Yoga Journal Controversy: why Judith H. Lasater’s plea will fall on deaf ears.

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Aug 9, 2010
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Update: Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis interviews Judith Hanson Lasater.

If you can imagine sexy women doing Buddhist prostrations in Tricycle magazine, then you can also imagine the evolution of Yoga Journal over the years: from holistic yoga magazine with a spiritual, hippie charm…to yoga lifestyle and fitness magazine with a seductive allure.

I’m oversimplifying of course, but you get the general drift! The intellectual and spiritual flagship of yoga in America has drifted far away from its original editorial course.

So far, Judith H. Lasater is right.

At best, Yoga journal has become a magazine with mixed messages.

At worst, Yoga Journal has become a yuppie magazine for yoga fitness lovers.

A closer examination of a recent issue of Yoga Journal reveals a gorgeous yogini (for they are always beautiful, always wearing not-too-much, and these days always female [probably because readers want it that way; they buy more copies of the magazine ~ ed.]) and the following titles:

Meditate for a calm, clear mind.

Restorative power of silence.

Mantra goes mainstream.

Move to the music: 10 poses + 10 songs = Joy!

These titles sound pretty body-mind-spirit balanced, right? Yes, indeed. Still, there has been a radical change in the content of many yoga magazines over the last 12 years or so, from spiritual and philosophical to seductive and commercial.

There has also been a visible shift from yoga as primarily a spiritual discipline to yoga as exercise and sport, a shift from students going to ashrams to yoga studios, a shift from holistic lifestyle to hard core capitalism.

Indeed, a radical shift from a minor yet powerful counterculture to a mainstream, multibillion dollar industry.

As if to underscore this commercial shift, the ownership of Yoga Journal—which was established in 1975 by several prominent yoga teachers (including Judith Lasater) and is the most widely read yoga magazine today—changed hands in 2000 from the Holistic Life Foundation to investment banker John Abbot.

In 2006, John Abbot sold the magazine to publishing conglomerate Active Interest Media in 2006. And if you follow the content, you’ll also witness this popular journal’s steady editorial decline.

Gone are the mile long and in-depth theme articles about yoga philosophy and practice by the likes of Stephen Bodian, Georg Feuerstein, and yes, Judith Lasater.

At worst, Yoga Journal has become a softporn yoga magazine.

But, nobody in charge seems to blush.

If you follow the money, you’ll learn that the circulation has skyrocketed during this last 10 year period, and today the magazine has over 1 million readers.

And, to underscore the shift in content from spirituality and health to fitness and health, Yoga Journal has won four Folio Editorial Excellence Awards for “Best Health and Fitness Magazine.”

Imagine, best fitness magazine! Can you then imagine Patanjali being nominated as the world’s best fitness guru?  Can you imagine the fitness industry turning the Dali Lama’s prostration practice into a sexy exercise routine?

Well, if you can, then you know and accept that Yoga Journal is a money making magazine that answers to the call of the shallow market and the sexy body rather than the call of the cultural, the wholesome, the intellectual and the spiritual.

As an old time yogi, I have reluctantly accepted this fact and therefore I prefer reading Buddhist magazines such as Tricycle and Shambhala Sun.

Reluctantly, Buddhist magazines have become my intellectual and spiritual food these days.

For Yoga Journal is not alone featuring yoga babes on its covers and mostly a series of yoga asana articles inside. All the other yoga magazines follow the same routine. The editorial standards have fallen, the shallow money market has risen, and the sexy cover girls have conquered us all!

So, Judith Lasater, nobody will listen unfortunately. Well, they may listen, politely. They may even quietly agree, but the market will rule, the sexy body will decide.

Because sex is what sells.

The standard has changed. Yoga has changed. Yoga Journal has changed. The message has changed: The subtle body is for Buddhists. The crude body is for yogis.

So, I don’t bring Yoga Journal’s sexy ladies into my meditation room. I reserve that space for my guru and a few other sacred objects.

I don’t want to be distracted when I practice my meditation and my yoga postures.

So, Judith H. Lasater, if you don’t like what you see in Yoga Journal. Don’t read it. Or, even better, start another magazine without all those sexy ads.

Ironically, I actually think there would be a market for it. If the Buddhists can do it, why can’t the yogis do it?


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


68 Responses to “Yoga Journal Controversy: why Judith H. Lasater’s plea will fall on deaf ears.”

  1. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Bob. Now I'll see if I can capitalize on the adrenaline rush I got from your post!

  2. I really am very sorry to have done that to you, Charlotte. I meant to do it to Ramesh. He deserves it!

  3. Ramesh says:

    Hey, Bob, dear friend! I think you have started down that path of beating around the bush again. So, take a deep pranayama breath and relax.

    This debate is indeed about diversity but it is also about quality. By trying to stifle our points of view, you are doing exactly what you speak out against. So, take a look in the mirror. Discussion is healthy. Different points of view is healthy. Moreover, yoga is about expansion of the mind, and I think these discussions expand our minds. I think even your wife, Jane, would agree to that. So, back to you, my dear friend Bob, you tough, smartass yogi, you. Live and let live!

  4. Read your own blog, Ramesh. I read it very carefully and objectlively several times before writing this. You do not really allow for diversity in you point of view.

    I stand by my comment, and I will continue to fight you every step of the way when you write blogs like this that make it sound like you have the one true Yoga. Someone has to.

    Respectfully and with great affection,
    in spite our serious disagreement here,

    Bob W.

  5. Ramesh says:

    Bob, I respectfully disagree… would you say that someone who is against racism is against diversity of view points. Of course not.

    Please stop telling me that I do not have a legitimate right to call these ads exploitative of women and demeaning and flattening to yoga practice and philosophy. That right is part of living in a democratic, plural, diverse, universal society.

    We are back to square one again, Bob. When you strongly disagree with something I say, you try to label me. Put me in a box. Shut me up. It's not working. I know you can do much better than that!
    Let's agree to disagree and move on!

  6. Oh, stop it now, Ramesh. Really.

    I didn't say anything at all about your rights. I did not apply any label to you at all, except traditionalist, which I assume you don't object to. I did not put you in a box. I did not shut you up. I fully expect and look forward to a strong rebuttal from you. It'll be fun.

    This is all just good debate, as far as I'm concerned. Let the readers enjoy and decide.


  7. nathan says:

    Bob – I've seen you comment on a few posts on different blogs speaking about these issues. I get the sense you're supporting the "everyone is equally right" view, and that any approach to yoga is just fine and shouldn't be scrutinized. If this take on your comments is wrong, I do apologize.

    However, if it's a right assessment, this is the kind of feel good relativism that has taken over a lot of American culture if you ask me. Look at any mainstream newspaper. You'll find articles about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq side by side with articles about American Idol and the latest celebrity divorce – as if the two are equally newsworthy. That's just one example of this trend.

    To be honest, I'm fully aware that I am just one voice amongst millions. And not one with any powerful platform to speak from. My point in speaking about the issues I do is that the trends Ramesh's post brings up, I brought up in my comments, and others have brought up in their comments, are troubling because if they end up dominating the North American yoga community, then what you will have is yet another self-improvement, exercise routine that rarely challenges people to actually transform their lives.

    You assume people like Ramesh and I are threats to the "yoga" YJ folks are practicing (whatever that is), but actually I'd argue if anything, it's the opposite. Those of us dedicated to the whole works of yoga practice, in whatever form it takes (Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, etc), are in the minority already. The majority of North Americans are people who do yoga primarily as physical exercise.

    This wouldn't be an issue for me if it was just a separate category of practice that had no influence on the minority of people practicing, or attempting to practice, the whole Eight Limbs. But there is definite influence and what you find is that a lot of studios, yoga media, and teachers are bending towards the yoga as exercise crew in order to make money. And this is having an impact on how all these various yogas are being transmitted to the next generation of practitioners.

    It's fine to me if people just want to practice asana. In fact, I even have taught just asana to some of my English as a Second Language students, knowing that a secular approach was all I could offer in the setting I work in.

    For those of us interested in maintaining yoga as a broader path beyond exercise routine, however, we really must dig into these kind of issues seriously because just saying anything goes means assuming that our practice occurs in a vacuum where outside pressures aren't impacting us. And that's just plain false.

  8. Zach Ketterhagen says:

    There already is a magazine out there that features the philosophical and spiritual aspects of yoga–Yoga International. Its been around since 1991 and this may be the best opportunity for people to search out and find it!

  9. Ramesh says:

    Nathan, thanks so much for your response, which I very much agree with.

    And to Bob: I do not think this is about being holier-than-thou judgements, but as Nathan, says, about the deeper discussion of what yoga is.

    Also, Bob, I do not consider myself a "traditionalist." That is your label. Calling me or other or our views holier-than-thou, is also your label.

    Yoga has always been diverse, with many different forms, and schools, (and this I celebrate) and also, from the very onset, a practice that involves the whole of human life–the physical, mental and spiritual.

    In India, yoga has been very diverse for thousands of years, without any Yoga Journal. So the commercialization of yoga, the sexploitation of women to market yoga is not necessary to create diversity and does not necessarily represent diversity.

    I think that the integrity and diversity of yoga is best served without this current slant YJ has taken. But, I am of course not advocating censorship. That would be to stop the natural flow of cultural evolution. That would be to stifle diversity.

    But I do encourage free debate and deep discussion. And that is what this is all about. And yogis have done that for thousands of years. The yogis of old were fierce debaters of philosophy and practice.
    So are the yogis of today. So, I like to think of myself as someone who represents and uphold tradition but also someone that is open to new ways to spread and practice and celebrate yoga.

    You may be familiar with vertical and horizontal values. The vertical represent tradition, the deep, the interior, the horizontal represent the new, the democratic, the experimental, the everybody-is-right-view. I think true yogis have both of those qualities.

    So, yes, YJ represents, perhaps mostly horizontal values (but also vertical values as it also features more traditional views and articles) and that is good on many levels, and not so good on others (and I have already said why I think so in particulat in my article above). Traditional values, or vertical values also have a shadow side: dogmatism, against experimentation, etc.

    So, I think this debate is about finding the right balance, and to find balance, we need to listen and have dialogue about issues of importance to that which we love: to practice and live the life of yoga.

  10. Ramesh says:

    Zach, yes, you are right, and this has also been mentioned above. YJ also feture such articles, but not so many anymore.
    The limitation with Yoga International is that it mainly features article by teachers of the Himalayan Institute and thus may not have a broad appeal as my imganiray favorite magazine– more like Tricycle or Shambhala Sun….or Utne Reader for yogis.

  11. That sounds great, Ramesh.

    I sure do wish you would adopt this respectful, variety-embracing, knowledgeable, nuanced tone in your original blogs. To me you are often like a completely different writer in your replies to comments, as above.


    Bob W.

  12. As of November 2009, I used to work for Yoga Journal in small business advertising where I represented only smaller yoga teachers and yoga studios worldwide. I had the largest number of advertisers of any of the other sales reps and I loved my customers… so much so, I started my own business that focuses on giving Teachers, studios and smaller yoga businesses a voice for free.

    I still like Yoga Journal. I even subscribe to it now that I don’t get it for free. I can say that working at Yoga Journal was a beautiful experience for the teachers and studios owners that I came in contact with. Out of all the people worked there, I can tell you that they are great people… and most of them, with the exception of like 7 or 8 (out of like 40) people all practice yoga…. even the main advertising publisher Bill Harper practices yoga. The ex-ceo John Abbott does yoga every day.

    When I first started at Yoga Journal, I thought it was really ironic that for once I was selling ad space that people were happy to buy. But as time went on, I felt as though I was fighting an up hill battle against corporate bureaucracy.

    However, I can tell you that when Judith Lassiter says “Your Ads are too sexy,” Yoga Journal is completely listening. Everyone in the editorial staff heard it, because Judith Lassiter is still in contact with Yoga Journal and historically she is the whole reason that yoga is as popular in America as it is right now. When she lashes out against their ads, she is lashing out at Active Interest Media’s lack of editorial focus, not the editors of Yoga Journal.

    What Yoga Journal prints and what gets cut from the pages are two different topics… the editors hands are tied to what advertising is making it into the magazine.

    I have been saying that the corporate yoga boom has very little to do with yoga, in fact, the corporate yoga boom has nothing to do with yoga and everything to do with the almighty consumerism. Most of the people practicing, or teaching yoga have not experienced the increase. Active Interest Media will do what the corporate polls and numbers indicate, so if America wants sexy ads, the ads will stay.

  13. castellani says:

    Maybe there really is such a thing as corporate conscience… I don't know. I know that Judith brought up great points, that are obviously affecting the yoga moral majority.

    There are instances where great things are done through Yoga Journal that are truly beneficial to some teachers, (sometimes they aren't even models!) but the thing that I find alarming is that instead of being a "great" resource, Yoga Journal is quite satisfied in being a "good" resource with more ads than articles. Sometimes the good can be the enemy of the best.

    So ok… Judith Lassiter is justified in her outburst, but what is that really saying about yoga… other than the obvious need to pull away from flagrant materialism and fervent need to understand that corporations are not spiritual entities? Yoga Journal is a magazine that has around 350,000 subscribers. That is the size of a small town in America, but that is the largest presence in the yoga world right now. Rather than being a leader as the largest yoga media entity and discussing issues that are presently effecting yoga on a nationwide level and now a global level, Yoga Journal maintains their middle road.

  14. castellani says:

    Traditionally, Yoga International is only one aspect of what "The Himalayan Institute," actually accomplishes. The Himalayan Institute is a non-profit, international organization that is encompassed by Humanitarian projects, book publishing, Ayurvedic health products, Educational yoga and Ayurveda programs, and a worldwide membership.

    Even if their circulation in the US is limited, the actual reach of The Himalayan Institute is more expansive than you are giving them credit for.

    Yoga Journal has three main divisions, Magazine, Conferences, DVDs & Books. I think that you have your information turned around. If the world would instantly conform to your fondest wishes tomorrow, the best you could achieve would be to have Yoga International become another Yoga Journal. What would we gain from that kind of conformity? Yoga International would become less altruistic and more commercial.

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