On a chilly New Year’s Eve in 2009, John Friend—the popular and charismatic founder of Anusara yoga—lay naked on a bearskin rug in front of a blazing fire at his home in the Woodlands, Texas, while three underwear-clad women hovered over him, massaging his body with sweetly scented oil. One rubbed his head, neck, and shoulders, another worked on his hands, while a third rubbed his inner thighs and pelvic region, her whole body writhing sinuously to the new-age sitar melodies playing in the background.
Friend had invited the women, all Anusara employees, to the Woodlands to celebrate the winter solstice, a “high day” honored under the modern pagan religion of Wicca. Six months earlier, Friend and two of these women held their first Wicca ritual in Montreal, where they were spending the weekend for a yoga workshop Friend was hosting. They were the first members of what would later become an official “coven” that Friend named the Blazing Solar Flames.
“John wanted us to do the ritual in sexy underwear and kiss each other on the mouth, tongue-y kissing,” said “Melissa,” a former member of the coven who asked that her real name not be used.
Friend, who is currently on sabbatical and could not be reached for comment, has been at the center of a widely publicized sex scandal which resulted in a breakdown of trust within his yoga community and a mass exodus of top teachers, as well as a debate about whether he abused his power—even though all the women involved were consenting adults. But little has been revealed about Friend’s leadership of the all-female coven, which several people previously close to him saw as a pretext for his own sexual gratification.
Melissa, 39, originally met Friend in 2002 when she began practicing Anusara, a school of traditional hatha yoga that Friend founded in 1997 and refined to reflect “Universal Principles of Alignment” combined with simplified tantric principles and a “philosophy of intrinsic goodness.” Friend taught students that they were all beautiful, divine beings and that through asana practice—through “opening to grace”—they would experience innermost joy.
Over the next few years, as Melissa studied to become an Anusara teacher herself, she discovered she shared with Friend an interest in pagan traditions and philosophies. Whenever Friend mentioned pagan high days in class, he often called on her to articulate them to the other students. “I was the Hermione,” she said, referring to the brainy Harry Potter character.
It wasn’t until 2009 that their student-teacher relationship became sexually intimate, Melissa said, in part because of their Wiccan connection. Friend, then 49 and 13 years older than Melissa, declared her the “High Priestess” of the coven and asked her to mentor the other, younger woman who participated in their first ritual, who was then an employee of Anusara.
Traditionally, Wiccans worship pagan deities and celebrate seasonally based festivals or “Sabbats.” Friend suggested to the other coven members that sexually charged rituals would heighten everyone’s senses and therefore raise more energy, according to Melissa.
“It was certainly never the way that I had experienced Wicca,” Melissa told The Daily Beast, but she was initially open to the experience, in part because of her intimate relationship with Friend and because of her confidence in him as a leader and teacher. “A teacher’s voice is so deeply engrained in your brain, and you implicitly trust them because that’s what helps you do great things in your practice,” she said.
Still, she was uneasy with some of Friend’s rituals, such as his suggestion that he and Melissa cut off locks of their pubic hair and put them in a jar which would be placed on the third coven member’s altar.
A fourth woman, another Anusara teacher, had joined the coven prior to the solstice celebration, and Friend had introduced the idea that everyone would give each other sensual naked massages throughout the day. Melissa would go first and Friend, who referred to himself as the GM or “Grand Magus,” would go last.
“There was no digital penetration, but there was definitely this mix of kissing and rubbing,” Melissa recalled of her massage. “Suddenly I started crying and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t tell if I was embarrassed, even though these were people I was supposed to trust.” When it came time for Friend’s massage, she recalled suddenly feeling the situation “was like something out of Hustler or Penthouse, and I just thought, Wow, this guy is living the dream.”
It was an auspicious time in many ways for Friend. The New York Times had just run a lengthy profile of him, declaring Anusara “one of the world’s fastest-growing styles of yoga.” The larger Anusara community had swelled to include 200,000 students in 70 different countries and 1,200 licensed instructors who went through a rigorous, expensive, and years-long training process to earn their Anusara certification. Today, the practice boasts 1,500 licensed instructors and 600,000 students.
According to the Times profile, Friend was developing plans for the Center for Anusara Yoga, referred to as “The Center,” in Encinitas, California—his biggest project to date—which is still under construction. He was also traveling the world to teach workshops to hundreds of people and, as the sole owner of Anusara Inc., paying himself a salary of $100,000, according to the Times.
Earlier that spring, Friend had explained to Melissa what she described as “a world-expansion plan” for his yoga school and company and his desire to trademark the Anusara philosophy.
But also by that time, according to another former teacher who wished to remain anonymous, Friend’s original philosophy of “intrinsic goodness” had become watered down by his brand, and the dynamic within his inner kula—Sanskrit for “community”—had become tainted by a “culture of favoritism.”
Melissa said Friend rewarded students and employees he liked, while effectively blacklisting those who questioned his power or philosophy. At one point, Melissa said, she was on the receiving end of his favoritism. “He called me HP [High Priestess], but it became clear that I was serving at John’s pleasure and that at any moment I could be demoted out of coven,” she said. “John would say things like, ‘Eventually, we might have to find another HP.’ But meanwhile, he was always going to be the GM. It was his clubhouse.”
As 2010 went on, Melissa began to distance herself from both Friend and Anusara. She had grown increasingly uncomfortable with what she described as the coven’s peer-pressure dynamic and polygamous nature. Friend would sleep with Melissa one night and the other original coven member the next, though no one ever had sex during rituals, Melissa said.
In August 2010, shortly before the fall equinox, Melissa emailed Friend to say she didn’t want to be part of the coven anymore. “There was this steamrolling peer pressure,” she explained. Friend repeatedly tried to contact her, she said, reminding her that the Blazing Solar Flames were meant to serve as a “battery” for Anusara.
In the fall of 2011, several of Friend’s foremost teachers separated from him, citing professional or “dharmic” differences. In early February of this year, the rifts became public when an ex-Anusara employee posted anonymous accusations on a website, jfexposed.com, which was only live for a day and a half, though much of its content was picked up by the popular site yogadork.com. The original posting featured lewd photo exchanges between Friend and a married student; emails and letters from him to members of the Blazing Solar Flames; and a memo alleging how Friend attempted to illegally freeze promised pension funds.
In a March 20 open letter to his community, Friend attributed the pension plan to an administrative error “which has been corrected.” He denied being part of a “sex coven,” though he admitted to involvement in “non traditional spiritual groups” and “healing prayer circles.”
When it came time for Friend’s massage, Melissa recalled suddenly feeling the situation "was like something out of Hustler or Penthouse, and I just thought, Wow, this guy is living the dream."
An exodus of Anusara teachers—more than one hundred, by some counts—followed the release of the allegations, and Friend decided to step down as CEO of Anusara Inc. as of February 20. In his first letter to the Anusara community after the allegations broke, Friend explained that he was taking a “leave of absence for self-reflection, therapy, and personal retreat.”
But the scandal continued to unfold, as former and current Anusara teachers came forward to address rumors that Friend had practiced “sex therapy.”
Betsey Downing, a longtime teacher considered the “grandmother of Anusara,” confirmed in an email to The Daily Beast that she was on a conference call with Friend and other Anusara teachers during which Friend told everyone that he had been helping a married woman heal from a sexual trauma earlier in life. “‘But I never kissed her,’” Downing recalled Friend saying.
In the March 20 letter—his last before going on sabbatical—Friend said he was “absolutely not a sex therapist” and that he “once described the nature of a private relationship as therapy in an effort to hide the relationship.”
But in another instance, said Bernadette Birney, a former Anusara teacher, Friend attempted to “heal” a woman’s migraines by massaging her urethra—an admission Birney said Friend had made to a close friend of Birney’s.
Anusarans who remain aligned with Friend call for him to be forgiven. Jackie Prete, an Anusara teacher at PURE yoga in Manhattan, said, “We could focus on the shadow or we could focus on the good John has done for the world. People have been redeemed for doing a lot worse.”
But some former teachers describe the defense of Friend as a version of Stockholm Syndrome.
“It really reeks of spiritual incest,” said Livia Shapiro, a yoga instructor in Colorado who recently rescinded her Anusara teaching license. “I think these people are still under the influence of the anesthesia of John’s power,” she told The Daily Beast.
Other yoga teachers expressed concern that Friend mixed his teaching with personal sexual relationships.
“Attending a yoga class where a teacher is generating bed-buddies while expounding on spiritual matters is like attending church only to find out the priest is bonking the altar boy,” said Kelly Morris, a well-known instructor in New York City and founder of Conquering Lion Yoga.
While Melissa left the coven and Anusara on her own terms, others, such as Amy Ippoliti, who separated from Friend prior to the allegations, felt bullied out. Ippoliti said that when she told Friend she believed his personal habits were affecting his teaching, she was met with disdain.
Despite his leave of absence, Friend is still very much the face of Anusara. Photos and videos remain plastered all over the company’s website, and a spokesperson for Anusara wrote in an email to The Daily Beast that “John has not cancelled events in June, but of course unknowns remain.” Still, prior to going on sabbatical, Friend wrote to the community that he had resigned as an officer and director of the company and “entered into an agreement to potentially transfer ownership of the company to a third party who is not connected to me personally.”
Melissa, Ippoliti, and others who have moved on believe Friend’s dethroning will prompt a positive shift in the yoga world.
“The model of working for a monarch can’t function in 2012,” Ippoliti said. “If there’s one good thing emerging from all of this, it’s people feel like they can teach without being connected to a brand. They know now that the collective is stronger than any one person’s view.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article erroneously stated that the married woman Friend admitted in a conference call to helping heal from a sexual trauma was the same woman with whom he had exchanged sexually explicit photos.The explicit photos were never discussed in the conference call.