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Yoga's fresh blend

Anusara style, which combines alignment and spirituality, is quickly growing. But what about tradition?

May 29, 2006|Stacie Stukin | Special to The Times

ANUSARA students will tell you their style of yoga is more than just exercise.

It's a community -- one of like-minded people who accentuate the positive as the route toward spiritual and physical well-being.

Among the believers is B.J. Galvin, who last month drove six hours from Carefree, Ariz., with her two sons so that they could attend founder John Friend's weekend workshop in Los Angeles.

The L.A. stop of what Friend called his "Align With the Divine" tour packed students into the ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel like sardines (or string beans, for the vegetarians). The 280 attendees came not just from Los Angeles, but also from San Diego, Yosemite, Vermont and even Spain -- all wanting to study at the feet of the guy who in 1997 trademarked his brand of yoga, Anusara.

Anusara is one of the fastest-growing styles of yoga -- but not one without criticism.

Nine years ago there were only 160 certified Anusara teachers. That number has swelled to 1,200, as the number of students has grown to nearly 200,000. And Southern California, which has more than 50 teachers, is one of Anusara's biggest markets.

Los Angeles Anusara teacher Hillary Rubin attributes Friend's popularity to his humility and humor. "There's nothing pretentious about him," she said. "Other teachers can make you feel like they're above you or make you afraid when they walk around the room. John's right there with you."

At the Park Plaza workshop, Friend's people skills were evident. His seemingly effortless charisma and his spontaneous cartoon-like sound effects made challenging poses such as a handstand seem less intimidating -- as did his encouragement. He got plenty of laughs too.

At the same time, he took Hindu tantra philosophy -- which promotes the belief that everyone has the freedom to see and experience the intrinsic good in themselves, in their lives, in others -- and made it accessible.

Followers of Friend, like Galvin, are sometimes called "Friend heads," an affectionate term for people who revere him (he gets standing ovations) and are attracted by the spirituality. In most yoga traditions, the body is considered an obstacle that needs to be subjugated or disciplined so that one can transcend the physical and achieve enlightenment. In Anusara, the body is something to celebrate -- providing a connection with inner divinity, or goodness.

"In classical yoga, it's all about renouncing and giving up materialism. Then you go into these fancy studios and they're selling $70 yoga shirts. It was confusing to me," said Galvin, a commercial real estate manager who is working toward getting an Anusara teaching certificate.

"With Anusara, we acknowledge that we live in this world where I have kids, a car payment, a mortgage and a job, but I can look at my life and try to make it better by embracing what's good and by aligning to something that's greater than me," Galvin said.

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'Flow with grace'

Friend, who is on the road 200 days a year teaching workshops and training teachers, emphasized such a worldview when his friend and collaborator Douglas R. Brooks, a Hindu tantra scholar at the University of Rochester in New York, helped him name his yoga style Anusara, which in Sanskrit means "to flow with grace."

"I wanted to emphasize that the physical practice and the technical stuff were a way to foster spirit and celebrate the tantric view that the body is a magnificent embodiment of supreme consciousness," he said recently by phone from Anusara headquarters in the Woodlands, Texas.

Anusara is based primarily on Iyengar yoga, which emphasizes precise body alignment and was founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, who has an institute in Pune, India. Friend taught Iyengar yoga for more than a decade but, as he studied Hindu Tantra philosophy, biomechanics and kinesiology, he realized Iyengar would not have approved of the way he was organizing the alignment principles or the injection of tantric philosophy.

Ultimately, he resigned -- sending Iyengar a resignation letter out of respect.

He did lose some students who, he says, didn't want to be renegades. It wasn't the first time Friend had risked his livelihood for yoga. A decade earlier, he had given up a successful career as a financial analyst and moved in with his parents so that he could teach yoga full-time. However, this time he had a loyal group of students all over the country -- ones who made the leap with him.

His resignation and his rise in popularity have not always been met with enthusiasm by those in America's tight-knit yoga community.

Marion Garfinkel, a senior Iyengar teacher in Philadelphia who has been practicing and teaching in the system since the 1970s, said, "I certified John Friend -- and he's a great teacher -- but I will also say you either base something on Iyengar and follow it through or you don't. Now we have these self-appointed gurus here [in the U.S], people [like Friend] who take their own names and add yoga after it.... They have not contributed something significant to the tradition."

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