Who your yoga teacher is, and what he represents, are no small matters in modern life. Yoga, which is practiced by roughly 16 million Americans, is more popular than it has been since the twenties, when Hindu nationalists promoted it in India as a patriotic form of exercise (it was going out of favor after the country gained independence). I’ve dabbled in many different styles of yoga for a decade, and I can say I have thoroughly enjoyed all of it—the focused concentration, the lovey-doveyness, the close-pressed flesh of other students in the room. That’s more than I can say for the elliptical trainer or the current spate of trendy barre classes like Physique 57, where $35 buys more leg lifts in an hour than you may have thought humanly possible, and measuring tapes can be taken home to test the circumference of one’s thighs.
Like anything that reaches such a fervid level of popularity, what yoga seems like from the outside—exercise—is only part of what people on the inside find so intriguing. On the deepest level, yoga isn’t even about physical movement. It’s about ethics—discipline, right living. Some Westernized forms of yoga make a joke out of this: In an attempt to stick it in the eye of those who would look to him for morality, Bikram Choudhury, a “hot yoga” founder, likes to say things like, “If [students] say to me, ‘Boss, you must fuck me or I will kill myself,’ then I do it. Think if I don’t! The karma!”
But most yogis are happy to comply with students’ desire for moral teachings. There are few schools, particularly in the yoga stronghold of New York City, that don’t offer some sort of ethical framework to their students, if only recommending that they practice ahimsa, which translates to “nonviolence,” and train their minds to become unstuck on gluttonous practices like consuming too much alcohol, food, and sex. When William Broad, the science writer at the New York Times, recently suggested that because yoga had its origins as a sex cult, teachers could sometimes be horny guys who prey upon women, yogis were so appalled that students in my classes could be heard saying things like, “What’s up with that guy? He needs some sex.”
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.
Anusara, which is grounded in Tantric philosophy (including its sexual aspects, though these aren’t emphasized), takes these ideas a step further: The fact that this magical spectrum exists at all, Friend says, is evidence of the intrinsic goodness of the universe. And you can never really forget this when you’re around his students, who are truly a positive, happy, shiny “merry band.” Unlike most yoga classes, which are like a sped-up version of t’ai chi, you can’t check out mentally in a typical Anusara class—the teachers often stop to talk about how great everything is, or have students gather around as “Stacey demonstrates a handstand” and then have everybody clap to praise her work. To me, this rictus grin and loud applause always seemed a little forced, though there’s nothing wrong with being positive, particularly for those who have suffered in their lives. And Anusara struck me as something of a gathering ground for these people, mostly women—a safe place where they could feel supported through a divorce, heal scars from a bad relationship or something worse.
This element of Anusara’s reputation—Friend, the nice Texan dude in a Hawaiian shirt, facilitating healing for women with Hallmark-card sayings about opening to grace, melting your heart, and inner smiles—is part of why it was so shocking when unsavory details about his private life broke into view on an anonymous website, JFExposed.com, posted February 3 and disseminated via the blog Yoga Dork. “This site is not intended to hurt the Anusara community or its teachers,” the writer explained, “but rather as a wake-up call to John Friend to be true to his own philosophies and expectations of integrity.” Friend had received marijuana through the mail at his office in the Woodlands, according to the site, and had frozen his employees’ pension plans for many months without letting them know—an irregular and upsetting move. Other charges were more prurient. He’d had a sexual affair with a corporate employee, a married Anusara teacher, the gruesome evidence of which was presented through dirty Skype chats between the two. There were also close-up photos of her “yoni,” with two male fingers in the foreground splaying it open.