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.
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.