Yoga Guru or CEO? Saving the Brand When Scandal Strikes

John Friend, the yoga entrepreneur responsible for creating Anusara yoga, is mired in scandal.

In 2010, Friend told the New York Times’ Mimi Swartz that he believed his brand of yoga was successful because it was simply of higher quality: “…people can choose—either they are going to go to a fast-food joint or a fine restaurant.” 

But recent scandals threaten any vision of Anusara as the “fine restaurant” of the yoga world.

The accusations, (re-posted in early February from an anonymous site by blogger Yoga Dork) can be summarized as follows: Friend heads a Wiccan coven in which he has sex with female members; Friend had several sexual relationships with married Anusara employees and teachers; Friend violated federal regulations regarding employee benefits by suddenly freezing Anusara, Inc.’s pension fund; and finally, Friend put his employees at legal risk by arranging for them to accept packages of marijuana for his personal use.

In the last few months, four of Anusara’s most senior teachers—Christina Sell, Darren Rhodes, Elena Brower, and Amy Ippoliti—resigned one by one, citing “professional differences.” On February 12, two additional senior teachers, Noah Maze and Bernadette Birney, resigned, and Maze stepped down from his position on an interim committee established by Friend to ensure Anusara’s survival from the onslaught of the scandals. On her website, Birney added fuel to the fire, claiming that Friend “decided to ‘heal’ his students with ‘sex therapy.’”

Friend responded in a February 8, 2012 interview with Waylon Lewis at Elephant Journal. He confirmed that he had had sexual relationships with married employees and teachers and that Anusara, Inc. had violated federal regulations regarding employee pension funds. That day, Friend also emailed a letter to Anusara teachers regarding the scandals. He wrote:

The central issue now is that the wonderful image and reputation of Anusara yoga has been severely stained in the minds of some, since my personal behavior has been perceived to be out of integrity with Anusara ethics… the disharmony between my personal image and the values of our school needs to be reconciled, if Anusara is to properly heal… we are exploring scenarios in which the company is restructured to give teachers more voice and representation not only in areas of brand, ethics and curriculum, but also in the governance and direction of the company itself.

He added, “We must all remember that any missteps by me do not invalidate any of the greatness of the Anusara yoga method.”

Saving the Brand

Friend and his colleagues are desperately fighting to save the Anusara brand. In a letter to the Anusara community on February 24, Friend announced the appointment of Michal Lichtman as CEO of the new “teacher-run, nonprofit organization—the Anusara Yoga School,” adding that Friend himself would remain only “founder, student, and teacher of Anusara yoga.” Will this make any difference?

Some had assumed such changes would make a difference. Stewart J. Lawrence suggests in HuffPo that the Anusara situation reflects the reality for the entire yoga industry, whose future is grim due to the dominance of “charismatic, guru-based governing structures” rather than “more modern and democratic” ones.

Friend is not, however, the Anusara guru. Even though Friend uses the term kula (Sanskrit for “family”) to refer to the Anusara community—a term traditionally applied to disciples gathered around a guru—Friend rejects the label, preferring instead to call himself the founder and (until the recent restructuring) general manager of Anusara. But that doesn’t mean the infallible attributes often associated with the term guru haven’t been attributed to him. John Friend had been, until the scandals hit, considered the paragon of virtue within the Anusara community.

But even if Friend functions as a guru for the Anusara community, his relationship to the Anusara brand is not different than the relationship of other popular persons to particular brands. Think Martha Stewart, or Apple’s Steve Jobs. In the same way that Jobs was believed to have abilities beyond mundane marketing skills, Friend is considered to have special insight into the nature of yoga and its path to happiness. This vision of Friend is key to thousands of yoga practitioners’ uncompromising commitment to the Anusara brand. 

Yoga: Sex Cult

While some blame yoga sex scandals on “guru-based governing structures,” others go straight to yoga’s roots. In a sardonically titled New York Times article, “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here,” journalist William J. Broad writes:

Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught? One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult—an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.

This is a bold thesis, but it’s inaccurate. Arguing that hatha yoga is a “parent of the styles now practiced around the globe” and labeling the beginnings of hatha yoga a “sex cult” are both historically irresponsible moves. Popularized forms of modern yoga only started to develop into the forms they take today about a hundred years ago, and, though traditionally linked to hatha yoga, they have more in common with other fitness routines prevalent in modern physical culture than with earlier varieties of yoga.

Furthermore, to reduce hatha yoga traditions to “sex cults” is abhorrently untrue. After all, although there have been traditions of hatha yoga that prescribed systematized sexual rituals, yoga frequently prescribed sexual continence (in varying degrees and forms) rather than “sexual debauchery,” as Broad simplistically puts it. And in today’s popularized varieties, such as Anusara, modern yoga does not prescribe “sexual debauchery” of any kind.

Beyond Broad’s false history of yoga, he also fails to recognize the fact that philanderers abound everywhere that there is competition for power. In the case of religion we need only to summon the recent scandal involving Eddie L. Long, the former pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist megachurch in Lithonia, Georgia. And then, in the fitness world, the tragic story of the scandal at Penn State football. In both the Long and Sandusky cases, scandals arose around accusations that the men had used their status and power to sexually seduce and abuse young men.

Yes, when sex scandals erupted involving Friend, it was not a shock—but not because yoga is, or ever was, a sex cult.

In the end, Friend may be a yoga guru who shattered his disciples’ spiritual vision of yoga, but he is also simply a marketer whose brand image management went awry.