At a Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco a few years ago, Gwen Soffer of Philadelphia found herself in an elevator with someone she thought she knew. But as much as she tried, she couldn’t place her.
“I said, ‘Where do I know you from? You look so familiar. Is it from a yoga workshop somewhere, or from Philly?’ The woman admitted she’d been in a lot of magazines.
“Then someone elbowed me and said, ‘It’s Ana Forrest!’ just as she got off the elevator. I tried to joke it off. It was like any other celebrity sighting.”
While we’ve long known that celebrities such as Sting, Madonna, Christy Turlington, and Willem Dafoe do yoga, we now have to acknowledge that yoga teachers can be celebrities in their own right.
This phenomenon raises a conundrum for all of us in the yoga world: How do we reconcile the marketing power and media-friendly images of big-name teachers– think of Rodney Yee, Shiva Rea, Sean Corne, Bikram Choudry, Baron Baptiste–with the precepts of yoga? After all, yoga teaches us to develop a genuine awareness of self—whether that’s through working the body in asana or calming the mind in pranayama and meditation—in order to decrease the strife of the individual ego. And that pretty much nixes self-interest as a viable option for a yoga teacher.
At Omega’s Being Yoga conference held in Rhinebeck, NY, at the end of August, I got a chance to talk to some of these celebrities about their status in the yoga world. How, I wondered, had they reached such a level of visibility that they might land an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show or develop a clothing line, much like an actor or a model might?
Shiva Rea says it was part of her path. A once long-time astangi and student of dance, she needed to discover the meaning of her name, given to her by her father. Her name is like a bija mantra, she says, a seed sound that contains its own divinity. Her active inquiry has lead her to create her own style that is available on popular DVDs, and retreats to sacred places in the world, in a clothing line and in teacher trainings. For her, it’s a kind of service.
“I’m not trying to create a style of yoga or a personal branding,” she said when I spoke with her at Omega. “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 of Jivamukti Yoga School, a school that merges yoga and activism, also has thoughts on the issue. “Everyone who’s developed a ‘style’ has focused on things in the practice that worked for them,” says Life. “That’s what they passed along. Everyone has teachers. The idea of creating something out of nothing doesn’t make sense.”
In other words, becoming a celebrity yoga teacher just because it seems cool is ridiculous. There has to be a greater purpose. Life himself says that he’s always been willing to risk everything for his cause. His partner, Sharon Gannon, says, “We’re artists. Money never drove us. It was always communication that drove us.”
So celebrity might come as a result of a calling or a style that holds a wide ethical appeal. But there must be some danger in being not just a popular teacher who can fill a class, but the creator of a style that literally thousands of people want to practice and hundreds of people want to learn how to teach.
Glenn Black, a long-time yogi who has sought a completely anonymous life as a yoga teacher, thinks so.
“The more famous you become the more adoration you get and it becomes more possible to lose the path,” said Black who has created no products, not even a website. He spent many years in remote parts of Costa Rica and Mexico doing self-practice.
Tias Little, who is based out of Santa Fe and teaches internationally but doesn’t have the same name recognition as some, agrees. “When your name and face are replicated, your identity structure gets larger. It gets tempting to get overly identified with what is really maya,” or, illusion.
The real product to be promoted is the practice and the teachings, not the teacher himself.
While most recognized yoga teachers I spoke to said they had ways of keeping humble on the path, one bravely admitted that the ego’s agenda can be sneaky.
Based in the celebrity-filled city of Los Angeles, master Kundalini teacher Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa became a guru to the stars in the mid 1990s. She was teaching privates to famous models, actors, and musicians, attending their private events, even taking them on trips to India. Finally, her teacher noticed something was wrong.
“Yogi Bhajan noticed that my aura had grown out to here,” Gurmukh said as she spread arms wide apart, “and then just stopped. It wasn’t connected to the earth anymore.”
Bhajan took her to New Mexico and put her to work under an estate’s head gardener. She raked leaves and hoed hard ground. When it rained, she wore a garbage bag as a raincoat. When guests such as the governor of New Mexico or the consulate to India arrived, he made a point of introducing her.
“They’d come to visit in their fancy cars and he’d say, ‘And here’s our great guru to the stars.’”
After two weeks of manual labor, Gurmukh had a realization that she wouldn’t teach celebrities or charge for private consultations again.
Gwen Soffer, who owns the 2-year-old Enso studio in Philadelphia, can relate to the danger of being in charge as a yoga teacher, if on a less glamorous scale. “I know as a teacher with my students, people treat you like you have all the answers.”
Part of the problem is in the teacher’s conception of herself and her drive to be known, and part of it is in the student’s conception of the teacher.
“We project our authority,” says Limor Kauffman, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan who attended Omega’s Being Yoga conference. “It’s something we have to work through—our giving our authority away.” But she added, she’s also found some teacher’s narcissism a turn off.
Dharma Mittra, who has been teaching since 1967, dislikes any kind of celebrity attention, though his students sometimes lavish it on him. “I don’t like being called a guru, but sometimes I have to stand it,” he said. The week before, in his New York studio, a student had bowed at his feet in front of 40 – 50 people, embarrassing him.
“People bow but I don’t like,” said Mittra. “I’m not any saint. One person can’t purify another.”
Tias Little considers himself not an artist or performer but an educator. Unlike many, hasn’t codified his work. “I wouldn’t want people to become Tias Little yoga teachers.”
“My main objective is to inspire people to think differently. I draw a student who wants to do in-depth work. I don’t get the flow-and-go student.”
But David Life says there are advantages to celebrity. “Fame and celebrity get people in, then you show them that your reputation is not vacuous, that there is substance here.”
Jill Becker who teaches yoga out of her home in Nassau County, came to spend her birthday at Omega’s Being Yoga conference. She considered the question of celebrity yoga teachers for a few moments over breakfast on Sunday morning, our last morning there.
“For me, I don’t care if they appeared on Oprah or in magazines,” she said thoughtfully. “If they get up there and are channeling something mystical, and it’s really coming through, that’s all I care about.”
Published on YogaCityNYC.com, September 14, 2009in Features, Yoga and YogaCityNYC.com.