By Jeff Balke
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At first, Friend was reluctant to relinquish the name Anusara. But eventually he signed control of his trademark over to the teachers, since he no longer needs it.
As he sees it, the Anusara School of Hatha Yoga is Anusara 2.0 — and Sridaiva is Anusara 7.0.
"I've never been with a group like this on New Year's Eve. This is fantastic."
Beaming, Friend surveys the nearly 50 people sitting on yoga mats arranged in a special celebratory circle in Vital Yoga's Sky Room. There are lithe young women and gray-haired grandmothers, mothers and daughters, pregnant women and guys covered in tattoos. They're here for a special New Year's Eve Sridaiva class, taught by Friend and Desi, who's wearing a festive black yoga outfit for the occasion.
If Friend is mentally comparing this New Year's Eve event to those of years past — like the grand Anusara happening he'd been planning at Chichén Itzá for the Mayan "apocalypse" in December 2012 before his company fell apart, or the 2009 Wiccan winter solstice ritual he participated in that ended up as tabloid fodder — there's no indication on his jubilant face. "Denver has been a godsend," he tells the crowd. "Sometimes the worst things that happen can be that which sparks us to start completely anew. Something great can come from something terrible. I am really happy to be here."
And with that, Friend and Desi, taking turns, lead the students through two hours of Sridaiva poses, including difficult moves like one-legged poses, backbends and handstands. At the end, nearly everyone is sitting on their mats with noticeable curves in their spines. It looks like the beginning of a new kula, a new merry band of devoted disciples.
"I personally am entering this year with the most optimism and mind opening that I've had maybe ever in my life," Friend declares triumphantly.
Several Houston yoga instructors and directors were contacted for their reaction to Friend's Denver endeavors. All of them but one declined comment other than to say they didn't want to get involved or wanted to move on.
Jennifer Buergermeister, CEO of Houston's Breathe the Cure Inc., offered this response: "People are fallible, and we make mistakes. We can learn from our mistakes and when wise, also from the mistakes of others. I don't know all the details of John's personal and business affairs. I do believe that he never claimed to be a Brahman. Our path is always one, and sometimes there are bumps in the road, some bigger than others. If forgiveness needs to occur, I hope the Anusara community can embrace it. In the end, that's healthier for everyone."
Friend knows that his tale of ruin and redemption can be hard to take at face value. He knows that the "unbelievable cosmic irony" of one of the few yoga studios willing to take him in also holding the secret ingredient to his ultimate yoga system can come off as a bit much; as he writes in an e-mail, "I realize that my claims about my new understanding of postural alignment can sound outrageously unbelievable under the terrible circumstances of me and so many others losing so much due to the scandal." He knows that his discarding of Anusara in favor of Sridaiva will seem like one more slight against the thousands of disciples who already believe he's let them down. "I realize that some former students feel offended and even hoaxed if I state that Sridaiva now describes the optimal template more precisely and simply than any other alignment model I have ever used," he notes.
But he can't let that stop him. "Because of how it went down, people lost their studios or their businesses, and that's horrific. But we all have to go on. We all have to pick ourselves back up and do the best we can," he says. "People want me to continue to suffer. But you know what? I want to improve, and I am going to try to evolve." His mother always told him that when things fall apart, he should look for patterns in the wreckage left behind — and the pattern he found in the aftermath of Anusara's implosion ended up being more incredible than he ever could have imagined. "I want to show that the guy they tried to knock out completely is not only back," he says, "but he's back with something revolutionary."
Brittanie Shey contributed to this story.