13 July 2014

Scandal contorts future of John Friend, Anusara yoga

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.