wiccan sex covens, john friend speaks up & the teacher/student relationship: a second wave of anusara scandal media coverage

Things have been quiet on the Anusara front the past few weeks. So quiet that I was just about to delete my #Anusara Twitter stream. But there must be some kind of astrological action, because today (a Sunday, no less!) we get three new articles on the situation from the mainstream press. And they offer some surprising illuminations.

Inside the Wiccan sex coven via The Daily Beast

After noticing that “little has been revealed about Friend’s leadership of the all-female coven,” The Daily Beast tracked down some former members of the coven for spicy insider details of what went down.

Traditionally, Wiccans worship pagan deities and celebrate seasonally-based festivals or “Sabbats.” Friend suggested to the other coven members that sexually charged rituals would heighten everyone’s senses and therefore raise more energy, according to [Anusara student and former coven member] Melissa.

“It was certainly never the way that I had experienced Wicca,” Melissa told The Daily Beast, but she was initially open to the experience, in part because of her intimate relationship with Friend and because of her confidence in him as a leader and teacher. “A teacher’s voice is so deeply engrained in your brain, and you implicitly trust them because that’s what helps you do great things in your practice,” she said.

Still, she was uneasy with some of Friend’s rituals, such as his suggestion that he and Melissa cut off locks of their pubic hair and put them in a jar which would be placed on the third coven member’s altar. [John Friend Anusara Scandal: Inside the Wiccan ‘Sex’ Coven, The Daily Beast]

An actual interview with John Friend via New York Magazine

Despite not being available for comment for TDB, John Friend did grant New York Magazine an interview (and photo shoot) at his home in the Woodlands, Texas. The article indicates sheds some new light on the failed Anusara centre in Encinatas, CA, and portrays him as susceptible to seductive investors and West Coast women, overtaken by greed, lust, and glamour. We get to see several sides of John Friend:

Self-pitying JF:
His sponsors, like the company with which he was making a plus-size yoga mat and a line of “gear with heart,” are gone. Most of his ­money—gone. His girlfriend, a yogi twenty years his junior with a cream puff of curly hair—gone. “All my friends are gone, too,” he says, resting his head back on an easy chair. “I look in my phone’s contacts, and it’s just a long list of people that I have had to cut relations with, people who have judged me and have been so mean.”

Ethically confused JF:
Friend has never told anyone not to eat meat, but he also has never shied away from emphasizing ethics. Anusara puts an enormous amount of focus on correct alignment in yoga poses, and he has always drawn a straight line from this physical practice to being “in alignment” in one’s own life. Friend says that proper alignment, in body and mind, harmonizes the different aspects of oneself, allowing all of us to say “yes to the whole magical spectrum of life … a willingness to be aware of all parts of ourselves—the light and the dark, the full rainbow of sensation, perception, emotion, and thought.” Yoga means “union” in Sanskrit, and part of that is about the union of one’s self.

Spiritually adventurous JF:
[In California] he met a whole different breed of yogi, one that dominates much of the yoga world, particularly the group that gathers at festivals today. If Iyengar was 1.0 and Anusara was 2.0, this kind of airy-fairy, dubstep-listening yogi, the type who goes to Burning Man and Wanderlust, a yoga-and-music festival founded in 2009, is 3.0. These yogis, fed Anusara principles from the beginning of their study of yoga, never considered that there was any cosmic law in the universe other than happiness and joy. How different this West Coast yoga scene was from his kitschy merry band of Tribeca mommies, and how cool—all these young women were Hula-Hoopers and fire-twirlers, drinking ayahuasca on vision quests and really living on the edge.

Problem-addled JF:
Anusara’s employees in Texas… were getting disillusioned with Friend… Friend was unaware of this discontent. “I was focused on expansion—‘I can hit several million people around the world with back pain, shoulder pain, menstrual problems, I can tell them what to do, and it will be inexpensive, we can show the world,’ ” he says. “I guess it’s what the Greeks call hubris.”

Hard partying JF:
…the senior teachers started to talk among themselves: Who was John Friend anyway? He had been their teacher, but they’d been on their own for so long; they were in their forties and fifties now, too old to be under anyone’s thumb.

And they had started to hear odd rumors of Friend’s secret life, of what he was doing in California. The core of this group were conservative, quiet yogis focused on building serious careers, not interested in being part of an organization that was starting to feel like “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll yoga,” as one put it. On New Year’s Day 2010, Friend showed up for practice in L.A. a few hours late, with women in tow, some of whom the host thought were still drunk (Friend says the women were “very respectful”). Later, the host yelled at him. “He said, ‘John, you’re hanging out with hard women, you’re going into the dark,’ ” says Friend.

Self-pitying JF (again):
“I always said I’m not a saint, a prophet, a guru, a god man—there’s no cosmic energy pouring through me to the point that I know all things,” says Friend. “But as Anusara grew, I think people super­imposed the idea of a guru on my position, and now they hate me. I mean, I’m not only getting hate e-mails—on my phone, I’m getting hate texts.” He says that he plans to be alone, without a girlfriend, for a while. “I have been unfaithful my whole life, to be truthful,” he says. “I’ve also gotten speeding tickets, but this time I ran over somebody. And I hurt not only other people, I hurt my soul.”

The NY Mag article closes with questions about the future of John Friend and Anusara, Inc, and a portrait of a confused former leader who, maybe, is not to be taken too seriously.

Today, Friend switches among benevolent grandiosity (“I am influential, I have established doctrine, I am an icon”), helpless anger (“It’s like, ‘Bye, John, go to an island somewhere with your coven’ ”), and a worried, earnest tone mixed with a bit of naïveté. “You know, I take Wicca really seriously,” he says. “I have taken Wiccan oaths over the years where death is actually the consequence of telling the truth.” Last week, he left on retreat for a month to an undisclosed location, but in six or nine months, he could come back to the yoga world… [Karma Crash, New York Magazine]

Repercussions on the teacher/student relationship via The Globe & Mail

Compared to the investigative interviews and salacious details in the other two articles, this little piece in the Health & Fitness section of The Globe and Mail feels wholesome and balanced. Realizing that they didn’t really have any new information to shed light on the situation, the Globe took the wise decision to look at the effects that this kind of drama has on yoga teacher and student relationships.

It’s a complex relationship between yoga teacher and student, one that involves not just instruction on physical postures, but often spiritual and philosophical guidance as well. So when students’ faith in their teachers falters, it can force them to do some serious soul-searching.

Full disclosure: I was one of the source interviews for this article. Sure, interviews with some Canadian yoga teachers and a blogger aren’t as glamorous as interviews with former coven members, but this little article is a reminder that the Anusara scandal offers plenty to reflect on for yoga practitioners and teachers from all styles and traditions.

“I hope that students will be empowered to ask more from [teachers] about their ethics, about what they’re doing outside of the yoga studio,” Ms. Harvey [that’s me!] says. “Are they practising what they’re preaching?”

The uncertainty can also force students to figure out for themselves which of their teachers’ methods and techniques work for them and which to discard. In yoga parlance, they’re left to create their own paths. [A shakeup in the yoga world prompts soul-searching, The Globe and Mail]

I realize it’s kind of tasteless to quote myself in a blog post, but I did articulate my greatest hope for the aftermath of this scandal.

So there you have it. One day, three articles, and the yoga drama that is far from over.

  1. Like I mentioned on facebook, it truly continues to irk me that so many blogs and news articles aren’t putting the quotations marks on the “wicca”.
    As you pointed out, Roseanne, many notable Pagan blogs are denouncing this as anything *but* Wicca. (The Wild Hunt comes to mind: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/2012/02/the-wiccan-angle-to-a-yoga-scandal.html)

    I understand that the majority of yogis get that John is full of shit, but my impression is that many feel it’s still ok to label what he did as ‘wiccan’ or ‘wicca’ when it clearly was not.

    I was disappointed that instead of taking the opportunity to clarify that sexual relationships in covens are not the norm. Although this is implied in “Melissa’s” unease, no counterbalance was provided to clear up the misinformation.

    Despite the fact that many yogis will say ‘Well we know this isn’t wicca, take a pill’, the fact is that continuing to label what he did as ‘wicca, wiccan’ implies truth. And yogis do make fun (for example, this piece on recovering yogi, and the extremely rude response I got when I commented there) http://recoveringyogi.com/yogic-magickal-thinking/

    So- am I sensitive? Probably. But then, as a Pagan, how something so close to my own religion is being portrayed in my blogoverse is important to me.

  2. Elena offered a very sage piece of advice to JF, to actually make a list of all those he lied and hurt and apologize or make things right again, one by one and face-to-face. A deceptively simple, but powerful tool to negate all the ill feelings which have come out of this fiasco. A lot of people could benefit from doing the same and I’m almost positive his luck would probably start to change soon afterwards.

    The fact that JF refuses to do even this, shows his true colors more than any glossy magazine article could, methinks…