August 12, 2010

Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis: Judith Hanson Lasater.

Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis:

Judith Hanson Lasater

{ on what she’d like to see from Yoga Journal, her problems with yoga ads (not Toesox!) and what the point of yoga is and should continue to be }

Waylon Lewis: Hello! Great to “meet” you. I’ve seen you at past Yoga Journal Conferences, and have heard wonderful things.

As a senior yoga teacher, a voice of integrity in a yoga community that’s been growing by leaps and bounds, and as a founder of Yoga Journal some 35 years ago…many students of yoga reacted strongly, and mostly supportively, to your recent letter to the editor in Yoga Journal:

Letter to Yoga Journal August 2010
Yoga Journal was born in my living room in Berkeley in 1975, where I was one of five yoga practitioner-teachers who gathered to create the magazine. I have loved the magazine ever since. But I’m concerned about ads that have stimulated both confusion and sadness in me about where the magazine is now and where it is headed. I am confused because I do not understand how photos of naked or half-naked women are connected with the sale of practice products for asana, an important part of yoga. These pictures do not teach the viewer about yoga practice or themselves. They aren’t even about the celebration of the beauty of the human body or the beauty of the poses, which I support. These ads are just about selling a product. This approach is something I thought belonged (unfortunately) to the larger culture, but not in Yoga Journal.

Finally, I feel sad because it seems that Yoga Journal has become just another voice for the status quo and not for elevating us to the higher values of yoga: spiritual integration, compassion and selfless service. My request is that Yoga Journal doesn’t run ads with photos that exploit the sexuality of young women in order to sell products or more magazines. Thank you for your attention and willingness to hear another point of view.

Judith Hanson Lasater
San Francisco, CA

Waylon Lewis: My first question about that letter is to thank you: the coming together of yoga, and meditation, and spirituality generally…with commercialism is both necessary and delicate.

The point of this interview will not be to provoke or elicit further controversy, gossip, excitement…but rather to clarify your rather vital, yet brief letter.

My first point of confusion is it sounds like you have no problem with the human figure, even naked. That this isn’t about prudery. That you’re fine with celebrating the beauty of the human form doing yoga, even when female, even when in advertising. This is of course a great deal of the attraction of yoga—it’s inspiring, beautiful. So if this isn’t about “no nudity” or “no sexiness,” is it more about “no exploitation,” or “no tackiness.” I’m confused!

Judith Hanson Lasater: Hi Waylon: Happy to talk with you and get to know you a bit.

I think the real issue here is that the so-called “yoga community” is not really in agreement about what yoga is.

There are as many opinions about that as there are yoga students; to some it is hot and fast asana, to some meditation, to some chanting, to some a little of it all.

Whatever we believe about what yoga might be, I believe it has to do with techniques which help us to become free of the tyranny of our thoughts.

In my kitchen is a bulletin board, and on it, a bumper sticker which says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  Now lest I be accused of being anti-intellectual, let me quickly point out that i have four degrees. So I enjoy the life of the mind. But I believe from what I have read and experienced and gleaned from those more experienced than I, that the mind is a double-edged sword.

So to me yoga in its broadest sense is learning to observe and dis-identify with one’s thoughts. To have thoughts and beliefs is so human; to get caught up in them is so human; to learn to observe them is to practice yoga.

So I guess my point is this: is what I am reading, doing, eating, thinking allowing compassion to arise in me?

Does the ad contribute to that? What part do I play when I interact with the ad?

I want to live in compassion because I like what I say and do when I make decisions and choose words from the space of compassion.

I agree. I was raised in the Buddhist community, so when I first came to yoga, rather by accident, I was delighted to find a “moving meditation” practice, as it was taught at The Yoga Workshop in Boulder. Using the breath, I could develop my weak mindfulness or ability to be present instead of being caught up in my thoughts.

And, I was able to open up my body, which really helps my back and neck and overall feeling of being comfortable in my own skin.

While Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, said something like the point or heart of yoga is “stilling the waves of the mind,” much of the explosion of popularity of yoga in the West—as of even 2008 a $5.7 Billion dollar business according to Yoga Journal’s demographic information—has been due primarily to it being a great way to exercise, feel better, celebrate life, meet people, develop a sense of community in an America that’s lost a great deal of community focus (less church-going, isolating suburbs…). For example, I don’t think I’ve ever meditated in a led yoga class for more than one minute, flat.

So it’s exercise, with a side of spirituality, rather than the other way around. And many of the ads, no fault of Yoga Journal’s, reflect that. [The ads are] marketing products. Companies advertise, of course, because they want and need to make money. And those ads make Yoga Journal’s editorial content possible.

Beautiful, evocative ads (like, say, many ads by Be Present, prAna, Lululemon, Blue Canoe) are generally simple, and the marketing message is secondary. You could say Toesox‘s ads, which have been featured in dozens of articles by dozens of concerned authors on dozens of sites  (including mine) as the “first thought” based on your letter, are simple, evocative, and though of course titillating to some extent (they all involve a naked yoga teacher) they also demonstrate some good drishti, alignment, and feature the work of a wonderful yoga community photographer. So my question is…nudity doesn’t seem to be the issue. A sort of crass commercialism or “spiritual materialism,” as my parents’ teacher put it, seems to be at issue. So wouldn’t SUV ads be more offensive?

First, let me say that the ToeSox ad was not the ad I was referring to at all. I was writing about an ad for a yoga mat.

I want to support the concept of “right livelihood.” In other words, I support the creativity and energy we all spend in the yoga world to make a living that is consistent with our values.

I support the teachers, the photographers, and yes, Yoga Journal, without which, you and I probably would not be having this conversation.

But just because I support all these people, it does not mean that we are not served by questioning our intention, our direction and our values.

I am moved by the beauty of the human body, at all its stages. On my meditation table I always have flowers. And strange as it seems, I usually leave the flowers long after they have started to droop and decay. I always think that the Buddha on the table, if it were alive, would not mind; it is the truth of life. So the physical manifestation is important to me. I am not prudish about it or shy of it.

So it’s not about nudity, it’s not just about selling something either, (don’t all yoga teachers “sell” their classes in a way?). It is something else that got my attention.

That something else is the sexualization of the ads, the objectification of the body (almost always women’s bodies) which I fear can spill out into our practice and spill out into the sanctity of the yoga classroom. That can invade the sacred student-teacher relationship and get in the way of the transmission of the gift of yoga.

I guess I am “jealous” of the practice of yoga; I long for it to be honored and not taken for granted or lost to the generations to come.

Finally, with my letter I was just expressing an opinion, not speaking the “truth.” I was speaking my truth. Two different things.

What role can Yoga Journal realistically play in influencing its advertisers’ design? The economy is weak, and Yoga Journal has to be sustainable in order to spread the good word. Should Yoga Journal, which is no longer owned by yoga practitioners, still be expected to play a formative role in the evolution of yoga in the West? It’s done a wonderful job of that in the past, and to my mind continues to do so. Or should it continue to be a great welcome mat for all those interested in yoga, health, wellness?

That is a big question. And I have no answer. Without ads, a magazine does not exist. And YJ supports a lot of people, the staff and writers, but yoga practitioners as well and as you state.

So I guess my answer has to be vague; what I do want, however, is for the magazine to have its own sense of “self examination” about its values and direction. If it cares about money too much it will die; if it cares about money too little it will die. Where the line is between those two extremes is not clear to me. I just like asking the question….

Amen. Thanks for your forthrightness. We all care a great deal not only about the integrity and future evolution of yoga, but Yoga Journal itself, which has played such a vital and prominent role in that evolution over the last 35 years since it started in your living room, with your four other friends.

I think the Toesox ads came to mind for so many different authors, and readers, on different web sites, on Facebook, on elephant…because they represent a great deal of spirit and, at the same time, the most obvious example of a naked, conventionally ideal female naked form. And yet, they don’t seem objectified, inappropriate. They seem edgy. In any case it’s great to hear that’s not what you were thinking of. I find some of the other ads far more offputting—ones that protray yoga as a sort of yuppie, sanitized, pastel pursuit for rich folks.

So, what do you think is key both for Yoga Journal editors and for yoga practitioners, generally, in terms of maintaining a healthy, wakeful practice of yoga as it continues to grow both as a “community” and as a “demographic” over the next century?

It is to further explore meditation in conjunction with hatha physical yoga practice?

Or to further integrate environmental (off the mat) responsibility into our lives as yoga practioners (Yoga Journal could move to recycled paper, direct distribution; studios could green their operations, students could buy only mindfully-sourced mats, clothes, props?).

Or, something else entirely?

You’re welcome.

If I could wave my magic wand (where is that magic wand, anyway?), I think I would like YJ to do a number of things.

> First, educate and inspire us. A big order on both counts, but what i would like nonetheless.

It could do that by telling stories about people’s lives and how yoga informs those lives.

> It could do that by writing about the “heavier” philosophical aspects of yoga without fear and in simple and clear ways.

> Each issue, I think, needs to attempt to explain what yoga is, not just asana.

> And maybe a little humor? I know yoga jokes are few and far between, but practice is too important to be serious.

> At the same time, I would like YJ not to shy away from controversy. One of my goals in life is to learn how to be in conflict and still stay connected to the other person. So there must be a way of presenting sticky topics with clarity and kindness.

> Maybe two teachers offering opposite points of view on a topic? I would like to see YJ address more directly the ethics of yoga teachers in the classroom (or the lack thereof).

> Finally, I want YJ to continue to be a voice for all of us. Not sure how that happens, but I think this discussion is actually part of that process.

Right. Perhaps the yogablogosphere has demonstrated an ability to explore these difficult topics without degenerating into gossip, but remembering that we’re talking about the present and future of a powerful yet fragile spiritual and physical practice that we all care about, are grateful for, and owe a lot to.

I was heartened and pleased that Yoga Journal published your letter–of course you’re close to them, so they could have resolved things privately. Instead, they welcomed and invited the general debate.

I think at this point all of us are a bit exhausted discussing this. And, as I’ve said, that’s a healthy thing: we’re not in this for gossip. We’re in this because we care about maintaining a healthy, and practical balance between yoga and commercialism. As you said, the two depend on one another–if Yoga Journal doesn’t have big pricey yoga and SUV and un-eco detergent ads, etc., it couldn’t exist.

For my part, I can speak on behalf of the burgeoning elephant community and say two things: one, we’re not only not afraid of controversy, we delight in it. But, secondly, no matter how controversial, sexy, funny or popular our articles…we’re mission-driven. And that mission is to share the good word with all sentient beings. The good word being about the joy that a mindful life has to offer. Living a genuine life that’s good for others and our planet. If Yoga Journal and other publications cease to be about the heart of the practice, other publications like Yoga International will be there.

Thank you so much for your time, and patience with all of us, and inspiration and courageousness mixed with gentleness and…humor!

Let me know if I failed to bring anything up, or you want to mention something else.

May this be of benefit.

Dear One:

Thank you for all you do to promote the deepest practice of self-awareness.

I am honored and grateful to be able to call myself a yoga teacher and humbly offer you my Namaste.

Thank you, Judith.

Did it go okay for you? Happy? It’s an honor. We’ll be glad to put this behind us, at least for now. It’s the kind of question that will probably, and should probably come up from time to time.

Loved it.

For more.

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