Self-Centered: The Narcissistic Cult of Yoga

This afternoon, I was sitting in an ice cream shop with David Swenson (true story!), his wife Shelley, and a bunch of rowdy Ashtangis and we were all chatting it up over sundaes.  The topic turned to an emerging trend of disrespect among yoga practitioners for each other, the space, and for the teachers (I should mention that David was not personally engaged in this conversation).

A few of us theorized reasons for this trend, commiserating as we alternately nodded and shook our heads.  I proposed two reasons for this dissolution of reverence in modern yoga:  1)  Very few teachers have any prerequisites for their students to meet in order to begin study.  Anyone with enough cash can buy the teacher's time.  2)  There is a gaping hole in Western yoga culture's understanding of the idea of "the self."  

It is a popular thing to say, "you are perfect as you are."  We believe in self-love.  Self-affirmation.  Self-appreciation.  Self-acceptance.  Self.  Self.  Self.  Self.  Self.  We do yoga to do something good for ourselves.  Forget service!  This is me-time.  My time.  Time to spend time with me.  To do what serves me best.  The kicker is that these slogans and buzzwords are right.  The true self is perfect, but in order to embrace the self, identification with things or ideas that are not "the self" must be severed.  

But we here in LuluLand like to skip that part and head straight for the self-worship.  Why?  Because it tastes good and it goes down easy.  What's that you say?  I'm perfect as I am?  Well then, *wipes hands* my work here is done.  It's no wonder students don't show respect to their teachers; not only are they not at all familiar with the history or foundation of the practice, they think they have nothing to learn, except when it comes to asana where the shortcomings are glaringly obvious.

This is the reason teachers who can do crazy shit with their bodies are the ones who attract the most students.  I'm not saying that's entirely wrong, because the ones who can do crazy shit are usually the same ones who have dedicated their lives to the practice, but I do think that the way yoga culture is developing presently makes it harder and harder for teachers, senior or otherwise, to make a living and be discriminating so that sincere yoga study may advance.  The role of teacher has devolved and the foundations of the practice have been shaken.

What we need is a healthy dose of ego obliteration to remind us of how much we have to learn.  Readers:  what are your thoughts?  Does Western yoga culture need an etiquette injection?


  1. I think not. Yoga is about the freedom of expression and yet self-centered. For some people, Yoga is a lifestyle, for others it's merely a form of exercise. If it's a pair of Lulu pants or a nice tank that made one feel good and be able to step on the mat, so be it. I personally don't put my teachers onto a pedestal. Though I admire and respect them, I don't necessarily respect them any more than a good friend of mine. Throughout the years, I have learned not to interfere with people way of living. I stopped trying to influence my friends into doing yoga, eating healthy, stop smoking, start meditating, go to the gym and etc. They can do whatever that make them happy. They can grow on their own or never. I just see things exactly the way they are. If others' etiquette bugged me, it's not their problem, it's mine. There are no right or wrong way of being a yogi.

  2. Linh, although I'm inclined to agree with what you said, your comments actually make the same mistake as the "you are perfect just as you are" slogan does. It's too trapped in the absolute, or the big-picture view - whereas we also must "take care" of the details. Actually, I'm reminded of Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi (who taught in San Francisco). He was fond of saying "you're perfect just as you are - and you need a bit of improvement." The second half of the statement is about the effort of practice. Of continuing to be a lifelong learner. And also, I believe, about serving others and not just "being happy" ourselves.

    I totally agree that putting teachers on a pedestal is a problem. And much of the time, I also choose to not interfere in the lives of friends and family - especially through unwanted advice. However, occasionally, a well timed comment or action that could be seen as interference is exactly what someone needs. I have personally benefited greatly from being interfered with by friends/family on a few issues.

    Life is more than just doing what makes you feel happy. Furthermore, I think we often mistake transient pleasures that bring misery later for true happiness. And if a teacher is worth a grain of salt, they might have a way of offering us skill pointers in the direction of that true happiness.

  3. Maybe it's your sleeve tattoo? No offense but my first yoga teacher, the notorious Bikram Choudhury of Bikram Yoga taught our teacher training class that tatts are just graffiti on the house of God- why would you hit up on the temple of the individual self? When yoga teachers are western, not holy or "spiritual" looking in their appearance, maybe the students they attract have a non-holy western approach to learning yoga? Really they're learning asana- not the eight limbed royal path. The self-centered behavior is just identification with body and mind- not the real Self. But keep teaching and writing, because your good intentions and karmas still penetrate. I run my own donation based yoga center which has been open three years. All of our students show respect for each other, our teachers and beautiful space. Om truly, Yogini anonymous

  4. I don't think this is specific to yoga

    when I was swimming, most of the guys were very happy if the coach for next year was a former champion
    but it can happen that the former champion does not know how to explain and the teacher who spent all his life explaining how to swim is far better

    and this is even more true for sports like football or basketball where players only want to listen to former stars...

    I agree that you expect yoga student do not take it as a sport, but it may be a way to touch more people
    and you know well that "yoga does things to people", so that if they come for sport without much respect for other students and their teacher, it may happen that some light come to them and they understand the true meaning of yoga


  5. Anon - You are completely missing the point. My students are, for the most part, always respectful and well-behaved and none of them are small-minded enough to think twice about my tattoo, which is an expression of my spirituality. This is not about me. This is about the way students are treating senior teachers and the spaces they hold. My experience is merely a microcosmic example of the larger problem.

    Louis - That is an excellent point. It's true that there needs to be some sort of a gateway, which is where I and teachers like me come in: we offer asana classes without the philosophy or chanting or the intimidation. Many of my students come for fitness and if it resonates with them, they may eventually be inspired to go deeper into the practice. The space that I hold is a place where students are welcome to make that first faux pas and learn the ways of yoga study, but after they've learned what they can from me, it would be my hope that they seek out further study with a more knowledgeable teacher than I, and when they do move on, they know how to treat that teacher with respect.

  6. Anon - I find it quite funny that you would quote Bikram as your reference for leading by example/reverence to your teacher. Now Bikram was the first style I practiced (so I still have a soft spot for it) and I did it for 2 years before I read his books (wow). For one, I don't ever remember having a Bikram class led with a theme from the 8 limbed path. I also don't feel he actually strives to live this way as he has multiple luxury cars and is so full of ego that he calls all other styles McDonalds of yoga, while not allowing injured and less flexible people to use any props in class just because he didn't. Not to mention he charges an ungodly amount for his training and copyrights his name. But that aside, to bring up Megan's tattoo is to say that as yoga teachers seeking respect, we must perfectly follow all yoga sutras/yamas/niyamas and we are only human and all have individual interpretation. My guru comes from Native American tradition (obviously meat eaters) and happens to be allergic to many grains and soy which make a vegetarian diet very difficult for her. I don't see people disrespecting her because she does not follow a vegetarian lifestyle. And David Life is full of tattoos and Jivamukti is a very spiritual practice. What I will give Bikram and Ashtanga is that you can always tell these yogis when they come into a room. They are very "aware" of their poses throughout transitions (not just poses) and they typically have a very focused drishti. Some of this is learned through the study and in Bikrams case it is actually screamed out of you -- you wouldn't dare show up late or talk in class. Megan one of my struggles right now is similar to yours. I hope to one day evolve to a place where the room is focused, the breath is strong and the practice is deeply personal. It will always be in part our students and we can't always help that - but I think we all get better everyday ;)

  7. Maybe the lack of respect is systemic of the fact that most yoga teachers do nothing to garner it?