Yoga teachers don't usually become famous. In fact, we often think of them as underpaid, underappreciated, benevolent imparters of wisdom who receive satisfaction from seeing their students shine. It says a lot about the revved-up state of the modern yoga scene, then, that some of its teachers are becoming megastars. Yoga purists are understandably fretting over the presence and clout of these über-teachers; those who believe yoga should reach as far and wide as the arms in Triangle Pose, no matter the form or messenger, are thrilled.
Often known by their first names—Rodney, Baron, David, and Sharon, among others—these teachers are spoken of in a giddy, reverent hush by those who love them. Accompanying their fame are sold-out yoga classes and retreats, television appearances, and now, for some, six- and seven-figure book deals. But are their books really adding to the practice?
For the publishers of these works, the biggest question may be: How do you make a book detailing a timeless practice of hard work sexy and sellable? This challenge is not to be underestimated, even with a yoga craze in full swing. The publishing industry has learned that books with a simple, easily discernible self-help agenda—and, apparently, numbers in the titles—sell. Three new books by yogi celebrities promise such simple self-help: 40 Days to Personal Revolution: A Breakthrough Program to Radically Change Your Body and Awaken the Sacred Within Your Soul, by Baron Baptiste (Fireside/Simon & Schuster); Moving Toward Balance: 8 Weeks of Yoga with Rodney Yee, by Rodney Yee and Nina Zolotow (Rodale); and Happy Yoga: 7 Reasons Why There’s Nothing to Worry About, by Steve Ross (ReganBooks).
Baron Baptiste, the author with the most ambitious title of the lot, is known for extreme yoga: His students practice vigorously in 90-degree heat, and he holds several eight-day yoga "bootcamps" every year. The son of yoga pioneers Walt and Magaña Baptiste, he is also known for his extreme marketing: In addition to teaching celebrities and football teams, he has starred in infomercials to promote his videos. The bandanna-wearing king of Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga, he also received an extreme advance—reportedly $2 million—from Simon & Schuster for two yoga books, the first of which, Journey into Power (2002), has about 85,000 copies in print.
Baptiste divides his most recent book into two sections: The first half comprises 12 chapters, each devoted to a "Law of Transformation"—for example, "Step Out of Your Comfort Zone" and "Relax with What Is." Each chapter in the second half is devoted to one of six weekly goals, such as "Vitality," "Restoration," and "Triumph." asana sequences and sections on diet and meditation are included in the individual chapters, and Baptiste provides a detailed description of the benefits of the poses, along with alignment tips and modifications. As the asana series gets progressively longer (extending the workouts from 20 to 90 minutes), he offers connecting vinyasas between the poses.
When he sticks to the yoga, Baptiste comes across as a reliable teacher, providing a solid blend of detail, caution, and encouragement. It's when he wanders into subjects like nutrition, colonics, and spiritual growth that he missteps. When he recommends a three-day fruit fast, he cites no studies, quotes no nutritionists, and skimps on important details. At best, readers will wonder about how much water to drink during the fast. (He says only to "stay completely hydrated.") At worst, he may be putting people in danger.
By comparison, in Moving Toward Balance, Rodney Yee—who stars in best-selling yoga videos and has appeared on Oprah—sticks to what he knows: practice.
Yee and coauthor Nina Zolotow are evenhanded in this thorough, sober guide to developing a home practice.The title phrase "moving toward" implies process and ease. And that's what readers will find here—although ease doesn't always mean easy. Yee asks readers to dedicate an hour a day, six days a week, to yoga, and he presents a structured, eight-week program of postures, breath awareness, and meditation. Each week is dedicated to a transformational tenet, reflected in the chapter titles, such as "Being Present," "Opening into Vulnerability," and "Changing Orientation." A set of asanas is at the heart of each: "Allowing Receptivity" is all about twists; "Being Present" explores standing poses.
Each week also includes an anatomy session and three versions of every single pose—Yee says to do all three variations, in succession, when learning them. The final section is dedicated to customizing a practice—tips include doing yoga with injuries, sinus infections, and depression. There is also advice about props, clothing, and where to practice.
The authors' goal is clear: They want to help readers create a rewarding, lifelong practice. Fair enough, but there's something missing here: the playfulness of Yee's first book, Poetry of the Body (St. Martin's, 2002), which devoted whole pages to poems and included banter between Yee and Zolotow. (That book sold more than 110,000 copies, which is surely what led Rodale to pay Yee an advance of approximately $350,000 for this one.)
Out in Brentwood, California, is Steve Ross, first-time author and host of the yoga show Inhale (on the cable-TV channel Oxygen). Described by the Los Angeles Times as "the single most controversial figure in L.A. yoga," Ross—who has been teaching for about 20 years—knows how to stir up a crowd. This is surprising given his low-key teaching style, which on his show mainly consists of occasionally laying a hand on a glossy-lipped student and shouting a rare instruction over really loud Motown, pop, and hip-hop.
Ross also seems to be shouting over loud music in his debut book, Happy Yoga. Like Baptiste, he has gone the all-purpose route: He declaims about the evils of dairy, the joys of laughter, and the nature of love. He also gives unsubstantiated nutritional advice: "SAM-e is a potent antidepressant with no side effects." That's interesting but unfortunately not true: Although SAM-e is often a successful antidepressant and has far fewer side effects than pharmaceuticals, researchers have found that it can trigger manic episodes in those with bipolar disorder and can cause nausea, headaches, and heart palpitations in others.
Despite this semireckless advice, the book has a playful voice, though it is sometimes hard to take, especially when Ross is discussing gender "programming": "Studies show women are attracted to wealthy, powerful men of almost any age. What does wealth look like? Women just know." Oh, really? He also notes that studies have found that "men are physically attracted to younger women, specifically smiling younger women." It's unclear what this kind of pseudosociology is doing in a book about yoga.
Ross provides minisequences that correlate to each chapter's topic: "Yoga Postures for a Sleek Form" appears in the chapter "You're Not Fat (and Neither Am I)." A sequence of "Postures for the Heart Chakra" is tucked into the "You Can Have True Love" chapter. The asanas are described briefly, sometimes reflecting the laissez-faire approach Ross takes on his TV program. For example, regarding Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), he says, "Look up unless it hurts your neck, in which case, don't worry about it."
But we may indeed have something to worry about. It's one thing when teachers offer imprecise advice face-to-face: The student whose neck hurts may receive an adjustment and be shown a proper alternative when the teacher's hands and eyes are nearby. But practicing movements from a book is something else altogether. Wedging the book open with a nearby paperweight, glancing down from awkward angles—all while trying to breathe, feel, and learn new ways to move—is difficult enough when asana descriptions are detailed and accurate. With vague or confusing instructions, someone can get injured—or, more likely, frustrated and bored.
Of course, it's entirely possible to build a practice through a combination of in-person classes, videos, and books—if you find books and videos that aren't beset by a common flaw that erodes the authority and accuracy of some celebrity yogis: hubris. The author of the most oft-cited yoga book in the tradition was aware of this ancient danger. "Egoism, the limiting sense of 'I,'" wrote Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra, "results from the individual intellect's attributing the power of consciousness to itself." Anyone considering writing a book about yoga would do well to pin that quote to the wall before putting pen to paper. And anyone buying a book about yoga would do well to scan for hyperbole, sweeping statements, and big promises. Yoga can be easy, fun, and life-altering. But it takes more than reading any one book to find that out.
Valerie Reiss is an editor-writer in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vegetarian Times, and Science and Spirit.