Downward Dog

John Friend is the charismatic founder of Anusara, a style of yoga started in The Woodlands fifteen years ago. Pose by pose, he built Anusara into a hugely popular global brand, with adherents everywhere from Japan to Israel. Then he found himself entangled in a string of bizarre accusations. Can Texas’s most famous yogi get himself free?
Downward Dog
Illustration by Christoph Niemann

Before John Friend’s life and business became engulfed in a tsunami-size scandal earlier this year, the Woodlands-based yoga-teacher-turned-mogul was doing quite well, thank you. He was gearing up for his 2012 Ignite the Center World Tour, in which he planned to spread the word about Anusara, the brand of yoga he founded in 1997, at workshops held everywhere from Austin to Tel Aviv. The tour would culminate in December with a celebration at the Yucatecan pyramids, aligning “with the cosmic connection of the end of the Mayan calendar,” as the promotional literature promised, and connecting “the sacred geometry of the ancient pyramids to current-day transformation.” Friend had equally big plans out in Encinitas, California—ground zero for yoga in the U.S.—where he expected to stage a grand opening for his new headquarters, which he intended to relocate from Texas. The Center, as he had christened it, was to be a state-of-the-art-yet-still-spiritual capital for his increasingly global yoga enterprise. He planned to host classes over the Internet that would reach the farthest corners of the earth; in the future, other planets might not have been out of the question.

Friend had every reason to be confident. After eking out a living as an itinerant yoga teacher in Houston in the eighties, he had built his particular philosophy of “life-affirming” and “celebratory” yoga into a vibrant community—or kula, in Sanskrit—of more than 600,000 students and almost 1,500 licensed teachers in one-hundred-plus countries. He had over 15,000 Twitter followers, and attendance at his workshops, whether in Bryn Athn, Pennsylvania, or 
Gangnam-gu, South Korea, tended to be standing room only. In 2004 he had been featured on the cover of Yoga Journal, the mainstream bible of the U.S. yoga world, and he had appeared—masterfully straddling two cliffs under a drenching waterfall—in a 2007 yoga pictorial in Vanity Fair. He had his own Anusara products—mats, 
T-shirts, videos—and Manduka, one of the most well-regarded yoga gear companies in the country, had rolled out the John Friend Collection in the fall of 2011. In other words, Friend was poised to become the world’s first full-service cyber yogi and, most likely, a very rich man.

But then, last November, a handful of his instructors began a curious exodus. They resigned from the Anusara fold and gave up their hard-won teaching licenses, offering vague statements about no longer being “in alignment” with the organization. Over the next two months, some thirty or so teachers followed in their wake, raising more than a few eyebrows. Then, on February 3, the anonymously created JFexposed.com hit the web. “This site is not intended to hurt the Anusara community or its teachers,” the home page stated. Rather, it was meant to be “a wake up call to John Friend to be true to his own philosophies and expectations of integrity.”

Displaying private emails and compromising photos, the website leveled the kinds of accusations that would challenge the sensibilities of even the most assiduously nonjudgmental yogi. One tab charged that Friend was a member of a Wiccan coven—named Blazing Solar Flame—that used, in Friend’s words, “sexual/sensual energy in a positive and sacred way to help build the efficacy of our practices.” Posing a challenge to Anusara’s ethical guidelines for teacher-student relationships, which Friend himself had written, the coven included several of his students. A second tab revealed hot and heavy emails between Friend and a married woman whose name did not appear in the roster of coven members listed under the first tab. In one missive, Friend’s lover worried that her husband might be on to them. Not to worry, Friend had responded, “We are aligned with the Shakti.” The file also contained some ostensibly erotic photographs that might have been more at home in a gynecology textbook.

As if that weren’t enough, the next tab suggested that Friend was either very bad at managing money—even though he had an accounting degree and had worked as a financial analyst—or greedy or careless or some combination of all three. The CEO of Anusara, it turned out, had frozen his employees’ pension plans for nearly a year without notifying them, an action that had drawn the attention of the Department of Labor. The author of JFexposed
.com had thoughtfully attached supporting documents. The fourth tab alleged that Friend’s assistants had received marijuana shipments for him at Anusara headquarters. For someone who promised that his style of yoga “was grounded in a Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness,” the information was, at best, alarming.

Though the site existed for just 36 hours before vanishing into the ether, its creator—discovered to be a former Anusara employee—had taken the time to alert the editor of YogaDork.com, one of the most popular yoga websites in the country. The editor promptly broke the news of the charges under the headline “John Friend, Head of Anusara: The Accusations.” Page views on YogaDork jumped from roughly 400,000 to around 1.4 million, and online commentary about the yoga leader’s apparent folly went viral. Readers and bloggers argued over whether one should ever look for a guru outside oneself. Some attacked YogaDork for exposing Friend’s behavior (“If Jesus, [Krishna], Mohammed, Arjuna or Buddha were around today they would be written about too—lucky for them 21st century media wasn’t around to do a full on literary slaughter”), but most directed their fury at Friend himself. (One post described him, in not very yogic terms, as “some kind of f—ed up weird warlock perverted Dumbledore power whore.”) Perhaps sensing a shift, a PR rep for Anusara offered the editor of YogaDork an exclusive interview with Friend if she would take her story down. She refused.

Friend responded by directing email blasts at his followers. In an open letter to his kula, he asked for forgiveness for “poor personal decisions” and begged them to reserve judgment until the allegations were explained. He stated that in the coming days he would “openly and transparently address all the claims in detail.” On February 8 he gave an exclusive interview to the editor of ElephantJournal.com—an influential

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