Namaste, Bitches: Online comedy series skewers the stereotype of the spiritually pure yoga teacher

Sophie Morris hears why its creator decided to reveal the more sordid side of the studio

I wasn't expecting the slapping-down that I received about six years ago, while doing yoga teacher training at a north London studio. I had asked the tutor, a revered man in late middle age with a long beard and a costume of flowing white robes, what I thought was an innocent question.

"Why," I enquired, "does it seem that Yogi Bhajan (the founder of a modern style of Kundalini yoga, which he popularised in California in the 1970s) is idolised as if he were a god? I thought we weren't supposed to idolise other humans."

The tutor lost it. How dare I criticise Kundalini, its practice and, most of all, his dear, departed friend and mentor?

To give you some context, one of the set meditations in this type of yoga is to stare at a photograph of the aforementioned Yogi Bhajan for up to four hours. It seemed to me, inexperienced as I was, that his followers were...well, worshipping him.

More surprising at the time, was the way my question so angered the tutor (it turns out that the guru, Yogi Bhajan, was a controversial teacher who had faced allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse). Now, however, I've done yoga for long enough to work out that most teachers don't exist on a plane of calm, cool collectedness, and can be persuaded towards a pint or three, even on a weeknight. They are rarely (with some inspiring exceptions) examples of genuine #cleanliving. You might see sugar and substance-free models of goodness, who are light of ego and blessed with compassion for all things on Instagram, but in the flesh they tend to be just like you and me. Which is the inspiration for an original online comedy series, Namaste, Bitches.

Summer Chastant is an American former yoga teacher who began to feel that all wasn't quite right with the holier-than-thou image presented by many in her field. So last year she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a web series about "the underbelly of the yoga world". That series came out late last year. Set in Los Angeles, the six short episodes introduce us to the world of west-coast yoga, where teachers are hired on merits such as the size of their Instagram following.

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'Namaste, Bitches' is created by and stars Summer Chastant, left

The lead character Sabine is played by Chastant, who also wrote and is executive producer of the series, which she now hopes will make it onto TV. Sabine smokes, sleeps with a student, loves getting high and is, shall we say, in touch with her anger (sample quote, yelled at high volume in the street: "Lying, corporate yoga slut!"), but yearns for more honesty among her fellow teachers. "Namaste", by the way, is a Hindu greeting often used at the beginning and end of yoga classes. It means many things, but can be translated as "the divine light in me acknowledges the divine light in you", or "I honour the spirit in you that is also in me". It means much more than "hello".

Chastant isn't trying to stick two fingers up at yoga, although perhaps former colleagues might recognise themselves as "the slutty bitch from the studio" or the "yoga freaks" Sabine needs a break from: she loved teaching and still practises every day. But she is asking teachers and studios to lighten up a little, and to be more authentic instead of setting unobtainable models for students.

"This is a humorous representation of my observations of the industry, and although based loosely on my personal experience, I've taken creative liberties to exaggerate characters and situations for comedic effect," she says.

"As a teacher, you have the opportunity to orchestrate an experience for every class, and to connect with everyone in the room on a very positive level. I struggled with the idea that, as my business grew, I needed to fuel it in ways that didn't seem authentic to what I was representing or what the practice was about – such as using social media and constantly trying to recruit students."

Most of the teachers and studios I approach don't want to comment on Namaste, Bitches. I guess they don't get the joke. Cheryl MacDonald, the founder of yoga franchise YogaBellies, is made of stronger and smarter stuff. "Any yoga teacher who thinks they are morally superior is not really getting what yoga is all about," she says. "No human being is 100 per cent perfect. We're all on the same path at different stages, and being a yoga teacher doesn't make you a better person; it just means you're at a certain stage in your journey."

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Most yoga teachers and studios don’t get the joke, says Chastant

She finds Namaste, Bitches "hilarious". "If you can't laugh at yourself, then what's the point?" she asks. "It is obviously a parody with lots of exaggeration – but, yes, I have seen all of these characters in the community at one point or another."

Of course, we do want to be inspired by our teachers. Would you really be more accepting of a yoga teacher who smells of gin and chicken shops, just because they're not hiding their habits? (Sabine is nothing if not honest: "I need a drink. I've got one more class to do and then I can get wasted".)

But there's a happy medium between authenticity and oversharing, and the reason that Sabine is so funny, in additional to the swearing, squirm-inducing characters and faux-spiritual skewering, is that she never quite grasps this.

CONFESSIONS OF A LONDON-BASED YOGA TEACHER

I've taught while hung over. But most of my 'sins' are outside the classroom. Even coming to yoga was a bit of an alternative choice, and I think it often attracts those who don't necessarily hold morals in too high regard but want to find their own truth, experiment and perhaps question what is dictated as right or wrong. By doing so, we can learn about ourselves much more than we can by being told about it. So part of being a teacher is to help students to be who they are.

I love doing all sorts of what might be considered immoral things, because they are part of being human. And part of being me. I don't feel I have to tell students about all of this, because it is important to be inspiring but also honest. I teach yoga, breathing, alignment and so on, but compassion and right choices, just like flexibility, are a by-product of the practice as a whole.

Anyway, I'm horrible to my boyfriend when I'm tired.

I shout at the cat. And I enjoy giving him a bath every now and then.

I do not practise every day.

I sometimes resent teaching for taking away the secret enjoyment of my own yoga.

I'm self-conscious and increasingly egotistical.

I don't really like the yoga scene, because it is not edgy enough."

Namaste, Bitches

 

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