December 16, 2011

Yoga Paradox. ~ Zena Urma

What is yoga? What does it mean to live a ‘yoga lifestyle’?

What is being portrayed in the mass media in the West as ‘yoga lifestyle’?

We are about to explore the origins of yoga and then we will segue into the single most read and known yoga publications in the United States, Yoga Journal, and dissect themes being portrayed by its advertisements.

In Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eight fold path is called Ashtanga, which translates into eight limbs. Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra is a highly respected Indian scripture and is the foundational Yoga text. The eight limbs are a practical guide to a practitioner’s personal development to achieve the harmony of the mind, the body and the spirit which leads to enlightenment or Samadhi.

So what are the eight limbs of yoga?

The eight limbs consist of five yamas and five niyamas. Yama is your attitude towards others and the world around you. The five yamas are: 1. Ahimsa or non-violence, 2. Satya or truthfulness, 3. Asteya or non- stealing, 4. Bramacharya or non- lust, 5. Aparigraha or non-possessiveness. The niyamas are how you treat yourself or your attitude toward yourself. They are as follows: 1. Sauca or cleanliness, 2. Santosha or contentment, 3.Tapas or austerity, 4. Svadhyaya or study of the sacred text or one’s self, 5. Isvarapranidhama or living with an awareness of the divine. The ultimate goal of the eight limbs of yoga is Samadhi. Samadhi is characterized by a state of ecstasy and the feeling that you and the universe are one. It is a state of peace and completion, awareness and compassion and detachment.

Living a yoga lifestyle is not about attending multiple yoga classes each week, wearing tight yoga pants or trendy accessories like toe sox to class. It is not about greeting someone and saying, “Namaste” or saying “Om shanti” when it’s time to leave. Our convenience-based society and consumerist culture puts pressure on us that we need more stuff, more yoga pants more toe sox, more “gear”.

So what is the yoga lifestyle?

Yoga lifestyle is about one’s internal value (based off the eight limbs). Practicing the yamas is the core of the yoga lifestyle. Yoga as a science and practical method aims to achieve lasting inner peace and happiness. In order to do this, one must learn how to control the mind. As a modern American yogini, I believe strongly that we should keep the values of simplicity and minimalism to maintain the yoga lifestyle. We should practice controlling our minds and focus on the path rather than allowing the distractions of glittery, shiny, objects and advertisements to infer.

Yoga Journal is one of the most popular, prosperous and respectable yoga magazines in the United States. According to their website, Yoga Journal has been published under the same name for the past 35 years. It has sold 340,000 copies in the last Audit Bureau of Circulations auditing period. On the newsstand alone each copy sells for $4.99. The magazine has sold 125,000 subscriptions in the last Audit Bureau of Circulations auditing period and 94% were for a year or more. Yoga Journal’s circulation is at an all-time high and has never gone down. Most recently, it has won most engaged reader award. In the U.S. alone, there is an estimated 14 million people who practice yoga. Yoga Journal symbolizes the westernization of yoga and is a well-known icon to anyone interested or exposed to yoga culture through magazines, TV, or internet.

Below is an advertisement from Yoga Journal featuring a company called Toe Sox. Kathryn Budig, a nationally well-known yoga teacher, is posing for the company wearing nothing but her glowing skin and toe sox. Looking at this advertisement is supposed to make you feel sexy, strong, and might possibly put you in the mood to court. It’s that easy, sex sells and the partnership and promotion of Yoga Journal and Toe Sox verify my point. The production of these sexy, nude advertisements has popularized Kathryn Budig, Yoga Journal, Toe Sox and she is now considered to be their cover girl.

This creation and implementation of these advertisements has alerted many people within the yoga community, causing some practitioners to feel that the eight limb path is being exploited by the magazine’s advertisements, accusing them of selling sex through their products. Judith Hanson Lasater, a dedicated reader and supporter of Yoga Journal expressed her feelings through a letter she wrote to the editor of the magazine which was published in Yoga Journal September of 2010 (below). Ironically, the September issue also featured yet another advertisement using a beautiful, naked woman practicing yoga to promote the next Yoga Journal Conference. Let’s face it, we all know sex sells in the United States.

Yoga Journal is the leading source behind the Westernization of Yoga and Eastern philosophy in the United States through their iconic push of products onto the popular consumer culture. Let’s shift our focus onto another advertisement from the journal, featuring a company called Tiny Devotions. This ad features a beautiful, young, Caucasian woman wearing designer jewelry and clothing while practicing yoga. I decided to investigate this ad on a deeper level and researched the company, Tiny Devotions. All of the information quoted below is directly from their website.

“Tiny Devotions is a hip, fresh and inspired jewelry company that creates designer mala beads.” This company markets the yoga community in the West through media sources, such as internet, magazines and TV to get their message across to the abyss of the consumer culture. The irony of their product is that they take an auspicious tool to meditation and spirituality (mala necklaces) and market it as an item that is hip, sexy and expensive. The intentions of the product are not in harmony with the intention of the origins and purpose of mala necklaces. Under the “about us” section it clearly states, “Whether your mantra is Om Shanti, or I love Shopping… our malas represent the Bohemian lifestyle of living your dreams, following your passions and looking good as you do it.”

This is a wonderful example of the westernization of yoga. What is Yoga Journal’s intention for featuring and supporting this company in every publication? Obviously, it is to market a designer product and make money off of it. On the website, www.tinydevotions.com, under the section, ‘How to choose mala beads’ The author writes, ‘When I started making mala beads I wanted to take the tradition of these esoteric beads and make them accessible and “sexy.’ Also on the same page you can find the ‘Who’s wearing us?’ section that lists the people who support their product. These people are well-known through social media. Some examples are: Jen Grover (media mogul and business expert), Kathryn Budig (well-known yoga instructor who has been featured in Yoga Journal and Yogi Times, on E!). Liz Trinnear (Canadian pop music star) and Sean Corn (“one of the greatest yoga teachers in America” featured on the cover of Yoga Journal and in other magazines such as Nike Goddess, Glamour, Allure, etc.) How can wearing a product make you have a better yoga practice or increase your spirituality?

The tradition of yoga focuses on detachment, not consumerism, high fashion, or attempting to be sexy. It is an anti-consumerists tradition which focuses on promoting spiritual unity with a supreme being through system of meditations, postures and movements. The beads on the mala necklace are supposed to represent the eyes or tears of Shiva – and are worn for their protective and sacred qualities. The necklace has 108 beads which represent a sacred and holy number that has many different auspicious meanings. The wearer is supposed to breathe their intention into every cell of their body while bringing awareness into the bead of their mala necklace 108 times.

The irony of Yoga Journal is that it does not follow the eight limb yogic path. It contains credible information about the history and science of yoga, but constantly contradicts the core principles of the yoga path by marketing and promoting their own ideology that is centered on selling products, making money and setting trends for people to follow that have absolutely nothing to do with the principles of yoga. Through yoga, we are teaching people to live a life of simplicity, non-attachment and control the mind, from feelings or desires (this applies to material objects, feelings and sex, food, etc.). The path teaches students to take only what they need and to live free from greed or hoarding.

The Yoga Journal advertisements that we have discussed and dissected verify that the yamas and niyamas have been manipulated by Yoga Journal. These popular advertisements distract readers by using colorful, shiny and attractive images like beautiful young women in nice clothing (or lack thereof) and jewelry. You can see recurring themes in these ads. This is the façade that lures readers into thinking that if they fall into the trap of the Yoga Journal marketing that they too will be young, white, beautiful, dressed in designer clothes and high-end products with an amazing yoga practice. These are what I like to call, yoga phonies. This is a made up subculture in the United States that was created by Yoga Journal in order to produce people who would buy their products and help them make money. These advertisements are a paradox of the traditional yoga lifestyle and boldly do not follow the eight limb path written by Pantanjali in the Yoga Sutras.

Zena Urma is a yogini studying Anthropology at East Tennessee State University. She works to educate and serve her community by helping empower people on their own path to health and happiness through teaching the philosophy  and practice of yoga and public service.  She is inspired by love and wants to heal the hearts of people everywhere.

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