Update: Yoga Scandals and Sex Cults

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 29, 2012 — 31 Comments

Since I first took note of the “Wiccan coven” sex scandal that has engulfed John Friend, head of the popular Anusara hatha yoga school in America, the story has left the confines of the American Yoga community and been picked up by larger media outlets. William J. Broad, author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards”, informs readers of the New York Times that no one should be surprised that this has happened.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

“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. Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness [...] if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.”

Broad’s somewhat controversial notion that the many recipients of Friend’s affections should have seen this coming, because yoga is a sex cult at its roots, isn’t sitting well with Indian-American commentator Sandip Roy, who blasts Broad’s correlation with yoga’s founding and the bad behavior of some teachers.

The bafflement with the Times article is the ridiculous equation that Mr. Broad has seen fit to draw between Friend’s personal fall from grace and the roots of yoga. His argument suggests philanderers and yoga are a natural fit. (I wonder if Bill Clinton knew about this.) Also a yoga class is just an affair waiting to happen given all that “arousal, sweating, heavy breathing and states of undress.” Houston, we have a sticky mat problem. As proof, alongside Friend and other fallen yoga gurus like Swami Muktananda and Swami Satchidananda, Broad cites the fact that the student-teacher sex problem was so prevalent the California Yoga Teachers Association had to deplore it as “immoral.”

Yes, yoga does draw a lot of starry-eyed groupies and yogis have become rock stars. Yes, after Mahesh Yogi’s Beatles adventure many so-called gurus set up ashrams in the West and dispensed the spiritual East in five easy poses and nirvana in five easy doses. But that’s really a gullibility problem, a megalomania problem, an abuse of power problem, not a yoga problem. A lot of cult leaders (even non yogic ones) have that very same problem. Remember David Koresh of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas? Or Jim Jones? Or even Thomas Peli in Papua New Guinea who told his followers that the banana harvest would increase every time they fornicated in public? The problem really is, as Lauren Jacobs points out in her Huffington Post blog the “guruization of religious leaders, spiritual teachers, politicians, and even therapists who seem to be permitted to act above the rules that govern the rest of us.”

SF Gate Columnist Mark Morford also skewers Broad’s piece, noting that it explains “how yoga can make you into an orgasmic pervert sex monkey love guru.”

“I’m happy to report the NYT and Broad are mostly full of crap on this. Yoga is a physical, spiritual, energetic, wildly interconnected practice that can transform every aspect of your world. It’s based on some powerfully sacred, ancient philosophy and scriptural teachings that only want you to become a fully realized, divinely illuminated being, right now, this very second, on your very next breath — no gods, guilt, cultish sex rites or blind faith required. What’s not to like?”

While this back-and-forth over the place of sex and sexuality within yoga is interesting, there’s still almost no talk about how Friend’s Wiccan coven enters into this scandal, including the fact that Friend said Anusara yoga is “a philosophy and practice that is totally aligned with Wicca on every level.” What does that mean to him in light of these scandals? In a leaked letter, Friend seemed to hint that sacred sex was a common denominator.

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.”

Yet there’s been almost no talk about how Wiccans see this scandal, no interviews with Pagans or Wiccans who are also yoga practitioners, no mentions at all, except for fleeting ones. Only the Jezebel blog even attempts to grapple with how these two traditions intersected within the scandal.

“Both personally and as a means of seduction, Friend appears to have embraced Wicca, which he seems to feel aligns quite closely with the foundations of Anusara. He even causally mentions Wicca in his official bio, but it looks like he was pretty deep into it. In a letter that seems to be addressed to one of his lovers, he details how Wicca intersects with their sexytime … [excerpt of the letter I quote above ] Oh, the old Wiccan coven trick. But seriously, since this man is essentially a quasi-religious leader to his many devoted students and employees, his willingness to exploit his teachings and beliefs for sexual purposes seems particularly gross.”

Lauren Jacobs at HuffPo also briefly mentions the “old Wiccan coven trick.”

“Alleged special (supposedly ‘Wiccan’) sexual circles with teachers and students, including married individuals whose partners were not aware or had not approved?”

Beyond that? Nothing, and that’s a problem. No doubt that many will think this will all soon fade from memory now that Friend is stepping down from Anusara, taking a “leave of absence,” and reorganizing the tradition. That controversial Wiccan coven will get lost in a cloud of allegations that need “verification.” However, I think this scandal should be a wake-up call for national Wiccan organizations, and an opportunity to engage with myths versus the reality of how our traditions work. If we allow this aspect to simply get lost in the larger narrative about Friend’s downfall, it only allows misconceptions to grow. To cultivate the idea that maybe we are OK with non-transparent sex covens centered around a powerful leader.

Like yoga, Wicca’s roots, its core, is in sacred union. Many over the years, both detractors and adherents, have called it a “sex cult” or a “fertility religion.” This can lead to some taking liberties that ignore our ethical base, our commitment to sacred trust, our belief that “as above” is at one with what’s “below.” It can lead to people like Friend misusing the currents of both Wicca and yoga for his own gratification. Here we stand with Hindus who are fighting against yoga being turned into something it’s not, as we both see our traditions cynically used. This is not the time to hope it “blows over,” but a time for our leaders to engage in powerful outreach on what Wicca is, what its ethics are, and what our stance is on Friend’s behavior. If we don’t, we run the risk of others doing it for us, quietly, with whispers, insinuations, and misinterpretations.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://www.facebook.com/EdAHubbard Ed Hubbard

    Being marked as a Sex Cult is always going to be part of Wicca, as we are sexually open. It is at the core, part of our communion with nature. We talk well about sexual permissiveness, and equally about sexual openness. Now, I belong to a pretty sexually quiet tradition, by choice of its members. Now to avoid Sexual Predators, we are going to be among the first traditions to require accredited clergy vs. just priest and priestess status, to have a background check.

    But where do we draw the line, as I personally know several sexually active Wiccan and Pagan Covens, and some of our most loved leadership could be attacked by those who are far puritan and open about their sexuality.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Are you sure this is in the interests of Wicca, Jason? If the media storm has pretty much ignored Wicca, why demand attention in the context of this scandal? Stand with yoga, yes! But remember, most people have some decent idea of what yoga is, while about Wicca they have at best Goth or Chick Tract stereotypes. If we want a fresh publicity push about Wicca as an authentic, positive, non-Kool-Aid spiritual path, why not pick a more auspicious time, one of our choosing?

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Why now? Because we don’t get to choose when and how we make national news. If sex and Wicca is going to be discussed, I’d prefer the scandal to be one of bad choices and infidelities than something darker or more painful for us to collectively confront.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        But your complaint is that Wicca is fading as a topic in the scandal. And you want to reverse that. We *do* get to choose, in this instance, whether to fade away or to get back into the wrong sort of limelight.

        By “something darker” I assume you mean Satanic Panic stuff. I agree, that doesn’t seem to be part of this. But just because this isn’t the worst possible moment for a publicity drive doesn’t make it the best possible moment.

        Besides, bad sexual choices and infidelities really put off white-bread America, the folks we want to think well of us for our own safety. If Wicca were being strongly linked with such, we wouldn’t be arguing. But if the linnk is fading, I’d say let it go.

        • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

          We fade, yes, but does that actually help us, or does it leave too much unsaid? What are folks in the yoga communities now going to think of Wicca? How many are taking Friend’s comments about Wicca at face value?

          By something darker, I’m talking about issues of sexual misconduct and abuse within our communities, not “Satanic Panic.”

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            If we are talking about reassuring the Yoga community about Wicca, I’m with you. My remarks were about the general public. That should be pretty straightforward; Yoga is robustly institutionalized and Wiccan organizations (COG?) can get in touch and offer reassurances. It could be a moment of improved relationship.

            As one of Obama’s brain trust put it, no crisis should go unused.

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

    What does William J. Broad know about Tantra? In a word: nothing.

    I attended a Tantric initiation this summer along with about 15,000 other people. It was led by the world’s most famous Tantric teacher, and arguably the most famous teacher of Tantra in history: His Holiness the Dalai Lama. All during the 11-day ritual five huge Thangkas (traditional Tantric artwork) adorned the inside walls of the DC Verizon center, hanging in the background behind HHDL. One of these Thangkas depicted the two central Deities of the Kalachakra Tantra, Vishvamata and Kalachakra, locked in sexual union. This vibrantly colored graphic sexual depiction was about 30 feet in height, but for those who still didn’t have a good view there the Jumbotrons.

    Is the Dalai Lama the leader of a sex cult? Uh, no. Do those who receive Tantric initiations become members of a sex cult? Uh, no. Is sexuality a part of Tantra and also a part of Yoga? Uh, yes. Any form of spirituality that does not embrace sexuality is neither human nor divine – it is demonic, and not in a good way.

    • Dreamsherd

      thank you, Apuleius, stealing that last sentence. Jason, perhaps our first efforts to educate the masses should be aimed at explaining that not all sexual energy involves fornication.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, but perhaps we should choose our terms quite carefully. Fornication carries a lot of baggage. Either define it or use something that means precisely what you say, or we’ll be arguing until the Pope marries Lady Gaga.

        • Dreamsherd

          I actually used that word qute consciously, as that seems to be the sole & only image most people have of sexual energy in use. Therein lies the problem, IMHO.

  • Anahata56

    While on one hand I think that it’s important as ethical Wiccans to take a stand against ANY sort of abuse, I don’t know if we’re going to get painted with a broad brush as far as sexuality goes. When I self-identify as Wiccan, I hardly ever get questioned about the sex stuff (the nudity stuff, yes–but not the sex stuff). In this day of pedophile priests and sundry sexual indiscretions of other Christian clergymen, I think that a lot of potential critics, especially from the Christian world, are of a painful understanding that a few bad apples shouldn’t necessarily reflect on the spiritual validity or ethical behavior of a whole group. And even if we DO get questioned regarding our sexual openness, I think that most of us are pretty good about explaining the purpose of it. It seems to me that most people are a lot more willing to accuse Wiccans of other kinds of behavior they find objectionable, or have curiosities about other practices that they may see as “bizarre” or threatening, than they do about sexual practices. And maybe we have the pedophile priests and the hooker-hiring evangelicals to thank for that. Most people are more worried about our indoctrination of their children or poisoning their crops…;-) So it makes me wonder–while I think that responding to this is something that may be a first reaction, have we really been accused of anything, as a group, or is this person the “one bad apple” that really doesn’t reflect on us as at all in the eyes of those who could do us harm?

  • http://www.facebook.com/nan.earnheart Nan Earnheart

    you can tell the difference between cult and a religion by observing which way the power goes–if the follower surrenders power over their actions to the leader and does what he/she is told, you likely have a cult. If the leader teaches the follower to take responsibility for and charge of their actions, it’s more likely not a cult. manipulation of the followers emotions to achieve sex, money, possessions, self aggrandizement, is the hall mark of the cult leader.

    • Mia

      Where on earth did you get that definition? By its proper definition a cult is a neutral term and does not include the distinctions you have listed. Even wikipedia has it right; there are numerous cults, such as those of the Catholic Saints or the Germanic/Slavic heathen cults, that do not “surrender power over their actions to the leader”. Cults are simply more focused and are usually smaller than an overarching religious category such as “Christianity” or “Neopaganism”, and they can be awesome, bland, or horrifying.

      • Anonymous

        There isn’t only one definition for cult. In sociological/psychological terms, a cult is a coercive group. (And believe me, that’s the definition that sticks with you if you’ve had the ill fortune to have once been in one.)

        And yes, there are several Pagan cults, by that definition. It’s not a problem of which we’re immune.

    • Guest

      Mia, yes, but Nan’s basically right in what people mean by ‘cult’ sociologically. Coercive, exploitive groups

  • Anonymous

    There is an opportunity here for us. Reading the first few links, I was reminded of the power of Wikipedia, the quick and dirty reference of choice when you have a keyboard in hand. We might each pay attention to the Pagan/ Wiccan/ whatever pages and clean up such titillating bits as might be thrown in so that anyone going there for a first understanding gets the good stuff and not the hype. Mind the spin.

  • http://www.myownashram.wordpress.com/ Niki

    As a student of Anusara yoga, and as a person who’s been following this scandal for the last couple of weeks, I think that it is unfortunate that Wicca has been dragged into this, but Jason, I want to respectfully disagree with you. As far as I’m aware, the yoga community knows John is full of shit here. Nobody is talking about how this is Wicca’s fault, at all. They are seeing this as a betrayal of leadership and a decent into his egoism. I’ve seen the video where he talks about Wicca and…. wow, I have no idea what he was reading but he’s talking nonsense.

    I also have no idea where the NYT reporter got his facts because hatha yoga doesn’t come out of the Tantric tradition. Or rather, there is a hatha yoga component in Tantra, but most of the yoga practiced today in the West, including Anusara, even with its Tantric foundations, is primarily influenced by Patanjali’s yoga sutras – not a Tantric text.

    I do think we need to stand with the Hindus on this one and with the yogi/nis. But I don’t think Wiccans have anything to worry about here. At least not from the yoga community.

    • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.joy.rose Elizabeth Rose

      I’m glad to see another Anusara practitioner here. I studied at City Yoga for several years & reaped significant benefit from it, both in terms of the “inside out” visualization of the asanas (which helped me get good form without pain), as well as the philosophical basis of many teachers in Shaivite Tantra (as in “Shiva”), which I felt had a kinship with my Pagan roots. I felt far more at home in a body-accepting, life-affirming practice, than in some of the more conservative “classical hatha” practices I had studied, which often claimed that you could not truly advance in yoga unless you became a complete vegetarian, gave up sex and followed a guru. Not to mention giving up garlic – too “stimulating”. Ahem.

      This Shaivite philosophy was often spoken of as ‘the way of the householder” and “using everyday life to engage spirituality.” Which sounds a heck of a lot like my Paganism.

      I was aware that John Friend was a devotee of Gurumayi, the heir to Muktananda. I’ve always been a bit cautious about that connection, as Muktananda’s indiscretions were publicly known. On the other hand, I’ve known several otherwise rational, grounded people (including my former therapist & several yoga teachers) who were also students of Gurumayi & the Siddha Yoga tradition. I just assumed, since there was no further talk of scandal, that the “problem” of inappropriate sexual behavior in Siddha had gone away, perhaps because the torch had been passed to a woman. Silly me. Clearly John needed a better example…

      I never saw my teachers at City Yoga, even founders Rebecca, Anthony & Sue speak of John as starry-eyed students do. They’ve always felt pretty level headed to me. Even with the Muktananda connection, I didn’t see a problem, because I didn’t see people “deifying” the tradition’s founder.

      I’m still pretty sure that this is an issue, as you say, Niki, with John’s ego getting out of control and, as there’s nothing AGAINST sexual expression (i.e. there’s nothing in the Shaivite Tantric philosophy making sex itself WRONG, as there is in some other yoga philosophies) it’s an easy direction for someone with an inflated ego to stray into less than consensual, unexamined & damaging behavior. Perhaps he convinced himself that all his partners were consenting, so “no harm, no foul.”

      The problem with setting free a force as powerful as sex in a repressed (and therefore immature) society such as ours (Western Culture, not Paganism, per se), is that some people just DON’T know how to behave responsibly – particularly when ego inflation hits. Anusara has been the hottest thing in yoga since Patanjali (at least this decade), I’m just sorry that John was not stronger and more adult in his behavior. Now many, many people are paying the price.

      I’ve seen this in Paganism too, over the years, many times – sexual misbehavior, abuse of power, hurtful, ego-drive, self-centeredness. The problem is a person, not the philosophy, practice or religion. I still love Anusara, I feel closer to Shaivism than other branches of yoga & I’m still a Pagan-Druid-Witch-Unitarian-Universalist-Buddhist-Yogini. Now, someone slap that idiot upside the head with a frozen mackerel & let the apologies & amends commence.

      • Simmonj

        I studied immersions at city yoga as well and the experience was profound. In fact the teachings of anusara are nothing short of revolutionary.

        But the teachings of yoga existed long before john. Much like pantanji he codified existing systems into a unified approach that people can relate to easily.

        The success of anusara lies in the experience as people relate to the teachings of yoga.

        Those who wish to judge the character of John should engage the teachings first and look for the good in there experience before passing judgements.

        In that remembrance of the divine we find compassion and strength to move thru adversity.

    • Guy

      I think most people realize that John used Wicca as a vessel to get the women. I was around John a long time and I never saw him practicing Wicca before all this came to light. Why was he so secretive about it in a community that EMBRACES it? The truth is because it was a farce… a gimmick… to legitimize his desire for his students’ flesh.

      • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.joy.rose Elizabeth Rose

        LOL! Yeah, I thought that ol’ “sleep with me & I’ll make you my priestess” crap went out in the 80′s – along with SNAGS.

  • kenneth

    Really about all we can do is to make it clear that the pagan community generally has some deep ethical awareness about the potential for abuse of power by leaders in any religion. That’s really what this all is at the root of it. Sexual abuse has everything to do with the culture of an organization and its leadership, not the underlying theology of the religion/spiritual practice as regards sexuality.
    Some of the most rampant abuses happen in the most sex-negative religions – Catholicism, various evangelical outfits, the strictest orthodox Muslim and Jewish communities. Places that de-legitimize sexuality while at the same time teaching absolute deference to authority and a culture of secrecy and clerical privilege. I’m not a yoga practioner of any kind, but I know enough about it to draw a critical distinction. Yoga, like many magickal practices in modern paganism, is about sexuality and the energies within it.
    That doesn’t mean they are “sex cults” or some sort of cover for the outward sex act. They’re deeper disciplines, and really, no one in this day and age needs some sort of cheesy therapeutic or religions veneer if all they want is sex. There’s so many web sites and so many slutty people (thank Venus!), that getting sex is like falling off a log these days. Even butt-ugly, socially crippled dudes do alright for themselves theses days, if they’re willing to put in the time online.
    So what we can do is to point out to people the hazards of abuse and the dynamics that feed it. The self-help/guru culture has its pitfalls in that regard, and lots of sincere seekers in Yoga, and in Wicca, are vulnerable to authority figures. There are some good resources to help them find safe venues. About all we can do is to put the narrative in terms of abuse and responsible power dynamics, and then do what we’ve been doing. Help people see us just as the mix of everyday people we are. We’ll never be able to control the narrative in every regard. There will always be some shock-jock journalist who wants a sexy cult story about “fringe” groups. If people get a good grounding in who we are and what we stand for, they will fall for the BS scare stories far less often over time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ashtoreth-SK/100003087344808 Ashtoreth SK

    Good Goddess, Jason. One of the fine examples of losses in translation as something beautiful is attempted to get smuggled across barriers of customs, cultures, and nationalities.
    Everything in my head is screaming in protest at Broad’s article, and how everything in there is fundamentally wrong.

    Yoga is NOT the root of Tantra. To simply translate the word Yoga, it means nothing more and nothing less than “practice or discipline” Yoga is imbibing a certain set of practices in life, on a daily basis, and following it with strict discipline for the rest of your life. To put it simply. Each different path is simply a “discipline of that particular path,” for instance, Jnana (intellect/knowledge) Yoga means discipline of the mind.

    As for the assumption that “a branch of tantra” and “sex cult” are synonymous, it must be said that Tantra has as much to do with sex as Wicca does. Knowledge of sexuality is a small, albeit hyped, mote in the vast universe of the tantric sea. Being a Wiccan in India amongst a majority of Hindus, it is not too surprising to encounter lay people who are ignorant both about Wicca and their own native paths like Tantra.

    Tantra (and Wicca) for that matter are deeply spiritual practices and do share a lot in common. The sex therein is meant to be a private, divine, and transcendental affair. It’s such a shame that people with little information use it for PR and give it a bad rep for the rest of the world.

    Thank you for bringing this to the fore. As being sort of a strange combination of Wiccan and Hindu, this issue is close to my heart, and now all I think I need to do is to practice Ho’oponopono to cleanse my mind of all the angst this post has generated in me, then go out and spread some awareness about these paths.

    PS I love reading your blog, even if I lurk more than I post. Blessed be.

  • Simmonj

    Anusara teachings are not even remotely based on Wicca. In the dvd entitled” The Heart of Transformation” there are three broad categories that include Tantra, Universal Principals of Alignment and Community.

    Iyengar and several of his students had a major impact on the development of the alignment principles.

    kashmir Saivism and some key texts between the eight and tenth centurylay key role in the philosophy of anusara. Siva Sutras, Spanda Karikas and Pratjabhijna Hrydayam to name a few.

    None of these texts are engaged in the left handed practices of Tantra which for the record is a smaller group of teachings that falls under the term Tantra.

    Tantra was a revolution in India that brought the teaching to house holders and took the power away brahmins who sought to control.

    Anusara has always been a very tight community and some have an unshakeable faith in the method and the teachings.

    Our life has been transformed and regardless of adversity we continue to practice in full remembrance of the source of yoga.

  • Henry
  • Kilmrnock

    My views or this one are mixed , as Wicca is the largest and most recognised of the pagan faiths , would be a shame to miss a chance in the national media to clarify a few points and better define who and what they really are . But i can also understand the point of not drawling negative attention and letting this mess fade away as it seeems to be doing.I am Sinnsreachd /ADF Druid btw, as Wicca has its position in our community it also has a responcibility to properly represent us as a whole . Seems to me a shame not to do so , in the national media , they are the most common notion in most peoples minds as to what a pagan is . Kilm

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    One of the main issues, unfortunately, is that they tend to look upon the plethora sacred sexual orthopraxis, found throughout a good number of mystical traditons the world over, through an uninformed, clouted, myopic, and often bigoted lenses. This can help spur and inform (i.e. correct) assumptive misnomers and claims.

  • Kilmrnock

    We are not concerned about the Yoga or Wicca[pagan] communities here , both know and understand what has happened here .We all have seen this type of crap before. What most of us here are concerned about is the general public notions , the outsiders views and notions of both of our communities . We both , our perspective communities need to be quite clear what went wrong here and that this is not the norm for either of us.Who and what we really are , and what we do . Kilm

  • Kilmrnock

    I myself am a long time pagan , been on my journey for over 20 yrs .Imho it is best to down play the sexual connatations within our perspective belief systems , most of them being symbolic anyway , from my experience . The general public ,and our friends in the media , right and left will sensational this type of thing . Altho the mainstream monothiests have some down right odd , rituals most folks grew up w/ that stuff . Don’t give it a 2nd thought . But anything sexual in an occult religion , trust me , will be sensationalised.That kind of publisity we donot need , when dealing with the gereral public we need to put our best face forward w/o too much intimate detail . Unfortunatly way too many in the general public have closed perocial minds . kilm

  • Anonymous

    With respect, I think there are *very* different issues with Wicca being cynically used and Hindus fighting against the spectrum of issues involved in Western appropriation of yoga. Wicca is a majority-white religion, most Wiccans have privilege that most Hindus simply don’t have. I applaud the Pagan community standing up for Hindus and Native Americans, but let’s not pretend we’re all facing the same issues.