John Friend: The man who would be yoga king
The eastern pursuit beloved by the West has no greater exponent than John Friend. But is he just a shrewd businessman? Guy Adams investigates
rush hour, Los Angeles. In a second-floor studio, over the hum of traffic, Hillary Rubin calls her Anusara yoga class to order in the traditional fashion: by lighting candles and inviting the dozen or so students to close their eyes and chant the word "ommm!" together. Shortly afterwards, she parks herself at my rubber mat and issues a solemn pronouncement. There is a problem with my pelvis. It's too tight; most likely because, like many people, I use that region of my body to "store" negative emotions. The yoga moves we are performing will force those negative memories out, she claims. And that, in turn, will help me feel like a better person.
In the absence of a medical expert to provide a second opinion on this prognosis, I agree to put my body into the various contorted positions Hillary advises. After roughly an hour, I'm feeling warm, gently exercised and, yes, a touch happier. The woman next to me has fallen asleep. Rubin asks the class to once more chant "ommm!". Then she informs us that the session has been a great success. "Did you hear," she says, "how much better the 'ommm!' sounded at the end?"
A couple of weeks later, I find myself describing Rubin's class to yoga guru John Friend, during a lunchtime interview at the office of his Los Angeles PR representatives. He is filled with joy. My experience, Friend says, exemplifies the simple delights of Anusara, a school of yoga he created in the mid-1990s, which has become hugely popular and is often now referred to by aficionados as the "yoga of yes". Hillary is likely to have found my novice yoga postures technically deficient, he surmises. "But in Anusara, we don't beat you up about that. Instead, she made you feel welcomed, encouraged and empowered. And you left the class feeling better about yourself."
The fact that Friend even has a PR representative tells you quite a lot about who he is and what he does. Yoga gurus are traditionally supposed to be wizened artisans living a life of peaceful seclusion. The 52-year-old Friend, by contrast, is dynamic, ambitious and fond of promoting himself via social networking. It has taken him under 15 years to build Anusara from nothing into a sprawling global empire, which now boasts more than 600,000 students and 1,200 licensed teachers in a hundred countries, including plenty in the UK. Against stiff opposition, it's believed to be the world's fastest growing form of yoga.
In touchy-feely circles, Friend therefore now boasts a cult-like profile. He last year starred in the documentary Titans of Yoga and was profiled at great length by the New York Times. Readers of Vanity Fair recently enjoyed a glossy portrait of him standing on one leg, with his foot next to his earlobe, next to a feature about influential yogis. In the Californian surf town of Encinitas, fans will meanwhile soon be able to visit his most ambitious project yet: The Center, a newly-constructed teaching facility, with a studio big enough to allow him to teach 200 people at once (while thousands more watch over the internet).
Given the booming market that has made yoga as much a part of bourgeois daily life as sauvignon blanc and Waitrose, Friend's pre-eminence gives him a valuable niche. At his corporate HQ in Texas, staff are preparing for this summer's publication of his debut book, Dancing with the Divine. He helps sell a line of trendy yoga-wear, and is working with Adidas to create Anusara-endorsed yoga trainers. You can even buy the eco-conscious "Revolution" yoga mat, which Friend designed and now bills as "arguably the best in the world". To the untrained eye, it looks like a rolled-up bit of rectangular rubber, but the RRP is $89.95 (£56).
People who admire Friend say his success revolves around three things: a natural, easy charm, a talent for teaching, and the good sense, when he created Anusara, to marry the two key elements of yoga – exercise and spiritualism – in one easily-accessible, consumer-friendly system. An hour or two with one of his certified instructors, such as Hillary, provides both a bottom-tightening workout and a dollop of new-agey philosophy. What more could a modern punter want?
"You can go to some classes in other forms of yoga, sweat like crazy, and get a great workout, but they're not going to talk about the spirit at all," he says, running fingers through his white curls and fixing me with a pair of deep blue eyes. "Go to other ones and they will sit you down and give you a long lecture about the spirit, but you're not getting any physical practice. Well, at Anusara, we don't see why people shouldn't experience both. Come to one of our classes and you'll get both practice and a spiritual invocation."
All over the world, people lap it up. Studio Yoggy, one of the biggest yoga-school chains in Japan, last
year began offering Anusara yoga classes. This year has been what he describes as the "most creatively expansive in Anusara's history". His "Dancing with the Divine" world tour began in San Francisco in February, on the night of a full moon, and will take in Sydney, Brisbane, Tokyo, Maui, Miami and New Orleans, where he will instruct classes of hundreds, and sometimes thousands of students at once. "The theme of the year is to learn that everything that we do each day is a dance with the Divine," says the bumpf on his website. "Every act becomes an artistic choice to align with the spiralling flow of the Divine Dancer to creatively expand the Light of beauty and delight."
This cuts to the heart of Anusara's appeal: it is a sort of everyman's yoga, designed to be simple for novices to pick up, but with hints of a deeper spiritual grandiosity. Struck by the complexity of rival styles such as Iyengar (which he had previously studied), Friend decided to create a style which emphasises a small number of "universal principles of alignment". While other yoga schools demand that inexperienced students perfectly execute simple poses, in endless sequences, before advancing, Anusara lets even total novices test themselves. At one point in Rubin's class, I found myself – a total beginner – attempting a handstand.
"The universal principles take down the barrier to entry so it's not so sophisticated. It becomes more inclusive," Friend explains. "Another big difference you'll notice with Anusara and other styles is how a teacher treats his student. Instead of saying, 'You're out of alignment, you need to be corrected', we say something like, 'Hey buddy, it's evident you're a beginner, but you're doing pretty good, so let me help you get better. Let me encourage you'. We want people to feel they're doing something amazing."
To traditionalists, this sounds a wee bit like dumbing down. Indeed, aficionados of rival styles sometimes dub Anusara "yoga lite". They also carp about his business savvy: Anusara is a registered trademark, and all teachers must pay him an annual fee to use its name. Some say he sums up the way that yoga's emergence as a commercialised western leisure pursuit is drawing it away from its freewheeling eastern roots.
"When you become successful, then the criticism will come," he says, when I raise the issue. "Tomatoes will hit people who stick their head above the parapet. When people ask, 'Why do you have licensing?', I can kind of see their point: yoga is a spiritual practice and it might seem contradictory to trademark it. But from where I'm sitting, things are different. When people go to an Anusara class, they've got to know what they're going to get. They've got to know they can rely on a high standard. That's why I trademarked Anusara. And without that, I don't believe it would have done so well."
In any case, Friend argues, Anusara is hardly a rip-off franchise: licensed teachers pay the firm a retainer of just $100 a year. He draws only a modest salary from Anusara (which employs 25 full-time staff in Texas) and is not flying in private jets, driving expensive cars, or wearing designer clothes. The vast majority of his income is derived from teaching and holding seminars. Critics are motivated largely, he says, by jealousy.
"To be honest, some other people in the yoga world don't have anything proper to criticise me for, so they say things like, 'He's too nice to students', or 'Can you believe that people actually applaud in his class?'. It's so annoying. People want to criticise me because I let a class applaud some student who finally got up in a handstand? Well, you know what? I'll take that criticism every day."
John Philp, the author of the book Yoga Inc, which explored the commercialisation of the pursuit, describes Friend as robust in his efforts to protect the brand of Anusara, but says his pursuit of financial reward pales into insignificance when compared to rival star yogis, such as Bikram Choudhury, the multi-millionaire creator of Bikram yoga, who has fought a slew of very public lawsuits and copyright battles.
"What people find ridiculous is when someone tells them this isn't a business but is instead a spiritual enterprise, then tries to sell them yoga mats and chakra panties," says Philp. "Does John Friend do that? A little. But nothing like Bikram. John Friend is a pretty affable guy. He's quite open about what he's doing with the brand, and he behaves pretty gracefully. He wouldn't get involved in some of the tawdry battles that Bikram did, and is nowhere near as bombastic."
The roots of Anusara actually come from Friend's eccentric childhood. Brought up in 1960s Houston and Ohio, he was encouraged by his parents to begin exploring spiritualism from the tender age of six. "My parents were Christian, raised Protestant, but they were also raised as free thinkers, very avant garde, and they wanted me to have a wide range of views," he says. "My mother would tell me, 'This weekend we're going to go to the Jewish temple, and next weekend we'll go to Catholic church'. They wanted me to think about the meaning of life."
Friend began studying Hinduism at 13, and soon took up yoga. In 1980, while still at business school, he began teaching a class, once a week. In 1987, he dropped pretences at a corporate career and began teaching full-time. A decade later, after growing frustrated with some of the fundamentals of Iyengar, he created Anusara.
"I hit an area where I had irreconcilable differences with paths I was on. A lot of yoga ... can be very classical, which means that it sees the body and mind as less important than the spirit." Whereas Friend "saw the body as effectively the embodiment of spirit itself". In 1999, he began training instructors, and the school's trajectory has headed exponentially upwards ever since.
Friend can, like many yogis, be precious about his craft. After the New York Times profiled him last year, he published a 2,000-word response, via his website, addressing what he called five "significant falsehoods" in the article. They included the suggestion that he "trash talked" other yoga styles, that he had "watered down" the tradition of yoga, and that students have pressed hotel room keys into his hands at seminars hoping for a late-night liaison. "That kind of rock-star behaviour is not something I support," he said.
Yet for every cynic who accuses him of protesting too much, there are dozens of devoted followers who credit John Friend and his path to spiritual enlightenment with changing, and sometimes saving, their life. A few weeks after taking her class, Hillary Rubin tells me on the telephone how she began studying Anusara after being diagnosed with MS in the late 1990s.
"I immediately started feeling different in my body," she says. "There was a sense of alignment, that the poses were opening my heart. But the biggest benefit was in terms of self-esteem. Here was a place where I was being told life-affirming things. I began going to back-to-back classes, and was literally crying, floods of tears, after every one." Today, in defiance of medical protocol, her MS is in abeyance; she is "symptom- and medication-free". So whatever you think about John Friend, and regardless of whether you believe negative emotions get stored in your pelvis, if Anusara worked for her, who are we to argue?
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