Celebrities doing yoga: the good, the bad & the ugly.
When pictures of hot celebrities (male or female) hit the newsstands accompanied by their testimonials to the glories of yoga, it gives yoga a certain cachet. When I first read a quote from Adam Levine saying that once he tried yoga he decided would never pick up weights again, I thought it was fantastic. What a great example to encourage more men to try yoga! And to his credit, Levine has also mentioned how yoga affects him internally, rather than solely focusing on how it has sculpted his body.
The perception of yoga in the West has changed dramatically from when it was seen as mainly a hippie hobby, something counter-culture folks do. Now, every time a young actress is snapped by paparazzi, face aglow, toting her Manduka home from Vinnie’s class, some teen in Kansas thinks, “Wow, yoga is cool! I want to try it!” Which is good. Right? Yoga as a mainstream proposition means growth for the yoga community, abundance for yoga studios and teachers, a more peaceful society. Or does it?
We’ve come a long way since Sting first started talking about Tantra. Or have we? Stand near the tabloids in the grocery store for a minute and you’ll count several stories about how some celebutante lost all her baby weight in two weeks – thanks to yoga! Or another is reviving her career and has added yoga as her latest spiritual accessory, right between Kabbalah and Eckhart Tolle. Even Lady Gaga is doing yoga!
Another side effect of the celebrity endorsement of yoga is the proliferation of classes and teacher trainings. This could be a good thing if it means growth for the yoga community. It’s a bad thing if more classes and more teachers means inconsistent quality. Anyone can become a yoga teacher. Even if they don’t practice yoga. Walk into any gym or health club and they will certainly have at least one yoga class in the rotation between Zumba and Cardio Kickboxing. It may be a fantastic class. More likely (at least in what I have experienced) it will be a workout class taught by a fitness instructor who did a yoga teacher training over the course of a few weekends to add to her resume. Is this a bad thing? Maybe not. Maybe for some, it is exactly what they want. Maybe it will pique the curiosity of someone who has no experience with yoga and be the beginning of a wonderful journey. But maybe not.
The gentrification of a spiritual path is a disturbing thing. It’s one thing to pursue yoga for the sake of improving your body composition or your physical health. Many practitioners begin this way, only to find that yoga’s internal transformation is much larger than they expected. I know that was my experience. But when it becomes the lastest trend in lifestyle accessories, and spirituality is something you can throw in your Whole Foods bag next to your Kombucha, what then? Where are we headed when the perception of yoga shifts towards a pastime for celebrities and the wealthy? What is going on when yoga classes become a fashion show and whoever has the best toys must be the most enlightened? When one of the most well-recognized brands of yoga apparel embraces ultra-conservative, elitist rhetoric, where will we end up?
There are many amazing things going on within the yoga community. Yoga outreach is happening in prisons, to emergency and rescue workers, to our veterans, to children. Many leaders within the community are getting real about politics, about true seva as part of their practices. I’m sure there are many people whose yoga journeys started because they read Gwyneth Paltow was a fan, and ended up on a wonderful, life-enriching path.
We are not just our bodies, and we are not just spirit. We are both. Yoga is a wonderful celebration of that union. Let’s be cautious in our celebration of “celebrity yoga.” There is good to be found, but it’s a short trip to the bad and the ugly. Is there a right answer here? Does celebrity interest in yoga hurt, or help? Do we celebrate it or ignore it? To ignore it or vilify it is just as elitist as what we might hope to avoid. To overtly celebrate it as a triumph for the yoga community could lead to continued dilution of something many of us value deeply. Perhaps this, as in all things, is another area where we need to walk the middle way.