celebrity yoga teachers demystified

The Om Cabinet (courtesy of YogaDawg, of course)

The Om Cabinet (courtesy of YogaDawg* of course)

We all have our feelings about celebrity yoga teachers. Personally, I try to avoid the yoga glitteratti and take opportunities to study with lesser known, more low-key teachers. But I can’t deny that I’m fascinated by celebrity teachers and follow their moves (in the same way that I get obsessed with regular celebrities like Britney Spears, the Olsen Twins and Beyonce – and of course, nothing is more fascinating to me than celebrities who do yoga).

So I was pretty interested in this article that Joelle at Yoga Nation wrote for the YogaCityNYC blog, based on interviews with celebrity teachers that she did while at the Omega Center’s Being Yoga conference. I was at that conference, too (and actually met Joelle at breakfast one morning), but I didn’t even think about doing any interviews with the big name teachers. I actually did my best to avoid the celebrity teachers, and instead spent my free time in the sauna and scuttling around campus, thinking of myself as living the yoga retreat version of David Foster Wallace‘s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Anyway, what’s interesting about this article is that Joelle just straight-up asked these teachers what it’s like to be a world-famous yoga teacher. She asked them their thoughts about creating a brand or style of yoga, and letting fame go to one’s head. Here are some of their responses:

Shiva Rea – “I’m not trying to create a style of yoga or a personal branding. My intention is to serve the life force. I’ve never had a PR agent or invited myself somewhere. Everything has happened because of the shakti manifesting in me.

David Life – “Everyone who’s developed a ‘style’ has focused on things in the practice that worked for them. That’s what they passed along.  Everyone has teachers. The idea of creating something out of nothing doesn’t make sense.”

Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa – “Yogi Bhajan noticed that my aura had grown out to here” – as she spread arms wide apart – “and then just stopped. It wasn’t connected to the earth anymore.”

What I found interesting is that after reading the piece, I found that I did believe that all those teachers have reached their status because of “the shakti manifesting” within them. When most of the teachers Joelle talked to started teaching, the concept of celebrity yoga teachers didn’t even exist. I’m sure that none of them started teaching or practicing yoga with the intention or desire to get famous. They were just doing their thing and got caught up in the cultural wave that launched them into a parallel universe of yogi stardom.

Compared to the up-and-coming generation of wannabe celebrity teachers (Sadie Nardini and Tara Stiles come to mind) they all seem almost naïve or optimistic. It’s refreshing, actually, and reminds me that they have more integrity than I sometimes think. I’m going to throw this one out to y’all: Are you glamoured by celebrity teachers? Or do you question their integrity? What kinds of experiences have you had with the big name teachers – do they live up to the hype?

* check out YogaDawg’s original Om Cabinet here.

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  1. oh, honey. have I got the stories to tell. but I was raised to believe that if you don’t have something positive to say, keep your mouth shut. uh, except here….http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2008/07/aggravation-is-like-this.html

  2. I believe it’s almost always deeply inaccurate and unfair to generalize about any group of people.

    So I would be surprised if celebrity Yoga teachers don’t range from saints to sinners, from inspiring spiritual heroes to devious scroundrels, and everything in between.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  3. P.S. For anyone interested in the devious scoundrels, they are pretty well documented in the book “Stripping the Gurus” (www.strippingthegurus.com).

    (Be prepared for a depressing expose of the worst Yoga guru excesses. Or just skip it altogether if you don’t want to be depressed. I wouldn’t put this on anyone’s “must read” list, unless you’re just on the verge of turning your life unquestioningly over to a famous guru. I just happen to like knowing the truth about everything.)

  4. I would agree with Bob; never having met any “big wig” yogis i would assume there are some greats and not so greats. From what I can read about Bikram… not so great. Seane Corn=great.

    I love the interview- very interesting! 🙂

  5. Different personalities resonate with different teachers.

    There are people who LOVE LOVE LOVE Ana Forrest — I did a workshop with her at a yoga conference about 6 years and she made the mistake of picking on me in front of the whole workshop. I was up front and she kept saying my movements were “jerky” or some such thing. At the time I was nursing a shoulder injury and after being told I was “jerky” for about the 10th time I told her to shove it…in front of the whole workshop. She is obviously not a person (or was not at that time) who was used to a equally strong woman telling her to shut up. She couldn’t even look me in the eye after that. She’s used to her “entourage.”

    John Friend is another one with a huge entourage. I did a workshop with him and he made my skin crawl.

    different strokes.

  6. Aura? Every politican, preacher and popular kid in high school has a level of personal magnetism. The idea that the interior side of what yoga teachers have is any different or special just suggests to me that we’re all still bedazzled by exotic foreign words. Shakti? It is a word.

    When a teacher claims that their success is due only to her personality–the interior side of the social situation–and not at all due to the equally real exterior side of her position–all the marketing machinery, institutions and students who simply NEED a figurehead–it strikes me as a brutal cocktail of naivete and arrogance. As if the world is only a manifestation of Shiva Rea’s “consciousness.” It is a web in which she is imbricated by so many accidents of race, class, gender, physical beauty, timing and market centrality.

    I would love to plug these teachers’ variables–location, body type, originating market, ethnicity, original language, network connections, teachers–in to a basic regression model to show just how structurally determined their “auric brilliance” really is. Get some self-awareness of the the greater self, kids.

    My guess is that in such a model, the only outliers (for whom overwhelming interior abilities have greater explanatory power) would be Schiffman (handicapped by body type), Chopra (ethnicity and original distance from social networks) and, of course, YogaDawg.

    You know it’s Kali Yuga when the so-called wise ones speak such delusion and it all sounds so believable… and so comforting to believe.

  7. Wow, OvO. Really interesting take on this.

    I’m so relieved. For a minute I was afraid you were going to lump YogaDawg right in there with Shiva Rea and the others.

    Linda–loved your Ana Forrest talkback story. Maybe I should have an entourage. What do you think?

    Bob Weisenberg

  8. The way Shiva talks, you’d think she invented shakti. I’m sorry, but my last pro-healthcare rally and my dad’s christian fundamentalist congregation have more subtle body resonance than, ahem, yoga trance dance.

    Speaking of politics, the contention that yoga celebs created their own success rather than being carried along and thrust forward by the the society and history in which they live is pretty right-wing. By that logic, Bob, you don’t need an entourage–just your own bootstraps! 🙂

  9. “The way Shiva talks, you’d think she invented shakti.”

    thank you thank you thank you! I’ve said the same thing….Shiva Rea acts like she invented “trance dance.” I have news for her: 1. people came out of the caves dancing, and 2. I moved like her long before she ever copyrighted “yoga trance dance” — I just wasn’t smart enough to do it before she did.

    • I love this quote too! Brilliant! Linda, I’m glad you didn’t get around to copyrighting anything. I think you’re perfect just the way you are!

  10. All of you have made my morning – I’m grinning from ear-to-ear. Love this brutal honesty!

    I’ve not been to a Forrest retreat, but the vibes I’ve gotten anytime I’ve seen/heard her were exactly what Linda-Sama experienced. Thus, I’ve no interest in going to one. 🙂

    Bob, you DEFINITELY need an entourage….or just a #yogadork twibe. 🙂
    Thank you all…still smiling…

  11. “I’m not trying to create a style of yoga or a personal branding. My intention is to serve the life force. I’ve never had a PR agent or invited myself somewhere. Everything has happened because of the shakti manifesting in me.”

    Girl, you trippin.

  12. Hmmm. I’m not saying this teacher is a bad person or that what she has to offer is without value. She seems to inspired thousands of people to move, breathe, and get in touch with their inner bodies. She’s doing good in the world–filling an important role.

    That’s all I was trying to say. That it’s not just shakti but social structure that explains this weird yoga celebrity phenomenon. Magazines need cover models, causes need spokespeople, students needs teachers. People who end up stepping in to those roles might not have a full perspective on how they got where they are. The interview above is a fascinating commentary on ego-centerdness even in a field that values sublimating the ego (yoga teachers are just like the rest of us 🙂 ), but it’s a one-sided causal explanation. Celebrities are made, not— hehehehe– “manifested.”

  13. Oooiii, another hot discussion happening here! It’s easy to pick on Shiva Rea because of her huge personality and ubiquitous presence in the yoga media (and her name, of course). I’m hoping some of her entourage would step forward and share their feelings. Or at least some other celebrity groupies. Anyone? Are you out there?

    Also wondering if there are any thoughts about the “new generation” of teachers, who don’t use spiritual language to cloak their intentions (they probably don’t even know what “shakti” means) and are unafraid to use aggressive PR and blatant self-promotion tactics. At least these old-school celebs acknowledge their teachers and know something about yoga. This new crop… I don’t know.

    And Bob ~ you totally need an entourage, or twibe, or whatever! Channel your shakti power and manifest it 😉

  14. I have a friend who has told me for a long time that I need to find a “Goddess in Residence” yoga gig somewhere. I agree….;)

    and I’m still looking.

  15. I was most impressed with Gurmukh’s willingness to make herself “look bad” on the record (see the original article for the full story of how her ego got the best of her)–the others noticeably avoided telling damning stories, and Shiva Rea was the most conspicuous in this because she actually denied the power of her marketing. (Ironically, a few weeks later someone involved in making her videos contacted me on Twitter to ask me if I’d like to review some SR DVDs on yoganation.)

    Still, it’s not a subject that any of us (celebs included) know how to talk well about–the uncomfortable mix of yoga teachings and the free market–so I cut them all some slack.

    That said, I agree with (OvO)’s second comment that what SR is doing, on a basic level, is a great thing. On a BASIC level. Getting people to move and breathe and feel some joy from movement is pretty powerful for a body-foreign culture.

    One thing I didn’t get to say in the article is that many of these high-profile yoga teachers are very attractive. That makes it more likely for magazines, clothing and product companies to seek them out to help them advertise their stuff.

  16. Seconded Joelle’s comment about Shiva Rea, and it applies to every one of these people: “what SR is doing, on a basic level, is a great thing. On a BASIC level. Getting people to move and breathe and feel some joy from movement is pretty powerful for a body-foreign culture.” All these teachers do have something to offer; and are doing something fabulous by sharing their knowledge and experience. They have a right to market it and accept payment; to develop something that can not only sustain itself but grown and expand.
    Much like politicians, we *hope* that these celebrity teachers grow their integrity in proportion with their aura (hah!). Often that will happen, sometimes it won’t. As lowly non-famous yogis, we have the right and the luxury to avoid the teachers whose celebrity, behavior, or ego makes us gag. We have a responsibility to vote with our dollars and presence and support yoga “dynasties” that really help us, and others, grow and expand.

    One other thought- sometimes, the best teachers aren’t the best self-promoters or most charismatic, and it’s less likely for their teachings to get to the people that need them. I don’t have a great solution to this one!

  17. I just think this is a very high-emotion topic for everyone! I think it is great that marketing and our hugely consumeristic culture is bringing yoga to the masses. I got into it in the first place to help people who were injured and so out of shape they were in daily pain. It is not an elitist practice and all can benefit. I hate to see it totally warped, BUT, I also love to see someone who would normally not give yoga a second glance get the positive benefits!

    Rosanne, did you get the gRAWnola yet? If so, do you love it as much as I do? I gave you a shout-out over on my blog….thanks!!!
    Namaste,
    Mandy

  18. FWIW, since I’m in Santa Monica and participate in these scenes, sometimes I do get disillusioned by it. And I have students who just lose all patience with the egomania and shallowness of the very prominent teachers. It can be alienating. At those times, I try to step back and ask: Where would yoga be without celebrity? Celebrity is something westerners really understand, trust and respond to. If not for celebrity practitioners and (later) celebrity teachers, the whole yoga thing would be barely known and practiced only by a few. Thanks Madonna!

    • “Where would yoga be without celebrity?” Good question!! I could write a book about this one. And I think we do have Madonna to thank for all this…

  19. Despite my misgivings about Celebrity Teachers, I agree that it is impossible to generalize about any individual’s character.

    But, I’ll give the celebrities this: They all have longstanding backgrounds in yoga.

    Here’s where I see the modern problem: Young people with negligible experience are enrolling in teacher-training courses (that make no effort to screen out wannabe’s, if they’re willing to pay). Some are doing it merely to boost their ego (isn’t it cool to be a yoga teacher?). Some are sincerely naive and don’t realize how little they know.

    Compared to the newest crop of bandwagon jumpers, the big celebrities seem quite committed. (Not to imply that I actually approve of all of them.)

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