The whole Anusara community was, in essence, a coven, with Friend as the magician, but now the trance was broken. “When your students are growing with you for twelve or fifteen years, they’re going to learn how to see,” says one. “The hardest part of all of this is the deep beauty of the awakening that occurred, because that is the true function of the guru: If you see the Buddha on the path, kill him. At some point, John’s students had to grow up and kill their dad.”
Today, some teachers, realizing that all Friend has left to sell to get out of debt is the Anusara trademark, are interested in the question of whether Anusara now belongs in the public domain, in which case they can use the name (exercise methods like Pilates are not considered trademarked). Others, choosing to work within the Anusara system, have formed a steering committee that has been in touch with Friend’s investor in Seattle. They are trying to put together a new board, of thirteen teachers. Right now, the investor looks as if he’s willing to wash Friend’s debt. But the board will likely ask Friend to give up all the trademarks and intellectual property, and one more thing—not to teach the Anusara method, at least for a while.
Late in the afternoon, Friend takes me into his library, a low-ceilinged room lined with bookcases, with a ton of Hindu sculptures on top. His books are organized in sections: Buddhism, astrology, theosophy, scripture, sacred sexuality—“Those are the ones that will get me in trouble,” he says, with a hint of sadness. He’s been spending a lot of time in here, sending out prayers. “I always said I’m not a saint, a prophet, a guru, a god man—there’s no cosmic energy pouring through me to the point that I know all things,” says Friend. “But as Anusara grew, I think people superimposed the idea of a guru on my position, and now they hate me. I mean, I’m not only getting hate e-mails—on my phone, I’m getting hate texts.” He says that he plans to be alone, without a girlfriend, for a while. “I have been unfaithful my whole life, to be truthful,” he says. “I’ve also gotten speeding tickets, but this time I ran over somebody. And I hurt not only other people, I hurt my soul.”
How does Friend redeem himself? Those close to him have suggested shaving his head. Or getting a woman pregnant, becoming a family man—that should work. A teacher on the steering committee advised him to meet with a psychiatrist in Atlanta, who could put him on probation, with no contact with female students unless someone else is present. Former Anusara teachers who are far less didactic have also offered their stance. “I don’t think John meant harm—he just made a series of bad choices,” says Elena Brower, an ex–Anusara teacher and co-owner of Virayoga, a Soho studio that has had Anusara classes. “He let a lot of secrets pile up, and as everyone who has done so knows, it will either kill you because everyone finds out, or it will kill you because no one finds out. I suggested to him a while ago that he make a list of all the lies he’s ever told, meet up with people, and make it right, one by one. It’s so simple, and it would serve him beautifully. But that was not in his wheelhouse at all.”
Today, Friend switches among benevolent grandiosity (“I am influential, I have established doctrine, I am an icon”), helpless anger (“It’s like, ‘Bye, John, go to an island somewhere with your coven’ ”), and a worried, earnest tone mixed with a bit of naïveté. “You know, I take Wicca really seriously,” he says. “I have taken Wiccan oaths over the years where death is actually the consequence of telling the truth.” Last week, he left on retreat for a month to an undisclosed location, but in six or nine months, he could come back to the yoga world—he’s booked Chichen Itza, one of the Mayans’ most sacred sites, for December 12, 2012. Maybe he will rebirth himself as one of yoga’s bad boys, explaining how it feels to have promulgated a message about the goodness of the universe.
Friend kneels in front of a Hindu sculpture that he’s placed on the floor, on top of a series of rugs—it’s a two-and-a-half-foot-tall statue of Kali, the goddess of death, with eight arms raised—one holding a headless body, another with a scepter, another with a knife. The gesture has that mixture of profundity and ridiculousness that’s inescapable in the yoga world—and I didn’t doubt that he meant all of it. “This is to represent the last few months,” he says. “She’s the one that tears things completely apart. This is obviously my lesson. So we start fresh.”