Archives For Yoga

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans and Heathens out there, sometimes more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up. 

First, we update a story reported on last week:

Circle Sanctuary logo

Circle Sanctuary has announced its plans to assist all PSG 2015 attendees, who are in need. Several Circle Ministers have volunteered to offer spiritual counseling. Included in this healing work was a special full moon ceremony last night, which was dedicated to “PSG Healing and Renewal.”  In addition, Circle Sanctuary has also announced that it will be “offering a gift to all 2015 PSG paid registrants who request it — a $100 certificate ($50 for minors aged 12-17) that can be used toward any Circle Sanctuary event.”  The announcement explains more about that gift certificate, Circle’s event insurance, and the various struggles faced by the organization itself.  “This year our community was tested and found to be strong, unshakeable and unbreakable.

Now on to the links:

  • We first visit Russia where officials in the city of Nizhnevartovsk have reportedly banned the practice and teaching of yoga in city-owned buildings. The Moscow Times reports that letters to several yoga studios explained that the “move is crucial in order to prevent the spread of new religious cults and movements.” In addition, the Times reported that Nizhnevartovsk city officials claim that yoga is “inextricably linked to religious practices” and has an “occult character.” In 2013, a similar argument was made by parents of an Encinitas, California elementary school. The U.S. courts eventually ruled against the parents, allowing for the practice to continue. More recently, an Austrian elementary school banned yoga for religious reasons and, according to Southern Poverty Law Center, there are a number of American school districts who continue to ban the practice as well. However, it appears today that more American school districts are concerned with the wearing of the pants then the actual physical activity.
  • Another story coming out of the same region tells of the Night Witches. However, they are not who you might expect. According to a story in Vanity Fair, the Night Witches were an “all-female squadron of [Soviet] bomber pilots who ran thousands of daring bombing raids” during World War II. The women, ranging from ages 17-26, flew silently over Nazi soldiers by turning off their engines and gliding. The Nazis reportedly heard only a “whoosh” sound and began calling them the “Nachthexen” or Night Witches. Interestingly, the article claims that the Nazi soldiers had “very real fear of witches.” This statement recalls the 1932 popular German film Blue Light directed by famed filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. In the movie, the townspeople’s fear leads to the labeling of a woman as “witch.” Blue Light was Riefenstahl’s first film and attracted the attention of a young Hitler, who eventually commissioned her to create Nazi propaganda films.
  • Back to 2015, in the United Kingdom, a fear of witches and witchcraft led to an arrest and court hearing. According to the Central Somerset Gazette, “Hilary Joy Osborne took an obsessive dislike to Lynda Brown who was a spiritualist and taught pagan drumming and also practised Druidism, mantra chanting and Buddhist traditions.” This “dislike” led to regular harassment; including threats, the beating on walls and doors, and verbal abuse. Brown called the police and Osborne was charged with harassment to which she pleaded not guilty. However, a magistrate judge slapped Osborne with a 2 year restraining order, fines and other conditions.  Osborne was disappointed with the results, believing that the police “let her down.”
  • Now moving south to a very different climate, witchcraft or the accusation of can lead to far more tragic and distrubing fate. It was reported Tuesday that Daesh, in a first, had beheaded two women for allegedly practicing witchcraft. The terrorist organization killed both the women and their husbands, along with two other women, who were accused of being “agents for the Nusayri regime.” According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Daesh has since seized one couple’s home and property. SOHR has been appealing to the UN for greater assistance in their human rights efforts and is now reporting that the month of June marks the deadliest month in 2015 with a estimated 5247 people killed in Syria alone.
  • In recent months, Americans have faced their own form of home-grown terrorism, including the AME church massacre and the recent church burnings. Religion News Service published an article titled “3 Religions, 3 Approaches to Forgiveness in the Aftermath of Evil.” Through three different voices, the article highlights the concept of forgiveness within the major faith traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. For our purposes, this might lead to the question of forgiveness within Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist practices. How and when do we forgive? Are there limits? But the article opens up another concern. None of the three people interviewed represented the American black community – the target of the recent violence. While Charlestonians themselves showed a remarkable unity and Mother Emanuel together with the victims’ families expressed forgiveness, the idea is certainly not universally accepted. A New York Times op-ed piece discusses the other point of view. Writer Roxane Gray writes, “…I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am totally at ease with that choice.”
  • On that note, it would be impossible to run a link list without mentioning Bree Newsome, the activist who climbed the South Carolina flag pole to remove the Confederate flag. The photo of her on the flag pole itself is one that will live in the history books alongside famous images, such as the lone activist standing before tanks in Tiannaman square; the coming down of the Berlin Wall; firefighters in the rubble of 9/11; and even the photo of the famous kiss as World War II ended. This iconic image of Newsome will inspire generations to come. According to Jezebel, Newsome said, “We needed that moment to say ‘enough is enough.’ We want an end to the hate.” Newsome was recently interviewed by ABC News. Here is a link that video.
  • Now we travel across the world to Malaysia where a group of teens violated a sacred space – Mount Kinabalu. In this story, however, the only things broken were the rules. “Briton Eleanor Hawkins, Canadians Lindsey and Danielle Peterson, and Dutchman Dylan Snel” climbed Mount Kinabalu and disrobed for an impromptu photo shoot. They were caught, jailed and fined for public indecency. Some reports claimed that the Malaysian people, who consider the mountain sacred, are now blaming the teens for the recent earthquake that killed 18 people. One Malyasian tabloid headline read, “Your boobs have angered mountain gods.” However, some locals are discrediting these sensationalist media accounts, and simply remark that the mountain is a sacred place in Malaysian culture, and that the teens were disrespectful to the local customs, beliefs and rules.
  • According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans’ confidence in religion is at an all time low. The survey, which is limited in its observations, suggests that trust in religious institutions has dropped; now putting it 13 percentage points lower than the historical average. 42% of Americans are estimated to have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in religion; the historical average is 55%. However, as noted, the study is limited in its reporting by only breaking the surveyed sample into three sub-groups: Catholics, Protestants and non-Christian/No-Religion. Additionally, Gallup published a study on America’s overall confidence in various institutions. Until recently, religion was top of the list. Now it falls fourth behind the military, small business and the police. However it is still ahead of Congress, Medical institutions, the media and others.
  • Now for something a bit lighter. Robin Hardy, director of The Wicker Man (1973), has launched a crowdfunding campaign to produce his long-awaited third film based on the original cult classic.  Hardy’s second film, titled The Wicker Tree, was released in 2011. Despite its lackluster reviews, the sequel is considered to be better than the 2006 Hollywood remake of the 1973 original. Now Hardy wants to revisit the story one more time with a script that he has titled “Wrath of the Gods.” Hardy told the Guardian that he had always envisioned the story as a trilogy. Through an IndieGoGo campaign, the 85-year old director is hoping to fund the project. With various perks, he is also offering fans a chance to appear in the film and even act as the film’s producer.
  • And, in our last news link for this month, Japan says goodbye to Tama, the stationmaster cat. According to The Huffington Post, “The calico cat has been credited with saving the struggling station, and its railway line, from financial collapse.”  After she was appointed stationmaster in 2007, the financially struggling train station began to earn revenue from tourists and visitors who stopped by just to see the little cat at work. Tama died at the age of 16 on June 22. Nearly 3,000 people attended her funeral. As reported, “During the Shinto-style ceremony, Tama was elevated to the status of goddess.” In addition, she has been given the title, “honorable eternal stationmaster.”
[Photo Credit: Takobou via Wikimedia Commons]

The Goddess Tama [Photo Credit: Takobou via Wikimedia Commons]

 

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Fox News contributor Liz Trotta: "such disregard is deeply rooted in the extraordinary creeping paganism."

Fox News contributor Liz Trotta joins the paganism-as-slur chorus: “such disregard is deeply rooted in the extraordinary creeping paganism.”

  • I guess I should take this as confirmation that I was on the right track with my recent article on the world “paganism” being increasingly used as a slur. Political snark-blog Wonkette notices all the “pagan” talk too, most recently evidenced by Fox News Analyst Liz Trotta. Quote: “The only place where “paganism” seems to be making real gains, of course, is in wingnut rhetoric. In the good old days, it was “secular humanism” that was supposed to be taking over, but in recent years, these guys seem to be warning more and more about “paganism” — by which they seem to mean almost anything they have a faith-based excuse for disliking […] Fundies have always worried about anything they think might be occult or witchcraft — consider the freakouts over Harry Potter — but now the fear of a pagan planet seems to be increasingly seeping into garden-variety wingnut discourse like Trotta’s […]  It’s hard to get a sense of just how widespread this nutty “the pagans are coming” meme is, but it’s definitely out there.” The question for us capital-P Pagans is: how do we respond to this growing trend?
  • So, what happens when Christianity religiously dominates a state in Hindu-dominated India? Well, apparently you get Satanists. Quote: “Christian groups in India’s northeastern state of Nagaland are working to quell the rapid growth of Satanism after reports that thousands of teenagers from churches had taken up devil worship in recent months. The Vatican’s Fides news agency recently reported that more than 3,000 young “worshipers of Satan” have been identified in Nagaland’s capital of Kohima alone.” If you give people two choices, and only two choices, God or Satan, it seems inevitable that those unhappy with the Christian God will turn to his opponent. This is what happens when religious ecosystems are critically disrupted. 
  • Is the secular West heading into “a galloping spiritual pluralism?”Columnist David Brooks seems to endorse that future, one paraphrased from Charles Taylor, author of “A Secular Age.” Quote: “Orthodox believers now live with a different tension: how to combine the masterpieces of humanism with the central mysteries of their own faiths. This pluralism can produce fragmentations and shallow options, and Taylor can eviscerate them, but, over all, this secular age beats the conformity and stultification of the age of fundamentalism, and it allows for magnificent spiritual achievement.” Would modern Paganism be one of those achievements? 
  • The Fast Co.Design blog does a feature on the approval of the Thor’s Hammer for Veteran’s grave stones and markers. Quote: “To most of us, Mjölnir might bring to mind Jack Kirby’s trippy Marvel Comics Asgard, a rainbow-striped city of no fixed point in time. Or it might make us think of an armored Chris Hemsworth bellowing as he smashes his hammer down on Captain America’s raised shield. But it’s also a symbol that represents virtues so profoundly felt that two men lived and laid down their lives for it in service of their country. Great symbols resonate deeply within all of us, but each to our own unique frequency. That’s what makes them more powerful than even Mjölnir.” Yes, I’m quoted in the article. There are some things I personally would have changed, and I’m sure a Heathen representative from an organization like The Troth could have done a better job, but I think the piece overall is positive and sympathetic.
  • The Colorado Independent has an in-depth piece up about the murder of Tom Clements, head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, by former inmate Evan Ebel, and how the policy of long-term solitary confinement without re-integration may have damaged Ebel’s mental stability beyond repair. Quote: “’Forty-seven percent of these guys are walking right out of ad-seg into our communities,’ Clements told me in 2011. ‘Forty-seven percent. That’s the number that keeps me awake at night.’” I mentioned this case back in May due to revelations that Ebel had listed himself as an adherent to the Asatru faith. 
Graphic via The Globe and Mail.

Graphic via The Globe and Mail.

  • The Pew Forum analyzes Canada’s changing religious landscape, noting the growing of “other” religions and those who claim no religious identity at all. Quote: “The number of Canadians who belong to other religions – including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity – is growing. Collectively, these smaller religious groups account for more than one-in-ten Canadians (11%) as of 2011, up from not quite one-in-twenty (4%) in 1981. In addition, the number of Canadians who do not identify with any religion has been rising rapidly in recent decades, going from 4% in 1971 to nearly a quarter (24%) in 2011.” You can read my article on Canada’s census data, here
  • The Lancashire Constabulary has apologized after The Police Pagan Association acted on several complaints regarding allegations that Paganism might somehow be involved in a rash of “horse slashings” in the area. Quote: “We are aware that comments made to the Lancashire Evening Post recently suggesting that Pagans may be linked to attacks on horses has caused some offence. We would like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who has been offended; this was certainly not our intention . The comments made are not a reflection of the views of Lancashire Constabulary as a whole. Lancashire Constabulary encourages an open and inclusive culture and celebrates the diversity of our workforce and communities.”This is not the first time that allegations like this have surfaced, and so far no mysterious cult or occult practitioner has been caught bothering or harming horses. It seems to come down to sensationalism and superstition. 
  • There are lots of reasons to not like the new “The Lone Ranger” film, but Tonto not being a Christian certainly shouldn’t be one of them. Right? Quote: “The new “Lone Ranger” film has been a critical and box office disappointment, but the fact that the Indian character “Tonto” is not a Christian has upset some Christian conservatives.” Also problematic: evil businessmen and daring to mention that our country slaughtered Native Americans. As I said, this is film is problematic for all sorts of reasons, but daring to show non-Christian faiths as heroic or positive shouldn’t be one of them. 
  • A challenge to Selma, California’s fortune telling ordinances was dismissed on ripeness grounds because the plaintiff never bothering trying to go through the process of getting a license. Quote: “In Davis v. City of Selma, (ED CA, July 2, 2013), a California federal district court dismissed on ripeness grounds various challenges to the city of Selma, California’s ordinance which requires “Fortune Tellers” to obtain a license in order to provide services within the city.  Plaintiff, a spiritual counselor, initially sought a business license under the Selma Municipal Code (“S.M.C.”), but never completed the application process because it was too restrictive.  Instead she sued claiming violations of her rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments and RLUIPA.” In legal matters, process is important, and if you don’t follow that process, your case can fall apart overnight. 
  • Suhag A. Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation analyzes the recent high-profile decision regarding yoga being taught at a public school, and whether that violated the separation of church and state. Shukla notes that what was being taught had all Hindu elements removed, and truly was free from religion. Quote: “While I haven’t read Judge Meyer’s ruling yet, media accounts indicate that our position is in consonance with his. Yoga is rooted in Hindu tradition, he reportedly said, but the “yoga” taught in Encinitas was stripped bare of all cultural references and even the Sanskrit names for poses, rendering it non-religious. I would go further to say that such asana based courses should not be called yoga. They are immensely helpful, and schools should embrace them, but yoga means so much more.”HAF has been on a campaign to “Take Yoga Back” and remind people that the practice did spring from Hindu religious culture.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

Kenneth Anger. Photograph: Linda Nylind

Kenneth Anger. Photograph: Linda Nylind

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

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.

Just a few quick news notes for you today.

Lawyers May Not Mention Druid Beliefs in Vaughn Murder Trial: Earlier this week I mentioned that lawyers for Christopher Vaughn, accused of murdering his wife and three children, were trying to block any mention of his Druid religion from court proceedings.  Public Defender Jaya Varghese said that “The word ‘Druid’ alone is prejudicial,” and would “significantly impact” his right to a fair trial. Today, Judge Daniel Rozak ruled that Vaughn’s Druid beliefs may not be mentioned at trial, though comments he made on a Druid listserv can be referenced.

Vaughn family photo from 2007.

Vaughn family photo from 2007.

“A Will County judge this morning barred attorneys from referring to quadruple-murder suspect Christopher Vaughn’s Druid beliefs at trial, but said some statements Vaughn posted to a Druid listserv can be heard by jurors. […] Prosecutors want to use postings Vaughn made to Druid listservs that refer to his desire to live in the Canadian wilderness. They argue his statements were another sign that Vaughn wanted to be rid of his family. […] Judge Daniel Rozak said he would allow the statements “if they somehow deal with leaving the country or living off the land” and don’t reference Vaughn’s religious beliefs.”

How messages Christopher Vaughn posted to Druid websites are to be referenced must still be decided, though this should be seen as a win for Vaughn’s defense team. Vaughn lawyer claims his wife killed the children, before he could kill her in self-defense, while prosecutors allege that Vaughn calculatedly eliminated his family in order to be rid of them. The trial is slated to begin in August.

The Washington Post Weighs in on the John Friend Anusara Yoga Scandal: Manuel Roig-Franzia writes about the “contorting” (ha-ha) scandal within the Anusara yoga school for the Washington Post, taking brief note of the Wiccan-related accusations against Anusara founder John Friend.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

“In conference calls, e-mails and hushed conversations, Friend has admitted to sexual relations with students and employees and married women. He has confessed to cheating on one girlfriend and smoking marijuana, according to senior Anusara instructors who have participated in conference calls with him. And he has acknowledged leading an otherwise all-female Wiccan coven whose members sometimes took off all their clothes for gatherings, according to senior Anusara instructors who detailed his admissions in a written summary provided to The Washington Post. The coven’s name was the Blazing Solar Flames, and Friend had Anusara’s graphics team design a logo for it, according to three former employees.”

This is the first I’ve seen of any acknowledgement from Friend or Anusara regarding the coven. As I’ve reported previously (follow-up, here), accusations state that he used the coven as a pretext for sexual liaisons. While there’s no further statement, or mention of it in the WP article, the fact that Friend was the acknowledged male leader of an all-female coven does raise some red flags. That said, taking your clothes off for gatherings isn’t unusual within Traditional Witchcraft (it’s called going “skyclad”), and isn’t seen as an automatic prelude to sexy-times. You can see a video interview with Friend from last year about how Anusara yoga, Wicca, and Paganism interface.

The Occult Crimes Taskforce is Coming To the Your Television: Various pop-culture news sites are reporting that the comic book OCT: Occult Crimes Taskforce is being adapted into a television series for the A&E Network. Actress and OCT co-creator Rosario Dawson is working with The Walking Dead’s Gale Anne Hurd to adapt the work, and it is widely assumed that Dawson will star in the show, as the main character, Sophia Ortiz, is modeled on her.

Image from the O.C.T. comic, featuring Sophia Ortiz/Rosario Dawson.

Image from the O.C.T. comic, featuring Sophia Ortiz/Rosario Dawson.

“The scripted drama, an increasingly appealing genre for the cable network, will explore the inner workings of the task force, which was established after the Civil War to make the New York City streets safe from practitioners of black magic, demons from another dimension and all manner of supernatural malcontents.”

Scripted dramas, especially scripted dramas that feature occult and fantastic elements seem to be on the increase lately. It should be interesting to see if O.C.T. makes it to the small screen, and if it will find an appreciative audience. While I’m on the subject of occult-themed television, I should note that British television channel ITV2 has ordered a new drama entitled “Switch” about four witches living together in London. Created by the same people behind the show Being Human, can we expect an American version of that show on Syfy in the near-ish future?

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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.

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.

A recent essay by Jay Michaelson at Religion Dispatches, and a post by fellow Patheos blogger Fred Clark, shone new light into a phenomenon that I’ve pondered for a long time now: the general anxiety over America’s (and more broadly, the West’s) shifting spiritual practices and demographics. Michaelson, taking note of a recent anti-Yoga hit-piece in the New York Times, blasted a certain tendency to “ridicule any non-Western, non-rationalistic, non-neurotic spiritual practice.”

“How ironic to criticize spiritually-minded people for indulging themselves, when what’s really indulgent is to coddle the fear of anything that might disturb the status quo, might actually attack the neurosis and doubt that make a successful reporter tick. Don’t lose your edge, that’s the important part. Don’t ever give in to—dare I say it—opening your heart.”

Michaelson goes on to equate this rationalist prejudice with “the fears of a Santorum or a Bachmann.” Which brings me to Clark’s post, which links to pieces discussing Public Policy Polling’s 3rd annual TV news trust poll. It found, as it did in previous polls, that while liberals and independents trust a wide variety of television news sources, conservatives tend to trust just one: Fox News. While this study says interesting things about political polarization and epistemic closure, I think it also says interesting things about religion and spirituality in the United States. For Fox News also plays on the anxiety concerning the shifting sands of spirituality, but does so in a manner quite different from the snobbish ridicule of a New York Times, for them its about a culture war between Christianity and the forces of secularism. See, for example, their coverage of Buncombe County Board of Education’s policy on distributing religious materials. While most outlets focused on Ginger Strivelli, a local Witch who challenged the distribution of Bibles, the Fox News piece emphasizes cultural change and upheaval.

“Traditionally, that “grand experiment” has involved Judaism and a handful of Christian denominations. But as non-traditional faiths spread into new communities, longstanding customs such as prayer, Christmas plays and Bibles that once went unquestioned in public schools are finding themselves under increased scrutiny. “Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, not on Wiccan principles,” Bobby Honeycutt, who attended public schools in Weaverville during the 1970s, said. “Our children have access to more non-Christian print material in the libraries and online than they really do Christian stuff,” he said.”

For someone who believes a move away from Christian principles is a vital threat to America’s power and stability, passages like that must only reinforce their worry. So in different ways, these mainstream media outlets from across the political spectrum continue to feed this anxiety, one that is then exploited by canny politicians.  So many stories involving non-Christian faiths or practices, when analyzed, just feed into this larger meme.

And on, and on, and on. As religious minorities continue to press for equal treatment, as more and more Americans engage with practices perceived to be outside the accepted cultural boundaries of normalcy, so the anxiety ratchets up. How Pagan is Halloween? How Hindu will Yoga make you? Should you even vote for a non-Christian? Who does this anxiety serve, and why is it being peddled so fiercely by so many? It all comes down to fear of a post-Christian planet, a world where the West is no longer dominated by one religious or cultural context.

Pagans dance in "nonreligious" Estonia. Photo: BBC.

Back in August of 2011, I wrote about statistical models and studies concerning the slow decline of Christian dominance, and how as the population of religiously non-affiliated individuals grow, their preferences start to become attractive to more and more people. While this shift will hardly see Christianity’s statistical dominance toppled any time soon, it does mean a future where compromise and coexistence will be emphasized over top-down hegemony.

“The future isn’t about dominance, but about coexistence. Many faiths and philosophies sitting at the table, instead of one (or two) faith groups telling everyone else what the agenda is. The numbers are shifting, generational plate tectonics slowly changing the old religious order. The near future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents, but they’ll soon lose their unified monopoly on social and political agendas. Alongside the accepted Christians-Catholics-Jews tri-faith understanding that emerged in the early 20th century will be the Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, practitioners of indigenous religions, and yes, Muslims.”

What can we do? While there’s little that can be done to stop the anxieties that come from slow and massive demographic changes, we can demand accountability and balance from our media outlets, engage in outreach and interfaith dialog where it is appropriate, and work to ensure that the boundaries between Church and State hold firm. At the end of the day, we have to understand that this anxiety is really a testament to how influential religious minorities in the United States, and in the West, have become. As trade unionist Nicholas Klein said in 1918: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” We are no longer being ignored, the time of ridicule and attack is at hand, but as visionaries we know that the time of monuments will come.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

 

Top Story: Chas Clifton gives us a heads up that the preliminary schedule of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s sessions for this year’s American Academy of Religion (AAR) Annual Meeting are now up. Taking place this November in San Francisco, California, the AAR’s Annual Meeting is the world’s largest gathering of religious studies scholars. This year the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group will explore themes of “West Coast Pagan Practices and Ideas,” “Pagan Analysis and Critique of ‘Religion’,” and “Elemental Theology and Feminist Earth Practices,” which is being run in partnership with the Religion and Ecology Group.

The joint session with the Religion and Ecology Group, “Elemental Theology and Feminist Earth Practices,” will feature a panel discussion with groundbreaking feminist theologian Rosemary R. Ruether and Reclaiming co-founder Starhawk. In addition, other sessions will see paper presentations from Helen Berger, Christopher W. Chase, and Christine Kraemer (a department chair at Cherry Hill Seminary) among others. All that is in addition to the thousands of other presentations on just about every facet of religious experience you can think of. I will be there this November to cover the event, and hope to bring you special reporting, interviews, and access to a gathering few outside the world of religion studies experience.

In Other News:

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!