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Disgraced Guru Makes a Triumphant Return

American Yoga Still Has a “Friend”

by STEWART LAWRENCE

He’s back.  The one-time bete noire of American yoga – John Friend – has returned to the limelight after his precipitous fall from grace in early 2012.  He’s more grizzled and notably trimmed down these days but seems anything but contrite.  He’s still sporting a version of that goofy impish grin he wore as a poster boy for the fun-and-frolic yoga brand known as “Anusara” — once labeled the “fastest growing yoga style in America” by the industry trade magazine Yoga Journal.   But his relaxed, easy-going demeanor has noticeably faded.  In recent interviews and publicity photos, Friend has the steely-eyed gaze of a wounded — but triumphant –survivor.

The story of Friend’s rise, fall and resurrection is hardly a new one in yoga.  Top gurus, especially those transplanted to America’s seductive materialistic culture, have been experiencing karmic cycles of “death and reincarnation” for years.  In the 1990s there was Amit Desrai, revered as a near saint who preached the virtues of chastity but was eventually outed for bedding down a number of his starry-eyed disciples.  During that era, things got so out of hand in California that a handful of senior yogis, led by the estimable Judith Lasater, stepped in to insist that the state’s flimsy state yoga association establish stronger guidelines to maintain more appropriate teacher-student boundaries.  It seemed to work — for a while.

If Friend’s flamboyant antics – at the time of his fall, he was running a small sex harem, dubbed the “Blazing Solar Flames,” and seducing some of his married acolytes — are any indication, yoga ethics, at least in America, are observed “situationally” at best.  Serious yogis are supposed to be bound by the so-called “yamas and the niyamas,” broadly stated guidelines regulating their ethical conduct — too broadly, it seems.  The guidelinesm which aren’t that different from the 10 Commandments, extol the virtues of honesty, and “doing no harm,”—ahimsa — but the actual context of their application is left unspecified, and there is nothing actually there about coveting one‘s neighbor‘s wife, for example.  Some have argued that these principles relate primarily to the yogi’s own well-being, not to the well-being of others, especially if the two are conflict.  Judging from the hushed confessions one reads on yoga blogs like Elephant Journal, yoga women – who dominate the industry almost 8-1– are hardly victims.  Even veteran yoga teachers admit to pulling one-night stands with adoring male students they somehow can’t resist –never bothering to inquire whether their students had established partners or not.

Debate quietly rages within yoga circles about the mind-body practice’s precise relationship to sex.   New York Times science critic William Broad caused his own storm of controversy when he insisted in the wake of the John Friend scandal that yoga had begun as a “sex cult.”  That might be pushing things a bit, but there’s no question that many yoga consumers look to the practice to rev up their libidos and improve their stamina and potency. And one doesn’t need to consult the Kama Sutra, the oft-hyped Hindu sex manual, to achieve this result.  To a certain extent it flows naturally from a practice that intended to liberate Westerners from their tendency to deny the body and its needs as “natural,” if not always “sacred.”  Does that mean you go out and screw everyone you meet?  Hardly.  In many sacred Hindu texts, conserving and sublimating your sexual energy and dedicating yourself to a partner have long been the preferred ideal.

But Friend, ever the rebel, insisted on pushing the envelope from the beginning.  He wasn’t content with the relatively buttoned down yoga he’d imbibed from the likes of Lasater and their one-time shared guru, B.F. Iyengar, the “father” of Hatha yoga.  His own system paid homage to Iyengar, in its embrace of precise pose “alignment” as the key to securing maximum benefits form the practice.  But Friend also entered the forbidden zone: the Tantra, the esoteric and erotic mysticism that emerged in medieval times long after “classical yoga” first appeared.  In marketing yoga to Westerners, Iyengar had tried to strip the practice of the Tantra, fearing a backlash over its sexual connotations as well as an uncritical embrace of yoga’s “dark” and manipulative side that could lead to power temptations.  But that was in the pre-Counterculture era.  Friend wanted it both ways – the authority of the ancients, and the sex, drugs and rock and roll of the post-70s era.  He got them both, and as Iyengar might have predicted (he has never spoken publicly about the Friend scandal), it sent the aging post-hippie crashing down in flames.

Why did so many people buy the Friend path to golden unlimited devotion?   That would probably require more extensive social-psychological study.  But past research on the mythology of gurus and their followers has provided powerful clues.  For one thing, the “profession” of yoga — with its promise of a captive audience imbuing the self-styled guru with a veneer of spiritual authority without any real institutional or legal accountability – is a set up for power-trippers.  And once they sense how well their rap is working, their megalomania combined with genuine creative inspiration leads them naturally to dreams of personal empire, and a belief in their own God like-qualities.   Friend disdained use of the word guru to describe himself but his followers did not.  And this is what makes cults and quasi-cults like Anusara so pernicious and enduring:  the circle of complicity is much broader than the top man.  As the group’s membership and popularity grows, it draws in more people into its upper ranks to help manage the emotional as well as financial pyramid.  They develop leadership fiefdoms and flocks of their own – and they develop expectations of personal advancement and favor from the guru andf the world around them.

How much of Anusara Yoga’s unraveling was due to real principle, and how much to a collective revolt among disenchanted spiritual climbers cut from the same cloth as Friend is a matter of dispute.  The evidence of Friend’s indiscretions, and his reckless pot-smoking and financial irregularities (ironically, perhaps, Friend was a financial analysis in his “former” life), was there for years, especially among those who had started with him early, but they remained concealed from the larger mass of Anusara followers. It might have stayed that way were it not for Friend’s IT geek — a man, in fact — who decided to turn whistleblower and begin releasing incriminating evidence on the web.  But the first sign of trouble came months earlier, when a stream of Friend’s top female lieutenants and long-time admirers — women like Christina Sell, Amy Ippolitti, Elena Brower and Suzie Hurley, the latter a founder of the Willow Street Yoga Center in Takoma Park, MD, ground zero for Anusara Yoga in the US — began resigning from Anusara or pulling back from their public association with Friend.  Most didn’t reveal the true real reasons for their departure – until much later, and their defections triggered a wave of mass defections among the 1,500 Anusara yoga teachers nationwide, as well as a backlash from those who insisted on trying to wrestle control of the Anusara brand from Friend.

The resulting furor rocked the yoga world for months, and after tense negotiations and legal threats, Friend eventually agreed to step down and to cede control over Anusara to others.  If there was ever any doubt about just how cultish the organization had become, the psychological fall-out from its practical dissolution spoke loud.  Many long-time followers melted down, becoming depressed and suicidal, dozens sought therapy.  Many others fled the organization and even gave up yoga altogether, so traumatized by their own gullible belief in a self-styled “avatar” that most had never met.  Friend’s grand plans for an Anusara yoga “megaplex” in Encinitas, California, considered by many to be the birthplace of American yoga, were cancelled, and the land for the center sold.  A separate Anusara center in Texas was forced to closed, and many other Anusara studios, like Willow Street in Takoma, lost members as well as fees from prospective teacher trainees, one of their main sources of income.

Most of Friend’s female lieutenants have struggled to find new niches in the yoga world, concealing their shame at having stayed at the fair for so long.  Brower has morphed from a high-flying Anusara yoga teacher into a New Age life coach and cosmetician.  Ippolitti, who once hoped Friend would back her own personal yoga brand as a spin-off, now offers her services to fellow yoga teachers on how to grow their yoga businesses. Hurley, who had journeyed with Friend than just about anyone retired, still heart-broken, but still teaches alongside her son and daughter-in-law who reconfigured the Anusara method but publicly disavowed the brand.   And Douglas Brooks, Friend’s long-time collaborator and theological front-man, seems to have retreated from view altogether.  Talk to anyone closely associated
wioth the remants of Anusara Yoga, especially the women, and the pain still lingers.  It’s a wound so deep that it may never really heal.

But not for Friend, apparently.  Like General MacArthur, he promised long ago to return – and he has.   He’s apparently cut a brand new marketing deal with two high-powered yoga women in Colorado – one of them rumored to be his mistress – over a new “revolutionary” yoga system that he’s dubbed “Roots” yoga.   In typical Friend fashion, simply explaining the new system and its many intricacies makes one’s head spin.  Some say the sisters, not Friend, invented the new system, which promises the most intense experience of yoga ever. They only turned to Friend for support – and collaboration — because of his financial connections and marketing prowess.

Whatever the real truth is – and we may never actually know it – Friend has recovered his old swagger. He now disses Anusara as the work of a lesser mortal.   Once he seemed willing to take some measure of real responsibility for the circumstances that led to his demise as the American yoga’s leading “It-Boy.”  Now, in his most recent interviews, he seems to chalk it all up to an “Internet witch hunt.”

Poor John Friend.  It seems that the world is still not big enough to accommodate him.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com