Do you have ‘rockstar syndrome’ when it comes to yoga? Don’t we all, to some degree?

“We all need to learn to be more transparent and, as students, less caught up in rockstar syndrome.” — Waylon Lewis

I just read an intense interview with John Friend conducted by Waylon Lewis of Elephant Journal. Friend, who has become an international phenomenon and was the subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story last year, established the Anusara yoga method. If you’re unfamiliar with Anusara, here is Wikipedia’s description, for what it’s worth:

Anusara yoga is a modern school of hatha yoga started by American-born yoga teacher John Friend in 1997. Friend derived his style from the Iyengar style of yoga and reintroduced elements of Hindu spirituality (specifically derived from Siddha Yoga) into a more health-oriented Western approach to Yoga.

The emphasis of Anusara is on a set of Universal Principles of Alignment which underlie all the physical asanas and are connected to philosophical aspects of the practice. According to the official Anusara Yoga website, the school’s ideology is “grounded in a Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness”.[1] Friend states that the term “Anusara (a-nu-sar-a), means ‘flowing with Grace,’ ‘flowing with Nature’ and ‘following your heart,'” as interpreted from the Sanskrit anusāra, meaning “custom, usage, natural state or condition”.

I’ve never been in the same room as Friend. I don’t practice Anusara yoga. I don’t think I’ve ever even been in a straight-up Anusara class. I don’t have strong feelings about the style of yoga or the man behind it.

And I don’t want to get into the details of the serious allegations here because I almost don’t want to know them myself. But it’s all over the Internet, if you look in the right places. At this point, it seems even Friend understands that the only way he will get his side of the story out is through online mediums. Here’s the interview, which, as I said, is intense. Lewis starts to conclude the interview with the line quoted at the top of the post — that, as students, we all need to be “less caught up in rockstar syndrome.”

That’s why I’m writing this post. If nothing else, this sad scandal — and it is nothing short of a scandal, no matter how you look at it — is a good opportunity to ask ourselves (whether we practice Anusara, Iynengar, Ashtanga or any other type of yoga) whether we are prone to getting caught up in the rockstar syndrome with our yoga teachers. I think we’re all prone. And it makes sense — the best teachers can literally change how we see the world and ourselves. They can literally change the course of our lives. That is powerful. I will always be deeply in awe of my teachers, and the darkness that they dispelled for me. But that doesn’t make them infallible.

So what do we do to keep ourselves in check?

What has been resonating in my mind since reading this interview is that often-quoted line among ashtangis: “The practice itself is the true teacher.”

I want to say the best teachers — the ones who see their role as getting students closer to the practice rather than the ones who are perhaps motivated by personal fame or gain — actually build a check into their teaching. They tell you their take, and they tell you to try it out and see for yourself. Investigate it yourself. They’ve spent years — decades perhaps — learning and researching and integrating everything they know, but they are humble enough to still believe that the practice is the true teacher.

No one is infallible. People change. Circumstances change. Even the practice changes — develops over time — but in the end, the practice is always there.

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Ashtanga = boot camp?

As I write this, the third-most e-mailed story on The New York Times’ website is an article that hasn’t even appeared in the print edition yet. “The Yoga Mogul,” a profile of Anusara founder John Friend, will come out in this weekend’s Sunday magazine. It’s a fairly interesting piece that makes you think about whether yogic principles and business objectives can peacefully coexist without diluting the authenticity of this ancient practice (a meaty issue that deserves another blog post down the road).

What I’m going to focus on here is this section of the piece:

Like many other small-stakes subcultures — the world of poetry, or academia, say — 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. People who favor the demanding flow of Ashtanga yoga, for instance, might scoff at those who practice Iyengar yoga, which is slow-moving but stresses proper placement of the body in the poses. (Think of boot camp versus a classical ballet lesson.)

I think it’s unfortunate that as yoga becomes more popular, Ashtanga’s reputation grows – a reputation for being the style of yoga geared toward super fit, Type-A personalities. How many people out there have already shied away from trying the practice because they were turned off by what they had heard? The Sunday Times has a circulation of 1.4 million, so the potential reach of just this particular Ashtanga-as-boot-camp image is extensive.

Yes, Ashtanga is challenging. But yoga, in the most general sense, is challenging – it’s a practice that demands mindfulness, intention and honesty. And there is nothing easy in that.

Earlier this week, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Dealing with a low-back injury and post-surgery recovery, she told me that she’s starting to integrate more Ashtanga classes into her schedule because the primary series allows her to move at a slower pace and compassionately return to her asana practice.

Ashtanga is a deeply grounding practice that’s designed to detoxify the body, mind and spirit, and to bring us into balance. We can approach the practice in a hard, confrontational way by treating the asanas as a string of poses to be conquered – Hey, look at my Marichyasana D! Do you know how long it took to perfect this? – or we can approach the practice from a softer space in which we seek to flow with grace.

I think the best way to show people that Ashtanga is not the boot camp of yoga styles is to – well, show people. Show them through example, through how we experience and express our own practices, and encourage them to try the practice for themselves.