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Newsweek: On Fame Monsters and Yoga Groupies

in In Class, YD News, Yoga Pop

Yoga, meet Fame. Yoga Fame, meet your new student Ben Dover! Newsweek has an article entitled “Bow Down To the Yoga Teacher” about prostrating not to the divine, or self, but to the magical all-powerful guru leading the class, on a pedestal, real or metaphorical. These stories of bowing down to a revered, or inspiring, or a commanding teacher aren’t new, but they sure are sexy.

We’ve certainly seen our share of Yoga Rock Stars, with the ego air of Keith Richards (as the article suggests), but perhaps most glaringly highlighted here is the student, and the nature of celebritizing in general.

In America, yoga has become a mainstream and marketable cult—20 million people practice regularly, according to some estimates—and its teachers are, in a sense, performers. That’s why the narcissistically inclined can be drawn to the job, says Miles Neale, a Buddhist psychotherapist based in New York. Becoming a yoga teacher allows an insecure person to act spiritually superior. But the dynamic is two-sided. For the yoga teacher to become inflated, the student must inflate. Yoga acolytes, like rock-band groupies, hang on the approval of their favorite gurus—thus allowing that narcissism to flourish. “People elevate because they want to be accepted by the one that’s elevated,” Neale says. “That makes them feel good.”

Glorified teachers are often the product of their glorifiers. If you’re walking around calling someone “god-like” don’t be surprised when they start believing it themselves. This just in: we all have egos! All can be stroked. Told you: sexy! On the other hand, it’s not to say teachers shouldn’t be doing their own homework to stay in check with reality. There’s something out there that teaches humility, modesty and truth, we think it starts with a y and ends in an o. And it’s not Yoko, though she could surely teach us a thing or two about rock stars. Oh, Yoko.



16 comments… add one
  • I thought this line was a good reminder for those students who make sour faces and leave when they find out a sub is teaching for their favorite teacher:

    “For the yoga teacher to become inflated, the student must inflate. Yoga acolytes, like rock-band groupies, hang on the approval of their favorite gurus—thus allowing that narcissism to flourish.”

    Some students feel that for their money they should be getting teachers who aren’t human but gods. And there are more than enough teachers out there willing to pretend they are gods (or goddesses.)

  • gotta agree with linda-sama above

    whew! and i thought i had a challenge raising kids! 😉

  • Glad I found a fellow yoga dork. These are conversations that really need to be shared.

    We lack the context for a guru-disciple relationship in the West – not to mention an understanding of mind, what it does and how it works. Most asana teachers I have encountered are relative featherweights in the department of spiritual mastery. We’re all seekers and it’s not a competition, but if you don’t know yoga, how can you teach it?

    Regarding teachers doing their homework: they will. If they’re meant to, they will. And the right students will seek them out and meaningful, transformative yoga will continue to be practiced and passed on.

    • “but if you don’t know yoga, how can you teach it?”

      and since asana is only 1/8 of the path of yoga, what ARE yoga teachers teaching in this modern American yoga scene? and if a teacher is not working on their own shit every day, how they can sit in front of a yoga class and tell others to “detach”, “love”, “meditate”, “be still”, “breath”?

      physician heal thyself.

      when Krishnamacharya was 100 he would still say he was a yoga student and he would place the sandals of his teacher on his forehead every morning as a gesture of gratitude towards his teacher.

      the day a yoga teacher stops being a student is the day they should quit teaching.

      • I’ve found it goes in waves for me . There’s an ebb and flow of generosity and self-care, of offering to myself that I may be of service to others.

        In that vein of holding seeming opposites at once, I recognize there’s a difference to me between being a celebrity and seeking celebrity, but not so big… Fame and humility can be at odds, both for those receiving adulation and those giving. But they aren’t necessarily.

        Similarly, seeking fame and being humble are not always at odds — if the seeking is part of an honest self-estimation that you may have a better message to offer the world than many of the messages that currently have a wide platform, then you need to honor that conviction …

        Human beings are the most social animal. It’s certainly part of my humanity to seek social status, the approval of others, and fame. It’s part of my humanity to be attracted to and give approval to others’ status and fame, and to take refuge in a great personality…. To me, it’s just part of the karma we’re all working out, a part of the journey.

        I’m a bit dubious of anyone claiming to be absolutely beyond these things 0r willing to criticize others they don’t really know on a public stage for pursuing celebrity, and especially those who do so without acknowledging they’re building their own celebrity in doing so….

        I think we all ‘know’ yoga to varying degrees, if yoga is a state of Union and transcendence of the ordinary dualistic, subject-object, Us-Them, Me-Not Me relationship with the world. There are just those who don’t know they know (young children), those who do (realized yogis who may or may not call themselves ‘realized yogis’), and those who think they know more than they do (probably most all of us who read, write, and ‘do’ yoga :-)…

        To me, humility is being true to as much as you really are, acknowledging both your flawed, limited, long-suffering humanity at the same time as your creative, eternal, joyous divinity. They are all One thing….

        That’s my yoga.

        Though it’s not always my first instinct, I like to believe it has room in it to love and respect others, wherever they are in their journey.

  • shannon

    so, what is this word that starts with y and ends with o? A new kind of yoga called Yogo?

    • Yogini3

      Thanks for helping me out here, shannon … I believe she is referring to Joslyn Hamilton’s (of RecoveringYogi.com) coinage of the term Yego … which means “Yoga practiced with ego in mind …”

  • I thought the Newsweek piece actually had a good message.

    Here’s its concluding paragraph:

    Instructors concede that there’s a lure to giving in to their egotistical impulses. “When I start to feel powerful—that’s a dangerous place to be,” says Emily Wolf, a yoga instructor who is also studying to be a psychologist. When she begins to feel that way, she remembers her own teachers “who continue to put me in my place,” she says. The megalomaniacs, she believes, have lost sight of the fact that they were ever students themselves.

    I’d support this sentiment.

    My greatest experience of learning with it has been through my principle yoga teacher — Amma. She’s a very public figure — over 50,000 people have come to see her at a time when she tours in India. She’s started hundreds of universities, hospitals, orphanages, housing programs, has toured the world for decades giving her particular message of realizing peace through a life of Love and Service. No matter how many people come to her, she always gives each person a heartfelt, personal audience and hug. And she’s humble enough to continue in her own spiritual practices daily and not make any claims of perfection — yet, and here’s the tricky part for me — she allows others who wish to worship her as the Goddess to do so.

    So one point is that fame and celebrity for yogis, and the deeply egoistic, dualistic relationships that can arise from it are not just a Western phenomenon. They’re the product of two things that can arise anywhere:
    1) a teacher really does have something special to offer
    2) many who seek need answers so badly that they’re willing to believe that because a teacher has something special to offer, that they are above the ordinary human experience of ego, confusion, despair, and healing

    The problems come when teachers themselves begin to believe the second item — that they are above the universality of suffering. That’s a recipe for megalomania.

    For me, Amma demonstrates it’s possible to allow yourself to be an object of devotion or worship from a place of real humility, and that there can be real good in this for those doing the worshipping.

    Isn’t it better they have their idealization of you to hold on to if they need it, rather than nothing at all? The state of woundedness and fearfulness that would make a person cling so tightly to an ideal of a teacher is a temporary condition, and it offers a safe place, a refuge in which to heal. Many people need that, and don’t have it within themselves or in their previous ideas about the divine.

    This is the role of a sat-guru, and my belief is that there’s nothing wrong with it, so long as the guru encourages their followers to look beyond the duality of disciple-guru context when they are ready.

    Amma’s teaching to her followers is — learn to see Amma in everyone — but she recognizes that many people’s karma doesn’t allow them to see and embrace that for some time on their journey, and allows for that too.

    Thanks everyone for sharing your points of view. I hope mine offered something useful to the mix!

  • Elizabeth

    This is an interesting article. I am shocked to read this part though: “Jennifer Needleman, a film editor, woke up before dawn recently to attend a new class at her local Venice, Calif., yoga studio. So few students showed up that the teacher declined to teach. It simply wasn’t worth her time, she said. ”


    I cannot imagine this! “Oh sorry, I can’t be bothered to teach those of you who took the time out of your day and lives to come practice with me today. Buh-bye!”

    What on earth is wrong with that teacher? Man, I hope that none of them come back to her class. That is horrible. Why not just teach who shows up?

  • KB

    I agree Elizabeth!
    I would teach a class if only a single person showed up – respect that single person!

  • Maddox

    It’s one thing for a student to turn into a groupie. It’s quite another for the teacher to take advantage of that dynamic (or even just be rude).
    I mean, who hasn’t felt that giddy goodness when your ego has been stroked. It’s more validation that you are a good teacher after all!

    But what line do we draw from that?

    If anything, a teacher/student relationship should be symbiotic.

  • karen mulhern

    One way to safeguard the yoga student from over-idealizing their teacher is to develop a personal, home practice, that is equally as strong and committed as practice with a teacher. We all know that ultimately we must be gurus to ourselves. Great yoga teachers help
    us to discover this inner wisdom voice.

  • I stumbled on this website tonight and really appreciated the read. All points are very well said and well taken. I have more than one friend trained as a yoga teacher, a life coach, and even some aspiring guru entities. The things I appreciate most in these friends: Humanity, Humility, and Heart.
    I think a true leader sees the leader in ALL others too. The yogi who does not get this will eventually self select themselves out of the realm of insight…. such a shame, but alas….Who ever said “cream rises to the top.” had a point.

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