After Controversy in Houston, a Yoga Guru Resurrects His Practice in Denver

John Friend built a yoga empire in Houston that came crashing down in 2012 amid allegations of financial mismanagement, an affair with a married student and Wiccan rituals. Now he’s resurfaced in Denver.

"Self-care can feel good. It is a way to be kind to yourself," Desi says in a quiet, calming voice as she runs them through a 90-minute sequence of 90-plus intimidating yoga positions, all involving this same curved posture. "Align your attitude just as much as you are aligning your body."

Desi, 37, and her sister Micah, 42, are well established in the Denver yoga scene. When they opened their first yoga studio in 1999, it was one of only three in the metro area. Since then, their Vital Yoga business has thrived, even as the Denver-Boulder area has blossomed into one of the country's yoga hot spots, home to some of the biggest brands in the industry, including Gaiam, a major yoga-products company based in Louisville, Colorado; the Hanuman Festival, an annual yoga event in Boulder; and CorePower Yoga, a Denver company that's angling to become the first national yoga-studio chain. This fall, Yoga Journal, which hosts a popular annual conference in Estes Park, Colorado, announced that it was moving its operation to Boulder.

Like many in the Denver yoga scene, Desi found a lot to like in Anusara when she tried it in 2004. But even as she began accumulating hundreds of training hours for her Anusara teacher certification, she never fully embraced the program; she also continued to teach "the Roots," a demanding sequence of postures she'd developed. Her sister was even less committed to Anusara. "I am not a big gathering-of-people kind of girl," says Micah. "I am an introvert. To me, it was always a little overwhelming to be around that much energy."

Former Houston yogi John Friend has resurfaced in Denver teaching Sridaiva at Vital Yoga.
Photos by Anthony Camera
Former Houston yogi John Friend has resurfaced in Denver teaching Sridaiva at Vital Yoga.
John Friend teaching to the Anusara faithful in Houston before the scandal hit.
John Friend teaching to the Anusara faithful in Houston before the scandal hit.

Perhaps it was this detachment that helped both sisters stay out of the fray when Friend's scandal erupted. "I have a lot of compassion for people who felt let down [by Friend], but shame on any of us who puts all our eggs in someone else's basket and expects that they not break them," says Desi. She attended the divisive Miami Anusara conference a few days after JFExposed.com went online, where she says Friend, with whom she was acquainted, didn't seem to be the unapologetic showboat some people suggested, but instead a remorseful guy who'd seen better days. "He did not look well," says Desi. "His nervous system was just frying. I didn't think of him as a guru; I thought of him as a knowledgeable man who needed to eat right." She offered Friend diet tips during the conference, and they continued communicating over the next few months. Then, late that spring, Desi asked Micah, "Can I invite him here? He has nowhere else to go."

Neither sister took the decision lightly. "Certainly there was part of me that had compassion for this individual who was caught up in this social-media onslaught," says Micah. "But he was also accountable. If he recognized this and was willing to look at his part, he was welcome at Vital." Both sisters grilled Friend and came away convinced that helping him was the right thing to do — especially since they believed his teachings still had value. Once they'd informed their studios' teachers of their decision, they allowed Friend to start taking classes at Vital Yoga that summer. He began teaching there that fall, charging $150 for private classes and also offering group sessions. "We would offer this refuge to anyone who comes and says, 'Hey, I messed up,'" says Micah. "We use our yoga practice to reflect and refine."

They knew their move would be controversial — but they had no idea just how much blowback they'd receive. People called for Vital Yoga boycotts, and flyers criticizing Friend appeared on cars parked at a yoga seminar he and Desi were teaching in North Carolina. When Micah posted an article explaining their decision on the Elephant Journal website, angry commenters called it "spiritual bypassing 101" and "a bunch of cult apologist crap." Their decision initially cost them 5 percent of their teachers and 10 percent of their clientele, the sisters say. (Their student numbers have since rebounded.) "It's been hard," says Micah. "Before, we had such a great reputation in town: 'These girls don't mess up.' We worked hard for that. To become immediately complicit in this controversy was an interesting shift."

Michelle Marchildon, a local yoga teacher and writer, understands Friend's cold welcome in Denver. "If you look at the level of anger in the Denver-Boulder community, it's based on a sense of betrayal," she says. In her own case, Marchildon had completed 750 hours of training and spent $10,000 to become a certified Anusara teacher, only to lose a teaching job when Friend's indiscretions came to light. "The owner of the studio said, 'There is all this stuff swirling around Anusara, and I don't want it in the yoga room,'" Marchildon remembers. "Everyone suffered. Students vanished because of the scandal. Many of us had our own personal relationships blow up over whether we were with John Friend or against him." No wonder, then, that some yoga practitioners were less than thrilled to have Friend as their new neighbor. When the news of his arrival in Denver first broke, Marchildon wrote this in her satirical yoga blog: "So, congratulations to the local yoga community. We are now officially the Buenos Aires for the World's Most Not Wanted Yoga Teacher."

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3 comments
Puller58
Puller58

Guess being mile high is better?

ghostlly
ghostlly

Whats wrong with engaging in Wiccan rituals?

Puller58
Puller58

@ghostlly News coverage is influenced by the smoldering embers of the Puritan residue that still exists in American culture.

 
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