training. This article has helped me remember that under the glitz and the gloss, under the media hype and the commercialism, yoga (and not just Anusara, but all systems and styles) has the potential to touch people and change lives.

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