Unapologetically, Kathryn Budig
This beloved yogalebrity reflects on the contradictions she’s had to embrace creating a yoga brand, battling injuries, and moving from asana icon to mindful chef.
"That's me" Kathryn Budig says, almost in a whisper, nodding at a merch display.
Budig, 36, takes a swig of water on the sidewalk outside Method 29403, a pilates-based studio in Charleston, South Carolina, where she has just sweated, squatted, and lunged her way through a 40-minute class. The advertisement adorning the check-in counter is of Budig in an advanced back-bending yoga pose.
The other women in the class, most of them anyway, had been unaware that they had just worked out with someone who, to millions of devoted yogis, is famous.
The surge in yoga’s popularity in the United States over the past two decades—especially on Instagram—has resulted in the most American of concoctions: the yogalebrity. Among famous yoga instructors, Budig’s star may be the brightest.
She has become known to, and loved by, legions through almost a decade’s worth of classes on YogaGlo, the monthly subscription streaming platform; the books and magazine articles she has written; the social media presence she has built; and the workshops she teaches around the world. She is thought of as someone who takes alignment and mindfulness seriously, but not herself. Making silly faces as she demonstrates Bakasana (Crane Pose) or Navasana (Boat Pose) sit-ups with ease and humor, she has endeared herself to yogis and marketers alike as an all-American-yoga-teache rnext-door, Debbie Reynolds meets dharma.
Some time ago, Budig may have wished to have been recognized in that pilates class, or almost anywhere. She studied theater and literature at the University of Virginia and moved to Los Angeles after college, hoping to make it in Hollywood. But she ended up finding fame on a different sort of stage— the world of Western yoga, which has become inhabited by avid, even rabid, students who look upon favored instructors as gurus and travel hundreds of miles to attend workshops as if they are rock concerts. As her renown grew, Budig also became a savvy entrepreneur, forging partnerships with Under Armour, cosmetics companies, jewelry designers, and more, becoming what is today known as an influencer. She had a personal brand before that was a thing for yogis.
It was taxing. At her busiest, Budig was traveling internationally four times a year and was on a plane to somewhere for a workshop or other yoga event at least once a week. She filmed classes for YogaGlo about once a month, which required long days in front of the camera and hours of prep work with producers. She was writing for the wellness website Mind Body Green, contributing to Yoga Journal, and was an editor for Women’s Health, for which she also wrote Big
Book of Yoga, published in 2012. Then there were the website and social media feeds that needed to be fed, with photos, essays, and healthy recipes.
Of course, this was all in addition to the physical rigors of maintaining a leg-behind-your-head practice (that ultimately led to a shoulder injury) and a “camera-ready” body. She approached eating with discipline. Her curves were something she battled not celebrated.
She came to struggle with the dissonance between the
yogic messages of acceptance and non-attachment that she shared with students in her work and the messages her physique conveyed.
“You’re not doing the world a favor because you’re telling people, ‘Oh, this is what I always look like because I’m in such good shape.’ No, you just starved yourself and worked out all day long and probably have been sitting in a hot tub or a sauna,” Budig says, rummaging through a cupboard in the kitchen of her bright, lofty home in Charleston. “I was guilty of doing that to a certain extent when I was younger. I mean, we all want to be perceived as beautiful. And I think, especially when you’re in a career like this, people expect you to be a certain body type.” If any of this is difficult for her to discuss, Budig gives no indication. She is relaxed and calm in her kitchen.
She also grappled with yoga-world fame. On one hand, she sought it and relished it. “I am a human with an ego and I appreciate accolades and being acknowledged,” she says. But it ultimately became a source of unhappiness.
In 2008, four years into her yoga career, she modeled for the photographer Jasper Johal in a series of photos for a ToeSox ad campaign, in which she posed wearing nothing but socks. The photos were carefully shaded and discretely angled so that you couldn’t see everything … but you still saw plenty. The ad campaign helped lead to her celebrity and to her becoming a target for derision.
Sometime after the ads appeared, they drew criticism in blog posts and news articles. In 2009, Waylon Lewis wrote about it in Elephant Journal, a publication he founded: “Sex appeal can be a turnoff when your market is 85 percent women—it can come off as cheap, sleazy, patriarchal, shallow, frivolous—something you don’t want to do with a demographic that would never call itself a demographic, but prefers community, kula, sangha.”
Accusations of sexualizing yoga and objectifying women stung Budig. “That is the opposite of what I’m about, and it was really painful for me,” she says. “Fame is a capricious monster. When you acquire fame, you are stripping yourself of having people really know you. You become someone else’s interpretation of who you are.”
Budig realizes that by seeking attention, as one does by posting to social media and engaging in other forms of promotion, she opens herself up to the nastiness and trolling that have become endemic, even to platforms like Instagram. “You put yourself out there and that’s what you set yourself up for,” she says.
Yoga instructors, particularly yogalebrities, live amid dichotomies that don’t exist for most other professional athletes or entertainers. They are expected to embody yoga philosophies that the asana practice is supposed to get us closer to perfecting. This does not allow for having ego, envy, or professional and financial ambition.
“Teachers aren’t exempt from the human experience,” says Seane Corn, herself a famous yogi who has been a mentor and friend to Budig for a decade. “It can be difficult to make mistakes in the public eye. People have higher expectations than we can sometimes live up to. We are committed to the path of self-realization. We are teaching non-attachment. We are teaching to put love before fear. But we are in human form, and there is ego to all of it.”
For all these reasons, and a few more, Budig is acclimating to a new phase of her career—one that is less visible.
She has settled in Charleston, a city she loves and where her parents now live. After a difficult marriage and divorce, she plans to marry again this fall—to espnW and ESPN reporter and commentator Kate Fagan. Budig is traveling far less—hitting the road once a month to teach and traveling to LA three to four times a year to film new YogaGlo classes. When she is home, she spends much of her time expanding her career focus to cooking, an activity that seems to both calm and animate her. She is experimenting with recipes, thinking about writing a cookbook, and filming elaborate mini cooking
shows that she shares with her 220,000 Instagram followers.
“For a long time, I was looking for happiness from success,” she says. “Now I am looking for success from happiness.”
Dressed in taupe, shiny yoga pants that pull down over her heels, and with her hair piled atop her head in a small blond tornado, Budig is making breakfast after “hella hard” pilates (as she rightly calls it) in her sun-strewn house. The kitchen is sleek and modern, with a gray tile backsplash and dashes of color coming from her stacks of cookbooks and well-organized kitchen accessories.
Budig is trying to recreate a yogurt parfait that she tasted earlier in the week. She understands flavor and is an add-a-pinch-of-this kind of cook. “Let’s add a sprinkle of black sesame seeds,” she says, drizzling them over coconut yogurt, blueberries, shredded coconuts, and cacoa nibs.
Then she pulls out a black tray from a countertop food dehydrator and starts arranging perfect triangles of shriveled up watermelon that she has dusted with TajGn, a condiment of dried lime and chili-pepper salt. The watermelon rinds were saved in a jar; she plans to pickle them later. “It’s a Southern thing,” she says.
Budig was raised in Lawrence, Kansas, where her father served as chancellor of the University of Kansas before the family moved to Princeton, New Jersey, when he took a job as president of Major League Baseball’s American League. Her mom and dad didn’t cook much. “My mom would make us some queso with Velveeta cheese, which was delicious, but I wasn’t really getting
the culinary experience at home,” she says. But the parents of her high school boyfriend were foodies, and she began to take note of techniques and ingredients. “I would watch them cook and think, ‘What is this magic?’” she says.
She continued to spend time in the kitchen in college and in LA, where she also began to explore farmers’ markets and tiny shops selling delicacies. She cooked whenever she was home and indulged in the restaurant scenes of the cities she visited.
By 2016, Budig was committed to the ideals of nutrition and enjoyment of food as a component of yogic wellness. That year, she published her book Aim True: Love Your Body, Eat Without Fear, Nourish Your Spirit, Discover True
Balance!, which brought together asana, meditation, homeopathy, and recipes. She hoped it would help launch her as an influencer in the arena of food and cuisine, but it didn’t sell as well as she’d wished. Disappointed, Budig shelved her career aspirations around cooking and moved to Brooklyn to be with Fagan before they decided to relocate together back to Charleston in 2017.
It was truly living in Charleston—rather than crashing there between flights to yoga gigs—that made her ready to re-integrate her love for food into her career. “I’m really lucky because Charleston has a huge food scene,” she says.
She hopes her yoga students will follow her into the kitchen. “This is just my happy place,” she says, standing by her dining table. She looks at her kitchen like you can imagine she may have once looked at her yoga mat—as a blank canvas for creativity and self-expression. “There’s something cathartic for me, to cook at the end of the day, and I love every aspect of food. I love eating it, I love tasting it, I love smelling it, I like shopping for the produce, I like the history behind where things come from, I love feeding people, I love going to restaurants, I love drinking, I love pairing wine and food, and I love enjoying it all.”
Just as food moved from a passion to a professional pursuit, yoga, for Budig, began as a side-hustle.
By her senior year in college, she was attending yoga classes twice a week. Upon moving to LA, she knew she would need to find a job to support herself as she worked her way through auditions, so she started a teacher training at YogaWorks. “I thought I would go in and it would be this fun workshop. I had no clue that I had gone to the Mecca of yoga,” she says.
The first few days, there were hours-long asana practices and discussions of yoga philosophy with Maty Ezraty and Chuck Miller, two of YogaWorks’s founders. “Everything was in Sanskrit. It was difficult for me, because I just kind of felt like, Wow, I don’t even know what I’m doing. They adjusted every little thing. Then after that first weekend, I was hooked.”
As she practiced and began to teach, Budig continued to work on her acting career as well. Nearly everyone she met told her she was talented but that she needed to lose weight and get her teeth straightened. She met with a manager who said, “Well, at the weight that you’re at right now, you could be the funny best friend,” Budig recalls. “And I was easily 10 to 15 pounds lighter than I am now.”
She was teaching classes at both of YogaWorks’s Santa Monica studios and quickly became an in-demand private instructor as well. About 18 months after arriving in LA, she decided to focus entirely on yoga. It was a kinder, though still competitive, profession that also relied on stage presence and showmanship.
By the end of 2010, after the ToeSox ads and the broad exposure her YogaGlo classes and social media had provided, she was one of the best-known yoga teachers in the country. But the culture of LA was getting to her. “It’s so vapid,” she says. “It’s a selfish city. People go there to make it big—in the
Here are a few of Kathryn’s favorite spots: Charleston’s Historical Battery neighborhood, Pancito & Lefty Mexican restaurant, Hampton Park, and Leon’s Oyster Shop (and soft serve). “Charleston is everything. I can take a class, walk our dogs in a historic park, work from home, hit the beach, see my parents, and eat at an award-winning restaurant, all in the same day,” says Budig.
yoga world, in the acting world, everything. Then there is a physicality to all of it, and everyone just torturing themselves to look beautiful and fit, and it’s very triggering for me.”
She got out of LA in 2011, moving to DeLand, Florida, to be with a man she fell for—literally. They met when he was her sky-diving instructor. They moved together to Charleston, where they were married, in 2014. But it was a difficult marriage from the start.
Just before the wedding, Budig traveled to Dana Point, California, for an espnW Women + Sports Summit. She met Fagan there, though they only interacted in the conference sort of way. Budig sat in on a discussion Fagan moderated; Fagan attended a yoga class Budig led.
Fagan, also 36, hadn’t practiced much yoga before the conference, but it was her introduction to a physical pursuit that is as much a creative expression as an athletic one. “The creativity I aspire to in writing is what I see from her in her yoga classes,” says Fagan, who appears frequently on ESPN’s Outside the Lines and is the author of the 2017 best-selling book What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and
Tragic Death of an All-American Teen. “When Kathryn would demonstrate these poses and I still didn’t totally understand what to do, she would use metaphors, and language, and descriptions that I thought were extraordinary.”
The next year, at the same espnW conference, they reconnected. Budig was taken with the journalist and former college basketball player. “I got to hear her lead a panel, and she is just so smart. She really stood out to me. We swapped numbers and we ended up texting each other every single day, and it was one of those things where I felt like, ‘Oh no, what if she doesn’t text me today?’ And I knew.”
It wasn’t long before Budig and her husband decided to separate. Part of a close-knit family, she has always relied on her parents and two (much older) siblings for support. First, she reached out to her mother. “I told her that I’d fallen in love with a woman and I didn’t know what to do,” Budig said. She worried her mother would take issue with her being with a woman. “My mom said, ‘Of course I don’t care, I just don’t understand the sex part.’ ” (“Fair enough!” her daughter replied.)
When Budig told her dad about the end of her marriage and about Kate, she was visibly nervous. “When I finally told my dad, there was just a lot of buildup for me, and I was really scared.” Her father said to her, “Kathryn, if you think this would upset me, then you don’t even know who I am.”
Kathryn settles in
On Saturday morning, a day after a chilled-out Friday spent at pilates, in the kitchen, and on the front porch, Budig wakes up early for a photoshoot for Asha Patel Designs, a jewelry maker. Then Budig and Fagan head, in their Mercedes SUV, to the Daily, a hipster-ish market and coffee shop. Budig drives, Fagan navigates. At a table littered with green juices and chia bowls, they sit on the same side, holding hands. Budig is wearing a white jumper and sneakers and some makeup from the photoshoot.
They are trying to focus on a bunch of projects that will root them home in Charleston together. After working with espnW for the past year on Free Cookies, their Podcast about sports and wellness, they are now producing it themselves in Charleston with more of a focus on food and pop culture. They are also planning their autumn wedding at a favorite restaurant in town, with Budig’s mentor Corn presiding over the ceremony. And they are thinking about having a baby.
All of this means less travel for Budig and far fewer workshops and classes. She knows it’s jarring for some students, but she hopes they see that just as they grow and change through yoga, so too does she.
“I think in this day and age, a lot of people who’ve been successful at a young age are asking, ‘What do I do now?’ And giving people permission to follow what lights them up for the next stage of their life is important,” she says. “You know, you don’t have to keep doing the same thing just because you did it well. I think that’s how people become numb.”
To that point, she is taking a lot of pilates and barre classes to help address her injuries. When she does go to yoga, she looks for a spot in the back corner of the room where no one will notice or recognize her and she can do her own thing.
Fagan is helping Budig make the professional shift toward food. “I would be honest with her if I didn’t think this was a good idea. But I have seen her acuity in the kitchen. She has a unique set of skills,” Fagan says, “It’s a tough transition. It can be difficult when you want to be one thing in the world and you’ve been something else. The world gets really sticky.”
Corn is encouraging her to take the risk, too. “Kathryn’s role in well-being seems to me more broad than teaching asana,” Corn says. “I never thought that yoga would be the only way she would support people in their own transformational growth. She is a creative person and no one who is an artist should be relegated to one form of expression.”
It’s not just that Budig wishes to spend more time building her culinary career. She is also questioning the safety of a very regular, very rigorous asana practice.
“As someone who used to put her feet behind her head all the time and just go into these really absurd poses, I have a lot of questions about what I even think is OK for the body and how far we should be taking it. How do those poses get me any closer to enlightenment or doing something good for my body?” Budig says.
She remains focused on the philosophies of yoga— non-attachment and being in the moment—and how they connect to her love of food.
Budig’s sister, Mary Frances Budig, says she has witnessed Kathryn build her career with determination and now sees her going through a process of re-evaluation. “In your 20s and 30s, you are learning who you are,” says Mary Frances, who is 16 years older than Kathryn. “When you have confidence in yourself as a professional, as Kathryn rightly does, you can narrow in on what you really want to do with your life. Kathryn loves food, and she loves yoga. But she also loves having a home and having Kate in her life. She is in a place where I think she is most authentically herself.”