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As roughly 20 yoga students contort themselves into various poses in the spacious, purple-walled "Sky Room" at the Vital Yoga studio in Highland, a neighborhood in northwest Denver, their teacher for this session, John Friend, pads about the wooden floor, adjusting spandexed hips and poking at protruding butts while talking about opening the belly and raising the solar plexus. He speaks with the warm yet energetic confidence of a TED speaker or a feel-good evangelist rather than the serene tones of a stereotypical wizened yogi. And as the students breathe deeply, working through the strain of the poses, Friend lightens the mood by cracking jokes and shifting into funny voices. "Yeah, that's it — cool!" he exclaims in a slightly California-like drawl as he guides them through a particularly grueling sequence.
"We have to generate a positive optimism for ourselves. It is not going to just happen for us," Friend instructs his students before leading them through the three "oms," the mantra symbolizing the sound of the universe that's chanted at the end of the session.
Friend knows all about generating positive optimism. In 1997, he created his own feel-good form of yoga called Anusara and subsequently built it into a global brand with nearly 1,500 licensed teachers and more than 600,000 students in dozens of countries. At its center was Friend, considered one of the five most popular yoga teachers in the country and named the "yoga mogul" by The New York Times Magazine. From his home base outside of Houston, Friend presided over a yoga empire. There were "Dancing With the Divine" and "Igniting the Center" world tours; a "John Friend Collection" line of yoga mats; Anusara "grand gatherings" in places like Estes Park, Colorado, where Friend taught 800-student classes; and a planned multimillion-dollar expansion that included an 8,000-square-foot headquarters in Encinitas, California. In the white-hot world of American yoga, Friend's flame seemed to burn the brightest of all.
But then it all came crumbling down. In early 2012, Friend was accused of financial mismanagement, having affairs with married students, receiving pot in the mail at his office and engaging in Wiccan rituals. In what Friend now calls "a 21st-century Internet witch trial," the Anusara community devolved into mud-slinging and public resignations, generating headlines nationwide. With startling speed, Anusara imploded — and Friend was left with nothing.
But here in this Denver yoga studio, the now-54-year-old Friend doesn't look like a fallen guru. His aqua-blue eyes flash with enthusiasm; his short gray hair is gelled upward in a jaunty fashion; and when he takes off his shirt near the end of the session, he reveals a well-toned midsection that's dropped 40 pounds of fat since his 2012 fall from grace.
Maybe that's because here in his new home of Denver, "I get to start over with something better than I had before," Friend says. Collaborating with sisters Desi and Micah Springer, co-owners of Vital Yoga, Friend is developing a new yoga postural system called Sridaiva, one that he says he expects "to be more impactful than Anusara ever was" — a system not just for yoga practitioners, but for everyone around the world. Sridaiva is going to be big, Friend predicts; it will eclipse everything he did with Anusara — the good and the bad. "It's an epic comeback story," he declares.
As he says to his students at the end of the class: "Two thousand fourteen — it's gonna be a good one!"
After the maelstrom of negative press he weathered in early 2012 — including lengthy, unflattering profiles in The Washington Post, New York magazine and Texas Monthly, plus a lurid exposé on the Daily Beast website — Friend is guarded about the personal life he's cultivated since he moved to Denver that summer. "One of the central issues for me over the last couple of years is the increasing lack of respect for privacy and confidentiality in society," he writes in an e-mail. "I really want my sex life and my other personal sacred and spiritual practices held privately, and not made public by others who don't respect such boundaries."
The way he describes it, his life in Denver is considerably simpler than the one he enjoyed at the height of his success. He lives in an 800-square-foot rental in Sunnyside, another northwest Denver neighborhood and a place that could fit in the living room of the modest two-story home he inherited from his mother in The Woodlands, Texas, which he still owns but is planning to sell. In his apartment, there's just enough room for a few hundred of the books in the 5,000-volume library he's amassed on topics such as Buddhism, astrology and scripture, and just a few samples of the myriad paintings, sculptures and crystals he's collected on his world travels. He used to always be on his cell phone, juggling the responsibilities of running a 20-employee company with international reach. Now, when he's not teaching private sessions or running one of the four weekly classes he teaches at Vital Yoga's locations in Highland and in Golden, Colorado, Friend spends his time writing detailed notes in a leather-bound journal, the beginnings of a book on Sridaiva.