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Gabby is a yoga instructor and "spiritual teacher" who is her own type of reality star. You can download her Spirit Junkie app, buy one of her meditation albums, or subscribe to her monthly course. Or you can become one of her 174,000 followers on Instagram, where she doles out advice for free.
Hundreds of mostly white women in their 20s to 40s are here to perfect their chaturanga and take selfies with favorite practitioners.
Gabby is just one of the big ticket yogalebrities, a term I’m dealing with, at the NYC iteration of fancy yoga convention Yoga Journal LIVE! Picture a yoga convention and I bet you’ve got it. Hundreds of mostly white women in their 20s to 40s are here to perfect their chaturanga and take selfies with favorite practitioners, also mostly youngish, white females. They have peaceful smiles. They have granola bars in their purses. They have $75 Jade Yoga mats. Many teach yoga themselves — which means this is a networking event, and #gettingbendy on Instagram can feel like just part of the job. Among the teachers I meet this weekend, the follower counts seem to be highest among those who happen to have the most to sell. These women may be centered, but they aren’t afraid to hustle.
"Using social media to carry the message of inner awareness is very important," Gabby tells me via email. In person, I’m 40 percent surprised to find her bathed in a yellow light. Her feed is less yoga poses and more positive quotes and lifestyle imagery. That’s because she teaches kundalini yoga, meant to be practiced while constantly chanting, with your eyes closed. "Don’t be afraid to cry," she warns us. The woman next to me straight up walks out. She makes it back just in time for Savasana, at which point we’re laying flat on our mats chanting "hallelujah."
We spend a few poses essentially swinging our arms around for "chest clearing." Like any exercise, you get as much out of this as you put into it. A woman in front of me is so into it she looks like she’s about to take flight, so I try to shut my eyes and clear my judgmental chest. "You look beautiful," Gabby tells us in her kind voice. It’s hard not to believe her.
Unlike, say, Aruba-dwelling yogi Rachel Brathen or Kerri Verna aka beachyogagirl, Kathryn Budig’s (174k followers) relatability is exactly her point. She lives in Charleston, is into Snapchat and isn’t too fit for a glass of wine. Not every picture is gorgeous. "I make a concerted effort to keep my Instagram page consistent with exactly where I am in my life," she tells me.
Her feed looks like a heightened version of a girl from your high school who got really into Pinterest. Lately, her posts have focused around her second book, Aim True. "I’m not saying that people should be airing their dirty laundry, but I think it’s important to keep it real," she says. Of course, we’re here for the pretty pictures of a girl doing yoga. Her feed is sprinkled with professional pictures that get comments like "I'm so appreciative of your grace and strength and genuineness" and "You're such an inspiration!"
"I make a concerted effort to keep my Instagram page consistent with exactly where I am in my life."
Kathryn’s talent for personal connection is clear in real life. She starts class with a very yoga teacher-esque fact: "The moon cycle just changed, so now is a good time to ask for what you want." After a pause to text that great news to everyone in my phone, I notice that she’s slipped out of the stereotypical "inspirational quote in a soft voice" yoga mode and is… just talking. In a seated forward bend, she jokes, "it’s not about how close your forehead is to your feet. How close would you really want it, anyway?"
We learn about Kathryn as she takes us through a flow of positions. She’s been to eight cities in the past two weeks. She had smelly feet yesterday. A teacher at a regular studio might not mention her dog during class, but none of them teach while absentmindedly holding a Sharpie for autographs. I can’t stop thinking about the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend line: "Now is the time to let your mind go blank and focus on how awesome the yoga teacher is."
But for fans who paid anywhere from $99 for one class to $1079 for four days of downward dog, a dose of Kathryn is the whole point. Kaitlyn Kreitzman, a college student who’s working towards who own yoga following, says Kathryn "definitely lived up to her expectations." She looks up to her as a business model as well as a life coach. "Instagram can blow up your teaching," Kreitzman tells me. She recently attended a five-hour yoga teacher’s workshop about social media branding. "These teachers get to travel all over the place," she reminds me.
"The idea of being sponsored on Instagram kind of baffles me, it feels like the branding on race cars," says Conor Yates, who teaches at Tangerine Hot Power Yoga in Brooklyn. "Yoga is meant to lead us from state of desire, attraction, and revulsion to a state of equanimity, strength, and ease. A healthy ego keeps you in service, but an overactive ego will just lead to more desire and disappointment." It’s like I learned from Gabby Bernstein’s Instagram: A million likes will never be enough if you don’t like yourself.
Alexandria Crow, a teacher at YogaWorks Santa Monica who’s also teaching this weekend, has amassed over 13k followers in her two years on Instagram, but she stands firm that she "[doesn’t] like social media whatsoever." Even worse, she tells me, "I just find it, to be frank, a waste of time." She’s criticized the yoga social media community as "as full of life and non-judgment out of one side of their mouths, and then [able] to viciously attack, judge and shame out of the other."
She’s criticized the yoga social media community as "as full of life and non-judgment out of one side of their mouths, and then [able] to viciously attack, judge and shame out of the other."
Kathryn Budig also mentions a recent nasty Facebook interaction in both of my classes with her. An angry commenter — who seems to be deleted from her page — attacked her, Kathryn made the rare choice to engage, and later she received a long email "begging" for forgiveness. Kathryn turns the experience into a teachable moment about looking for the light in everyone. I try to remember this when some psycho sits on my mat without asking a few hours later.
There are also practical concerns to consider. Doing it for the ‘gram can get dangerous if, say, you’re trying to copy this cliffside pose atop your boyfriend’s calves. "It’s terrifying that people try to learn yogic philosophy and asana based on Instagram," says Alexandria. "So many pictures are of transitions, and shapes that existed for a millisecond. I chose them because it was pretty. It’s art. You wouldn’t try to do what was in a painting. I know it’s happening because I deal with so many injured people."
A few people capture their poses this weekend. Mostly, they capture selfies with our yogalebs. When I reach out to one asking for an interview, her manager emails back instructions about how best to chat: "Leave the room she just taught in together so you can get away from the people who want to get photos with her and chat endlessly."
Whether they care about social media or not, class-based fitness means instructors sometimes feel a little bit famous. This person is talking at you for at least 45 minutes. In between instructions, they can motivate you however they want — whether it’s a rave about how great your bikini body will look this time tomorrow or "meaningful" lines from a poem. (Which one of those makes you want to die more?) Maybe later you go home and stalk him or her. These actually-famous instructors operate pretty much the same way, except their students are motivated. They have the memorabilia, the workshop ticket, the branded gear. They want a word of inspiration along with their selfie. With those kinds of expectations, you’d think that there would be a few disappointed customers. It could have been the endorphins or the genuine yogi peacefulness, but everyone I spoke to was just happy to be here.
Their images give off a sense of adventure and wanderlust which [are] exactly the dreamy kind of images I want flooding my Instagram feed.
Beauty and fitness journalist Julie Ricevuto took a stab at explaining how we got to this point. "For me, the best part about yoga celebrities is their [idealized], awesome lives. Tons of yogis can pop up into a handstand, but not many do it in the jungles of Costa Rica or on an Aruban beach. Their images give off a sense of adventure and wanderlust which [are] exactly the dreamy kind of images I want flooding my Instagram feed. Not to mention their incredible yoga outfits — I've shopped their look more than I'd like to admit."
The conference has a Market filled with yoga accoutrements for just that purpose. I catch myself in the act of eyeing a $98 crystal bracelet for prosperity, of all things. There’s a sweatshirt that says "Grateful Every Damn Day."One woman tells a vendor that she "almost fell over" from her powerful reaction to some mala beads.
It took almost three full days of yoga to get me on Shiva Rea’s (34.4k followers) level. Even if I’m never this zen again, at least I have a new happy place: the Gramercy room at the New York Hilton. If the manic witchy class description doesn’t sell you ("lunar asanas sequence, ball and aromatherapy self-massage, and a guided healing Savasana") perhaps you’ll be swayed when I tell you our two-hour class was conducted in the dark. Before we began, Shiva made us bring our mats closer until everyone on the waitlist could find space — a true yoga gangster move. She started class with another factoid: "There are 21,600 breaths in a day. How many of them are you here for?"
Shiva was lacking in clarity but who cared? This is the crap we all came to a yoga conference to hear. "Move to the top of your raft," she said as if my dollar-store mat could ever be a port in a storm. "Make your body into a mandala." I have no idea how to do that, but I still left feeling better than when I went in.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Seane Corn (30.4k followers) who speaks with the specificity of a zen doctor. "Your right heel should line up with your left arch," she told us in Warrior II, answering a placement question I’ve been wondering for years. "Make sure your left palm faces down, so your shoulder pulls inward," she says about a twist. I was pleased to see her two assistants meticulously pacing the crowd offering guidance — the only people I saw offer adjustments all weekend. Where other teachers were perhaps too busy putting on a good show, Seane seemed to care more about good form. At the very least, she hired people to care about good form for her while she put on a good show. She’s been teaching for 22 years and it shows: her feed includes cat pics, family photos, and tales of veganism as well as her yoga practice.
Seane is as critical of yoga celebrity as the other yoga celebrities I speak with. "If people are doing it just for the opportunity for celebrity, they have to live with the shadow of that," she says. "You have to learn to be not just a yoga model, but someone who models yoga."