John Friend Opens Up About The Sex Scandal That Shook The Yoga World
Whether you’re a yogi or not, you’re probably no stranger to the name John Friend. But after the great Anusaragate of 2012, amid rumors of financial mismanagement and a sex scandal, John Friend was left estranged from much of the yoga world, banished from the empire he'd created.
Although the financial situation was resolved, Friend was asked to resign from Anusara. Left to his own devices, the fallen guru spent his time in solitude with his mat, until fate led him to a small studio in Denver called Vital Yoga.
The owners (and sisters) Desi and Micah Springer, invited Friend to their studio to practice, heal and own up to his mistakes — by encouraging him to take accountability for his actions.
The new alliance proved effective, and Sridaiva — a new form of alignment-based yoga — was born. As Friend, 55, gears up for the official launch of Sridava, MindBodyGreen asked him to open up about what he's learned since the scandal, and life after Anusara.
MBG: After the fall of Anusara in early 2012, did you take any downtime for yourself?
JF: I chose not to work or do any kind of revenue-generating job in the yoga world until that October. I was just practicing, studying, taking care of myself and trying to learn from what happened.
Do you have regrets about the choices you made?
I feel the pain in my heart of the mistakes I made. It was never my intention to hurt anyone or myself. When those things occur, it’s important to feel it and remember it, and that’s how we change. I’m using the pain I feel to step forward into the future in a positive way. I’m certainly not going to repeat that path.
I take accountability for my own karma — I don’t know how regret really helps. I want to remember what happened, and then do things differently.
Did you feel like you had to go into hiding?
That time to self-reflect was critical. There was a response by the [Anusara] community to ostracize, instead of work together — I didn’t have much of a choice. They didn’t want me to have any function in the organization, so I was isolated for some time. That’s why I came to Denver, where I was welcomed. I could practice and just take care of myself.
Do you want to share anything about what happened with Anusara that we might not know?
A lot that was put out there came through the Internet — through people with their own projections. I want everybody to recognize that not everything they read is true. I smoked pot and was in a Wiccan coven. My biggest mistake was having a sexual affair, and being dishonest with my girlfriend.
The Anusara scandal to me, was focused on my sex life. My sexual relationships with women were private and consensual in my eyes, but the community considered my private life as something that they should judge. So it was like a 21st century social media witch trial, which judged me as being unfit to teach yoga.
It was my personal business, but some thought that I should be ostracized forever for this transgression. I am responsible for my mistakes, and my clear intention is to be utterly transparent and have integrity in my private relationships.
If people could be open to giving me a new chance, I would appreciate that. We have to have hope in each other that we can get better and make a positive shift.
Are you still in touch with anybody in the Anusara community?
At this point I am disassociated from the Anusara organization by our mutual choice. There have been a few Anusara students and ex-Anusara students that have come to study with me at Vital.
People make mistakes; so let’s try to help each other — that’s my big focus. It’s not useful to continue to blame each other or have malicious intent, especially in a public forum.
As a yoga community, we haven’t had the best behavior in the last couple of years. I believe that we can all improve, and that’s what I’m trying to do with myself.
If you don’t forgive, there is no change.
Were you surprised that Desi and her sister Micah reached out to you?
It was amazing how Desi reached out to me — I was skeptical because I was wondering what her motives were. Very few people asked if I needed help or support. I had first met Desi when she was a student of Anusara in 2005.
Desi said that nobody would bother me if I came in and practiced. I could go there, eat properly, get sunshine and clean air, and take time to reflect, study and turn things around.
How did you start to take care of yourself?
In the past, I thought I was being somewhat moderate with my habits. I had a beer on the weekends and used marijuana, but I never felt like I was partying every day. I would eat bread and sugar, but now I recognize it’s not healthy to eat that garbage on a regular basis. I was 50 pounds heavier than I am today.
I was also working way too much, sometimes 100 hours a week, staying up past midnight on most nights on my computer. The imbalance in my life was more due to overworking than partying.
And when everything collapsed, I realized it wasn’t sustainable. I had to take full ownership of the fact I had created that situation — it was my own doing.
When you’re not feeling well it definitely affects your behavior — you’re not going to make good choices. I look back at my mistakes and see where I can improve and change. If you asked me back then, I thought I was healthy and making good decisions.
Do you have any larger takeaways from what you’ve learned?
I understand that I’m the one accountable for my own health, happiness and lifestyle I lead — there’s no one else to blame.
I can see now that I had set up a dysfunctional organization. I also considered everybody an open-friend, but I realize now that people don’t always have the same openness that I might have. I’m a lot more discerning with my associations, and I focus on my own accountability in my behavior. That was a giant wake-up call for me. My relationships are a lot happier and healthier now.
I just stick more to myself. Before, I let people into my private life and many of them — maybe because of my public image — never really said that they disagreed with anything they saw in my life or behavior.
I realized the hard way that I can’t just bring anybody into my private affairs without a long testing period first. I’ve become more skeptical about people’s motives, so I keep my affairs more private than ever. I just have association with very few people.
Aside from self-reflection, what have you been up to?
After the scandal I began studying a routine (of postures) that Desi wrote called, “The Roots.” It had so much power for transformation and health — so I started to practice it and wanted to study with Desi more closely. My ideas about alignment were totally revolutionized.
I built the Anusara system on the Universal Principles of Alignment, but I started to rethink all of these ideas and am doing the opposite of what I’ve done for years. This new alignment system has become Sridaiva.
In Sridaiva, the tailbone doesn't draw downward. You don't lengthen you spine by pulling the two ends of the spine apart. You line the spine up so that your connective tissue can pull the spine apart.
There's a rooting through the pelvis down the legs and a rising in the spine to have the maximum opening of the body. That's not to say poses in modern postural yoga are wrong. We just focus more of the engagement on the back body. After 42 years of teaching yoga, that's a big change in my view.
Are you only teaching Sridaiva at Vital, or have you begun introducing it to other studios?
We only teach Sridaiva classes at Vital — it made it much easier on the studio if we only teach one method. It’s confusing if one method says, “melt the heart” and the other, “expand the heart.”
We’re also teaching Sridaiva nationwide and worldwide. We just got back from the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain. It's making a solid expansion.
When is the official launch of Sridaiva?
Theoretically, we cofounded Sridaiva in January 2013. It’s been evolving — right now, we really have it solidified to the point where next month we’re putting up the website that shows the whole method. It’s much more open-sourced than what I’ve done in the past.
But aren’t you concerned about anyone trying to copy you?
I’m sure that’s going to happen. But if people want to learn this practice through us, they’ll come. And if they don’t give us credit, that’s their karma. With the politics of what I went through for 15 years with Anusara, I really want to avoid that situation in the future.
Where does the name, Sridaiva, which means “divine destiny” in Sanskrit, come from?
For Desi and I, divine destiny refers to fate. Like when you run into someone on the street and that person happens to have a special gift or knowledge that’s valuable for you. It seems like coincidence, but there is something really powerful in that.
It was an unbelievable, fated meeting with Desi. What were the chances at that time in my life after the fall of Anusara, when I’m open to a new path — this opportunity with Desi would just appear?
Would you say all of this happened for a reason?
The path I’m on now only happened because of a terrible scandal where I lost so much — my associations, my friendships, my lifestyle. All of it was gone. It was almost a near-death experience and I finally woke up and realized I needed to be different.
Do you consider this your comeback?
I don’t have any big vision for this — but if I can do the best I can every day and see myself making progress as a person, then that’s my comeback. I’m not judging my success on financial gain or the size of my following. My comeback is to see my mistakes and have a higher level of integrity.
I’m excited about Sridaiva — it’s the most effective work I’ve ever done. I think it’s going to spread everywhere, and that’s a blessing. I feel like this is bigger than me —people are going to use this all over the world, and a lot of them won’t even know where it came from. But that doesn’t matter… I just want to help.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.