A Respectful Letter to Yoga Journal Magazine: Represent & Unify. ~ Shira Engel

Via elephant journal
on May 24, 2012
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Dear Yoga Journal,

This is not, I promise you, a scathing letter or any form of hate mail.

On the contrary, Yoga Journal is my favorite magazine of all time.

Whenever I get a new issue, I’m incapable of reading it without post-its, a highlighter, and a pen nearby.

You truly are the leading resource on yoga. This is why I would not want to simply remake you by creating my own yoga magazine—I couldn’t do half as good a job.

But here’s the thing: the media represents us. You have earned the honorable responsibility of representing a practice that changes lives on a daily basis.

But you, in imposing a limited representation of the practice of yoga, limit the people who can see themselves as part of this mindfulness movement that is having a global effect.

Yoga’s asana component is the only form of physical exercise that is not perpetually paired with aspirational headlines and vain promises that reproduce what is wrong with society’s expectations of what our bodies should look like.

Yoga Journal does not partake in this verbal assault on weight and beauty through the words on the covers, and I commend you for that.

But they say a picture is worth a thousand words. In case you didn’t know where I was going with this, I will say explicitly now: Yoga Journal shows the same body type on just about every page, on just about every cover, and this limits who thinks we can do yoga, a practice that is intended for absolutely every body.

YJ, you know this. You feature articles on teaching yoga to the deaf and in prisons. Teachers and scholars of all shapes and sizes write for you, but you don’t seem to show their pictures. I get it—you go with what you know sells to we, your readers, but guess what?

Reality sells too; there’s just not enough statistical backing to prove this yet because popular culture has yet to give equitable representation a fair chance.

Yoga is revolutionary. It is reaching more populations than any other trend or practice. Its boom is fast, and it is perhaps this century’s most lasting import into the West.

Yoga Journal, as yoga’s biggest media representation to the mainstream, has the potent chance to be revolutionary as well. You can be the first leading publication to stop airbrushing and start offering something real to a global community of yogis and yoginis.

I picked up my first issue of Yoga Journal on a shelf at Barnes & Noble three years ago. I did not pick it up because I saw a thin woman on the cover in scorpion (there is nothing wrong with thin women, by the way, and YJ should most definitely continue to feature these women, but not by virtue of their weight or height).

I picked it up because of the logo that screams, “We take yoga seriously!” and headlines that promised help with creating a home practice and a breakdown of arm balances I was working on mastering.

Even though I am a yoga teacher and regular practitioner, I don’t think you’d feature me on your cover.

I am 5’2”. I have a big butt and hips in comparison to the rest of my body—that is, in comparison to conventional beauty. I have thighs that require me to get a different Lululemon size for leggings than what I get for tops.

And do you know what?

Yoga teaches me to love every single ounce and inch of me.

When I step onto my mat, I am joyfully proud of my body. When I teach, I thank my thighs for keeping me grounded as I adjust students in half-moon pose.

But when I pick up a copy of my favorite magazine, that pride I have worked my yoga butt off to cultivate…wanes. For a brief second, before a meditative reality check kicks in, I start to wonder if I should aspire to something other than acceptance when I chataranga my way through a vinyasa.

I am one of the lucky ones. I already have a practice that is about acceptance, joy, and love. Others don’t, yet, and so need a resource like YJ to get them started. But they need to know that they are represented and therefore included in this practice we all love.

Yoga is for all of us, not just cover models. So, for the sake of the definition of yoga, let’s unite to broaden our definitions of yogi and yogini. Let us reach as many people as possible with this practice.

Yours truly,

Reality Check



Shira Engel is a college student, teacher, yogi, feminist, writer, and sister, and seeks to blend all these aspects of her identity into the daily practice of living. She is a student at Wesleyan University and blogs on yoga for college students at storyofacollegeyogi.tumblr.com.

As a teacher, she seeks to use her teaching skills and love of yoga as service to her communities. Fueled by dharma and finding communities she can serve, Shira seeks to embrace her roots in order to cultivate the elements of the root chakra in her students – strength and stability – through a fierce and healing practice. She resides at her blog and at shiraengel.com.

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22 Responses to “A Respectful Letter to Yoga Journal Magazine: Represent & Unify. ~ Shira Engel”

  1. Elize says:

    This is great! Thanks for the article and very positive letter. I, too, love Yoga Journal because it continues to have articles and features that are the best in the field. They include asana (which I adore) but also probe beyond it as to where asana can lead- mental/emotional health and well being. They also include features that touch upon, but do not dwell, on spiritual issues without getting too "la-la-loopy". I LOVE this about Yoga Journal! And it's beautiful and inspiring- many of the artwork and photography pieces are lovely.

    I would love to see more body types represented. I agree that more people would be attracted to yoga if they saw reinforcement that spoke to THEM.

    I would also love to see less ads. I understand ads help pay for the magazine, but I stopped my subscription because I do not like being overwhelmed with ads on every other page. I am on a limited income- I can't AFFORD to buy many of the products, so why stoke my desire for many things that I don't even need, to enhance a practice that needs nothing but my presence to show up? I decided it was more worth my time and money to individually look at an issue and decide whether to purchase it based on the month's topics, articles, and overall beauty. A year or two ago, Manduka provided many previous customers with complementary subscriptions, so I have been receiving YJ again, but I will not be purchasing a subscription any time soon.

  2. wingsaway says:

    Beautifully said, a good read. Did you actually send it to YG?

  3. elephantjournal says:

    Love this respectful, sweet, strong open letter.

    As a publisher myself, I personally find that Yoga Journal goes out of its way to represent diverse models of yoga practice within the constraints of what we will buy on the newsstand. In any case, this letter serves as a hopeful reminder that there is a wider market out there, seeking to be represented. So, I'd say the onus is on us, the conscious consumer, to support covers of non-conventional body types. What say you?

  4. yogasamurai says:

    No credible magazine outside of the yoga world is still this lily-white, uptight, and geared so exclusively to the affluent suburban consumer.

    Yoga Journal is like Augusta, where Masters Golf tournament is held. One of the last bastions of white – but in this case female – racist privilege.

    Huge campaigns are being waged against other media companies and organs to diversify their portrayals of people to better reflect the world.

    The problem: Yoga needs to join the world, instead of thinking it's above the world, and here to instruct the world. Here's a perfect example of where yoga needs to be led BY THE NOSE.

    It's only because yoga people, for all their tough talk, are such perfectly mindful "sheep" that this kind of practice continues.

    Let me tell you something: if you start picketing the YJ office, calling the media, and writing letters to their advertisers saying you're going to boycott their products, see how fast things change.

    These letters? Ha! They've been getting them for years.

    But here's the dirty little secret. The yoga people complaining are women and the abusers are women, and it's hard for women to stand strong with abusing women. It's somehow not "sisterly."

    So people continue to write these polite and totally ineffectual – and largely feel-good – letters, as if politesse changes entrenched power structures.

    Gandhi knew that. he was no shrinking violet – or lotus eater. He forswore arms, but he certainly believed in force. He MADE the British leave India. He didn't ask them. He shamed and humiliated them into it. Yes, very yogic.

    We need less respect and sweetness, more collective power and organization. If you're only as lame in your heart and spirit as YJ is, then just leave the magazine alone? Seriously.

    Now, if you want to start a real campaign, and put your body where your mouth is, and take a real risk…..but I'd hate to disturb your inner peace.

    it would have to come from yoga guys, I think, because we're stronger and clearer on some things — but you haven't given us a really good reason to invest in the yoga movement you've built in your own image, so why would we want to get involved?

    Your letter never even mentioned that 30% of yoga consumers are men – or that non-white people are getting int yoga, because in fact, it started in the non-white world?

  5. Mizboognish says:

    Thanks, yoga samurai. I find YJ vanilla and underwhelming. I always wonder where the substance is…

  6. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Technically, East Indians are considered Caucasians.

    If men got involved, yoga publishing would really be Occupied.

  7. Muks says:

    YJ sells perfection rather than representation. You want to be super slim, pretty and muscular, you buy this magazine. Who asked what you really are?!

  8. yogasamurai says:

    Outside of the American context I don't doubt that many Indians ID that way. So do many of my Cuban friends, in fact, who often loathe the term "Latino."

    However, both groups still play the ethnic ID game when it is to their advantage. Even liberal Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts tried to do that recently by claiming to be "Native American," basicaly because she's from Oklahoma. What a hoot.

    For the record, "Asian Indians" as they call themselves after immigrating, fought for and won the right to be identified as a separate "ethnic minority" on the US Census form, starting in 1990. That meant they could qualify for special "disadvantaged" status when applying for SBA business loans, for example. Partly as a result, Asian Indian business owners receive the lion's share of SBA loans, to the consternation of other "groups.

    We go round and round and round in the Circle Game.

    As for men not being in the yoga publishing world, that might come as news to Waylon, of course, but it's good to see a woman state her own "gender chauvinism" so baldly, because you're being more honest than a lot of your cohorts here – who share that view – and it's refreshing.

    Personally I prefer and extol the virtues of gender balance in ALL institutions, because I see female dominance being as problematic as male dominance.

    Each gender pretty much veers out of yogic balance, intellectual clarity, and emotional self-control when left to its own exclusive devices – though the gender "group think" practiced by each gender often blinds them to this reaity. The women no less than the men.

    The Brogi world is expanding, so don't be surprised if there's a new kid in the yoga blogosphere soon. I also want to say VQ, that I appreciate your comments quite often , and even here, but not because you're a woman. Or in spite of you being one.

    Just because you're YOU.

  9. yogasamurai says:

    No, I agree there are very sound short-term business marketing reasons why you pitch your magazine to the demographic that wants it, regardless of what its prejudices and blind spots are – because you keep your readers happy, and keep the magazine viable.

    And you tell yourself, if they are going to stop reading because they hate seeing curvy Black women or Latina women, or men (Chippendales excluded) or women they consider obese on the cover, they may rebel by cancelling their subscriptions.

    Some people try to lead their audience, not just follow, and play to their worst prejudices,. It depends why you think you are on the earth, and how much you are willing to push the envelope. Yoga people are not envelope pushers as a rule, though they constantly suggest otherwise, of course.

    The truth is, a lot of the women who read Yoga Journal have only seen a Latina woman if she hired the woman as a maid or a nanny. And if they ever thought they would become as "heavy" as some of the women around them they look down on, they would hang themselves in the bathroom of their own McMansions with their Lulu pants.

    Just too much of a soul check for them. After all, who wants to look inside for more than a fleeting moment — and trul embrace the Other of our fears. When someone else is looking mainly, and when you can get some kudos for being "deep," but don't have to commit yourself fully perhaps.

  10. Waylon,

    Can you get the editor of Yoga Journal and do a Skype interview with him/her? Go right to the source?

  11. Annabel says:


  12. Luber says:

    WAHHHHHHHHH!!! This story is so old. If you love and respect YJ so much then you must also understand what it takes to keep a magazine running. The most important thing is to sell the magazine so that we can continue to read it. The current editor is a truly AMAZING woman, editor and writer. She supports everyone and all styles of yoga. If she could put fat people on the cover, maybe she would, maybe not…I don't know.
    Yoga is for everyone and YJ sends that message through the quality articles, sequencing and stories etc.
    We can find something wrong with ANYTHING…but is it worth it? Isn't it better to just keep working on ourselves? If you do enough yoga, then it doesn't really matter what the cover model of YJ looks like. I have never even thought about it, they always look like happy, healthy women to me.

  13. yogasamurai says:

    I actually agree with the author that Yoga Journal has real content. I don't read the magazine very often but they did serialize excerpts from Mark Singleton's book, and I recall that they ran a long-overdue article on yoga injuries due to excessive practice of the headstand. I may not have post-its out in full force but I wouldn't consider YJ "fluff."

    But that's not the issue here. The truth is, YJ could have it both ways, probably. Keep their design guidelines, but STILL run a piece in the magazine that actually raises questions about them – or that features other practitioners and body types.

    They might also sponsor a reader survey on this very issue. Do you want to see other body types in the magazine? They could also take a risk – heaven forbid anyone in yoga do that – and just experiment with new covers for a few months, and announce to their readers that they are doing so – and await feedback. Lots of options besides burying their heads in the sand.

    Any of those steps might suggest a magazine that is in tune with contemporary concerns over diversity and "social responsibility," however quaint those concerns seem to some here and in the yoga industry generally.

  14. Dawna Houston says:

    As a yoga teacher and yoga practioner, I find YJ truly boring with the exception of Sally Kempton's articles. The rigorous use of yoga models wearing extremely expensive "yoga clothing" is old and tired for most of us who are serious about practicing yoga. (And I am 5'5, 110lbs, and very toned. But who cares). The dream for these poor new yoga practioners that seem to be buying YJ? If I practice yoga, I will look like these people in the YJ magazine. Just like the yoga students who would come to my class and ask me "How long will it take me to get the 'yoga butt'?" I used to look at their ass and give an estimate. But then I add: You can get the yoga butt (maybe) but I truly hope you find something else in this class. Something that will make you far happier. So YJ gives them the eye candy and we all hope they stumble (in their drunken marketing stupor) on the path higher chakras with more insightful articles. Is it working?

  15. Roz Lambeth says:

    I have found that over the years the articles have gotten more Vanilla, the ads more prolific, and the models less like what I see in the classes I teach and attend. I wrote a complimentary article also published on EJ today about the commercialization of Yoga Journal.

  16. G.C.Aloha says:

    Bravo for this letter; I hope you sent it to Yoga Journal. What I want to know is, who decided consumers won't buy a magazine that shows a variety of body types? One of my favorite images in Yoga Journal is a regularly occurring ad from Kripalu featuring a beautiful, fleshy woman in eka pada raja kapotasana. I am 5' 1" and 128 pounds, not what most people consider heavy, and while I enjoy the image of a beautifully toned body in a graceful pose such as the ones featured on the covers displayed in this article, I feel including only slim and tall body types is a potentially damaging limitation of vision to place on the magazine's readership. I believe that YJ wrongly assumes thin people don't want to see larger body types and that heavier people will somehow benefit from seeing images of thin people. But we all would benefit from exposure to and appreciation of the beauty all body types expressing a pose..

  17. G.C. Aloha says:

    One more thing I wanted to add: readeres complained about the lack of photos of men in the magazine, and Yoga Journal now regularly includes male models demonstrating poses. Given this responsiveness, I think that more reader requests for a variety of body types in the magazine will eventually be met with at least a modicumm of success.

  18. Ari says:

    Yeah, I agree with what other people are saying. I think if the only problem you have with Yoga Journal is that they feature the "same" body type on each cover…. you have bigger problems.

    And also, why in the world do you care what the yogi on the cover's body type is? She does yoga. She is a being. She has a body.

    I just don't think this issue is worth discussing and is a little shallow.

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  20. lb1225 says:

    You totally missed the point. In my opinion.

  21. Ari says:

    Care to elaborate?

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