John Friend, the latest rising star in the multi-billion dollar yoga industry fell from grace recently after he was accused of sexual impropriety with female students.
According to William Broad of The New York Times and author of the book, The Science of Yoga, Friend was the founder of one of the world’s fastest growing yoga styles, known as Anusara. He was said to preach a “gospel of gentle poses mixed with openness aimed at fostering love and happiness,” but may have been carrying that gospel a bit too far in his personal life which confidantes say was full of women and partying.
” . . . John Friend created for himself an interestingly powerful seat, and amidst his stellar teaching, made some unfortunately destructive choices over the years,” wrote one-time confidante Elena Brower in the Huffington Post. “After his disgruntled I.T. guy recently posted his salacious electronic interactions for all the world to see, everything in the Anusara community began to crumble.”
Suddenly, the king of the Anusara empire was stepping down for an indefinite period of time for “self-reflection, therapy and personal retreat” and leaving scores of followers both devastated and disappointed.
However, as Broad reports, “this is hardly the first time that yoga’s enlightened facade has been cracked by sexual scandal. Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught?”
One factor is ignorance, he says. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners very surprised, to say the least.
Broad goes on to explain that Hatha yoga — which is the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra.
“In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness. The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. . . . ”
Hatha originated as a way to speed the Tantric agenda and used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts — including intercourse — to hasten rapturous bliss, Broad reports.
But Tantra and Hatha both developed bad reputations over time with the main charge being that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality.
“Early in the 20th century, the founders of modern yoga worked hard to remove the Tantric stain,” Broad writes. “They devised a sanitized discipline that played down the old eroticism for a new emphasis on health and fitness. . . . And so modern practitioners have embraced a whitewashed simulacrum of Hatha.”
Science has since explained why certain yoga poses do indeed increase sexual fervor, such as how the kind of fast breathing performed in many yoga classes can increase blood flow to the genitals.
If students can be aroused in a yoga class, so can the gurus – and they have.
For instance, Swami Muktananda (1908-82) was a charismatic guru who reached the height of his fame in the 1980s when he attracted thousands of devotees, including movie stars and political celebrities. He set up hundreds of ashrams and meditation centers around the world and kept his main “shrines” in California and New York.
“In late 1981, when a senior aide charged that the venerated yogi was in fact a serial philanderer and sexual hypocrite who used threats of violence to hide his duplicity, Mr. Muktananda defended himself as a persecuted saint, and soon died of heart failure,” Broad reports.
As it turns out, actress Joan Bridges was one of his lovers. She was 26 at the time and he was 73.
“I was both thrilled and confused,” she said of their first intimacy in a Web posting. “He told us to be celibate, so how could this be sexual? I had no answers.”
Eventually, the victims began to fight back. For instance, protestors with signs saying “Stop the Abuse” and “End the Cover Up” marched outside a Virginia hotel where Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002), a superstar of yoga who gave the invocation at Woodstock, was giving an address.
“How can you call yourself a spiritual instructor,” a former devotee shouted from the audience, “when you have molested me and other women?”
Another case involved Swami Rama (1925-96), who was sued in 1994 by a woman who said he abused her at his Pennsylvania ashram when he was 19. Shortly after Rama died in 1996, a jury awarded her $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Former devotees at Kripalu, a Berkshires ashram, also won more than $2.5 million after its longtime guru — a man who gave impassioned talks on the spiritual value of chastity — confessed to multiple affairs, Broad reports.
The story of the unfortunate John Friend continues to unfold with at least 50 Anusara teachers having resigned, many of them expressing their shock at the damage he did to their community.
Broad suggests that “if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.”