I’ve refrained from commenting personally on the recent John Friend incident/s in part I work at Yoga Journal as the communications director. But it turns out, that whatever I might say publicly is pretty darn close to what I’d say privately.
First, about John Friend. He screwed up. He’s mostly admitted it. His behavior was irresponsible, wrong and hurt many people. The definitive investigative piece has yet to be done about the Friend fiasco, and I look forward to reading that one day. But am I shocked by his behavior? Not really. A powerful person seducing followers? Tell me which professions are off limits to this behavior? Medicine? Religion? Politics? I think not. It’s not yoga that corrupts — it’s power, it’s ego, and the inability of some leaders to say no, even when followers say yes. And about those followers — no one should check their critical capacities at the door of any yoga class, or any yoga bedroom. If you’re an adult, you’re responsible for your behavior, whether you are the teacher, or the student.
No one is above this stuff including myself. While I’ve never had an affair with a teacher, I was tempted once. While reporting for my book “Ravenous“, I felt the seductive pull from a meditation teacher. People who are charismatic, and in some form, present, as they say in Buddhist parlance, can reach parts of our souls that we normally keep closed off to others. This teacher should have known better, but didn’t. I did, though at times, it wasn’t that easy.
There’s the Friend controversy, and then the commentary on it. I was taken aback by William Broad’s irresponsible piece in the New York Times, on Friend and about the history of yoga and Tantric philosophy. I am no yoga scholar, but I do know that yoga’s origins did not start as a sex cult. (This link is to Chris Wallis’ fine rebuttal in flow yoga magazine). Only a very small part of Tantra’s philosophy is about sex, and one of Tantra’s main goals is to cleanse the body and awaken the spirit for meditation and enlightenment. Sex gets all the attention because, well, anything we’re repressed about gets a lot of ink.
I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I get the sense that when Broad writes about yoga, he feels like he’s slumming, like he’s taking a break from reporting about real things like particle accelerators and DNA research. Like he’s a bit embarrassed by it all. Fine, so slum away, except do your research and get your facts straight. Instead, we get Beware! Yoga can harm you! (and practiced incorrectly it can) and Sex Scandal Rocks Yoga World! It’s one way of acting critical without responsibly reporting critically at all.
My bigger fear is that people who don’t know any better will read this stuff and their take away will be that yoga hurts you and that it’s filled with sex crazed teachers. Yoga, in fact, is a remarkable, time-honored path towards achieving greater self-awareness, greater kindness towards others, and to waking up. But you’ll never get there if you check your brain at the front door.