The early Anusara teachers were one breed—serious students who simply wanted to open their mouths to express their own feelings in class, looking for a tiny bit of freedom to talk about “heart-centering” and the “fabric of supreme consciousness.” They knew that Friend was into physics, sacred geometry, all sorts of nerdy magical stuff. He smoked pot once in a while, but says he didn’t smoke in front of students. “It’s just my personal thing that I like to do to relax,” he says. “Sometimes, I won’t smoke for years.” And he was married at that time, to a lovely older woman whom friends describe as a mother figure for him.
But when they got divorced, in 2002, that took the lid off things sexually for Friend, and he started dating in the yoga world, just one woman here or there. No one thought much of it. “We had a three-year relationship, and as far as I’m concerned, John is an honorable man to women,” says Christy Nones, a certified Anusara teacher in Miami Beach. “To his credit, he handled our relationship beautifully. And that was great, because I didn’t want to lose my teacher. I mean, he was the best.”
Friend wanted to be ethical about dating his students, too: In 2009, he even changed Anusara’s guidelines about sex between students and teachers. A bylaw that used to say that teachers should “avoid sexual relationships with students” now stated that a romantic relationship was permitted, as long as the role of teacher and student was maintained within the classroom. This raised eyebrows among some of the senior teachers, but they kept their mouths shut.
Friend was always a bit of a weird guy, with his love of magic and Madame Blavatsky, but he never really flirted much with the edge, at least until about 2010. Yoga was exploding in the U.S., and Friend met a couple of branding entrepreneurs in Southern California who told him that they could take him to the next level. Their grand vision for Friend was his own institute for the study of Anusara, in an 8,000-plus-square-foot building that once housed an ad agency in Encinitas, California. The beachy enclave is considered one of the most important yoga towns in the U.S.—Yogananda wrote his Ur-text, Autobiography of a Yogi, there; Ravi Shankar and George Harrison collaborated there; not only was it the first place in the U.S. that the Ashtanga guru Pattabhi Jois stopped when he came from Mysore, India, in the seventies, it’s also home to the Jois center, which billionaire Paul Tudor II’s wife has just built.
Friend quickly became bewitched with the idea of the Center, a place where he could become less of a traveling teacher and more of a curator—it would be a new Esalen Institute, the experiment observed. But there was a problem: He needed money. Another yoga paradox is that for all its popularity and the celebrity of its leading practitioners, it’s never been much of a cash cow. The gear and clothing companies, like publicly traded Lululemon—which has promoted a Landmark Forum–based system for its employees and whose founder recently relinquished his operational role after the bad PR around commissioning a line of shopping bags bearing the words “Who Is John Galt?”—may make a mint, but there are very few yoga teachers who have become wealthy from teaching. In its best years, Anusara Inc. took in about $2 million in revenue, 80 percent of which was composed of Friend’s teaching fees—but almost all it went to overhead. His annual salary was roughly $100,000.
When Friend began raising money for the Center, he praised the auspicious gods, because he soon had a $1 million loan from an Anusari in the Seattle area and had entered discussions that he thought were promising for $3 million to $5 million. To buff the company’s balance sheet, Friend froze his employees’ pensions. He says he didn’t realize that he had to send certified letters to each employee informing him or her of the change.
With this money in hand, Friend started making plans to move to Encinitas. There 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.