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Since February, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the fall of John Friend, founder of the Anusara yoga school, since allegations emerged of sexual, legal, and fiscal improprieties. Of those improprieties was the allegation that Friend ran a Wiccan coven, named the “Blazing Solar Flames,” as a pretext for sexual liaisons with Anusara students.

John Friend (photo: Dan Winters via NYmag.com)

John Friend (photo: Dan Winters via NYmag.com)

“John has been the head of a wiccan “coven” that claims to use sexual/sensual energy in a positive and sacred way to help build the efficacy of our practices. John engaged in sexual relations with women in the coven unbeknownst to his girlfriend, Anusara teacher Christy Nones. The Coven has caused rifts in the marriages…”

Up till now, details have been scant on the subject, though Friend has spoken in detail about how Wicca and Paganism are compatible with Anusara teachings. Yesterday, The Daily Beast ran an exclusive interview with a member of Friend’s coven, spelling out exactly what happened between “Grand Magus” Friend and the all-female members he ran.

John wanted us to do the ritual in sexy underwear and kiss each other on the mouth, tongue-y kissing,” said ‘Melissa,’ a former member of the coven who asked that her real name not be used. […]  Friend suggested to the other coven members that sexually charged rituals would heighten everyone’s senses and therefore raise more energy, according to Melissa. “It was certainly never the way that I had experienced Wicca,” Melissa told The Daily Beast, but she was initially open to the experience, in part because of her intimate relationship with Friend and because of her confidence in him as a leader and teacher. “A teacher’s voice is so deeply engrained in your brain, and you implicitly trust them because that’s what helps you do great things in your practice,” she said.

Melissa details all the hallmarks of a sexually abusive ritual/religious experience, “steamrolling peer pressure,” grooming and titles of authority undercut by the abuser’s constant reiteration of his ultimate authority (“…he was always going to be the [Grand Magus]. It was his clubhouse…”), and inflated, grandiose, visions of a shared purpose (“…Blazing Solar Flames were meant to serve as a ‘battery’ for Anusara…”). It’s little wonder that Melissa broke out in tears during an all-day “ritual” sensual massage involving Friend and two other female coven members. Melissa also tells The Daily Beast that Friend was having sex with her, and one other coven member, though sexual penetration never happened inside ritual space.

From the beginning I’ve been concerned that little attention was being paid to the Wiccan aspect of this scandal, with some in the yoga community making jokes about becoming Wiccan to help them find “a little more action on the mat.” All the while, it was clear that reporters would eventually expand into investigating Friend’s coven as other avenues of investigation dried up. Now the stark ugliness of Friends manipulations, his perversion of Wicca’s ethics, are laid bare. We are now faced with with a man who, if the all the allegations made here are true, engaged in the sexual abuse of his students, who misused sacred space for his own physical gratification, and has now sullied the reputation of Wicca in as public a way as could be imagined.

“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.”John Friend, in a letter to Laura Miller

What Friend did in the “Blazing Solar Flames” was not Wicca, though it wore its trappings and mouthed its words. Our faith is not “like something out of Hustler or Penthouse,” we don’t encourage cheating, or pressuring coven members to engage in fantasy lingerie shows that culminate in the sexual gratification of the “Grand Magus” while calling them power-raising rituals. Wiccan covens may engage in sexual rites under certain controlled circumstances, but no mainstream Wiccan tradition or organization that I know of encourages what allegedly happened here. Those individuals and groups who do engage in such behavior are almost always ostracized.

As this sad and painful scandal continues to unravel, let me reiterate that I think this should be a wake-up call for national Wiccan organizations, 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. 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.