Several days ago the New York Times printed an article by William Broad, an author who is getting a lot of attention recently for his views on the risks and rewards of yoga asnas, or what is more commonly known as just “yoga” in the US.
In this article, he writes about John Friend, the founder of Anusara, one of the worlds’ fastest-growing styles, who is stepping down after accusations of sexual impropriety with female students. He then goes on to attempt to make a case that sexual acting-out on the part of the teacher is due to Hatha yoga’s roots in Tantra, which he views as a sexual practice.
I will not take the time here to discuss the roots of yoga asnas, Hatha yoga, and the use of sexual descriptions and an ancient way to describe much larger principles of life. I am interested, however, in the age-old “blame it on the profession” technique of cognitive distortions that Americans are so good at. In fact, it is doubtful we have seen more than a handful of patients at the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco who have not found a way to blame their behavior on anything and anybody other then themselves.
Each of these situations do have something in common: abuse of power. All of them, including the case of John Friend, are in situations where the perpetrators, due to their position of power are afforded the opportunity to abuse those who they have power over. But it should be clear that there have been many people in positions of power who have not sexually abused others. Most anesthesiologists, parents and step-parents, yoga instructors, Catholic priests, and therapists take their position of power seriously and treat others with great care and a deep respect. For those who have psychosexual problems, however, these situations can present themselves with opportunity that can be difficult to resist.
I don’t know what qualified John Friend as a “guru” or founder of a method of yoga asnas. But I do know that he is correct in his assessment that he needs help and therapeutic intervention. Yoga asnas have been around for thousands of years and were developed as an ancient system of medicine. When practiced properly, the postures can still stimulate healing in the body and a higher level of physical functioning. Let’s hold Friend personally responsible for whatever issues led him to abuse his position of power and harm others, and keep the accountability firmly where it belongs: with the individual, not with the profession or practice as a whole.
Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.