texas takeaway: john friend & the anusara situation from a local’s perspective (texas monthly)

Image via texasmonthly.com, illustration by Christoph Niemann.

The media onslaught continues!

Today, the Texas Monthly gives us their unique take on Texan homeboy John Friend and the Anusara situation. And the writer just happens to be TM Executive Editor Mimi Swartz, who is better known as the author of the 2010 New York Times profile of John Friend.

While the article lacks any interview or comment from Friend (he hasn’t responded to Swartz’s emails or phone calls since the NYT article), it contextualizes the scandal and contemporary yoga culture in a way that other recent coverage hasn’t.

Given that the world of yoga is one in which men and women wear as little as possible while waving their rear ends in the air in the search for transcendence, it should have come as no surprise that Friend appeared to be joining the ranks of such disgraced sexual miscreants as Ted Haggard, Eliot Spitzer, and Anthony Weiner. Friend was not the first yogi, as he put it, to have fallen “out of integrity in some relationships.” As one New York Times article pointed out in the wake of the allegations, Friend had obvious predecessors in Swami Muktananda and Swami Rama, gurus who were accused of sexual escapades in 1981 and 1994, respectively. The much-venerated Gurumayi was also caught in cultlike misconduct of her own, chronicled in the New Yorker in 1994.

But a couple of factors set this scandal apart. First, there was the use of technology, which spread the news of Friend’s failings around the globe in nanoseconds and offered a window into a culture and vernacular that practically begged for a mockumentary by Christopher Guest. (As one Anusara instructor wrote, resigning from the organization, “I realized the dharmic choice for me was to continue to teach asana with the brilliant alignment principles I learned from John Friend while giving direct acknowledgement to the spiritual lineage which informs the darshan of my heart.”) Second, there was the money. With the U.S. yoga business valued at nearly $6 billion annually, there was a lot more at stake than the behavior of one middle-aged crazy, a fact that Friend himself seemed acutely aware of when he told ElephantJournal.com, “We must all remember that any missteps by me do not invalidate any of the greatness of the Anusara yoga method.” Never before had someone been laid bare at the top of such an expansive yoga empire, and no one could predict what the effect on its adherents would be. [Downward Dog, Texas Monthly]

Swartz has been paying attention to the story right from the start, as evidenced in her knowledge of the yoga blogosphere (noting that the news broke on YogaDork, Friend granted his first post-scandal interview to elephant journal, and blogger/therapist/teacher Matthew Remski had an on-point analysis of John Friend). She’s is also a long-time yoga practitioner who has been watching the evolution of Anusara, Inc and John Friend’s public image.

With more focus on the business and cultural positioning of Anusara Inc, and almost no mention of “wiccan covens,” the Texas Monthly offers more insight and a broader picture of the whole situation than most other recent media coverage. I’ve been finding it disheartening (although not at all surprising) to see the fixation on the “wiccan sex parties” and naked massages. Take, for example, this Mommy’s Dirty Little Secret blog post John Friend, Founder of Anusara Yoga, Head of Sex Party/Naked Massage Scandal, illustrated with photos of Friend surrounded by back bending women.

Let’s allow the mainstream media and tabloid universe salivate over the more salacious details of the affair. For the rest of us North American yogis, we still have to figure out what this whole incident means for us and our communities. Carol Horton points to some lessons that can be learned from the scandal, most notably that “the American yoga community needs to dedicate itself to the sometimes scary project of waking up to reality. Get rid of the Bliss-colored glasses. Maybe read a good newspaper. Consider the fact that Buddhists have something valuable to offer as they grapple with questions of suffering.” Yes yes yes.

  1. “He also told them to cut off locks of their pubic hair – and put them in an altar for another member of the coven.”

    OK. really? and all this media attention is on Friend and not the women who were goofy enough to go along with this? are people — or women in this case — really that much like SHEEP, unquestioning? wow.

    oh, I’m sorry, they were the “victims” — who still had choices, as did the married ones.

    did someone NOT read the Buddhadharma where Buddha said (basically) don’t believe a damn thing, not even what I say, unless you pass it through your own judgment?

    guess not.

  2. That was a pretty good recap but I was more impressed that Dork is getting that much traffic. It’s a good day if I get 1000 hits in a day…

  3. Thanks for posting this article, Roseanne. Mimi Swartz’s experience really resonates with me. I first met John in 1989 when we were both part of the same intensive with Iyengar in Pune. In the early to mid-’90s, I took a couple workshops with him in small groups of 20 or so people and really enjoyed his teaching.

    Then about 10 years ago I attended a teacher training with him, this time with more than 100 people, his store, kirtan performances, etc. I had no argument with what he taught, although it seemed no different from what I’d learned from Iyengar teachers over the years, but with kinder, gentler language. The “scene,” with all the attendant hype and what seemed like blind adulation from the kula made me very uncomfortable. John also seemed different. He seemed delusional to me, and I sensed a lack of integrity. Over the years I saw what had bothered me about the kula and the hype increase exponentially. I was sad to find out about John’s extreme abuses of his power, but I wasn’t surprised.

  4. I’m beginning to think that *some* yoga instructors and aspiring yoga instructors to-be need to go in for therapy first and deal with their issues of abandonment, narcissism, entitlement and illusions of grandeur before even getting on the mat. Ditto for their followers and groupies who seem to have suspended their brains somewhere instead of thinking and asking hard questions instead of all the navel-gazing and high-fiving “in grace”. Or maybe they did know but decided to look the other way and not rock the boat too much?

    • Janice, I think it is obvious that Friend’s high echelon teachers CHOSE to look the other way and keep quiet about what they knew what was going on. They were too busy protecting their reputations and Anusara money….which makes them enablers of the highest order and just as culpable as Friend. They should be ashamed of themselves instead of getting pats on the back for coming forward.

      Their behavior is typical of what goes on in dysfunctional, abuser families and they should be held accountable instead of the yoga bliss bunnies telling them “oh, you were so brave to come forward….” BULL. The “letters” they wrote absolving themselves after the fact were disgusting — nothing but “cover your ass” letters as we called them in the legal biz.

  5. i like to think that you and i and our group of intelligent friends offer an alternate pair of glasses. we all have our own frame styles, but we do our best to keep the lenses CLEAN.