What happens to a teacher’s teachings when he betrays his students’ trust?
I never took a class with John Friend, the founder of Anasura Yoga, but this charismatic leader inspired many of my own yoga teachers, who have helped me recover from injuries caused by years of ballet classes, a black ice tumble, and the chronic back problems that come from sitting long hours every day. Some of these teachers never spoke of the man. Others shared anecdotes from their classes with him. Some talked about his “philosophy of intrinsic goodness” and others about the principles of alignment that were a central part of his teaching http://www.anusara.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=68&Itemid=77 .
Being a somewhat cynical person by nature, I could never quite buy into all of the excitement about Mr. Friend, who was described as a charming, charismatic, and energetic man. We cynics generally don’t take descriptions like this at face value (my analyst used to say that the definition of a cynic is “a disappointed romantic”—which means we are suspicious of anyone that sounds too good or charming because we have previously been disappointed by exactly such a person). But it didn’t matter to me, one way or the other. What I was most aware of was that the approach to yoga taken by my Anasura teachers was one that helped to heal injuries that already existed and kept me from being hurt again. With the bad press that yoga has received recently (see, for example, William Broad’s article in the NY Times) this sense of safety and well-being should be more than enough.
However, recent events in the Anasura yoga world have suggested otherwise. Huffington Post writer Stewart J. Lawrence reports, “In the past week, much of the yoga world has been engulfed in turmoil over revelations that John Friend, founder of the yoga brand known as "Anusara," may not be the saintly guru that his publicists have promoted so successfully over the years. It turns out, that he's allegedly a shameless adulterer, sex fiend, marijuana dealer, and small-time corporate thug who probably broke the law by freezing his company's pension fund, in the process betraying the trust and marriages of dozens -- and possibly hundreds -- of his loyal followers.”
It would be easy for me, already admitting to being a disappointed romantic, to simply say, “but of course. No one who has as much power and adoration as this guy has had can possibly remain – if he ever was in the first place – purely good.” I could point to all of the fallen idols of recent years, ranging from politicians to ministers to other figures in the yoga world, and to more sports, movie and music stars than we can count on both hands. Many, if not all, of these people probably started out as basically good, well-meaning individuals. But, to totally paraphrase an old saying, power and popularity are – or can often be – corrosive.
So what is one to do? What happens to the men and women who feel betrayed by Mr. Friend -- not just as a person, but as a teacher, a leader, a giver of meaning? And what happens to his teachings themselves?
From a purely selfish perspective, I hope that the teachings will continue. Despite Mr. Friend’s possible wrongdoings, the teachings stand alone. Well, maybe not the philosophy of intrinsic goodness, but certainly his approach to yoga technique – but maybe, in fact, even the intrinsic goodness stuff!
One of the teachers and writers whose thinking was key to my own development as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst was Heinz Kohut who developed a theory of personality called “self psychology” (or sometimes “the psychology of the self”). Kohut believed that human beings have an intrinsic need to idealize others – parents, teachers, love ones – and that part of healthy development is the process of learning that the idealized person is less than perfect. Sometimes a lot less than perfect.
Kohut believed that a manageable, or “optimal” disappointment in a loved one actually helps us develop into stronger, healthier human beings who are able to cope with our own failings and those of our loved ones. “Traumatic” disillusionment, on the other hand, is a disappointment which is too difficult to bear, and can lead to unhealthy symptoms and neuroses.
I know that many of the teachers who have followed Mr. Friend are feeling stunned and traumatized by the possibility that their beloved leader has let them down so painfully. Yet I believe that they will find that this disillusionment, while terribly painful, actually falls into the category of “optimal.”
I believe that these men and women have learned something important from the work they have been doing and the practices they have built with Mr. Friend’s teachings. While they may now be questioning every part of those practices that might be connected to Mr. Friend (a normal part of the disillusionment process), they will gradually begin to discover something else emerging within themselves.
They will, I believe, find that there are aspects of the yoga practice they have been doing under Mr. Friend’s leadership that capture the best parts of themselves. They will discover ideas that are actually not Mr. Friend’s, but their own. And they will be able to recognize the intrinsic truth and clarity of the ideas which may have been initiated by their leader, but are actually separate from him.
This is what Kohut believed emerged from disappointment: a healthy, integrated sense of self which recognizes that humans are imperfect by definition. Such a self can weather disappointment and find ways to hold onto truths, even when the person who taught those ideas has been unfaithful to them himself.
How Does Analysis Cure? By Heinz Kohut. Publisher: University of Chicago Press, 1984.