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Does Internet Stardom Make A Great Yoga Teacher?

“The rise of internet yoga superstars is totally a good thing,” wrote Well+Good recently, “and has helped the industry as a whole.” In a recent article, Ava Taylor of YAMA Talent, the first yoga talent agency, talks about helping teachers build online portfolios and social media followings. “It’s all about the hustle…. Cultivating a strong social following to snag brand opportunities, offering online content with a paywall, workshops—online and in person—and getting creative in other ways is the secret formula to success,” says the interviewer. “That’s what’s really cool,” concludes the story.

But is it totally cool? Has the hustle helped? I spoke with three successful NYC yoga teachers to see what they think of this terrain. Bob Doto is the founder of Church Ave. Yoga & Bodywork Center in Prospect Park South and founding member of The Babarazzi, a website which was devoted to investigating, and sometimes torturing, ego-heavy pop icons of commercial yoga. (RIP.)

“When people talk about ‘industry’ they are talking about commerce,” he responds. So, with regards to commerce, sure, [diversifying] might be a good thing . . . However, an OVER-saturated market tends to look more like a desolate wasteland of fancy converted lofts with no one to fill. Unfortunately for the industry, the ubiquity of ‘internet yoga superstars’ is pretty much the definition of over-saturation.”

Does Doto see his work as entrepreneurial? “It’s much simpler than that,” he says. “Teach people what you know. Charge them a fair price. Work out something for students who need financial help. Move on.”

Mel Russo who teaches at ABC Sanctuary and the Greenwich Hotel, says, “All I knew was that I loved how yoga had changed my body, my mind, and my life, so I wanted to share that. Today the landscape is different. There is the pressure to have a social media presence because that’s how you communicate with your audience. But it’s clearly gotten out of control because we are now at the point where the whole ‘look at me, look at me’ culture is a part of the yoga teacher culture as well.”

What challenges do teachers who don’t want to diversify their focus face? Russo says, “I think my challenges are how to compete if I’m not going to post ten pictures a day on IG. But then I ask myself, who exactly am I competing with? Instagram stars? YouTube celebrities? I’m old enough and secure enough to realize that most of what is happening in the yoga world and social media is BS. If you’re a good teacher and lucky enough to have exposure teaching at a large studio, you can do well.” Is Russo on social media? “I will use a photo of myself in a yoga pose. But trust me, it’s not me doing scorpion on a sunset beach! I prefer to post pictures of my students or of me teaching. To me, that’s marketing yourself as a teacher.”

Tamar Samir, who teaches at YogaWorks and Yoga Agora, and is also professor at Parsons, explains the distinction between teacher and brand. “I don’t think humans need to reduce ourselves to brands,” she says. “Students respond to the authentic presence of a teacher, and I’m interested in connecting with people in a direct way, in person.”

Russo agrees: “I get my message out and I get lots of students so I’m happy. Maybe I could have even more students and more opportunities, but there’s a cost with that. You lose the personal connection with students and you have to field a lot of ‘noise.’”

Is it possible that all this yoga marketing is not merely a necessary evil, but is actually undermining the tenets of yoga philosophy? Samir explains, “As yoga teachers, we aim to help students understand themselves as expansive, rather than to further ingrain identification with the body and mind. From this perspective, glamorous branding centered around the body is problematic. It can promote unrealistic standards of beauty, physicality, and wisdom. It’s become such a cliché to see a beautiful asana photo paired with an inspiring quote; I really don’t think that’s helping anyone.”

Doto puts it in even simpler terms, saying, “I've never seen anything I would call yoga on Instagram.”

Diversifying, branding, superstar, hustle—are these the qualities of today’s yoga teacher? Russo responds, “It’s commercialism at its best and it’s just not me. It’s funny because nowhere does Taylor mention being a well-trained, kind, and present yoga teacher will also get you a big following. It comes down to the ultimate question: What do you consider to be a successful yoga teacher?”

--by Emma Sartwell

--illustration by Sharon Watts

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