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Heard the One About Yoga and Life Coaching?

in YogOpinions

by J. Brown


Life coaching has emerged as a new wellness profession and is being closely associated with yoga. What was once mostly the purview of corporate managers trying to maximize the productivity of their workforce has become a mainstream way for individuals to catapult their careers, break free from 9-5 jobs, and create richer lives. But this forced marriage is fraught with problems and doomed to fail. For the relationship between life coaching and yoga is too often rooted in superficial trappings rather than the soul of the matter.

In a recent episode of the edgy Showtime series, ‘Ray Donovan’, the wife of a Hollywood agent/mobster is having coffee after her weekly yoga class when another woman from class sits down to join her. She mentions that she has sometimes seen her crying in class, explains that she is a life coach and begins to probe her about her marriage, asking if her husband is emotionally supportive. Ray’s wife becomes uncomfortable and asks, “What are you my fuckin priest?” The life coach presses even further questioning why she wouldn’t want to live a truly “heart-centered” life and be free. To which, she ups and leaves with the retort: “Nosy cunt.”

Harvard Business Review reports that “coaching” is now a $1 billion a year industry. The International Coach Federation (ICF), a leading global organization and professional association for coaches, defines coaching as: “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” As in the yoga industry, anyone can legally refer to themselves as a life coach without any need for credentials. Jennifer Corbin, the president of Coach U, one of the largest and oldest coach training organizations in the world, admits: “Technically, anyone can hang up a shingle as coaching is not regulated. There are ‘schools’ that will offer a credential after three hours of training and people read a book or watch a TV program and decide ‘I’m a coach!’”

For the yoga world, scarred by the misgivings of leading figures in recent years, life coaching seeks to fill a void. Having someone who is not a guru so much as an advocate, someone practical and professional, only interested in tangible results, is particularly appealing when you’ve been burned by cults of personality.

According to a prominent coaching group: “People hire a life coach or take one of our life coaching courses because they want positive results in their lives, fast. We all desire certain things out of life and it is not always easy to accomplish these goals on our own. Sometimes it is just downright impossible! Your coach will not buy your excuses and will hold you accountable for accomplishing what YOU say you want.” A common theme among life coaches is that you must stop operating as a victim and make a deep commitment to “freedom.” Also, that the coaching relationship is not a friendship, but rather a unilateral dynamic that is exclusively focused on you and your goals, not on the coach.

A number of life coaches are marketing themselves as yoga-based. The angle revolves around the idea of connectedness, that feeling connected in the way that yoga enables you to becomes a basis for the work you do with your coach. Yoga is an internal experience that happens on the mat, often in a pool of sweat, and the coaching is where you actually make important things happen in your external life. Life coaching carries with it a different set of expectations from those of yoga teaching. The less than engaged relationship that exists between most modern yoga teachers and their students has created a market for an alternative or addition. However, if yoga teaching requires supplemental life coaching, this suggests that there is a disconnect between the physical practice and its actuality in our behaviors.

At its best, life coaching is a more affordable form of pop cognitive behavioral therapy. At its worst, life coaching is nothing more than a pyramid scheme that exploits our wounds.

There is little doubt that making changes to ones life patterns is not easy and often requires outside reference. Nor that having a feeling of connectedness emboldens our ability to address obstacles and experience more fulfilled lives. And the role of yoga practice and its application to life is certainly open to interpretation (see When Yoga Empowers.) But capitalizing on the positive effects of yoga practice to encourage a results or goal driven way of engaging life is highly questionable.

In the context of teaching yoga, I have had many interactions and conversations that played a substantial role in myself and others making clear and favorable determinations as to the course of our lives. I know first hand that consistent practice, combined with constructive and intuitive dialogue, happening in a professional and informal setting, can have a profound and useful impact. But too many people calling themselves life coaches are offering little more than enticing platitudes.

Yoga does not lend itself to bullet points and is only really communicated through the mutual friendship and affection that exists between two people. When yoga practice serves its intended purpose, direction in life and the skills to meet challenges are the inevitable result. The testament of yoga practice is found in the actions and circumstances that are reflected.

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com




16 comments… add one
  • Anon

    Handel Group is a complete pyramid scheme. Elena Brower is making thousands of dollars referring yoga students to Handel’s coaching programs. They actively try to exploit yoga teachers by offering them a lot of money in exchange for access to their students. It’s unethical. Students should give the side-eye to anyone promoting Handel, as they are most likely receiving money from it.

    Thanks for this article; it’s about time we started exposing this “industry” for what it is.

  • cyndi

    have you taken a life coaching course? how is it that you know what you are talking about? i am a wellness coach through the Mayo Clinic and have gotten a certification through their nicotine dependence program, and i really disagree with you. if you would like to stop smoking or change another behavior, i have training that is grounded in evidence and research from Mayo Clinic, and based on the best practice of the field of behavior change.
    doing something like quitting smoking or changing your diet is not easy. and yes i am also a yoga teacher and therapist, and i think wellness coaching will really help some of my clients if they want to make specific behavior changes. Trying googling “Motivational Interviewing” and see what comes up- this is what my practice is based on, and it a well known method in psychology for behavior change which can be done as a stand alone practice. would you also recommend that yoga teachers and students not go in for counseling because that is not proven and there are a lot of bad therapists out there? or that yoga teachers not combine yoga with counseling, which many of my peers do?
    i could not disagree with you more. saying that the field of life coaching is bogus is like saying all yoga teachers are undertrained and dangerous-which can be true in some cases, but the generalization is not helpful at all and is ignorant.
    i have enjoyed your writing in the past, but you are off base here. learn more about what you’re talking about before you make these superficial generalizations.

    • cyndi

      aren’t yoga therapy and ayurveda consulting also unlicensed disciplines? shall we throw their credibility under the bus because of this?

      per your website you work with people who have chronic health conditions.
      j brown, what licensure do you have to work with people with chronic health conditions? are you a PT, and what medical training do you have? how do you feel qualified to competently work with these people with your “limited, ” unacademic, and unsupervised practice?

      I am surprised that as a yoga therapist, whom I’m sure receives the above types of judgement from licensed professionals, that you would be one to dole it out toward others who are in similar situations.

      I am also a yoga therapist who works with people with chronic health conditions, and struggle with this type of prejudice daily, as I also work in a hospital setting teaching yoga to students with MS.

      • amanda

        A-men! I’m a life coach, too. I went to school for two years for my certification. I’m also frustrated by weekend courses or people who call themselves coaches with no training or regard for their clients best interest. I agree that there are a lot of “bad” coaches out there who do not understand the practice because they haven’t had good teachers (or any teachers) but don’t all professions go through that before they are regulated? (And even after, though to a lesser degree.) There are a lot of great coaches out there, too. These are the growing pains of any new career path… I hope it is regulated soon, but until then, let’s all just calm down and show each other some respect.
        I do not think the author really understand what life coaching is. I was taught about behavioral therapy, but before that, one of the most important roles of a life coach is to help their clients to discover what they really want AND what is really getting in the way of getting it – THEN they can find a plan (together) to get there.

      • Hey cyndi-

        I ask that you not confuse Anon’s comment with my post. I’m sure there are many life coaches out there who are helping people and I applaud them. The intent here was to provoke a conversation about the conflation of yoga with coaching that it is rooted in platitudes, which does seem to be on the rise.

        You are right, yoga is no different. And I am not in favor of regulation for a number of reasons (longer conversation.) But I do think that some of the goal-oriented techniques that are used by coaches (perhaps not you), while useful in many circumstances, are still at serious odds with my understanding of yoga. And I am interested in that conversation.

        As to my position on regulation and yoga therapy, I would refer you to the perspective i wrote for the IAYT in 2009:

        Thanks for expressing your views.

  • “At its best, life coaching is a more affordable form of pop cognitive behavioral therapy.” Actually, many life coaches charge much higher fees than cognitive behavioral therapists, which is why so many therapists become coaches. As for coaching, it is like every other profession: there are coaches who are ethical and competent and there are coaches who are not. (Disclaimer: I’m a psychologist who specializes in career coaching.)

    • Lala

      I looked at your website. You seem very well-trained and your coaching is targeted to a very specific issue: career advancement. This kind of coaching can be really helpful. The articles you have written make it very clear that you know what you are talking about. I would not put you in the category of “life coach.” To me, that title is a catchall for people who don’t any specific area of focus and whose knowledge/expertise is not targeted.

  • Lala

    I think this could not be more timely. I finished my 200 hour TT in June. One of my classmates, a 25 year-old with no relevant training other than the TT and very little life experience, is already marketing herself as a holistic health coach. What is really shocking to me is how people in the yoga community are encouraging this behavior. This person is “manifesting” her intentions and the “Universe” is putting it into action. I think aspirations have their place as a starting point for reaching our goals, but there is a lot of work that has to be completed– in this case coursework and certifications–between aspiring to do or be something and accomplishing the goal or becoming that thing. You can’t just say you want to be a doctor, for example, and then call yourself a doctor and say it is evidence of the Universe manifesting your attentions. Funny how the whole manifestation and abundance path only works for very nebulous goals or unregulated professions that require little to no licensing.

  • Hanky Panky

    ”Nosy cunt” It would have been better if she said, ”Nameste, cunt”

  • I experience a different issue. My students want to tell me all their problems and think I can magically solve them… I listen quietly if they really must share, then as gently and compassionately as I can, I direct them to the appropriate professionals.

  • I saw this “life coach” thing happening between two students before one of my classes. The “life coach” was new to me, the other yogi very devoted to her practice, but troubled by physical ills. I didn’t know about the loose training these folks might have. It seemed a bit predatory to me. Won’t ley it happen agian under my watch.

  • Hi,

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Now I am not a Yoga teacher myself, and the Life Coach thing is new to me. But very interesting reading.


  • I find this article surprising, but a great conversation to engage. When I think about life coaching and yoga together, I see the philosophies as remarkably similar, which is why they marry so well together. (I’ve thought that since I completed my training back in 2003.) To me, both are about creating space to listen to your own wisdom and making actions that support your best, healthiest life. And if you are trying to create change in your life or align with your values, what better way to access change than through building physical strength and releasing tension to help you move more freely. I think the whole idea is to help people get rid of what’s holding them back. Calm the distractions, both mental and physical, so they can move forward or just enjoy their life. There’s always going to be variations in quality, approach, and intention, in any field. That doesn’t mean there’s no goodness there.

    • Lala

      Hi Cara.

      This is not meant as an attack on what you wrote. I am really interested in what you have to say.

      I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have become life coaches. I have a really hard time accepting the idea of a “life coach.” What does that mean? If I needed help with my career, I would go to a career counselor. If I needed help with eating and nutrition, I would go to a registered dietitian. If I felt ill, I would go to my doctor. If I were having problems in my relationships, I would go to a psychologist or therapist specializing in relationships. Honestly, if I were feeling resistance and confusion, and I should make more time for this, I would go to my zen center and work with the zazen teachers there.

      This is where my thinking has landed: Why is a life coach more effective than professionals with specialized training and advanced degrees to help people with their problems?

      I am guessing the answer lies in each life coach’s specialty and background.

      What are your thoughts? Looking at the group of people I know who have become life coaches, all were very stressed and able to opt-out of the “householder” type life where you work and have a lot of responsibilities because they have money and are able to do so. Many of them work 15-20 hours a week and are able to travel whenever they want. Recently one of them asked me about work hours and expressed shock that I have to work until 5:00 p.m. I am sure there are life coaches who are grounded and have a good grasp on the realities facing working adults, but I don’t personally know any. Shouldn’t a life coach be grounded? Life is less stressful when you are grounded and have tools to deal with reality, not when you opt out of it.

  • Hi Lala,

    I love your response, and here’s what I think. First, life coaches aren’t any better than specific professionals as everyone has their own speciality and field. I do think life coaches fit a grey area (which is why it’s maybe hard to pin down what they actually do) where people don’t have a huge “problem” per se, yet aren’t happy in their life or feel like something’s missing. And again, this is just my thought and view on “life coaching” and there are a gazillion differing opinions for sure.

    What I see is that people can’t seem to shake their funk themselves. So, life coaching steps in to fill that void offering a way to gain some perspective and possible tools to move forward, toward happiness, etc.

    In terms of life coaches being not-so-grounded, those types of people might specifically choose life coaching as a profession because it gives them the flexibility they crave. On one hand, I can see how it could sever their ties to reality, but on the other hand, part of their job is helping people see their lives differently. So if life coaches held the same paradigm about what’s possible in life, it might be hard for them to really help people see different options. In that respect, it could be a good thing. (And there are lots of flexible work styles, so life coaches aren’t the only ones opting out of the office.)

    Everyone’s reality comes down to a collection of their choices. And the life coaching profession, to me, is a vehicle to help others make choices that result in more fulfilled lives. What that looks like will be drastically different depending on the coach and the client.

  • Denise

    This sounds very much like the Western world’s version of a ‘Guru’. Though in all honesty I feel it falls short of what a true Guru is..a person who assists another in the realization of their true nature or ‘Atman’.

    Personally the idea of paying someone (and usually the fees are extremely high, upwards of $60 per hour) to tell me what I need to do to live up to my highest potential seems inauthentic (but then you are looking at a person who does not feel the Capitalistic system is serving it’s people, and has not done so in a very long time, you only need look at the amount of poverty across the entire planet to see this truth).

    That being said, I feel it is important to honor your own truth, honor your teachers; who could very well be the child who is screaming whilst you are meditating, or even your seemingly difficult neighbor who cuts the grass early Sunday Morning while you are attempting to get a few extra zzz’s in 😛 …all free resources 😀

    The world around you is filled with opportunities for self realization.

    Thank you for this article,

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