Sex, Lies and Yoga.

Via on Aug 12, 2010

When corporations rule, they sometimes hire sexy ladies to promote yoga as fitness. And when corporations roll out the yoga mats, the real essence of yoga—to realize physical wellbeing, mental balance and spiritual enlightenment—is sometimes being severely misrepresented.

To misrepresent something or someone is similar to telling a lie.

In the yoga ethics of satya, we learn that to tell a lie, or to say something that is not serving the greater good, is contrary to the spirit of yoga.

Corporations are about making money. And when corporations rule, they care mostly about the bottom line— about making more money. Indeed, they’ll do next to anything to serve the bottom line. They’ll even tell you that you need ToeSox to practice yoga.

But if you point out the obvious, that Patanjali never used or encouraged ToeSox, then they’ll tell you that they’re really not into selling these ToeSox, they’re actually just into selling artful photo-ads of naked women who just happen to like using ToeSox.

Go figure.

What I actually have figured out is that yoga and corporate capitalism do not mix well. They are like oil and water. Or fish out of water. Something like that.

We learned this in the recent debate about Yoga Journal. The corporation which now owns Yoga Journal, Active Interest media, will keep using sexy women to push yoga-as-fitness if that serves the bottom line best, wrote one of its former ad executives here on Elephant Journal recently. Even if the editors of the same magazine think otherwise, he wrote.

It actually made me think of the CEO from Monsanto I heard on NPR who grows organic veggies in his backyard and pushes corporate poison down people’s throats at work. This kind of job situation just creates split personalities.

Indeed, mixing corporate capitalism and yoga is like dealing with a split personality.

We have seen the same trend in the sustainable business movement. You pick up a jar of Cascadian Farm organic strawberry jam and you think you are buying a product from some wholesome, hippie outfit in the Northwest.

But if you dig a little deeper in the organic dirt, you’ll learn that the hippie founder of Cascadian Farm has become rich by selling the outfit to a giant corporation named General Mills, the world’s sixth largest food company.

In other words, sustainable Cascadian Farm sold out to a not-so-sustainable outfit located far away from that original barn on the wholesome-looking label.

Something similar happened to Yoga Journal. This magazine also gradually sold out to bigger and fatter corporate interests, and finally to Active Interest Media, which owns over a dozen magazines, including American Cowboy, Backpacker Magazine, and Muscle and Performance.  Yes, Cowboys, Backpackers and Big Muscles, and Skinny Yoginis.

Go figure.

But here’s the problem. When the owners of a business spend most of their time in far-away corporate boardrooms, they surely spend much less time picking organic strawberries and practicing the deeper essence of pranayama.

So, they’ll be happy to serve us a pack of sex, lies and yoga-lite. If that makes their bank accounts fatter.

Some people, including members of the elephant community, have recently called me elitist and judgmental to point these things out. Well, then I’m happy to be guilty as charged.

Indeed, there is a kind of elitism in yoga, is there not? If you believe that some hatha yogis are more advanced than others (with or without yoga pants, that is), that some yogis may reach enlightenment like that Buddha fellow, while other half-ass yogis don’t. That’s kind of elitist, is it not?

But that’s yoga. That’s what yoga teaches. Yoga teaches us that there are higher and lower states of consciousness, higher and lower states of being. Even higher and lower energy centers, such as those totally elusive, never-to-be-seen chakras.

So, yes, yoga is full of elitist, hierarchical stuff. From koshas (layers of mind) to chakras, from student to teacher, from disciple to guru, from beginner to advanced. All kinds of ways to divide and discriminate.

To discriminate, or to judge, is called viveka in Sanskrit. This is also an important aspect of yogic wisdom, to discern between what is truth and what is not, to discern if an action or habit is beneficial for one’s spiritual growth or not.

So, yes, yogis are taught to discriminate, to judge between right and wrong, to judge between something as infinitely important as yoga with or without sox.

So, surprise, to all those who think that yogis should not speak out if they see something they do not think serves the greater good, or the greater goal of yoga.

Yogis are also activists. Sacred activists. Spiritual activists. We aspire to use our heart, mind and spirit to serve the greater good.

Yep. Even yogis sometimes peel off the corporate, greenwashed jam labels in order to get to the truth.

Yep. Even yogis will stand up against those dumb ToeSox just to get a skinny, yogi leg up on those corporate Muscle and Performance guys pushing all that corporate sex, lies and yoga.

About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes was born in Norway and lived for nearly three years in India and Nepal learning directly from the masters of tantric yoga. He has written extensively on tantra, yoga, culture and sustainability, and his articles have appeared in books and numerous magazines and newspapers in Europe and the US. His forthcoming book on Tantra will be published by Hay House India soon. He is currently contributing editor of New Renaissance and a columnist for Fredrikstad Blad, a Norwegian newspaper. He lives in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Visit his blog here: Eight Fold Path. His book Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit: A Personal Guide to the Wisdom of Yoga and Tantra can be purchased here.

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30 Responses to “Sex, Lies and Yoga.”

  1. Linda-Sama says:

    In light of the recent YJ advertising brou-ha-ha, I reviewed some old blog posts about yoga & advertising and found this comment in my post about yoga and race from three years ago… .http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2007/08/color-of-yoga.html :

    "Personally I think American yoga reflects American culture–so there's ageism and body-type discrimination as well as racism. And the more popular yoga becomes, the more mainstream, the more it takes on the qualities of the "mainstream" as it is represented by the media: white, upper-middle class, young, hip, thin"

    "Sex, Lies, and Advertising" was written by Gloria Steinem for Ms. Magazine in 1990 — still relevant today… http://depts.uwc.edu/wmsts/Faculty/steinem.htm

  2. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Nice one Ramesh. It's again refreshing to read a passionate articel promoting the true essence of yoga.
    I've posted it to the EJ facebook page.

    • Ramesh says:

      Thanks! But you did not LOL, Ben?
      I put some humor into this one, and I hope readers get that, as well. Serious subjects, but not so serious that we can't laugh about them.

      • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

        Yeah, nothing is too serious to laugh really.
        Many years ago, before I discovered Yoga even, I had a drama teacher who used to repeat:
        "Never lose your sense of humor" :D

  3. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Barbara Nock: Enjoyed reading this…. (from EJ Facebook page)

  4. Hanky-Panky O.D.O. says:

    Thank you for your insightful piece. Anytime someone promotes Viveka in Yoga one realizes a different intelligence is operating. In Vedanta, the story of mistaking a rope for a snake is used to illustrate one of the central dilemma's of Yoga. More Yogi's need to understand the misapprehension of reality to teach us all. Viveka is the tool we all need to be skilled with.

    • Ramesh says:

      Hanky-Panky,
      thanks for your insights on viveka. As you know, there are five types of yogic conscience, or viveka. You've inspired me to do a blog on that some time in the future!

      • YogiOne says:

        I wonder if the practice of viveka has evolved, especially in light of the many ways science has given us to help distinguish truth from appearance? I still see an aweful lot of questionable beliefs presented as "truth" and even "Truth" within yoga. I see what would be considered by any rational human being a delusion or illusion presented as truth and truth as illusion. That gives me little confidence in those who purport to teach "true" yoga, (whatever that is), especially as it applies to understanding of "universal" principles of any type. I am looking forward to your blog on Viveka. Perhaps you will address these questions there as well. Namaste'

  5. fivefootwo says:

    "Yogis are also activists" agreed.

  6. April says:

    Loved the honesty & sincerity of this article, and I agree wholeheartedly! Great job!

  7. Good God, Ramesh. Next thing you know you'll be accusing Yoga Journal of starving small children in Africa.

    Capitalism is good for Yoga:

    1) Yoga Journal wouldn’t even exist at anywhere near its current circulation without owners who were willing to put money into it when it was in trouble. So without the profit motive and all the corporate advertisers that make it work, it would be a moot point. We wouldn’t be having any discussion about Yoga Journal because it either wouldn’t exist (like the very fine Ascent no longer exists) or it would be a good but relatively sleepy publication like Yoga International.

    2) More traditional Yoga institutions, like Himalayan Institute, Kripalu, and various retreats and ashrams around the country and world, rely on exposure in Yoga Journal for much of their business. I don’t have the data, but along with all the ads for ToeSox and the like (in the latest issue there were a grand total of four ads that anyone could consider overly revealing or suggestive, and even that's a stretch), are ads for, well, let me just flip through this latest issue and make a list for you:

    Breath of the Himalayan Tradition (Swami Veda Bharati)
    White Lotus Yoga Training & Retreats
    Omega Yoga Weekend Conference Retreat
    Kripalu
    International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre
    Mount Madonna Center and Mount Madonna Institute College of Ayurveda
    Snatam Kaur Sacred Chant Tour
    Sivananda Ashram
    3HO Kundalini Yoga Foundation
    Satchidananda Ashram
    Self-realization Fellowship (Yogananda)
    Integrative Restoration Institute
    The Ayurvedic Institute
    Himalayan Institute

    It’s expensive to advertise in Yoga Journal, but all of these traditional organizations think it’s worth it, and don't feel ashamed to be associated with Yoga Journal. Obviously they like the readership they can reach there.

    3) Advertiser or not, ask almost any Yoga institution, large or small, and they will tell you that they depend on the exposure to Yoga fostered by Yoga Journal to build their base of participants. The profit-driven Yoga Journal is a giant feeder system for all the more traditional Yoga institutions, from Kripalu to your local Yoga studio. And it could never be that if it were not profit driven.

    4) Everything I just said also applies to any exposure Yoga gets in the popular press and media, like the recent spurt of articles on Yoga in the NYT, for instance. It’s questionable whether any of this would have ever occurred without the commercial success of Yoga Journal.

    5) Many, although not all, of the early Indian Swami’s who brought Yoga to America in the first place, came here because this is where the market and the money was. This is also true of later teachers like Bikram. Just read through The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America to see how true this is. Capitalism was a major driving force for Yoga in America from the beginning.

    6) Finally, look at the impact and potential impact of our beloved Elephant Journal. If Waylon figures out how to make money and grow, like a good responsible capitalist, and Elephant makes a bigger and bigger contribution to Yoga, and you get to keep writing about traditional Yoga for your large devoted following here. Waylon doesn't figure it out and Elephant either stagnates or eventually disappears.

    Capitalism is good for Yoga. Without it, Yoga in America might be about the size of, say, Tai Chi in America. Most of us would not be involved in Yoga at all because we never would have been exposed to it. Even the most traditional Yoga institutions, like the Himalayan Institute, have richly benefited from the capitalistic efforts of Yoga Journal owners to grow circulation, attract advertising, and make Yoga Journal into a healthy on-going business.

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

      Thanks for your perspective, Bob.
      Much appreciated!

      • elephant journal elephantjournal says:

        I personally find this article wonderful—in that it reminds us of the point of all this—to still the waves of the mind, as Patanjali put it, and Judith Hanson Lasater reminded me in our interview published yesterday re this whole issue: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/08/walk-the-t

        That said, this post seems a little us vs. them to me. You often post articles about sex, and tantra, and as you know those get lots of readers. It's up to us readers, then, to decide what we are attracted to. Yoga Journal didn't set out picturing conventionally beautiful women—we told them to by not buying issues with covers representing older or un-thin models or men.

        Active Interest media I don't know well, and I am bothered that for the first time YJ isn't yogi-owned, it seems. That said, an outfit that owns Backpacker doesn't sound nefarious to me.

        The issue seems to be whether we can do the sexy, funny, controversial posts—and yet keep redeeming quality content that's mission-focused even in those posts. You've done a great job of that in your various titillating articles. I think we can, and must, have our cake and eat it too. As Bob has pointed out, Yoga International is wonderful, but small. It's a good thing that Yoga Journal is available to the masses. A very good thing—as long as they keep their quality editorial.

        So far, so good (I know the editorial team slightly, and can speak to their integrity).

        • Ramesh says:

          Waylon,

          there are many serious issues in this world that requires an us vs. them stand. I happen to think that corporate capitalism is such an issue. When I don't write about yoga, I write about sustainable capitalism, or alternatives to capitalism.

          Some of my favorite authors in that regard include David Korten and Paul Hawken, who have made a compelling case for a capitalism in which smaller and more local is better, for both humans and the earth.

          I also come from Norway, in which we have an economy that is mixed, part capitalism, part socialism. I favor that system over the dog-eat-dog capitalism of the US in which corporations rule, often ruthlessly. Do I make myself clear!

          We all pick our battles. Corporate capitalism happens to be one shadow-side to the American economy that has done incredible harm to people and the earth. Not all capitalism is bad. Much of it is good. it is all a matter of scale.

          Secondly, yes, I have written about Tantra and sex, but mainly to balance the many misconceptions about Tantra and sex, of which there are many. I have not written about Tantra and sex because i want to sell something. EJ gave me an opportunity, and I took it by using creative titles to push a message that I think needed to be heard. I am grateful for that!

          I think you are a good example of trying to walk the talk, Waylon, of using capitalism in a way that is more sustainable and meaningful. I think what you stand for and what EJ does is great!

          I used to feel the same about Yoga Journal. But no more. And I have made my reasons for that clear in these articles.

        • YogiOne says:

          I think there may be a distinction here that Bob and Waylon are missing and its an important one in my mind. The issue isn't so much capitalism, but corporatism. The large corporation has a focus on making money and isn't necessarily in touch with the human needs that spawned the activities on which they now generate income. An alarming example of this is how corporate farming has warped our food supply in such a way that production of both vegetarian and animal-based food products now contribute to the destruction of the planet as well as leaching the health from our bodies. This same process could be at work undermining the quality of Yoga Journal. Its just that Yoga Journal is closer to the beginning of that process than our food system is.

    • YogiOne says:

      Bob,

      If the corporatists had not stepped in to "save" Yoga Journal, how might the yoga community have responded? Maybe there would be a thriving market for both regional and topically oriented yoga magazines where competition was constantly improving the product and where depth as well as appearance had room for propigation through the print media. Maybe the advertising rates would be lower so that smaller companies could afford to get the word out about their products and services. Assuming that the corporate take over of YJ was the best possible outcome is unjustified. Sometimes you have to do savasana before you can get on with the resty of your life. Sometimes the Phoenix has to die.

  8. YogaAtHome says:

    I gave up on Yoga Journal not because I didn't like the overtly sexual ads, but all the fluff within – not enough substantial writing for me. I save $7 a month, thank you very much.

  9. Irisblooming says:

    I appreciate your perspective on this topic. I am observing that each point of view is focused on the upside take on this issue. Of course this would be the case. I appreciate all the points of view presented and hope for the best outcome for future readers to truely benefit from the real essence in the practice of Yoga. ____As you have already stated and may I add in my own words – To people new to Yoga, please know that you essentially do not need any props such as yoga mats, toe sox, a thin sexy body, nor a belief in a religion. Be willing to have an adventurous additude for the sake of a developing a heathier connection between the body and the wisdom of the mind which eventually expands into calmness of emotions…my 2cents!

  10. YogiOne says:

    In your main article, you state, "In the yoga ethics of asteya, we learn that to tell a lie, or to say something that is not serving the greater good, is contrary to the spirit of yoga." Asteya is non-stealing. The word you are looking for is Satya or truthfulness. Of course, Asteya has plenty of bearing on this issue as well. If you believe that toesox are of no value to the yogi, then it may be violating asteya by trying to sell them in the first place. However, a little investigation led me to believe that toe sox may actually have some value for some yogis in some situations. They have a grippy sole, and thus may be useful if you have no mat to practice on as is sometimes the case when traveling. They may also be of benefit to those who practice hot yoga. I hear that can get kind of slippery. If this is so, then asteya in this matter, as in many is in the eye of the beholder. Better to apply those ethics to ourselves and only very carefully to others.

    • Ramesh says:

      YOGIOne,
      you're my man again! thanks for the correction, it's satya, of course. I wrote that article sleepily late last night, and so I blame it on that!
      I will make the correction!

  11. Valerie says:

    So General Mills puts their considerable brand behind an organic food company because they see market potential for organic foods. Using their resources, they increase the distribution channels and increase production which lead to a growing demand. Now there are frozen organic berries in your local grocers freezer where there were none before. This capitalism is good for organic farmers, good for us and good for General Mills. And down the line, we might find organic Cheerios stocked on the grocery shelves. So Yoga Journal sells beautiful yogis with bright colored backgrounds and extensive articles on alignment and achieving impossible-looking asanas. There are also articles about spirituality. Elemetary spirituality sure, but who expects to find enlightenment in the pages of a magazine? Yoga Journal is good for yoga. Where it may lack in depth, it is certainly an excellent introduction and a resource for those of us who want to explore yoga beyond asana.

  12. Ramesh says:

    Valerie, yes, that is the general philosophy, the bigger the better, the cheaper, etc. and there is, I am sorry to tell, only a small kernel of truth to that economic philosophy.
    The larger reality is that corporate capitalism, be it Walmart, Monsanto, or Dole, or General Mills, are such giants that the miniscule good they do is far outweighed by all the harm. For every Wallmart opened, many communities are uprooted here at home, businesses close, etc and abroad millions of poor people who make those cheap Wallmart items are kept in poverty and the gap between poor and rich keeps widening. As for Dole, they sell organic bananas, yes, but Dole is also the number one user of pesticides in the world. That's greenwashing. Putting on a green face, so that they can continue to do business as usual. Don't be fooled!
    We need a restructuring of the economy, down to a more decentralized, local scale. Even Jefferson saw the need for this and spoke out about too much concentration of wealth in the hands of a few! We do not need these centralized, profit-making corporation to drive the economy into the ground, rape nature and create poverty in third world countries. I favor a different kind of economy, my friend…. As E. F. Schumacher, the late Buddhist economist said, Small is Beautiful.
    I favor a more natural capitalism that is locally based. And, Valerie, I do not General Mills do not favor that kind of an economy. They buy companies to get bigger, not to save the earth.

  13. integralhack says:

    I think it is great that Lasater's letter prompted discussion of rampant corporatism and female nudity in adverts, but I think it would be better if we resumed targeting the real "usual suspects" as Ramesh does above: Walmart, Monsanto, etc. rather than Yoga Journal. YJ might deserve a few barbed comments, but not several articles in one week! Unless there is some revelation I'm unaware of, I would say YJ's offenses are minuscule compared to those of the big co's.

  14. Ramesh says:

    I'm almost totally with you there, Matt. I mostly agree. But since I mainly write about yoga here on EJ, that's been my focus. And I think this debate about the direction of YJ has been refershing and important.
    So far I have not been able to get much response on articles outside of the yoga genre here on EJ, so you have given me a wonderful challenge. Thanks!

    • integralhack says:

      Ramesh,

      Well, I don't think you are the only offender and actually you were the only EJ article writer other than Brooks Hall that recognized the systemic/ideological issues behind the YJ adverts. Elsewhere this degenerated into debates regarding the virtues of ToeSox and the virtues of a particular advert model. And then there were two or three articles in support of YJ. Sigh.

      Maybe one post with a Ramesh/Bob debate would have sufficed regarding YJ, but hindsight is always best. :)

      -Matt

      • Ramesh says:

        I'm with you, Matt! Yes, one debate between me and Bob would have sufficed, even no debate would have sufficed. He should have just kept mum. That would have been much easier. Just Kidding!

  15. [...] as a gimmick or because it makes him famous, doesn’t mean it’s not him. And who is anyone to judge that? What are the criteria for critiquing another’s authenticity? Is it use of money? Fame? [...]

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