Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Shadow of Anusara?

Whew!  The following post has certainly caused a stir -- not just here but on Facebook! Considering that most of my posts garner no comments, and the most any ever did get were something like six, I got to kind of assuming no one was reading!

After reading through some comments on Christina Folosono Sell's Facebook page, I thought I would do a bit of a re-edit, both because I can see some further clarification may help, AND because I do agree that I used some terms that do not reflect "Right Speech." Worse, those terms seem to have derailed the more important point that I still heartily endorse: contemporary hatha-yoga, and Anusara in particular tend to foster a denial of duhkha and at times an almost aggressively "feel good" Pollyanna-like myopia.

For the record: I acknowledge John Friend as one of my teachers publicly, even mentioning him in the Acknowledgement section of my book, and indeed he has been an inspiring and influential teacher for me. I was a participant of one of his first Teacher Trainings as well as one of his first Yoga Therapy trainings. I attended workshops with him for several years after that and I've taken Immersions with Amy Ippolliti in New York, and with Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis in Tucson (where I also teach meditation).

Oh, and perhaps it is relevant to know that I am not a Buddhist.

Recently, the "exodus" of several senior Anusara Yoga teachers (including the two above-mentioned) has caused a bit of a ruffle among the wider yoga "community" (if one can even be said to exist). I am not interested in speculation nor in what it may or may not mean for John Friend or the "Anusara Kula."
What I would like to respond to is the following comments made by Elena Brower, one of those who have recently left the Anusara fold, the "defectors," as it points to something I have long felt to be a "shadow" of the contemporary hatha-yoga world, and in particular of Anusara culture -- and perhaps one that merely reflects John Friend's own shadow. Elena writes:
"What I found is that I wanted more, I wanted to know how to feel as amazing in my house as I’d felt on my mat. As expansive, as calm, as beautiful, as connected, as real. I couldn’t link my behavior at home to my composure in my practice, and I needed other ways to learn how to be more remarkable as a Mama, an ex-wife, a girlfriend, and most importantly these days, a daughter. My practice was giving me feelings of fulfillment but they didn’t last, and I was still going home and acting out of alignment with my yoga, which was getting painful."
I recognize this pattern! That disconnect between "practice" and "daily life;"  the lack of integration of practice and the rest of life. Here is what I wrote in my book, Mindfulness Yoga almost ten years ago, about something I experienced back in 1976:
"I began to notice that while I left the yoga class feeling the divine bliss of heaven, by the time I got off the train in Flushing, I was back in my own private hell. In fact, the bliss I was feeling in yoga class seemed ever more remote and alien to the rest of my life. Even after I had started to practice the postures and breathing exercises at home, I continued to find that whenever I wasn't "doing yoga," the peacefulness I felt while practicing continued to elude me."
What brought me to a deeper understanding was the following passage where the Buddha himself describes a similar experience he had with his yoga teachers:
"Though one may momentarily be secluded from the cycle of suffering, the watcher remains as a seed of rebirth. As soon as the situation changes, rebirth easily takes place again. This is just what happens now when I get up from meditating. No matter how profound my absorption, after a short time I get caught up again in the world of the senses. The basic causes and conditions for rebirth have not been extinguished. Complete liberation has not been achieved."
When I first read about the Buddha's dissatisfaction with the failure of his practice to fundamentally change his experience of daily life, I instantly recognized the similarity to my own experience -- how wonderfully calm and peaceful I felt after yoga practice, and yet how all too soon I fell back into the suffering of craving and aversion. And when I became a yoga teacher, I saw how many students seemed to have similar experiences. They would leave class blissed out, but as soon as they got "caught up in the world of their senses" they found themselves back amid their anxious lives -- from blissed out to stressed out. This is the "rebirth" the Buddha was talking about. The question became how do we stop this apparently ceaseless cycle, this endless emotional and psychological roller coaster? In our very lives generally, and in our own practice of yoga specifically, we can see the process of samsara, the cyclic process of "birth and death" over and over, moment by moment!
In my experience, contemporary hatha-yoga in general, and Anusara Yoga in particular, are permeated by a willful denial and ignor-ance of the reality of duhkha. I've had this "argument" with John Friend twice. Once, after I had lectured a group of Moksha-Yoga Teacher Trainees for over a week on mindfulness, buddhist meditation, and the philosophy and history of the Yoga Tradition, John Friend came to give a talk, and the very first thing he said was, "I know you've just had a Buddhist scholar here, and they are always talking about duhkha. But I come from a place of bliss." His talk degenerated from there! I was happy to hear one of the students respond to him, saying: "Frank spoke a lot about joy, but also made the point that the way to joy was through nobly facing and engaging with duhkha, not denying it or turning away from it."
Afterward, John actually did acknowledge to me that he had overstated his case, had gotten carried away, and had reduced Buddhism into a caricature. This did not stop him from, only a few years later, in my presence at one of his workshops, stooping to the same caricature.
And this is the shadow I have long seen in Anusara. Everyone is exhorted to aggressively "shine out with Shri" and it's all about bliss -- poorly understood as a super "feeling good" when the Tantric understanding of bliss is so much more subtle than that, and ultimately not reliant on feeling good at all! The bliss of the tantrika transcends the polarities of pleasure and pain. The Rainbow Body of Peace needn't be pain free. By definition, if it needs to be pain free, it is bound by those conditions and is therefore NOT freedom!
The "culture" of Anusara (echoing the culture of contemporary mainstream hatha-yoga) is fearful of the "noble truth of duhkha." A kind of hiding one's head in the sand is encouraged with lots of feel-good, empowerment/motivational speaker kind of new agey pablum designed to soothe and pamper egos so often desperate for validation. I've heard more applause at some Anusara workshops than I might hear at a concert! I've been invited to teach at ashrams where the brittleness of forced happiness, the plastered on smiles and the shying away of any discord is truly suffocating. 
So, I am glad that Elena seems to have broken free from the forced glee-club of Stepford Wife yogis from a culture that seems to have demanded of her this kind of consensus myopia, and found a way to integrate the freedom and peace found in yoga into her life, learning, as she says, "that I can finally look at my behaviors head-on, and not flinch, but instead, HANDLE them. Talk about them. Apologize for them instead of being too proud to address them. And then – most importantly – SHIFT THEM."
It is noble and ennobling to face duhkha, to awaken from avidya (ignore-ance) and denial. A greater ease with life, the "full catastrophe," arises when one no longer HAS to feel all "shri" and happy-faced! The radical acceptance and unconditional regard we seek cannot come from denying such a fundamental aspect of life as duhkha! This is not to say that that is all there is to life! What I am saying is that in turning away from duhkha, one turns away from the path leading out of duhkha. To deny duhkha IS duhkha!

And, to rectify mis-understandings, duhkha is NOT "suffering" and the Buddha did not say "Life is suffering." He said "there is duhkha." Face it! Though mental anguish is duhkha, that is not all it is! Duhkha is the fact that sometimes you lose what you like; you get what you don't like. Duhkha is the simply fact that happiness is not to be found in circumstances!

Now, some Buddhists seem to forget that there are Four Realities for the Noble, and that acknowledging and facing duhkha is only the first. Kind of like the first step of the 12 Step Programs, it's merely the beginning! Joy and Happiness are two of the Seven Factors of Awakening. Make no mistake: the Buddha was no kill-joy! He just wanted us to understand where happiness was truly to be found.

frank jude