what’s the line between ego and service?

Sometimes readers email me to shoot the breeze about yoga stuff.  Last week a reader and Facebook friend wondered about this (he gave me permission to quote him.)  He said:

“I had a conversation with my mentor…whom has been my connection to the Krishnamacharya lineage.  We were discussing the effects of traditional systems vs. Innovative systems, most specifically the relationship between Ego and a teacher’s “need” to innovate.

Obviously one of the key features of Krishnamacharya’s teaching was the importance of adaptation of the practice to suit the individual…..and American teachers seem to be very good at adaptation….but that adaptation seems to be more about their own ego and “self value” in creating the newest and most “effective/clever” system of Yoga.

I’m not really asking a direct question, but more your thoughts, maybe you’ve written something of similar subject?  I figure your being connected with KYM, this is something you guys discussed?”

Interesting discussion!

I actually have never written about this and in all my times at KYM, this topic has never come up.  If I understand the question correctly, it is:  where does the ego and service, so to speak, separate?

I can’t comment on what other teachers “invent”….Anusara, Forrest yoga, etc.  Does it come out of their ego on wanting to control or change things?  I don’t know.  Someone once said that I created METTA YOGA.  Did I?  I don’t know.  I say that Metta Yoga is the Yoga of Awareness, i.e. being awake to reality, all the good and especially the bad, our shadows.  All I know is what informs my practice:  trainings at KYM, with Srivatsa Ramaswami, Buddhism.  “My” yoga is all about the breath, meeting people where they are (both aspects being totally KYM), being aware of what is happening now (the Buddhadharma.)  Yoga, for me, must contain pranayama and meditation for it to be called Yoga, but that’s me, that’s the lineage in which I study.  Am I going to totally spin the teachings to suit my own purpose?  No, because to me Real Yoga (and I don’t care if that phrase upsets people) is about Transformation and Healing.

We all know what happened with John Friend and Anusara…karma?  And people applaud Ana Forrest’s “new” way of teaching — isn’t it supposed to be a bit more therapeutic now?  I’ve been teaching that way for years, i.e., about watching what comes up, digging down to face your demons.  In my opinion, she did not come up with anything brand new.

No one called Krishnamacharya a “yoga therapist.”  When I was in India this year, A.G. Mohan told us that Indians did not come to see Krishnamacharya for “yoga for fitness”, i.e., purely asana practice.  They lined up literally down the street to see him for yoga for depression, bad backs, and other conditions.  He did not teach “yoga therapy”, IT WAS JUST YOGA.  So did he change what he learned from his gurus?  Of course he met the individuals where they were, we know that he taught Iyengar, Jois, and his son Desikachar differently because that’s how those styles evolved.  But did he make up something that was dramatically different from what his gurus taught him?  I don’t think so.

All I know is that I must meet people where they are and as Desikachar has said, whatever happens, happens.

What I do know is that in the end, it’s all the same, really.  What did Friend create?  Anusara is Iyengar inspired and he put a new spin on things, his whole tantra-esque thinking is nothing new, he just made it sexy palatable for Westerners.

After I responded, the reader went on to say that “the direction American Yoga is moving in is pretty darn interesting.  In fact, over contemplating your email, I started wondering what drives most Western yoga students to become “teachers” in the first place, let alone trying to reinvent their “own” system.   Part of it, I’m assuming, is the ego wanting this seemingly luxurious life of being a yoga teacher……because let’s face it, the way most Americans work their lives away pretty much sucks!  The American Dream has essentially become Corporate Slavery.

I think Americans turn to Yoga because it almost seems like a way out.   In a way, it’s a very distorted approach to Moksha!
The other reason I think students are going the “teacher” route is that it kind of offers students a way of deepening their own Yoga practice/sadhana — [quoting his teacher] “teaching is a fierce sadhana”.   Ain’t that the f%$#ing truth!  I think American yoga students do want and are hungry for more than just “asana classes” so why not go through a teacher training course!  They are always also described as an “opportunity to deepen one’s own practice”!  I think the American yoga community is maturing enough as a whole to realize there has to be something more to yoga than just asana…..hence so much innovation and crazy weird shit happening in yoga classes.

As bad a rep as the Guru principle has received in the US, I think it’s a missing element.  The idea that a teacher has done the long hard journey and come back to help others along.  Not to say they are totally missing….but I think there is a lack of very experienced teachers amongst the yoga population here.  And the ones that are around are too busy traveling around teaching workshops to thousands of students around the country rather than working closely with a student for a long long time!”

I absolutely agree that the the missing piece is having a Guru or at least a long-term relationship with one teacher which I kinda sorta wrote about here:   https://lindasyoga.com/2012/03/29/whos-afraid-of-the-big-bad-guru/

As for everyone doing teacher trainings, I personally think there are TOO MANY teacher trainings.  It feeds into what I wrote about babies teaching babies….https://lindasyoga.com/2011/08/03/babies-teaching-babies/ — which ironically has a video of John Friend!  Hey, who knew, right?  😉

As for yoga teacher trainings helping someone to “deepen” their own practice….really?  In what way?  Always?  For everyone?  I tell my students that if their path is the length and width of their yoga mat, that ain’t much of a path.   How are you treating people, what are you saying to people?  “Deepening your practice” is a loaded phrase.

I believe that teacher trainers do a disservice in taking everyone into their training, like those who have been doing yoga for a month.  Uh, no.  If I did my own training my requirement would be one year of solid yoga practice, at least once a week.  I am damn old school.  I was a student for 7 years before I became a teacher, not 7 weeks.

Another question to ask is, is yoga teaching a job or a way of life?  I know what it is for me.  I don’t care anymore about “success”, I just feel blessed to teach the students who seek me out in my home shala.   I did not want to come back from India this year, I wanted to stay in India and study study study.  On that false merit of prestige and “success” as a teacher:

“What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.


Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.


Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.”

Talk amongst yourselves.

13 thoughts on “what’s the line between ego and service?

  1. Interesting post! My Dad bought me the book this week “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”…in it Susan Cain talks about the American “Culture of Personality” and how it developed. Sounds a lot like yoga teachers’ need to ‘innovate’ and to be seen as unique/distinctive….when yoga is just such an internal practice. If we’re deeply rooted in the internal and our intuition suggests adapting, it seems to me that is fine, but if it comes out of a desire to please or to “attract” it should be questioned. I’m enjoying the book a lot! Thanks for your post!


    1. yes, it IS an interesting question!

      all I know for myself is that the longer I practice/teach, the quieter and the less “out there” I want to be be….


  2. All I know is that after teacher training you’re nowhere near ready to teach, no matter what they tell/promise you. You never know who shows up in class. They might have pre-existing conditions, a history of injury, all sorts of things. No beginner should mess around with people’s bodies. The only thing we get out of that is the “can yoga kill you”-discussion around the book of NYT writer W. Broad.
    I’d say: forget making a living with yoga for a while and spend a year or so assisting. After teacher training, that is.
    Thanks for this post!


    1. thanks for reading! the thing is, I don’t know any trainer of teachers who would say that (about assisting.) I’ve seen newbie teachers literally rub their hands together and say “I want to adjust people!” after a 200 hr. training.

      Yoga in America.


  3. Whoa Linda…awesome blog! Can’t believe this is the first time I’ve ever checked it out (Definitely going on the blogroll). I totally agree with you.
    Ego vs. service – biiig disconnect here in the Western po-mo yoga scene! Lots of lip service to seva, lots of real motivation from ego.
    I’ve been to way too many vinyasa classes taught by babies (and I’m a baby myself), so many classes that have made me want to walk out in the middle, so many classes that just have absolutely no structure or sense and that are formatted with no understanding of alignment or using the body in a safe, structurally sound and economical way. Basically I’ve been annoyed by so many classes that I’ve ceased the yoga tourism and I pretty much stick to Ashtanga because at least I know what I’m getting myself into!
    It would be a very good idea for the multitude of teacher training programs out there to have some stricter policies for admittance….If people really want to “deepen their practice”, they should do just that…practice more!
    Anyways, thanks for wonderful contributions to the yoga blogosphere…I’m a fan.


    1. thanks so much for reading…and welcome!

      “If people really want to “deepen their practice”, they should do just that…practice more!” — OR, instead of doing a teacher training, mentor one on one with a teacher they resonate with, in the old school way…


  4. Love it!!! Here is proof that you really do listen to and love your readers :). I do believe the American yoga community has so much potential, but it seriously needs to be put back on track. People are ready for more than just asana, and it’s the responsibility of the experienced teachers to point students in the right direction…..instead most studios say “Oh! You want more? You really should consider doing our teacher training course!”. And the rock star teachers are doing no justice…..they, along with a 200hr training for a couple grand, are making it look like an easy way to become a mini celebrity!


  5. I agree. I don’t think there’s really anything to invent. There’s just people overlaying on top of yoga their personality, charisma and/or entrepreneurial skills. There’s “new” philosophies which are really nothing new. In my experience (and opinion), the best teachers are the ones who don’t lay claim to doing anything but teaching what they’ve learned from their teachers. Who learned from their teachers. And so on.

    Sure, we all have our own experiences as practitioners but still – they aren’t new. People have been using yoga for transformation purposes for who knows how long, right? So when did that turn into a branding exercise?

    What’s more, I wonder and worry about the quality of teacher trainings. Online trainings, really? Become a yoga teacher in a few weeks or even just one month?

    My own Guru (YES, I have one!) would say that when a teacher/guru falls it’s because they lost their foundation or groundedness… or basically, they believed their own hype and got lost in the power trip.

    Another thing I wonder about – the second or third generation of yoga teachers who’ve learned from these people who have “invented” their own system. If the foundation of this invention doesn’t come from a true lineage, and if there’s an integrity problem with the teachings… then what are the second or third or even fourth generation of teachers from that school actually learning, and then teaching to others?

    Teaching yoga is a special job. It’s a service calling, and it’s an honour to assist people to find their own connections to their bodies. I think the whole idea of rock star yoga teachers is an antithesis and in fact, we don’t really have them here in Australia at all.

    I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: in Australia, yoga is still just yoga. Thank goodness for that!


  6. I’m up here in rural Northern New England and what I see of yoga in my area doesn’t line up with the reports about Big Yoga that I read online. Where I teach the practice is centered on the wellbeing and progress of the students. But if the wider yoga scene across the country is reflective of how we are as a society and is driven by ego and prestige, I wouldn’t be surprised by that. It’s ironic though isn’t it. Yogis should be headed the other direction with their ego centeredness. But I have to believe that the yoga tools of transformation will still work wherever they are conscientiously employed. And I think that Linda and her guests here are good proof of that.

    Speaking for myself, I reflect often on my mission as a teacher in service to my students. Teaching is “fierce sadhana” indeed, and I could get caught up in admiration of my own fierceness if I didn’t keep bringing myself back to the inquiry on service. Excellent post and comments. Thank you.


  7. Such an interesting post, thanks Linda.

    I definitely think there are too many YTT courses out there. They let you out with just 200hrs, not really ready to teach, and you are expected to go off and be successful. Well, that’s what you think anyway!! I think part of the difficulty stems from this moment – you step out of the course expecting to be able to teach and immediately trying to find your ‘point of difference’ compared to the hundreds, thousands of other teachers out there. In our world today, marketing is king, so we automatically start to consider how we can market ourselves to become successful and build our classes etc. I think this is why we see so many people trying to constantly reinvent yoga, or rediscover a ‘missing’ element – they are simply trying to set themselves apart from the pack.

    I do agree that it would be better if teachers could spend much more time learning in one particular style, with a guru essentially. Personally I’d love to do more training with Mark Whitwell, and head to India to study with Desikachar!! Trouble is, I don’t make enough as a yoga teacher to afford these trainings, or the time off I would need!! Catch 22 is that I need another full time job that takes up my time, or I need to market myself and find my ‘niche’ to sell myself in order to make enough money as a teacher. Tough to do both…Though I’m still going to try.

    Lots of food for thought in this post and comments, thanks!! Love your blog, I could (ok, I have) spent hours on here reading instead of studying for university as I should be doing 😉 keep it up!!! xx


  8. After six years of practice I took the plunge at did a YTT in India recently. I didn’t take the course to become a teacher, I took it it “deepen my own practice”. What a joke! All it did for me was make me question the whole machine that is the yoga industry. What was most shocking to me was the lack of understanding the majority of my fellow students had of Ashtanga or yoga in general and how many of these people were going out into the world with shiny new certificates to teach yoga. I love that people are getting turned on to yoga and in my case Ashtanga, but I am terrified that with 200 hrs and a yoga holiday can send forth teachers into the world. My own practice continues to evolve, because I nurture it. At almost fifty years I know that good things take time and hard work, I wonder what will happen to all these newbie teachers given time, it feels like a bit of a fad to me.
    Linda Sama, I think that you rock! Keep on shooting from the hip.


    1. thanks for reading!

      “All it did for me was make me question the whole machine that is the yoga industry.” but that questioning IS a deepening of your practice!

      yup, I get it. It is damn scary how many people think that only after 200 hrs they can teach (and yes, I dare to say this because of how long I’ve been teaching — it’s called paying your dues!) I have to say after my first training, I was damn scared and thought, no way can I teach! and I certainly wasn’t rubbing my hands together dying to give adjustments to people (heard a newbie teacher say that.) I started my 11th year of teaching this month and even after 6 trips to study in India, sometimes (tho not as often anymore) I still question myself.

      “What was most shocking to me was the lack of understanding the majority of my fellow students had of Ashtanga or yoga in general and how many of these people were going out into the world with shiny new certificates to teach yoga.” Last year when I was at KYM I was shocked at the questions some of the people who said they were teachers asked. I thought, my students would not even ask such questions. Made me wonder what they learned in TTs.

      anyway, not my problem, there but for the grace of god. I teach what teach and let others walk their own path….


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