Anusara Yoga Explained: The Yoga Style That Saw Fame, Success And Scandal

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Anusara Yoga is a modern, heart-led hatha yoga practice infused with non-dual tantric philosophy. Founded in the 1990s by John Friend, this popular style of yoga has seen fame, fortune, success, and scandal.

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • What is Anusara Yoga?
  • Who is John Friend?
  • Anusara Yoga’s influences
  • Anusara – new directions
a group of people practicing anusara yoga in the park

What does Anusara mean?

The Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary cites anu-sara as following or a companion. But according to John Friend, Anusara means “flowing with grace” or “open to grace, align with the divine.”

What is Anusara?

Anusara’s rise as a practice was fast growing. Finding its way into huge festivals and gaining endorsements with successful companies, it wasn’t unusual to see Anusara Yoga teachers on the covers of magazines, and some gained celebrity status within the yoga world. John Friend’s popularity led him to teach globally and organize a world tour in 2011.

Physically focused on heart openers and meticulous alignment principles, Anusara Yoga is a flowing Hatha practice that encompasses the whole being, fusing body, mind, and spirit. Let’s take a look at the philosophy and practice within the method.

The Anusara philosophy

The underpinning philosophy of Anusara is a non-dual tantric approach where the practitioner is “always looking for the intrinsic goodness of every situation in order to appropriately respond to what is happening in the present moment.”

What Does Non-Dual Mean?

There are many interpretations for the term non-dual, but the translation means “not two,” so, in a nutshell, non-dual represents the interconnectedness of everything, all of which is Supreme Consciousness.

Associated with Indian Hindu philosophy, non-dualism rejects the idea that the Absolute and man are different. An opposing view to this would be Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras which refers to Prakriti and Purusha as separate.

a cutout of a woman with the universe superimposed on her

What is Tantra?

Tantra can be translated as “woven together” and is generally considered non-dual in its approach. It is associated with ritualistic practices and does not require renunciation of the world to reach enlightenment.

Tantra practices include all of the things you would typically find in a yoga practice, such as asana, pranayama, meditation, mantras, and mudras, as well as kriya (cleansing ) practices, deity workshops, rituals, and yantras.

Although neo-tantra, associated with sexual rituals, features as a small part of tantra, it is not to be confused with classical tantra. It does, however, illuminate that the body was not to be seen as something getting in the way of enlightenment.

The Anusara Alignment

The Universal Principles of Alignment underpin all asanas taught within the Anusara method. Meant to help students find their own way rather than using instructions to encourage performance, they provide a platform for not just the physical but serve to balance the alignment of the mind, body, and heart.

The teacher themes each session in an Anusara class, focusing on love, devotion, and open-heartedness. There is no set series or sequences, although classes usually close with meditation or savasana. Om is a crucial part of the practice and often precedes the Anusara invocation.

the om syndrome in red

The Anusara Invocation:

Om Namah Shivaya Gurave
Saccidananda Murtaye
Nisprapancaya Shantaya
Niralambaya Tejase
I open my heart to the power of Grace
That lives in us as goodness
That never is absent and radiates peace
And lights the way to transformation

The Alignment

So how does the alignment differ from that of other classes? The Universal Principles of Alignment are focused on a culmination of mind, body, and heart alignment. There are five principles to be followed in order and seven loops. Let’s take a look at them and what they mean.

The 5 Principles Of Alignment

1. Opening to Grace and Setting the Foundation/intention

2. Muscular Energy

3. Inner Spiral (Expanding Spiral)

4. Outer Spiral (Contracting Spiral)

5. Organic Energy

#1: Opening To Grace

All other principles expand from this initial element which teaches us that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. The teaching of these foundational elements is based on self-inquiry and the student taking responsibility for their own development, which is interlinked with awareness and intention setting.

a woman doing anasura yoga meditation on a yoga mat in a blue room

#2: Muscular Energy

Invoking stability, strength, support, and foundations form the second element, which is purposed to engage the body void of griping and striving. John Friend referred to this as “right effort”. If you attend an Anusara class, you’ll often hear cues such as “hug the muscles to the bone” and “squeeze into the midline” to exemplify this.

#3: Inner (Expanding) Spiral

#4: & Outer (Contracting) Spiral

The spirals can be challenging to understand. Friend said they are about fusing life on and off the mat where you develop a greater understanding of yourself and that the “Spirals are the development and refinement of our desire to make creative beauty.”

The spirals help align the bones of the lower body and the spine, which affect everything in the chain above – all spirals need to be balanced with equal measure. It’s worth noting that Anusara focused heavily on “tucking the tailbone” through these spirals– something that is now considered an “outdated” cue.

#5: Organic Energy

Living life with a sense of “self-evolution” from the inside out is at the heart of this principle.

Organic Energy is an extension from the inner body that radiates out in all directions symbolically representing the ultimate purpose of spirit to expand freely in the most creative and joyful way possible.”

Ultimately the principles are used physically but are a tool to take yoga off the mat and into life. John friend said, “it’s all just one practice.”

a man running barefoot along a beach at sunset

The 7 Anusara Physical Loops

Said to provide stability for the body are:

  1. Ankle Loop
  2. Shin Loop
  3. Thigh Loop
  4. Pelvic Loop
  5. Kidney Loop
  6. Shoulder Loop
  7. Skull Loop

These loops are complementary to the five principles but should be considered after. The loops provide alignment ‘fine tuning’ for the whole body from the ground up.

a woman doing downward dog

Who is John Friend?

John Friend was a “charismatic leader” who gained “rock star status” after founding Anusara Yoga, a style rooted in hatha yoga principles.

Friend was born in Ohio, USA, in 1959 and was introduced to yoga by his mother at 13 to correct issues with his legs. As his health issues improved, he continued to practice yoga and took a keen interest in learning more about yoga.

He began studying with B.K.S. Iyengar in the 1980s and underwent a rigorous practice regime. He also became a member of the Iyengar Yoga governing board for four years. After graduating from university in 1983, he found work as a financial analyst.

He moved away from his corporate career to teach yoga full-time and eventually moved beyond the Iyengar teachings, which had “philosophical differences” from his own.

Friend founded Anusara in Texas in 1997 and found a kind of “yoga fame,” becoming somewhat of a celebrity as the brand quickly gained popularity.

He promptly began teaching workshops globally and created a tour called “Melt Your Heart, Blow Your Mind.” It wasn’t unusual for him to teach hundreds of people in one class. This was not just significant for Friend and Anusara but also yoga.

Arguably he contributed to the boom and uptake of yoga in the 2000s. While it seemed normal for yoga teachers to collaborate with brands back then, Friend working with Adidas to create a clothing line with Manduka was a big deal.

By 2012 he was in the process of writing books and opening a designated Anusara center. Anusara Inc. (was this the first Inc yoga brand) was a million-dollar company.

John Friend on stage teaching anusara yoga
John Friend on stage

John Friend Scandal & Controversy

Despite shunning guru status and receiving high-profile success, things soured for Friend in 2012.

Friend took a step back from teaching after being accused of several acts of misconduct that were anonymously published on a website that is no longer active. The allegations included:

  • Having employees buy and deliver Marijuana to head office for his use.
  • Leading a Wiccan coven.
  • Freezing the pensions of his employees

While most of us know what Marijuana and pensions are, Wiccan covens are less known, so let’s look at them. Defined as modern pagan religions or religious movements, which in this case was a community of women and John Friend.

Friend’s Wiccan Coven consisted of sexual rituals with women that included employees and students, some of whom were married women. Those who questioned him were threatened with being “blacklisted” or demoted.

It is said that Friend believed that “sexually charged rituals would heighten everyone’s senses and therefore raise more energy.”

He deemed the pension issue a clerical issue, admitted to smoking pot, and acknowledged some unorthodox spiritual practices for which he would take full responsibility and take time to “allow for a period of deep self-reflection and healing.”

In Friend’s open letter to the Anusara community, he stated that he would be stepping back but with such a significant following, what would this mean for the future of Anusara, his teachers, and his students?

John Friend on stage teaching anusara yoga
John Friend

New Directions

The Anusara School of Hatha Yoga was founded in 2012 by a collective of existing Anusara teachers. It is currently registered as a non-profit organization.

It still offers a teacher training program as well as those provided by its senior teachers. “The Anusara yoga method aims for a deeper connection to our hearts that is accessible, manageable, and effective.”

But what happened to Friend? He acknowledged that he “needed to be different” and quickly jumped into a new, less successful brand with Desi Springer in Colorado. Sridaiva, or the Bowstring Method, was launched in 2012.

Key takeaways

Regardless of John Friend, Anusara was incredibly popular and continues to be widely popular in its evolved form.

It’s on the inner/outer and on the mat/off the mat principle was a draw for practitioners. The principles encouraged self-inquiry, and Anusara’s 3 A’s Attitude, Alignment, and Action were a map for this.

But, it seems the teachings are not foolproof and require commitment, practice, and honesty with oneself.

Want to find out more?

If you’re keen to learn about the B.K.S. Iyengar’s style, which influenced John Friend and the Anusara method, then check out Iyengar Yoga Explained.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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