Anatomy of a Yoga Internet Scandal

Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon

Opening Up with Anusara
Founder John Friend

by Rob Sidon

John Friend was born in Chicago in 1959 and grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, before moving to Houston in the late seventies. Thanks to his open-minded mother, John was exposed to advanced spiritual philosophy and yoga since the age of eight. He began teaching yoga in 1980 and caught the early wave, becoming a nationally known Iyengar instructor from 1986 until 1995. One of the first yoga rock stars, John was featured multiple times on the cover of Yoga Journal since founding Anusara Yoga in 1997—one of the largest pedagogies, which included over 1,500 teachers.

His fortunes reversed in early 2012 after one of his employees released hacked information about his adulterous sex life and allegations that he smoked pot, was part of a Wiccan sex coven, and had mishandled company pension funds. The once-beloved icon was banished from the yoga community and forced to declare bankruptcy.

In a rare conversation, John speaks to Common Ground about his life, the Internet scandal, his regrets, his accountability, his apologies, his karma in the big picture, and how with his new business partner, Desi Springer, he’s attempting a comeback with the Bowspring Method—a system he claims represents a paradigm shift in the science of yoga alignment.

Common Ground: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. I think readers will be interested in hearing your truth. You famously started Anusara Yoga in 1997. What does Anusara mean?

John Friend: It means “flowing with grace.”

It was a yoga empire, and you were a kingpin.

If 1,500 teachers is an empire. The top 100 were making really good annual salaries of six figures for sure.

In your words, what happened in 2012 when your world came crashing down?

What kind of detail do you want? The Anusara scandal is like four different allegations that were put together to paint a picture so that people would literally turn and run. When people run, no one pauses to say, “Which of the allegations is actually true?” The allegations were that I had an affair with a married woman, that I smoke marijuana, that I have been part of a Wiccan organization. And the fourth gave the idea that I had maybe absconded or mishandled pension funds in my company. Those are the four, but the fourth was just a lie that was easily cleared up when the government tax office wrote a letter that said there was no violation. It was over a technicality, believe it or not, because of my informing my employees through a self-addressed stamped envelope. [Chuckles] It was like somebody went after me to tear me down. There definitely was some real negative energy that wanted me out of the picture. When those allegations went up on the Internet, there was just a mass exodus, and I was basically excommunicated.

How did you wind up bankrupt from the company you created?

The community chose not to have me teach. Nobody would have me, and I also had debt, and the debt was called. Without revenue I had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.

What’s life been like for you since?

A total wipeout and just starting over. It’s been a terrible disaster—the loss of the relationships, the loss of my capacity
to work, and the loss of my creative properties, bankruptcy. Immediately, I just looked at myself and the situation I created and took full accountability from the beginning. That means to be able to see where I had been out of alignment myself and where I had bad boundaries and to look at my stuff and literally go deep enough to make the shift. I needed to make the change so that something like that never happens again. It’s had a deep impact on my heart, and there’s a whole different conviction since 2012.

It was one of your own employees who called it out on the Web. How did it go down?

This is a sick person. An employee of mine who I was paying, who never came to me and said he disagreed with my private life. It was not like I hurt this guy or his family. He felt like I was morally wrong for having an affair, so he hacked into my emails. I literally paid his salary, and all the while he’s building a website to expose me using hacked emails to ruin my reputation. He never spoke directly to me. We never had a rational conversation about my morals—nothing like that. After it all happened, I confronted him but he denied everything. Later, on the Internet, he confessed everything. In his sick mind he thought he could be judge and jury and executioner. But again, it’s beyond the person. It’s like my karma and so it happened. The guy, he’s just like a player in the bigger game.

Interesting karma indeed—to go from rock star of the yoga world to banishment. I read these harsh words about you on the Internet [] calling you “a man who built a worldwide empire upon powder kegs and then sparked them himself by sleeping with married students, hiding questionable financial practices, sending gophers for his pot, and abusing his power to intimidate anyone who tried to step outside the circle, only to watch the whole thing burn from a safe distance and blame it on everyone else.” How do you respond?

[Laughs, sighs, pauses] Yeah. Harsh. I never blamed it on anybody except myself, but yeah that was my thing—I had an affair. But there were no financial misdealings. I ran the company well for 15 years and treated my employees, even the ones who turned on me, very well. I paid some more than I paid myself. It’s a clear disassociation. People were pissed be cause they thought it was very immoral and didn’t want to be associated with me, but the mismanagement and my blaming it on others—that’s just ridiculous.

It sounds like you’ve gone through a lot of regret and contrition. What are some lessons people can gain from your odyssey?

Will I ever have an affair again? No. Will I ever lie to my partners? No. Will I lie to anybody? I’m trying to be very truthful and accountable. It takes a lot of mindfulness to look at my own shadows and patterns and to focus on the beauty, goodness, and love and being truthful. That’s where I’ve been since 2012. It’s my own karma, but it was connected to a lot of other people. And that’s the thing about the 21stcentury Internet—when you’re a public figure, Americans want to know who you’re sleeping with. I definitely had a lot of opportunity, and you have to be really clear and truthful when you have so much opportunity. I cut corners and just won’t do that again.

What is your crime? It sounds like success went to your head, which is quite typical and can happen to anybody.

No crime, all consensual, but I had an affair with a married woman, and to most Americans adultery is immoral.

Four years ago we published an article called “Yoga on a Pedestal” based on your incident. It was an intelligent essay that cautioned readers to become discriminating and to not simply give their power away to teachers.

This is the whole ethical question in relationships because of power dynamics. If you give an individual, a public figure, tremendous authority, you’re giving this power that could never be balanced. So any kind of relationship would be questioned: “Was it manipulated?” If you’re on that pedestal you never win. You never can have a relationship, you know? Accountability goes both ways in relationship. I’d tell people, “I’m no guru. I’m a guy from Chicago, I smoke marijuana, I love women.” But I am also respectful of women and treated them as well as I possibly could. Nobody was abused, and nobody ever complained of being hurt by me. My intimate relationships were consensual and private, but if you ascribe the power differential it’s viewed as manipulation, and I can only be found guilty.

On the Internet you’re also accused of being part of a Wiccan sex coven.

[Laughs] There’s no sex coven. It’s such a joke how people trip out and make up stories and have a fantasy world in their heads. There was no sex coven.

What is a coven? I don’t really know that word.

It means a group of people that are working together in earth-based ceremonial practices. I’ve been in a coven ever since I was a teenager in Ohio, so it’s not new to me. Wiccan religion is not that far out these days. We work with nature, the moon phases, the energy of the day and the night, the contours of the land, water, fire, the wind, different minerals. We work with energy, and it can be used for healing or for destruction. Every coven I’ve ever been in was only positive, focusing on love, goodness, and beauty. Come on! A basic pagan Wiccan should not be radically looked upon like it was the 16th or 17th century. My Wiccan practice has always been sacred to me and private because even if you just say “Wicca,” a lot of Americans get nervous and flip out just by the word. Then if somebody drops in some disinformation and puts in the word “sex” or “massage,” then it gets really out there. But all the students and teachers knew I studied Wicca. If you said you found a citation that I was in a sex coven, I can categorically say that’s false.

Let’s switch gears and talk about your background. You were born in Chicago, right?

I was born in Chicago in 1959. My father was a New Englander, German, in Connecticut. My grandfather was a farmer, and my greatgrandfather was in the fire department and did other jobs. My mother was a Southerner who was born in Georgia and came from Alabama to Chicago, where she met my dad and got married. She had me eight years later and my brother three years afterward as she was approaching 40, which was kind of radical at the time. They moved to Youngstown, Ohio, where my dad was in the steel industry.

What was your spiritualreligious upbringing in Youngstown?

My mother was extraordinary in that she was a free thinker and a critical thinker who turned her mind to philosophy. She wanted me to investigate the highest ministries of life, and that’s how I got exposed to all these books. Whatever I wanted to read, she would provide. I had a really good library early. She gave me the opportunity to visit different churches or synagogues every weekend, and we would go to some new place to be exposed to a different philosophy, a different religion, a different culture. She was really into multicultural expansion and liberal thinking. She applied the same kind of openness to racial equanimity, which was also radical back then. By the time I was 13, I was in the Theosophical Society in Youngstown and became the little librarian of our local chapter.

Wow, so far ahead of your time!

Yeah, when I was eight years old my mother read me stories of yogis, and I was so intrigued that I started formally practicing in the early seventies. Then in high school I was definitely an interesting character—I’d bring my Bhagavad Gita to school. I was very into all the esoterica and yoga practices and got into Wicca. I got into Sufism and all kinds of Kundalini practices, Tibetan bowls, etc. That was the seventies for me in Youngstown. It was fun for me and always positive. It was about truth and beauty—those Grecian values, those universal truths that are reflections of every culture—that’s what my mother encouraged me to look for.

And when the steel industry cratered?

Dad lost his job in the late seventies, and Youngstown had some of highest unemployment in the country. It’s been one of the big drains where many people like us moved from the Rust Belt to the Sunbelt. We caught the boom and wild times in Houston in oil and gas. We moved to The Woodlands north of Houston, which is where I started teaching yoga in 1980, and I went to Texas A&M and got a business degree.


No, I just have a BBA in finance and accounting. That was in 1983. I taught yoga part-time as I was practicing finance and accounting and then full-time as of 1987. It was very unique to be doing yoga in the early seventies, but then modern postural yoga started taking off in the eighties and nineties, and I was catching that wave.

Iyengar Yoga was your focus?

Between 1986 and 1995 I focused on Iyengar Yoga as my main practice. In 1989 I went to India, and that’s where I met Gurumayi [the current head of Siddha Yoga] and also developed a connection with Bhagavan Nityananda [the originator of Siddha Yoga, who passed in 1961], and that was the start of a totally magical tour for me. Suddenly, the phone was ringing, and I had contacts and people that supported my workshops all around the country. From 1990 I started teaching more nationally. I made an Iyengar video in 1993 on alignment and form. In 1995 I resigned my Iyengar certification and in 1997 started Anusara in The Woodlands. I literally built an addition onto my garage and had the Anusara office in the house. Eventually, I got a bigger office that was away from the house so we could have more employees.

Thinking back, I see a seamless connection of Bhagavan’s grace, which I know is hard to understand, but it was there. I started the Anusara system based on a set of alignment principles fundamentally, connecting the heart and feeling and meaningfulness into one’s physical expression. There was a big focus on heart and to making the physical movements an artistic and spiritual offering. It had a big focus on community as well. Along with the general wave of yoga popularity, which was expanding like crazy, the Anusara community also grew all over the world.

Alignment—that’s what you’re best known for, right? Which you obviously learned from Iyengar.

I think so. One differentiating factor of Anusara was that there was a set of alignment principles; I called them “universal principles of alignment.” They gave a detailed pedagogy for Anusara teachers, which allowed them to be more detailed and precise.

Can you describe what you’re teaching now?

About nine months after the Internet scandal, it was not like a lot of people wanted me, but I came to Denver to study with Desi Springer and worked with her. She and her sister gave me work at the Vital Studio in Denver and then in Golden. I recognized that Desi’s ideas of alignment were really a whole different way of viewing a posture. For me it was a paradigm shift from the linear Iyengar alignment that I had learned or even from before, from my early Satchidananda [the founder of Integral Yoga] when I was 13. There, everything was about a straight vertical spine, elongated as much as you can. That’s where the Anusara alignment principles came from that included the loops. The loops were a system to link the spine in this linear way.

But Desi had this whole different idea of dynamic curves that were open and springy and much more physically elastic instead of a more solid structure of doing a pose. When I realized what she was doing, the whole alignment thing radically shifted for me. So we started working in what we call the Bowspring Method. We’ve taught over 100 seminars in over nine countries. It’s more like a mind-body training.

You created Anusara, and a lot of people believe it, love it, and swear by it—and now?

I published those alignment principles in 1998 and people still use them, but for me with Desi, I realized that the whole Anusara alignment principles were based on an idea that the body is a solid compressive structure. The emerging science is showing that the body is a vestal, elastic structure in dynamic equilibrium. The bones are not holding the body up; it’s the fascia that holds the bones up. It is much more of a springy, bouncy form with a different structural curvature alignment. We have a concept of a template that is ideal for dynamic posture, with enough curve in your back and through your body that is by definition like a bow spring. That’s what I am practicing and teaching now.

Is Desi your romantic partner too? A business partner? Or is that none of my business?

Yeah, she’s my business partner. She’s my best friend and an angel to me. She’s been super supportive and totally holding me accountable for everything, helping me, my mind, and my body. I lost almost 50 pounds since starting to work with her and am in the best shape I’ve been in many years.

Earlier you mentioned that you believed there were people with vested interests in dislodging you, that there may have been an agenda.

They pushed and thought they’d put me out for good, but that negativity has waned. They’ve seen over the last five years that I’ve been steady in my practice, in my work, and that I’m helping people, so there’s a lot less pushback. Every week I get more correspondence from students I haven’t heard from since the scandal. More and more people are reconnecting.

I think you did have a reputation for being pretty hard in business within the yoga community, for cutting tough deals with the yoga studios. Can you answer to that?

I’ve never heard such things like that. I mean, if you have something specific, but usually we never got complaints until the scandal. After` the scandal, people started putting out a lot of their anger on the Internet. I handle our business and feel super generous, almost overly generous in many cases in business. So if you have an instance about me being overly tough with somebody, I don’t know when that was.

I am not in the business. The yoga press beat you up recently by comparing you to Bikram [Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga, who is fighting multiple sexual harassment and sexual assault lawsuits]. Do you want to comment on those?

Yeah. [Sighs] Yoga Journal put me right alongside with Bikram, whose legal charges against him are a big difference from the alleged rumors of my private, consensual sex life.

We live in a world where morals are changing quickly. Here in the Bay Area there’s a famous sex-positive attitude and some acceptance of polyamory.

My philosophy is that each relationship is private unto that relationship; I believe in privacy. The idea that you have to be transparent in your sex life is old-school. I have definitely been wholly and harshly judged and people definitely wanted to hurt me. Not like a slap on the wrist but public shaming, threats, etc. Just really negative.

You think it’s gone overboard, that you did your time?

I’m not going to sentence myself. It’s based on somebody else’s sentence, you know? So other people have to give a second chance and say I’m not condemned for the rest of my life. I know I’m moving on. I have to remember the past and do it better and not repeat. That’s what I’m doing.

There’s a longstanding trend in the media. They’re willing to build you up, then tear you down, but they also like a good comeback. You see it in Hollywood a lot.

Some people like the heroic return of an underdog, where there is a real shift and reformation. That’s a positive story and an inspired human story—that everybody and anybody can take a higher path and find their own freedom from their own accountability. But of course I feel misunderstood by so many people that don’t even know me. They only know me through the Internet.

Do you think people are willing to forgive you?

Things have shifted. People are more open now to hear what I have to say, while some people hold such negative energy in their hearts that it’s hard to let go. There are always going to be those people who deal with their own hate.

I know there are a lot of people who invested a lot of time and money, who built a whole career around you and Anusara, and they feel let down and very hurt. What do you say to them?

To every single person that I hurt, I deeply apologize. I’d deeply apologize to their face if they wanted to see me. There was never any intent to harm them. I wasn’t thinking, “I’m now going to publicize my consensual relations and create a whole destruction of a community.” I never could conceive that. And of course I’m super regretful about my sexual affair. I changed my life, and I’m living a different way. Some will forgive and some won’t. Some will give me a second chance to offer something to them, and others will unfortunately have hate for a long time. That’s my creation. That’s my karma.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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