The Shiny, Happy People Place Is Bullsh*t.

Via Erica Mather
on Aug 7, 2012
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Let’s Have a Dream: Balancing Internal Experience with External Reality.

Act 1:

Once upon a time, I was in graduate school at an Ivy League University in New York, feeling exhausted, psychically battered, and devastatingly low on self-confidence.

Oh, First World problems

At that time, drowning in a sea of scholarly texts, Yoga Journal was the only thing that I really enjoyed reading. It was like manna for my soul, balm for my wounds. Here among the pages of this glossy, women talked about happiness and freedom; they had beautiful bodies and radiant smiles. They ate smoothies and superfoods, and got rid of their migraine headaches with a few yoga poses.

See? It’s simple!

Act II:

Six years later, I get the Yoga Journal magazine, thumb through it and wonder, who was that person I used to be? Now I see a degree of superficiality that makes me cringe, rampant cultural appropriation, white middle class lifestyles lauded as virtuous, and new age tendencies heralded as cool and hip.

I swiftly turn to Sally Kempton—a sage contributor who regularly dishes out real and practical advice, built on a platform of humility without all the new-fangled competition to be the most awesome. Thank you, Sally, for being an oasis!

Did I change? Did Yoga Journal change? Probably both. Which is both a tribute to yoga’s power to change a person, a critique of the modern yoga culture, and an interesting study in how one’s interior and exterior environs will sometimes dance in perfect harmony, and sometimes spar with swords.

This is not an article intended to critique Yoga Journal. No. Yoga Journal is merely a regular lodestar against which I can measure some shift in my life navigation, both internally and externally, and a star caught in the crosshairs of my analysis of what it takes to create good mental health.

Yes, good mental health. When your external and internal are out of balance, it can be troubling. And things that used to bring you into balance later might poison you. This is a truly important phenomenon of which to be aware.

I define good mental health (today) as the ability to see what is real, and not to indulge in fantasies of any kind—in short, to come into balance, or to find the middle path.

The process towards good mental health can be simple. When you’re feeling low, in a way that is not fleeting*, spend some time surrounded by good and happy things. That was me six years ago, and why YJ was so appealing—it made me feel good about myself (a white, middle class woman), and optimistic that there would be a brighter day on the other side of my graduate school nightmare. It balanced out my internal darkness.

Many people find this place very seductive—addictive even—and choose to stay in that shiny, happy people place. I wrote about this in my article 270 Degrees: Getting Stuck in Your Transformational Process.

But, as you start to feel better and your internal resources grow, you must learn to be able to withstand things that are darker, less optimistic. Why? Because if you don’t, you will reside in a place of glided, happy fantasy, and this is not balanced. It is merely the opposite of depression. It is still delusion.

My internal resources have grown immeasurably in the past six years, which is now why I believe that I am able to see some of the things that are truly troubling about modern American yoga—things which may or may not have been present six years ago. But far more important is my burgeoning internal resources built in part thanks to Yoga Journal, which also explains why I am now able to see the things that are most troubling about me and begin to contend with them in ways that are realistic and healthy, without diving into despair or denial.

The world is rife with suffering and strife, inequality and discrimination. Yoga gives us the tools to grow internal resources and the mental health to be able to handle these things and do something about them. If you are low on these resources, by all means, take care of yourself. But once you are healed enough, begin to look around, and heal the things that you see wounded in your world. The way to this is through realism, not by slathering everything with a heavy layer of Polyanna-ish optimism.

In summary, with regards to Yoga Journal and yoga as an American cultural force, here’s the reality of which I dream, an internal desire I long to see become an external reality.

Act III:

Twelve years after subscribing to Yoga Journal, I see that it has really followed the current and growth of its subscribers, as well as working to shape their interests. There’s a warm invitation to newer yogis—men, women, children, people of all sizes, shapes, colors and creeds. This thread runs through all issues, not just “special interest” features on these “fringe” groups. They have a service arm that places their publication, for free, into community centers and public health clinics around the country, and reports on the relationships that they are building with those organizations. They have a scholarship that sends one yogi a year to a teacher training of their choice, and an inspiring ongoing article about that person, their story, and their growth. There’s a monthly article on how yogis are working to change their communities. I’m inspired because I see the ways that yoga has grown beyond the mainstream in ways that encourage its perpetual, exponential growth. I see variety, and complexity, and an effort to communicate with everyone. Yoga Journal truly has evolved into the equivalent of the “Open Level” class. It’s a publication where many students can see the possibilities for who they can be. It makes me proud of what American yogis have accomplished.

Let’s create a balanced yoga counterculture. Will you join me?

*Some people suffer from prolonged depression, or chemical imbalance, not merely an extended dark night of the soul.  It’s important to learn to discern one from the other.  If you’re not sure, I suggest hiring a good therapist to help you figure out which it is.


Editor: Brianna Bemel


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About Erica Mather

Erica Mather, M.A., E-RYT 200, is a lifelong teacher. She has been teaching yoga in New York City since 2006. Erica created "Adore Your Body," a Signature System for addressing body image challenges, and is the Founder of The Yoga Clinic NYC. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter.


36 Responses to “The Shiny, Happy People Place Is Bullsh*t.”

  1. Wonderful, perceptive, nuanced article, Erica, and a great antidote to the black and white thinking we see in a lot of yoga discourse today. Here's a related article I wrote in defense of Yoga Journal a couple of years ago during the passionate Yoga Journal debates of 2010:

    My Wife Loves Yoga Journal Just the Way It Is, Thank You

    Capitalism is Good for Yoga (Rebuttal: “Sex, Lies and Yoga”)

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
    Enjoy Best of elephant journal

  2. martha says:

    great article – one typo = glided was written instead of gilded – in case you would like to correct for future publications -section two – paragraph nine

  3. carolhortonbooks says:

    "Let’s create a balanced yoga counterculture" – music to my ears!

  4. Erica Mather says:

    Love: "The passionate Yoga Journal debates of 2010." Huge. To your defense, yes indeed, all good points. Again, it's not so much about YJ (any cultural artifact will get critiqued–there's no way it can depict society. Like that story about the three blind men and the Elephant, for which this site is named, I believe). More about internal and external. Your call to action is correct, and my point as well–let work to make the world what we dream it to be.

    Thanks for your ongoing support, Bob.



  5. Erica Mather says:

    Thanks, we'll fix it! Erica

  6. Erica Mather says:

    Thanks, Carol! Will I see you at Wind Horse? Erica

  7. J. Brown says:

    While I appreciate the equanimity in your analysis of Yoga Journal and your own process, I can't help but feel you've given YJ too much of a pass. The other day, my 2.5 year old daughter was flipping through the most recent issue that was sitting on our coffee table. I saw her looking at the images and I felt like I had to take it away from her. In the same way I would not let her look at most of the "woman's" magazines out there because of the diminishing effect on people’s self-esteem that abstracted and idealized body imagery (can you say photoshop) in advertising can have. Of course, one day she will have to sort this out for herself but, as a father, I see it as my job to help her develop in a healthy enough way that she will have the resources when the time comes. My point is that YJ does not really represent the soul work that happens at the grassroots. Sure, we can find good in it. But we have to look past so much in order to do so. By letting YJ off the hook, you have given them license to exploit. Perhaps we should be holding their feet to the fire and encouraging them to better represent the "commercial yoga world" that they essentially have a monopoly on. The very definition of a "counter-culture" is voices that question the mainstream conventions. The balance comes in the confluence of mainstream and counter cultures. Let us not make the same mistake as most news today and sacrifice truth in the name of "fair and balanced."

  8. Michael says:

    We stopped subscribing when my wife started playfully referring to it as "Yoga Porn". There was quite a bit of truth to this criticism even though the journal itself is not being criticized here as actually pornographic. The worship of the external body had just gotten out of hand. In addition, despite lip service to the contrary, there is no spiritual space for men anywhere within its pages.

  9. cathy says:

    I still do not get ho wthe title relates to you rprogression in life and even to YJ's . I am confounded. I am, however, no longer reading peoples' angst about how yoga or YJ or any yoga teacher or body image cheated or hurt them. I've had enough.. it's time to appreciate our lessons and stop the wining! ..( possibly an article in the making)

  10. And yet you took the time to read this article? It's pretty simple and profound what the author did. She used YJ as a benchmark for measurement of her progression. She indicated the subjectivity of that progression and that YJ also changed and progressed with the yoga market. It's curious to me that you are confounded and that you profess the need to appreciate our lessons and in the same breath you are telling people to stop whining. Are you appreciating your lessons or are you telling others how to appreciate theirs? I did not perceive even the slightest bit of whining in this article. I felt that the author was fair and critical.

  11. cathy says:

    how does the title connect to this progression?
    I dont see her yoga as parallel to the YJ. In Act 11 Yj was in on eline, yet the author rambled on about mental healht with no distinct referenc eto YJ.
    I am entitled to say what I think, as are you.

  12. Great article except that I don't see Yoga Journal as evolved as you or others do. It's still a magazine that is loathe to put a plus size woman on the cover even though the majority of the country is now size 14, plus sized. You will see the occasional non-white pictured on the cover and in the magazine but for the most part it is still geared to slim, white, women with means to purchase most of the crap it's peddling. Much of the country and a certain percentage of the yoga population is not either by means or choice. For me, it's choice. The magazine also features photos of people in poses most of us will never achieve no matter how hard we may practice because our bodies are not structured to perform the pose.

    My subscription is about to run out and I'm not going to renew. As it is now, I flip through it and throw on the stack of other 'same shit, different day' magazines I've subscribed to over the years. If I am itching to read their magazine I'll read it online. Saves me money, saves trees, and landfills. That alone makes Yoga Journal worth reading.

  13. oz_ says:

    Erica, I love this piece, and agree wholeheartedly with your prescription for a wished-for yoga counterculture. However, I have to take issue with a dangerous statement of non-fact made above:

    "Some people suffer from prolonged depression, or chemical imbalance"

    There is no evidence whatsoever of a 'chemical imbalance' in patients suffering from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) – this is simply a lie promulgated by the pharmaceutical industry and parroted by uninformed physicians and psychiatrists (and thence in articles such as this one) for so long that it has assumed a patina of truth – it's become one of many nonfactual articles of faith in our culture. Recommend you read Robert Whitaker's Anatomy of an Epidemic for more on this:

  14. Jacqueline says:

    Thanks for this and here her – maybe a look at the excellent doco on yoga titled: Yogawoman would inspire too. Taking the principles of life learned on the mat into everyday life……..

  15. I'm reminded of a paper I read about right and wrong. The conclusion of this paper was that right and wrong are decided by society's majority. In that light, Yoga Journal is right. Perhaps YJ is aligned with the modern day practitioners.

    If it is no longer sophisticated reading for people who have grown up with it, it is fine to move on.

    Your point about finding yourself out of sorts because a balance has changed is a good one. To lock down while all else moves around you is a prison.

    However, it is also correct to voice an opinion about the quality of content. Perhaps those newer to yoga would benefit from the same tone that we did when we were new. It's not all about accomodating what happens around us. Sometimes it's about elevating us beyond our mundane habits.

    I enjoyed the discussion. Nice work.

  16. Erica Mather says:

    Hi J. Brown (I intend to get over to your studio before the summer is out!),

    In my own writing, and life, I am working to balance a fair critique with the "you just don't know" factor. Here the "you just don't know" factor includes: I have no idea what it's like to run a magazine, manage writers, ideas, finances, etc. I imagine someone from YJ reading this article, and ultimately, I want that person to feel inspired by my ideas, not attacked. It's all to easy to attack, particularly in writing, on the internet, because of all of the comfortable distance and anonymity (although I have none here.) The call to action that I have set for myself is not to complain, but to "do it better." I'm not sure starting a magazine is in my future, but people find themselves doing things they never planned, all the time.

    That said, I totally agree with you, and above all am so touched be your concern, as a father. I do think that YJ is just as bad as you suggest. Other people have said as much.

    My teacher, Ana Forrest, has a little saying, that I hold close. She says, "Speak the truth, from your heart, with Grace." Grace is that little magic piece that allows people to actually hear what you're saying, and not be lacerated with it. Ultimately, that kind of grace is what I hope distinguishes evolved people from those who create "fair and balanced" news…

    So…want to start a magazine? We can call it "Brooklyn Counterculture Yoga: The New Fair and Balanced."



  17. Erica Mather says:

    Totally agree with you, Michael. Please see my reply to J. Brown. Thank you! Erica

  18. Erica Mather says:

    Hi Andrew, Thanks for your defense, which is a beautiful summary of my piece! Cathy may just be trolling. 🙂 Erica

  19. Erica Mather says:

    Hi Cathy,

    The title refers to how YJ is stuck in the "Happy, Shiny, People Place." At one point, I was there too. Now I'm not. That's all. Sometimes people get stuck in a place of eternal optimism. It's unhealthy. I hope that clears things up.


  20. Erica Mather says:

    Oh, wow. Thank you for sharing that article, and correcting me gently. Always things to learn! Erica

  21. Erica Mather says:

    Thanks, Hilary! You've been on my mind. More in gmail. E

  22. Michael says:

    I am impressed with your sense of compassion, even in providing critical feedback. I will try to take this with me into my own life.

  23. Erica Mather says:

    I am touched. Thank you. E

  24. Edward Staskus says:

    I read YJ and Integral Yoga magazines. YJ takes about a half-hour to read and Integral Yoga about 2 hours, although YJ has more pages to it. The reason is that YJ is a for-profit business that needs to appeal to as many readers as possible to make as much money as possible, so it is basically the USA Today of yoga. (Look at the ads, not the blips or articles. That will tell you what YJ is about.) Integral Yoga is about old-school yoga, so it is more academic and serious. (Look at the ads – there aren't any, not really.) I read both cover-to-cover because I think both magazines are well-done, and because they provide perspectives on yoga that range from the practices of today to the practices of the past.

  25. Lola says:

    Hi Erica, great piece about the "shiny happy [STUCK] place." The "sunny coat of arms" is how I refer to it and I've perceived it from the yoga culture, communities of color, New Agers…in short, probably just about every community who learned how to find something to be proud of then turned this pride into a calcified weapon. Weapon, because it can be very difficult to find holistic balance when dealing with people or institutions stuck in "shiny happy." I love that you wrote the "middle way" because this is one of my dearest phrases…walk the middle way. Walk the edge. Be with a foot in both shadow and light because this is the only way we can know truth. And put away the sunny coat of arms. Just because I may have my dark nights of the soul doesn't mean I'll infect you because I KNOW you've had them too…so there 😉 ("you" spoken generally here of course)

  26. Chris Fici says:

    Thank you so much Erica for this call for substance, which goes from Yoga Journal to here at Elephant to our own lives, our own consciousness.

    I also very much appreciate framing this piece from the evolution of your own progression. We can only demand substance of others if we demand it within ourselves.

  27. Erica Mather says:

    Lola, Beautiful commentary. Thank you for contributing. I will use the term "sunny coat of arms." And, I love the visualization of the middle was as having one foot in the light and one foot in the shadows. That's perfect! Thank you again. Erica

  28. Erica Mather says:

    Yes, indeed, Chris. I aim to hold myself to a high standard. It's fun, and scary! Thank you for your commentary. warm regards, Erica

  29. carolhortonbooks says:

    No – long story – but wishing you all the best!

  30. Erica Mather says:

    Yes, Nicole, I love how Lola broadened the reach of the shiny happy malaise to communities of color and New Agers more broadly. Where else have you experienced it? I'm with you–I find the preachy-ness revolting. It's so self-righteous and entitled.

    I said what I did about healing what's wrong in the world because I think that many yogis have bought into the idea that healing themselves is enough, and that going to yoga class is enough…It's not, and I find it offensive that this idea has taken hold so firmly…

    Thank you for your comments!


  31. Erica Mather says:

    Rats! Well, I'm going to be in Madison Aug. 25/26 teaching workshops. Come up if you can! And if not, I'll continue to enjoy our growing dialog about all things. E

  32. carolhortonbooks says:

    Thanks, Erica! I would love to reconnect in person as well as online. I'll be out of town then but Madison is close, so next you come through, definitely let me know.

    There's a great yoga community in Madtown – and, connecting to our recent FB exchange, by far the most politically engaged and progressive that I've ever seen. It's a special place (if under siege) – enjoy!

  33. Lisa says:

    Yes, YJ has really changed. I still have some older copies. There really isn't any comparison and thus, I just don't buy it anymore.

  34. Seka says:

    Erica – I just love you (and can't wait to meet you at some Forrest event or another!).

  35. Erica Mather says:

    Thanks, Seka! Hopefully I'll be out your way this Spring! xoxo

  36. leslie says:

    Wow excellent writing…as someone who occasionally read yoga journal back in the day and recently subscribed after a long time away from print magazines, and the practice of yoga. I have been thinking to myself “when did this all become so main stream and glossy ..?.” Thanks for helping me sort all that out .powerful words..and i learned so much more than i have from any required reading for my college courses