What in the what. More Anusara scandal coverage? Yes. Because you’ll want to read this if you’ve been following along. Weeks ago The Washington Post published a very informative and in-depth look at the melted heart of Anusara and the fall of Padre Grande John Friend. Amidst the avalanche of media coverage this past week (NYMag, The Daily Beast, Texas Monthly) we felt it necessary to point your attention to this article by Manuel Roig-Franzia, who provides an outsider perspective by a non-yoga typey person.
While we can’t seem to escape character sketches of charm and charisma and virtual magnetism that we’re already aware of, sometimes resulting in sexscapades so we’ve learned, what’s unique about this article is the way it takes a step back to survey the bigger picture, the bigger plan of the “Yoga of Yes” and how that yes to expansion and writing bigger checks helped write the demise of a once-powerful man and brand.
“Kind of a lovefest. Kind of a party,” April Ritchey, a California-based Anusara instructor, called it. “People really got addicted to being a part of this.”
Mostly attributed to John Friend’s cult of personality flare and down home appeal (the obligatory charisma section):
Friend’s engaging, welcoming manner put students and teachers at ease. He had a mop of curly hair, wore frumpy clothes and laughed easily. He was not built like the conventional image some have of yoga masters; he was no willowy, impossibly sinewy creature but instead stood on thick, powerfully muscled legs. He even had a bit of a double chin. He was preternaturally talented, but he seemed human.
The Anusara empire, to which it is often referred, was growing steadily and profitably with a swell of loyal followers and major media attention, until last fall when a snag in the “open to Grace” philosophical fabric began to tear a hole, as well-known teachers like Elena Brower and Christina Sell started resigning. Then hefty accusations hit in early February this year. To summarize:
Friend’s empire — an international network that claims more than 1,500 teachers, including 25 in the Washington metro area, and 600,000 students — is in crisis now, teetering under the strain of a sex scandal that has split its most loyal practitioners and prompted an astounding venting of emotions, from rage and recriminations to compassion and sadness. In conference calls, e-mails and hushed conversations, Friend has admitted to sexual relations with students and employees and married women. He has confessed to cheating on one girlfriend and smoking marijuana, according to senior Anusara instructors who have participated in conference calls with him. And he has acknowledged leading an otherwise all-female Wiccan coven whose members sometimes took off all their clothes for gatherings, according to senior Anusara instructors who detailed his admissions in a written summary provided to The Washington Post. The coven’s name was the Blazing Solar Flames, and Friend had Anusara’s graphics team design a logo for it, according to three former employees.
Friend’s sexual transgressions clashed with his sermonizing on the value of relationships and the importance of trust, deepening the wound among some of his most ardent students and associates.
John Friend had not responded to multiple interview requests by the WP, but his publicist shared the “guru? pfffbt” party line:
“John isn’t a guru; he is a yoga teacher who founded a style of yoga and built a certification program and school,” said Katy Saeger, a public relations consultant who represents Anusara. “He will admit to that which is true, but the sensational stuff needs to end. It’s borderline weird.”
But some might disagree with that statement. Such as former personal assistant Jeff Barrett (who was also the lucky pot messenger):
Friend was pursued everywhere he went. “People were almost like worshiping him,” said Jeff Barrett, Friend’s former personal assistant. “They look to him as some sort of deity.”
And Joe Miller, son of one of Anusara’s grand mamas Suzi Hurely (who’s already had a few things to say about all this), who now owns Willow Street a yoga studio in Texas where one of the first Anusara teacher gatherings was held. Miller survived the 1994 Kripalu scandal featuring Amrit Desai who had sex with students, and shares his point of view from the early good ‘ol days when you could call the Anusara office and John himself would answer.
“He was just goofy and real and brilliant,” Miller recalled [of John Friend]. “He really totally reinspired me.”
And how his thoughts have changed:
“This is sort of the inherent flaw in the classic guru model,” Miller said. “In the yoga world, these cycles of destruction are what it’s all about.”
Perhaps one of the most revealing parts of the article sheds light on where Anusara could have been headed. We’d already heard all the hoopla about what we coined Anusaraland, but the plan was much bigger than just a simple center.
Friend envisioned creating a vast enterprise that could “bring more love, happiness and peace to millions of lives,” according to a confidential October 2011 memorandum prepared to woo investors and obtained by The Post. The document, which lists Friend’s phone number and e-mail on its cover, outlines a plan to expand Anusara’s reach beyond the traditional yoga community and into the “$300 billion health and wellness industry.”
At the core of Friend’s expansion plans was a proposed 8,000-square-foot center in Encinitas, Calif., where he planned to host talks by “preeminent world scholars” and film content for a pay-per-view digital channel. The company took in $2.8 million in 2010, according to the investor memo. But expansion was taking a toll. In the past two years, the company was losing money because of the costs associated with expansion, confirmed Wendy Willtrout, who is running the company during Friend’s sabbatical. The company was seeking $1.5 million in financing through the sale of preferred stock, according to the investor memo.
Oh right, the money and the plan to take over the world. Then there was that part about asking teachers for part of their incomes and moving to trademark the brand.
The other thing about the memorandum that concerned some teachers was that it revealed Friend’s plan to trademark himself as an entity separate from Anusara, prompting fears he was leaving behind those who had helped build the brand.
Friend had already alarmed some of his teachers by attempting to capture a part of their incomes. Friend wanted to take a 10 percent royalty on products sold by his licensed teachers, a move that irked some teachers who had become affiliated with the organization before such requirements were discussed and had wanted to market DVDs and other material that weren’t specifically tied to Anusara, according to interviews with Anusara teachers and company documents.
“mini mass hysteria [ensued] about where John was taking the organization, that he was going down the road of ‘Burning Man Anusara,’ ” a key adviser recalled, looking back in an e-mail sent to a committee appointed to deal with the ballooning scandal. “People were freaking out.”
OK so we could keep on and quote the whole gd thing. There’s more about an email intervention that went down over concerns of John Friend’s “unstable” and “libertine” behavior, something it sounds Elena Brower may have been referring to in one of her recent truth letting missives where she got mad at us.
What it boils down to is all of this was bubbling up over time and the lid was about to pop off some way or another. Frankly, John Friend and those close in the Anusara community might think to be grateful it didn’t all stew in a bigger pot before the explosion. The future of yoga will be just fine. The future of John Friend and Anusara have turned back to simmer. The “Yoga of Yes” could be the yoga of yesterday.
- Texas Monthly on John Friend Saga, Anusara Collapse, Money, Sex and Power. ‘Yoga Mogul’ Author Mimi Swartz on What Went Wrong
- The Daily Beast Goes Inside John Friend’s Wiccan ‘Sex’ Coven
- New York Magazine on John Friend ‘Karma Crash’ and Anusara Melt-Down – Post-Scandal Interview
- Running Timeline of Anusara Controversy, Updates and Teacher Resignations