Maty Ezraty was just 23 years old when she opened the original YogaWorks in Santa Monica, California. Her vision was simple but revolutionary: She wanted to create a yoga school that offered a diverse, high-quality selection of classes to appeal to a wide array of people.
It was 1987 and yoga studios typically only offered one style of yoga. But Ezraty had been influenced by both Iyengar and Ashtanga Yoga, so she knew the benefits of studying various methods. YogaWorks quickly became the school Ezraty had set out to create, offering more than 120 classes every week and serving more than 700 students each day. She also trained many respected yoga teachers, including Kathryn Budig, Annie Carpenter, Seane Corn.
Ezraty sold YogaWorks in 2004 and spent the following years teaching yoga around the world until her death in 2019. In interviews with Yoga Journal in the years preceding her passing, she shared her thoughts on the risks of commercializing yoga, glorifying practitioners on social media, and how all of us can learn to be leaders in our own right. Here are some of the thought-provoking insights shared by the pioneer in the yoga space.
I definitely didn’t set out to be a leader when I opened YogaWorks.
I created it because I fell in love with yoga, and I felt that yoga had a place in the world for helping and—this is going to sound corny—to create world peace. I wanted people to see that yoga could be for everyone. People tell me that YogaWorks was a catalyst for a lot of what is happening now in yoga—the popularization of vinyasa flow. I personally don’t think of it that way. The original YogaWorks classes weren’t flow classes. There was no linking of poses, no music. The original method was a mild Iyengar class with more heat. At some point, some teachers were influenced by music, and they brought it in and it stuck. But it was not the vinyasa flow that people associate with yoga today.
When I started YogaWorks with Alan Finger, I was a baby teacher.
I never thought of myself as a head teacher, that’s for sure. I also felt very strongly about YogaWorks being a school, not a studio. I always believed that if you had a good school with good teachers, the business would come along. I wanted to be a facilitator for the yoga teachers. There was a fair bit of hand-holding and guiding certain people to become who they are today. I thought of myself as a conduit.
I always wanted to see teachers become their best.
I had a motherly role with some of them. For so many yoga teachers, their students tell them, “You’re great, you’re great, you’re great,” and they don’t have a true mirror. I had my teachers’ best interest in mind—always. I wanted the best for them and the yoga, and I think I was pretty good at giving honest feedback. I was able to take teachers and draw out their talents.
I even played that role with some very big yoga teachers out there. I’m talking about more-senior teachers than me! They would come in for workshops and I would need to discuss with them what didn’t work, the reasons why, and how to change it. For example, if teachers had negative attitudes toward other lineages, I would have to say to them, “Look, you’re in an eclectic school. It’s fine if you don’t agree with this, but there is a way to disagree that is pleasant.” Or, if a workshop leader had an attitude of scolding in the class, I would address that.
The teachers who were open to hearing feedback and weren’t egotistical? I think we accomplished things.
I often feel pressured when it comes to teaching poses with good alignment because it is not always a popular approach.
Everyone wants to do more and have fun doing yoga. As good as yoga poses are for us, they can also be counterproductive. Yoga takes time to understand, new teachers today are not guided like in the old days. Teacher trainings are everywhere and the standards are not good. The amount of hours spent learning to teach doesn’t mean that you are ready to teach.
It can often be discouraging because I feel like the yoga world has grown so fast and that young teachers have so much pressure to fill classes. Not enough time is spent with senior teachers, so they are forced to give the public what they want. Teachers are meant to educate and young teachers today are not given enough support to take time to become teachers. I feel the pressure to support them to really teach yoga.
I think some students and teachers view my style of teaching Ashtanga as nontraditional.
It is not important to teach postures or series to people but to teach students the art of yoga. I saw the need to make changes for individuals or they would not come back to class. I would rather have someone in class and take out a pose that is not supporting them than lose them as a student. I felt that too much emphasis was on accomplishing poses and getting the next pose in the series rather than what yoga is trying to teach us, including love, kindness, and acceptance. I see that notion of “more is better” as propelling the misery of life. After all, we will all eventually have to give up certain poses, age will make us face that teaching of nothing lasts forever.
And it is not like everyone can fit into one box. People are all unique and different. I think the word “traditional” has been taken out of context: “It must be done this way or it is not ‘traditional.’” When things are one way, then we have not taken the responsibility to ask if it is really working. Questioning this can be painful because it demands that we do things in a different way or that we need to re-evaluate what we learned.
In my experience, you need to understand your tools and that some work better with different students. If I take out a block to help someone learn how to do a pose, it has nothing to do with tradition. It has to do with compassion for the person that I am teaching.
I see Ashtanga as a map and not a mandate. If we view Ashtanga as the first and second series and think we have to do the entire series in order to consider it a good day of practice, we are bound to suffer. We will have days and times in our lives when we need to do less. Yoga should support our life and not be another demand that we put on ourselves. Our practice should cultivate inquiry, sensitivity, and kindness to ourselves. If we force ourselves to stick to the series no matter what is happening in our body and mind, we have missed the whole point of yoga. Some days we might be better off going for a walk in nature.
Every yoga school or studio needs to have someone with the courage to keep to a yoga vision.
I think this takes someone who lives their yoga and will say, “Yes, this could make money, but no, it isn’t yoga.” I fear that’s not happening now. These days, if you don’t have a webpage and you’re not on Instagram, you’re not going to get the same kind of opportunities. This is not right.
If you have a yogi in the house and they see talent in a teacher, that teacher should not have to be pushed into being on social media if it doesn’t fit them. You need someone in charge who is working on a spiritual path, has done readings and research, has a practice, and is rooted in the principles of yoga—not in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), but in the essence of a yogic lifestyle.
There are many good teachers who are not famous and vital for new teachers to experience. What makes me hopeful is knowing there’s still a large audience who isn’t interested in Instagram or trends and instinctively knows what is and isn’t yoga.
It disturbs me when I see people taking pictures of themselves doing yoga at the beach. It worries me. I could go outside right now—it’s beautiful here in Hawaii—and I could walk on my land and pretend that my life is perfect. But in reality, I’m human—and I have all kinds of things going on that are not perfect. I could use my environment to completely create something that’s not real and to hook people in a way that makes them feel like their life is not as good. It’s a fantasy, and that’s what worries me. Instead, people need to get off their asses and study yoga.
It is a shame that social media is causing certain teachers to become popular. I think more often than not, those are not the best teachers.
Sometimes I hope yoga is going to break—to split into yoga fitness and more traditional yoga classes.
I hope yoga schools will invest in their teachers and help them put out classes that are not just fitness-oriented but geared toward students’ needs. Yoga is so powerful when done with that in mind. Yoga is meant to be a healing art. It is a long tradition that incorporates a lot more than just asanas.
My wish is that we can stop the image of “yoga” as an industry or just another fitness modality. I hope we stop mixing it and that we return to what it is meant to be—a healing art for the body and mind that ultimately is supposed to be leading us to greater happiness and acceptance.
I don’t think we have a lot of mentors in the yoga world.
And we’ve had some problematic leaders. We don’t have the kinds of leaders in the yoga world that they have in the meditation world. We don’t have a Jack Kornfield. We don’t have a Joseph Goldstein. We don’t have all the monks who are teaching incredibly good, solid philosophy. The meditation world has been able to take the philosophy and bring it down to everyday life, and I don’t think many of us in the yoga world have managed to do that with our texts, like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
The meditation world is rooted in the Four Noble Truths and the teachings of the Buddha, whereas yoga is rooted in asana—and that’s a problem. We are losing a lot of people in yoga because we’re in the fitness realm now. My gut tells me there is enormous attrition at yoga studios because moving from one pose to another with rock-and-roll music is not really everyone’s idea of learning about themselves. The meditation world is also less competitive; more about community. I remember first going to Spirit Rock six or seven years ago. Someone asked about where else to go to meditate, and they were free in giving so many other options. It was such a lesson for me. I thought, Wow, this is generosity, and I don’t know if I’ve always been there. This is what we need to be doing in yoga.
I think we lack master teachers who are really ethical.
What we’ve got now are asana teachers who are pretending to be masters. There is no yogi in the house who says, “I believe in this class; I’m going to support it; I’m going to educate the students that come here about the greater yoga.” Essentially we need yoga schools, not corporations. That doesn’t mean we can’t do some of the stuff that is popular now, but students have to understand there is more. Schools need adult-yogi supervision—someone who demands respect and who has a bigger vision of what it means to have a yoga school. I heard that Mary Taylor tells her students that their students are not clients. When you are a client, you get what you want. A student needs to arrive to class ready to receive what the teacher is ready to give them, as long as the teacher has the right qualifications.
There may be a role for overarching leadership in yoga, but we’re not there yet.
We’re looking for leadership in social-media personalities, publications like Yoga Journal, and conferences, which are all about numbers and not necessarily about teaching. I think there are some good yoga teachers out there—Judith Hanson Lasater, Donna Farhi, and John Schumacher, for example. They are out there. They don’t necessarily all agree, but I think they are rooted in a deeper sense of yoga. These are the people who should be sitting on boards and leading. It doesn’t mean that we negate the new vinyasa flow–music stuff. We can include it, but we also need to educate the yoga community that there are more possibilities. Right now, we give an insane amount of power to Yoga Alliance. I am sure it does some good things, but I think it is also responsible for some ill information. You do not need a yoga credential to be a good teacher.
If we’re giving the message that you can take a 200-hour training and be a teacher—and at 500 hours you can train teachers—we have a problem.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for four years and you’re charismatic, that doesn’t mean you’re ready to teach teachers. It’s true that I started very young and fast. I’d been practicing for four years before YogaWorks and teaching for two. But the difference was that I thought of myself as a baby. Even now, I’ve been teaching yoga for 31 years and I barely feel ready to teach teachers.
It has taken time for me to let go of YogaWorks.
I felt that the people who bought it—white, male, corporate America—weren’t wise. When I sold YogaWorks, there was not one yogi or female on the board of directors. They didn’t understand what it was; but they thought they did. (It has since gone through another sale, and I don’t know the new owners.) At the same time, I was very young when we started, and I know I didn’t have enough business skill. My issue was that I took things personally. But had I understood, had I been more solid within myself at the time, had I known what I know now, I could have kept it and moved it in the right direction.