After Controversy in Houston, a Yoga Guru Resurrects His Practice in Denver
As roughly 20 yoga students contort themselves into various poses in the spacious, purple-walled "Sky Room" at the Vital Yoga studio in Highland, a neighborhood in northwest Denver, their teacher for this session, John Friend, pads about the wooden floor, adjusting spandexed hips and poking at protruding butts while talking about opening the belly and raising the solar plexus. He speaks with the warm yet energetic confidence of a TED speaker or a feel-good evangelist rather than the serene tones of a stereotypical wizened yogi. And as the students breathe deeply, working through the strain of the poses, Friend lightens the mood by cracking jokes and shifting into funny voices. "Yeah, that's it — cool!" he exclaims in a slightly California-like drawl as he guides them through a particularly grueling sequence.
"We have to generate a positive optimism for ourselves. It is not going to just happen for us," Friend instructs his students before leading them through the three "oms," the mantra symbolizing the sound of the universe that's chanted at the end of the session.
Friend knows all about generating positive optimism. In 1997, he created his own feel-good form of yoga called Anusara and subsequently built it into a global brand with nearly 1,500 licensed teachers and more than 600,000 students in dozens of countries. At its center was Friend, considered one of the five most popular yoga teachers in the country and named the "yoga mogul" by The New York Times Magazine. From his home base outside of Houston, Friend presided over a yoga empire. There were "Dancing With the Divine" and "Igniting the Center" world tours; a "John Friend Collection" line of yoga mats; Anusara "grand gatherings" in places like Estes Park, Colorado, where Friend taught 800-student classes; and a planned multimillion-dollar expansion that included an 8,000-square-foot headquarters in Encinitas, California. In the white-hot world of American yoga, Friend's flame seemed to burn the brightest of all.
But then it all came crumbling down. In early 2012, Friend was accused of financial mismanagement, having affairs with married students, receiving pot in the mail at his office and engaging in Wiccan rituals. In what Friend now calls "a 21st-century Internet witch trial," the Anusara community devolved into mud-slinging and public resignations, generating headlines nationwide. With startling speed, Anusara imploded — and Friend was left with nothing.
But here in this Denver yoga studio, the now-54-year-old Friend doesn't look like a fallen guru. His aqua-blue eyes flash with enthusiasm; his short gray hair is gelled upward in a jaunty fashion; and when he takes off his shirt near the end of the session, he reveals a well-toned midsection that's dropped 40 pounds of fat since his 2012 fall from grace.
Maybe that's because here in his new home of Denver, "I get to start over with something better than I had before," Friend says. Collaborating with sisters Desi and Micah Springer, co-owners of Vital Yoga, Friend is developing a new yoga postural system called Sridaiva, one that he says he expects "to be more impactful than Anusara ever was" — a system not just for yoga practitioners, but for everyone around the world. Sridaiva is going to be big, Friend predicts; it will eclipse everything he did with Anusara — the good and the bad. "It's an epic comeback story," he declares.
As he says to his students at the end of the class: "Two thousand fourteen — it's gonna be a good one!"
After the maelstrom of negative press he weathered in early 2012 — including lengthy, unflattering profiles in The Washington Post, New York magazine and Texas Monthly, plus a lurid exposé on the Daily Beast website — Friend is guarded about the personal life he's cultivated since he moved to Denver that summer. "One of the central issues for me over the last couple of years is the increasing lack of respect for privacy and confidentiality in society," he writes in an e-mail. "I really want my sex life and my other personal sacred and spiritual practices held privately, and not made public by others who don't respect such boundaries."
The way he describes it, his life in Denver is considerably simpler than the one he enjoyed at the height of his success. He lives in an 800-square-foot rental in Sunnyside, another northwest Denver neighborhood and a place that could fit in the living room of the modest two-story home he inherited from his mother in The Woodlands, Texas, which he still owns but is planning to sell. In his apartment, there's just enough room for a few hundred of the books in the 5,000-volume library he's amassed on topics such as Buddhism, astrology and scripture, and just a few samples of the myriad paintings, sculptures and crystals he's collected on his world travels. He used to always be on his cell phone, juggling the responsibilities of running a 20-employee company with international reach. Now, when he's not teaching private sessions or running one of the four weekly classes he teaches at Vital Yoga's locations in Highland and in Golden, Colorado, Friend spends his time writing detailed notes in a leather-bound journal, the beginnings of a book on Sridaiva.
"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."
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.
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.
"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."
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."
Whether or not people wanted him in Denver, Friend says he found inspiration in his new home. It began with his consideration of "the Roots," the posture sequence Desi had created with Micah's help, which focuses on practitioners arching their backs — usually a no-no among the long, straight lines of most yoga poses. "Genetically, Micah and I have accentuated lower back curves," explains Desi. "For several years, our teachers tried to lengthen them."
"But the more we did that, the more we were in pain," adds Micah. "I like my curve; it actually feels really good. When we embraced the curve, it changed everything."
Desi had first brought these new postures to Friend's attention while Anusara was thriving — and he wouldn't even consider them. "I was considered an expert," he says. "I couldn't conceive that this woman would have something that would be that earth-shattering." But once Anusara collapsed, once he had nothing to lose, he tried her sequence — and was blown away. "It gave me strength and a level of balance that was extraordinary and unusual," he explains. "Even the smell of my sweat was different." The way he saw it, the arched back allowed the body to function like a loaded spring, with the taut muscles holding everything in place. The posture enabled people to hold difficult yoga poses far longer, increased positive attitude, helped them reduce muscle and joint pain, and, in his case, led to striking results. "I trimmed off 40 pounds," he says. "And I'm now doing stuff that I was doing in my 20s."
Suddenly, Friend's one-time student was his teacher. Still, it took time for him to fully embrace Desi's program, since it went against many of the tenets he'd spent years developing in Anusara. "It was the opposite of what I had been teaching," he says. "I had to question major elements of my alignment system." Eventually, with Desi's help, he realized this new system was so radical that it couldn't be integrated into Anusara at all, that instead it held the seeds for a new school of yoga. In early 2013, the two of them named that school Sridaiva, Sanskrit for "divine destiny."
Friend asked Desi to be his business partner, to help spread the word of their discovery. She took the lead, conveying her experience using Sridaiva's alignments, while Friend, the pattern guy, worked on verifying, organizing and simplifying the methodology so it could reach a wider audience than just those capable of Desi's demanding "Roots" sequence. "There is no way I would have done this without him," says Desi. "I am an introvert. And John provides the why — he's an expert at systemification and simplification, synergizing an idea and making it accessible." The two believe the spring-loaded posture isn't just for yoga; they think people the world over can adopt it as they go about their daily lives to improve their physical and mental health. As Friend puts it, "I really feel like you can do this at your job and leave work feeling like you've worked out."
And with his new program, says Friend, he's using the lessons learned from his mistakes. "I know what I did with Anusara, and I can take the positive things and clean up the dysfunctional things I screwed up at the beginning," he notes. For example, in Sridaiva there are teacher-training classes but no demanding certification programs, which might keep top-level infighting to a minimum. More important, says Friend, "We ask that students first and foremost take responsibility for their own health and positioning." This time, it won't be Friend's responsibility to build everybody up — so he won't be held responsible if they all get knocked down.
So far, the system's working. The two have upcoming events booked in Hong Kong, Singapore, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, the Caribbean and elsewhere, and Friend and Desi are co-authoring a book, Optimal Posture, on Sridaiva. "There is buzz," says Friend. Yes, some of the attention might be from those wondering what happened to the disgraced John Friend — but it's buzz nonetheless.
Unlike medical professionals, yoga teachers don't need a license to practice. The closest thing the industry has to such a program is a volunteer credentialing system run by the nonprofit Yoga Alliance, which certifies that teachers have completed a certain number of hours at training programs that meet the nonprofit's standards. According to Yoga Alliance CEO Richard Karpel, there are currently about 40,000 credentialed yoga teachers — one of whom is John Friend. The organization is revising its credentials program and creating a new code of ethics that will weigh in on whether yoga teachers can date their students, Karpel says, but he admits the program "is not the most rigorous credentialing system there is." And that's the way he thinks it has to be: "The idea of certifying yoga is difficult to begin with. Yoga has been around for 5,000 years. There are lots of different lineages and lots of different styles. Different people have different ideas of what it is and what it isn't."
That means that Friend is free to start a new style of yoga, which others are free to embrace — or they can continue with Anusara, since in late 2012 a group of Friend's former teachers launched the teacher-run Anusara School of Hatha Yoga. "We are taking the foundation that John built and we are moving it forward," says school co-founder Doc Savage, who says more than 400 teachers have joined the program.
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.