On a humid afternoon a couple of weeks ago, John Friend comes to the door of his home in the Woodlands, Texas, a suburb 30 miles outside Houston, wearing a loose-fitting blue shirt, a pair of jeans, and a wide grin. Though he doesn’t look like a yogi—at 52, he looks a bit like a young Bill Clinton—Friend is considered one of yoga’s biggest innovators, a yogic John Coltrane. In fact, until two months ago, he was one of the five most popular yoga teachers in America, if not No. 1. But today things have changed. In the aftermath of allegations about sex, financial mishaps, and drug use, Friend is embroiled in the biggest yoga scandal of the past decade, involving wholesale defections and the collapse of his empire.
Crisis or not, this afternoon, Friend exhibits the main characteristic of a charismatic—which is what a yoga teacher really is—the ability to shift energy in a room. He brings it up as we start to talk and appears as he always has been: glowy, levelheaded, fun, with a way of talking that makes him seem much more like a young Californian than a middle-aged guy from Texas. His modest home, which he inherited from his mother, is decorated beautifully, with artifacts gifted to him by his students rising from surfaces—an enormous quartz crystal from Tucson, a spiral sculpture made of Venetian glass, a round, clear Brazilian crystal. “Very magnificent,” he says, turning it over in his palm. In here, care has been taken to make many of the areas sensuous to the touch. The furniture, mostly in calming colors of burnt sienna and light green, feels like velvet, and underneath the stereo, there’s a white sheepskin rug, perfect for lying on and grooving to the music.
Friend grabs a glass of water from his purifier and takes a seat in an easy chair, talking about the role his mom played in developing this area, among the first master-planned communities in the U.S., with running paths through the forest and a series of purple signs proclaiming EARTH DAY IS EVERY DAY. He hasn’t been here much in the past few years, as yoga transcended its place as a subculture of small studios over record shops to become a global pop-culture movement. The method he started, Anusara, which means “flowing with grace” in Sanskrit, is the first major American-born yoga school without a direct lineage from India. Friend amassed 600,000 students, whom he called his “merry band.” He was on the road as much as any rock star or D.J.: a seminar in Japan, at the time of the opening of the cherry-blossom trees; a trip to Bali to celebrate the divine polarities of the male deity Shiva and Hindu goddess Shakti; Anusara’s “grand gatherings” in Colorado, where thousands of his students came together to celebrate the “most aptly named yoga teacher … ever,” as one of them said one year, by way of introduction.
Maui comes up: He has taught many classes there, sometimes in tandem with Ram Dass, who has chosen to live out the rest of his life on the island. Now the energy shifts. “I was supposed to teach in Maui this coming weekend, and attend a wedding of very good friends, along with my beloved,” he says. “And now she’s there, and I’m not.”
He’s not only missing his beloved right now, or the time they could have had on the double-rainbowed magical island that he calls “the mother.” 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.”
Some of those administering the toughest love are his teachers, the ones who believed in him the most and who brought his message to the public. About 150 of them have defected, including the famous ones, the chic ones featured on yoga posters, with spouses who act as personal managers, and enormous classes on the Great Lawn in Central Park. The pain of these partings is conveyed in yoga’s distinctive spiritual jargon. Leaving Anusara feels like a death, wrote one teacher, a way of “ripping apart the seams of my identity,” “the hardest ethical challenge of my entire life.”
But in many observers’ telling, Friend had left these seekers no choice. They had to “speak [their] truth,” they have said, on and offline, because Friend is “like a thousand-headed Hindu painting,” “a guy counting cards faster than you can imagine any human being able to count,” or a “weird warlock perverted Dumbledore power whore.” Some make a different point about leaving. As Amy Ippoliti, a famous teacher based in Colorado, put it in a letter, “In a nutshell, Anusara is comprised of a collective of teachers, but only one man takes credit.”