By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
That's why Friend's Yoga of Yes turned into the Yoga of No.
The website JFExposed.com appeared on February 3, 2012. Explaining that it was meant as "a wakeup call to John Friend to be true to his own philosophies and expectations of integrity," the site accused him of various misdeeds, and it had personal e-mails, chat transcripts and graphic images documenting them. According to the site, Friend had frozen his employees' pension funds without notifying them; he'd also made an employee take marijuana that had been shipped to Anusara's office and deliver it to his home. Racier still were the allegations about Friend's personal life. The site suggested that he was having an affair with a student — a married woman with whom he was trading steamy e-mails, Skype messages and sexual photos — while he was dating an Anusara teacher, too. The site also accused Friend of joining several women, some of whom were his students, in a Wiccan coven called Blazing Solar Flame. According to an e-mail attributed to Friend posted on the site, the coven used "sexual/sensual energy in a positive and sacred way to help build the efficacy of our practices."
Friend says the JFExposed.com site, which stayed up for less than two days, was created by Anusara's disgruntled former IT manager, who had access to his personal computer. But he also concedes that the allegations on the site were in part based in fact. The pension problem was a technicality, he explains: As a condition for a loan he received for the planned Anusara headquarters in California, in 2010 he'd frozen his employees' pension funds, and the company had failed to promptly and properly inform its employees of the change. A year later, the U.S. Department of Labor looked into the matter following an employee complaint, but according to a letter that Friend released publicly from the pension plan's third-party administrator, the inquiry concluded without the department taking any action. Friend also admits that he sometimes smokes pot (he has a medical marijuana ID card in Colorado), and that one time, "someone sent me a gift of pot in the mail to the office...but it was not a regular thing."
Friend also acknowledges that he was part of a Wiccan coven. But so what? He points out that he'd been interested in Wicca since he'd explored different religions and steeped himself in 1970s rock culture as a kid. Why is this sort of spirituality, he wonders, any worse than Hinduism? Yes, rituals sometimes involved members doing body work on one another in their underwear, but it wasn't a Hugh Hefner-style orgy; it was all consensual and, most important, it was private. "We usually had a small group, and it was private," Friend emphasizes. "Because it was not socially acceptable, secrecy and privacy was valued."
But suddenly, thanks to the Internet, his private matters — including his dalliances — were very public. "Of all the allegations, that's the worst thing," he says. He'd had an affair with a married student — and had a second affair with a member of the coven, another one of his students. Unlike some yoga schools, Anusara didn't forbid students and teachers to date; in 2009, Friend changed its guidelines, which had previously warned teachers to avoid sexual relations with students, so that such relationships were permitted as long as the matter was kept out of the classroom. Friend, who was married but got divorced in 2002, says there was ample romantic opportunity for him as the head of Anusara but that he was far from promiscuous: "I am more interested in these long-term relationships."
Still, while in a long-term relationship, he'd been seeing at least two students on the side. "It was almost like separate places, separate relationships; that's how it came up," he says. "On one level, you could say it was playful, unattached, sexual play, but that's a rationalization. It happened. Was it proper? That's questionable. Ultimately, I didn't want it to be harmful." But he acknowledges that, ultimately, it was. He'd already broken up with his long-term girlfriend when the affairs surfaced, but that didn't make the revelations any easier for her to deal with. He says he now has no contact with either of the other two women.
When JFExposed.com first appeared and news of it quickly spread throughout the yoga community, Friend immediately issued an apology, but he wasn't completely forthcoming about what was and wasn't true on the site. He made things worse by telling an interim committee of senior Anusara teachers looking into the matter that he hadn't had an affair with the married woman, saying he'd just provided therapy to help her deal with past sexual trauma. "I felt I was downgrading the relationship I was having," he explains, "but they thought, 'Oh, my God, he's doing sex therapy with students.'" Friend's merry band of teachers began resigning in droves, posting emotional explanations on their Facebook pages, blogs and yoga websites. Even more left the fold when, at a major Anusara seminar in Miami a few days after the scandal broke, some thought that Friend didn't seem penitent enough. Teachers began forming various committees to try to salvage Anusara, usually by demanding that Friend relinquish control over the school he'd founded.