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Texas Monthly on John Friend Saga, Anusara Collapse, Money, Sex and Power. ‘Yoga Mogul’ Author Mimi Swartz on What Went Wrong

in Business of Yoga, YD News

We’ve got scandalitis too, but this article and perspective on the whole kit and kulaboodle is worth the read.

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

In the latest issue of Texas Monthly, author of the original shit-stirring article ‘The Yoga Mogul’ (NYTimes, July 2010) Mimi Swartz tackles the John Friend saga and the collapse of the Anusara empire with a breadth of extensive details starting from the beginning and leading us through the roller coaster ride of resignations, accusations, outrage, apologies and accountability.

As much as we’ve heard enough about Anusaragate (even the word makes us kinda ill) and we’d all like this to go away, we’re happy it hasn’t, entirely. Granted, mass media is a bit slower on the uptake, but we’re glad for it and it’s with good reason. We’ve seen two major and fairly in-depth articles come out this week, virtually at the same time, with NYMag‘s ‘Karma Crash’, an interview with John Friend, and The Daily Beast’s racier look inside John Friend’s Wiccan ‘Sex’ Coven. (Disclosure: we here at YD reached out to journalists the first week shit hit the fan to help get to the bottom of the facts and navigate this thick and twisted web.)

Now the Texas Monthly takes a turn with Mimi Swartz’s perspective on the scandal, how John Friend’s “entrepreneurship and showmanship” helped make Anusara so popular on “merry band” world tour level and how crack in the shakti is actually a huge deal in the grand schema and landscape of American yoga culture and its 14.5 million practitioners.

Putting the JF sex scandalness into perspective Mimi Swartz ranks him in with other publicly “disgraced sexual miscreants” such as Ted Haggard, Eliot Spitzer, and Anthony Weiners of the world, as well as pointing out past yogis Swami Muktananda and Swami Rama, gurus who were accused of sexual misadventures in 1981 and 1994, respectively, and Gurumayi (made famous by Eat, Pray, Love) who was also in trouble for cultlike misconduct, which was chronicled in the New Yorker in 1994.

But she also points out how this yoga scandal is different:

But a couple of factors set this scandal apart. First, there was the use of technology, which spread the news of Friend’s failings around the globe in nanoseconds and offered a window into a culture and vernacular that practically begged for a mockumentary by Christopher Guest. (As one Anusara instructor wrote, resigning from the organization, “I realized the dharmic choice for me was to continue to teach asana with the brilliant alignment principles I learned from John Friend while giving direct acknowledgement to the spiritual lineage which informs the darshan of my heart.”) Second, there was the money. With the U.S. yoga business valued at nearly $6 billion annually, there was a lot more at stake than the behavior of one middle-aged crazy, a fact that Friend himself seemed acutely aware of when he told ElephantJournal.com, “We must all remember that any missteps by me do not invalidate any of the greatness of the Anusara yoga method.” Never before had someone been laid bare at the top of such an expansive yoga empire, and no one could predict what the effect on its adherents would be.

John Friend with his Texas-flavored charming “grace” created a style of yoga that caught on like wildfire and showed promise (notably to investors) to only keep growing. How did it all go wrong? On JF’s climb to fame, growing too big for hometown Texas, and his bitter breakup with Doug Keller that turned some heads:

Friend had every reason to be confident. After eking out a living as an itinerant yoga teacher in Houston in the eighties, he had built his particular philosophy of “life-affirming” and “celebratory” yoga into a vibrant community—or kula, in Sanskrit—of more than 600,000 students and almost 1,500 licensed teachers in one-hundred-plus countries. He had over 15,000 Twitter followers, and attendance at his workshops, whether in Bryn Athn, Pennsylvania, or 
Gangnam-gu, South Korea, tended to be standing room only. In 2004 he had been featured on the cover of Yoga Journal, the mainstream bible of the U.S. yoga world, and he had appeared—masterfully straddling two cliffs under a drenching waterfall—in a 2007 yoga pictorial in Vanity Fair. He had his own Anusara products—mats, 
T-shirts, videos—and Manduka, one of the most well-regarded yoga gear companies in the country, had rolled out the John Friend Collection in the fall of 2011. In other words, Friend was poised to become the world’s first full-service cyber yogi and, most likely, a very rich man.

He also became known as a climber and a user. His falling out around the end of 2003 with yogi Douglas Keller, who had helped him develop Anusara, was noted in particular. The tenor of the separation was akin to a bitter divorce: Keller says that positive comments are no longer made about his contributions and that Anusara students are sometimes forbidden to take his workshops. (“Anyone who is perceived as crossing Friend is ousted from that community,” a former assistant, Jeff Barrett, told me.) Considering that Keller was a yoga teacher, as opposed to a competing drug kingpin, Friend’s behavior seemed a little over the top, even back then.

And then, like you may have suspected, it comes down to the money. Despite a hugely successful and profitable business and a background in finance, Friend’s mis-money-managing caused rifts at Anusara HQ:

Back at The Woodlands headquarters, there were other hints of friction. Despite its explosive growth, Anusara was still being run like a mom-and-pop business. Some members of the office staff of ten were overwhelmed with work, while others, with higher salaries, showed up only intermittently (they preferred to practice yoga). And there were strange, unwritten rules of the type familiar to Hollywood personal assistants. One employee had to return his new office chair because he had bought the wrong color. (“John hates red,” one of Friend’s minions explained to him.) A $1 million investment from a foundation in Oregon went to, among other things, a leased BMW for Friend’s—yes—personal assistant.

Besides favoritism and betrayals there were other office politics, as the booming business required further venture capital to keep building out John Friend’s dreams of grandeur, and teachers were asked to help out. Mimi recounts her experience with Anusara and its Grand Leader (he did not respond to her email requests for this story) and offers her explanation for what really happened to the magic kingdom that was and could have been:

The official explanation for the implosion has the whiff of Houston circa 1986: Friend’s business got too big too fast, and he lost control. To his credit, he mentored a stable of yoga stars, such as Yoga Journal cover girls Amy Ippoliti and Elena Brower. But, says a publicist, they eventually chafed at being part of the fold: like Iyengar and Bikram, Friend did not allow teachers to introduce other forms of yoga in his studios, and he also asked for a 10 percent royalty on products they developed. A deepening cash crunch in 2011 most likely led to the dismemberment of the pension plan. Friend had also come up with a new definition of the organization’s principles that some followers found difficult to, well, follow: he officially named Anusara’s “philosophical vision” Shiva-Shakti Tantra in January 2010, causing conflict among those who could actually figure out what he was talking about.

And, finally, there was just a lot of chaos. The author of JFexposed.com told me that he posted the information because he was angered by what he perceived to be Friend’s hypocrisy, his seeming penchant for retaining bad employees while losing good ones, and the dissolution of the pension plan. Perhaps the most thoughtful explanation for what happened to Friend’s venture came from a therapist, yogi, and ayurvedic practitioner named Matthew Remski, who wrote on his blog that Anusara “seemed sustained by a distinctly late capitalist vibe: ungrounded, easy-credit fueled, dispersed across the internet, cohered by branding, conference calls and corporate-speak, and spattered across the vacay-destinations of our warming globe.”

What now? The past speaks for itself. The future remains unknown. But there are certainly lessons to be learned right now.

The article is currently available to subscribers only, but we have word there will be a new link online shortly. Stay tuned.

For now you can read the full article here.

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21 comments… add one

  • Insomnia

    Finally…the end is near

  • Jeanette Hablewitz

    no one ever talks about the anusara scholarship fund. without it i would have never been able to attend John’s workshops.

  • jen

    He set that up so he could get new yoginis into his harem.

  • Jeanette

    I was in no harem…i learned so much about healing my body that was all but crippled. i have pure gratitude for all that i learned and continue to learn. choose your focus. blessings to all of you.

  • oh shaddap

    oh shaddap, jeanette

  • Brooke

    Thanks for that, Jeanette. That fund was also important for me, no matter how I feel about the information that’s come to light in the last few months.

  • Jeanette

    nice. blessing to you also…

  • oh shaddap

    same old same old pious bs.

  • Jeanette

    reflection.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Madame Dork –

    I am in Washington, DC. Did you guys miss this lengthy profile of the John Friend/Anusara yoga scandal through the lenses of the Willow Street Yoga Studio? It would seem to be part of your emerging “canon” of reportage, but it appears that neither you nor EJ have included it.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/scandal-contorts-future-of-john-friend-anusara-yoga/2012/03/28/gIQAeLVThS_story.html

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Okay, it appears that you have included it, actually. My apologies. I don’t recall any commentary at the time that it appeared.

  • YD

    you’re right! it’s on the timeline, but had a hiccup in commentary, though it’s been sitting in the drafts. stay tuned.

  • I only just read it based on your link, Stewart. It’s actually a decent article. I think it’s more decent than the most recent two.

  • The whole “John Friend doesn’t like the Red Chair scenario” is a classic example of students and devotees acting weird around their “guru” or “the yoga teacher”. Funny stuff and a classic yoga culture moment.

  • john

    ” author of the original shit-stirring article ‘The Yoga Mogul’ ”

    Given how much shit there was sitting there waiting to be stirred and how little of it made it into her “article” at the time I think we’re entitled to a little scepticism when it comes to her latest. If she were any sort of serious investigator she’d have blown this whole thing wide open back in July 2010

  • IRM

    You can read Mimi Swartz’s whole article on http://www.leavingsiddhayoga.net. Click on What’s New on the left & there it is at the top. I am still not able to read it on the Texas Monthly without being a subscriber.

    Stewart, I agree that the Washington Post article would have warranted a digest by Yoga Dork. It would still be useful to have an article on it here, more than just a mere link & mention (which is what it is now on their running timeline). I had sent a note about it to Yoga Dork the day it came out, but for some reason it didn’t get picked up.

    I also second what you wrote in the comment section under the Daily Beast article on the wiccan coven:
    “Cults never reform, or evolve. You have to disband them, and dismantle their networks completely. Scatter them to the wind. Otherwise they just wait out their negative publicity storm, and slowly reconfigure. It’s a form of mental illness writ large.” Very well summarized!

  • YD

    Hey guys, for now the full article can be read here.

  • you're kidding

    Thanks — This is really well done!

  • Not A Friend Of John

    what an arse.

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