Plus, these women were more sexually adventurous than his previous students and teachers. Friend was no kind of slithery Lothario—“I’ve never even seen John passionately kiss a woman,” says a close colleague—but he was a man, and there were temptations in his business, which is largely a woman’s world. As anyone who does yoga will tell you, sex and yoga have an uneasy relationship. Sex is not supposed to be part of the yoga experience—yoga is supposed to help you get some distance from your desires and only act upon them mindfully—but with everyone bopping around high on pheromones and in tight pants, it’s right there for some people, humming under the surface. The point—it amounts to a commandment—is to keep it there. But increasingly, outside of class Friend didn’t observe that boundary.
The coven started off innocently enough, with a few rituals on a summer solstice to send healing prayers out into the world. Friend, who went by the title the “Grand Magus,” called the group the Blazing Solar Flame, and hoped it could act as a “magical battery” to spin up energy for the spread of Anusara. To that end, they began “circling up” a few times a year, on the equinox and pagan holidays. Friend had a graphic designer make a logo of two overlapping stars, one with spiky arms and another with lazy arms. “I thought it was pretty ugly, but John was like a little boy who wanted to have a logo for his secret club,” says the “High Priestess” of the group today.
The coven wasn’t a sexual thing, but Friend eventually had sex with two of the women, and, according to the High Priestess, there was a ritual in which all of the women stripped to their underwear and kissed each other—along with Friend. “I was ooey-gooey and crushy on John, for sure,” says the High Priestess. “We only had sex two times, and it was totally consenting on my part. But later, I felt weird about some things. I studied with John for eight years, did hundreds of hours of yoga with him where his voice was the voice that was telling me what to do: ‘Do this with your eyes, do this with your tailbone, do this with your shoulders, do this with your head.’ ” Friend is an effective teacher because students trust him enough that they will do difficult poses they wouldn’t do on their own in his presence—that’s the way they have physical breakthroughs. “Given that relationship, I wonder if it was harder for me to say no than it would have been otherwise,” says the High Priestess. “Because I wanted to say yes. I wanted to be in the group. I wanted to be in the inner circle.”
Friend’s day-to-day inner circle, though, wasn’t composed of just these women—it was also made up of his employees, including a personal assistant, Jeff Barrett, who was beloved by everyone at Anusara Inc. According to Friend, Barrett didn’t tell him that he disapproved of Friend’s activities with women and a scene that increasingly included ravelike parties in California, like a gathering in downtown L.A. during which Friend read erotic poetry (“We ride the tiger / I taste her hunger / In the burning of my desire / there is no hotter fire”) while a woman danced in a tiger outfit. But behind the scenes, Barrett began to gossip.
Barrett found kindred spirits in some of Anusara’s employees in Texas, who were getting disillusioned with Friend. Someone in the organization even built a joke website making fun of Friend. “AnusAura, which means ‘illuminated anus,’ is a sacred yoga system in which the Anal Chakra is manipulated in order to tune into the forces of Puni and Mani that exist throughout the entire universe,” said the site. The school was “rooted in the teachings of Slinkananda,” the site went on to say, and run by “Bob Buddy, the founder of AnusAura, [who] is known for his exciting events and ‘hands-on’ teaching methods.”
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.” He also had a bigger problem: After the first million he had raised flowed out the door, the $3 million to $5 million turned out not to be real.
Friend began frantically passing around an investor memo for $2 million in preferred stock to anyone who would take it; at one point he taught Sergey Brin’s family in Northern California, and, according to an employee, hoped Brin might make an investment. (“We did prayers for John’s meetings with important investors,” says the High Priestess.)