The Hindu discipline of yoga is big, big business in the West. Teaching yoga has become a favored second career, major airports now have yoga rooms, debates have erupted over its benefits, and how essential Hinduism is to its practice. So it is within this context that we should view the story of a popular hatha yoga school in America, and the scandal that has engulfed its founder.
“An anonymous tipster has sent us info that could potentially muddy the shiny, happy, image of John Friend and Anusara Inc., and shed some light on the recent flurry of exits by some of the brand’s foremost teachers like Elena Brower and Amy Ippoliti. Up til now, we’ve had our share of poking fun at the Anusarans, their meltiness and King Melty Heart Mogul, John Friend. But if these accusations are true, they paint a whole new perspective on the innerworkings of one of the most popular yoga corporations and the possible misdoings of its grand leader.”
So what is this scandal? YogaDork pointed to a (now down) website that listed several accusations. These included misusing Anusara funds, using his position to have sex with followers, and shipping drugs to the homes of his assistants. However, the accusation that brought this whole mess to my attention was the one about Friend being a Wiccan coven-leader. The charge being that Friend used this coven as a pretext to have sexual relations with the members without the knowledge of his girlfriend or the spouses of the women involved. YogaDork excerpted a letter from Friend that was posted on the “JF Exposed” site.
“You and I always shared a love for what is Good, Shri, and Delightful. We shared a love of Wicca, which is grounded on doing that which enhances Nature, affirms the Goodness of Life, and fosters love. We shared our love for Anusara yoga, which is a philosophy and practice that is totally aligned with Wicca on every level. With this common ground of wanting to bring more Light and Love into the world you and I started a small circle to use our knowledge and power to manifest our elevated intentions. Tiffany joined us in this auspicious and sacred endeavor. As part of our rituals you and I both agreed that we would use sexual/sensual energy in a positive and sacred way to help build the efficacy of our practices, which is a common element of most Wiccan circles, as you know.”
In the wake of the accusations exploding into public view, Friend conducted an interview with Elephant Journal, and in it he admitted to having sexual relationships with students, including married students, but the issue of how Wicca fit into the picture was not discussed at all. Friend’s interest in Wicca is listed in his official biography, and last year he talked in a video interview about how Anusara yoga, Wicca, and Paganism interface.
Sadly, the interface of these traditions, and how it relates to this scandal aren’t being explored at all. Or if they are, it’s in a light-hearted “how can I get in on some of this Wiccan action” variety.
“But what do I know? Obviously not much, or else I would have figured out that all my yogi friends are Wiccans and having great sex while I’m worried about picking up the kids and finding enlightenment on the way to the supermarket. Honestly, I never considered being a Wiccan because I’m too damn busy trying to be a Jewish/Presbyterian/Catholic/Buddhist/Yogi /Pissed-Off-Democrat and I’m sitting there with my eyes closed going “Om.” Right? I have my eyes closed when I probably should have opened them. Meanwhile, I’ve got to pick up the environmentally-friendly drycleaning, but just as soon as I can, I’m going to figure this out and see if being a Wiccan will get me a little more action on the mat.“
While I’m fully cognizant of the fact that Michelle Berman Marchildon is being satirical, I think its problematic that the yoga community is focusing on the sex scandal, and not the fact that Friend was allegedly using Wicca as front for swinging with students. The ignorance and apparent misinformation about what Wicca is, and what is seen as normative, is palpable. To quote Waylon Lewis at Elephant Journal: “I’m not very concerned with the wicca/witch/coven/tantra stuff, I personally find religion generally to be full of wonderful and rich myth and tradition.” In short, they seem to just assume Wicca is fine with cheating, lying, and using a coven structure to allegedly condone these activities.
So while the greater yoga community, and the Anusara folks, deal with the ramifications of this situation, it seems obvious that Wiccans have some education and outreach to do. For while some Wiccan covens may engage in sexual rites under certain controlled circumstances, no mainstream Wiccan tradition or organization that I know of encourages cheating on one’s spouse, or using a coven as a larder for one’s sexual proclivities. Those individuals and groups who do engage in such behavior are almost always ostracized. While Wicca as a religion can be very elastic in its theology and structure, there are certain values that all Wiccans (though not all Witches), from eclectic dabblers to the most hidebound traditionalists generally agree on. In short, covens, as a general rule, don’t encourage cheating on your spouse, or engaging in any sexual activity without prior consent by all interested parties.
So to my friends in the yoga community, don’t just assume you know what Wicca is, or that what John Friend allegedly did with his coven is an accepted practice. Contrary to popular belief, Pagans have ethics, and we do care when high-profile individuals seem to use our religions as a cover for bad behavior.