Thursday, June 14, 2012

If You're Such a Good Yoga Teacher, Why are You So Famous?


I used to assume that the reason that famous yoga teachers were famous was because they were better at yoga than others. True, I didn't give this a lot of thought. But it seemed to make sense. After all, every field has its exceptional geniuses: there's lot of rock musicians out there, but a John Lennon doesn't come along too often. So when I thought about famous yoga teachers, I fit them into this paradigm, e.g.: B.K.S. Iyengar is to yoga as the Beatles were to rock. 

Certainly, in the case of Mr. Iyengar (and some others), I still think this is true. But my view of even such illustrious teachers has become much more nuanced. Over the past few years, I've learned alot about contemporary yoga, both its modern roots and what's going on now. And without naming names, revealing confidences, or re-hanging dirty laundry, let's just say that I now assume that even our most iconic teachers must have some very human faults, imbalances, and blindspots.

In the past 15 years, yoga has become a multi-billion dollar "industry” and the number of "famous" teachers has grown proportionately. You no longer have to be a genius who has profoundly influenced the development of modern yoga in order to achieve fame. Today, with so many yoga classes, studios, students, retreats, and products on the market, it's a whole different ball game.

Given the enormous influence that yoga teachers can have on their students, I think that this makes it an opportune time to reflect on the qualities that can vault a yoga teacher to prominence today. 

What Does It Take?

What does it take for a yoga teacher to become a famous today? (In the U.S., that is - I don't know about India or other countries.) Off the top of my head, I'd suggest the following: 
  
1)    Kick-Ass Asana. Teachers who can do amazing things with their bodies “wow” students. It's impressive, exciting, and can be inspiring. Also, because so many Americans assume that yoga is asana, pure and simple, being able to do advanced poses is taken to mean being “good at yoga” as a whole.


2)    Good Looks. Our society places a huge premium on physical attractiveness. Particularly for women, fitting into mainstream standards of what's considered "beautiful" generates attention and admiration. While men have a bit more leeway, it certainly doesn’t hurt them to be good looking, either.

3)    Charisma. While harder to identify than beauty or asana chops, I think that charisma is actually much more important. Max Weber classically defined charisma as "a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities…not accessible to the ordinary person." Powerful in any field, charisma is a particularly good fit with yoga, where students are primed to search for a guru, teacher, or leader who can guide them toward the transformation that more powerful forms of the practice can provide.

4)    Business Savvy. As the yoga “industry,” like American society in general, has become more competitive, business savvy has become increasingly important. Yoga teachers need to make a living, too. But with zillions of recent TT grads, not to mention Pilates, Zumba, spinning, and other popular fitness options competing for the potential yoga student’s time and money, how does the individual teacher stand out from the crowd? It’s not easy. Having a good head for business helps. 

Is That It?

Am I suggesting that all famous yoga teachers are simply charismatic, attractive gymnasts with good business sense? No. I myself have studied with several famous yoga teachers who I thought were famous for good reasons – e.g., they had a depth of knowledge about yoga and ability to communicate it to students that was simply exceptional.

I do think, however, that in today’s environment, these are the sorts of qualities that will help someone become “successful” in the sense of being able to attract big numbers of students to their classes, teach nationally or even internationally on the yoga circuit, sell DVDs or other tie-ins, etc. I think this is true for two reasons: 1) the qualities of exceptional athleticism, good looks, charisma, and business savvy dovetail with what American culture values more generally, and 2) I’ve experienced it myself.

http://grasshoppergrrl.wordpress.com/2010/04/08/farewell-hot-yoga/

About 18 months ago, I stopped attending the yoga class I’d been going to for years and spent a few months experimenting with new classes. What I saw made a big impression on me. I remember going to one class with maybe 80 students packed in mat-to-mat. The teacher bounced in like a radiant cheerleader – pretty, confident, eye-catching, smiling, bestowing good vibes on the crowd. She led us through a nice workout that left me feeling like I’d had some exercise, but not done any yoga. Aside from a brief New Age-y reading at the beginning and end of class, there wasn’t anything that distinguished it from a “normal” exercise class – no work with the breath, no attention to mental focus, no meditative dimensions, etc.

Soon after that, I went to a class led by a woman who’d been teaching in the Chicago area for well over a decade. Her hair was streaked with grey and she had a quiet manner. She was not charismatic. I knew that she’d travelled to India and New York multiple times for intensive study with renowned yoga teachers. Her class had six people in it, including me. It also had incredible focus, energy, and depth.

But as I left the studio, I thought: Wow. She’s been teaching in this city for as long as I can remember and she only has six students in her class? And it was a great class! I found this surprising, and disheartening.

Earth Yoga (Photo: Popsugar)

Ethical Ambiguity

If it’s true that asana chops, good looks, charisma, and business savvy are the key factors that produce success in the yoga world today, that doesn’t mean that having these attributes makes you suspect. I definitely believe that someone can have some or all of these qualities in spades and be an incredible yoga teacher.

The problem is rather that while these qualities are in fact ethically ambiguous, our culture holds them up as an indicator of what’s valuable, aspirational, and admirable. We assume that someone who can float from Crow to Handstand in the middle of the room is “better” at yoga than the rest of us who can’t imagine accomplishing such a feat.

In fact, however, the ability to perform such a pose is ethically neutral. The person who achieves it may have the personal qualities of a saint, an a-hole, or anything in between.

Similarly, we tend to see physical attractiveness as worthy of admiration in ways that it doesn’t merit at all. Particularly in the yoga world, which has a strong aesthetic sense, we tend to feel that a teacher’s beauty imbues her with other qualities that she may or may not really have: equanimity, compassion, understanding, etc.

Charisma poses the trickiest issues because it is the most invisible yet the most powerful attribute contributing to fame. While charisma can be harnessed to truly effective teaching, it can also be used to manipulate, dominate, and disempower. All of the cult leaders who have eventually fallen from the weight of the years and years of abuse inflicted on their students were powerfully charismatic. Charismatic leaders can twist meanings so effectively that their followers become completely out of touch with reality. This can be extremely dangerous.

Similarly, business savvy is an ethically neutral talent. It’s possible to be in business and be visionary, responsible, and positive. It’s equally possible to be reactionary, manipulative, and negative. You can succeed financially either way. Sure, it’s probably harder to stay on the high road. But it’s certainly not impossible. 

Bottom Line

The bottom line for me is that I no longer assume that yoga teachers who are more successful are somehow “better” at yoga than those who aren’t. I don’t hold their fame against them. But I don’t consider it a guarantee of anything that I value, either.

Conversely, I don’t assume that because a teacher has only a small number of students in her classes that she’s lacking something important. (In fact, the one class that I make an effort to go to regularly is quite small.) A teacher may have small classes because she is new, inexperienced, and not capable of leading stellar classes. But it may just as well be because she is seasoned, knowledgeable, and committed to teaching classes that are true to her practice and don’t cater to mass market tastes.

The recent implosion of Anusara makes this an excellent time to reflect on the ambiguity of the relationship between market success and ethical substance. Until the scandal broke, Anusara was the most popular, fastest growing yoga method in the world. Now, as the curtain has been pulled back a bit, we see that what was going on behind the façade of Bliss, Alignment, and Grace wasn’t very pretty at all. Rather than dumping endlessly on John Friend, we need to think into the dynamics of what made Anusara so popular, and question our common assumption that “successful” necessarily means “better.” It doesn’t.

47 comments:

  1. I have 10 students a week, most of whom have been with me since Day 1 of my teaching, 11 years ago. My phone does not ring off the hook with new students and I am happy opening my home to trauma survivors who pay on a sliding scale basis, which means sometimes I teach private yoga for $10. Not $100 a class like I would get in Chicago, but $10.

    Two studios are going to open in my area within 5 miles of each other later this year and one owner asked me teach for her because of the length of time I have been teaching and where I study yoga. but I have no interest in teaching public group classes anymore.

    My students already think I'm a rock star...;)

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  2. Good. I refuse to teach. The last class I led was in 1992 when I was in my twenties. Few people are actually aware of how fraught yoga teaching is. One particular yoga teacher I have developed a particular fondness for, Gautama Buddha had an absolute nightmare trying to teach people after his enlightenment. Here is his account (Ariyapariyesana Sutta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu): I set out to wander by stages to Varanasi. Upaka the Ajivaka saw me on the road between Gaya,and he asked me about my practice: 'All-vanquishing, all-knowing am I, with regard to all things, unadhering. All-abandoning, released in the ending of craving: having fully known on my own, to whom should I point as my teacher? I have no teacher, and one like me can't be found. In the world with its devas, I have no counterpart. For I am an arahant in the world; I, the unexcelled teacher. I, alone, am rightly self-awakened. Cooled am I, unbound. To set rolling the wheel of Dhamma I go to the city of Kasi. In a world become blind, I beat the drum of the Deathless.'

    Upaka replied: "'From your claims, my friend, you must be an infinite conqueror.'

    I said: 'Conquerors are those like me who have reached fermentations' end. I've conquered evil qualities, and so, Upaka, I'm a conqueror.'

    When this was said, Upaka said, 'May it be so, my friend,' and — shaking his head, taking a side-road — he left.

    Not a very auspicious start eh? Also - this is a bit of fun too:-

    http://matwitts.com/blog/dear-rockstar-yogi-you-might-be-an-ass/

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    1. Some of the legends say he knew this from the beginning. Before he even hit the road, he had to be convinced by the god Indra or Brahma (depending on which legend) to spread the word.

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    2. Yes after the Buddha enlightened, he contemplated for a while whether or not to teach. He knew the hardship of teaching , but compassion won and he set out to teach. His first students were the five yogis who were practicing dhukha kriya with him.

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  3. Great post! I'm sharing! I think you have a pretty accurate formula here. I agree that charisma poses the trickiest issue...

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    1. Thanks! Charisma is an amazing force - I would like to understand it better.

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    2. Thank you for an amazing article - couldn't resist telling my students about it and link to it on my blog, see yogiliv.yogaferie.net.
      I am a danish yogateacher and have been in the yogaworld for almost 30 years, alone 5 years in india.
      I believe charisma is all alone a matter of prana...but i may be wrong?
      Namaste to all you fellowyogis - thank you for sharing!
      B)

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    3. Thank you for an inspiring article and debate...couldn't resist sharing it with my students on my blog.
      I am a danish yogateacher and have been in the yogaworld for almost 30 years, alone more than 5 years in india.
      Charisma is a matter of prana, i believe - but i might be wrong?:-)
      Namaste all fellowyogis - thank you for sharing!
      B)

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    4. Thank you for sharing.
      I believe charisma is a matter of prana!
      B)

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  4. Thanks for another insightful blog, Carol. For most of its history yoga has not been seen as a career as much as a calling. The yoga world, such as it was, was so much under the radar that large-scale fame was not even on the table. Yoga has become popular in this country precisely because we have embraced the one part of it that suits our cultural predispositions and tossed out the rest.

    Because so much of the system of yoga has been pushed to the background in favor of the physical part, concepts such as ahimsa, satya, brahmacharya, asteya and aparigraha--the foundation--have been sublimated and at best are only given lip service. To understand these concepts takes practice, and deep practice exposes the ways in which we aren't in integrity. The resulting humility can dampen the craving for fame and attention. And if the craving isn't there, you're not likely to do what it takes to become famous.

    I can think of a handful of well-known teachers who teach from a place of depth and integrity, but they all became well-known long before yoga was popular, when experience and wisdom, rather than charisma, made them stand out.

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    1. Yes, I didn't get into the issue of that craving for fame, although I've thought about it often - how it seems to drive some people and how it also seems to me to be out of synch with the deeper aspects of practice.

      Thanks as always for your wisdom and insight.

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  5. Wow, Carol, you had the good fortune to find a class with only six people, and had "incredible focus, energy, and depth," and you found this "surprising, and disheartening?"

    Sounds more like yoga heaven to me. The Iyangar-based classes I attend here in Ann Arbor are that intimate and profound. The teacher not only knows the philosophical and physical basis of yoga, but anatomy, too, and in those small classes the personal attention each student gets is priceless. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that such a teacher may be "seasoned, knowledgeable, and committed to teaching classes that are true to her practice and don’t cater to mass market tastes."

    As for charisma, I tend to be suspicious of charismatic individuals just as a matter of course.

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    1. Yes, I do find it discouraging . . . I would like to think that a really good, dedicated teacher who has been teaching for over a decade in a huge city would build up a bigger student following. On the other hand, you are right in that such small classes do provide the best learning environment for dedicated students. Still grappling with these issues - I would like to see yoga in this country increase in depth/profundity as well as breadth/popularity.

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    2. Shelley, yes. I was in that same Ann Arbor Iyengar class this morning. Far more intimate and profound than the verbally-instructed classes I experienced in LA, as described below. (I'd make exceptions for silent, self-guided ashtanga, but that's a different sort of teaching altogether.) It's good to be here in "yoga heaven."

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    3. Unfortunately, it may not be great for the teacher. If the teacher is choosing to teach a small group and the students are paying a fee commensurate with receiving this kind of teaching - in other words, if there's an equal energy exchange - that's wonderful. But if a teacher of skill, insight and experience is scratching a living, that's sad.

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  6. Oh how I love this!! It is so so so important for teachers to "see" the students. I too will never again teach a class where I cannot "see" every body in the room.

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    1. Yes, and being seen, really seen, by a caring teacher is deeply healing for the students, I believe - what it means to "see" in this context is an important and fascinating question.

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  7. Wonderful articulation, Carol. Puts me in mind of a time I was at a good-sized yoga conference that used to happen in Seattle - Northwest YogaFest. I attended a few classes with the "rockstar" teachers and they were OK, but nothing blew me away. But each of those classes were packed.

    Then I happened to take a class with Kofi Busia - organizers had tucked him into a small, hard to find back room. There were 5 of us there - which was lucky for us and a shame for everyone else. Kofi was a *teacher* - not a rockstar. Profound, deep, wise. Wow. One of the participants asked him about it, he shrugged nonchalantly and said soemthing like, "I've been doing this longer than some of those teachers have been alive and I'll probably still be doing it when many of them have moved on. I'm not in this for popularity. I'm in it for love. I make enough. I'm happy. I'm doing what I am meant to do."

    I recently wrote about the difference between ambition and actualization. Kofi was actualized.

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    1. How fortunate that you got to take a class with Kofi Busia. He has spent his life immersing himself in yoga--all aspects--rather than focusing on fame.

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    2. A few years ago I did a training with Mark Whitwell at a yoga conference and there were 9 of us. In the next room we could hear the rock music for the yoga trance dance (or whatever it was called) class taught by a rock star teacher -- that room was packed.

      as they say about the Kali Yuga: "when shit is passed off as truth."

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    3. I actually like Trance Dance. And I think that it can be very valuable for people who have never had the experience of that sort of freedom in movement.

      That said, I do find it discouraging to hear stories of teachers like Kofi Busia who have been teaching so long and are so good, yet still aren't attracting many students.

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    4. I'm a dancer. dance is dance whether it is ballroom or hip hop -- all dance is about freedom in movement even in structure (like ballroom.) Isadora Duncan was a revolutionary. I'm in a Nia class weekly.

      Shiva Rea (and others, although she trademarked it) didn't invent trance dance. People came out of the caves dancing.

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  8. Carol,

    You know I wonder how many of these people wanted to be famous and how many of them just wanted to make a living and knew how to market and how many of them wanted to be loved.

    And perhaps once one gains the status that comes with popularity desired for any of these reasons maybe some are secretly insecure because they suspect they are undeserving and maybe that makes them arrogant. Who knows, I'm really just wondering.

    But your point about who will support these people is the main point and you know I too have made this point ad nauseum. To see the whole picture, look at the masses. What is the effect of insecurity, desire to be loved, desire to be close to grandeur on US?

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    1. Interesting points - I love your observations about the weird complexities of the human psyche. I think that you are spot on in pointing to the (usually completely unconscious) desire to be loved and how that gets (also unconsciously) twisted into strange forms that reach out in questionable (at best) ways to others as perhaps the central engine driving our behaviors.

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  9. Awesome!

    My guess is that the teacher whose small class you attended has a clear intention to engage with students of a certain level of concentration. That wouldn't work with a group of new students - they just have not developed their concentration muscles yet. Since I think I know the teacher you are talking about, my sense is that she is quite actualized in her teaching practice. At her level, numbers might not be a meaningful metric of a successful class.

    Consciously or not, teachers manage their personae based on what kind of students they want to attract. (Unless they're narcissists- that's another thing, and maybe not uncommon in some areas.) What's it like to work with the kind of student who is attracted to a "yoga somebody" as her teacher? Are such students a bit more worshipful, less actively involved, less interested in personal responsibility for their practices? Do they tend toward the hardcore spiritual materialism of "my teacher is so and so?" Do they require less self-awareness, ethical rigor, and self-revealing honesty of their teachers?

    I had an interesting experience with yoga celebrity during the decade I practiced in LA. My criterion for a good teacher was simply someone who had a structured, daily practice that went *significantly* beyond asana (i.e., not a "my kid is my yoga guru" practice or a "my cooking in my yoga" practice," but a very intense engagement with selfless service, pranayama, pratyhara and just sitting).

    In ten years of attending class once or twice every day, the ONLY big name teacher in the Los Angeles scene who inspired me to go beyond asana was Mark Whitwell, a direct student of Krishnamacharya.

    The teachers who were putting more energy in to audience-building, self-construction and self-promotion were ALL very sweet and nice. Wonderful, beautiful humans, without an exception. Just not as deep into yoga as I wanted my teachers to be , and not capable of honestly guiding students who wanted to play at the real frontiers of consciousness.

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    1. That is a super-interesting comment. Much wisdom and insight there. Thanks!

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    2. This is an incredible reply...and preciously why many are on the path but necessarily walking it..if you get the point I am making.

      What you describe in your first paragraph is the school I ran privately for 15 years in Toronto. I recently took a hiatus from the school, but I ran it with a vision of SMALL classes and a high level of concentration and commitment from both myself and my students. It was not everyone's cup of tea....and not only I knew that and understood it..but so did my 300 some students... I sent this mindset very early on so I did not spend time worrying about why I did not have more people...I preferred it that way... and felt good about those I served....because I knew I was serving them really, really well. And having left them as a teacher, I set them up so they could practice on their own...and to knowledge they are doing that as well as with another teacher.

      If you are interested you can visit my site at www.theyogaway.com As many of my students knew I did not compromise and was far more demanding of them as most teachers would be...but that is me..and how I taught and wanted to teach!
      Looking back.. I would never have done it any other way..I did it my way...and hence the name of the school...THE YOGA WAY...

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    3. I personally do not believe you can have it all...in other words you teach more people..you reach more people but you do lose the intimacy and the nuances....there are no ways around that...as far as I can say. And I really do not believe that teachers who teach 100 people really saw each and every person...and was able to cater to them on a very deep or should I say deeper level. Then again, a lot of those people may not want that...so in this sense we are talking about different things...

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  10. Love the article...I don't understand the title....but great article.

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    1. You are right; the title it a bit of an insider joke to myself, and therefore too opaque to others . . .

      Basically, I'm laughing to myself thinking, my view used to be more like: "She's so famous, she must be an amazing yoga teacher!" But now I've flipped to become perhaps too skeptical: "If You're Such a Good Yoga Teacher, Why Are You So Famous?"

      Really, I think that we need to be cognizant of our tendency to equate fame, success, and depth of practice - but not be prejudiced for or against an individual teacher on the basis of whether they are "successful" or not.

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  11. I love the idea of asana being "ethically neutral." SO true! Brilliant. I wish I'd written this.

    We're so easily swept away by feats of strength and flexibility and while the movements are beautiful to watch I have yet to see the connection between them and the heart of yoga. There was a time in my practice when I wanted to "collect" poses but those days have long gone. What I'm collecting these days are moments of attentive peace. It's a bit like stringing beautiful pearls onto a long gold thread. One day all the pearls will meet.

    Mimm Patterson

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    1. Mimm - I am amazed that you used the analogy of the stringing pearls to describe the best of your yoga experience as it is EXACTLY the same one that I used in my forthcoming book describing my own journey from skeptical professor to true believer yoga practitioner - WOW - synchronicity, serendipity, not sure what, but I'm taking it as a good omen! Thanks!

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  12. Great article..and this should be read by many!!

    It is sad actually to know that many famous teachers do not even know or maybe even care to know the deep history of yoga..! Their information that they hold as the truth is really unchallenged info until a student comes along who is not afraid to ask. I think we all assume way too much.

    That said, a teacher with a smaller class is NOT necessarily looking for huge rockin' crowds. Remember in the end, it is not about yoga at all. It is about ego...and self-promotion..and in the modern world Yoga has become the perfect venue. Mind you, this is not necessarily bad either but the great teacher with 100 people perhaps did not touch the people in the same way that the teacher did who had 4 or maybe even 1!

    In India, I have heard it said that the truest teachers do not go looking for their students....students find them...and I think that still holds a lot of truth...As Eddie Stern said...the empty bowl makes the loudest sound.

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  13. Thank you for posting this insightful thought-provoking article. I have grappled with these issues since beginning on my own teaching journey which began 16 years ago. Of course at first I could blame my small classes on my lack of confidence, and in fact was relieved that I wasn't exhibiting my short-comings to a larger audience. And as I persevered my teaching got better and my classes grew slightly.

    But like Kofi Busia, in the earlier comment, I always felt that I am not doing this to be popular, it's more of a calling. I am not a born teacher, so I have to work a lot at relating what works for me, to students who all have different modalities for learning. I am constantly enrolling in trainings and try to live my life off the mat with mindfulness and integrity. That said, I still sometimes feel pangs of envy when my small class clears out to a virtual flood of incoming students for the next class, fully soundtracked and wardrobed... I catch myself, but still...

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  14. Enjoyed the article and all the comments. What I have noticed when I have perused the websites of some celebrity yogis or those clearly striving for celebrity is a particular style of website intended to brand the teacher. I have also found a tendency to have short film clips of these celeb teachers demonstrating their ability in 'advanced' poses to a room full of what look to be workshop participants. I am left asking myself why is there no footage of these teachers assisting the students in these asana?

    When I attend a workshop I study with teachers (my preference Iyengar) who consider both classes and workshops to be a time to come together to deepen our understanding of yoga facilitated by the wisdom of the teacher. My idea of advanced study is when an excellent teacher can take anyone to a deeper understanding of yoga through the seemingly simplest asana.

    Experience of all eight limbs of Patanjali's yoga sutras is there in each and every asana. The siddhis are the sideshow.

    Having said this, I also agree that being a celeb teacher does not necessarily indicate a lack of integrity either.

    I've been studying yoga since the early 80's when classes were smaller. The teachers who inspired me taught evenings in library rooms on carpet and we would have to move the furniture around. It was the norm.

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  15. Awesome article! I often talk about this in spiritual seeking terms as conflating celebrity with enlightenment. It seems like people often confuse the "on a pedestal" status with the big names in the enlightenment game with how one must be in order to be enlightened. This feeds into the whole "how to be" vs. "what you are" that the great sages warn us against. Unfortunately it seems pretty deep in human conditioning that we spend most of our time operating in the "how to be" realm, and not enough in the "what you are" investigation.

    I absolutely loved your deconstruction of the phenomenon! Thanks!

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  16. Interesting topic and interesting point of view. There's however one issue. Let's just imagine a teacher who want to create space for the community and to share. He'll have to pay rent, pay his bills and feed his family. He can of course find second job and treat yoga teaching as a labour of love. However with second job he'll have less time for practice, study and teaching. There's a risk he'll stop to develop as a teacher and, above all, practitioner. There's another possibility: accept that in order to share knowledge and make a living he'll have to do business, to attract people whose money will guarantee him peace of mind. I believe there are many teachers who are well known, who are engaged in yoga industry but remain sincere in their acts and teachings (just to mention David Swenson, Matthew Sweeney, Richard Freeman, Dharma Mittra, Chandra Om, David Life etc). It's question of attitude:)

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  17. Great article, thanks! I live in a remote rural area where classes are always small, regardless of yoga teacher (well there's only one yoga teacher for miles around, at the moment!) so it's a whole other world to me, these giant classes - I don't understand how the teacher can notice what everyone's doing and help them all practise safely.

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  18. Great article.

    Though I think there is a little more light to be shone on this issue. We have been teaching and running our Yoga centre for many years, feeling this issue gather intensity in the last few. We’ve done our best just to feel it and not react to celebratize ourselves beyond being known locally. We have also been in the position to see the Yoga landscape change and evolve in relation to the wider world community.

    I’m heartened to read and hear, not just in these comments, many teachers and students really understanding the core of Yoga, but when I read them on mass, I see a thread of fear running through them (and us). Fear of losing out to celebrity, charisma and big business. Rumi reminds us, “Don't try to see through the distances. That's not for human beings. Move within, But don't move the way fear makes you move.”

    We can remain in the integrity of our practice as it is. We can integrate our practice into our lives as they are without the need to travel across the world to collect credibility from the famous. The world is becoming more enlightened; you only need look back 5 years to realise how much more Yoga is properly understood and properly practiced, not least because celebrities have popularised it. More than ever it has become possible for anyone to approach Yoga, in their local community, without fear of being indoctrinated into a hippy cult or foreign religion.

    We can allow celebrities to assuage their need to be loved. We can allow them to get people started on their journey within. Perhaps with a little luck their students will join the growing ‘real’ Yoga family who, by their simple practice, raise awareness for everyone.

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  19. I have heard that some famous yoga teachers become so up themselves that they are actually dreadful people, almost 'cult like' figures. I have been told of stories where pupils have been mad to cry. One yoga teacher text their student calling them a bitch. I do yoga to relax me, if a teacher is awful, I move to another class. Most are ok, though. I thought yoga was about finding inner peace, not about making loads a money, go and work in a bank if you want that. Greed will destroy man, and the sooner the better IMHO.

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  20. Great post and very interesting reflections. It has made me think more about what a 'good' yoga teacher really is and how important it is for me -as a yoga teacher- to have integrity in how i teach and worry less about being 'liked'.

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  21. I am really, really glad to have come across this article. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful insight with all of us.

    I started my teaching journey 8 months ago, after 10 years of practice. My classes are super small, like 2-6 people on average with sometimes 5-15 people for my "Deep Stretch" class. At first, I worried that my classes were small because I was doing something wrong. Maybe I'm not good enough? NONSENSE. Yes, learning to teach takes time but my class inspiration comes from a devotional place to the practice. My classes are usually quiet so students can focus on the breath and transformation in their bodies. They take "pauses" to breathe and feel within. This technique isn't for everyone, but I do have a tiny following. This is the way I want to teach: meditative. Yoga is so much more than just sweating out toxins. The asanas are only a way to gain clarity of the Self...and stillness, breath, focus help you get there. I am true to this and perhaps that is why my classes are so small.

    But I have received unwavering support from the studio owner. She is amazing and has really helped me start evolving as a teacher. I am very appreciative for her love and support. Honestly, I have been to festivals where I have practiced with celebrity yoga teachers. I left their classes with a good workout, fun ones, but spiritually void. I have been blessed to study with practitioners that have helped me deepen my spiritual practice. THAT IS WHAT YOGA IS ABOUT. THE SELF.

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  22. I think popular and famous are being used here interchangeably, when in fact, they are a little different. Popular, i.e. having students attend class, only really needs to mean that a teacher has found his/her niche and clientele. Famous seems to mean something more than that. It is this latter one that I have difficulty equating yoga with greatness. In most cases, I see that a famous teacher has made claims that their yoga is better or greater than another's. Not only is this claim un-yogi-like, but it is not proven, nor is it likely to be since yoga in many ways needs to be personalized.

    In addition, I think a truly great teacher (as opposed to a famous one) shouldn't have to do "Kick-ass asana". They should be able to teach asana at whatever level of student, including themselves. I'd respect a teacher more who acknowledged their own limits as one who would be able to recognize mine. Safety above show-off yoga.

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  23. I'm a little surprised to find that an editorialist with a PhD has decided to deliver such a comprehensive, yet oddly cynical, answer to the question of how one becomes a successful yoga teacher, without having felt apparently even a modest need to test her instincts or back up her claims. How do you know that these are the criteria of popularity? Is it possible that some of the factors determining successful yoga marketing include what time of day the course is taught? Do students like less attractive teachers if they give advice that's easier to understand? Do students drop out of banal, spiritually impoverished courses more quickly than highly philosophical ones? What's the difference between a student who wants holistic mind-body-spirit health and one who wants yoga to build flexibility, strength and body-consciousness while relegating spiritual questions to other pursuits?
    If you don't know the answers to these questions, you probably haven't really studied the issue you're writing about. I'm not asking for a scientific conclusion, but the least you could do is type up a few questions and do small-sample survey of the market, before writing us all off as simpletons.

    Would it be ok with you if aesthetics, the grain of the voice, feelings of validation, sense of humor, intangible judgments on either the ease or the difficulty of the routine, or the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the class, or the next day, played a role? And if they shouldn't play a role, then whose responsibility is it to communicate the right criteria? Your article doesn't so much help us better understand how to choose a yoga teacher, as put us down for not knowing.

    I was as disappointed as you to hear that an experienced, serious teacher seemed less successful than a young pretty cheerleader-type, but your evidence is anecdotal, in a sample of (let me count...) *two*. And it's skewed by some unsubstantiated sense that "qualities of exceptional athleticism, good looks, charisma, and business savvy dovetail with what American culture values more generally." I'll take that statement seriously after you've shown me how very different the successful yoga teachers are in Mexico, South Africa, and Poland.

    Some of us, in our choice of yoga studios, just want to be in an environment where we don't feel judged. Yoga classes are famous for being filled with gawkers and show-offs, whom you aptly critique in your essay. But they're also famous for making newcomers feel lost and inadequate. I am not sure you are improving that situation here.

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    1. Hi Ben: This post is not meant to be a critique of how and why students choose yoga teachers. In all honesty, it is really meant more as a morale booster for all of the dedicated yoga teachers out there who have studied for years, know tons, and yet find it harder and harder to keep up their class sizes as more and more new teachers flood the market who have only perhaps studied a year or so themselves before taking a teacher training. It is tough and I am sympathetic to that.

      But, that doesn't mean that I am hostile to the students who are taking classes with inexperienced teachers or whoever they want. If you read my recent book, "Yoga PhD," you'll see that I myself started studying yoga with no intention of doing anything more than adding some stretching into my workout routine. My reasoning was utterly banal. If anyone had started going off to me about yoga as a spiritual practice or whatever, I would have been either uninterested or turned off. So, I understand what it's like to study yoga for all sorts of everyday reasons (wanting to destress, exercise, have fun, whatever). Still, the fact is that yoga really does offer much more, and that many experienced teachers who have studied for years know that.

      I don't think it's particularly controversial to claim that there is a bigger market for exercise-oriented yoga classes that are "fun" than for truly holistic yoga classes that are deep. It is a simple supply and demand issue. For most people, it takes years of practice to see what yoga can really offer (this was certainly true for me). As the market expands, most students are relatively inexperienced and don't know what to look for or why. It takes trial and error to find the right teacher who can really open up the practice for you. Plus, as you note, it has to fit into your schedule, etc. And, it takes time for one's practice to evolve, and what we need at different times changes. There is no one-size-fits-all.

      There is certainly data to support these conclusions, such as the 2012 Yoga Journal market study (really the best survey data available - surveys are expensive and not easily done). It shows that the majority of yoga students practice for reasons of exercise, etc. - only about 1/3 are interested in yoga as a spiritual practice, less than are interested in "yoga for weight loss." Most students today are also relatively inexperienced (practicing yoga three years or less).

      I am happy that all these people are exercising and confident that some good percentage will eventually discover, as I did, that yoga offers much more than exercise. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the situation is difficult for many yoga teachers, who are doing something that doesn't pay well for the vast majority out of love for the practice and a desire to share it. There is more competition for students, more marketing of yoga as a way to get a beautiful bod, more models-turned-high profile yoga teachers who are very savvy about self-promotion, more students who want exercise and glamor, etc. Again, it puts many good yoga teachers in a very challenging position.

      Overall, yoga is just a very odd fit with a market-driven society and culture. There are pros and cons, to be sure. But it is bizarre in many ways and not at all in synch with the traditional cultural context. That is a lot of what my book explores . . .

      If you read some of my other posts, I can be very critical of yoga teachers, too. In my experience, many are very narcissistic and looking to cultivate students who will look up to them as some sort of sage, when in fact they are really very regular people, confused and complex like most of us, but good at teaching asana and drawing in students. This is another reason why I am suspicious of "success" as commonly understood as a metric for quality of teaching in a deeper sense.

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  24. Thank you for your clarifications, I understand a lot better now. In particular, I understand more now that this was meant as a morale booster for teachers ... But that raises more questions for me. Are teachers really helped by morale boosting that pins their unpopularity on the shallowness of the typical yoga consumer? It seems to me most yoga students are more thoughtful and aware of the world around them than the average capitalist consumer. I would argue that if you want to help teachers, evidence-based claims are all the more important. You cited one study that connects Yoga success to athleticism, but that doesn't support the majority of your article's claims about what students are looking for. I'll take my answer "off the air" as it were, but I hope your thesis becomes a question that's soon answered in a more detailed series of contacts with actual yoga students! Thanks for answering!

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