Today's guest post is by Peppercommers Stephanie Lowenthal and Morgan Salinger.
The New York Times senior writer William J. Broad has recently published a few controversial articles on the practice of yoga. The latest article covered the recent sex scandal involving John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga, one of the world’s fastest-growing yoga styles. This scenario has undoubtedly caused some to cast doubt on the spiritual practice of yoga. It seems to us this author has a personal issue with the practice of yoga and/or an agenda to sell his books. While most people who pen columns have agendas, whether it be to increase their personal brand, raise awareness of a company or cause, etc., we as readers do hope that the publishers fact check and insist on comparative studies. Alas, that is not the case here. We all know controversy sells.
After several accusations of sexual impropriety with female students, Friend is stepping down as the leader of Anusara yoga. While we are by no means condoning Friend’s actions, we do find it puzzling that some would conclude that because of one, or possibly a few bad apples, the reputation of yoga as practice for spiritual, mental and physical enlightenment is forever tarnished. Broad posits in his latest piece that it should not be surprising to yoga practitioners that their spiritual leaders and gurus might be somewhat promiscuous: He questions, “Why does yoga produce so many philanderers?” Broad reminds us that Friend is not the first, and most likely won’t be the last, yoga superstar to be exposed for the frequent engagement of their root chakra. Broad makes an assumption that practitioners of yoga are ignorant to the origins of the practice and yoga how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began, supposedly, as a branch of a sex cult. Broad purports that Hatha Yoga stemmed from Tantra, which was practiced in medieval India by its devotees in order to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness, and accordingly the frequent sexual urges acted out by its most powerful practitioners should not be all that surprising, and in fact expected. However, is the question asked really a fair one or is it merely a red herring designed to distract us from the real issue? Is the reputation of the practice of yoga tarnished, or is this a black eye for Friend?
We compare this to the child abuse scandals of the Catholic Church or teacher student sexual abuse. Do you blame the Church or priests doing the act? Is the Department of Education to blame for Mary Kay Letourneau? We think the fault lies with the person who has their hand in the cookie jar, not the institution.
To that point, we are going to continue to arrive at least fifteen minutes early to our yoga studio so we can squeeze into the packed room and get our prana on!
What do you think?
I agree with you both, GoToPEngel and JulieFarin about yoga not having a place in the Olympics. Yoga is an ancient practice that has adapted use in healing and creating physical or mental wellness – it is not a sport.
Julie, to your point, the NYT article was unfair in the way it questions the entire discipline because of some of its leaders (and keep in mind the many different styles of yoga and leaders beyond Friend and Anusara). In 2005, US News reported there was an estimated 70,000 yoga teachers in the US. I am sure that number is much higher today given the increase in the popularity of yoga. I do believe that reputation of yoga is not, and will not be tarnished by a few of it’s leaders.
I don’t see how yoga can be in the Olympics except by the most superficial of criteria. The Olympics is and always should be about competition. Yoga is anything but that. The two ends just don’t meet.
Yoga isn’t a sport, therefore, it should not be included in the Olympic Games. The mere suggestion demonstrates how Westernized this spiritual practice has become, what with “power Yoga” classes, etc. Seems to defeat the entire purpose of the discipline.
Regarding the NYT article, I, too, thought it unfair. The writer paints with “Broad strokes” (pun intended) and unfairly maligns the entire discipline of yoga because of the questionable practices of some of its leaders. That’s like holding Jesus accountable for the corruption of some Catholic Church priests.
I have to agree with you Morgan. I am not sure if yoga belongs in the Olympics. What would be judged? How would you judge such a discipline? Yoga is more than just a physical practice – it’s mind, body and spirit.
I think that’s an interesting question, Ray. It’s definitely a hot topic for debate. An argument can be made that bringing yoga into the Olympics contradicts the core principles of the practice. The major premise behind yoga is that you shouldn’t look to compete with others; you should concentrate solely on yourself. That being said, yoga competitions already exist in some capacity. Personally, I’m not sure yoga really belongs at the Olympic games, but who am I to judge?
Ray: I hope not. If that happened, then the door would be open for the US Olympic Baptists to face off against the Italian Olympic Catholics. Crikey!
Interesting post, Stephanie and Morgan! I agree blame should be placed on individuals and not institutions. However, i believe the institution deserves to be vilified if it fails to address their representative’s wrongdoings.
Yoga is a really hot topic lately, and not just Bikram yoga (pun intended) or sex scandals either. I am talking about a movement to include yoga in Olympic competition. I have never participated in yoga and do find its ideology very intriguing. But, do you think there’s a place for yoga at the Olympic Games?
We agree that Broad has pointed out some valuable things about the responsibility of both yoga teachers and students (in this article and others), however we feel his articles are a bit sensationalized. In his earlier article discussing yoga and injury, we acknowledge that yes, yoga can cause an injury if not practiced properly. But, you can get injured in any type of sport or practice. Not to mention, one of the core principles of yoga is knowing/understanding your self, body and limits – something he didn’t mention and is quite significant. We don’t think he really emphasized the benefits of yoga in either article and in this most recent one, we think he really attacked the practice over the person.
Interesting post. I agree with you that the fault lies with the person who has their hand in the cookie jar, not the institution.
I’m not familiar with John Friend and Anusara Yoga. The yoga sex scandal I’m most familiar with is the one that went on at Kripalu in Lenox, MA in the mid-1990s. Founder Amrit Desai proved, like JFK, Bill Clinton and many others with gifted leadership skills, that he was all too human and weak when it came to temptation and the power of his personality. It’s not uncommon, and yes, it’s a bit cult-like.
From a reputation management standpoint, Kripalu were very straightforward in handling the scandal. No one tried to cover it up. It is now the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, transforming itself from an ashram led by one strong personality to more of a spiritual retreat. Kripalu’s Senior Scholar in Residence, Stephen Cope, wrote an excellent and honest account of the scandal in his book “Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.”
As for William Broad, he’s been on a publicity blitz for his new book. It’s easy to be cynical and say the recent spate of Times articles and his focus on the sexual origins of Hatha suit his agenda and sales goals. On the other hand, Broad has several valuable things to say about the responsibility of both yoga teachers and students. In the popularity of yoga and the aggressive marketing of its lifestyle, people may not be as mindful as they could be in their practices, or how they teach others. That may not be comfortable for everyone to hear.