Should Members of the Yoga Community and Yoga Publications Emphasize Weight Loss, Size Zero Bodies and Advertise Diet Pills?

Via on Sep 14, 2010

The Cult of Thinness, Yoga and Advertising

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.” -Yogini, in response to The Color of Yoga.

When I found yoga in 1996 I knew I had stumbled upon something utterly delicious.  There weren’t many yoga studios to choose other than a few militant Bikram yoga studios at the time. It took me over a year to find a teacher that fit my personality and needs.  My friend, Marla, had led me to a spacious dance loft in Santa Monica, a space large enough for over 100 sweaty bodies to get their downward facing dog on by donation. It was 1997 and I found myself in the company of an eclectic group of yogis led by the sometimes delightfully inappropriate and absolutely authentic Bryan Kest.

I was home.

By 1999 I ditched the gym membership I’d had since I was 12 and developed a consistent practice with Bryan and his budding protege, Caleb Asch. My yoga practice became a wonderful constant in a sea of change and chaos, a place of solace.  It also created a unique space to get to know and love my body in a new way. It was the first time I had ever paid attention to my body’s rhythms and desires without imposing my will, a will driven by unrealistic expectations informed and shaped in large part by an ever-increasing commercial culture.

I became more forgiving, gentle, loving and  in tune with myself.

My practice inspired me to let go of  my obsessive tendency to beat my body into submission during a workout.  Yoga made movement pleasurable, beautiful and loving for the first time since early childhood. My practice taught me how to respect and nurture my body. I learned to accept my body and, best of all, love my body. My body moved from a vessel to control to a vessel to cherish. I moved from disdain and disappointment to gratitude and appreciation. My body was no longer a source of anguish but the axis of experience allowing me to walk, run, and make love.

Like many,  I have a past rooted in rigorous and unhealthy dieting, over exercising and general body abuse. The healthy space yoga allowed me to carve out for myself was new and welcomed territory.  My blue sticky mat became one of the few places in our media driven culture where I could escape the endless barrage of messages telling me what I should look like or who I should be. We’re inescapably submerged in an environment that emphasizes a digitally enhanced, youthful, Eurocentric and thin image of beauty. Let’s face it, our beauty standard is ageist, classist, racist and a weight biased one-size only, homogeneous image of beauty available to statistically very few.

But in my yoga class, I could just be.

Sometimes that meant happy. Other times sad. Often times tired. Other times, fierce and energetic. Many other times curled up in child’s posed- without judgment.

In my 90-minute practice I was allowed to shut it all out and return to myself. For 90-minutes I was given a space devoid of computer screens, advertisements, billboards, and tabloids.

Eventually and inevitably, yoga became increasingly absorbed by the larger mainstream culture. Yoga studios popped up like Stabucks coffee houses and yoga apparel filled their lobbies. In many ways, yoga became more about how you looked in your color coordinated Lululemon outfit than the practice itself (although I love my Lululemon Crops).  Slowly yoga become filtered through and reflected the dominant consciousness, a consciousness informed by corporate consumerism with the aim of maximizing profit by any means necessary.

As yoga became more mainstream, I welcomed several aspects of the marriage. I was grateful that more and more people became exposed to yoga. I also appreciated access to yoga products that did not exist or were hard to come by just a few years before. With that said, I became dismayed by the tactics used by corporations and advertisers. As credit cards featuring mantra chanting yogis were advertised in yoga magazines and the types of products being advertised in Yoga Journal changed I was increasingly disillusioned and disappointed.

I began making public commentary on these changes beginning in 2003. I presented at  a variety of sociological conferences and public lecture venues, lectures with titles such as:

Celebrity Yogis: The Intersection of Yoga, the Cult of Personality and Consumerism

Yoga and Popular Culture, McYoga: The Spiritual Diet for Consumer America

Consuming Spirituality and Spiritual Consuming: Capitalizing on Yoga

The McDonaldization and Commodification of Yoga: Standing at the Intersection of Spiritual Tradition and Consumer Culture.

I was particularly interested in the reproduction of mainstream beauty standards in the pages of yoga magazines. Just as in the mainstream, the “yoga models” featured show very little diversity when it comes to size, age, and race. Almost all of the models are young, thin, white and polished women. I should also add that many of the celebrity yoginis had careers as models and actors in the mainstream culture and many continue to do so.

After examining the mainstreaming of yoga for several years with frustration and sadness, I put down the yoga magazines and withdrew from the increasingly commercialized yoga community. The community that had previously provided me with self-acceptance began to increasingly reflect the mainstream culture from which I sought solace.  By withdrawing and canceling my subscription to Yoga Journal, I made an attempt to safeguard a practice I deemed sacred.

After a couple years, I re-thought my position. Maybe I was being too hard on the yoga community, specifically it’s publications. I picked up a copy of Yoga Journal and was dismayed to find advertisements for diet pills. As I mentioned previously, I’d noticed more and more corporate ads before I abandoned my subscription but this hit home.  Not only had Yoga Journal succumbed to accepting corporate dollars for products that seemed unrelated to a healthy yogic lifestyle but now they have allowed the ultimate self-esteem crusher to enter: advertisements that reinforce larger cultural messages telling individuals that they should lose weight because thinner is better. This trend continues with ads that focus solely on weight loss such as the recent ad promising a yogi-slim body in the form of a size-zero and the continued use of models that don’t reflect the diverse range of women and men practicing and teaching yoga.

Where’s the message of acceptance that is a hallmark of yoga? Where are the curvy yogis? Where are the plus size yoga clothes? Do we want to reduce a practice that was designed for the whole mind-body to weight loss? Just as weight-loss should not be the primary incentive to drive women to breast-feed, weight-loss should not be the primary incentive to begin or maintain a yoga practice, especially when the goal is an unrealistic size double-0.

To simply chalk up many yoga branding campaigns and the emphasis on young, sleek, sexy, thin white women as a result of the continued and increased emphasis on young, sleek, sexy, thin white women in the larger culture seems simplistic and irresponsible. Just because the larger culture preys on the self-esteem of girls and women, should yoga go with the flow and emulate those values? To call criticisms of the commericalization of yoga and the ways in which and the kinds of products that are advertised is elitist reminds me of conservatives calling Obama an elitist because he has command of the English language.

As Carol Horton comments:

To accuse people who care enough about American yoga to take the time to be critical about some of the directions it’s going of being jealous and “driven by unrequited dreams” seems unfair and mean-spirited… there’s a legitimate and even important discussion going on here.

Monica Shores made an important point in her recent article at the Ms. Magazine blog in Yoga’s Feminist Awakening:

The online yoga community is still feeling the aftershocks of a recent debate about the use of women’s bodies in asana-related advertising, and the conversation is far from finished…The resulting cycle will be a predictable one for most feminists: Women raise concerns about exploitation, defenders accuse those women of being prudish or jealous and conclude that the whole topic is a non-issue. Only this time, there’s a nasty twist: Some blog posts and comments asserted that criticizing advertising is in itself unyogic. Now practitioners with a bone to pick aren’t just bitter and sexphobic—they’re also bad yogis.

I can’t help but recall my teacher, Bryan, emphasizing the breath in yoga and making the point that without the breath and, ultimately the quality of being or state of mind, yogic postures are just silly eastern calisthenics. In my opinion, the relentless focus on weight loss and the advertising of diet pills has no place in yoga. It runs counter to cultivating the unique quality of the practice that fosters healthy minds and bodies which is what yoga is about. It changes the quality of yoga and detracts from yoga’s true power to transform from within.

Without a certain quality, can we still call it yoga or is just another form of working out a means to an end? Many would argue that this signals the loss of yoga’s soul, the selling out of yoga’s healing properties.

Yoga is more than just a pretty face and a slim body in a designer yoga outfit. Lets preserve the rare and uncluttered space devoid of manufactured messages telling us who we should be and promising us those illusive dreams through the sale of a product.

We get enough of that outside of yoga.

Your thoughts?

An earlier version of the following post was originally published as “Selling Out Yoga” at Feminist Fatale, March 2009. It has been revised in light of the ongoing debates at Elephant about consumerism, corporate capitalism, advertising, using “sexualized” images to sell unnecessary yoga gear, Yoga Journal, the controversial Tara Stiles and her genetically predispositioned über-thin body and selling out yoga, in general.

About Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein, MA is a writer, speaker and Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College, teaching Sociology and Women’s Studies. She attributes feminism and yoga as the two primary influences in her work. She is committed to communal collaboration, raising consciousness, media literacy, facilitating the healing of distorted body images and promoting healthy body relationships. She has worked with the new citizen journalists of the LA Academy of Global Girl Media and the peer-educators of J.A.D.E (Joint Advocates on Disordered Eating) on ways to tap into the power of their own voice. She is an expert contributor in the areas of media literacy and body image issues for Proud2Bme, a NEDA project. She is the adviser of the Santa Monica College Leadership Alliance and the founder and co-coordinator of WAM! Los Angeles. She founded FeministFatale.com and is a contributor at Adios Barbie, Intent.com, MindBodyGreen and Ms. Magazine’s blog. Her essay on yoga, body image and feminism appears in Curvy Voices and her extended chapter on the same topic is included in the anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice. She has been featured on HuffPostLive, KPFK’s Feminist Magazine and The Point on The Young Turks. She is featured in the forthcoming book, Conversations With Modern Yogis. Twitter: @feministfatale

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38 Responses to “Should Members of the Yoga Community and Yoga Publications Emphasize Weight Loss, Size Zero Bodies and Advertise Diet Pills?”

  1. sarit says:

    What a well-written article on a subject so often ignored in the space of mind-body awareness circles. For me, yoga provides an opportunity in its practice to heal the broken thought patterns so prevalent in my life in regards to my body; it's a place to connect my mind with my breath and with my body. When they are all in alignment, I am more akin to finding comfort within my own skin.
    Once a sickly size 2, I am now a healthy 6/8 and I will tell you, when shopping online for yoga pants, or flipping through a Yoga Journal, I have become more and more put off by the implication that skinny is better. And by skinny, I mean, a size 0/2. It's frustrating and a far cry from what yoga is actually about, at least from my perspecitve.
    Melanie, thank you for posting such wonderful words. I love that you persistently pull the covers on media hyperbole and tell it like it is.

  2. Linda-Sama says:

    Thank you for referencing and linking to my blog posts. Ironically, those posts were written in 2007 and we still do not have very good answers to my questions.

    Fabulous post, Melanie!

  3. AMO says:

    I long for images of round yogis, black and brown yogis, one legged yogis, old yogis (and not just the perfect ones with perfectly coiffed white hair and a perfect body), pregnant yogis, not because it isn't cool that yoga can make you thinner, that's cool, but because that isn't what yoga is for or about and who will come if you have to skinny and white to practice? I have met too many women who say they are afraid to take yoga. AFRAID TO TAKE YOGA!?!?! No one should be afraid of yoga. We are responsible for this. We have to fix it…

  4. Melanie says:

    I think you misread the article. My issue is with the marketing of yoga and the absorption of yoga into the larger, dominant consumer culture. Yes, there are a diverse population of individuals practicing,a diverse population that is not refelected in the image of yoga that is now being projected. I also did not target Lululemon and proclaimed my love for my Lululemon crops. In fact, your first paragraph reflects my sentiments exactly. I think we agree more than you think.

    • I would like to express my apologies, after re-reading your article I realize your disapproval stems from the multi-faceded yogi marketing. I inferred from the title and tone of your article that despite your love for yoga, you felt the entire practice was also moving towards this direction.

      I have so much respect for your work and studied your research as a University of Minnesota student. I have now graduated with a degree in Journalism I will get back to re-directing my focus on finding that perfect pr position. :)

      ~Namaste~

  5. Melanie says:

    In fact, I also articulate what you write in paragraph 2: Media, sales-driven companies, pop culture, judgmental laggards and new media platforms are to blame. After reading your comment again, we truly are on the same page. In fact, it feels like you're commenting on a different article. I didn't withdraw from yoga or the "true and knowledgeable" yoga community, I withdrew from the "Media, sales-driven companies, pop culture, judgmental laggards and new media platforms are to blame." I hope my replies help clarify.

  6. Blake says:

    So are fat, hairy men who do yoga called Yogi Bears? Just wondering.

  7. Ramesh says:

    Melanie, Insightful, informative and personable article and a great addition to the other articles also favoring a diet-pill-free yoga environment!

  8. sherrie says:

    You can't completely blame Yoga Journal for their choice of ads – print publications are majorly hurting for ad revenue right now. The kind of less judgmental/hurtful company or product you would rather see in place of that diet pill ad probably cannot afford to make that ad buy – and at the same time, YJ probably cannot afford to discount ad space for smaller businesses. Would you rather Yoga Journal go completely out of business and disappear off the racks? I think what's important here is at *most* little mom & pop honest down to earth yoga studios you are welcomed and accepted regardless of your weight or how you look. I personally choose to do yoga at studios that do NOT have a store in their lobbies and do not sell $100 skinny minnie yoga pants. I also stay out of parts of my city that do feel more lookist and shallow. I do yoga in simple unpretentious studios where the teachers make sure everyone who needs a modification pose gets one.

    • Yogini# says:

      3nergyrooms could not help where they are located. Who founded it, also, was about 75% sincere. My word! My home practice never would have been the same (i.e., intense, powerful and effective) without classes taken, sparsely, longitudinally, over a long period of time (they greatly prefer their unlimited-access members, of course). Their shop with the munchkin-sized clothes will still get business from me, because they sell serious yoga supplies and not just clothes for their overwhelmingly undersized female sangha. I will turn a deaf ear to any talk of cleanses I hear on my way to pay for my goods. I felt somewhat accepted there, if treated a little weirdly. Of course, I'd given them plenty of lip while I had been going there. Someone with a thicker skin and/or self abnegating attitude–at my statistically average size, etc., might still be going there.

      [Thinly veiled studio name ... you know who you are ... in the NYC area.]

  9. Every part of me loves this post. Thanks Melanie, for telling it like it is. I was (and continue to be) so upset about the whole Tara Stiles book/ media blitz/ article in Women's Health re: yoga. I love yoga so much and was so excited to read excerpts from the book etc., but pictures of her teeny little dancer's body doing the poses immediately made me feel inadequate. And the words "slim" and "sexy" in the title made me downright grumpy. I found yoga to be a means of escape from these words, and yet here they are lumped into a BOOK TITLE with the word "yoga". Grr. I always look to you as the voice of reason!

  10. Sarah-Lu says:

    This is a lovely article. Thank you for writing on something that hits so close to home. As a mother who has been practicing for 20 years, I would like to add something. The focus on image, I believe, has also crept into the studio. It is not just apparent in magazines and explicitly image-oriented venues, but also apparent in the quality of young teachers (mid-20′s, hip, THIN woman) whose focus seems to be less on creating spiritual awareness and a strong, deep practice in their classes, and more on making other bodies conform to THEIR (the teacher’s) patterns, experiences, and idiosyncrasies. I would love to hear more about what you think about this as well. It seems like it is getting harder and harder to find good teachers who wants to go deep, and who is able to take people for who they are, and trust that just because their bodies are not slim, does not mean that their practice is any less deep or meaningful. SO grateful for the handful of teachers who I have had who are true guides. Thanks again for writing the article.

  11. I enjoyed your article. If you'd like to review my new book, Big Yoga: A Simple Guide for Bigger Bodies, which affords a well-rounded Yogi or Yogini an adapted practice, give me a shout.

    You don't have to be thin ( or rich, flexible, or young) to enjoy the benefits of Yoga!

  12. [...] an ongoing conversation in the online yoga community about skinny models, weight loss products and the entire commercialization of [...]

  13. ARCreated says:

    as always THANK YOU!!!!

    As a teacher my biggest "complaint" about yoga media is that the pictures of the "perfect' models doing crazy hard poses actually keeps many people away…feeling like they could never do what is being done and to me that is the bottom line…no matter what else you think this keeps the joy of yoga from many who need it most.

    I celebrate the beauty of the models used in the media — I simply ask that we ADD in a variety of people. I'm cool with the "famous" yogis being rockstar and beatiful I know that is partly what makes people seek yoga like the fountain of youth…I don't want to get rid of the people we have just represent the broad spectrum and not in some affirmative action sort of way.

  14. It is ok to be fat, to be alive, and to practice yoga.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it until it seems like it no longer needs to be said. Same thing for being pregnant/black/one-legged-Russian-juggling-pole-dancer/what have you, but the fatties get singled out it seems.

  15. Hi, this is an extremely exciting article. I’m seriously finding it difficult to lose my excess flab and cellulite at the moment and it is motivating to read as much about the subject as possible. Do you think at any point there’ll be a reliable and affordable solution? Thank you so much for publishing my comment!

  16. [...] for the physical benefits, skills or prowess. I’m not doing this, in other words, to make an asana out of myself. Which is probably why and how I managed to give myself a minor concussion when I [...]

  17. [...] Toesox using a very pretty, naked yoga instructor to try to move product. Yesterday I read a very similar themed post by Melanie Klein, who is young, attractive and smart and I began to doubt my belief that yoga [...]

  18. [...] five- and seven-year-old daughters have already pinky-sworn with a neighbor girl that they will “never be fat.” Do you really want to be a part of the media culture that relentlessly bombards girls with the [...]

  19. [...] are overweight or obese. Math is not my forte, but even I can deduce from these numbers that more overweight people are or will be practicing [...]

  20. candicegarrett says:

    Amazing, well thought-out and my sentiments exactly!

  21. [...] on the heels of a very intense discussion on the exact same site about the state of yoga and what body image mainstream yoga is perpetuating, amazingly, Elephant Journal has published the article “Ten Sexy, Sassy, Rich and Powerful [...]

  22. [...] abuse. Self-acceptance is critical. And what is necessary is a critical eye for what the industry—yoga or fashion—displays as slim, sexy or [...]

  23. [...] Yoga has allowed Orenstein, someone who is not, in her own words, “naturally graceful” or flexible and someone who has a long history of “body unease and embattlement,” to marvel at her body’s capabilities. Like too many women and men, Orenstein spent the greater part of her 2os pushing past her body’s limits by engaging in popular, and grueling, forms of exercise such as high-impact aerobics, running etc. in the pursuit of the beauty ideal- with little regard for the physical consequences. Orenstein’s past is characteristic of the dangerous lengths girls and women will go in order to achieve the ubiquitous and unrealistic beauty ideal. For many, the gamble seems worth it in a culture that repeatedly emphasizes the number one way girls and women are valued- one that is measured in a size-zero frame. [...]

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  27. Melanie says:

    That should say, "In no way…"

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