An Interview with John Friend

Founded in 1997, Anusara Yoga is one of the most highly respected schools of Hatha Yoga in the world. Its founder, John Friend, was introduced to Yoga in 1967, at the age of 8, by his mother when she read him stories of yogis who had supernatural powers and hidden knowledge of the mysteries of life. At age 13, John began studying Yoga philosophy and the practice of Hatha Yoga using Swami Satchidananda’s book, Integral Hatha Yoga, as one of his main references. In this interview, John talks about the past 40 years of the Yoga movement in America, identifies three main streams and shares his views and vision for Yoga’s future.

Integral Yoga Magazine: What is your perspective on the development of modern Yoga in the West, particularly the past 40 years?

John Friend: It’s in the past 40 years that Yoga really got established in the USA. It wasn’t until after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 that the USA repealed the immigration law that was established in 1924. For 40 years, in between, the quota limit on immigrants was reduced to 200 per year. There were a number of swamis and Yoga masters who were prohibited from coming to the USA. Swami Satchidananda was part of the first wave of those allowed to come in after the limit was lifted. It’s significant that this is Integral Yoga Magazine’s 40th anniversary, because when we look at the past 40 years in Yoga, Gurudev is one of several influential teachers of Yoga who came in at that time and he began the first Yoga magazine. I see three streams of Indian Yoga’s influence on the West, especially in America. One stream is represented by Swami Sivananda, and of course, Gurudev, which I think of as a classical traditional Yoga approach that has been carried on from Vedic times. When you are steeped in the Vedas, there is a very deep spiritual connection to God—what we call Brahman or something like Ishvara, in the personal. So there’s a real spiritual connection that underlies all the practices in this first stream.

The second stream is much more physically oriented and, outwardly, a physical derivation of Yoga that became much more popularized in the 19th century by Europeans, particularly the British and was adopted by the Indians. In large measure, this stream is more of a cultural response. At the turn of that century, there was first gymnastics, bodybuilding, weight lifting and the first modern-day Olympics. A physical and health culture became very prominent. When the Indians became more oriented in physical culture, while the British influenced them, they still wanted to retain their tradition, so they incorporated Yoga-like postures into their physical routines. Classical Surya Namaskar, when popularized by the Rajas in the early 1900s, was not really regarded as “Yoga cannon” per se; it was more about doing a physical workout. Bishnu Ghosh, Paramahansa Yogananda’s younger brother, became Bikram’s teacher, and that’s where Yoga championships began. Bikram won something like four national championships in a row and then he came to America, where he had a big influence.

The third stream is more philosophical rather than being physically based. It’s not necessarily focused on doing asana, but rather is more meditation-based. Maharishi and the TM movement are part of this stream. The Beatles made Maharishi famous in the mid-60s, and Yoga exploded. In 1970, Swami Muktananda came to California, as did Amrit Desai. America, at the time, was fairly ignorant about Asian culture because our immigration laws had isolated us. During those early days, if you were just doing a physical asana workout, people thought that was Yoga. Then, Bikram popularized Yoga for health and wellness, there was a positive response and it grew. Mataji Indra Devi made Yoga popular in Hollywood and then it got even bigger. Then Lilias started on TV in the early 1970s. But, Yoga, in the 70s, was still seen as very alternative…

Read the rest of this article in the Winter 2010 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.