Feature

Yoga: An American guru’s sex scandal

The charismatic teacher who created the Anusara school of yoga slept with dozens of his female students and employees.

A sex scandal has rocked the world of yoga, said William Broad in The New York Times. John Friend, a charismatic teacher who created the Anusara school of yoga, announced last week that he was taking a leave of absence after admitting he’d been secretly engaging in sex with dozens of female students and employees, some of whom are married. More than 50 Anusara teachers have quit in disgust, and many of the 200,000 practitioners from around the U.S. are “devastated” by their guru’s fall from grace. But they wouldn’t be so shocked if they knew yoga’s history. Hatha yoga, the most popular style in America, has its roots in Tantra, an Indian tradition that sees the body as a path to the divine, and uses “poses, deep breathing, and stimulating acts—including intercourse—to hasten rapturous bliss.” The founders of modern yoga have “played down the old eroticism,” but as practitioners can testify, the fast-breathing techniques and pelvic exercise of yoga “can fan the sexual flames” for students and teachers alike.

“Excuse me while I sigh heavily a few times,” said Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle. Sure, working your body hard and breathing heavily can improve your libido, but yoga is primarily a spiritual practice—“a more conscious way of being in and relating to the world.” More than 14 million Americans practice yoga, including me, and we’re hardly all members of some “weird sex cult.” In other fields, professors have been caught sleeping with students, therapists with clients, and bosses with employees, said Philip Goldberg in HuffingtonPost.com. So let’s not blame yoga itself for Friend’s sexual escapades.

But this isn’t yoga’s first sex scandal, said Katherine Ozment in Boston​Magazine.com. There have been many, and that’s because yoga teachers like Friend acquire “guru status,” and their egos swell like those of rock stars, “with all the excesses and groupies to boot.” It’s hardly surprising that some of these men—and they are almost always men—“get lost in that thicket of temptation.” It’s even less surprising when you look at Friend’s background, said Maia Szalavitz in Time.com. He left a high-powered career in finance to found a yoga empire; like other alpha males from John Kennedy to Newt Gingrich to Jimmy Swaggart, Friend saw his power and status as a means to get dazzled women into bed. As Henry Kissinger once noted, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

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