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John Friend: The Man, The Myth, The ‘Yoga Mogul’

in Business of Yoga, MUST READS, YD News, Yoga Pop

If the NYTimes wanted to paint the picture of a joyfully Self-absorbed yogi overlord reclined in his cushy chair, tended to by doting assistants while amusing himself  with his own sound bites of wisdom, well they sure did a good job of it, down to the photo caption “Boss pose”.  Not to say this gargantuan article on the Anusara underworld, it’s fearless leader and the consequential yoga “industry” is an all-out bashfest, but if John Friend and Co expected a glowing profile congruent with the touchy-feely, heart-melty “Yoga of yes” manifesto, well that’s not what they got.

Mimi Swartz, author of the piece, does a bang-up job of inserting enough journalistic license to place John Friend –  the man, the myth, the mogul – somewhere between a rock star, a politician and an evangelical priest, with the full range of character connotations for each.  If you haven’t had a chance to peruse the ginormous, and possibly longest NYT yoga article to date, we’ve done the duty of extracting a few of the highlights from “The Yoga Mogul” – such an understated title! A few questions to keep in mind (don’t worry you won’t be quizzed): Is this an inspiring story of monetizing your passions? A swipe against the mushrooming John Friend/Anusara empire? A general commentary on the effects of a $5.7 billion a year and counting worldwide industry? Is yoga itself getting a spanking? We can understand how some Anusara devotees might be pissed, but what are they most pissed about?

The very first line sets the tone:

There is so much going on in John Friend’s life right now that an assistant once teased him about waking just before dawn and calling to ask for coffee, only to be reminded that he, Friend, was in Quito, Munich or Seoul, while the assistant was back at home base in the Woodlands, a cushy suburb north of Houston.

On the Anusara Boom and Friend’s yogapreneur status:

On the road and at home, Friend also keeps tabs on all the ancillary businesses he has created in the last 13 years, since Anusara was born: his global Anusara expansion (Studio Yoggy, one of the biggest yoga-school chains in Japan, will be offering Anusara yoga classes); his Anusara publishing ventures (he has commissioned a history of yoga and continues to work on his own book, albeit sporadically); and his Anusara yoga-wear business (Friend has his own line, but also works with Adidas, which is using Anusara yoga trainers in its worldwide yoga push). He is also financing historical yoga research in Nepal and Kashmir.

Yes, Adidas.

On the success of the Anusara style and why Friend is essentially the antithetic super power to Bikram Choudhury:

“Anusara is positive,” Friend said, resting his head on the back of his chair and absently caressing one of many highly polished orbs on an adjacent table. “It’s accessible. Easily applicable. And yet it has depth and sophistication.”

Consider those religions that focus on sin and damnation, on discipline instead of joy. “Fundamentally they say no,” he told me. “While Anusara is a yes.”

AND a no? Maybe Bikram’s alter-ego. Franchise is a franchise is a franchise.

Friend also discourages Anusara studio owners from including other forms of yoga at their schools, lest they dilute his brand. As one former associate, Douglas Keller, put it, “If a particular McDonald’s store chooses to start serving spaghetti, McDonald’s can decide to revoke its franchise.”

(sorry, that polished orbs part had us in stitches). Mimi going for the gizzard.

On comparing John Friend to fanatic (and affluent) religious evangelical Joel Osteen and the “cult of John”:

Instead of joining a megachurch, you join the Anusara kula, Sanskrit for family. Like Osteen, Friend has found a way to attract large numbers of people by softening the hard edges of a rigid ideal and by applying the full force of his personality to achieving that goal.

Friend entered the room almost imperceptibly but was soon surrounded by his students, who giggled at his responses and were eager for his touch. (One sign that Friend, who is divorced, has reached rock-star yogi status: men and women press hotel-room keys into his hands at workshops.) Unlike many, more severe yoga masters, Friend worked the crowd like a contestant on “Last Comic Standing”…

Yikes.  OK back to…Money, Money and Merchandising!

Anusara Inc. currently has about $2 million a year in revenue, though Friend says, “We spend as much as we bring in, so we have little profit.” An Anusara prospectus from the spring predicted that revenue could double by 2012. Friend is the sole stockholder in the company and pays himself a salary that is just under $100,000 — a fortune in the yoga world.

At a Melt Your Heart, Blow Your Mind workshop in Hollywood last year

The stage featured pots of multicolored zinnias, along with statues of the Hindu gods Americans tend to favor: the elephant-trunked Ganesh, remover of obstacles; and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and beauty. In an adjacent hallway, yoga books, Anusara T-shirts and DVDS, Hindu statuettes and Om refrigerator magnets were on sale.

On le Cirque du Anusara:

Before anyone ordered food, Friend started in on another dharma talk/monologue about the Center, or as he put it, “the home of the kula.” There would be a soundstage and theater for yoga events, along with editing facilities for live streaming video, the better to teach in India as well as Peoria. There would be a 1,000-square-foot retail boutique too. In his prospectus, Friend described the Center as the main artistic training venue for Anusara yoga globally, which would also serve as a place to “make living art, to turn every day into an art project. Shri is the lustrous beauty which turns your mind to the Divine.” Along with Anusara students, there would be filmmakers, musicians, poets, acrobats, dancers and rock climbers.

It’s a yoga hoedown!

The article also includes Mr. Friend’s long and impressive personal history with yoga, how he cut his teeth on the Iyengar method, and how his enterprising spirit bore him away.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? This is all so much to digest, we know! So chew slowly. If you’d like a little commentary a la carte, as you might imagine there’ve been several responses from the shakti gallery.


33 comments… add one
  • Oh man that photo of all the people…Prasarita Padottanasana anyone? I always thought Anusara was the most beautiful of all yoga styles. It was the first style I studied. I used to tell people it was the ‘friendly Iyengar’.

  • Thanks, YD.

    Now I’m *really* glad I didn’t read the whole article.

  • I need to get cracking on plans for a retreat in Bali and I have an image of me being carried onto the stage by legions of my devotees…..

    oh wait.

    that was a story in the New York Times……;)

  • It’s very hard to comment on this article, which is clearly a rather controversial one. Sure, John Friend has made a very successful yoga business. I’ve never taken an Anusara class, but I know quite a few authentic and down to earth yogis that really enjoy the style.

    So on some level, I’m guessing he has to be legit. I’ll admit though, that franchising yoga gets under my skin. And I don’t think I’d want to be in a class of hundreds of people though. I like my yoga a little more intimate…

  • Yogini3

    One has to wonder about all the Jivamukti-inspired and Anusara-inspired, not to mention (unmentionable-trademarked-)inspired Hot Yoga classes and why they keep “the originals” expensive, under wraps and nearly inaccessible. Could a home practitioner ever be able to say they practice these original styles at home? Another excuse for the elitism of yoga and its increasing inaccessibility to the masses. On the other hand, I am waiting for the release of “Wanderlust, the Movie” …

  • Yogi-A

    yoga is yoga, you find union in things…Why are we trying to separate the styles from each others and call it this or that…? Are we just to achieve better health physically, mentally, and spiritually? Does branding a style of yoga make you a better person than someone else? I always thought that spiritual enlightenment comes from releasing of the physical desires, and being clear mentally. I just wanted to teach yoga as a career so I can get enough money to pay my basic food and shelter as well as more teacher trainings, but I guess $100k sounds good, too.

    P.S. I see copies of the Anusara Teacher Training Manual being sold in bookstores….And Teacher Training DVDs being sold in yoga studios…The age of finding a guru, feeling his energy, and having that one-on-one student-teacher relationship is passing by us now. “Get your certificate in the mail in just 2 weeks!!!”

  • I’ve taken a lot of Anusara classes and I know this form of yoga has a lot to offer, but the key line in the article, for me, remains: “Eventually you wind up a long way from sitting in a quiet room, focused on the breath as it flows in and out.” There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors here, and ultimately that’s not what I get on the mat for.

  • I have known John for years, and have practiced and taught Anusara since ’97. This article does not for me, represent an accurate depiction of what I feel is the heart and essence of Anusara Yoga. I can only personally attest to the fact that it has changed and enriched my life, and that I have met many wonderful and like-minded souls who have been supportive, particularly in challenging times. I hope that those who wonder about the practice will suspend judgment until giving it a chance. That is not to say it is for everyone. There are plenty of styles out there to meet all kinds of needs.

    As a teacher of Anusara, I was surprised that not one single one of us was interviewed. Or, maybe some were – but their contributions did not make the final edit of the article. That to me, is very telling.

    I know there are thousands of students who have been profoundly touched by Anusara and John. I have seen and experienced it first hand, and that is all the evidence I need of the positive impact of this style.

  • The article was interesting. For me, there are so many yoga styles and school because there are so many types of individuals. John’s teachings are deep and rich. I have practiced almost 80 hours with John over 8 years. Though the group has grown I personally love to be in such a large group. When we are with John, he does not claim to be in charge. He always says that Grace, God, Universe is in charge. That he is a guide, and we can ride the waves together. When that many people are together with the same intention entrainment occurs. We do hook up and ride together. He is a master energy worker and I am so happy and grateful to call him my teacher. Do I agree with everything he says? No, but I do align myself with John, and Anusara. To those who do not feel Anusara is authentic, I disagree, and encourage them to follow their hearts and find a teacher who feels right for them. One of John’s teachings is to never badmouth another yoga style or put another teacher down. Thank you John for all you offer us. You are a human being being human!

  • aidybop

    I will be attending a Blow you Mind Melt Your Heart weekend next week but must say I was dissappointed to hear about the Addidas thing which to my mind is akin to sleeping with the devil…the word sweatshop comes to mind…on the other hand I have been impressed by the Anusara yoga classes I have been to and feel a lot bettter after wards than with some of the more austere traditional styles…so i’m going to suspend judgement on it for a while and enjoy the whole melty hearty vibe that goes with it

  • “I was dissappointed to hear about the Addidas thing which to my mind is akin to sleeping with the devil…the word sweatshop comes to mind”

    personally I would love to hear JF’s take on that instead of the “I am not a yoga rock star” spiel…..

  • I’m not mad. I love Bikram Yoga and I love Anusara Yoga. With that said, I don’t align myself with these men or their personal principles or struggles. I love their styles of Yoga for different reasons. That is what matters to me. Bikram helps me heal and detox and Anusara is great for alignment and opens my heart.

  • Great attitude, Bhairavi.
    The essence of yoga is self knowledge… so listen closely and live your life as you would like the world to be.
    Did I just steal a Ghandi quote? 🙂

  • Meri

    I don’t see a reason for anyone to really be upset about this. It is a little sad to think he’s doing work with Addidas but I won’t take that out on the Anusara style. I did my teacher training in an Anusara inspired school and absolutely loved it. It’s just another piece of knowledge that I can ad to my practice along with all the other styles. You take what feels good and make it yours. It is your body after all.

  • Carol Robbins

    I have had the pleasure of taking a weekend workshop with John Friend and I want to tell you it was wonderful! There was a boutique if tou wished to buy a mat or a shirt but his chrisma was what i so remember. If the NewYork Times article puts him down in any way it is just because people are jealous. I am so thankful to say I shared a weekend with John Friend.

  • I took a class from John Friend in a very small studio setting while he was still an Iyengar teacher before he was famous. He was amazing and inspirational–made me feel like I could do any pose. His positive, friendly demeanor was so refreshing in contrast to the typical austere attitude projected by many Iyengar teachers c. 1995. I still practice Iyengar exclusively; I didn’t follow him to Anusara, but I certainly understand his appeal.

  • Jodie

    The clown reminds me of a Chippendale dancer.

  • maru

    I was in several Anusara classes through the years, none hot my heart. In one I counted the times the teacher said to open our hearts, there were 27 in the first 15 minutes… Jesus… it it was opened by the 3rd it was closed again… not my style of yoga

  • Dhruva

    Dude, If you close your heart because you don’t like a yoga teacher, or his class, you have to really work on yourself because out there in the world, I don’t mean US only, there are heavy duty situations and circumstances that are really difficult to stay open hearted. Get real men! open your heart to life as it is.

  • Angela

    Good one Olga! I second you on everything you said!

    People prosper all the time by selling STUFF that eventually ends up in landfills someday when the warranty runs out…SO WHAT (?!) if someone should happen to prosper by devoting their life to creating and sharing something with the world that NEVER turns to garbage and that flourishes in value exponentially and upholds and uplifts the very potential of each of us to become the change we wish for our own lifestyle that we can inadvertantly share with our loved ones and our community in a loving supportive way.

    It’s funny how many will judge something good when it gets too popular only to gain vain ratings for an article; judge from an inexperienced, outside, fear-inducing perspective rather than trusting one’s own discernment to experiencing something first hand and then decide whether it resonates or not with the core of one’s own being. I think the worst part of the trash talk is it threatens to prevent tender hearts or depressed hearts from discovering the empowering, grace-filled message of yoga. I think even people who write articles to tear down others’ are those who would benefit most from an Anusara class.
    Yoga can quench the ego-thirsty craving for validation and entitlement.

    And yet, with all the messiness and confusion Grace flows and will lead those who are ready to something greater, more melodical, harmonious and vibrant!

  • jeremy

    Angela youre post seems foolish given current events . Thank goodness those with false grace will not be leading anybody with smiley happy unaware platitudes. The community you mention was for the chosen ones who beleived the anusara hype , it had nothing to do with any yoga community , cos the anusarans had the best method , they knew this because they kept telling themselves and others this and it became the truth for them , it must be difficult to let go , it will take time to reintegrate . discernment is a good quality but wisdom and compassion must run through it for it to be true discernment. peace upon you.

  • Matthew

    I’m not a yogi per say, but iv’e been on a number of retreats with John and I found him to be an articulate, genuine person. I haven’t read the whole article, however, i have known the press to distort and attempt to destroy many people. To put down John as some kind of evil practitioner is a disgrace. He is a wonderful human being and if he makes some money as a biproduct of his amazing presence, God bless him. With twitter, blogs and every idiot in the world having a stage to be negative and attempt to destroy others lives, the world as become a disgrace. This “writer” shoukdnbe sued and Inwouldnbe morenthen happy to contribute to a fund in order to do so.

  • Nina

    I’ve been doing yoga for almost 20 years and have tried many different styles. Anusara is the only yoga that taught me how to use every part of my body to do the most basic poses. Elena Brower languages her classes in such simple yet understandable
    terms and your yoga practice takes on an entirely new meaning.
    John Friend had the understanding and the capacity to develop a style of yoga that enables you to connect with your body as opposed to mimicking a pose a teacher is feeding you with no connection at all to your body.
    That is simply rote exercise. If you told me John Friend made millions of dollars on this I would say at least the universe benefited.

  • Regarding the inventing a school of yoga: John Friend was an Iyengar-trained yoga instructor (which is one of the most difficult certifications to get). What he did was take the often complicated Iyengar alignment instructions and turn them into a smaller set of alignment principles in order to simplify things somewhat. While some people might argue that all of the spirals and loops Anusarans talk about complicates things, there is something to be said for learning a consistent set of alignment principles versus having to learn specific alignment instructions for each and every pose you do. Also, Friend incorporated spiritual principles to a greater degree than you see in Iyengar. So while, yeah, it might seem like a vanity exercise to invent your own yoga school, Anusara is a very distinctly different yoga style from Iyengar, or anything else out there, so I think it was fair to give the system he developed a name. I mean, I’ve seen some teachers who invented their own style and it just seems like ego because there seems to be very little to set their system apart from other approaches to yoga, but I don’t think this is the case here.

    All that said, I totally saw this whole thing coming. The way Anusarans essentially worshipped Friend as a guru-genius-yoga-hero who could do no wrong, it was inevitable that he was going to go astray. Anyone surrounded by sycophants all day long eventually starts to believe the hype and turns into an asshole. Some leaders start out looking to mislead and manipulate people (for example, see the ancient L. Ron Hubbard quote about making money from starting a religion). I think Friend was a kind and smart guy who got swept up in his own celebrity and lost his way.

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