Yoga Teachers Behaving Badly

Yoga Teachers Behaving Badly

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Summer Chastant created and produces a web series meant to expose and parody the yoga industry.

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Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

The opening scene of the fictional web series “Namaste, Bitches” starts with some very un-yogic behavior. Sabine, a yoga teacher and recent transplant to Los Angeles, is driving on the freeway and is cursing repeatedly at her GPS while smoking a cigarette — hardly a model of Zen healthy living.

This is intentional.

The show is meant to both expose and parody the multibillion-dollar yoga industry. Conceived and produced by Summer Chastant, a former yoga teacher herself, the series, she said in a phone interview, is a heightened version of her own experience. She taught the discipline in New York and Los Angeles at studios including Kula Yoga Project and Pure, from 2007 to 2013, and apparently saw some things.

Sabine, a teacher played by Ms. Chastant, snorts lines of cocaine, sleeps with a student (in the studio) and calls another teacher “a slutty bitch” to her face.

One may think it is insensitive to parody the yoga world after two of its titans, John Friend and Bikram Choudhury, were accused of sexual misconduct by their students. But the series has struck a nerve, perhaps because the yoga teacher behaving badly here is a woman.

The first season’s six five-minute episodes have been viewed over 160,000 times across a number of online platforms since it was released on Nov. 15. Ms. Chastant, 36, said she had been approached by producers about taking the series to television. Whether or not such a deal materializes, she takes satisfaction in having become a confidante for yoga enthusiasts who relate to her portrayal.

Ava Taylor, founder of YAMA Talent, an agency for yoga teachers in New York City, said: “I think the show is resonating because it’s almost an exposé. People are realizing their yoga teachers are human. Is there anything in that show I’ve never seen a yoga teacher do? No.”

Story lines examining some of the less virtuous parts of the yoga business — such as low wages for apprentices who spend three years sweeping floors for nominal pay before being allowed on the teaching schedule, like one character on the show — are also prompting reflection.

Raghunath, a popular yoga teacher based in the Hudson Valley who was formerly a punk rocker by the name of Ray Cappo, and a mentor of Ms. Chastant’s, said: “I think the community at large is ready for something like this series that shows the weird, peculiar things that happens when things go mainstream. I hope it promotes a great kind of introspection.”

Ms. Chastant, who made the series on a budget of $20,000, also shines a light on the competition for business in a growing industry. There are now 4,000 studios in the United States registered with Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit association of yoga studios, up from 2,500 in 2012.

In one episode, Radhe (pronounced “Rod-hay”), the owner of the fictional studio Namaste Yoga, applauds Sabine for tearing up the flier of a new studio that is opening two blocks away.

“Like a lot of people, Radhe is someone who is attracted to a wealthy lifestyle and also wants the spiritual aspect that comes with yoga,” Ms. Chastant said. During one scene, Radhe is incredulous that she had to fly coach on a tour promoting her new book, “Gratitude India.”

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A screengrab from the comedic web series “Namaste, Bitches.”

Credit
Subject to Change Productions

Through “Namaste, Bitches,” Ms. Chastant and her cast members, some of them real yoga teachers, examine many of the paradoxes and tensions that have come with the Westernization and commercialization of the ancient physical practice (though thus far they have not addressed the “appropriation” issue that led the University of Ottawa to cancel a free class).

On one hand, Radhe encourages Sabine to be very goal-oriented. Her mantras are “Build your following” and “Have you thought about branding?” But she also encourages teachers to practice abhyasa, the Sanskrit word for nonattachment to the outcome.

What “Namaste, Bitches” strives to highlight about contemporary yoga culture is how far it has strayed from its core tenet: conquering the ego. Today’s practitioners, far from renouncing their earthly possessions the way previous generations of yogis did, now pose in pricey designer togs, sharing online photos of themselves and tagging them #yogiselfie.

Karen Shelley, a yoga teacher, said she was invited to “audition,” like an actress, at a studio in Brooklyn after a staff member saw her Instagram feed. (Though “it features just as many cat photos as yoga pictures,” she hastened to point out.)

As one character on the show says, “Teaching yoga is about projecting an image.”

“The ancient guru-shishya relationship in India was meant to offset inappropriate behavior,” said Eddie Stern, a veteran New York-based yoga instructor who has a long list of celebrity students, including Madonna. “Without the system of checks and balances that the teacher, or guru, is supposed to provide, the student can become proud, and that feeling of pride leads to the subtle idea that ‘I am free to behave as I want,’ which is not spirituality, but hedonism.”

Pride and ego are everywhere in “Namaste, Bitches.” Social media is portrayed as the new holy grail in yoga, not one’s ability to recite the sutras. And Ms. Chastant thinks this is a shame. “Teachers in the Western world are increasingly hired by the number of Instagram followers they have,” she said. “That is kind of the antithesis of yoga, which is all about being selfless and being of service.”

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