Bow Down to the Yoga Teacher

Some therapists are advising patients who are anxious over the presidential election to take up yoga. Bruce Katz / Amelia Island Plantation-MCT-Getty Images

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, who teaches at Pure Yoga, and is 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. Becoming a yoga teacher allows an insecure person to act spiritually superior. But the dynamic is two-sided. For the yoga teacher to become inflated, the student must inflate. Yoga acolytes, like rock-band groupies, hang on the approval of their favorite gurus—thus allowing that narcissism to flourish. "People elevate because they want to be accepted by the one that's elevated," Neale says. "That makes them feel good."

Some yoga-diva antics would be considered bad manners even in Hollywood. Jennifer Needleman, a film editor, woke up before dawn recently to attend a new class at her local Venice, Calif., yoga studio. So few students showed up that the teacher declined to teach. It simply wasn't worth her time, she said. Matt White, a member of the L.A.-based band Earl Greyhound, remembers resting on his back at the end of one class when the instructor seized the chance to burst into song. "I could be wrong, but I swear to God, he was singing something from a musical, like from Pippin," says White. Carrie Campbell, a Pilates instructor in New York, was midpose at the notoriously purist Jivamukti studio, when her instructor approached, paused, and sniffed. "I can tell by the smell of your sweat that you're not a vegetarian," she announced for the whole class to hear. Campbell has not returned since.

Instructors concede that there's a lure to giving in to their egotistical impulses. "When I start to feel powerful—that's a dangerous place to be," says Emily Wolf, a yoga instructor who is also studying to be a psychologist. When she begins to feel that way, she remembers her own teachers "who continue to put me in my place," she says. The megalomaniacs, she believes, have lost sight of the fact that they were ever students themselves.