Does yoga belong on reality television? That's the niggling question we have heading into Sunday's premiere of Yoga Girls on Z Living. The "docu-soap" features a cast of nine yoga teachers on L.A.'s trendy "Westside" and creates drama by pitting "traditional" yoga teachers against social media-driven brand-builders who are searching for "Insta-fame."
Meet Some of Yoga Girls' Cast Members
"I love television. And I love reality TV. And the reason why I was 100 percent comfortable doing it is they let me be 100 percent honest," says cast member Jesse Schein, 43, a senior teacher at YogaWorks in Santa Monica. Schein has studied with Maty Ezraty, Annie Carpenter, and Vinnie Marino, and says she's on the "traditional" side of the yoga teacher spectrum. "[The show] presented itself as a study of human relationships, and that has always fascinated me."
Schein says the show naturally uncovers entertaining drama and tension by placing nine dynamic, outspoken, but very different yoga teachers in a gorgeous location, then sitting back and watching what goes down. "There's definitely a huge divide in the community and the industry at large. The brand-building social media superstars are more about a method of teaching that's about performance. They lack background, education, and knowledge...it's not a high quality of teaching," she argues. "Some of the best yoga teachers in the world are in Santa Monica (where the show takes place), and the length of time they've committed [to yoga] is longer than some of the newer [teachers] have been alive. If you really want to build a respected career and study with these more senior teachers, you have to be committed, patient, and exceptionally good...this doesn't happen overnight. It takes 10,000 hours."
However, Schein feels some of her castmates on the "brand-building" side of the spectrum are more concerned with taking the perfect bikini yoga photo to post on Instagram or selling their products than becoming great yoga teachers. "There is an opportunity for so many of the young, beautiful, and bendy to become wildly successful with branding, social media, and building themselves. It's an opportunity for people to be instantaneously famous," she says.
Schein also notes that in this particular Hollywood-centric, cutthroat yoga scene, many yoga teachers are aspiring actors and models, or at least aspiring to do something else beyond yoga (nutrition, life coaching, etc.) "When you say I’m a yoga teacher and you have 10 other things on your resume, my eyes will roll. You can’t be high-quality if you're dedicated to 10 things at once. I’m a yoga teacher—that's it. I don’t claim to be anything else," she says.
Elise Joan, 41, is one of these so-called "Insta-girls" who is building a yoga brand as a program creator and expert for Beachbody, Livestrong, Fitbit, and more. She also has her own website, elisejoanfitness.com, with patented tech that allows users to create their own workout playlists. Joan was was originally a singer and dancer in New York, but discovered yoga when a vocal injury cut her career short. She says her most influential teachers have been Rudy Mettia, Jonathan Fields, and Shiva Rea.
"I lost my physical voice, but I've really found my true voice sharing my passion for all of the benefits of yoga with anyone who will listen," Joan says. "There is intimidation around yoga—I wanted to allow everyone to benefit rather than keeping it to an elite group of purists. My belief is to do that effectively, you have to focus on education. [I studied with] some of best yoga teachers in the world...when I felt I had the tools to share yoga in a different way, that's when I started to think about bringing the business and idea of yoga online. I think it's imperative [to use social media to share and promote yoga]. Do you want to reach 60 students in a class or 60,000 on social media? I’ve been able to make my whole career and income come from yoga because I’ve moved on to these media."
And while Joan says she's not the type to post bikini yoga photos, she totally supports her castmates who do. "I love what they are doing. I see them and I think, 'Oh, I want to look that good in a bikini.' They inspire people in their way, and I think that's fantastic."
Sophie Jaffe, 33, is one of those bikini-yoga-photo posters, and she's proud of it. Jaffe has studied with Baron Baptiste and Tamal Dodge. In addition to being a yoga teacher, she's also a certified raw food chef with her own superfood company, Philosophie.
"The women on this cast, we are all really good humans who can also sell ourselves and sell our products," she says. "Wearing a bikini while doing yoga doesn’t take away from our genuineness and wholeness. The more traditional side is maybe looking at it from a negative perspective, [like we are] selling out in some way or not respecting yoga. I don’t even see how that's possible when I'm sharing yoga in such a digestible way for the mainstream community."
Could Yoga Girls Bridge a Divide in Yoga?
After wrapping season one of the series, Schein concedes that she now sees some of these "brand-builders" in a new light.
"Some of the people I want to puke from because I really believe they are bullshit. Others...I started the series not being able to tolerate Elise, and we ended up being friends. She has the education and background and she went with the times—she didn’t stubbornly reject it and become a purist."
Schein also admits that the show is helping her do a little brand-building herself.
"I am very successful with what I do, but it caps off and I stopped making more money. This show is great advertising. I want to fill retreats and I want more offers. I have a kid—I want to send him to college. I want a season two."