It should be no surprise that a free-spirited version of America’s emblematic chill-out workout was swept up into the yoga craze. Anusara, a style of yoga created by The Woodlands’ own John Friend started out as a discipline that appealed to middle-aged Type A’s looking to relieve some stress in a positive environment.
More than ten years ago, Mimi Swarz was pleased to discover Anusara. She wrote a profile on the yogi, which ran in the New York Times Magazine on July 10, 2011—at the height of Anusara’s (and Friend’s) celebrity-like popularity. Shortly after, information about the ethics of Friend’s lifestyle began to surface, and Swartz discovered there was more to her story.
In your original New York Times article on John Friend, you seemed to pick up on the commercial, celebrity feel of Anusara, as well as some interesting sexual aspects (“riding the tiger”) of Friend’s lifestyle. Were you surprised when you saw the information revealed by JFexposed.com?
No, I wasn’t surprised. There were many hints of roiling problems at that time, but no smoking gun. Mainly, there was a lot of tension, between old and new members of the kula, and then, once that story was published, the complaints and concerns from a parent and a husband.
Do you think the success and mass popularity changed Friend into the celebrity-like business mogul type? Or was that always a part of his personality?
I think that was always an aspect of his personality—he always had star quality and, from what he told me about wanting to be a rock star, a desire to perform in front of large groups. It was both his blessing and his curse that he could do so, and needed to do so.
Do you think Anusara’s success was due more to Friend’s innovation with yoga or to his ability to recognize that he had a good product—so to speak—and to sell it effectively?
I think it was both. He created a wonderful style of yoga—freer, more fun, and the teachers stressed protecting yourself against injury. Then he had the personality to market it—he was encouraging, funny, and, of course, skilled at his own practice.
How much time did you actually get to spend with Friend when reporting for the New York Times piece? Did you feel like you got a glimpse into his life beyond what his mass-following got to see?
I don’t remember exactly, but it was quite a bit over a period of months. I don’t think John really had a particularly secret personality, but people who needed him to be their guru put themselves at risk. He was, after all, just a guy, with his own issues. Most people have trouble with the kind of mass appeal he was experiencing. A lot of the time I just thought he was running too fast with very little sleep—he was both energized and exhausted by the life he’d created for himself.
How did Friend feel about being the subject of your reporting before the Times story was published?
He was very excited about being the subject of a profile in the New York Times. I did the piece just at the time a lot of things were coming together for him—various business deals, more publicity, etc.
Did your impression of Friend from a distance change when you got to know him on an individual basis? And if so, how did it change?
Like many famous people, he was more charismatic from far away than close up. Close up, he was just a kind of awkward guy who very much wanted to be liked. But make no mistake, he did know his stuff, and he was a natural entrepreneur, and he worked very, very hard.
Did you ever consider yourself part of the Anusara kula?
Yes. I loved all my Anusara teachers. They are all very serious and very well trained.
Do you think the scandal strips him of his identity as the brilliant ‘yoga mogul’ that created Anusara? Or will it just be looked on later as a temporary lapse in judgment? Does it strip Anusara of its credibility as a form of yoga?
I think it hurts him and his business, just because he stressed being so ethical—and then changed the ethics policy to suit his own needs. Trust is very important within that organization—as it is within any organization—there was/is an almost religious loyalty to John, which means that the people who feel betrayed feel it in spades. They put their hearts and their incomes in his hands, and its going to be hard to say what that’s going to be worth in the future.
This scandal got a lot of attention in the yoga world, but how much do you think those people were actually affected by the news of Friend’s unethical behavior?
There’s a lot of gossip about it. The people who are most affected are the teachers who now may find that their licenses to teach Anusara are devalued.
Do you think he can move past this mess and go back to his ‘normal’ life?
Not for a while, at least. As with so many scandals, he hurt himself more by trying to cover up what he did than actually doing it, though sex with students is not generally or widely considered to be a good idea.