The Wiccan Angle to a Yoga Scandal

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 13, 2012 — 44 Comments

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.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

“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.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Liona Rowan

    holy crap! as if Wiccans and Pagans don’t have enough PR problems!

  • Sophie Falco

    Since when is Wicca about Love and Light? – that’s new age stuff, not Wicca, which is about balance and polarity. But he’s not the first coven leader to abuse his position and won’t be the last. And I agree, this angle should get wider coverage, because as long as people think that the Great Rite is about people copulating willy-nilly (if you forgive the pun), then there’s going to be mass misinformation about Wicca.

    • Bellatrix

      Thank you very much for writing this. It is why I cannot spend more than a night in an ashram (in the US). But let’s remember all the times sex scandals in the xian world have ever made the scandeler(?) renounce his belief that he is xian. Sadly this is yet another case of mistaken self-identity.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    This is the downside of what some non-Wiccan complained about here a few days ago, that Wicca is always front & center.

  • http://vermillionrush.wordpress.com Vermillion

    I read about this on YD and nearly facepalmed myself to death. Sigh.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    American Yoga is all about sex and celebrity and money. That’s the real scandal.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      And by “sex” I don’t mean good, real, natural Pagan sex. I mean f*cked up, uptight, sneaking around, lying, cheating, Protestant sex.

      • Malaz

        Ap….so LOL! :)

    • http://www.blackpagan.com/ blackpagan

      That is the hyped, public face of yoga that garners the media attention but it’s a gross generalization. I’ve been practicing yoga for over 20 years and have found *many* studios that aren’t about that at all. The studio I currently attend has students of all income levels, ages and physical abilities. Lots of overweight folks, lots of old people. It offers several donation-only classes a week for those of low-income. We wear old sweats or jeans to class, not $100 stretch pants.

      • Thriceraven

        Agreed. My rule of thumb is to stay the heck away from ‘corporatized’ yoga. If it says ‘Anusara’ or ‘Bikram’, I keep my distance. Give me an traditional yoga class in a small, non-franchised studio or a community centre any day over this corporate-guru crap.

        • Anonymous

          Blackpagan and Thriceraven, I couldn’t have said either of those things better myself. I practice kundalini yoga (which really works for me) at a small, cozy, non-expensive, non-trendy neighborhood yoga studio, wearing old T-shirts and old pants. The instructors are great, very professional, personable, and knowledgeable, and are nothing like John Friend.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        You are absolutely right about the “other” Yoga that is alive and well and very much the real thing. And the imagery of the “old sweats” versus “$100 stretch pants” really nails it. I guess I don’t consider the real thing to be “American Yoga”, but just plain old Yoga. But not all Yoga in America is “American Yoga”, thank the Gods.

        American Yoga:Yoga::American Cheese:Cheese.

        Also I think one of the most remarkable spiritual developments in the America over the last 20 years is the increasing popularity of the practice of kirtan, and this is very much a part of the “yoga” scene. The kind of yoga that America needs most is bhakti yoga, and kirtan is a very powerful and simple expression of Bhakti and it is very inspiring to see it taking root here.

        • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

          Wow, Ap, now you’re hating on American cheese?!?! You’ve gone too far! ;)

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1066316113 Jocelyne Berengaria Houghton

        Yes! The studio (really, community) at which I practice is a non-profit, brings yoga to hospice and VA and inner city communities, offers pranayama classes and holds kirtan sessions, studies yoga sutras, and is on the forefront of yoga therapy as a holistic model for physical and emotional healing. It ain’t *all* money and hype.

        • AnonGuest

          Honestly, most Yoga classes I’ve taken, from very experienced instructors, cost somewhere between free and 20 dollars* per1 1/2 long class, and the classes averaging around 11 people. And yoga studios typically only fill classes a couple times a day. Considering the expense of a studio, and how much money and time instructors spend training and getting their experience – I just gape when people think yoga is “money and hype”.
          *and 20$ is the high end and uncommon

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      So taking into account blackpagan’s comment, I would modify my original statement to read: “The real scandal in American Yoga is the influence of commercial interests, celebrity culture, and crass ‘sex-sells’ advertising.”

  • Lady GreenFlame

    |Facepalm|

  • Henry

    roflmao.
    “Phoenix goddess temple”

  • Harmonyfb

    GAH. Jerks like this are why I have to answer asinine questions about ‘orgies’. I swear, it makes me want to push him in the mud while shouting ‘THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.’

  • A.C. Fisher Aldag

    Ace’s Inapropriate Comment De Jour:

    A while back, we published a report about how Yoga is being used to help service members and veterans heal from PSTD. One of the issues was that it was difficult to get vets to do Yoga, because it was perceived as “sissy stuff”. Even though it’s beneficial, some veterans didn’t want to be caught dead performing Yoga…

    Wow, if this report had been around then, the guys would’ve been flocking to the Yoga classes, LOL!

  • Ci

    I don’t really like the idea that having sex outside a marriage automatically constitutes as cheating on your spouse. I agree that this guy doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person, certainly not a healthy representative of Wicca, but many, many Wiccans are polyamorous.

    It’s a pretty different story if their spouses weren’t aware of it, of course, but I haven’t read that much into this and the whole thing is a little confusing.

    • Anonymous

      I use the No/No test to determine if it’s cheating

      If there was No consent or No knowledge by the spouse then it’s cheating.

    • kenneth

      It’s a deeper problem than simple cheating, honestly. It’s about a guy abusing his authority and his follower’s admiration to snow them into thinking that serving his selfish needs will somehow further their spiritual development or bring enlightenment to the world. If he, or his followers, just simply wanted to whore around on their own time, that doesn’t stick in my craw. Using one’s position of trust and student’s high expectations of you to manipulate them for any selfish needs – sex, money, personal favors, any of it – that doesn’t go down well with me.

      • Anonymous

        This right here. It’s bothering me some that this is being covered as a “sex scandal” and quotes discuss getting laid and Wicca, but don’t address the dubiousness of consent in situations with such badly lopsided power differentials. This group and this leader send up a ton of cult red flags to me, and it has long been my feeling that Pagans don’t really understand cults and how they operate (particularly Pagan cults), so yes, it’s absolutely a deeper problem than cheating.

        • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

          Either a person is an adult, or not. Adults are free to choose their sexual partners. Some douchebag new-age Yoga mogul has no “power” whatsoever, other than the power that some dopey new-age moron chooses, freely, to give to him.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Power differentials are real and deeply human, and disbelieving in them is on a par with rejecting evolution.

            Power differentials can even be eroticized. Entire subcultures do so.

          • AnonGuest

            I’ve seen people submit to incredibly stupid things just because the person running the program was a Big Name or otherwise good at self-promotion. Hypnosis, handing over all their money, giving up their friends, avoiding reading books or learning from other people if they aren’t first “approved” by said guru-wannabe, falling into having one’s sense of self-worth be based on their new master’s approval (and going after said master’s critics for hir – “witch war” style). Neither Buddhist Guru Yoga nor respect for one’s Elders in Paganism should involves compromising one’s personal search for wisdom within.
            I realize people have the choice but there’s a mental thing going on, I forget the psychological term for it, but the more someone has invested in a pursuit, the more they got to convince themselves their investment was worthwhile, and then the more likely they’ll be taken for worse. I personally have compassion for people who have done that. People make mistakes and it gets hard to admit they’ve made them.

            And once people stop following and listening to their instincts, they’ll get all messed up for awhile. BB

        • Anonymous

          Some Pagans understand cults.

          Isaac Bonewits wrote the “Cult Danger Evaluation Frame,” which you can use to determine if you’re really dealing with a cult:

          http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF.html

          Scroll near the bottom to read translations of this in Dutch, German, French, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese. A Spanish translation is coming soon.

  • kenneth

    Yoga ain’t Wicca, Wicca is not the Western face of Hinduism, and this guy sounds like nothing more than a New Age pimp and old-school cult leader. This is an abuse of power and leadership at its worst. I don’t think Wicca needs to disown the poly or even swinger communities as such. MANY of us have a foot in both of these worlds. I mean, I have this “friend” ….etc.
    They are not incompatible with each other, and yet one has nothing to do with the other, or should not. I’m Wiccan purely on its own merits and because I am called there, not because it’s a handy cover for something else. I happen to have these other interests and practices because I’m wired that way, and it’s nice that it’s not in fundamental conflict with my religion, but they’re two separate worlds and I keep them that way.
    I won’t say my ethics absolutely forbid physical intimacy with coven mates, but they do strongly discourage it. It greatly complicates an already deep and profound intimacy that I share with those in circle. Moreover, I find that I tend to relate to them more like siblings over time, and well, that just ain’t my kink! It is absolutely unthinkable in my mind to use one’s position as a leader or elder to manipulate others into sex “to acheive light and love” or some such garbage. It’s unethical, and quite frankly, pathetic.
    If swinging is your thing, there’s plenty of web sites and real life communities in which to pursue it. There’s no need to manipulate people into it or to use religion as some sort of front. Any guy in this day and age who needs the cache of a “Yoga master” to get partners must not have much else to bring to the table. There’s something about this guy, and really all New Age gurus, that’s just “unctuous” and makes me feel like I need a hot shower just from hearing their voice….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1066316113 Jocelyne Berengaria Houghton

    Thank you, Jason – well done! My heart sank when I read “Accusation #1″ on the Yoga Dork website. I guess I had an expectation that yoga folk would be more informed and intelligent than this sort of slander. I do know that the yoga studio at which I practice – the non-profit Samarya Center in Seattle – is definitely an exception to the rule in Apuleius’s observation about Yoga In America ™.

  • Kilmrnock

    I have to agree this type of PR is not what Wiccans and the pagan community needs at any time . This guy , from all i’m reading is not not really Wicccan , just a horny , greedy arsehole . Unfortunatly Wicca has way too many of these types in there ranks , not to mention the mentaly unstable and power hungry types . I was a victim of personaly. Wicca in general needs to police it’s own ranks a little better. As to avoid such things from happening again in the future . And as for yoga practicianers you yourselves must be very careful who you work/study under . From my understanding yoga is a much a philosophy as it is a physical routine. Kilm

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      “Wicca in general needs to police it’s own ranks a little better.”

      However, Wicca lacks the authority structure required to crank up the policing. (And that’s a feature, not a bug.) All we can do now is decide who may, and who may not, circle with each coven. Eg, my coven has excluded a convicted child molester. But that’s one coven.

    • Anonymous

      Unfortunately, there are quacks and unstable, power-hungry types in every religion and spiritual tradition. I think it’s unavoidable. I’ve had personal experiences with such people. If you were a victim of those types, all you can do is learn from your mistakes and stay away from them; which, fortunately, I don’t find hard to do.

  • http://twitter.com/birdofparadox Deirdra

    As an Anusara student and a pagan, I can assure you there are plenty of us who get that Wicca isn’t synonymous with misconduct, cheating, and we’re trying to combat those assumptions. Huge disappointments, not only in my yoga lineage, but the gross generalizations being bandied about by yoga people who don’t understand Wicca/paganism, and the pagans who don’t understand what modern yoga can be.

    • AnonGuest

      I read one of the resignation letters linked on a wiki page – it’s clear to me that to tar everyone in the group or discredit all of its former teachers or students would be a gross mistake

  • Kilmrnock

    My path has become Sinnsreachd , ADF druid now . But early in my journey, i explored Wicca. The first coven i was a founding member of disolved b/c of an unstable , power hungery high priestess. This was a hived off coven from a well known area group . Someone in that , her parent , group should have seen that she wasn’t fit to lead a group . Not allowing her to harm others . The break up was nasty , alot of harm done ………..mostly to me . That wacko tried to destroy my marriage , as to control my wife . Strangly a handfsting she performed .Large multi coven groups , Wiccan or otherwise should be able to police their own membership. Kilm

    • AnonGuest

      I think when someone hives off and starts their own coven, even if some peer-association is still there, its autonymous. Sorry for your experience.

    • kenneth

      The only sure way to end this dynamic is not by policing, but by refusing to indulge it in the first place. I will never be in the position of being taken advantage of by an abusive leader again because I refuse to acknowledge any mortal person as my intermediary with the devine. I circle with people as equals or not at all.

  • Pitch313

    I really suspect that there is something about corporate organization and us imagining that corporations are the best sort of organizations for everything.

    We probably would be having a very different sort of discussion about Wicca is your Wingman if Friend happened to be a little hobbyist yoga guy and and Wiccan who had duplicitous sex outside his primary relationships.

    I guess it’s slightly better for Wicca to be associated with some good sex scandals than with mayhem, murder, and demonolotry.

    • Maria

      “Wicca is your Wingman” made me spew my afternoon tea on my monitor. Hilarious!

  • Kilmrnock

    ” American ” cheese isn’t real cheese . If you look closly at the package it will say processed cheese food . Velvetta and cheese wiz isn’t cheese either and that weird stuff in the can isn’t cheese ………processed sorta cheese flavored product lol.

    • AnonGuest

      sort of like hot dogs being meat, but people like those, too

  • Kilmrnock

    Well, as they ……….who ever they are ……that what dosn’t kill you, makes you stronger . In this particular case it did, also got me to where i am now . A sorta kick in the pants to more personal growth .Was Nasty and painfull tho. Kilm

  • Jet

    From the above article: “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.”

    This is misleading, especially in regard to “hidebound traditionalists”. Traditional Wicca says nothing about cheating on your spouse or engaging in any sexual activity. While covens may not encourage cheating and fucking, they also don’t encourage rescuing penguins or eating peanut butter. Instead, they encourage individuals to be mindful about making good ethical decisions with the understanding they they are responsible for them.