Anusara Yoga Sex Scandal Confirmed

Anusara Yoga at Barcelona Yoga Conference
Photo Credit: Barcelona Yoga Conference

The stage has been set for the perfect storm: the charismatic leader, the devoted followers, the extensive trainings that require significant monetary investments to earn the right to claim your affiliation. The yoga community is once again abuzz with rumors, accusations, and worry over the integrity of a beloved guru.

For the last several years, John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga, has been gathering a loyal and devoted following. According to the Anusara principles, the practice is “grounded in a Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness” and is practiced with the intention of “align[ing] with the Divine”. Anusara teachers help students achieve this in part by setting a heart-oriented goal for each class and by applying the “Universal Principles of Alignment” (TM) to each asana. This approach has earned the brand the reputation of the ultimate representatives of shiny, happy, heart melting yoga.

Despite this reputation, controversy isn’t new to the Anusara brand. Last year the New York Times labeled Friend the “Yoga Mogul” and compared him to a rock star, claiming female students flocked to him, giggling as they encircled him and pressed hotel keys into his hands. This depiction ruffled the feathers of many in the community, and senior teacher Elena Brower defended the organization and Friend in a comment on the YogaDork blog. Yet, less than a year later she announced she was retiring her Anusara certification.

Three more senior teachers followed suit, and the community became worried about what wasn’t being said. Things really began to buzz last week when an anonymous source created a website called “JFexposed” (which has since been taken down). The site made many allegations, including sexual misconduct, philandering, fraud, and drug trafficking. While Friend remained silent on the subject, YogaDork unintentionally ignited more controversy by posting a link to the site and outlining the allegations.

The controversy-within-the-controversy revolves around journalistic integrity in the age of instantaneous information sharing. YogaDork’s stated intention of the post was to open a timely line of conversation. In a later defense of the decision she again welcomed the community to come forward to verify or disprove the statements, as the Anusara organization wasn’t returning her phone calls. That is, not until they wanted the post taken down.

Over at Elephant Journal (EJ), fellow blogger Waylan Lewis took the stance that the anonymous allegations should not have been published without verification. Which is perhaps why Friend has granted him not one, but two interviews, one before he admitted that several of the allegations were true, and one after.

While the subtleties of journalist integrity among bloggers have yet to be worked out, it does appear that the Friend camp is in damage control mode. Friend has released a letter to his employees apologizing for any harm that may have been done to the Ansuara brand and promising to “reaffirm” his “devotion to the highest“.

It’s not uncommon for gurus to fall from grace, unable to stay balanced atop their pedestal indefinitely. No one is perfect, and eventually the less polished aspects of their personality and/or private life begin to show through the shroud of assumed purity. It’s cliché but true, the higher we place them, the further they have to fall. Which raises the question, why are we putting our yoga teachers and other spiritual leaders way up there in the first place?

The yamas and the niyamas lay out a code of ethics we would never expect a politician or a Hollywood celebrity to live up to. Yet it sometimes seems that we are willing to create a cult of personality around celebrity yoga teachers (or preachers, or whomever) and decide they are our conduit to the divine.

There is a Buddhist teaching to be a lamp unto yourself. It may not always be easy, but if we can remember to try to look within to find the light we seek, we may not be so disappointed when it turns out that someone else didn’t have it.

Unfortunately, in these situations some faithful followers are also hurt as their hero falls from grace. More than one yogi guru has been revealed to be all too humanly fallible in the not too distant past. So for some, the current controversy has a sting that is all too familiar.

A breach of trust is all the more bitter when it disrupts our faith in a person who we believe is living with a shared set of ethics.

What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding Anusara and John Friend?

Comments 8

  1. A couple thoughts. First, you’re right–nobody’s perfect. Second, you’re right again about this cult of personality phenomenon. In relative terms, I’m an old timer (been teaching Kripalu yoga since 1979). At some point, you come to understand that the only true guru is the one within, the Sat Guru. This doesn’t minimize my profound admiration for my teacher/guru, without whose guidance I would never have come to know the joy of this lifestyle nor come to this place in my spiritual life.

  2. I am relatively new to yoga….just a few years, and the style I learned, pranakriya, your teacher is more mentor or guide than “guru” in the sense that you are shown how to find your own yogic path…how you find it is really personal but allows you to expand and grow. Each teacher, each student contributes to that path so there seems to less “hero worship” but much respect for those whose path is clearer for them and true acceptance for all who practice…..I hope those who are feeling hurt right now can find a place of peace in their heart….

  3. I agree, 2blissed and mbcyoga. Eventually we must seek the teacher within our selves; yet that doesn’t diminish the role of the teacher. Sometimes the “lessons” are harder than others, I also hope those who are feeling hurt and/or disillusioned can find peace with the situation.

    lulumars – thank you very much, that is really nice to hear!

  4. “there is a light that shines brighter than any light in the heavens, this is the light that shines in your own heart.I bow to my heart,the teacher within “

  5. If John Friend was a singer of a rock band, no one would be shocked or surprised…but due to his “God-like status” many non-yoga-naysayers are pointing the finger that yoga is nothing but a sex cult. Oh please! If I had a dollar for every famous group leader that abused his position for sexual favors, I wouldn’t need to work. I listened to all the buzz and I’m tired of defending “yoga” from people who have no idea what it is all about. I totally agree we must find the teacher within.

  6. While reading this article I remembered the Yoga Journal Conferences I have attended over the years, where these celebrity yoga teachers are catapulted to cult status. The same teachers are booked year after year ensuring that their celebrity-guru-like status remains intact. These teachers may have begun teaching with honorable and noble goals but when 500 “followers” flock to hear their every word they are turned into celebrities and run the risk of losing sight of their original ideals.

  7. I am not surprised by it…when anyone is led by the ego destruction inevitably follows, whether student or teacher. Yes, no one is perfect and we must always remember the very one we may esteem is still a Student.

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