By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The media eagerly covered it all. This was a true Internet-based scandal, one where all the juicy allegations, renunciations and atonements were posted online for everyone to see, with much of it flavored by references to dharma, chakras and other colorful examples of yoga-speak.
But it was far from the first scandal to rock the yoga world. Over the years, various yoga leaders have been accused of preying sexually on their disciples and engaging in other misdeeds. For some gurus, it seems, yoga's tantric undertones — the lure of spandex-clad, endorphin-fueled bodies; the power and promise of their positions — have led to trouble. But why did Friend's disgrace overshadow the rest? Why did it shake the once-robust Anusara system to its foundations? Compared to other recent scandals, Friend's offenses — consensual sexual affairs, dabbling in pot, making financial mistakes — look relatively minor. Bikram Choudhury, whose brainchild is the wildly popular "hot yoga" craze, has long weathered controversy, including claims that he's denigrated women and homosexuals, and allegations in a lawsuit filed in March 2013 that he sexually harassed a former protégé. But so far, Bikram Yoga, with Choudhury at its center, is still going strong.
Looking back, Friend believes that one of the reasons Anusara imploded so spectacularly was because it was undermined from within. Anusara hadn't just made Friend's career; it had also catapulted its senior teachers to celebrity status. And over the past few years, Friend believes, they felt constrained by his management moves, such as floating the idea of everyone paying him a 10 percent royalty on all Anusara products they developed. "They wanted to use the name and make six figures and not pay back," says Friend. Displaying the type-A competitiveness that sometimes surfaces in yoga classes, the Anusara elite — several of whom declined interview requests for this story — were jockeying to get the most students, to appear at the largest conferences, to make the most money. And, Friend suggests, that meant getting rid of the guy at the top. So when JFExposed.com appeared, his top disciples saw it as the perfect way to topple their teacher. "I picked the really ambitious people to be on top," says Friend, "and they knocked me out at the end of the day."
But there could be another explanation behind Anusara's collapse, concedes Friend, one tied to the feel-good notions he instilled at its core, to his need to nourish the kula. Choudhury, Friend's bad-boy yoga counterpart, has always insisted that he's not responsible for fixing his students' problems. Friend says he took the opposite approach: "I would try to inspire people to see in themselves their goodness and greatness. But in retrospect, there was, I will admit, a lot of placation. And a lot of the time, people were looking at me and thinking I had more validity than they did for taking responsibility for their problems." So when the scandal hit, he suggests, people were so intimately invested in Friend and his teachings that they saw his fall as a personal affront. The emotional fallout was too much for the community to bear. "They said, 'John said I was a good person, but now I am not a good person,'" remembers Friend. "'There was always beauty and harmony around John. Now there is ugliness, and I can't affiliate.'"
Or maybe Friend had just made one mistake too many. Maybe he'd pushed too far, demanding ever more corporate "alignments" from his followers while straying out of alignment himself.
Whatever the reason, the damage was done. Two weeks after the scandal broke, Friend released a letter to the Anusara community saying he was taking a leave of absence. But that didn't stop the animosity directed his way, much of it from his former devoted followers. "It was strange," says Roger Pressman, a Denver-based yoga student who practiced Anusara yoga and now takes classes from Friend at Vital Yoga. "To me, yoga is a practice of being mindful and conscious and being compassionate, and I didn't see a lot of it in the reactions to Friend's situation." When the uproar failed to subside, Friend announced in March 2012 that he was stepping down as the head of Anusara and discontinuing all teaching "to allow for a needed period of self-reflection." Without its central, charismatic figure, the once-global kula withered away — and Friend was left, abandoned and alone, in Texas. To help pay back the debt he'd accumulated to build the now-unfeasible Anusara headquarters, he liquidated his Anusara assets — his unsold books and DVDs and teacher-training manuals. It wasn't enough, and in early 2013, he declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, he was having trouble finding work. No one wanted the former Anusara star to teach at their studio. "I was ostracized," he says. "Hardly anyone would have me."
One of the few who would was a yoga teacher in Denver.
John Friend is once again in Vital Yoga's Sky Room, working through yoga poses — but this time, he's not the teacher. He's a student.
Just to his right is the instructor: Desi Springer, co-owner of Vital Yoga. Sitting on a foam block, Desi is arching her back like a bow spring. The curve is so extreme it looks painful. But this posture is no mistake; it's the foundation of the new system of Sridaiva. And by walking them through a series of careful steps — tip down the hips, stretch the belly, expand the rib cage, open the throat — Desi helps Friend and the 13 other students adopt similar curvatures.