The Anusara yoga community has gone through hell since accusations about their grand leader John Friend surfaced online in early February of this year. Sexual escapades, pot smoking, the use of employees as pot goafers, Wicca covens breaking up marriages, pension freezing issues have plagued the grand master, and thus the Anusara empire that was fast on the rise, but has since fractured. Vanessa Grigoriadis, a praised writer and NYC yogi, took on the task of covering the latest and biggest yoga scandal in the past decade, and her article for New York Magazine provides extraordinary insight into the mind of the accused and ostracized John Friend on his home turf, in his blue shirt and jeans and his Bill Clinton looks in Woodlands, Texas. Indeed, she was granted access, a hang out sesh with the “yogic John Coltrane” and the article is the result of a conversation with John Friend on John Friend and the trouble he’s seen. You might guess where this is going.
The article begins and sets the tone with:
Crisis or not, this afternoon, Friend exhibits the main characteristic of a charismatic—which is what a yoga teacher really is—the ability to shift energy in a room. He brings it up as we start to talk and appears as he always has been: glowy, levelheaded, fun, with a way of talking that makes him seem much more like a young Californian than a middle-aged guy from Texas.
We don’t fault anyone for giving John Friend the mic to speak his side of the story, after all, plenty of others have had their say, but talk about extreme comfort zone and kula-colored glasses, not to mention moody and dramatic photos. Or is that the way to set the stage.
With the first one-on-one interview since the less than clarifying post-scandal breaking messages, we’re just a bit disappointed in the opportunity here to bring balance to an otherwise one-sided conversation with John Friend talking about himself with an air of woe is me. Although, this is where we see the tear in the fibers. And it seems that John still doesn’t quite get it.
“I understood the shock from the inner community, because I was the ideal of the very levelheaded, conservative guy that knew scientifically good stuff and loved everybody,” says Friend. “But this was like, ‘Oh my God, you are into sex? You smoked marijuana?’ It freaked them out. I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t want to tell you that I actually have a Wiccan coven. But it’s just a prayer circle, it’s for healing.’ ‘Oh my God, a pentacle.’ This is what I was dealing with.”
And according to him they were relentless, demanding remorse and a break from his teaching schedule. When John taught at his previously scheduled Miami workshop February 12th-14th against strong recommendations by the Interim Committee, he did as they requested and left early to avoid any close encounters with students, which we’re led to believe was in line with cruel and unusual punishment:
“There was to be no asking for forgiveness. No nurturing. No love. It was a Puritan sort of punishment, a shunning.”
Really? We thought it was about taking responsibility for your behavior and acting with integrity and maturity. Of course, the other side of John’s story has painted a much different picture, one where teachers, Anusarans and members of the yoga community reacted with an array of emotions from disbelief to utter dismay to outrage at the launch of JFExposed.com, which Ms. Grigoriadis refers to as “Batman, responding to the rules of karma.” What goes around, comes around, with a mask and a cape.
One resigned teacher does get a few words in, and that’s Elena Brower:
“I don’t think John meant harm—he just made a series of bad choices,” says Elena Brower, an ex–Anusara teacher and co-owner of Virayoga, a Soho studio that has had Anusara classes. “He let a lot of secrets pile up, and as everyone who has done so knows, it will either kill you because everyone finds out, or it will kill you because no one finds out. I suggested to him a while ago that he make a list of all the lies he’s ever told, meet up with people, and make it right, one by one. It’s so simple, and it would serve him beautifully. But that was not in his wheelhouse at all.”
None of the turmoil and/or heartache is included in the NY Mag piece (not that we need more of either) and instead we’re treated to the same display we’re used to seeing: “the nice Texan dude in a Hawaiian shirt, facilitating healing for women with Hallmark-card sayings about opening to grace, melting your heart, and inner smiles.” Except now he’s got the blues.
“I always said I’m not a saint, a prophet, a guru, a god man—there’s no cosmic energy pouring through me to the point that I know all things,” says Friend. “But as Anusara grew, I think people superimposed the idea of a guru on my position, and now they hate me. I mean, I’m not only getting hate e-mails—on my phone, I’m getting hate texts.” He says that he plans to be alone, without a girlfriend, for a while. “I have been unfaithful my whole life, to be truthful,” he says. “I’ve also gotten speeding tickets, but this time I ran over somebody. And I hurt not only other people, I hurt my soul.”
Oh boy. Are we all overreacting snivelers and John Friend just a misunderstood merry magician? Are we just living out our dharma as the Buddha killers? Says one unnamed student:
“The hardest part of all of this is the deep beauty of the awakening that occurred, because that is the true function of the guru: If you see the Buddha on the path, kill him. At some point, John’s students had to grow up and kill their dad.”
Buddha bopping aside, we’re looking for some real, balanced and uncut peace talks, with or without John Friendese. What seems odd, somewhat disappointing and completely expected all at the same time is the painting of John Friend (primarily by John Friend) as a victim in this scenario, being meanly punished by previously doting devotees, and unjustly bullied for simply being a charismatic guy who has made a few mistakes going through growing pains and dabbling in a little bit of pot smoking and lady friends.
But perhaps Vanessa Grigoriadis is in fact a sort of crafty Bat(wo)man herself, providing the space for John to continue speaking his spirals, giving us a glimpse into the ‘what now.’
“Maybe he will rebirth himself as one of yoga’s bad boys, explaining how it feels to have promulgated a message about the goodness of the universe.”
Maybe. But we’re pretty sure Bikram has that scene covered, minus that mushy universe stuff.
We invite you to read the entire article and share your comments here.