The Humanization of the Guru: Rise and Revolution of the Anusara Empire

There is something magical about John Friend. His mother introduced him to yoga at the tender age of eight. By thirteen he was practicing hatha yoga from books on his own as well as studying philosophy. As a young adult he was applauded in Pune, India for performing a yoga pose with impressive accuracy and grace. At fifty-two, Friend has been dedicated to his yoga practice and study of spiritual and esoteric philosophies for more than forty years. In 1997, Friend founded a new system of hatha yoga, his own Anusara. Since that time his yoga school has exploded in popularity, and so has Friend’s name. “John Friend,” the Anusara website announces, “is widely recognized as one of the most charismatic and highly respected hatha yoga teachers in the world” (“About John Friend”). His teachings have influenced the lives of many. Held in high regard within an expansive spiritual community, John’s status became that of a master teacher; one who could do no wrong. In February of 2012 this status came under examination in a yoga community that now spans the globe.

According to John Friend, the word “Anusara” means “to go with the flow,” or “flowing with Grace” (“About Anusara Yoga”). Several elements make the system of Anusara unique in the world of hatha yoga. It is a system based on a philosophy called Shiva-Shakti Tantra, a title and method that Friend coined in January 2010 (“About Anusara: Philosophy”). This philosophy professes that all is divine consciousness, thus all is intrinsically good and polarities govern the dance of divine consciousness.

Friend uses a tool called “the three A’s; Attitude, Alignment, and Action,” to help Anusara yogis connect with something deeper than the physical practice of hatha postures, or asanas. Anusara’s website proclaims that Anusara practitioners work to express asanas from the “inside out” (“About Anusara: Philosophy”). In this way the practice is meant to be heart-centered and heart-building, allowing the practitioner to get in touch with what it feels like to be aligned with an open heart.

Friend also developed a system of guidelines for teachers and practitioners of Anusara yoga. Among these is a set of “Universal Principles of Alignment,” which he titled and trademarked. The UPAs help asana practitioners to gain the most stability and freedom from their yoga, as well as translate into emotional and energetic adjustments practitioners can use within their daily lives off the mat to gain empowerment and spiritual growth. There is also a defined system of loops and spirals that relate to refining movements in the body (Anusara Yoga Immersion Manual 30).

A truly revolutionary aspect of Anusara yoga is the “kula,” or community. When Friend designed his own system of hatha yoga he set out to bring solid philosophy and technique for spiritual transformation to Westerners. Most hatha yoga styles are aimed at personal individual practice, as if spiritual awakening is something one works at on his or her own. Anusara strives to bring its practitioners together in strong community, which serves as an immediate reminder of oneness with all. Ideally, the kula is a supportive group of unique people striving towards a common goal of higher being. Folks in the kula are recognized for their strengths and talents as well as supported in overcoming their weaknesses. There is a familial air within the kula, described as “inclusive, life-affirming, and evolving” (“About Anusra: Philosophy”).

Fifteen years after its founding, Anusara yoga has become one of the fastest growing hatha yoga schools in the United States of America and beyond. By July of 2010 John Friend had personally licensed 1,200 teachers who spread Anusara’s methods to 200,000 students in 70 countries spanning every continent save Antarctica (Swartz). The Anusara kula is now international and expansive. People all over the world have been touched by the ancient methods of tantric yoga that John Friend drew from in order to patent his unique system of Anusara. Some have healed themselves of chronic disease using Anusara’s techniques. Others have gained long lasting friends. Still others have invested countless hours and several thousands of dollars to practice and study the system. The passions that have been stoked bys Anusara have led many to cultivate their financial livelihoods around teaching these methods. Anusara and its founder earned a well-loved and respected reputation, and in early 2012 John Friend was gearing up for a world tour. He planned to travel from Georgia to Alaska to Israel and several places in between to teach asana and expound upon Shiva-Shakti Tantric philosophy (“Events”). At the time of the writing of this article, plans for a world tour have screeched to a halt. Shock waves reverberated throughout the global yoga community this past month as John Friend and his beloved Anusara, Inc. came under fire.

The first trouble in Anusaraland surfaced in the eyes of the public in July 2010. At this time the New York Times published its first major article on hatha yoga, and the newspaper chose to cover Anusara. The article was not a glowing review of Anusara or John Friend. It was titled “The Yoga Mogul,” and leveled several salacious attacks against Friend, painting him as a guru figure to an Anusara cult. The article illustrated Friend as an egomaniac and money-hungry entrepreneur floating through life and influencing others with positive and flowery language. It featured a photograph of John in a standing asana on stage before a crowd of onlooking yogis obediently sitting in lotus position. The photo caption read: Boss Pose.

Soon after its publishing, John Friend issued a response to the article on his blog. He first mentioned feeling honored that the New York Times chose to publish its largest yoga article in history on Anusara. He denied the unsavory allegations made against him and postulated that these details were fabricated in order to sensationalize the article. He denied having created a “cult around John Friend” (“John Friend’s Response”). Nearly thirty comments remain visible in response to Friend’s blog post. All of the comments praise John for his response to the article. One commenter writes, “Now you really are my biggest hero!” Another commenter posts, “You are an enlightened Being, you lead, you prevail, we follow by choice.” If Friend had not created a full-blown cult in his favor, he had certainly garnered a lot of positive attention and power. Anusara yogi’s trusted his teachings and held him in high regard. As illustrated by these comments, Friend was considered a higher being in the minds of many.

On February 3rd 2012, a website titled “jfexposed” appeared on the Internet. The author of the site remains anonymous. Once again several salacious accusations were made against Anusara’s founder. The popular blog Yoga Dork brought the news to the fore of the yoga community in a summarization of the four major claims against John (“Head of Anusara: The Accusations”). The first claim asserted that John practices Wicca and participates in sexual rites within a coven. Friend has been open about his ties to Wicca. The ethical questions raised here have to do with John’s fidelity to his girlfriend and rumors that sex practices within this coven have led to the severance of more than one marriage. The jfexposed website included explicit pictures – none of which displayed a clear face – and Skype conversations to support its second claim; that John used his power and position as a guru to engage in shady sexual relations with his employees. The third accusation is perhaps the most compelling. The author of jfexposed claimed that John Friend had illegally frozen the pensions belonging to several of his employees without notifying them. One year later, the Federal Government intervened causing Friend to send out retroactive notices to his employees that he had frozen their pensions. Anusara, Inc. is legally bound to return all pension funds. The fourth and final accusation against John Friend is that he was having marijuana delivered to him for personal use and his employees received these illegal packages on his behalf.

Prior to the appearance of the jfexposed website some changes had been taking place within the Anusara kula. In November of 2010 – a few months after the New York Times published its article on John as ‘Yoga Mogul’ – several of John Friend’s senior students (and renowned Anusara teachers) resigned from their Anusara certifications (“Anusara Exodus”). After a decade of impassioned relationship with the Anusara system and their teacher John Friend, Christina Sell, Darren Rhodes, and Elena Brower chose not to renew their teaching licenses. They continue to teach yoga, but those who spoke on their decision cited that their hearts were no longer aligned with the direction of Anusara, Inc. Amy Ippoliti, another senior student/teacher, followed suit when she respectfully bowed out from the kula in January 2012 (“Anusara Exodus Continues”).

Yoga news sources and some Anusara students took note of these rumblings, but the exodus had largely been quiet and reasons for senior teacher departures remained murky. The unveiling of ethical accusations against John Friend shook the international community. Some within the kula jumped to his defense, declaring that John had always supported them throughout their own struggles. People made positive assertions about John’s character based on their personal experience with him. Others reacted in anger. People questioned: how could someone who has made his life about teaching yogic philosophy behave in such a dubious ethical manner? So many had invested time and money in Anusara, Inc. They invested a deep trust in John. Teachers wondered how the controversy would immediately impact their financial security. Would people stop attending Anusara classes as a result of this mess? The name of Anusara had been seriously tarnished in the yoga world. Teachers and students, people who have dedicated a good portion of their lives to studying and being aligned with Anusara as a yoga school, waited with bated breath to discover how John Friend would respond to the questions that had been raised. 

Four days after the anonymous jfexposed website was published, John Friend issued a letter to the teachers of Anusara yoga. He acknowledged that the accusations had “negatively and painfully impacted several dear, innocent community members and their families” (“Letter from John Friend to Anusara Yoga Teachers”). John said that there was some accuracy as well as falsehood within the accusations. In the letter he did not shed any further light on what was true or false, but stated that he had commitment to any personal inquiry or public process necessary for untangling the allegations. He acknowledged that Anusara as a yoga school had been damaged because his “personal behavior was perceived to be out of integrity with Anusara ethics” and made it clear that he wanted to do what it would take to rebuild the school. Friend promised to be authentic in moving forward and said he would be working directly with the kula to restructure Anusara in order to best serve it as a community. While Friend remained silent on the pension matter citing legal reasons, he requested folks reserve their judgment. He also included an attached letter that made it look like the pension controversy had been fabricated.

This same day Yoga Dork published some documents that had allegedly been sent by a former Anusara, Inc. employee. Yoga Dork wrote that a second anonymous former employee had corroborated the information. The documents supported the initial claim made on that employee pensions had been illegally frozen and no one was notified until nearly one year following the freeze. According to these documents, Wendy Wiltrout, the Vice President of Operations of Anusara, Inc., wrote of the pension freeze: “I apologize for this oversight. The spirit of our intention was good. We were not being intentionally deceptive” (“Anusara Pension Documents”).

On February 8th, 2012 Waylon Lewis, a journalist for Elephant Journal, interviewed John for the first time publicly since the storm hit. In this interview, John apologized again for any harm that he had caused. Friend stated that he is not a guru and attempts to avoid that self-characterization. He admitted that he had had consenting sexual relationships with his students and employees, some of whom were married. He concluded this segment of the interview by saying he could “walk differently in (his) relationships with women” (“My Interview with John Friend”). Friend refrained from speaking about pension issues but an eight-page document was included that explained the situation from the view of Anusara, Inc. Some of the documents sent to Yoga Dork by anonymous were included in this package. The allegations about pension misconduct are described as “distortions generated by a disgruntled former employee, whose pension funds are, and always have been, available to him” (“My Interview with John Friend”). It is explained that Anusara, Inc. took out a loan and needed to modify its employees pension plans as a result. Anusara, Inc. claims that nothing illegal took place and no employees were ever cheated out of benefits. The company claims to have mistakenly modified the pension plan and failed to notify its employees of this, but this was remedied as soon as the Department of Labor contacted Anusara, Inc. (which occurred as a result of an inquiry made by said disgruntled employee). In Lewis’ final question to John Friend, he asked: “How are you going to wake up and grow as a human being?” Friend responded that he has not always been transparent, so he has recommitted to transparency. He concluded the interview by indicating that his own personal “mis-steps” should not undercut the “greatness” of the Anusara method and mentioned that Anusara’s future would include more cooperation of the kula.

At the time that this controversy began bubbling, I was attending two different yoga schools in Asheville, North Carolina. One of the programs was an Anusara Immersion taught by Deirdre Smith Gilmer and Joe Taft. The other was a teacher-training program: Bodhana Yoga School in West Asheville. Deirdre Smith Gilmer is a primary teacher for this program as well, specializing in familiarizing soon-to-be-teachers with Anusara’s unique philosophy and methodology. On the evening of Saturday, November 11th, Bodhana Yoga School (BYS) participants took time out of scheduled lessons to discuss this stormy news. While the accusations disturbed us, the students of BYS were not necessarily surprised. We felt that these events were significant to take into account, and some of the accusations brought to light were problems in Western-world yoga that certainly aren’t exclusive to Anusara or John Friend. One student mentioned that she has two friends who have been subject to unwanted sexual advances from male yoga teachers they trusted. A teacher voiced her opinion that John Friend had accrued a lot of power as a yoga teacher, and that he veered off track because his ego could not handle that amount of power and recognition. Imagine being continuously surrounded by people who hold you in such high regard. You might begin to believe you are infallible. Yoga teachers who may have physical mastery, spiritual knowledge, and knowledge of how to help heal their students of physical ailments can sometimes be respected to the point of illusion. These events seemed to us a major reminder that everyone is human.

The next morning we asked Deirdre how she felt about the controversy. As an Anusara certified instructor, Deirdre has personally trained with John Friend and been a member of the kula for several years. Her main source of income is working as an Anusara yoga teacher in Asheville and she has seriously dedicated herself to developing the kula in this area. Deirdre said she was really affected by these events. She noted that her first reaction to hearing the news was anger. It was clear that she was hurt. Despite this, she was not interested in immediately revoking her ties to Anusara, as she wanted to wait and see the outcome of John’s actions. Mainly, this was a lot for her to process. She was very surprised that John would take actions that had affected so many people in such a big way and she wondered if this indicated that he needed help. Deirdre said, “He does it all himself. That’s a lot to handle.” These events said to her that Anusara had become bigger than John. It was time for him to hang back and recreate a more communally run organization.

On February 10th, 2012, Anusara, Inc. took its first concrete step toward a more democratic operation. An Interim Committee was formed to investigate the accusations against Friend and determine the best possible course of action in moving forward as an organization. The committee, composed of senior certified teachers and overseen by three professional mediators, drafted a letter and issued it to the public. The letter states, “John supports and encourages the idea that a genuine transfer of authority and responsibility needs to be implemented for the future success and longevity of the Anusara yoga method. In addition, John has agreed to seek therapy immediately, and is taking full accountability for each of the errors that he admittedly made” (“Second John Friend Letter”). As far as establishing a more democratic organization, the Interim Committee decided that each licensed Anusara instructor would have a vote for the election of representatives on two separate committees dealing with ethics and leadership. The ethics committee will be composed for accountability and the leadership committee will work to move the organization forward with transparent and thorough communication. On the same day, John Friend also issued a letter to the Anusara kula. He echoes the letter from the Interim Committee and includes some personal comments. Among these, he says he is examining his shadows and requests that anger and disappointment be transformed into constructive action for healing the community. He also thanks the community for being patient while “Anusara yoga shifts to more of a teacher-driven organization and away from a John Friend-centered yoga school” (“Second John Friend Letter”).

At the time of the Interim Committee meeting, Friend was scheduled to teach a workshop on the dharma of relationships in Miami, Florida the following weekend. The Committee voted unanimously that it was inappropriate for John to teach philosophy at this event. It seemed time for John to step out of the spotlight, but he felt it was important to remain an asana teacher at the event. He felt it would be irresponsible to cancel the training and wanted to avoid hiding from the public in such a time of distress. This posed a significant opportunity to show the larger community his humanity, as it was clear how emotionally impacted he was by the events of the previous weeks. John and the committee agreed he would attend the Miami event to teach asana and his noted colleague William Mahoney would lecture philosophy (“Second John Friend Letter”).

The weeklong Miami workshop arrived. John Friend taught some asana as promised. Other certified Anusara teachers taught asana as well. More senior Anusara teachers left the system, including Noah Maze who had been serving on the Interim Committee. Maze decided that while he was committed to yoga, he did not want to have a role in the process of restructuring Anusara as an organization (“Update: More Anusara Teacher Reactions”). One source gives a count of 103 teachers who have resigned from their Anusara-specific licensure (Fredo, Bay Shakti). While at his workshop in Miami on February 16th, 2012, John Friend released another letter to the kula. Unlike his usual flowery speech, this letter was short and concise. In it, he apologized again for his misbehavior and expressed profound grief. Friend announced that at the conclusion of the Miami event he would be stepping down as head of Anusara and taking a leave of absence for personal therapy and recuperation. He said his therapists and counselors would determine the length of his retreat. He made it clear that another announcement would be released within ten days to address the situation and give concrete terms to the future of Anusara (“John Friend Takes a Leave of Absence”).

On Valentine’s Day I had the privilege of observing a class taught by Deirdre at West Asheville Yoga (WAY). Twenty people attended, most of them seasoned in the Asheville Anusara kula. Deirdre began the class with a frank discussion about the ongoing events. Her students appreciated this. Two of them spoke up to reassure her that the turmoil would not shake their dedication to practicing Anusara with Deirdre. In honor of Valentine’s Day, Deirdre taught about love. She said that her heart had been broken, and that a broken heart meant there was more room for light. “What hurts you can also heal you.” It struck me that one of the most powerful aspects of Anusara’s kula is that it provides a necessary security that then allows for deeper exploration and more expansive growth. In teaching this class, Deirdre’s process was raw, human, and shared by all. Because Deirdre had cultivated such strong relationship with her students, she was able to be honest, open, and real in sharing this painful experience. The spiritual work was deeper here than your typical asana class. After the class, many of Deirdre’s students hugged her goodbye and wished her luck in the healing process.

Two days later Deirdre taught another class at WAY. This class was half the size of the first and not as advanced. Some of the students had never practiced Anusara before. As with her Tuesday class, Deirdre began by saying, “right now in the Anusara community we have a gigantic opportunity for growth. Anusara is being restructured and John Friend is stepping down.” This information settled differently in the room than it had on Tuesday. These were not committed Anusara yogis, and the grand impact of these words was lost on the students. The room was quiet. Deirdre tried universalized her message, saying, “We have all experienced heartbreak. What’s the next step? [As a community] that’s where we are.” After class, two of her students stayed after to discuss the situation. They had not heard about the controversy prior to this. When Deirdre explained the situation, her student Eliza responded, “There is always corruption.” Another student, Tina, said “It is conceivable that with [John Friend] stepping back you could have a democratic organization of Anusara teachers that is in the spirit of Anusara.” Deirdre explained that there was concern that the Anusara name had lost integrity that it wouldn’t be able to regain. Eliza responded, “I am new to Anusara yoga and I like it. I will continue.” Tina said, “You [and Joe Taft] are the most inspiring teachers that I have ever had.”

On February 20th I conducted a phone interview with Joe Taft, Deirdre’s main business partner and another premier Anusara yoga teacher in Asheville. Joe spends his life teaching Anusara yoga and building the local kula with a driven and infectious passion. Ironically, at the time of this tumult Joe was enjoying a vacation out of town with his family. Before he left on vacation some of his “hardcore yogi” students made him aware of the Anusara disturbance. “Last Saturday,” he told me, “more of my students came from Johnson City and Sylva – further distances – out of support. Maybe because they wanted to see what I would teach about. If anything from this situation I feel more connected to my friends and students. They’ve been super sweet and supportive. One student said ‘This doesn’t affect the way I see you at all, you’re always my teacher. You’re as much my teacher as you always have been’ – which is really funny because she is my teacher.”

While these events were causing change and emotional reaction, locally the Asheville kula is being strengthened. The need to view all participants as equally important has come to the fore.  The accusations that have arisen against John seem symptomatic of a greater reflection: hierarchy with a single leader at its head is no longer being tolerated. Teachers are not greater than students. They may have more knowledge in certain areas, but what it comes down to is the importance of the dynamic collaborative process that occurs within any relationship, in which all parties are deemed equal.

 Joe asked me if I had read the letter from Douglas Brooks on the Anusara controversy. Douglas Brooks is a Tantric scholar and an old companion to John Friend. He has been referred to as the “Godfather of Anusara.” He collaborated with Friend to author the name of Anusara Yoga and advised him not to create his own unique brand of Tantra, but rather to draw from ancient tradition. In his letter he describes where John veered off course in Anusara, Inc. Brooks writes:

“I argued in 2005 that... John must define Anusara by gathering an increasing number of ‘senior’ teachers, acknowledge their gifts and the authority they possess, and so create a growing circle of peers in which he sees himself as only another peer. He would then be held accountable, diffuse power from himself, effectively dissolve the innately corrupt model of the one guru that claims equality for all but actually vests power in only one person... My own teacher taught that the ‘one guru’ model is an inadequate model for human organization. We, as human beings, may claim divine or spiritual experiences of all sorts but we always answer to each other, we never relinquish our human responsibilities to anything less than collaborative authorities... Anusara as John created it, in my opinion, created ‘equality’ among his students but averred implicitly to the notion that the sole proprietor (in this case, John) is the singular source of all authority... Anusara is [John’s] business and in the most mundane and utterly practical way this not only a Western business model—but also another example of a guru model.  And if it is not really a presentation of the guru, it is the perception of gurus as authorities that is too real to ignore...I am not rejecting the concept of a great teacher to which one defers with commitment, devotion, and love. Rather, I am insisting that gurus are accountable to their students for the entirety of their actions. No one gets a pass.”

            Brooks’ words resonated with Joe Taft. Joe said to me, “[John]’s an extremely powerful person. Yoga is a process of cultivating power and it’s your job to add the ethics. The more powerful you get the more you have to work to bring in ethics... Everybody has to be in check, it doesn’t matter where you are in the community. [John Friend] was above being in check and that’s the problem. John loves to say you have to have a teacher. He means you need somebody to answer to. He needed somebody he had to answer to and he didn’t have that person so things got out of control for the guy.”

            I asked him what he thought about those who were revoking their Anusara certifications. “Teachers are turning in their licensure to say they’re not in support of the company,” Joe said. “They are not relinquishing their titles as Anusara teachers. They are not supporting John. The way I feel is that I’m really glad that people did that because it’s making John be held accountable. Otherwise he might not have been held accountable. I’m happy that people are resigning in this way.” However, Joe has not decided to make this choice. He said if he were in John’s position he would want the support of his students. Joe does not feel hurried to resign from Anusara. He would rather “stress-test” his teacher to see if the problems within the company change.

            Joe and Deirdre had been planning to start the first Asheville Anusara Teacher Training in this coming year. These plans are being put on hold. Despite this, Joe told me, “I feel like I’ve stayed pretty steady because of John’s teachings.” He paused, and then laughed: “That’s hilarious. I feel like the same radical moving-forward energy that allowed this man to create this huge yoga is the same energy that pushed him over the edge. He did something most human beings can’t do. The shakti that he has been able to cultivate – he needed that to get the thing going, but then it needed to slow down and settle. But he just kept pushing. He burned himself out with his own energy. No matter what [John Friend] did I am still extremely grateful for super-clear teachings that he has offered to me. He has offered so many great teachers and he brought them to Anusara to feed the community. I am extremely grateful.”

I asked Joe how this situation has caused him to reflect on himself. “We all have the ability to let our shadow side come alive. It was brought to my attention that I have to be careful. There was almost a part of me that thought I was a teacher and they were students. But it’s not true. As soon as you walk out of the classroom the power differential is gone. The students are always your teachers. Our shadow side is always ready to awaken. For me, I just want to be more cautious. There’s nothing wrong with our shadow side but I’m just not into letting it come out in a way that could hurt my students or hurt my family. We all have it. It’s tricky because we don’t want to let it out so we protect it and it grows. We have to let it out a little bit, check on it. You gotta make friends, I guess... [and] we always need a teacher.”

As promised, on February 24th, 2012, John Friend released a final letter to the kula. He told the community he was stepping down as CEO of Anusara, Inc. and the company was becoming a Teacher-Run Non-Profit Organization (501c3). Michal Lichtman, a certified Anusara instructor, would become a business partner to John and CEO of the now-Non-Profit. Licensed teachers will elect an Anusara Yoga School Board of Directors in order to direct distribution of information and certifications. Friend wrote, “My hope is that this reorganization of Anusara yoga will give the teachers the opportunity to elevate Anusara yoga to an outstanding hatha yoga style independent of me... With this new restructuring I am effectively putting Anusara yoga in the hands of the community” (“John Friend Steps Down”).

In one month Anusara, Incorporated has experienced a revolution. Prior to February 2012 Anusara was a renowned method of hatha yoga led by its founder John Friend. But since its founding fifteen years ago, many dedicated practitioners have explored the tools of Anusara methodology in depth. The kula has grown to directly influence the personal and professional lives of people internationally. In effect, as Deirdre said, Anusara has become bigger than John Friend. The accusations against the organization’s founder were a wake-up call, not simply for Friend, but for all who worshipped him as a teacher whose worth is greater than their own. Most of all, these events marked a conscious shift towards equality between human beings. Union. This is, after all, the true meaning of ‘yoga.’