Bow Down to the Yoga Teacher

Article excerpt

Byline: Casey Schwartz

Marco, the tattooed instructor at the front of the room, is all charisma. He stalks; he pounces; he perches on my back as he corrects my Janu Sirsasana pose (otherwise known as a forward bend). "If you tell it to me from your mind, I'm not interested," he announces, to begin the class. "That's just drama. I've got my own drama." It can be difficult to exit the studio when Marco's class is over: people lingering to talk to him block the door.

Do yoga, transcend your ego, and discover your inner humility--at least that's the idea behind this ancient spiritual practice. The enlightened person is "friendly and compassionate, free from self-regard and vanity," promises the Bhagavad-Gita. But in the recent past, around the time that $100 yoga pants became as common as designer jeans, the once inconspicuous yoga instructor has morphed into something more grandiose. Now certain teachers display all the monkishness of Keith Richards cooling his heels in the greenroom as adoring fans reach a peak of anticipation.

The aura of high priest surrounds not just celebrity instructors like Marco, known throughout the New York yoga scene for his godlike presence, but the ranks of proletarian instructors as well. The New York City-based filmmaker Ariel Schulman goes to a weekly class at Kula in Greenwich Village. He knows the instructor is in the building when he arrives. "But she comes into class late. She waits for the room to fill up--I feel the drumroll, sitting cross-legged waiting for her--and she makes her grand entrance." The lights dim, and her patter begins: "Who don't I know?" she asks. "Who haven't I met?"

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. …