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Karma Crash: Sex and the fall of an all-American Yogi - from New York Mag
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|Subject: Karma Crash: Sex and the fall of an all-American Yogi - from New York Mag Wed Sep 18, 2013 8:54 am|| |
For all these kinds of cautionary tales, the reason I share these, is to understand the dynamics of leaders and groups and belief systems and self-delusion. Sometimes there is sexual issues involved and sometimes not - as with Shasta and Kennett, but you can still see the group-mind at play, blind obedience, wishful and delusional thinking, grandiosity, suppression of communication and personal integrity, and on and on. This article ran last year, but I just bumped into it. Funny thing - was that a few years ago, I was contacted by his top people.... They wanted to promote John Friend as a kind of new Deepak Chopra, more than a yogi. There was nothing more than a long phone conversation - which happens a lot in my PR work - lots of random calls for advice. Can't really remember any details.
Sex and the fall of an all-American yogi.
By Vanessa Grigoriadis - New York Magazine
Published Apr 15, 2012
On a humid afternoon a couple of weeks ago, John Friend comes to the door of his home in the Woodlands, Texas, a suburb 30 miles outside Houston, wearing a loose-fitting blue shirt, a pair of jeans, and a wide grin. Though he doesn’t look like a yogi—at 52, he looks a bit like a young Bill Clinton—Friend is considered one of yoga’s biggest innovators, a yogic John Coltrane. In fact, until two months ago, he was one of the five most popular yoga teachers in America, if not No. 1. But today things have changed. In the aftermath of allegations about sex, financial mishaps, and drug use, Friend is embroiled in the biggest yoga scandal of the past decade, involving wholesale defections and the collapse of his empire.
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. His modest home, which he inherited from his mother, is decorated beautifully, with artifacts gifted to him by his students rising from surfaces—an enormous quartz crystal from Tucson, a spiral sculpture made of Venetian glass, a round, clear Brazilian crystal. “Very magnificent,” he says, turning it over in his palm. In here, care has been taken to make many of the areas sensuous to the touch. The furniture, mostly in calming colors of burnt sienna and light green, feels like velvet, and underneath the stereo, there’s a white sheepskin rug, perfect for lying on and grooving to the music.
Friend grabs a glass of water from his purifier and takes a seat in an easy chair, talking about the role his mom played in developing this area, among the first master-planned communities in the U.S., with running paths through the forest and a series of purple signs proclaiming EARTH DAY IS EVERY DAY. He hasn’t been here much in the past few years, as yoga transcended its place as a subculture of small studios over record shops to become a global pop-culture movement. The method he started, Anusara, which means “flowing with grace” in Sanskrit, is the first major American-born yoga school without a direct lineage from India. Friend amassed 600,000 students, whom he called his “merry band.” He was on the road as much as any rock star or D.J.: a seminar in Japan, at the time of the opening of the cherry-blossom trees; a trip to Bali to celebrate the divine polarities of the male deity Shiva and Hindu goddess Shakti; Anusara’s “grand gatherings” in Colorado, where thousands of his students came together to celebrate the “most aptly named yoga teacher … ever,” as one of them said one year, by way of introduction.
Maui comes up: He has taught many classes there, sometimes in tandem with Ram Dass, who has chosen to live out the rest of his life on the island. Now the energy shifts. “I was supposed to teach in Maui this coming weekend, and attend a wedding of very good friends, along with my beloved,” he says. “And now she’s there, and I’m not.”
He’s not only missing his beloved right now, or the time they could have had on the double-rainbowed magical island that he calls “the mother.” His sponsors, like the company with which he was making a plus-size yoga mat and a line of “gear with heart,” are gone. Most of his money—gone. His girlfriend, a yogi twenty years his junior with a cream puff of curly hair—gone. “All my friends are gone, too,” he says, resting his head back on an easy chair. “I look in my phone’s contacts, and it’s just a long list of people that I have had to cut relations with, people who have judged me and have been so mean.”
Some of those administering the toughest love are his teachers, the ones who believed in him the most and who brought his message to the public. About 150 of them have defected, including the famous ones, the chic ones featured on yoga posters, with spouses who act as personal managers, and enormous classes on the Great Lawn in Central Park. The pain of these partings is conveyed in yoga’s distinctive spiritual jargon. Leaving Anusara feels like a death, wrote one teacher, a way of “ripping apart the seams of my identity,” “the hardest ethical challenge of my entire life.”
But in many observers’ telling, Friend had left these seekers no choice. They had to “speak [their] truth,” they have said, on and offline, because Friend is “like a thousand-headed Hindu painting,” “a guy counting cards faster than you can imagine any human being able to count,” or a “weird warlock perverted Dumbledore power whore.” Some make a different point about leaving. As Amy Ippoliti, a famous teacher based in Colorado, put it in a letter, “In a nutshell, Anusara is comprised of a collective of teachers, but only one man takes credit.”
Friend teaching a class in Detroit before his fall.
(Photo: David La Spina/New York Times/Esto)
Who your yoga teacher is, and what he represents, are no small matters in modern life. Yoga, which is practiced by roughly 16 million Americans, is more popular than it has been since the twenties, when Hindu nationalists promoted it in India as a patriotic form of exercise (it was going out of favor after the country gained independence). I’ve dabbled in many different styles of yoga for a decade, and I can say I have thoroughly enjoyed all of it—the focused concentration, the lovey-doveyness, the close-pressed flesh of other students in the room. That’s more than I can say for the elliptical trainer or the current spate of trendy barre classes like Physique 57, where $35 buys more leg lifts in an hour than you may have thought humanly possible, and measuring tapes can be taken home to test the circumference of one’s thighs.
Like anything that reaches such a fervid level of popularity, what yoga seems like from the outside—exercise—is only part of what people on the inside find so intriguing. On the deepest level, yoga isn’t even about physical movement. It’s about ethics—discipline, right living. Some Westernized forms of yoga make a joke out of this: In an attempt to stick it in the eye of those who would look to him for morality, Bikram Choudhury, a “hot yoga” founder, likes to say things like, “If [students] say to me, ‘Boss, you must [banned term] me or I will kill myself,’ then I do it. Think if I don’t! The karma!”
But most yogis are happy to comply with students’ desire for moral teachings. There are few schools, particularly in the yoga stronghold of New York City, that don’t offer some sort of ethical framework to their students, if only recommending that they practice ahimsa, which translates to “nonviolence,” and train their minds to become unstuck on gluttonous practices like consuming too much alcohol, food, and sex. When William Broad, the science writer at the New York Times, recently suggested that because yoga had its origins as a sex cult, teachers could sometimes be horny guys who prey upon women, yogis were so appalled that students in my classes could be heard saying things like, “What’s up with that guy? He needs some sex.”
Friend has never told anyone not to eat meat, but he also has never shied away from emphasizing ethics. Anusara puts an enormous amount of focus on correct alignment in yoga poses, and he has always drawn a straight line from this physical practice to being “in alignment” in one’s own life. Friend says that proper alignment, in body and mind, harmonizes the different aspects of oneself, allowing all of us to say “yes to the whole magical spectrum of life … a willingness to be aware of all parts of ourselves—the light and the dark, the full rainbow of sensation, perception, emotion, and thought.” Yoga means “union” in Sanskrit, and part of that is about the union of one’s self.
Anusara, which is grounded in Tantric philosophy (including its sexual aspects, though these aren’t emphasized), takes these ideas a step further: The fact that this magical spectrum exists at all, Friend says, is evidence of the intrinsic goodness of the universe. And you can never really forget this when you’re around his students, who are truly a positive, happy, shiny “merry band.” Unlike most yoga classes, which are like a sped-up version of t’ai chi, you can’t check out mentally in a typical Anusara class—the teachers often stop to talk about how great everything is, or have students gather around as “Stacey demonstrates a handstand” and then have everybody clap to praise her work. To me, this rictus grin and loud applause always seemed a little forced, though there’s nothing wrong with being positive, particularly for those who have suffered in their lives. And Anusara struck me as something of a gathering ground for these people, mostly women—a safe place where they could feel supported through a divorce, heal scars from a bad relationship or something worse.
This element of Anusara’s reputation—Friend, 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—is part of why it was so shocking when unsavory details about his private life broke into view on an anonymous website, JFExposed.com, posted February 3 and disseminated via the blog Yoga Dork. “This site is not intended to hurt the Anusara community or its teachers,” the writer explained, “but rather as a wake-up call to John Friend to be true to his own philosophies and expectations of integrity.” Friend had received marijuana through the mail at his office in the Woodlands, according to the site, and had frozen his employees’ pension plans for many months without letting them know—an irregular and upsetting move. Other charges were more prurient. He’d had a sexual affair with a corporate employee, a married Anusara teacher, the gruesome evidence of which was presented through dirty Skype chats between the two. There were also close-up photos of her “yoni,” with two male fingers in the foreground splaying it open.
(Photo: Dan Winters)
Sex with employees and marijuana in the mail is garden-variety stuff, hardly scandalous in many contexts—but the site brought to light other, more outlandish features of Friend’s secret world. Specifically, it said that he had established a Wiccan coven with six women, some of whom were Anusara teachers and a few of whom were married, as a way to raise “sexual/sensual energy in a positive and sacred way.” As proof, there was a letter that Friend had written to the coven, in which he apologized for attracting a former member “into my life, into our lives, by vibrating in my mind-body with a frequency of deception and lack of integrity.” This woman hadn’t left quietly, Friend wrote: Her “vampire novel imagination conjured JF … as the next Aleister Crowley or Pierre Arnold Bernard! The Texas Tantric guru is the Big Bad Wolf in magick cloaks taking innocent girls from their faithful husbands and wrecking families to drink the juice of innocent Little Red Ridinghoods—Wow!”
Some of the charges on the site were misconstrued, but people within the community recognized enough veracity to think it more than a prank. Friend got on the phone immediately with his lawyers, who had the site taken down in about a day. He thought he could politick this thing to the ground, Boss Tweed style. “I am a great politician,” he admits. He’d gather a coalition of teachers around him and remind everybody who the daddy was—offering some more of that positivity, that unconditional love. It had always worked before.
As a child, Friend, who changed his first name from Clifford, was a pigeon-toed science-and-math nerd who wore his legs in braces. His father was a sportscaster, an honorable man but a bit aloof, and he was closer to his mom, a Pollyannaish spirit. “When I’d break a glass, my mom would say, ‘Don’t worry—what pattern do you see here? See, there’s a fish, there’s a bird,’ ” says Friend. His mother introduced him to stories about yogis with supernatural powers, “like Batman and Flash and Superman all put together,” and he became fascinated by Sufis. At school, he was focused on being accepted by all the different cliques, “the brains, the straight kids, the jocks, the avant-garde,” he says. “I wanted to be friends with everybody, and to do that you need compartmentalization. I always kept secrets, and back then secrets weren’t bad.”
In the eighties, while Friend worked for a few years as a financial consultant for oil companies after graduating from Texas A&M, he became a part-time yoga teacher at a local YMCA. Soon, he decided to switch professions—he wanted to be a yoga teacher, and studied the Iyengar method. But he wasn’t entirely happy. “Iyengar believes that to gain freedom from suffering, you must strongly discipline the mind-body to the point where you actually create isolation between them,” he says. “The teacher would hit us, physically, to say, ‘Why are you getting hooked on your body? You’re not your body.’ I thought, Wait, I love my body. It’s temporal, but it’s still a manifestation of God.” He also felt that this style of yoga was too complicated. “I’m an American,” he says. “I wanted to make things simple.”
Now Friend had the technical skills to teach, but he needed to connect with his spirit. In 1989, he took a trip to Ganeshpuri, India, where he visited Swami Muktananda’s ashram, now led by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda (Muktananda, an authority so revered that members of his Catskills ashram sat in his bathwater and saved the trimmings of his haircuts, is thought to have sexually preyed on young women). Gurumayi would later become a controversial figure, but when Friend first laid eyes on her, on this “magically mind-bending day of grace,” the energy around her was so thick that her mouth moved but the words came out in slow motion. In her presence, he was able to rise up into a handstand without effort. “It was like someone took a blanket, wrapped it around me, and lifted me up,” he has explained. “I felt totally supported. It was magic.”
At the ashram, he started to connect with people who also felt like they wanted to swap out of Iyengar and other older, didactic systems of yoga into something more fun. Someone needed to innovate here—why couldn’t it be him? In 1997, after some help from Douglas Brooks, a Tantra scholar, Friend revealed a new yoga system at a retreat of about 30 teachers at Feathered Pipe Ranch, a center in Montana run by a devotee of Sai Baba, the Indian guru known for manifesting gold trinkets in his palm.
Certifications were offered at very favorable terms—Friend wanted to keep the merry band happy. “I remember a friend wagging his fingers at me, saying, ‘You’re letting them run, and one day you’ll say, “Come back in the corral,” and they’re going to say, “[banned term] you, man, I’m not going back in there,” ’ but I didn’t believe it,” says Friend.
The early Anusara teachers were one breed—serious students who simply wanted to open their mouths to express their own feelings in class, looking for a tiny bit of freedom to talk about “heart-centering” and the “fabric of supreme consciousness.” They knew that Friend was into physics, sacred geometry, all sorts of nerdy magical stuff. He smoked pot once in a while, but says he didn’t smoke in front of students. “It’s just my personal thing that I like to do to relax,” he says. “Sometimes, I won’t smoke for years.” And he was married at that time, to a lovely older woman whom friends describe as a mother figure for him.
But when they got divorced, in 2002, that took the lid off things sexually for Friend, and he started dating in the yoga world, just one woman here or there. No one thought much of it. “We had a three-year relationship, and as far as I’m concerned, John is an honorable man to women,” says Christy Nones, a certified Anusara teacher in Miami Beach. “To his credit, he handled our relationship beautifully. And that was great, because I didn’t want to lose my teacher. I mean, he was the best.”
Friend wanted to be ethical about dating his students, too: In 2009, he even changed Anusara’s guidelines about sex between students and teachers. A bylaw that used to say that teachers should “avoid sexual relationships with students” now stated that a romantic relationship was permitted, as long as the role of teacher and student was maintained within the classroom. This raised eyebrows among some of the senior teachers, but they kept their mouths shut.
Friend was always a bit of a weird guy, with his love of magic and Madame Blavatsky, but he never really flirted much with the edge, at least until about 2010. Yoga was exploding in the U.S., and Friend met a couple of branding entrepreneurs in Southern California who told him that they could take him to the next level. Their grand vision for Friend was his own institute for the study of Anusara, in an 8,000-plus-square-foot building that once housed an ad agency in Encinitas, California. The beachy enclave is considered one of the most important yoga towns in the U.S.—Yogananda wrote his Ur-text, Autobiography of a Yogi, there; Ravi Shankar and George Harrison collaborated there; not only was it the first place in the U.S. that the Ashtanga guru Pattabhi Jois stopped when he came from Mysore, India, in the seventies, it’s also home to the Jois center, which billionaire Paul Tudor II’s wife has just built.
Friend quickly became bewitched with the idea of the Center, a place where he could become less of a traveling teacher and more of a curator—it would be a new Esalen Institute, the experiment observed. But there was a problem: He needed money. Another yoga paradox is that for all its popularity and the celebrity of its leading practitioners, it’s never been much of a cash cow. The gear and clothing companies, like publicly traded Lululemon—which has promoted a Landmark Forum–based system for its employees and whose founder recently relinquished his operational role after the bad PR around commissioning a line of shopping bags bearing the words “Who Is John Galt?”—may make a mint, but there are very few yoga teachers who have become wealthy from teaching. In its best years, Anusara Inc. took in about $2 million in revenue, 80 percent of which was composed of Friend’s teaching fees—but almost all it went to overhead. His annual salary was roughly $100,000.
When Friend began raising money for the Center, he praised the auspicious gods, because he soon had a $1 million loan from an Anusari in the Seattle area and had entered discussions that he thought were promising for $3 million to $5 million. To buff the company’s balance sheet, Friend froze his employees’ pensions. He says he didn’t realize that he had to send certified letters to each employee informing him or her of the change.
With this money in hand, Friend started making plans to move to Encinitas. There he met a whole different breed of yogi, one that dominates much of the yoga world, particularly the group that gathers at festivals today. If Iyengar was 1.0 and Anusara was 2.0, this kind of airy-fairy, dubstep-listening yogi, the type who goes to Burning Man and Wanderlust, a yoga-and-music festival founded in 2009, is 3.0. These yogis, fed Anusara principles from the beginning of their study of yoga, never considered that there was any cosmic law in the universe other than happiness and joy. How different this West Coast yoga scene was from his kitschy merry band of Tribeca mommies, and how cool—all these young women were Hula-Hoopers and fire-twirlers, drinking ayahuasca on vision quests and really living on the edge.
Plus, these women were more sexually adventurous than his previous students and teachers. Friend was no kind of slithery Lothario—“I’ve never even seen John passionately kiss a woman,” says a close colleague—but he was a man, and there were temptations in his business, which is largely a woman’s world. As anyone who does yoga will tell you, sex and yoga have an uneasy relationship. Sex is not supposed to be part of the yoga experience—yoga is supposed to help you get some distance from your desires and only act upon them mindfully—but with everyone bopping around high on pheromones and in tight pants, it’s right there for some people, humming under the surface. The point—it amounts to a commandment—is to keep it there. But increasingly, outside of class Friend didn’t observe that boundary.
The coven started off innocently enough, with a few rituals on a summer solstice to send healing prayers out into the world. Friend, who went by the title the “Grand Magus,” called the group the Blazing Solar Flame, and hoped it could act as a “magical battery” to spin up energy for the spread of Anusara. To that end, they began “circling up” a few times a year, on the equinox and pagan holidays. Friend had a graphic designer make a logo of two overlapping stars, one with spiky arms and another with lazy arms. “I thought it was pretty ugly, but John was like a little boy who wanted to have a logo for his secret club,” says the “High Priestess” of the group today.
The coven wasn’t a sexual thing, but Friend eventually had sex with two of the women, and, according to the High Priestess, there was a ritual in which all of the women stripped to their underwear and kissed each other—along with Friend. “I was ooey-gooey and crushy on John, for sure,” says the High Priestess. “We only had sex two times, and it was totally consenting on my part. But later, I felt weird about some things. I studied with John for eight years, did hundreds of hours of yoga with him where his voice was the voice that was telling me what to do: ‘Do this with your eyes, do this with your tailbone, do this with your shoulders, do this with your head.’ ” Friend is an effective teacher because students trust him enough that they will do difficult poses they wouldn’t do on their own in his presence—that’s the way they have physical breakthroughs. “Given that relationship, I wonder if it was harder for me to say no than it would have been otherwise,” says the High Priestess. “Because I wanted to say yes. I wanted to be in the group. I wanted to be in the inner circle.”
Friend’s day-to-day inner circle, though, wasn’t composed of just these women—it was also made up of his employees, including a personal assistant, Jeff Barrett, who was beloved by everyone at Anusara Inc. According to Friend, Barrett didn’t tell him that he disapproved of Friend’s activities with women and a scene that increasingly included ravelike parties in California, like a gathering in downtown L.A. during which Friend read erotic poetry (“We ride the tiger / I taste her hunger / In the burning of my desire / there is no hotter fire”) while a woman danced in a tiger outfit. But behind the scenes, Barrett began to gossip.
Barrett found kindred spirits in some of Anusara’s employees in Texas, who were getting disillusioned with Friend. Someone in the organization even built a joke website making fun of Friend. “AnusAura, which means ‘illuminated anus,’ is a sacred yoga system in which the Anal Chakra is manipulated in order to tune into the forces of Puni and Mani that exist throughout the entire universe,” said the site. The school was “rooted in the teachings of Slinkananda,” the site went on to say, and run by “Bob Buddy, the founder of AnusAura, [who] is known for his exciting events and ‘hands-on’ teaching methods.”
Friend was unaware of this discontent. “I was focused on expansion—‘I can hit several million people around the world with back pain, shoulder pain, menstrual problems, I can tell them what to do, and it will be inexpensive, we can show the world,’ ” he says. “I guess it’s what the Greeks call hubris.” He also had a bigger problem: After the first million he had raised flowed out the door, the $3 million to $5 million turned out not to be real.
Friend began frantically passing around an investor memo for $2 million in preferred stock to anyone who would take it; at one point he taught Sergey Brin’s family in Northern California, and, according to an employee, hoped Brin might make an investment. (“We did prayers for John’s meetings with important investors,” says the High Priestess.)
Desperate for cash, Friend had started to think it was time for the children to pay back the parent. He asked some teachers for a 10 percent cut of videos, books, or other products made by teachers in exchange for allowing those products to bear the Anusara trademark. Unhappy with this request, the senior teachers started to talk among themselves: Who was John Friend anyway? He had been their teacher, but they’d been on their own for so long; they were in their forties and fifties now, too old to be under anyone’s thumb.
And they had started to hear odd rumors of Friend’s secret life, of what he was doing in California. The core of this group were conservative, quiet yogis focused on building serious careers, not interested in being part of an organization that was starting to feel like “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll yoga,” as one put it. On New Year’s Day 2010, Friend showed up for practice in L.A. a few hours late, with women in tow, some of whom the host thought were still drunk (Friend says the women were “very respectful”). Later, the host yelled at him. “He said, ‘John, you’re hanging out with hard women, you’re going into the dark,’ ” says Friend.
Friend had leased a new house in California—he was on his way out of the Woodlands, though he always thought he’d keep his mom’s house, which he’d paid off. According to an employee, some of Friend’s staff in Texas were going to be let go when he moved, but Friend wasn’t telling anyone that yet. But someone knew the truth. The IT guy had been on the servers, looking at Friend’s e-mails back and forth about moving to California, his letters to and from the coven. The IT guy had his own set of American morals, and he didn’t like the way Friend was peacocking around the world, talking about ethics while leading a different kind of life. Someone with this much ego, and this much power, should be taken down, by rights. Putting up the JFExposed website was just being Batman, responding to the rules of karma. And if a few teachers knew that he was agitating to do something public, maybe go to the press, beforehand—well, maybe they thought it was the wake-up call Friend needed.
It was like the hand of God had reached down and struck Friend. Within four days, 22 teachers demanded that he step down from leadership of Anusara. “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.”
At first, Friend tried to dissemble, but that just made them angrier: They lived their lives “in alignment” with the principles of Anusara, with a fierce sense of honesty and integrity, and now their teacher was going to try to lie to them? A conference call was arranged with the same mediator from the scandal at Massachusetts’s Kripalu center in the nineties, when the leader, Amrit Desai, was deposed for a string of extramarital affairs with group members. Friend balked. “I tried to tell him that it wasn’t what he thought, and he kept saying, ‘No, you are in denial—you are sick, you know you’re sick, you have abused your power,’ ” says Friend. On the call with a new mediator, the teachers told Friend they felt betrayed; they were crying. Some women were trembling with fear and anger when they talked about the photographs that they saw on the site.
Friend asked to proceed with an upcoming seminar in Miami, on the theme of the “Dharma of Relationships.” “We had ten people from Brazil coming, and they weren’t going to get their airfare back,” he says. “And I was out of money, so I couldn’t refund anyone’s money for the classes.” He said he was happy to pass the “On Relationships” portion of the conference on to someone else, and the group eventually voted to allow him to proceed, with stipulations: He had to leave the room before the end of the class, so no one tried to hug him. There was to be no asking for forgiveness. No nurturing. No love. It was a Puritan sort of punishment, a shunning.
And it didn’t end. When Friend went to Miami, a call was made from a teacher at the conference to other senior teachers, saying that he wasn’t acting remorseful enough (later, he acted too loving, putting a chocolate on students’ mats for Valentine’s Day). Many more teachers resigned, some of whom were disciples of his old friend the Tantric scholar Brooks, who issued a letter saying that Friend should not have assumed the “seat of the teacher.” After a misunderstanding over whether he performed “sex therapy” on a woman with whom he had an affair, there was another round of resignations. Friend asked for an ethics review, but teachers were unmoved. “We don’t need to go through his dirty laundry,” says a source—“for free, by the way.”
The whole Anusara community was, in essence, a coven, with Friend as the magician, but now the trance was broken. “When your students are growing with you for twelve or fifteen years, they’re going to learn how to see,” says one. “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.”
Today, some teachers, realizing that all Friend has left to sell to get out of debt is the Anusara trademark, are interested in the question of whether Anusara now belongs in the public domain, in which case they can use the name (exercise methods like Pilates are not considered trademarked). Others, choosing to work within the Anusara system, have formed a steering committee that has been in touch with Friend’s investor in Seattle. They are trying to put together a new board, of thirteen teachers. Right now, the investor looks as if he’s willing to wash Friend’s debt. But the board will likely ask Friend to give up all the trademarks and intellectual property, and one more thing—not to teach the Anusara method, at least for a while.
Late in the afternoon, Friend takes me into his library, a low-ceilinged room lined with bookcases, with a ton of Hindu sculptures on top. His books are organized in sections: Buddhism, astrology, theosophy, scripture, sacred sexuality—“Those are the ones that will get me in trouble,” he says, with a hint of sadness. He’s been spending a lot of time in here, sending out prayers. “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.”
How does Friend redeem himself? Those close to him have suggested shaving his head. Or getting a woman pregnant, becoming a family man—that should work. A teacher on the steering committee advised him to meet with a psychiatrist in Atlanta, who could put him on probation, with no contact with female students unless someone else is present. Former Anusara teachers who are far less didactic have also offered their stance. “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.”
Today, Friend switches among benevolent grandiosity (“I am influential, I have established doctrine, I am an icon”), helpless anger (“It’s like, ‘Bye, John, go to an island somewhere with your coven’ ”), and a worried, earnest tone mixed with a bit of naïveté. “You know, I take Wicca really seriously,” he says. “I have taken Wiccan oaths over the years where death is actually the consequence of telling the truth.” Last week, he left on retreat for a month to an undisclosed location, but in six or nine months, he could come back to the yoga world—he’s booked Chichen Itza, one of the Mayans’ most sacred sites, for December 12, 2012. 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.
Friend kneels in front of a Hindu sculpture that he’s placed on the floor, on top of a series of rugs—it’s a two-and-a-half-foot-tall statue of Kali, the goddess of death, with eight arms raised—one holding a headless body, another with a scepter, another with a knife. The gesture has that mixture of profundity and ridiculousness that’s inescapable in the yoga world—and I didn’t doubt that he meant all of it. “This is to represent the last few months,” he says. “She’s the one that tears things completely apart. This is obviously my lesson. So we start fresh.”
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|Subject: Re: Karma Crash: Sex and the fall of an all-American Yogi - from New York Mag Mon Sep 08, 2014 11:11 pm|| |
I don't think this was previously posted, but forgive me if it was. Worth including here to add in more examples. Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise HereBy WILLIAM J. BROADPublished: February 27, 2012- from the New York Times
The wholesome image of yoga took a hit in the past few weeks as a rising star of the discipline came tumbling back to earth. After accusations of sexual impropriety with female students, John Friend, the founder of Anusara, one of the world’s fastest-growing styles, told followers that he was stepping down for an indefinite period of “self-reflection, therapy and personal retreat.”
George Rose/Getty Images
CELEBRITY GURU Swami Muktananda had many thousands of devotees, including celebrities. A senior aide charged that he was a serial philanderer and sexual hypocrite.
Mark Sullivan/WireImageIN RETREAT
John Friend's sexual indiscretions upset many devotees of Anusara yoga, which he founded.
ACCUSED GURU Swami Satchidananda was a superstar of yoga who gave the invocation at Woodstock.
Mr. Friend preached a gospel of gentle poses mixed with openness aimed at fostering love and happiness. But Elena Brower, a former confidante, has said that insiders knew of his “penchant for women” and his love of “partying and fun.”
Few had any idea about his sexual indiscretions, she added. The apparent hypocrisy has upset many followers.
“Those folks are devastated,” Ms. Brower wrote in The Huffington Post. “They’re understandably disappointed to hear that he cheated on his girlfriends repeatedly” and “lied to so many.”
But this is hardly the first time that yoga’s enlightened facade has been cracked by sexual scandal. Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught?
One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.
Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness.
The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Candidates for worship included actresses and prostitutes, as well as the sisters of practitioners.
Hatha originated as a way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts — including intercourse — to hasten rapturous bliss. In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality.
Early in the 20th century, the founders of modern yoga worked hard to remove the Tantric stain. They devised a sanitized discipline that played down the old eroticism for a new emphasis on health and fitness.
B. K. S. Iyengar, the author of “Light on Yoga,” published in 1965, exemplified the change. His book made no mention of Hatha’s Tantric roots and praised the discipline as a panacea that could cure nearly 100 ailments and diseases. And so modern practitioners have embraced a whitewashed simulacrum of Hatha.
But over the decades, many have discovered from personal experience that the practice can fan the sexual flames. Pelvic regions can feel more sensitive and orgasms more intense.
Science has begun to clarify the inner mechanisms. In Russia and India, scientists have measured sharp rises in testosterone — a main hormone of sexual arousal in both men and women. Czech scientists working with electroencephalographs have shown how poses can result in bursts of brainwaves indistinguishable from those of lovers. More recently, scientists at the University of British Columbia have documented how fast breathing — done in many yoga classes — can increase blood flow through the genitals. The effect was found to be strong enough to promote sexual arousal not only in healthy individuals but among those with diminished libidos.
In India, recent clinical studies have shown that men and women who take up yoga report wide improvements in their sex lives, including enhanced feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as well as emotional closeness with partners.
At Rutgers University, scientists are investigating how yoga and related practices can foster autoerotic bliss. It turns out that some individuals can think themselves into states of sexual ecstasy — a phenomenon known clinically as spontaneous orgasm and popularly as “thinking off.”
The Rutgers scientists use brain scanners to measure the levels of excitement in women and compare their responses with readings from manual stimulation of the genitals. The results demonstrate that both practices light up the brain in characteristic ways and produce significant rises in blood pressure, heart rate and tolerance for pain — what turns out to be a signature of orgasm.
Since the baby boomers discovered yoga, the arousal, sweating, heavy breathing and states of undress that characterize yoga classes have led to predictable results. In 1995, sex between students and teachers became so prevalent that the California Yoga Teachers Association deplored it as immoral and called for high standards.
“We wrote the code,” Judith Lasater, the group’s president, told a reporter, “because there were so many violations going on.”
If yoga can arouse everyday practitioners, it apparently has similar, if not greater, effects on gurus — often charming extroverts in excellent physical condition, some enthusiastic for veneration.
The misanthropes among them offer a bittersweet tribute to yoga’s revitalizing powers. A surprising number, it turns out, were in their 60s and 70s.
Swami Muktananda (1908-82) was an Indian man of great charisma who favored dark glasses and gaudy robes.
At the height of his fame, around 1980, he attracted many thousands of devotees — including movie stars and political celebrities — and succeeded in setting up a network of hundreds of ashrams and meditation centers around the globe. He kept his main shrines in California and New York.
In late 1981, when a senior aide charged that the venerated yogi was in fact a serial philanderer and sexual hypocrite who used threats of violence to hide his duplicity, Mr. Muktananda defended himself as a persecuted saint, and soon died of heart failure.
Joan Bridges was one of his lovers. At the time, she was 26 and he was 73. Like many other devotees, Ms. Bridges had a difficult time finding fault with a man she regarded as a virtual god beyond law and morality.
“I was both thrilled and confused,” she said of their first intimacy in a Web posting. “He told us to be celibate, so how could this be sexual? I had no answers.”
To denounce the philanderers would be to admit years of empty study and devotion. So many women ended up blaming themselves. Sorting out the realities took years and sometimes decades of pain and reflection, counseling and psychotherapy. In time, the victims began to fight back.
Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002) was a superstar of yoga who gave the invocation at Woodstock. In 1991, protesters waving placards (“Stop the Abuse,” “End the Cover Up”) marched outside a Virginia hotel where he was addressing a symposium.
“How can you call yourself a spiritual instructor,” a former devotee shouted from the audience, “when you have molested me and other women?”
Another case involved Swami Rama (1925-96), a tall man with a strikingly handsome face. In 1994, one of his victims filed a lawsuit charging that he had initiated abuse at his Pennsylvania ashram when she was 19. In 1997, shortly after his death, a jury awarded the woman nearly $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
So, too, former devotees at Kripalu, a Berkshires ashram, won more than $2.5 million after its longtime guru — a man who gave impassioned talks on the spiritual value of chastity — confessed to multiple affairs.
The drama with Mr. Friend is still unfolding. So far, at least 50 Anusara teachers have resigned, and the fate of his enterprise remains unclear. In his letter to followers, he promised to make “a full public statement that will transparently address the entirety of this situation.”
The angst of former Anusara teachers is palpable. “I can no longer support a teacher whose actions have caused irreparable damage to our beloved community,” Sarah Faircloth, a North Carolina instructor, wrote on her Web site.
But perhaps — if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.
William J. Broad is the author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards,” published this month by Simon & Schuster.
Karma Crash: Sex and the fall of an all-American Yogi - from New York Mag