The Collapse of Anusara Yoga
John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga, recently found himself engulfed in a scandal that has piqued the national media's interest. Mimi Swartz reports on the Texas takeaway and what this means for the homegrown practice.
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For the microscopic population who still believe that yoga remains the province of a small, vegan, prayer bead-wearing minority, I submit exhibit A: the collapse of Anusara Yoga, otherwise known as John Friend’s Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Couple of Months.
Rumors that all was not quite karmically pure with the founder of Anusara—a fifteen-year-old style of yoga that boasts more than 600,000 members worldwide–finally burst into the public scene last February, when a former employee posted a website alleging that a) Friend was a member of a Wiccan coven, b) he had stopped contributions to his employees pension plan without telling them, c) he was having a very hot affair with a married woman, and d) he was accepting packages of weed in the mail. (Or at least his assistant was accepting those packages for him.) This news quickly went viral, prompting much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, most of it online, and putting the future of Anusara and Friend very much in doubt.
As is often the case, it took the print media a little longer to catch up, but now it has more than made up for the time lag. First, there was a piece in the venerable New York Times by bestselling author William Broad (The Science of Yoga), who was barely able to contain a yawn as he explained that yoga sex scandals were nothing new. Then this week the Daily Beast had an exclusive as one of the Blazing Solar Flame members explained some of their activities: “John wanted us to do the ritual in sexy underwear and kiss each other on the mouth, tongue-y kissing,” said “Melissa,” a former member of the coven who asked that her real name not be used. (Friend’s preferences evidently tend more toward run-of-the-mill soft core than anything having to do with Indian goddesses.) At virtually the same time, New York released their far longer piece—“Yogi John Friend’s Karmic Crash”—which contained a brief, much aggrieved interview with Friend, who by now has become a serious contender for Narcissist of the Year.
Of course there’s an unsurprising aspect to much of this—see Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, et al—but for yogis like me, who practiced and enjoyed Anusara, it is disappointing. One friend told me an Iyengar practicioner recently approached her to offer her somewhat patronizing condolences; still, it was a good style of yoga, and many of the people Friend attracted were admirable and talented.
For the Texas takeaway and more—from the folks who knew him when–I submit my own examination in the May issue of TEXAS MONTHLY:
A couple of factors set this scandal apart. First, there was the use of technology, which spread the news of Friend’s failings around the globe in nanoseconds and offered a win dow into a culture and vernacular that practically begged for a mockumentary by Christopher Guest. (As one Anusara instructor wrote, resigning from the organization, “I realized the dharmic choice for me was to continue to teach asana with the brilliant alignment principles I learned from John Friend while giving direct acknowledgement to the spiritual lineage which informs the darshan of my heart.”) Second, there was the money. With the U.S. yoga business valued at nearly $6 billion annually, there was a lot more at stake than the behavior of one middle-aged crazy, a fact that Friend himself seemed acutely aware of when he told ElephantJournal.com, “We must all remember that any missteps by me do not in- validate any of the greatness of the Anusara yoga method.” Never before had someone been laid bare at the top of such an expansive yoga empire, and no one could predict what the effect on its adherents would be.