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A shakeup in the yoga world prompts soul-searching

Leena Miller, a certified Anusara-Inspired yoga teacher, adjusts a student during class at her studio in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. Photo by Ian Willms (not Globe and Mail)

Ian Willms/Ian Willms

Breaking up hurts. But breaking up with your yoga teacher is a special kind of hurt, as Montrealer Adriana Palanca discovered when her relationship with her teacher of more than two years fell apart.

While she initially enjoyed training with her teacher, Ms. Palanca, a writer and a yoga teacher herself, began to discover that the way she wanted to practice yoga was at odds with her mentor's style and methods.

"I realized that we didn't share the same values and we weren't speaking the same language," she says. The realization that they weren't compatible was devastating. "All of a sudden, what happened when she and I broke up, it was like, 'Woah.' It was a little bit like finding out that Santa Claus doesn't exist."

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It's a complex relationship between yoga teacher and student, one that involves not just instruction on physical postures, but often spiritual and philosophical guidance as well. So when students' faith in their teachers falters, it can force them to do some serious soul-searching.

Over the past few months, several senior teachers of the popular Anusara school of yoga have split from its founder John Friend, while the Texas-based company he created, Anusara, Inc., undergoes restructuring. Anusara, which describes itself as one of the most highly respected and fastest growing yoga schools in North America, promotes a style of yoga that focuses on both physical poses and philosophy. Its trademarked name and guiding principles are taught around the world, including Canada, where it has roughly 100 teachers across the country. The shakeup, spurred by reports appearing on yoga websites and spreading to national media alleging that Mr. Friend had consensual sex with his female students, some of whom were married, has prompted some long-time Anusara practitioners to reflect on their feelings about the founder and his teachings.

Nora Maskey, an Anusara-certified teacher in Calgary, says she's studied with Mr. Friend for the past eight years.

"I care for him as a person," she says. But even though she still believes in the Anusara method and continues to teach it, she has taken steps to distance herself from the school and its creator, such as changing the text on her website to downplay her distinction as an Anusara teacher.

The process hasn't been easy. "I've gone through all the stages of grief that one would go through in a situation like this," she says.

Regardless of why a relationship may have unravelled, breaking away from a yoga teacher can be emotional, since a certain level of intimacy tends to develop between teacher and student, says Roseanne Harvey, Montreal-based editor of the blog

"You're learning from this person, you're studying with them," she says, noting that in some cases, teachers become akin to counsellors, someone students can look up to, share personal issues with and seek advice from.

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"Working with the body, and working with the subtle energy that you do in yoga ... that's what makes the relationship different from a professional mentor or a coach," she says.

But amid the turmoil and instability that comes with a yoga breakup, there is a bright side, she says: It can discourage students from putting their teachers on a pedestal.

"I hope that students will be empowered to ask more from [teachers]about their ethics, about what they're doing outside of the yoga studio," Ms. Harvey says. "Are they practising what they're preaching?"

The uncertainty can also force students to figure out for themselves which of their teachers' methods and techniques work for them and which to discard. In yoga parlance, they're left to create their own paths.

Leena Miller, an Anusara-inspired teacher in Kitchener-Waterloo, who has studied with Mr. Friend, says she's unsure whether to renew her Anusara licence this year. Lately, the school has started to feel more corporate and commercial than she'd like, she says, and the recent shakeup has contributed to her doubts. At any rate, as the company undergoes restructuring due to questions about Mr. Friend's private life, it's unclear whether Anusara's licensing and certification system will continue to exist.

At the same time, Ms. Miller sees an opportunity. Until now, Anusara teachers have been expected to follow specific guidelines on how to instruct their classes. "Now, as many of us don't know if there's still going to be a clear system to be aligned with, it's given me a chance to experiment a little bit," she says.

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For Ms. Palanca, her own yoga breakup has been strangely liberating. She hasn't replaced her ex-mentor. Rather, she's started to attend different yoga classes, picking up new techniques and methods along the way.

"There's a sense of euphoria, in that, wow, I can do anything now," Ms. Palanca says.

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