by Natalie Hormilla
copyright the chronicle June 20, 2012
CRAFTSBURY — Even if you don’t take yoga classes around here, you’re probably familiar with Margaret Pitkin. Maybe you grew up with her in Albany, or went to school with her at Lake Region, or maybe you’ve seen the many posters of her in various asanas — also known as yoga poses — in flyers of her tacked to local bulletin boards.
Those who do know Ms. Pitkin through yoga likely know another fact: that she’s Vermont’s first and only fully certified Anusara yoga teacher — or she was, until she gave up her license in light of Anusara founder John Friend’s very public fall from grace earlier this year.
But to fully understand the significance of such a decision, let’s back up to the beginning.
Ms. Pitkin first got into yoga about ten years ago, while attending Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she was studying geology.
“I was pretty skeptical,” she said, of yoga. “Growing up here, I wasn’t exposed to it. I thought it was something for people from southern California.”
Ms. Pitkin, who has the limbs of someone you just know is disciplined, says she couldn’t touch her toes when she first started. “People never believe me when I say that.”
She took classes from Deb Neubauer, a well-known yogini who taught in the Anusara style.
“So basically I did Anusara from the beginning,” she said.
After graduation in 2004, Ms. Pitkin returned home and began attending a yoga class at the Craftsbury library. It just happened to be an Anusara yoga class.
After about a year of being home, she began traveling back to Northampton to study with an old philosophy teacher, which Ms. Pitkin considers a cornerstone of her approach to yoga.
The following spring, she drove to Los Angeles, California, to visit her sister, Roberta, and to attend a teaching workshop taught by Mr. Friend.
“That was my first time with John Friend,” she said. “That made me feel really solid about Anusara, because I really liked him.” She said he was very positive and good at making people feel comfortable.
When she got back to Vermont, her yoga teacher was pregnant and needed a substitute teacher. Ms. Pitkin said she didn’t want to do it at first, because she didn’t feel qualified and was scared of speaking in public.
“But once I started doing it, I really liked it,” she said. “It was easier than I thought to articulate my experience.”
She began training with Ms. Neubauer in Northampton regularly, and attending many teacher trainings and immersions all over the country.
“I’d fly to Miami, California, Arizona,” she said. She said she spent “thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars,” to study and train to become an Anusara yoga teacher.
“Since 2006, I’ve spent about one weekend a month traveling to some sort of training, up until about the end of 2011,” she said. “Which was right when some of this stuff started to come out.”
The “stuff” are the allegations made by many Anusara yoga teachers and community members against Mr. Friend since the short-lived website jfexposed.com launched earlier this year. (The site has since been shut down.) Some are sexual in nature: that Mr. Friend had affairs with several of his female teachers, some of whom were married; and that he formed a “Wiccan coven” with several female teachers and employees. Some are financial: that he froze employees’ benefits plans and gave moneymaking opportunities to members of the “coven” over others. And some are just unprofessional: that he was forcing employees to personally accept deliveries of marijuana at his offices, that he was showing up ranting and unprepared to the teaching workshops that cost students hundreds of dollars a pop, that he was manipulating his better known teachers by withholding opportunities that only he could make possible. The list goes on.
“When it first came out, I had a bad feeling about it, but I wanted to wait and see,” Ms. Pitkin said.
She said she had seen him publicly shame people at workshops and that she did feel his teaching had slipped from when she first began studying with him. She said that if anyone spoke up, Mr. Friend would bully them out of the community.
“He had so much clout internationally. If John decided he was going to promote you, you’re made,” she said. “The way he set up the whole power structure of the whole thing, it was like if anybody had a problem with John, it was their fault. Like, ‘you’re not really being open-hearted.’”
Ms. Pitkin formally resigned from Anusara in May.
The Anusara yoga school was founded by Mr. Friend in 1997, and has grown to have over 1,000 licensed teachers all over the world, according to anusara.com.
“I gave up my license, which means I can’t use the word ‘Anusara.’ Technically that’s all it means. Which, if you think about it, is … ridiculous, because that’s the only thing I’ve ever studied,” she said.
Ms. Pitkin can still teach any other style of yoga.
“Anusara yoga was invented by John Friend, or at least, it’s credited to him, and then he made it into a corporation,” she said. “So it was a business and a style of yoga. He trademarked the name, the idea of the Universal Principles of Alignment.”
One of the defining traits of an Anusara class, as opposed to some other styles of yoga, is the touchstone of a philosophical theme woven into the approach to each class.
Ms. Pitkin says the philosophical component is one of the things that really drew her to Anusara. She said the physical component is powerful, and that she’s even healed injuries with yoga, but that “it’s not the piece I find absolutely indispensable, for myself. If someone said, ‘ok, you’re going to a desert island and you only get one practice,’ that’s probably the one I’d get rid of. I’d bring my books.”
Asked how her classes have changed since leaving Anusara behind, Ms. Pitkin said, “I think that’s still in process. There was a real community of arrogance in Anusara that I bought into. Like, ‘I know so much, I’ve studied so much,’ like Anusara was the best style in the world. There was this culture of ‘I’m the best’ and John really built it that way.”
“The main thing that’s changed for me is that I’ve lost my arrogance about what I know and do not know,” she said.
She said one student “felt like my presence as a teacher has changed. She felt like I was more humble and more respectful of people’s experience.”
She said that yoga is about release, and that it helps you see more clearly, including yourself. She said that the changes in her life before and after yoga have been extreme.
“I was really mean,” she said, laughing. “I feel like I was pretty shut down. I had a lot of defense mechanism-type walls up. How I engaged with the world was to attack it. The amount I’ve softened is amazing.”
It doesn’t sound like the end of Anusara is the end of her yoga practice. “If anything, it’s going to get way better. I’m going to get better.”
She said she wants to let her whole Anusara experience fall apart, “like compost. In order for something from the past to be nutritious for the future, it has to dissolve.”
As part of her yoga studies, Ms. Pitkin has been in a two-year-long meditation course with Paul Muller-Ortega of Santa Barbara. She studies Neelankantha meditation, which involves “listening to a lot of teleseminars on my iPod.” She also studies philosophy with both Mr. Muller-Ortega and Douglas Brooks, who is a professor at the University of Rochester. This is another facet of her yoga studies, which requires a lot of time and travel.
“It’s pretty much what I do in my free time,” she said.
She said the types of philosophy she studies “both could fall under the very broad category of nondual Hindu Tantra. In a very broad sense, it’s the basic sort of belief that there is not a separation between matter and spirit. That there’s really only one essential thing that’s making up everything. That all the structures of the universe are working via that same essential power, or flow of energy, or however you want to put it.”
She said nonduality is about “pulling yourself out of the duality of life — pleasure and pain — and to not be at the whims of the roller coaster of life.”
Ms. Pitkin currently teaches seven weekly classes in Craftsbury, Burlington, Hardwick, West Glover and Morrisville. She also teaches workshops in those towns as well as Montpelier.
She said that when she first started teaching she didn’t think supporting herself from full-time yoga would be possible. “Because I mean, look where we live. Where are the people that would take yoga class?”
She’s been able to teach full time since this winter. In the summer, she does still work two days a week for Annerscaping, the landscaping company owned by Anners Johnson of Albany.
She used to work landscaping full-time while still teaching classes. “It’s taken a long time to build up, to get my name out there basically.”
She says the reality of being a successful yoga teacher is a lot of time spent not teaching, but “working on my website, answering e-mails, trying to come up with descriptions. A lot of the work is on the computer.”
“I love teaching,” she said. “I get a little burned out on the constant e-mail — Internet thing, but teaching is not like work to me. I get so much out of it.”
Ms. Pitkin lives in Craftsbury with her partner, Gabriel Tempesta. She will turn 30 in August.
She plans on doing yoga for the rest of her life.
“I’ll definitely be like 90 and still teaching yoga,” she said. “That’s my plan.”
She’s even got a name for her new style of yoga. “I’m calling it Wild Blue Yoga, which is just a blend of what I’ve learned.”
contact Natalie Hormilla at firstname.lastname@example.org