In Defense of Yoga Pants. ~ Karen Macklin

Via on Apr 8, 2012

Yes, I am about to defend Western yoga.

I know this is risky business, but what does yoga teach us if not to take risks?

In my many years as a student of yoga, writer on yoga, and, in more recent years, a yoga instructor, it is not unusual for me to hear someone (perhaps even myself) waxing emphatically about how commercialism and fancy yoga clothes have sullied the meaning of the practice here in the US. The thing is:

I do not entirely agree. I think yoga is different in the West, and sometimes has its downsides. But I do not think it is inferior overall, and I certainly do not think we have ruined the practice or stripped it of meaning.

What got me thinking about this was a recent article on Elephant Journal in which a teacher talks about her trip to India. While in India, she says, she practiced asanas in the back of the classroom (with the rest of the women), amid ravenous mosquitoes, while breathing in toxic diesel fumes. She says that practicing in this way brought her closer to the true meaning of yoga and showed her what was wrong with yoga in America, citing our materialistic, sanity-obsessed practitioners.

I have heard this story many times from yogis returning from the East. I understand how practicing among adversity challenges us and brings us closer to what feels real. And there is no doubt that India is an incredible place, and that the people and temples and culture inspire something divine in those who visit from without. But I think it is a mistake for us Westerners to drop in on India for a short while, return home to our regular comforts, and then romanticize the hardships of those in the East while criticizing the way we practice and live in the West. I think it simplifies a very complex equation.

I have spent time in India, and the malaria, dysentery and pollution that offer the adversity that Westerners often refer to as being part of their overall spiritual experience in India are not spiritual elements or ideals—they are facts of life in India that have more to do with intense climate and poverty than God blowing bugs, disease and methane into the country. I’d just as soon see my Indian brothers and sisters spared from these things rather than view them as necessities for spiritual transformation.

So many Indians leave, or want to leave, India in search of better living conditions, and they scoff at our romanticism of their country because they know what it is like to watch such unnecessary suffering on a daily basis. Yes, we are extremely fortunate to be able to practice in climate-controlled studios with hard wooden floors—but who is to say those in India would not be practicing that way if they had the means?

And then there are the gender equality issues that Westerners also dismiss when they romanticize India. The author of the article I mentioned did not seem bothered by the fact that she was made to practice in the back of the classroom, for the sake of modesty. But I am.

I respect tradition in India, of course, but I also believe that gender equality is in line with the yogic ideals of ahimsa (non-harming). In the West, men have had to learn to control sexual urges if they want to practice in the same room as women, and vice versa, regardless of what we all decide to wear. I think this is a true practice in ekagrata (single-pointed focus) and speaks to an essential aspect of human evolution and spiritual advancement.

And if we did segregate classes based on gender for ‘modesty’ purposes, as was done in the class mentioned earlier, what would happen with gay and lesbian practitioners?

Do gay men have to practice in the back with straight women? And would women still be allowed to teach, up in the front of the class, where we could see them? Many yoga schools in India are gender integrated at this stage—but there is still a certain amount of gender inequality in the society. So, all I am saying is let us give a nod here to the ways that the West has actually improved upon yoga, by opening the doors to women students and teachers, and helping to release a lot of the suppressive beliefs about gender that were held by the earlier yogis.

I also hear, again and again, complaints about modern day yoga clothing. I hear them from myself, too. People say the clothing is too fashion-oriented for yoga. And yes, it feels Insane, with a capital I, to pay $100 for a pair of yoga pants at any of the many overpriced yoga retailers.

But I think we are unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yoga clothing designers came upon the scene because there was a real need for good, sturdy apparel for female asana practitioners in the West.

More and more women were seriously studying asanas, but their boobs and butts were flying all over the place. The development of smart yoga clothing has allowed women the ability to practice the more active forms of Hatha yoga that were once restricted to men, and has been a real service to me and millions of other women (even if corporate America and advertising took the whole thing a little too far).

The author of the article I referred to earlier asks, “What would Patanjali think of Lululemon?” It is a catchy line, but Patanjali likely never intended for women to be studying yoga at all, so he is not necessarily the one I’d be asking. I study his teachings with great respect, but like all ancient and sacred teachings, they must be understood and interpreted in context of the times in which they were penned. (For instance, I may respect the Bible, but I am not going to look to it to teach me about civil rights because it was recorded during a time when slavery was acceptable.)

(Photo: Erick Fefferman)

I love India and it is where yoga originated and I bow to that origin every time I practice. And I do not want to lose the point that many people are making these days about capitalism’s various incompatibilities with Eastern spiritual practice—I have felt it, myself. But I also think we need to be wary of making broad comparisons, and judging ourselves (and our students, for those teachers out there) to be less conscious or spiritual because we are from the US.

I have traveled far and wide, and I think all of us—Indians, North Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans, Asians—have our own individual cultural pitfalls when it comes to being awake, present and compassionate. Rather than compare one culture to another as being spiritually superior or inferior, I think it is important to remember that we all have something to contribute to the evolution of humanity.

Also, and maybe most importantly, we need to remember that divinity is within us. Traveling, especially to the motherland of our practice, can offer us irrefutable insights and peak experiences. But if we really want to find the light, we need look no farther than what is inside. No spiritual passport is necessary.

Karen Macklin is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco. Her work has been published in Yoga Journal, Yoga International, Tricycle, Fit Yoga, The New York Times, SF Weekly, and numerous other magazines, as well as literary journals and anthologies. For more about Karen’s yoga and writing life, check out her website.

~

Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul

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29 Responses to “In Defense of Yoga Pants. ~ Karen Macklin”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  2. Asha says:

    Love this! Nothing’s ever going to be perfect and yoga in any time period is no exception. Yoga has revolved and just because it’s not the same as it was 4 thousand years ago doesn’t make it inferior. Great article.

  3. __MikeG__ says:

    Great post. I have found the fetishisation of India and "India yoga purity" to be perplexing. From my perspective, the people of India are just people and they are not more "spiritual" because they were born in India. BTW, anyone who reads Light on Life will find that BKS Iyengar agrees with previous the statement.

    Additionally I have noticed a lot of hating on lululemon and women who buy their clothing. The usual arguments are that the clothes are too expensive and therefore not spiritual. Expensive is a relative term. I've talked to women who have kept a pair of lulu pants for ten years. I would argue that a $100+ piece of clothing which lasts for a decade is the cheapest piece of clothing any person could ever purchase. There are many women who would consider the "cheap" workout clothes found at Walmart to be too expensive.

    The more I practice yoga the less I know what yoga is. And this is coming from a person who style of choice is Iyengar where Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are commonly read before class and related to the asanas performed during class. Is western yoga too westernized? I dunno. I do believe that the people who clamor for "India yoga purity" are not realizing that yoga never was a static practice. Yoga always changed to meet the needs of the people who were alive at the time.

  4. Vision_Quest2 says:

    It's like a smorgasbord. Laid out are all the choices, here in the West. You can partake of some aspects of yoga as presented in the West, and take as much as you want or could handle. Lulu or workshops or celebriyogi retreats too rich for you? Some types of yoga laid out for you are harmful? You don't have to put any or much or all of it on your plate. Like it or not, you do leave more for someone else, but without hurting yourself in the skinny wallet ….

  5. Nicely written article. I enjoyed reading and agree with the espoused sentiments. _MikeG_ did a nice job of summarizing how I feel as well.

  6. Karen Macklin says:

    Wonderful comments, thanks! And please note: I do not think all women should have the *body* represented in the pic at the top.The distorted images used to sell what I think are often very useful clothing items are a whole different story!

  7. Annabel says:

    Intelligent and well-written, thank you

  8. Rudy says:

    I hear my fellow yoga teacher say all the time "I'm going back to Mother India"……I want to laugh my ass off and say, "Girl, you were born in Santa Monica, Mother India my ass"……I too would like to defend yoga here in the West and call it what it is, the savior of yoga. The Indian Yogi's who brought yoga to American knew for yoga to survive that it's greatest chance was in America. Hell, I always say there's more Asana in Santa Monica then the country of India as a whole. Where the practice had lost the interest of the youth in India and was slipping away into history there. Now with westerners celebrities spouting it's benefits etc Indian youth are now showing more interest in the practice thus dare I say perhaps saving it for future generations.

    • Vision_Quest2 says:

      Not to mention the rapid rise of yoga in the boomtowns elsewhere in Asia–and, whether due to nature or nurture, many Asians take the practice quite seriously, putting us Americans to shame (!)–also sparking a renewed interest in Buddhism … I'd call that a virtuous circle …

      • Annie Ory says:

        Vision Quest, why do we always have to be "put to shame"? I'm not ashamed that I'm not Asian. I'm not ashamed that I don't practice yoga as Asian practitioners do. I don't know what the internal experience of an Asian person is when doing yoga, I never will know, and therefore can't hope to reproduce the experience, nor would I want to. My yoga is my yoga. Need I feel shame regarding it when compared to others? No. Why even compare? What use is this exercise?

  9. Swami says:

    Sometimes people confuse shaking a fist with actually contributing. Business=bad, the "West"=bad are common bromides in yoga land.

    It's not uncommon for some to refer to people in places that are relatively economically underdeveloped as more pure or the like. When these people usually have higher instance of disease, less access to medicine, shorter life spans on balance….the list goes on. The good citizens in these places would love to have the opportunities afforded those in the US

    I'm a very regular yoga practitioner and have seen women of all shapes and sizes in various brands of yoga pants. It's almost always positive.

  10. Lakshmi says:

    I'll admit that after reading the title, I was expecting to disagree with this article, because I find the expense and even the fashion of Western yoga clothes personally distressing since I can neither afford them nor fit into them very well! I'm perfectly comfortable practicing asana in a good ol' cotton salwar kameez. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I agreed with most of the points made here. I especially appreciated your points about gender issues and the romanticization of developing world hardship that is rarely by choice and often the result of the lifestyle choices of those of us living at the top of the pyramid. As an Indian-American yoga teacher, I find myself in this awkward in-between space, gagging at fetishization and yet fuming over cultural appropriation, appreciating some aspects of Western yoga and absolutely detesting other aspects. In any case…your article definitely captured the positive aspect of Western yoga. Thank you!

    • Karen Macklin says:

      Thank you for reading (despite the title!) and offering wise words from a cross-cultural perspective. Much appreciated!

  11. Melody says:

    I love this too!! I have a love and hate relationship with my Lulus. But I still buy and wear them, because they hold everything in and they are very comfy! This year I have decided to explore other popular brands, for fun.

  12. Philip S says:

    This is a fabulous piece. Thank you Karen. Ive often thought this exact sentiment many times.
    How lucky are we that we have yoga in our lives here? That it has become a huge part of our modern culture. Great teachers…great students, great community and great yoga writers. This is a diverse practice with so many styles and disciplines to sample from. How has yoga lost its meaning? We need gratitude for all that we have here yoga wise..in the West. Thank you…

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  14. [...] In Defense of Yoga Pants. ~ Karen Macklin [...]

  15. Jen K. says:

    I think we've developed yoga in the west to fit exactly what we need it to be! I love that 8 different people can go to the same yoga class and get out what they intend to – whether it's exercise, introspection, challenge, social contact, or a chance to wear their new $100 pants. Isn't this all about embracing ourselves as we are? I love that a highly aerobic power class can integrate spirituality, rock and roll, and a good hard sweat. Yoga = union, and I think judging other people's yoga practice – divisive. Who is one to say how another should be?

  16. Marthe says:

    Karen,

    I very much enjoyed your defense of Western yoga, which I believe was a reaction to the article I posted last month ("It Took A Trip to India to Make Me Realize What Is Wrong With Yoga in America". http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/03/it-took-a-

    The great East-West debate has, it seems, lasted for centuries, if not millennia. I spent six months living in India and I realize how very, very much I still have to learn!

    I do not mean to impugn the dedication or motivation of fellow yogis, yoginis and yoga instructors in the West or to cast aspersion on the many blessings bestowed on me as an American. I have had many wonderful yoga instructors in the United States and have had the opportunity to meet some amazing fellow students during my journey. As I said in the article, one must 'bloom where one is planted'. Likewise, I do not mean to suggest that spiritual purity can be acquired only in the East or in India.

    I do believe, however, that the unbridled commercialism and body objectification which seems to have hijacked yoga culture in America (and the West) is pretty darn yucky. True, many people have left places like India in search of better opportunities, but many Americans have also left in search of a quieter, simpler, less commercial, less status-obsessed existence. We have tired of the rat race.

    In India, I voluntarily sat in the back of the room, for 'modesty'. While this was certainly not an ideal situation to address the conundrum of mixed gender practice, neither is the form-fitting, uber-expensive clothing sold at trendy boutiques around the country. Both scenarios have got brahmacharya all wrong. In India I am segregated because I am a woman with a woman's body. In America, yoga clothing retailers use my body and the promise of sex appeal to sell their products.

    I believe in practice apparel which makes one comfortable.

    I love yoga pants (I have a bunch of 'em!), but the 'fashion police' aura at many urban studios seriously gives me the creeps. In order to 'fit in' at some yoga studios, women are 'made' to feel as if they must sport trendy, designer apparel (with hefty price tags) hanging in the boutique. In a struggling economy, many of us cannot afford these items.

    I have seen fellow students almost knocked over when the new LuLu arrived once after a morning practice. I witnessed a near-screaming match when a student picked up another's identical LuLu jacket by accident. I have seen studio staff stare down new students who seem 'underdressed' in sweatpants and a t-shirt.

    Clothing is a personal choice, but I think it really comes down to intention, which creates energy. Does what you wear make you feel comfortable, light, empowered? Or are you doing it to 'fit in' with the 'cool' crowd, because you feel you must?

    • Karen Macklin says:

      Marthe,

      Thank you for this wonderful response to my response! I absolutely understand where you are coming from and how the behavior you describe regarding fashion police at the yoga studio is toxic. It's interesting, too, how this type of behavior varies from studio to studio, and moreover, from one part of our country to the other. I suspect this obsession with yoga fashion is more prevalent in the more affluent areas, where obsession with all fashion and appearances is more prevalent. It seems to me that this aspect of the issue is less about the West and more about the ignorance that often comes with affluence (regardless of nation of origin); affluence and fixation on materialism causes all kinds of trouble for us all, spiritually and otherwise. Can't be denied! Thanks again for continuing the conversation – it's an important one to be having, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts, and the questions you raise.

  17. Anna Sheinman SOFLY_Anna says:

    thank you! this is a great article.! What would Patanjali think of Lululemon…funny, I don't think he thought much of Lulu…

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  24. Yogake says:

    Interesting discussion on the topic. The problem with Western yoga and pricy yoga fashion isn;t anything surprising. Yoga has become a trend, and as such, it is marketed very heavily just like any other booming trend with bying potential. I just take the relevant stuff for myself and do not philosophize about it. Some things you cannot change – it's a reflection of the situation in our society…
    ___________ http://www.jogaprezdravie.sk

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