By Jeff Balke
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"The contrast is gigantic, but at the same time, I'm really happy," he says during one of a series of meetings at northwest Denver restaurants and coffee shops, flashing one of his characteristic friendly grins. Maybe he figures it's all been necessary — the meteoric rise and spectacular fall — to get to the point where he is now. "I've found the holy grail of yoga alignment that I've been looking for since I was a late teenager," he confides.
That search began when, as the son of a steel-company marketing executive in Youngstown, Ohio, he stumbled on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, the central text of the Hindu tradition, in a bookstore. Friend's mother, a progressive Southern woman who'd studied piano at the Juilliard School in New York City, had encouraged her son to explore various religions from a young age, teaching him to seek out signs of order in the disorder all around him. When he broke a glass, for example, he was to look for interesting patterns in the shards on the floor. And here, in the 700 verses of the Bhagavad Gita, Friend found the final pieces of a pattern he'd been struggling to understand from a young age, one born from the existential crisis he'd experienced watching the trauma of the 1960s unfold on television, countered by the wonder he'd found when his mother told him about yogis with supernatural powers. "It changed my life," he says of the sacred Hindu text. So while dabbling in the typical sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll life of a teenager in the '70s — he played drums in a local rock band — he also studied and practiced yoga. And after moving with his family to Texas, graduating with degrees in finance and accounting from Texas A&M University and working for several years as a financial analyst, in 1987 Friend decided to pursue yoga full-time.
He got into the practice at a pivotal time. Between the 1960s and 1980s, Western yoga practitioners worked hard to downplay the spiritual aspects of the ancient tradition that had led to xenophobic backlashes in the past, instead focusing on the largely physical branch of the practice called hatha yoga, which they positioned as a form of exercise. The move paid off: Today, according to Yoga Journal's 2012 "Yoga in America" market study, 20.4 million Americans, or 8.4 percent of the adult population, practice yoga, spending $10.3 billion a year on the pastime, up from $5.7 billion in 2008. In such a young but growing market, there was ample opportunity for those offering new methods or insights to become superstars.
Riding yoga's growing wave in the late '80s and early '90s, Friend studied in India and worked with yoga greats like B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. Friend, ever the pattern-seeker, came to believe these teachers' esoteric yoga positions could be boiled down into a series of easy-to-understand "universal principles of alignment."
In 1997, he founded a school of hatha yoga based on these trademarked universal principles, naming it Anusara, Sanskrit for "flowing with grace." He infused the practice with his characteristically upbeat attitude. Instead of the unwavering sequences of poses offered at other yoga schools, Anusara classes were always changing, all the while peppered with inspirational statements from the teacher. Everyone was invited into Friend's merry band; everyone was part of Friend's kula, Sanskrit for "community." As its founder would later tell a New York Times Magazine reporter, "We are the Yoga of Yes."
"Yes," it turned out, was exactly what yoga practitioners were looking for. Between 1997 and 2012, Anusara was the fastest-growing yoga practice in the world. Friend, drawing on his financial background, managed the operation with careful standards and conscious branding. He set the bar exceptionally high for Anusara teachers, requiring hopefuls to complete hundreds of hours of training, take a 30-hour home exam and submit a video of their teaching to be evaluated by Friend before they could be certified. That led to a cadre of highly skilled and committed teachers who spread his techniques like an elite gospel. "It meant something to have the name Anusara," he explains. It also led to revenue: On top of the $195-per-student fee Friend was commanding teaching to hundreds of people a week, Anusara's training regimens added thousands of dollars in income from those who wanted to become certified. At its peak, Anusara was bringing in $2 million a year, with Friend earning an official annual salary of $100,000.
"There was a lot of bounty and abundance," Friend says now of this period, including good food, good wine, fancy parties and hobnobbing with stars. What Friend didn't realize was that the real John Friend, the former rock-and-roll kid who was enjoying the fruits of his labors, was different from the ideal John Friend whom folks pictured at the sacred center of Anusara. Friend says he never liked the term "guru" — but that didn't stop people the world over from calling him one. "When you put someone in a position as a guru, you are making them a king," says Friend. "In retrospect, I helped create a relationship where people saw me in an elevated position, where there is such a power differential that people can end up feeling conned or hoaxed or betrayed."