In this week's cover story, I profile John Friend, who built his Texas-based Anusara yoga school into a global empire before losing it all in a lurid 2012 scandal and moving to Denver to start anew.
While Friend's fall from grace captured major media attention, he was far from the first yoga guru to weather controversy. Is there something about yoga that leads to such problems? A look at some of the other yoga scandals might provide some answers.
Up until fairly recently, yoga itself was controversial in the United States, since it clashed with xenophobic and conservative undertones in American culture. In the 1910s, newspapers blared headlines such as "Police Break in on Weird Hindu Rites: Girls and Men Mystics Cease Strange Dance as 'Priest' Is Arrested" and "A Hindu Apple for Modern Eve: The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction." Between the 1960s and 1980s, Western yoga practitioners worked hard to downplay the spiritual aspects of the ancient tradition that had led to this backlash, instead focusing on the largely physical branch of the practice called hatha yoga, which they positioned as a form of exercise.
The move paid off. Since then, Yoga's rise in popularity had been meteoric -- but it's also been marked by more than a few controversies. Among the scandals:
- In the early 1980s, former devotees accused Swami Muktananda, founder of Siddha Yoga, of molesting and raping women.
- In 1991, multiple women accused Swami Satchidananda, who gave the invocation at Woodstock, of sexually exploiting them.
- In the early 1990s, Swami Rama, founder of the Pennsylvania-based Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy and one of the first yogis to be studied by Western scientists, faced controversy after several women alleged he sexually abused them. Not long after his death, one of his accusers won nearly $2 million in a lawsuit filed against him.
- In 1994, Amrit Desai, founder of the Massachusetts-based Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, resigned from the organization after he admitted having sex with followers, since the retreat required vows of celibacy from its residents. The center later settled a lawsuit brought by former residents for $2.5 million.
- In 2009, former members and employees sued Dahn yoga, a Korean exercise system, for fraud, deceptive business practices, emotional distress and other offenses. The plaintiffs eventually withdrew their lawsuit, but in the wake of the ensuing media coverage, which emphasized Dahn's cult-like activities, the program's founder, Ilchi Lee, announced his resignation.
- Bikram Choudhury, founder of the wildly popular Bikram school of "hot yoga," has long weathered controversy, including claims that he's denigrated women and homosexuals and allegations in a lawsuit filed in March 2013 that he sexually harassed a former protégé
To some, the pattern is hard to ignore. In the wake of Friend's scandal, William Broad, author of The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, penned a New York Times essay noting,
...this is hardly the first time that yoga's enlightened facade has been cracked by sexual scandal. 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.
Not surprisingly, Broad's essay didn't go over well in the yoga community. Among those not impressed was Yoga Dork, a prominent blogger in the scene who had, incidentally, helped break the Friend scandal. As Yoga Dork noted in an online retort:
...For crying out loud, Broad, are you really saying John Friend behaved the way he did because he had a predetermined predisposition to do so due to the fact he was a leader of yoga? That is silly and just plain dumb.
We'll remember to tell that to the veterans who are able to sleep better at night, the kids who can focus better in school, those prone to heart disease who lost weight and lowered risk of heart attack and stroke and the cancer survivors who've found strength, calm and community all due to the help of a regular yoga and meditation practice.
Saying it's yoga's fault doesn't seem like the answer.
Plus, yoga is far from the only modern realm wracked by scandals. (Just take a look at Washington, D.C.) So maybe the problem isn't with yoga, maybe it's with yoga's financial and cultural ascendance.
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Yoga's explosion in the United States has led to millions of happy practicioners, but it's also led to million-dollar profits, corporate power moves, powerful male gurus and lots and lots of endorphin-fueled, spandex-clad bodies.
In other words, maybe all these yoga scandals aren't due to the practice's ancient Tantric origins -- maybe they're due to yoga becoming Americanized.
More from our Follow That Story archive: "John Friend and Sridaiva: A primer on his new yoga program."