There's a big scandal brewing in the yoga world. (That's a world, right?) It centers around John Friend, creator of the popular practice of Anusara yoga. It turns out that behind the sunny facade promising fulfillment and happiness through yoga, there was some pretty dark shit happening. But now his sexual escapades and extremely bad business practices have been uncovered and are disillusioning his many followers and threatening to destroy his famous yoga empire.
John Friend, a native of Ohio, has been practicing yoga since he was a young boy, and eventually embarked on an career as a yoga teacher, which he pursued with great ambition. Along the way, he studied extensively under a variety of famed yoga practitioners, and in 1997, he created his own practice, which he called Anusara (meaning "flowing with Grace" or "following your heart"). It's a school of hatha yoga that focuses on a positive approach to practicing, emphasizing something called "the Shiva-Shakti Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness" and the "Universal Principles of Alignment."
Frankly, it seems like a pretty accessible and positive practice, though with a perhaps unhealthy dose of generic self-help wisdom thrown in for good measure. But whatever it is, it's worked. Under the guidance of the aptly-named Friend, it's grown to be somewhat of a phenomenon with 1,300 teachers and 200,000 followers worldwide. It's also a very legitimate business. In 2010, Anusara, Inc. pulled in about two million dollars in revenue.
Because of the fervent devotion of Anusara's followers and its impressive rise to financial success, many have referred, sometimes only half-jokingly, to Friend's practice as a cult. Every cult needs a charismatic leader to flourish, and Friend was definitely the man for the job. The New York Times, in a big profile they did in their Sunday magazine in 2010, compared him to minister mogul/self-help peddler Joel Osteen.
So how exactly did he go from being beloved to reviled virtually overnight? The trouble began last fall, when several of Friend's most senior teachers began to resign, citing hazy reasons for their departure. The yoga world was curious about what was behind the shakeup at this previously harmonious organization, but it wasn't until roughly three weeks ago that the shit really hit the fan, when an anonymously created website called "jfexposed" surfaced containing private emails, photos, and other records of Friend's misdeeds. (That kind of stress is really going to do a number on your sacrum, by the way.)
The site, which it appears was created by Friend's disgruntled IT guy—reason number one to always make nice with the tech guys!—has since been shut down, taking with it much of the most salacious evidence. But in the time that it was up, it emerged that there were a few basic allegations being leveled against Friend.
The first and most dramatic is that he was an affair-having, home-wrecking, sexually-harrassing womanizer. According to YogaDork, which was the first to report on the website's accusations,
Sexually graphic images, explicit emails from [name removed] (the purported home that was wrecked) and revealing skype conversations between [name removed] and John Friend are provided to support the claim that JF used his power and position to engage in shady, sexual relations with his employees.
Many of the women Friend engaged with were either his students or his employees, and while it all appears to have been consensual, that doesn't make it any less of an abuse of power. It also meant that he was cheating regularly on his own girlfriend with no compunction. Never a good sign. Here's a telling observation from the New York Times profile:
Friend entered the room almost imperceptibly but was soon surrounded by his students, who giggled at his responses and were eager for his touch. (One sign that Friend, who is divorced, has reached rock-star yogi status: men and women press hotel-room keys into his hands at workshops.)
Uh huh. Friend doesn't totally deny he took advantage of his situation. In an interview after the evidence was posted to the website, Friend admitted to questionable behavior but tempered this admission by claiming he didn't mean to hurt anyone:
[I]t's true. Over the course of my private life I have had consenting sexual relationships with women, some of whom have been my students and also my employees, some of which included married women. ... The most important thing to say here is I made some mistakes, yet my intent was never to do harm.
Well, that doesn't excuse much. Of course, using your power to seduce women certainly isn't an unusual quality in a charismatic leader. After all, their neediness and greed is typically what drives them to power, and it often results eventually in reckless behavior that destroys them in the end. (I'm looking at you, Bill Clinton.) The image of a smarmy yoga guru seducing his students is an easy-to-imagine cliché.
Both personally and as a means of seduction, Friend appears to have embraced Wicca, which he seems to feel aligns quite closely with the foundations of Anusara. He even causally mentions Wicca in his official bio, but it looks like he was pretty deep into it. In a letter that seems to be addressed to one of his lovers, he details how Wicca intersects with their sexytime:
You and I always shared a love for what is Good, Shri, and Delightful. We shared a love of Wicca, which is grounded on doing that which enhances Nature, affirms the Goodness of Life, and fosters love. We shared our love for Anusara yoga, which is a philosophy and practice that is totally aligned with Wicca on every level. With this common ground of wanting to bring more Light and Love into the world you and I started a small circle to use our knowledge and power to manifest our elevated intentions. Tiffany joined us in this auspicious and sacred endeavor. As part of our rituals you and I both agreed that we would use sexual/sensual energy in a positive and sacred way to help build the efficacy of our practices, which is a common element of most Wiccan circles, as you know.
Oh, the old Wiccan coven trick. But seriously, since this man is essentially a quasi-religious leader to his many devoted students and employees, his willingness to exploit his teachings and beliefs for sexual purposes seems particularly gross. One of his most senior teachers, Elena Brower, who departed in November before all of these allegations became public, agrees. She just wrote a piece for the Huffington Post in which she describes the pain that many longtime true believers are now feeling because of Friend's behavior:
They're talking about the failed power grab, the just-plain-icky "sex therapy" that looks eerily like sexual abuse within the context of the student-teacher paradigm, except that the "victim" seems to have been a willing participant. They're understandably disappointed to hear that he cheated on his girlfriends repeatedly, lied to so many about his dealings and whereabouts as certain relationships ended and others began.
Amy Ippoliti, another longtime Anusara teacher who resigned in January, had this to say about Friend's recent behavior:
John's personal party habits were interfering with his teaching, his teaching was erratic, his behavior suggested he was using drugs, and concerns were expressed about his dating women who were students and employees.
All of this paints a picture of a yogi drunk on power.
What's worse is that some of John Friend's most far-reaching offenses don't have anything to do with cult-y sex or sleeping with students. There is a now well-established claim that he totally screwed over his employees by freezing their pensions and didn't inform them of this change until almost a year later. And it also seems that John Friend had no qualms about putting his assistants in a tough spot by forcing them to regularly accept deliveries of marijuana on his behalf. There are worse crimes but, come on, seriously?
Friend has been forced to reply to the allegations. He initially confirmed that he was guilty of some, but not all, of the things he'd been accused of, but he tried to carry on as head of the company. Then, at the end of last week, it became clear that was not sustainable, and he issued a letter saying he was resigning as the head of Anusara.
It's not yet clear what the financial fallout will be for the organizations—and for the hundreds of teachers who are so heavily invested in the Anusara brand and had nothing to do with Friend's lewd and lascivious antics. What will be even more interesting to see is how the many devoted followers of Friend's practice react to the crumbling of Anusara's foundation. Some of them have already jumped to his defense—even though he's admitted to plenty of wrongdoing—but there are surely many others who will be disillusioned by the fact that a practice that focused so intently on the love and light and positivity of yoga has a real dark side. For his part, John Friend is busy navigating his fall from grace, though, presumably, given the meaning of Anusara, he'll manage to somehow make it more of a flow from grace.
John Friend, Head of Anusara: The Accusations [YogaDork]
My interview with John Friend regarding jfexposed accusations [Elephant Journal]
The Yoga Mogul [New York Times]
Images via Wikipedia/Getty.