Heard the One About Yoga and Life Coaching?


Life coaching has emerged as a new wellness profession and is being closely associated with yoga. What was once mostly the purview of corporate managers trying to maximize the productivity of their workforce has become a mainstream way for individuals to catapult their careers, break free from 9-5 jobs, and create richer lives. But this forced marriage is fraught with problems and doomed to fail. For the relationship between life coaching and yoga is too often rooted in superficial trappings rather than the soul of the matter.

In a recent episode of the edgy Showtime series, Ray Donovan, the wife of a Hollywood agent/mobster is having coffee after her weekly yoga class when another woman from class sits down to join her. She mentions that she has sometimes seen her crying in class, explains that she is a life coach and begins to probe her about her marriage, asking if her husband is emotionally supportive. Ray's wife becomes uncomfortable and asks, "What are you my fuckin priest?" The life coach presses even further questioning why she wouldn't want to live a truly "heart-centered" life and be free. To which, she ups and leaves with the retort: "Nosy cunt."

Harvard Business Review reports that "coaching" is now a $1 billion a year industry. The International Coach Federation (ICF), a leading global organization and professional association for coaches, defines coaching as: "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential." As in the yoga industry, anyone can legally refer to themselves as a life coach without any need for credentials. Jennifer Corbin, the president of Coach U, one of the largest and oldest coach training organizations in the world, admits: "Technically, anyone can hang up a shingle as coaching is not regulated. There are 'schools' that will offer a credential after three hours of training and people read a book or watch a TV program and decide 'I'm a coach!'"

For the yoga world, scarred by the misgivings of leading figures in recent years, life coaching seeks to fill a void. Having someone who is not a guru so much as an advocate, someone practical and professional, only interested in tangible results, is particularly appealing when you’ve been burned by cults of personality.

According to a prominent coaching group: “People hire a life coach or take one of our life coaching courses because they want positive results in their lives, fast. We all desire certain things out of life and it is not always easy to accomplish these goals on our own. Sometimes it is just downright impossible! Your coach will not buy your excuses and will hold you accountable for accomplishing what YOU say you want." A common theme among life coaches is that you must stop operating as a victim and make a deep commitment to “freedom.” Also, that the coaching relationship is not a friendship, but rather a unilateral dynamic that is exclusively focused on you and your goals, not on the coach.

A number of life coaches are marketing themselves as yoga-based. The angle revolves around the idea of connectedness, that feeling connected in the way that yoga enables you to becomes a basis for the work you do with your coach. Yoga is an internal experience that happens on the mat, often in a pool of sweat, and the coaching is where you actually make important things happen in your external life. Life coaching carries with it a different set of expectations from those of yoga teaching. The less than engaged relationship that exists between most modern yoga teachers and their students has created a market for an alternative or addition. However, if yoga teaching requires supplemental life coaching, this suggests that there is a disconnect between the physical practice and its actuality in our behaviors.

At its best, life coaching is a more affordable form of pop cognitive behavioral therapy. At its worst, life coaching is nothing more than a pyramid scheme that exploits our wounds.

There is little doubt that making changes to ones life patterns is not easy and often requires outside reference. Nor that having a feeling of connectedness emboldens our ability to address obstacles and experience more fulfilled lives. And the role of yoga practice and its application to life is certainly open to interpretation (see When Yoga Empowers.) But capitalizing on the positive effects of yoga practice to encourage a results or goal driven way of engaging life is highly questionable.

In the context of teaching yoga, I have had many interactions and conversations that played a substantial role in myself and others making clear and favorable determinations as to the course of our lives. I know first hand that consistent practice, combined with constructive and intuitive dialogue, happening in a professional and informal setting, can have a profound and useful impact. But too many people calling themselves life coaches are offering little more than enticing platitudes.

Yoga does not lend itself to bullet points and is only really communicated through the mutual friendship and affection that exists between two people. When yoga practice serves its intended purpose, direction in life and the skills to meet challenges are the inevitable result. The testament of yoga practice is found in the actions and circumstances that are reflected.  



J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.