September 12, 2011

Yoga & the Commodification of the True Self.

Yoga today is riddled with a huge internal contradiction.

On the one hand, yoga’s rightly celebrated as a way of developing a more authentic connection to one’s “true self.” On the other hand, its popularity is to a large extent driven by its “branding” as something that’ll remodel you to fit a prefabricated image as someone who’s not only thin, fit, bendy, and attractive, but also empowered, serene, smiling, and – most of all – happy.

In other words, if yoga does in fact offer a means of connecting with the “true self,” it’s also being very successfully sold as a commodity that promises the manufacture of a seemingly fabulous, but ultimately false pseudo-self.

It’s often argued that such branding of yoga is worthwhile because it works to bring the practice to more people. And to a certain extent, this is true. The marketing blitz that developed during the past decade has almost certainly served to make yoga more popular. The problem, however, is that the more such advertising enshrines a commodified image of yoga in popular culture, the more it undermines the most important gifts the practice has to offer.

There’s no getting around this contradiction. Yoga’s become a big money-maker, at least for the strategically positioned few. (Your average teacher, in contrast, is probably barely scraping by on a shoestring.) As such, it will be marketed to the nth degree. This is simply a fact that contemporary North American practitioners have to live with, whether we like it or not.

Nonetheless, I believe that it’s important to heighten our awareness of the conundrums this creates. Turning what a powerful mind-body-spirit practice into a popular commodity carries certain costs. And while it can be uncomfortable to think into them, I believe that it’s important to do so. Otherwise, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the manipulations of savvy marketers, and defenseless against the growing cultural undertow of a commodified image of yoga.

21st Century Yoga

In Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Kripalu yoga teacher and scholar Stephen Cope noted :

The most interesting story in the world of yoga right now lies at the point of intersection between the ancient forms of yoga and the reality of 20th-century lives and culture . . . The point of intersection (is) fascinating not only because of the capacity the ancient science of yoga has to change our lives, but also because of the capacity we have to change yoga.

I think that this is still true. But a lot’s changed since he wrote that back in 1999.

Since that time, the number of Americans practicing yoga has more than doubled, up from about 7 to 15-20 million. In the process, yoga’s succeeded in becoming an almost $6 billion-a-year “industry.”

21st century yoga has morphed into something quite different than it was only a little over a decade ago.

The iconic Lululemon was founded in 1998, just one year before Cope published his book. But for the past several years, Lulu has regularly topped the stock market news. Just this week, Bloomberg, an online journal that “keeps the financial and business worlds humming by providing the highest quality data, news, and analytics” reported that “Lululemon Envy Has Retailers From Gap to Nordstrom Chasing Yoga Devotees”:

Cult-Like Following: With a canny blend of fashion and lifestyle marketing – besides the free yoga classes, it spotlights local “ambassadors” who “embody the Lululemon lifestyle” – the retailer has built a cult-like following. Lululemon’s revenue grew 57 percent last year, to about $712 million. Revenue for fiscal 2011 may increase as much as 33 percent to $950 million, the company said today in a statement.

The word “cult” springs up a lot when business analysts talk Lulu. Mainly, it’s used to describe the strength of their customer base, as in: “A cult following is the most coveted accessory in retail, and Lululemon’s is even more lustworthy than its Velocity Gym Bag.” Notably, if less frequently, it’s also used to report on how Lulu’s “almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business” – particularly, although not exclusively, through its alliance with the Landmark Forum.

But this isn’t meant to be yet another Lulu-bashing post (sympathetic to them as I may be). Because simply harping on Lululemon the makes the larger issue appear way too simple, and the solution far too easy.

Really, Lululemon only stands out because they’re so good at playing the branding game. But that game is much, much larger than any one company, or set of products, or any other such easily identifiable thing. That’s what makes it so powerful – and so insidious. We can’t protect ourselves from the seductive allure of the fake yogic self simply by abstaining from Lulu and buying our yoga pants elsewhere. It’s just not that easy.

You Too Can Be a Yoga Goddess!

In a recent post on Yoga Modern, Lara Veon wrote eloquently about how it feels to live the contradictions that contemporary yoga culture creates:

We are bombarded by the commercial yoga “shtick” of sexy and seductive. As an emerging yogi, I find myself vacillating between the image of yoga presented by the media and . . . the yoga of service and surrender.  At one end I am susceptible to the manufactured yoga goddess image myself, and at the other I am finding the strength to declare the lunacy of such an ideal. And sometimes it’s difficult enough to recognize when hypocrisy hijacks integrity, let alone raise my voice when it does.

While I don’t feel the same pull of the “manufactured yoga goddess image” myself (I’m too old to pull it off, for one thing), I definitely recognize the dynamic that Lara describes. And I believe that it’s a very powerful one.

It’s important to remember that human beings have always had to struggle with the desires and aversions of the ego. Wanting to be rich, beautiful, powerful, or whatever is certainly natural (if in tension with a commitment to spiritual growth). What’s new, however, is that now we have this powerful, mass media driven engine dedicated to creating desires and manipulating fears in order to sell consumer products.

In this society, many of our most talented and high-powered minds are working overtime to figure out how to reshape our very identities so that we’ll voluntarily dedicated ourselves to fueling the profitability of this or that consumer product. As “The Branding Strategy Insider” recently explained:

People buy into things that fit their personal brand of meaning. The core task of marketing is, therefore, to entrain peoples’ emotional based logic that shapes self-identity and product-identity, into narrative. That force wins sales and boosts profits . . . brand is about what people wish to become, i.e. Just Do It – not what they are.

. . . we need to find in each subject the cultural detritus of ALL minds, the controlling cultural ideas that exist in everyone’s mind. From such deep insights can arise potent communication plans that have the maximum chance of increasing ROI (Return on Investment), as it is here that marketers can tap the primal structure of the authentic human experience.

When it all works, marketers can create – a message, a campaign, content, multi-platform strategies, etc. – that lodge indelibly into peoples’ lives so that even when they do not think about it, their existence resonates.

Whether Campbell’s or Hermes, this act is required of all market leaders, of any corporation that seeks to profit through brand magic.

And in 21st century America, this “brand magic” has become a powerful form of sorcery indeed.

Brand Self, True Self, No Self

In many ways, yoga itself has been turned into a brand. Young women in particular seem drawn to it as a way of crafting a better self – fitter, thinner, healthier, calmer, sweeter, and sexier than ever before.

Of course, yoga can confer such benefits, and it’s only natural to want them. There are two big problems, however. One is that the more we (consciously or unconsciously) buy into the images that we’re being sold – such as the aforementioned “yoga goddess” – the more we become alienated from our authentic selves. The prefab brand-self simply cannot be the true self – happily, the magic doesn’t run that deep (Stepford Wives fears notwithstanding).

The second problem is that the more we become entangled in the seductions of the branded pseudo-self, the less we’re able to touch the deeper elements of yoga practice. As Jeremy Carrette and Richard King explain in their excellent book, Selling Spirituality:

In Hindu yoga traditions the goal is to overcome selfish attachments through the practice of a rigorous regime of psycho-physical techniques designed to turn the consciousness of the practitioner inward. This process, however, is designed not to reinforce one’s sense of an individual embodied self but to overcome it. Depending upon the specific yoga tradition this can mean anything from identifying with a transcendent consciousness beyond the material world (classical Raja Yoga), realizing the essential unity of existence (Advaita Vedanta), or identifying with he Supreme Deity or seeing the entire universe as one’s body (various forms of Tantra). Whatever their fundamental worldview, all forms of Hindu yoga reject the motivational structure upon which consumerism is predicated – namely identification with the embodied individual self and acting to further its own self-interest.

For those of us who care about yoga, the danger of “branding the practice” runs far deeper than questions of whether or not it’s OK to pay $100 for a pair of cool stretch pants. The real question to consider, I think, is whether yoga itself – at least as it’s experienced by many of us today – runs the risk of being turned into a product. Rather than being something we do to explore the mystery of our own being, it becomes something to have in order to bolster up a prefabricated “yoga identity” that can’t truly sustain us.

If we want to have a practice that’s stronger than the powerful new “brand magic” that suffuses contemporary yoga culture, we’re going to need to step up our own, alternative game – and invite others to play along with us.


This post was inadvertently inspired by a discussion sparked by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. If you’re interested in that part of the story, you can read my companion post, “Yoga, Postmodernism, and the Search for the ‘True Self’,” over  at Think Body Electric.


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