The Yoga Predator Files: John Friend

John Friend, disgraced yoga teacher, standing in front of a lake with his eyes closed in tree pose. Ooooh, he looks so yogic.

A few months back, I noticed an ad promoted by Yoga Journal floating around on my Facebook feed for a yoga teacher training in a “new style” with yoga opportunist and known predator John Friend. A handful of years back, Friend lost his yoga empire in a spectacular public redressing following the release of several incriminating documents regarding Friend’s misconduct as a teacher and leader. And yet, here he was, crawling his way back into the industry with a newly-branded way of moving your body.

Back in February 2012, a website detailing sexual abuse and criminal allegations against John Friend was published online. Friend was founder and head of a well-known yoga school known as Anusara School of Hatha Yoga, which was at the time one of the largest internationally unified yoga programs. Its teachers and its principles were regularly featured in the pages of YogaJournal and other industry publications. Celebrities and notables flocked to classes led by Friend and his core group of teachers, and Anusara was even once named by name on an episode of Law and Order (indicative of the popularity of the style, likely one of the writers or actors themselves was a practitioner). John Friend himself enjoyed near-rockstar status, headlining yoga festivals (a friend of mine who worked for Wanderlust in 2012 disclosed they signed Friend for a ten thousand dollar per-festival contract), signing high-profile endorsement deals, and presiding over an international yoga movement with massive prestige and reputation. JFExposed.com, the website detailing the allegations, shook the core of the movement and sent reverberations throughout the entire yoga industry.

The published allegations were stark: John Friend, the website alleged, was the leader of a Wiccan coven, called The Blazing Solar Flames, whose members included female Anusara teachers and students that he allegedly engaged in sexual practices with under the guise of spiritual practice. He was also accused of sexual affairs with teachers and married students. In addition, the website also alleged that Friend engaged in predatory business misconduct, freezing the funding of defined employee benefits plans without prior notification to employees in violation of federal employment regulations. Finally, the website alleged that Friend regularly placed employees and assistants in legal jeopardy by having them purchase and deliver marijuana to the Anusara office for his personal use. Taken together, these allegations provide a portrait of a figure with too much power over a group, and what can happen when that power goes unquestioned by its members. While JFExposed.com was only live online for a little over a day and quickly removed, most of its content was picked up by yoga blog YogaDork. Among the information published, the website contained emails and letters between Friend and his alleged Wiccan sex coven, documentation of lewd photo exchanges between Friend and a married student, and a memo documenting how Friend attempted to illegally freeze promised pension funds.

A media storm paired with a social media tempest erupted in the days following the publication of JFExposed.com. YogaDork’s documentation of JFExposed was picked up by and reported in depth in The Washington Post. Sensationalized reports about “the fall of the All-American Yogi” unearthed scandalous details (the jar of pubic hair, for example), which would be reported on in tabloid-style excitement for months following. A profile written for New York Magazine two months following the JFExposed.com allegations would describe Friend in his Woodland, Texas home as “glowy, level-headed, fun,” more like a young Bill Clinton than a yoga teacher. Popular yoga-based publications would interview former and current Anusara teachers, trying to get a better grasp not only on what had happened, but on what the dynamic truly was between John Friend and the Anusara yoga community.

In an open letter to his community dated March 20, Friend abjectly denied being part of a “sex coven,” although he admitted to involvement in “nontraditional spiritual groups.” In that letter, he also attributed the pension plan freezing to an “administrative error” which he claimed had been corrected. He also admitted openly to “consenting relationships with women, some of whom have been my students and my employees, some of which included married women.” In the wake of the allegations, large swaths of well-known Anusara teachers either opted to distance themselves from Friend and step down from Anusara altogether, while others corralled together to attempt to protect the school from complete decimation. Friend eventually stepped down from his leadership position at Anusara Yoga, taking what he claimed to be a “leave of absence for self-reflection, therapy, and personal retreat.” He transferred the rights to the name “Anusara” to the newly-formed leadership group of Anusara teachers who had banded together and dissolved his business, Anusara Inc.

When the story about John Friend broke on the internet, the yoga world was cast into a furor. Hundreds of Anusara teachers posted their own testimonials, resignations, denunciations, or messages of support for Friend; the YogaDork piece was shared thousands of times and yoga teachers across the globe discussed the implications, not just for the Anusara school, but for the yoga industry at large. What does it mean to have a predator at the top of a massive yoga community, not simply in the midst of the students but the leader of the entire movement? John Friend was stripped of prestigious relationships with yoga festivals, product companies, and advertisers, but before the allegations went public, he was a beloved persona featured on and between the covers in international yoga publications and signing six-figure contracts with Manduka Yoga, a major manufacturer of yoga mats, and Wanderlust Yoga Festival. His access to victims was enabled by his power, power granted to him by his legitimacy in the industry.

You would think, then, that John Friend maybe would take some time off from the industry and his deviancy, but predators are what they are, so by September 2012, merely seven months after the publication of JFexposed.com, Friend had returned to teaching yoga locally in Denver, promoting a new “style” he’d crafted in his self-imposed exile, which he described on his new website as a “positive body-mind discipline, cutting-edge postural alignment, and artistic exploration” which had come to him over “this year in deep self-reflection, which has led me to realigning with principles of inner harmony, individual accountability, and open-hearted service.” By 2014, Friend was teaching his new style across the country, attracting hundreds to train with him. “I get to start over with something better than I had before,” he told a reporter in an interview. “It’s an epic comeback story.” As of writing this piece, Mr. Friend’s new program is currently being promoted by YogaJournal in their magazine and on Facebook.

Much much much thanks to Jennilyn Carlson of YogaDork, who’s articles were an excellent foundation for me to piece this whole thing together.

Sources:

1. Jennilyn Carlson, “John Friend, Head of Anusara: The Accusations.” YogaDork, February 3, 2012. (http://yogadork.com/2012/02/03/john-friend-head-of-anusara-wiccan-leader-sexual-deviant-pension-withholding-homewrecker-the-accusations/ )*

2. Jennilyn Carlson, “Anusara Pension Documents and Timeline Support Claims.” Yoga Dork, 7 February 2012.

3. Jennilyn Carlson, “Letter From John Friend to Anusara Yogis.” YogaDork, February 8, 2012
 (http://yogadork.com/2012/02/08/letter-from-john-friend-to-anusara-yoga-teachers/)

4. Waylon Lewis, “5 Questions for John Friend.” Elephant Journal, February 8, 2012.
 (https://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/02/my-interview-with-john-friend-regarding-ijfexposedi-accusations/ )

5. Waylon Lewis and Bernadette Birney, “Anusara Teacher’s Exodus.” Elephant Journal, February 12, 2012. (https://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/02/anusara-teachers-exodus-a-conversation-with-bernadette-birney/ )

6. Elena Brower, “Art of Attention: Misconduct in the Yoga World,” Huffington Post, February 20, 2012. (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/elena-brower/john-friend-controversy_b_1285538.html )

7. Lizzie Crocker, “John Friend Anusara Scandal: Inside The Wiccan ‘Sex’ Coven.” The Daily Beast, April 15, 2012. (https://www.thedailybeast.com/john-friend-anusara-scandal-inside-the-wiccan-sex-coven )

8. Vanessa Grigoriadis, “Karma Crash: Sex and the fall of an all-American yogi.” New York Magazine, April 15, 2012. (http://nymag.com/news/features/john-friend-yoga-2012-4/ )

9. MindBodyGreen, “John Friend Opens Up About The Sex Scandal That Shook The Yoga World.” October 11, 2014 (https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-15635/john-friend-opens-up-about-the-sex-scandal-that-shook-the-yoga-world.html )

10. Lauren Jacobs, “De-mystifying the Guru.” Huffington Post, February 23, 2012. (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/lauren-jacobs/john-friend-anusara-yoga_b_1296443.html )

11. Manuel Roig-Franzia, “Scandal contorts future of John Friend, Anusara Yoga.” The Washington Post, March 28, 2012. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/scandal-contorts-future-of-john-friend-anusara-yoga/ )

12. Michelle Marchildon, “John Friend is (already) back. Anusara is dead.” Elephant Journal, September 12, 2012. (https://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/09/john-friend-is-already-back-anusara-is-dead/ )

13. Joel Warner, “Fallen yoga guru John Friend goes to the mat with a new technique.” Westword, January 9, 2014. (http://www.westword.com/news/fallen-yoga-guru-john-friend-goes-to-the-mat-with-a-new-technique-5123079)