Sex scandal knocks yoga world off balance

MSNBC News/March 3, 2012

The ever-balanced world of yoga is rocking after a sex scandal involving a big-time guru has many wondering if the phenomenally popular practice is about to take a tumble.

For the uninitiated, John Friend, the founder of the fast-growing Anusara style of yoga, is currently in the downward doghouse following a series of accusations against him involving both sexual and financial misconduct.

"It's really just everywhere in the yoga community right now," says Amy Hess, a 35-year-old yoga instructor from Richmond, Va.

As a result, Friend has taken a leave of absence, sent out a public letter of apology and told his many followers that he's immersing himself in a period of "self-reflection, therapy and personal retreat."

While Friend reflects, about 60 to 75 teachers of Anusara -- a form of yoga based on alignment and teachings from Tantric philosophy -- have resigned, according to Yoga Dork, which broke the news of the scandal. Many others are wondering if Friend's alleged penchant for sex, drugs and other peoples' money will taint the entire community of yoga, a form of exercise that touts physical as well as mental and spiritual discipline.

"My biggest concern is the negative impact this scandal will have on the world of yoga," says Tommy Rosen, a Vinyasa and Kundalini yoga teacher and co-founder of the Tadasana International Festival of Yoga and Music in Santa Monica. "Some people will be turned off and at least for the short term, [they] might avoid some of these wonderful teachings from Anasura yoga -- John Friend's yoga -- because they come from that camp. And that's a shame."

Yoga students seem to have mixed feelings about the decidedly unyoga-like behavior.

Some feel betrayed, like fashion blogger @ModernGirlStyle who posted "Are there other yoga peeps that are as upset about the fraud of #JohnFriend as me?" on Twitter Thursday.

"I'm not a prude, but yoga is kind of an otherworldly experience. This just stains it for me," says Barbara Ross, a 63-year-old sales and marketing professional from Seattle. "It's not going to dissuade me from yoga -- nothing will dissuade me from yoga -- but it's so unprofessional."

Others point to previous sex scandals involving powerful, charismatic men.

"The misappropriation of funds is totally unethical," says Jill Nussinow, a 56-year-old cookbook author from Santa Rosa, Calif., who's practiced Iyengar yoga for the past 16 years. "But this is not the first nor will it likely be the last yoga and sex scandal... President Clinton even screwed up, but I'm not going to say, 'I don't want a president.' We all have human foibles. I'm still going to do yoga."

Stacey Johnes, a 43-year-old marketing vice president from Los Angeles, who has practiced Anusara yoga for a number of years, says that she, too, will remain "a grateful student."

"In the past, I think I put my teachers and yoga itself on a type of pedestal," she says. "But ... I realized that yoga teachers, like the rest of us, are fallible humans. And actually that's okay with me. This has not tainted how I feel about my yoga practice."

Although, she adds, she feels the teacher-student relationship should be treated with appropriate care and respect.

Yoga instructor Amy Hess says the allegations about Friend aren't that shocking, not because she knows anything about the man -- or his behavior -- but because of the powerful nature of his position.

"The sexual indiscretions are deplorable and gross and an abuse of power, but I don't think it's unique to people in positions of power," she says. "I've seen [men] who tend to flex their power. They're surrounded by fit, active, typically young attractive women. Maybe it's a big 'duh' for everybody, but I'm reading all these stories about these gurus who've had issues and the majority of gurus in yoga are male. And in the West, the majority of practitioners are female.

"I think it lends itself to the idea that yoga instructors and gurus can take advantage of students," she says. "Not to suggest that all teachers have that in mind or all men have that in mind. But there are some that do."

Tommy Rosen, who's been practicing yoga for 20 years, says student-teacher relationships do happen, but they've been happening for thousands of years.

"The idea of a student being attracted to a teacher physically or some other way is so old and ingrained, it's almost a human archetype," he says.

But that doesn't excuse gurus or teachers who act on that attraction, he says.

"My guru was very clear on this point," he says. "When you teach yoga, there's a mantra you say before you teach. 'I am not a man. I am not a woman. I am not a person. I am not myself. I am a teacher.' When you step into a yoga studio and you're the teacher, there needs to be a boundary there."

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