John Friend became famous for his Anusara yoga style and developed quite… (Mark Sullivan/WIREIMAGE )
At his best, when a crowd of hundreds of students extended their limbs before him or drew deep breaths with their eyes closed, John Friend could captivate minds and shape bodies. Students spoke of melting beneath his touch. In a gentle voice, he urged them to reach for something beyond the physical, something that extended past the poses they perfected on their yoga mats and embedded into their everyday lives.
“It’s all yoga,” he would say.
He became a superstar, a jet-setting international celebrity of boundless ambition who had invented Anusara, a yoga style that combines rigorous physical poses with a philosophical framework, strict ethical standards and an emphasis on building a worldwide yoga community. He touched down in European and Asian capitals or headlined American yoga festivals trailed by an entourage and a traveling retail outlet. When class ended, the parties often began, “happenings” where his adoring fans drank beer and cocktails and listened to Friend read poetry as costumed performers roamed the room.
“Kind of a lovefest. Kind of a party,” April Ritchey, a California-based Anusara instructor, called it. “People really got addicted to being a part of this.”
Friend achieved “kind of a new thing: yoga rock-stardom,” said Joe Miller, the owner of Willow Street Yoga in Takoma Park and Silver Spring, until recently the world’s largest Anusara-affiliated studio.
Friend’s empire — an international network that claims more than 1,500 teachers, including 25 in the Washington metro area, and 600,000 students — is in crisis now, teetering under the strain of a sex scandal that has split its most loyal practitioners and prompted an astounding venting of emotions, from rage and recriminations to compassion and sadness. In conference calls, e-mails and hushed conversations, Friend has admitted to sexual relations with students and employees and married women. He has confessed to cheating on one girlfriend and smoking marijuana, according to senior Anusara instructors who have participated in conference calls with him. And he has acknowledged leading an otherwise all-female Wiccan coven whose members sometimes took off all their clothes for gatherings, according to senior Anusara instructors who detailed his admissions in a written summary provided to The Washington Post. The coven’s name was the Blazing Solar Flames, and Friend had Anusara’s graphics team design a logo for it, according to three former employees.
There had been rumors about a wild side to Friend’s lifestyle for years, but few comprehended the magnitude until Feb. 3 when an anonymous Web site — jfexposed.com — appeared containing graphic, close-up sexual images and racy chat transcripts attributed to Friend and a student. The Web site, which was up for just a day and a half, gained a wide audience when it was featured on the popular site yogadork.com. It included allegations of financial misdeeds — the freezing of promised pension funds — that Friend later said were the result of a clerical error that was corrected after an employee complained to government regulators.
Friend’s sexual transgressions clashed with his sermonizing on the value of relationships and the importance of trust, deepening the wound among some of his most ardent students and associates.
“Too much power,” concluded Naime Jezzeny, a prominent Anusara instructor in New Hope, Pa., who has ended his affiliation with Friend. “Too much success. Drunk on power. It’s like a cliche.”
Friend never liked the word “guru,” with all its implications, but that’s what some considered him: a wise, caring teacher who inspired an impassioned following. And even as dozens of high-profile Anusara teachers — yogis who have become stars in their own rights — have abandoned Friend and the business he created, there are hundreds who have remained staunchly loyal.
“This is a man who does way more good than any mistakes that he made,” Christy Nones, a former student and girlfriend of Friend’s, said in an interview.
Once the most public of men, Friend, who is 52, has retreated, saying in a statement that he is seeking psychological help while taking a sabbatical “to allow for a period of deep self-reflection and healing” and taking “full responsibility for being out of integrity in intimate relationships.” Friend did not respond to multiple interview requests.
“John isn’t a guru; he is a yoga teacher who founded a style of yoga and built a certification program and school,” said Katy Saeger, a public relations consultant who represents Anusara. “He will admit to that which is true, but the sensational stuff needs to end. It’s borderline weird.”
John Friend was introduced to yoga early, he has said, entranced by the stories his mother told him while he was growing up in Chicago and Youngstown, Ohio, about supernaturally gifted yogis from the Himalayan Mountains.