‘The teacher cupped her crotch. She never went back’: when yoga turns toxic
From my very first downward dog, I was hooked. But training as a yoga teacher led me to a miserable world of false promises, exploitation and near-total burnout. Could I find my way back to the mat?
In a steamy room in a high-end London gym, I roll on to my right side and open my eyes. A soothing Aussie drawl emerges from the darkness, telling me to sit up, bring my hands together and remember the universe is fundamentally supporting my soul. Everyone here has taken a lunch break from our media, PR or marketing jobs to take this class. Our bearded guru, A, speaks as an Eddie Vedder song plays in the background and I feel a deep sense of relief. For a minute there is peace. In two more, we’ll be ripping off Lycra in the highly charged changing room, before rushing back to our desks with a tiny portion of soup from the chain next door. But for this one minute, three times a week, I feel calm. I feel calm because A looks me in the eye and says everything is going to be OK. I’m not thinking about how my body looks, if the boy I fancy is in the office today, how anyone else’s body looks, what my boss thinks of me … I am simply in the moment. I’m 23 and this is my introduction to yoga, the moment I found myself ready to sign up for everything it could offer me. I had no idea it was the start of a 10-year rollercoaster of giddy highs, miserable exploitation and physical and emotional burnout.
I was enchanted by “the yoga world” and mesmerised by yoga teachers in general. The incense, the candles and the vague platitudes about the meaning of life were intoxicating. I was at the end of my first relationship and a year into an exciting job at a running magazine. I had no idea what I was doing and felt perpetually out of my depth. I was facing my first ever houseshare after years living with my boyfriend, and I was putting all my anxiety into running. My increasingly unhealthy relationship with food and exercise needed a channel, so why not make it spiritual? Yoga wasn’t just a hobby, it could be a way of life. More than anything, I needed focus. And while most sensible people my age were experimenting with ecstasy and staying out all weekend, I was hellbent on finding my highs elsewhere.
Hungry for more yoga, I found a female teacher to idolise. She was a perfect combination of thin, bendy and conventionally gorgeous, while also appearing deep, aloof and mysterious. I would lie on my mat at the end of class as spiritual music echoed through the room, letting quiet tears roll down my face, and pray for her to rub my temples with lavender. A serious injury acquired in a marathon sealed the deal: working for a running magazine when running had left me with a broken femur felt wrong. I was burnt out. I was going to become a yoga teacher.
The first step towards my new career was to ask A for recommendations. He led me to B. Because I am impulsive and impatient, I went to only one of her classes and decided on the way home to apply to the 200-hour, 10-month training that was about to begin. I lied about my experience on the application because a year of gym yoga wasn’t impressive enough – but luckily that doesn’t really matter when you are transferring £3,000.
My yoga teacher training sent me to central London rather than the beaches of Goa, sadly. There were 15 of us on the course, all women. I was the youngest; the rest were either single and childless and freaking out, or married and deep into parenting and freaking out.
The course was a glorious mix of red flags and life-changing moments. B was a miraculous creature who could quite literally fold herself in half. She wore jazzy leggings covered in unicorns and peacock feathers, which were having a moment back then, and she had natural glamour and authority. She was white and European, but had been deeply entrenched in yogic philosophy for a long time. She was the real deal, but, boy, was she problematic. My coursemates and I worshipped her, but also loved to bitch about her during our secret junk food picnics. It was how I imagine drama school to be. Think crawling around the studio floor being cats, extreme intimacy with others, crying in circles. It was wildly chaotic but there was a strange kind of method to it. Something like breaking us down to build us up. We’d spend a weekend each month in her studio, then return to our lives wide-eyed and changed.
I was having the time of my life. I made new friends, I found I was quite good at teaching yoga and I learned a whole new value system. The teacher encouraged us to eat mostly fruit and vegetables. Whenever someone had genuine flu, she would say they were shedding layers or purging. I became a vegetarian and flirted with veganism, and I started to alienate my boyfriend by preaching yogic philosophy every time he had a problem. We all graduated with certificates enabling us to do this as a job if we wanted to, all while hugging and dancing around lentil salads and date-based treats (which in time, I came to learn, are not treats at all). The Yoga Alliance is the closest organisation to an official governing body in yoga, and it is recognised globally. But while most yoga studios require teachers to have a minimum 200-hour certificate and be insured, there is very little regulation of individual training courses, so the content and quality varies hugely.
When we finished, B advised us to build our teaching gradually so as not to burn out. She warned against trying to make a living from it anytime soon. But I decided to do the exact opposite, and immediately quit my job. Somehow it paid off, in part because of my relentlessly hardworking nature, but mostly because this was before doing yoga training became a craze, so there was still plenty of work available. Undoubtedly the biggest factor was that I was 24, amenable and commercially viable.
I said yes to absolutely everything, and cycled around London teaching a ridiculous number of classes. I made friends with a few influential people who helped open doors. I got into a few of the cool studios, and gave my heart and soul to every class. I’d make a new, stirring playlist every week and try to keep up with the fast-paced, dynamic classes studios were calling for. For a while I tried to replicate the style of the most popular teachers, and in my spare time I signed up to the hardest classes and bent and sweated myself into the most obscure shapes. But no matter what I tried, people would come to me at the end of class and say that was nice and gentle, or they’d leave halfway through because it was not sweaty enough. And I got injured all the time: my body felt bad, I was swollen, sore and still not able to get anywhere near a handstand.
The most popular teachers taught borderline gymnastics classes and had Instagram followings because of their sweet, hot abs and astonishing physical abilities. And let me just say: it’s not normal. The relative ease with which certain bodies can do certain shapes is most likely due to hypermobility or a childhood spent doing gymnastics. The rest of us muggles can try a thousand times harder and never achieve it, or do so only to the detriment of our long-term health. But this kind of physical expectation made its way into mainstream classes; anyone can walk in from their normal job to a vinyasa flow class and find themselves hurt – or mortified.
In my first few years as a yoga teacher, I was susceptible to any fad going. I was seeking answers, and wherever I turned there was someone claiming to have them. It was during this period that I became immersed in some of the darker sides of the yoga industry. Yoga will always be more emotionally high risk than something like pilates because of the way it intersects with spirituality. I became obsessed with a style of yoga that certifies only teachers who train directly through its practitioners for triple the usual price. I was a regular at the 90-minute, sermon-like classes. These teachers have to sign a contract for lifelong veganism and are encouraged to preach on animal cruelty and moral code. Chanting was also a big part of the practice and I became enamoured of the haunting sound of the harmonium (a portable Indian reed organ); it didn’t cross my mind that 30 white people chanting to Krishna on a Thursday evening in north London could be problematic, because it felt so good. I followed one teacher on a retreat to Norfolk, then India, and found myself bowing down to her commanding nature, desperate to impress her with how long I could hold a headstand for. Over dinner one night she declared that all yoga teachers should be able to hold one for at least a minute. The rigid and challenging sequences left me with a back injury. Out of action, I found myself on another quest for answers.
And I found two. One was a dance-like style of yoga that gave me a lot of joy, until I found myself in a power struggle with the founder and only teacher of the practice. I was attracted to C, his presence in class and sexual energy, the attention he gave me, so I didn’t question the details of the training he was offering. After I’d paid thousands of pounds to train with him in his garage, I started to realise that there was zero syllabus and we were at the mercy of his whims. I was punished for asking challenging questions and it ended explosively with me storming out one Sunday morning. The other was yoga therapy. I completed six months of the two-year training. At first it ticked all the boxes of yoga being used for health and healing, until I realised we were being trained to open people up emotionally, but not how to deal with the consequences.
Next, a gut-wrenching breakup led me to D. D’s classes at a prestigious London yoga franchise were highly popular. Even off-peak classes on Tuesdays at 10am had a waiting list. Because I didn’t want to look as if I was trying too hard, I’d wear baggy clothes and roll my eyes at the crop-top huns in their handstands (that I still couldn’t do if I tried). But I was drinking the Kool-Aid and it tasted delicious. D could charm anyone. If you were lucky you’d get a nickname (I did); some people would thrive on his gentle mocking and some on simply being noticed (me). Once, after a Zoom class during the pandemic, D texted me saying, “I love you facing the camera when you come out of that back bend. Like you’re coming up on a pill.” I felt both excited and self-conscious; I’d been in my bedroom and unaware he was watching me among the 50 other people in the class. I’d wanted his attention but suddenly seeing this message felt like a step over the line.
A friend told me that he once assisted her in a pose in his class by cupping her crotch. She froze and did nothing, then never went back. It was his thing, to walk around the room and assist everyone in different shapes. I was desperate to be touched by him and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. The atmosphere was outrageous because everyone is half-naked, listening to loud club music and being pushed to their physical edge. The release of endorphins was leading to some seriously questionable behaviour. I thought D and I were friends because we’d text between classes, but some weeks he’d be distant and I’d leave feeling desperate to re-establish our special relationship. Competitiveness fuelled the room and people did not smile at each other. It was so toxic, it was flammable. But then something happened in my personal life that meant I wasn’t up to practising hard yoga, and in that period the illusion crumbled.
Yoga breaks our hearts because it promises so much. I realised that as a teacher I was deliberately curating intense playlists and saying provocative things for a reaction. Is that ethical? Last year a man in his mid‑40s who had been attending my classes for a couple of years developed a very unhealthy attachment to me because of the way I looked at him and the things I said in class. It escalated to a scary place and I’m not saying it’s my fault, but in these positions of power and authority we have to be careful. We are not simply describing a lunge, but preaching a way of life.
A peer of mine developed a problematic attachment to a teacher. Their relationship became dangerously codependent and I watched a cyclical dynamic play out: student seeks approval of teacher, teacher either grants or withholds approval, student works harder, teacher demands more affirmation, everyone goes home hungry.
The financial limitations involved meant yoga teachers had to be ever more entrepreneurial to make ends meet. Competition created a constant looming threat of losing popularity and thus work, leading to a trend for teachers to run self-invented training courses to make some decent cash. The problem was that these courses were centred around healing and self-work. I watched several friends be pushed to their emotional limits, encouraged to do a kind of therapy-level soul excavation. Only this teacher wasn’t a therapist; she hadn’t done the appropriate training and she wasn’t being regulated within a wider system.
If you, like me, are one of the many wide-eyed students for whom yoga becomes more than a hobby, you may have been drawn to the promise of “healing” – only to discover practices that would send shivers down the spines of anyone who hadn’t already lost their mind to pranayama (that’s breathwork, to mortals). The industry is so profoundly unregulated that any charismatic individual can have a transformative experience, decide to turn it into a course, a methodology or an event – then sell tickets to desperate people.
Some years ago, I signed up to a week-long bodywork training course, hoping to brush up on anatomy and restorative touch. On the fifth day, a shamanic South American tobacco product called hapé was being blown into the nostrils of everyone on the course. I declined, after watching person after person break down in tears and tremors, and knowing I had to get the overground home. Hapé use dates back centuries and originated among Amazonian tribes. It is potent and powerful. I’ve seen it many times, this chasing of transformational experience, the pushing of deep, potentially traumatic triggers to make people break down just in order to “feel something”. It comes with the territory, for yoga teachers, and I’ve watched it send people into various states of mental instability in the name of healing.
Ever since the west hooked on to yoga in the 70s, it has been big business; the industry is now worth more than $100bn worldwide. For decades, people with narcissistic personalities have created styles of yoga and developed impenetrable cult followings. In my experience, both big-chain yoga studios and small businesses are problematic. Teachers are universally underpaid and often asked if they don’t mind sweeping the studio on their way out. Young women are the most vulnerable because we are trained to say yes and never ask for more, so we don’t, and when we pluck up the self-respect, we are replaced. An absence of sick pay, maternity pay and something as simple as a contract also creates a fearful culture and leads to burnout.
I recently set fire to the last remaining bridge I had with a yoga studio and now, for the first time, I work only for myself. After eight years of service, I had the same wage and absolutely no security. My bosses were looking to replace my peak slot with a more dynamic class because power yoga sells more. Spiritual platitudes were sent my way via WhatsApp, telling me to let go of the past and not hang on, and I laughed out loud at how only in the yoga industry would that wash. It hurt my feelings even though I’d experienced endless versions of this in my career. And what hurt the most was realising that all of it – the years of trying to help other people feel better, lighting candles, rubbing heads with lavender, listening to people open up at the end of class, planning new and interesting ways to teach the same thing, cycling through the wind and rain at 6am, giving when I was sick or heartbroken, choosing the perfect music to create a deep experience for the room, smiling endlessly, being warm, nurturing and gentle, pouring thousands into more training, trying and trying and trying – crumbles to nothing if the numbers aren’t right.
I’ve started practising yoga again. It tends to be me sandwiched between my desk and dresser in my pyjamas. Small snatches where I’m interrupted by the dog or the Amazon delivery man. Sometimes I light a candle or some incense and remember the feeling I used to get when I discovered yoga for the first time. I breathe, and listen to my old playlists, and feel something. It’s been more valuable than ever to have this time to practise the things that work for me, and leave behind the rest. Even though I’ve seen the other side, I still believe yoga has the power to help understand the human condition. It didn’t save my life, and thinking it will save yours is the beginning of a slippery slope, but you know what: taking the time to move and breathe – that’s always worth doing.