Confessions From Your Yoga Instructor

On the perils of the workout industrial complex.

Author by Tori Telfer
Art Credit: Sarah Mazzetti

Yoga teachers adore yoga. They talk about it in reverent voices, using the vocabulary of magic or religion. They move to new cities for it, sell their homes and buy RVs so they can do it on a mountain; they sink serious cash into studios, practice for three hours a day, stop drinking so they can focus better.

But the RVs and the focus aren’t enough to distract yoga teachers from what their beloved vocation is becoming. They watch in shock as the scene morphs into a multibillion-dollar business aimed increasingly at the white and the wealthy, filled with “high-vibration” tank tops sold at Saks Fifth Avenue that say spiritual gangster and shticks like goat yoga (“the fitness trend sweeping the nation”)—all of this flashy profitability leaving them, the regular teachers, in the dust.

So the yoga teachers who love yoga are rearing back, questioning it all. Sometimes they resign, or get day jobs, or form separate communities. Anything to escape an “industry hell-bent on commoditizing an intrinsically meaningful practice,” as Vanessa Fiola, who for five years ran a website called Recovering Yogi, describes it. Her friend Kirk Hensler, a former yoga teacher from San Diego, scoffs. “The whole yoga world is a big joke. You know when you’ve seen the light? You can’t go back. It’s gross. It’s like Vegas in the daytime.”

When Hensler opened his own studio, the West Coast yoga world turned on him with a snarl. He wasn’t doing real yoga, its denizens said: There wasn’t enough vaguely Eastern music piping in through the speakers. Not enough talking in soft, spiritual-sounding voices. Worse, his studio also offered kickboxing, which was practically sacrilege, with its whiff of blood and violence.

The irony was that Hensler was opening his own studio just to get away from the sort of yoga instructors who talk about real yoga in soft, spiritual-sounding voices. He’d fallen hard for yoga two years earlier and used it to quit alcohol and weed, but he’d grown to hate the intra-studio vibe. “There were all these weird people who would talk condescendingly and then be like, namaste,” he says. “The preaching is ‘practice non-judgment,’ but the reality was people were hypocritical animals. It started to offend me, deeply.”

His studio attracted what he calls “disgruntled yogis,” and from the outside it was a smashing success despite all the yoga-shaming. He was able to contract over ten instructors. He was approached by massive brands, one of which invited him to be an “ambassador”—a program in which yoga teachers get free merchandise in exchange for services like teaching free in-store classes. (The program pays nothing.) He even thought about opening a juice bar. But the cash just wasn’t there. “The business side of things is horrible,” he says. “I never really made any money. The worst, most offensive thing of it all is a lot of people who have family money come into this arena and they tell you, ‘You just have to follow your heart, just find your passion.’ And it’s just like, ‘Shut the fuck up—you don’t pay my bills.’”

One of the reasons it’s so hard to pay the bills is that there are simply too many yoga teachers. Most studios make the bulk of their money through teacher training, charging thousands of dollars per trainee. The trainees study for the requisite 200 or 500 hours and then emerge into a world jam-packed with teachers just like them. “Yoga in America,” a 2016 study by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, revealed that for every yoga teacher out there today, there are two people interested in snagging their job.

“It’s become a red ocean,” says Angelica Govaert, invoking the marketing theory that a saturated scene is like an ocean where cutthroat competition has turned the water red with blood. Govaert owns a yoga studio in Las Vegas—owns it outright, in fact, because she learned to play professional high-stakes poker, took $200 down to the MGM Grand, played for two and a half years, and bought her studio with the profits. She’s one of the fortunate ones. “Most yoga teachers are lucky if they get a paid position at all, and if they do, they’re getting $15-$20 a class. Some people really think they’re going to graduate from teacher training and make $30,000 dollars a year just teaching yoga—I don’t know anyone who does that.”

This massive infusion of teachers into the yogic ocean is damaging for more than just financial reasons. “There isn’t enough quality control when it comes to certifying these programs,” says Ariana Rabinovitch, a New York–based teacher with certifications in high-level anatomy and biomechanics. “This leaves room for a fair number of poorly structured trainings packed with bad info that then gets passed on from teacher to student.” Fiola agrees: “If you have a few thousand dollars and a modicum of charisma, you, too, can be guiding people through poses without any deep understanding of how poses work in an individual’s body,” she says. “I know I taught this way and it’s something that I look back at with remorse.”

This isn’t even just a big-city problem. “Being a yoga teacher right now is so hot, even in Nebraska, which is hilarious,” says Kole Gansebom, who’s been teaching in various Nebraskan cities for seven years. He taught yoga throughout college, supplementing his income with student loans, but is now a bit unsure about how he’ll continue to pay the bills. Gansebom used to teach over twenty classes a week at studios across Omaha, but the toll of being a full-time teacher proved too high. “The first two months I loved it, then I realized I was just being a machine,” he says. “The magic of yoga doesn’t work when you’re basically a robot.”

There is money to be made in yoga, but you won’t find it on a classroom mat. A certain breed of teacher has found a solution that’s a lot more glamorous than the studio: Instagram yoga.

Yoga looks good on Instagram, especially if you have a certain type of svelte, bendy body and seemingly unlimited access to beaches. (The account @BeachYogaGirl has a cool one million followers.) Yoga looks so good on Instagram, in fact, that it’s become parodically intertwined with the platform— so much so, Fiola points out, that International Yoga Day and National Selfie Day both fall on June 21. Over ten million Instagram photos are tagged #yogaeverydamnday, and the biggest “Instayogis” bring in lucrative sponsorship deals by posting photos of themselves in twisty inversions with captions like Living your passion is the best way to find lasting happiness.”

“[As teachers] we get pressure, mainly from Instagram,” says Gansebom. He’s noticed that students often express a desire to look what he calls “Instagram cute”—flat-abbed and able to smize upside down. “The game isn’t even yoga anymore; it’s basically contortion.” People pour into classrooms begging to learn the handstand they just saw on Instagram; local teachers pump up the jams and start to invert on command. After all, they’ve got to pay rent—living in the present moment may be free, but living in an apartment isn’t. “The way teachers make the most money is definitely by conforming to that flashy, SoulCycle vibe: Listen to rap music in your class, get sweaty, get a workout in,” says Gansebom. “People want to paint an Instagram image of yoga onto their life.”

It’s no secret that yoga in the West has become thoroughly unspiritual: a cult of the body, a sign of rich-white-girl status, a consumerist wet dream for which 36.7 million creaky Americans are paying $16.8 billion a year. It almost feels like a false equivalence to compare today’s yoga to the ancient Indian practice—these days, they’re basically two distinct institutions that happen to share the same four-letter name. Plus, getting cynical about the commodification of yoga can feel like a waste of energy. Isn’t it a good thing for humans to be getting more flexible, even if they’re annoying about it? Who cares if they wear a namaste in bed shirt while they chaturanga?

The real yoga teachers care. They’re already doing this for love and not very much money, and they find the ostentatious Insta-poses and bourgeois tee-shirts demoralizing, if not downright revolting. When Govaert thinks about what the scene is becoming, she says she questions whether she wants to continue having a yoga studio. “It’s really disheartening to see things like goat yoga and beer yoga”—yoga done among actual goats and yoga performed while drinking beer, respectively. “It drives me insane when I see that stuff. It’s taking something I really love and making a mockery of what it is. I’m forty-two, so I’m like, Am I just getting old and don’t understand the kids these days? Is that their journey? Do I just need to continue on mine?”

Hensler has washed his hands of all of it. He doesn’t teach anymore. He was sick of the hypocrisy, the expense, the “scummy yoga-dude teachers” sleeping with emotionally vulnerable students, the ego, the backstabbing (“There’s a lot of trash talk, a lot of eye rolling: ‘Her class is okay, but she doesn’t do any adjustments’”). “They play this manipulative music, teachers talk in this soft, absurd voice that makes my skin itch, and they try to make you feel peaceful—when the full nature of spirituality and Buddhism is the discovery of good and evil, the full cycle of emotion,” he says. “They’ve cherry-picked this ‘Zen’ and sold it as yoga. Spirituality in Western yoga is going around, when really you’re supposed to walk right through.”

And so the teachers who really love yoga continue to walk right through the suffering even as the scene swells and grows hollow around them, hoping it will be worth the sacrifice in the end. “If we’re all these tight shells walking around lifeless, yoga cracks you open and makes you you again,” says Hensler. “The disconnect is absurd, but the practice is so beautiful.”  


Originally published in the first print volume of Woolly, which you can buy here

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About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.