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Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D. Headshot

Living in Shades of Grey: Anusara, John Friend and the Guru Syndrome

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It's hard to read any yoga blog these days without coming across the lengthy, messy break-up currently unfolding in the Anusara yoga community following the disclosure of allegations about Anusara founder John Friend's, well, rather philandering ways.

In the wake of the New York Times yoga wreckgate, that's a lot of upheaval in otherwise tranquil yoga world.

Time to take a deep Ujayi breath, and hold on to your center. Oh, darn. There goes another quasi-spiritual leader, who, surprise, surprise, turns out to be just another flawed human being.

While everyone has been quick to de-friend Friend, so to speak, take one step back and there's a valuable lesson for all of us in the Anusara debacle, which applies not just to those in the yoga community. Without a doubt, if the allegations are true then Friend went off the deep end, losing perspective and his footing in the process. However, those who enabled his rumored behaviors by structuring for him the pedestal from which these actions could unfold are not beyond reproach either.

Which comes first, the guru or the follower? Are we who follow and turn someone into a larger-than-life character with powers (and privileges) we would not bestow on "normal" human beings, ultimately, enablers? By giving away our powers to partake in the perceived glory of that person, are we innocent "victims," or do we really help create the monster?

The phenomenon of "guru-ization" extends not just to the yoga world, but to any area where a strong, charismatic person leads a group of people. Think politicians, religious leaders, rock stars and yes, yoga superstars. (Yoga groupies, anyone?)

As Lauren Jacobs wrote in a recent HuffPost blog post: "Human beings are unfortunately often all too happy to be led into wherever they think they will be safe, loved, and taken care of. [Such leaders often seem to be] permitted to act above the rules that govern the rest of us, [because] people are so beholden to them than no one will speak out against them."

Those who have been part of any type of movement with a strong leader have all experienced just how starry-eyed, head-in-the-clouds, ambitiously idealistic most everyone gets around them.

Some followers are driven by personal ambition, some are driven by an unconscious search for perfection, a longing to the days when the world was a simple black and white, and parents the perfect, infallible protectors in a safe world (and many by both). It's tempting to seek out that same perfection in another human being, and to give away one's power to a charismatic, inspiring leader.

Without fail, we are all robbed of that illusion sooner or later. Inevitably, there comes a time when the realization dawns that the teacher/leader is, well, just as flawed and human as everyone else. And oftentimes, that person is enabled to make even larger mistakes than the rest of us by the permissive, starry-eyed idealism of those around him.

With each fallen guru, we will decry and denounce, and this will inevitably go on for a while. But beneath all the finger-pointing, we should not forget to ask the difficult question: Are we the ones who set ourselves up to be failed?

Ultimately, when the illusion breaks, it is not a bad thing. It is a wonderful thing. It is an invitation not to anger and hurt, but to move into a world which exists not in black and white, but in shades of grey.

When the hurt disappears, the realization might just dawn that it's okay to separate the teacher from the teaching. When someone sidesteps, there's no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. That teacher inspired us because he/she brought something valuable to the world -- at least for a while. Whatever that valuable teaching/inspiration was, however long it continues to uplift and inform us, that has a value in and of itself.

Many will agree that Anusara yoga has helped deepen the yoga practice of thousands of people, produced some of the best yoga teachers in the country and heightened the standard for yoga teacher trainings in this country. (Disclosure: I am not an Anusara-trained yoga teacher.) That's an accomplishment that doesn't have to go away, just because of Friend's alleged personal issues. The teacher is not the teaching.

Once we learn to separate the teacher from the teaching, we may just be able to appreciate what is valuable, without giving away our power. We can give ourselves permission to live in a world of shades of grey, where seeking the comfort of black and white and hitching our wagon to a star, no matter what the cost, is just too costly an illusion to buy into.

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