March 7, 2012

Grounding Anusara 3: intimacy, methods, therapy, and making it open-source

by Matthew Remski

Okay. Last post on this. (Maybe.)

I’ve really been warmed by the strength of the discourse emerging from the Anusara experience. Blogs and comments are flying, phones are ringing off the hook (what a quaint old phrase!) and barrels of tea are flowing. It’s clear from the posts and threads of BrooksBirneyPomedaIppolitti andBrower, as well as compassionate outsider analyses like this one from Michelle Indianer, that we share a ripe opportunity to gaze calmly through the wreckage and heartache towards a yoga culture that actually mirrors yoga just a little bit more.

My deal has been to focus on the incoherence between corporate and communal cultures. (I also did a thing on the Ayurveda of the whole sitch.) My basic community-centred argument is this: notwithstanding figures like John Friend as both idols and phalli, the airplane and hotel-bound modus operandi of any transglobal yoga corporation will have a hard time fostering grounded relationship, because it mimics the alienation of all late-capitalist structures. How could it not? Either cynically or unconsciously, the corporation will try to hide its relational weakness behind escapist/transcendental philosophies, exclusive knowledge hierarchies, classist economic barriers, distractive marketing copy written in Shringlish, and the palm trees and spa robes of its resort-retreat-intensive gatherings. Eventually, the corporation will come to rely upon the weakened capacity for transparency amongst its adherents to continually conceal its obvious nature as a power system brokered by charismatic narcissists and their enablers. It will run on the carbon-heavy fumes of the spirituality of tyrannical happiness: the most despairing form of consumerism. This spirituality is a paper-thin consolation for guilt and despair. Tragically, it distracts adherents from serving all others and healing our ecology.

Inspired by the comments and questions on this view so far, I want to pull two functional propositions out of this analysis, and let them breathe a little more broadly. I’ll again limit my focus to the form and structure of the community issues involved. The content (John Friend’s psychology, the psychodynamics of cults, etc.) will continue to slowly unfold on a granular and therapeutic level. I think this can happen more easily if saferstructural space is created.

  1. In yoga it is obvious that economies of scale obstruct relationship. Go big or go home? Let’s go home, thank you very much.  Let’s think smaller.
  2. Transglobal corporations need definable and saleable products. A Yoga Method with “Universal Principles” works well for its marketing, as we have seen. But a trademarked product cannot be a therapy.

Through spotlighting these two issues through the following reveries, I think the collapse of Anusara begins to show us a structural way forward – involving a smaller scale, localism, inclusivity, and existentially reasonable philosophy, with (fingers crossed) a new-found focus on social service.


more than six mats in the room and you lose relationship

I’ve been teaching asana for nine years. About eight years and eleven months ago I realized that the tripwire from intimate pedagogy into yoga-styling performance lay at about six mats per class. More than six students in the room, and I would lose my ability to do what I cherish most: interact with each body and its needs, each personal story and its possible temporary resolutions.

How much more yawning would this absence of intimacy be for John Friend or other top-tier Anusara (or substitute any name-brand here) teachers, who regularly teach to hundreds at a time? A one-way lecture format might work with big numbers – but asana? Really? When every posture and adjustment and sequence should really be dictated by constitution, real-time bodily needs, injuries, and biorhythms?

More importantly – what pours in to fill the gap in pedagogical intimacy? The performance of virtue? Likely. Clichés as vague as newspaper horoscopes? Probably. A bias towards celebrating uniformity over diversity? Yep. I wonder whether the philosophy of Anusara became more and more simplistic in direct relation to the fact that John Friend eventually spent way more time interacting with crowds than with people. And simplicity, of course, is the groundwork of marketing. Find that perfect meme, trim that tagline down. This the opposite of responsive therapy.

It’s pretty clear in Ayurveda: if you’re doing good work as a therapist or teacher, you simply can’t make much money, because “good work” depends on small class sizes, and limiting your consultations to 4 per day, tops, unless you’re some sort of genius. But more importantly, the individual-care demands of Ayurveda mean that generalized herbal formulas (for instance) are of limited use. There are no panaceas in personalized naturopathy. This means: nothing to patent, nothing to brand. Each churna is best blended from scratch by a practitioner who contemplates the uniqueness of the client as the pestle gently rubs against the mortar.

“But product-driven capitalism is the system we have” comes the rationalization. Sure: but it’s also the system we do, and I for one would like to do it less and less, and smaller and smaller. There’s no reason my small classes and low client flow can’t earn me a middle-class income to support a modest family life. Interacting with 6-8 students at a time in my living room or someone else’s will net an average of $75 per hour in cash and trade. I can work about 15 public hours per week (backed by about 45 hours of practice and preparation) without getting exhausted. This nets a little over 45K per year, which keeps me well in dosas and chai. If more money comes to me than this, it would come from writing (yeah right), which for me is simply a process of transcribing and distilling the intimacy of my therapeutic experience. I always loved the sound of the word: santosha.

douglas in madhurai

I don’t know anything about Douglas Brooks’ mentor in Madhurai. But I’ll brush off the old novelist’s chops for a moment and speculate on a few things, just from looking at that beautiful picture he posted on EJ. His learning environment was quiet, humble, functional. He probably sat on that carpet for hours, not doing much, happy and warm (sometimes too bloody hot to move), received and receiving, chatting gently with Appa about everything from G_d to cricket, stirring the dal and fetching ladoos for guests. He probably learned as much about cooking and family dynamics as nirukta in his time there, and when the day came to bring his lovely daughter to the gurkula, I’m sure the old man made her princess for the week. I’ll also bet when Douglas finally started drawing a post-hippy paycheck he tried to wire money to Appa and later found out he’d given it to some orphanage down the street.

For however many years, Brooks slurped up the fresh-squeezed gurukula juice, now so rare in our world of bottled and from-concentrate. It took time and quietude. Of course, he brought his own precocious skills to India in his tatty army surplus duffle bag, but I’ll bet they were honed into analytical brilliance not by flashy knowledge nor charismatic displays, but through the light that glows in space held intently between fellow learners. It is a small light, in small rooms. The smallness keeps you humble, because you know there’s lots of light in other small rooms. This doesn’t have to just exist in the past, nor in India alone. om, sahanavavatu. If we’ve been in love, we know how yoga gets transmitted. We don’t have to settle for less. The trick also lies in not wanting more. Think smaller. The word santosha really does sound like what it means.

yoga should be a local masala

If you wind up learning yoga in a honking convention hall, hungover from plane travel or carsick from the interstate and smelling like the mini-soaps in your hotel bathroom, you’re probably getting shafted. I think we can all feel that in our bones.  But I’ll go further in my praise of the small: the only reason that any yoga system should even want to move beyond the kitchen and living room in terms of scale might be to mirror the fact that we humans seem to need our micro-levels of government to receive supportive oversight from macro-levels. It might therefore be useful to have some kind of international yoga organization in some form, but only to engage in international politics, perhaps as a charitable NGO to shadow a particularly non-yogic international system, such as the IMF. We can’t let ourselves think that a creepy office complex in The Woodlands, Texas, is somehow going to foster intimacy in Baraboo, WI. “The center cannot hold”, quoth Yeats. And should it even try to, when every day is a winding road, and each new town a joy to discover?

Throughout India, yoga traditions are like masalas: hyper-local, bubbling over with jolly secrecy, lauded and gossiped about near and far, and impossible to export. Anusara made the fatal mistake of trying to patchwork the appropriated localisms of the Other into a centralized universalism. It cannot work for us, for despite our dissociation, we too are local at heart: the river sprites of Connecticut have different lessons to teach than the mountain gods of Taos. Most likely, the local gods will eventually pull us away from the transglobal idol. (And if they don’t, divorce or death surely will.) In my sannyasin phase I hope to hitchhike from town to town, and answer the question for myself: “What does the yoga taste like here, I wonder?” I’ll remember to drink a lot of broth and slather myself in ghee to keep my vata at least somewhat in check.

a “Method” does not exist outside of the way it is shared

My therapist once said to me: “I fuckin hate therapy methods. The worst thing a therapist can have is a fuckin method. Because then the interaction becomes all about the fuckin method instead of the relationship.”

This is at the heart of my second point: a trademarked product cannot be a therapy. It is in nature of trademarking to provoke the one-way relationship of producer and consumer. Consumerism derails the therapeutic.

In an understandable attempt to save a sinking ship, it sounds like the meme of “Anusara Method” is being thrown around by those who are hanging onto it by their nails as though it wasn’t the direct and ongoing outcome of the hierarchical relationships that shared and promoted it. The “Method” is sounding pre-ordained, now canonized, eternal, outside of us, something we all signed up for in the presence of G_d and that we didn’t continually bend to our shared purposes.

Can anyone continue to say in all seriousness that the method of Anusara is somehow distinguishable from the way in which John Friend and his teachers and his students related and continue to relate to each other? Did it really come from somewhere else? Does it really exist beyond the classes and conventions and somewhat-shrouded Gurumayi references that echo somewhat-creepy Muktananda memories and the parties and the workbooks and the syllabi of postures newsletters and levels of training? Where is the Method beyond its practitioners and how they have behaved? The spirals become real through the spiraly femurs. The loops manifest through the loopy shoulders. You can’t take yer spandas without yer scandals. Both men and Methods cast shadows. It’s all in there together. We are, warts and all, the very expression of our methods.

the ambivalent authenticity of methods/products

The branding of an “authentic” learning method requires precise definition: overdetermination, in fact. You can’t copyright what you haven’t determined. But ironically, the outcomes of learning are never determined. That’s why we call it learning.

Overdetermination governs the reified object, method, or product. Its perky definition makes it excruciatingly other from you, who are undefined. You hope that its completeness might bestow completeness upon you. The glitzier its completeness, the more broke your brokenness. We hear in the shiny whine of wholeness-marketing an anxiety that splits the heart.

Only the branded thing can be profitable, lifted up and out of context and touted as applicable to everyone and everywhere. Its alleged universality depends on fuzzy and presumptuous terms (“the Teachings”) and a lot of capital letters: “You and I always shared a love for what is Good, Shri, and Delightful” writes John to his coven-mate. (Because the relationship is unstable, the sentiment must pretend to be.) The capital letter is the primordial trademark sign.

But there’s a more troubling tension, which I hope to see Drs. Brooks et al address: it feels beyond my grasp. There is a perennial drive within yoga culture towards “authenticity”, which employs notions of inherency and ultimacy. This energy can be very easily co-opted by strategies of commodification. The mechanism of authenticity in capitalism is ownership: a thing becomes a thing through its trademark. The real and the true are established by protecting them against the assumption that someone wants to steal them. I think we have to take a long hard look at how copyrighting, economic exclusion, and the natural scarcity delusion fostered by both capitalism and the charismatic leader prey upon our need for authenticated (“certified”) spirituality.

Something tells me it may have something to do with Cabbage Patch dolls. Remember them? Now you do. You’re welcome.

During some 1980s Christmas shopping season there was a shortage of these puke-ugly dolls. Some joker claimed to have a planeload of them, and they would airlift them to a field outside of the city. All you had to do to gitcher doll was to show up in the field and hold your credit card skyward so that they could take a picture of the number, drop the dolls in little parachutes, and complete the cha-ching. So there stood a hundred suckers shivering to death in the late November afternoon, saluting the sun with their Visas, praying for an ass-doll (with a stamped certificate of authenticity!) all their own. The butt-faced cherubs never descended.

Obviously, yoga needs some additional and more transparent metrics for the authentic. I would start with the following: the authentic mentor never has more students than he/she can hold close to the heart at any one time. The authentic mentor considers him/herself a creative compiler and practitioner – not an author. The authentic mentor can’t imagine packaging up what she knows into a product, because she knows there’s too much she doesn’t know. The authentic mentor says “I don’t know” a lot. The authentic mentor busts open the canon with apocrypha. The authentic mentor is transparent about his/her practical and personal challenges, and through this transparency he/she shares power. The authentic mentor makes clear choices to deflect or unknot any spell of grandiosity that creeps into the exchange. I had one crazy-wisdom teacher who took great delight in ripping loud stinky farts and belching wetly during satsang. He had his own authenticity/integrity problems, but fame and vanity were not among them.

method is relationship

Indian pedagogy has always insisted on three pillars of authority-exchange which I think might help cut all the “Method”-talk down to relationship size. The pillars are guru-sisya-sastra: mentor-student-book. (“Book” in this case might stand in for “method”.) I learned about this triad, old-timey fashion, this way: the mentor needs the student just as the parent needs the child, to extend life and passion into the future. The student needs the mentor to empower them. The book keeps the mentor honest: “on-book”. But the book has margins that the student can write in. And as the book gets passed from mentor to student, it becomes rich and palimpsested with notes, underlinings, and pressed flowers. But if a third person picks up that book, they won’t be able to reconstruct or inhabit the relationship that co-wrote it. They can read what they like, but they will be reading an artifact of an encounter. They might glean the “Method”, but certainly not the means.

If we strip Anusara of its brand-locked (i.e. prematurely canonized) “Method”, what would we have left? Some really useful evolutionary memes: spirals, spandas, the value of giddy/goofy pleasure in vinyasa (in moderate doses). A general mood of hope and encouragement. I’m not diminishing things here: I’m sure there’s much more. I’d like to see these memes show up everywhere, unbranded, like spraypaint tags in the laneways behind yoga studios, as part of our authorless overflow of learning.

Or another metaphor: I’d love to see Anusara deconstructed into tiny bits of code, freely traded by yogis, hackers of the human experience. In the open-source world, it’s just plain rude to hold onto anything for yourself. The assumption is that useful things will be cobbled together into even more useful things, not by individuals pursuing possessive goals, but by the hive, expressing unconscious empathy.


notions for moving forward: make it open source

If you practice yoga, you have skin in this game. Because what happens now with the Anusara crowd has heavy implications for the general cultural perception of our beloved evolutionary art. Look at how the New York Times is consistently Broad-siding the lot of us. What happens now will impact everyone who has worked so hard to bring yoga into school Phys. Ed. programmes, for instance. What happens now will define yoga’s ability to speak truth to power, yoga’s political relevance, yoga’s capacity to work with dysfunctional relationships, and yoga’s therapeutic capital. I see modern yoga as a revolution of faith in embodiment and love for ecology. It is well-positioned to address core issues of human psychology – alienation, dissociation, reactivity – while providing an experiential gestalt to our scientific discoveries. It is very important for all of us that yoga transforms from a consumer cult into a community culture.

So I hope the newly-ordained Anusara Steering committee, along with new half-owner Michal Lichtman, doesn’t waste time polishing turds. There’s an opportunity here for something more. Currently, Anusara presents a highly-functional infrastructure standing as open as an empty city, holding millions of hours of networking equity. It can benefit many: not by resurrecting a Method-as-product by detaching it from the thrall of John, but by actually doing what it failed to do in the first place: support localism and the creative evolution of the Method into methods, of Shringlish into dialogue.

I have many niggling nuts-and-bolts ideas about yoga community structuring – mostly around how we might better use money – which I’m developing for a chapter in a new book project edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. I’ll save those for that.

I was going to end here by laying out a big radical suggestion, but Douglas Brooks kinda scooped it. And then, in a way that has yet to come into focus, the Yoga Coalition perhaps scooped it as well. I too think AY should dissolve. But my concern is less about the insider-outsider, new AY/old AY frictions and more about resisting the general aparigraha of branding and rebranding.

Anusara can’t become a real non-profit if it remains reliant upon what has been a for-profit product. The best way that Anusara can improve the relational integrity of its Method is by giving it away for free. The best way that Anusara can prove its usefulness as a method is by seeing what its value becomes as an open-source tool, beyond the echo-chamber of those who have a vested interest in proclaiming its value because they’ve either invested a lot in it, or because they make at lot from it.

Some guidelines as to how this would work:

  • Give up the trademark. Allow the word Anusara to become as nebulous and evocative in meaning as hatha.
  • Continue to use the language if it floats your boat. But also allow others to use the language – in fact, teach them freely how to use it well so that we all have more tools to work with.
  • Offer the syllabus and manuals freely to the general population. Offer the video products at cost.
  • If you really do have such a great training programme for postural instruction (and I believe you do), offer to consult for free with Yoga Alliance – G_d knows they need some guidance in the standards department.
  • Keep all of the teaching dates on John’s current calendar open, but assign teachers to the events who are local to the venue, so that these events stop dissipating local energies by creating unsustainable flash-in-the-pan learning infatuations.
  • Lower the tuition prices of the 2012 events to cover the venue costs only: the teachers teach for free. It’s only a weekend. They’ll manage.
  • Make the 2012 tour the primary means for dispersing the Method into the general yoga population. Call it the “Passing the Torch” tour. Or maybe go ironic: “The Scrapyard Tour.”
  • Change the theme of the tour to generalize the content for the broader yoga population. A guiding principle might be: “What is the core gift of this method as I’ve learned it?” And, more importantly: “How does this method interact with other methods?” This would force prominent AY teachers to peak into what the rest of us have been doing.


In this proposal, there’s nothing of real value for anyone to lose, except a few weeks of pro bono work. Senior teachers have made enough from the brand: they will continue doing what they do best, and hopefully develop useful idiosyncrasies to meet their students’ unique and local needs. They’ll be fulfilled and suitably pecunious in their careers to the extent that they learn and teach transparently.

Nobody in the Nonusara world wants to give John Friend a red cent at this point. If the Method remains under any kind of copyright, we’ll be forced to pay him whenever we want to learn from one of its teachers. Releasing the trademark means cutting John free to make a living like the rest of us, floating from studio to studio, gym to gym, getting paid by the class or per mat, slowly reclimbing the mentorship ladder into his late middle age. If cutting him off seems cruel, and if his senior students really want to take care of their own and thank the man for his many innovations, let them all chip in an buy him an annuity to help him retire with dignity and a dental plan.

Anusara doesn’t need more money or to protect its teachings. What it really needs to see is whether its methods can function in intimacy, stripped bare of the spa-dazzle and doublespeak.

And everyone wants to stop shivering in the cold, waving our credit cards at the dim winter sun.

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