There is so much going on in John Friend’s life right now that an assistant once teased him about waking just before dawn and calling to ask for coffee, only to be reminded that he, Friend, was in Quito, Munich or Seoul, while the assistant was back at home base in the Woodlands, a cushy suburb north of Houston.
That Friend, the founder of Anusara, one of the world’s fastest-growing styles of yoga, has an assistant is itself significant; many people still picture yogis as serene guys who live in respectable deprivation in places like Mysore or Pune, India, and wait for disciples to find them. Not Friend.
When Friend wasn’t off leading workshops, he was helping plan the yoga-and-music Wanderlust festival to be held this week in Squaw Valley and the Anusara Grand Gathering in Estes Park, Colo., in September, the lead-in to Yoga Journal’s annual weeklong conference featuring major American yoga teachers. “John brings in huge numbers,” says Elana Maggal, conference director for Yoga Journal, the bible for practitioners. “In 2008, his was the largest yoga class ever held at our conference. We had 800 people all in one room. We had a waiting list of 200. Needless to say, we want to replicate that.”
On the road and at home, Friend also keeps tabs on all the ancillary businesses he has created in the last 13 years, since Anusara was born: his global Anusara expansion (Studio Yoggy, one of the biggest yoga-school chains in Japan, will be offering Anusara yoga classes); his Anusara publishing ventures (he has commissioned a history of yoga and continues to work on his own book, albeit sporadically); and his Anusara yoga-wear business (Friend has his own line, but also works with Adidas, which is using Anusara yoga trainers in its worldwide yoga push). He is also financing historical yoga research in Nepal and Kashmir.
Simultaneously, Friend is trying to raise money for his most ambitious project to date, the Center, which he is planning to locate in meta-crunchy Encinitas, Calif. Friend expects the Center, with art, music and theater, in addition to yoga, to expand the Anusara “community” — his word — which currently includes 200,000 students in 70 countries and about 1,200 licensed-by-John-Friend teachers.
As he tried to sum up his creation, his eyes slipped out of focus as he zigged into tantric philosophy and zagged into Anusara’s metaphysical underpinnings — but that didn’t really get him where he wanted to go. He cited the “top scholars” who have helped him refine Anusara’s message. Then he talked about the freedom of Anusara; it’s nothing like the more rigid schools that demand students repeat the same poses in the same way at every single class, nor is it the kind of practice in which teachers withhold praise, lest students become too egocentric. “Anusara is positive,” Friend said, resting his head on the back of his chair and absently caressing one of many highly polished orbs on an adjacent table. “It’s accessible. Easily applicable. And yet it has depth and sophistication.”
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Consider those religions that focus on sin and damnation, on discipline instead of joy. “Fundamentally they say no,” he told me. “While Anusara is a yes.”
Friend’s world was coming back into focus. His eyes became brighter, and his jet lag fell away, dissolved by this insight.
“We are,” Friend said, beaming, “the Yoga of Yes.”
I didn’t know at the time that this was my introduction to what others call “the cult of John.” If Friend could be compared with anyone outside the yoga world — and I am not sure he would like this comparison — it would be Joel Osteen, the magnetic evangelical megachurch minister with the feel-good message and a book-and-television empire. Osteen’s God is loving and forgiving. Osteen doesn’t get hung up on dogma, and thus everybody is welcome.
Similarly, Friend’s yoga is based on classic hatha-yoga postures — he has refined them using what he calls “universal principles of alignment” — but it can be as challenging as a student wants it to be. His classes are less about toned abs than about self-expression and enjoyment.
Not surprisingly, Friend’s detractors — and there are at least as many as admirers — claim that he has watered down and commercialized a hallowed tradition for his own gain. Anusara Inc. currently has about $2 million a year in revenue, though Friend says, “We spend as much as we bring in, so we have little profit.” An Anusara prospectus from the spring predicted that revenue could double by 2012. Friend is the sole stockholder in the company and pays himself a salary that is just under $100,000 — a fortune in the yoga world. Friend, of course, is not ashamed to sell this new American cocktail of spirituality and exercise. How can people get the word unless he spreads it? “There’s no differentiation between yoga philosophy and business philosophy,” he said of Anusara. “We honor spirit, based on our vision that life is good.”