Yoga’s 21st Century Facelift & the Myth of the Perfect Ass(ana).

Via Melanie Klein
on Nov 12, 2012
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The following post is part of the 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice book club exclusive to elephant journal.

It’s based on Melanie Klein’s essay on feminism, yoga, body image and the media. In her essay, she distinguishes between the practice of yoga and the culture of yoga, including the rise of the increasingly commercialized consumer industry of yoga of the last decade.

This post specifically seeks to delve further into this dichotomy, exploring the roots and implications without drawing any firm conclusions. As the book was a collaborative effort, showcasing a myriad of voices and opinions, we hope you’ll comment and create a dialogue in response to this hot-button topic.


Sad, but one day our kids will have to visit museums
To see what a lady looks like.

~ Outkast

Admittedly, I was a bit tipsy. Actually, I was drunk.

“All these women around have the same face. Why do they all have the same face?” I inquired holding my third glass of red wine precariously askew.

I was leaning heavily on the table with my right elbow as I sat at my sidewalk table at Porta Via in Beverly Hills. Even though it was years before the rise of the “Real Housewives” franchise, today one would have assumed that they were casting next season. Women between the ages of 20 and 75 walked up and down North Canon Drive with high-end designer outfits and eerily similar features.

“I mean, they all have the same face. It’s like the twenty-first century version of The Stepford Wives around here.”

Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting or looking for an answer for the surreal parade I was witnessing that summer evening. As a sociologist with an emphasis on gender and media studies, I already knew what I was seeing. While Los Angeles is certainly a parallel universe to the rest of the union in many ways, the astronomical increase in both surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures isn’t limited to the 90210.

Increased requests for vaginoplasty and vaginal rejuvenation, anal bleaching and virgin waxing joins the rise of the more “conventional” procedures—botox (including those in their early 20s) and other fillers and plumpers, liposuction (often given as graduation gifts), breast implants and facelifts (again, on the rise for those in their mid-20s to the their mid-30s). And this is happening across the country with those on limited budgets going into credit card debt, cashing in on military discounts or competing for a slot on make-over reality shows.

As Women in Media and News director, Jennifer Pozner says, “If you’re shocked, you haven’t been paying attention.”

And this trend is indicative of our cultural climate, not the individual women (and men) who chose to voluntarily go under the knife or get injected.

This discussion is not intended to mock or blame the individuals who pay thousands of dollars for their insecurity or vanity (or both).

This is not an individual phenomenon anymore than it is an individual choice.

I’m not discounting individual agency but people make choices within a given cultural environment, one that is sociohistorically specific and variable. That cultural landscape’s taken-for-granted norms and values play an influential and powerful role in determining what we consider desirable/undesirable, good/bad, beautiful/ugly. And the images that shape our desires, aspirations and notions of beauty are inescapable. We’re soaking in them. Both the claim that people are foolish for taking out loans to increase their bust size or to have those individuals claim they’re only doing it for themselves dismiss the environment in which those seemingly individual decisions are being made.

It’s awfully challenging to “love yourself” and defy beauty norms when all around you you get the message that you’re just not good enough. But you can be if you buy this cream/filler/diet pill/body sculptor/pimple cream/fill in the blank.

As Taylor Kirkham writes, “It’s human nature to crave feelings of acceptance from our peers. The problem is that we are continuously fed the myth that we’ll gain this approval not by accepting ourselves, but by battling our bodies and tearing our self-image into shreds.”
It is a waste of time to hate a mirror/ or its reflection/ instead of stopping the hand/ that makes glass with distortions.
~ Audre Lorde

Yoga celebrities didn’t exist when I started practicing yoga in 1996. Yoga pants hadn’t been invented and there were just a few studios operating in Los Angeles County. My consistent practice developed in an old dance space with wooden floors brined by decades of sweat. I’ve always been drawn to the grittier elements of life and the raw, authentic and noncommercial flavor of Bryan Kest’s style and studio space resonated with the street-wise, punk rock valley girl I was in a former life. The enormous room teemed with people of all ages, sizes and ethnicities. Nobody donned designer spandex. Most people didn’t even own “mat bags.”

As yoga gained in popularity at the beginning of the new millennium, the practice inevitably filtered through the lens of the popular culture.

The yoga industry began to pick up rapid speed and yoga began to take on a new look. As Julian Walker details in his chapter of the book, alongside the practice and community of yoga, “a small group of advertisers, designers, and magazine publishers promoting a fairly narrow aesthetic that is about technical perfection, youthful beauty and impressive gymnastics” cropped up. In a fairly short period of time, the industrialized consumer culture of yoga began to reflect many of the mainstream values and norms, including its narrow beauty ideal.

I immediately felt threatened by the encroachment of the dominant culture’s influence on this safe haven I had found in my practice and my community. It had taken me decades to find healing from my own distorted body image, one that was in large part forged at the hands of the prolific and repetitive images of unattainable beauty alongside the influence of the women in my family. I wanted to take the practice and community I loved (and continue to love) so deeply and hold it protectively against my chest.

Since my sociological imagination and feminist radar first went on high alert, many other yoga practitioners have asked critical questions about the objectification and sexualization of women to sell yoga products, standard advertising themes when it comes to the representation of girls and women. Those critical questions have not always been met with critical and constructive dialogue. In fact, the responses were often hostile and defensive. Personally, I was disheartened by a “conscious” community that frequently speaks out against animal cruelty, genetically modified food and environmental issues that didn’t feel equally compelled to address the exploitation of women and their bodies.

I’ve always felt obligated to ask questions about the communities I’ve been a part of. I appreciate the other outspoken and thoughtful yoga practitioners, like my fellow book contributors, who feel compelled to pause, look around and engage in critical dialogue about North American yoga in the 21st century. As Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio notes in his chapter of the book, “…there’s a reason that ‘intention’ comes after ‘understanding’ in Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: intention alone without understanding, can cause much suffering.”

For me, my sociological training and feminist ideology married well with my yoga practice. They are committed to raising consciousness and digging deeper. They’re about understanding.

I don’t want to leave it up to the universe. I want to engage critically and thoughtfully in what is emerging around us. The yoga community is not immune from the rest of the culture or the mainstream images that have been replicated in the subculture of yoga. Just because you throw some mala beads on or pose in anjali mudra doesn’t make objectification and sexualization any less so.

And yoga isn’t immune to eating disorders, disordered eating (which is not the same as a clinical eating disorder) or fractured body images. As Chelsea Roff remarks in her essay, “Eating disorders are prevalent in the yoga community, I would argue even more so than the general population. Many hide their self-destructive behaviors under the guise of detoxing, cleansing or a pseudo-spiritual path to enlightenment.”

While the practice has the capacity to heal, the yoga industrial complex upholds unrealistic representations of beauty present in fashion magazines and mainstream advertising.

I appreciated Kathryn Budig’s candid remarks about her own body image issues in a recent interview. The interview didn’t include a conversation regarding the notion of the “yoga body” and it’s proliferation in much of the popular yoga photography or the advertisements and images populating many of the major yoga magazines. But I appreciated the honesty and courage to be vulnerable. (I also appreciate her photo shoot with Daniel Stark that produced images that are much less digitally altered and polished than most).

And this body insecurity isn’t limited to women. One of the most popular (and drooled over) male yoga teachers in Los Angeles, replete with chiseled abs and perfectly sun kissed skin, recently confided his own body insecurity to me. “Do you know how much pressure there is for me to fit the body ideal of the male yoga teacher down to having zero percent body fat?”

Yoga is a subversive practice in so many ways. In a culture that repeatedly tells us we’re not good enough and that we’ll be happy when we lose another five pounds or if we buy fill-in-the-blank, yoga lets us be exactly as we are moment to moment. Yoga doesn’t ask us to change because we’re fine just the way we are. In the same way there is no such thing as a perfect asana, there’s no such thing as a perfect ass because we’re all individuals.

I’d like to preserve the unique face of yoga before she is unrecognizable.

We have the ability to consciously direct the culture of yoga, creating something subversive, powerful and real that reflects the uniqueness of each one of us just as we are.


Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

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About Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker and professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Santa Monica College. She is a contributing author in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice and is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body, and co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.


78 Responses to “Yoga’s 21st Century Facelift & the Myth of the Perfect Ass(ana).”

  1. Ellie G says:

    I have several thoughts about this essay….
    – I have become increasingly aware of the amount of money that is spent on yoga CLOTHES in the yoga studios, and it has always been interesting to me that you might have to spend $90.00 on a pair of yoga pants (that of course matches with your $60.00 short tight little bralette) so that you look “ok” in a yoga class. Interesting concept when you are really there to “raise consciousness” and dig “deeper”. My mom told me that 15 years ago they used to do yoga in sweats and nobody even thought about dressing up to go to class…..
    – It will be a sad thing if the media and the fashion industry are allowed to change our beloved yoga into a fashion show and a culture where you are not welcome to be yourself anymore…where you have to once again be perfect and skinny without an ounce of fat on your body. I hope that all of us that are involved in the yoga culture can keep that from happening.

  2. Vision_Quest2 says:

    And I say that advertising is a response to cultural forces–and not so much a springboard for same.

    This is why sampling of wares, and word-of-mouth will more often than not trump advertising. Culture drives advertising, which then drives fashion. Fashion begins at the grass-roots level.

    I posit that for all their wealth and savvy, commercialized public yoga class participants and consumers (not "students"–for yoga is or should be, a participatory practice) are conformist sheep. Advertising and yoga celebrities get their power and their money from followers, some who don't know better.

  3. SheerlyA says:

    I truly agree that women are constantly surrounded and pressured by the media and other women who look practically plastic, which makes other women feel insecure about themselves. The media constantly advertises the many procedures and various types of products that may help you "look your best", which is definitely a major issue. In regards to yoga, there should not be a right or wrong way of how you approach this type of relaxation and mediation, whether it involves the type of pants you wear or how you look while doing it. It is hard to believe that over the years the media has gained unnecessary advertisements about yoga clothing; women should be able to feel good about themselves and be able to wear whatever they feel comfortable in. I for one am a big fan of yoga and practice it as much as I can, which does not make me feel insecure about myself as should other women in our society.

  4. BrittanyP says:

    I agree with everything you stated in this article. It seems as though as soon as one thing becomes popular, media finds a way to somehow distort it and give readers an unrealistic idea about it; like yoga. Yoga was not as famous as it is now, and if you look in magazines- its being extremely promoted. There are a lot of pros about it, but they are not specified in the magazines. A lot of the magazines promote yoga for the right reasons, but not completely. Of coarse with doing yoga, your body will improve; but what the magazines fail to include is that your mental state of being also improves. I guess its because people are not really looking for that kind of improvement because they are so preoccupied with looking good, they could care less about feeling good.

  5. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Or the image-makers go too much the other way: all yoga is, is about sitting and meditating in sukhasana most of the session.
    Or yoga as doctors' bag-of-cures … "just 10 minutes a day and you could throw your pills away …"

    They pick up on actual old-school yoga asana OR feature a bunch of gymnastic-school dropouts. Anything to get your money; then when the beginner student finds that sun salutations are repetitive just like their piano fingering drills from when they were a kid … ? Because the truth lies in between … you will see pictures of former dancers and not the everyday people … you will see stories about yoga teachers who did splits and cartwheels and hung from the monkey bars when they were children and not those about everyday folks who were in dangerous urban areas and cautioned not even to ride a bike …

    Nothing good ever came without practice; not everyone will be a virtuoso ..

    It is up to the student to sit with the practice as it is … for their development and their own feeling good, and not look to the superstar yogis and advertising models for their goals …

  6. Nedam says:

    Yoga is a simple, direct way to sense and experience our bodies. Instead of having a disordered relationship with food men and women should replace that unhealthy relationship with one like yoga. It is really sad that the media can have a massive effect on everyone. Yoga is supposed to be feeling your inner-self and being comfortable with it and being healthy rather than what we usually see people going to yoga for which is to loose weight because they feel they are fat in the communities eyes. yoga should stay to remain spiritually and a how of creating positive energy, people who have negative views of themselves should join yoga and learn to find self love and acceptance.

  7. Alexander K. says:

    I find yoga to be a great way to exercise both your brain and body. Many women don't understand how beneficial yoga is, which is why they fall into prey of doing things that make them temporary happy. They do things such as drugs, alchohol, or getting abusive relationships. Since yoga isn't advertised in the media that much, they don't understand the benefits that it has to offer. Unfortunately, people don't realize that drinking or doing drugs isn't an answer to find the solution, it only helps them forget the problem. I learned that people who do yoga tend to be happier than the average individual. If more people tried yoga (even once) then maybe they will understand how amazing it is. Not only does yoga help the body, but it also makes an individual feel better about him or herself.

  8. Andrea C says:

    I agree that companies have found a way to capitalize on a past time that offers people a safe haven from the daily stress of the world. Women are now eager to buy the hottest new yoga pants and buy cute yoga outfits instead of focusing on the things yoga teaches. Yoga provides peace of mind to many women who are overwhelmed by the daily patriarchal negative sanctions in our society. Therefore, I think that people should try to respect the practice of yoga more because it represents a safe, peaceful place for many women.

  9. SydneyO says:

    Your drunken view of the street is a very straight forward way of describing the horrible trends in society today. All of the plastic surgery makes everyone look exactly the same. It's the idea of trying to look like the "ideal body"- which of course, as we discussed, is not even attainable. Women are obsessing over the superficial ways of obtaining superficiality. It makes sense that they make the conscious choice to put a knife to their skin because trying to reach the body of what they see in the magazines is not naturally possible.

    It is sad to hear about yoga being taken over by the superficial standards of today's society. Stores like Lulu Lemon, StrutThis, etc. are creating brand name clothes for yoga. $80 for a pair for pants, $50 for a sports bra. Yoga clothes is becoming a trend. What is also sad is the fact that this activity has succumb to eating disorders. As a dancer, I understand that certain body images are expected. Because yoga has become such a fashion trend, it unfortunately is bringing all of the cultural aspects along with it. Hopefully yoga will keep to the core of what it is trying to accomplish, through the love and appreciation of the body.

  10. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Leaving off the question of fashion, yoga pants and body image .. this is what could happen to yoga …

    Yoga could and may become the new ballet. Even the most naturally talented yoga gurus are willing and able to put in the ritual of and further ritualizing hours of practice necessary.

    Ballet has never been and will continue never to be accessible to everyone; and, strictly speaking, not everyone can do ballet. Same thing with the more physical practices of yoga.

    Ballet pervades the culture, and even the counterculture (remember Occupy Wall Street?)

    Ballet — the elitism, and the years of study and the priming of juvenile toes; the anorexia, pain, comparisons, recriminations … or the pathos that a young girl does not deserve to have … not to mention what society still thinks of little boys who do ballet … could the pursuit of yoga be far behind ?

    Ah, but that is … DANCE … a world of comparisons.

    But look at, and LOOK OUT for … what is happening to yoga … even as I write this …

  11. InokeT says:

    Great article, I think that the media has a big role in having this ideal image that every male or female has gained unnecessary advertisements about yogo clothing and that they should feel good about themselves and be able to feel comfortable in public or at the comfort of their own home.

  12. Tasnim D says:

    This is an amazing article relating woman’s body image to feminism. In an environment where the image of weight is scrutinized especially for woman it is no wonder many women have eating disorders. And as yoga is becoming mainstream many of the people hide behind their eating disorders to and practice yoga to lose weight. Though yoga preaches the acceptance of ones own body as the way it is, the mainstream media make sure to interrupt teaching of loving one's own body by the images of yogis who have perfect shaped and toned bodies. It further brings in more insecurities of weight issues people have about their bodies. But excluding the medias new image about yoga I actually had a delightful experience as I found yoga recently and has helped me cope with my problems from stress to my own insecurities about my body . I have been able to live a healthier lifestyle and it has helped enlighten me to love my own body.It is sad and sickening to know that yoga is being taken by the mainstream images of our society.

  13. Taylor W says:

    Yoga clothes can now be found everywhere, with people capitalizing on that market. It's sad to take something so pure, like yoga, and market it. But when anything becomes popular and trendy, people seize the opportunity to make money off of it.

  14. Nazli C. says:

    We tend to underestimate the power of media and it importance in our lives. Media can influence us in every way. But this influence can be undone by creating peace and doing yoga. Yoga is always known for creating balance in life and brings peace of mind.

  15. Michelle G says:

    I could not agree more with what this article is saying. It seems that everything today is based on how people look before anything else. I recently watched the film "Miss Representation" and this movies enlightened me on just how strongly how people, especially women, look influences public opinion. A female politician cannot just simply go out and introduce her ideas to the world, she will first be judged by her appearance before she even opens her mouth. If Hilary Clinton had looked like one of the real housewives, much of the response to her would have been quite different. Sarah Palin was constantly sexualized. With such a society, it is hard to remain content with your body. Yoga is a perfect way to balance the world's perception and your very own, to make yourself comfortable to step outdoors and not care what anyone thinks. Yoga promotes that balance that is very necessary to posses because of the world we live in today.

  16. StephanieR. says:

    This was an eye opener. I never really paid much attention; I guess I just thought that yoga would be immune to influences of society. I thought yoga couldn't be tainted. To mainstream yoga into pop culture and use it as a guise of healthy living, when in actuality, it is not immune to the same problems that affect the greater society. Yoga is self healing. But it has been popularized and people trick themselves into thinking that since they are doing yoga, and it's a healthy alternative, then they don't have an eating disorder. But it's there, just under the name of a detox. Not saying they are bad, but if it is to fix a broken state of mind that if you do yoga and lose weight you will be more accepted, then it isn't right. Hopefully yoga will continue to be the self-loving, peaceful, and wholesome exercise I see it as today.

  17. Hasunk says:

    I really love the introduction of a larger social critique through the miopic lens of yoga. The personal element of Professor Klein's work makes it relatable and equally provocative. I believe that the ideals socially constructed in relatively every strata of existence, are unfair and misrepresented. I remember at the book reading hearing the concious warnings of how addictive and unhealthy yoga can be but never hearing to avoid doing yoga at all, I think Professor Klein is on to something pivitol about the concept of social moderation at a mass level. The obssession with flawless body image can just the same rooted back to addiction and unhealthy lifestyles, and within our social framework, the cure is represented by the ideal body which, once achieved, will save us all. The idea of undermining that attitude and rewriting that framework to a world of understanding as she suggests, would open endless avenues of positive impacts.

  18. Shahriar M. says:

    It is very sad to see how the media can take over something and just give it a totally different image. I think that yoga should not promote beauty because many people who are unhappy with their physical appearance turn to yoga. The media has driven us away from the true beauty of yoga and established it in the minds of many people as a "trend". As already mentioned, women feel the need to buy special creams, have surgeries, etc., in order to obtain this certain look which is impossible to have. While yoga is a technique that puts one's mind at peace and dismisses such thoughts, it is sad to see the media distort its image by advertising it as another way to obtain that unrealistic beauty.

  19. […] Melanie Klein offered to talk to a friend of hers, Sarit Rogers, who’s not only a professional photographer, […]

  20. I enjoyed your piece; thought it came from an authentic place, and was backed with the details. I especially loved how you introduced it at the beginning. Thanks for writing; I have more thoughts, but I have to wait for them to digest.

    Keep writing please.


  21. Shannon He says:

    I had never realized the body type that the yoga industry advertises until I read this article. Being a consumer of Lululemon and Hardtail yoga pants myself; I just recently realized that these pants are only created for women with a tight, toned, and fit body. Living in the heart of the yoga industry, otherwise known as Brentwood, I am constantly surrounded by yoga-obsessed moms who have three kids and the body of a twelve year old. Prior to reading this article, I was completely unaware of a previous image of yoga before Lululemon and tight bodies took over. I had no idea that yoga was more open to different types of bodies and believes that we are fine just the way we are. The new yoga is the exact opposite of the old yoga beliefs, which is incredibly sad to hear. Because of the pressures brought on by the yoga culture, the majority of women living in Los Angeles are obsessed with their body projects and do “yoga” every day. I wish we could change the concept of yoga to the way it was about ten years ago, that way everyone would unconditionally love his or her bodies.

  22. […] article originally appeared on Elephant Journal. Reposted with […]

  23. […] Yoga’s 21st Century Facelift & the Myth of the Perfect Ass(ana) […]

  24. M.D. says:

    No matter what we do or where we go, we can never get rid of or get away from all the advertisements and images that show us what a "perfect ideal woman" and a "perfect ideal man” should look like. There are also many advertisements and images that show off players’ bodies who look very athletic and in shape. They make people judge themselves and feel like they want to look just like these athletes. People try and do the activities they love and enjoy, but the media gets in the way by the way that it has a hold on people’s minds. It affects people and how they feel about their bodies; it especially affects women. Unless we are in the mountains or living in a cabin away from everyone and living without tv or cable or radio, we cannot escape. When I see the ads for yoga studios and clothes, they upset me because they show a skinny, fit yoga woman. But when I go to yoga I see all different shapes and sizes in the room. Reality is different from the ads, but the ads make people feel like if they do yoga they will look like that. The point of yoga is to have a good feeling in your body and about your body. So the ads are not really about yoga at all.

  25. Justin N says:

    I completely agree with this article. No women should think that they are not beautiful and that they are fat or all that stuff. Every women is beautiful inside and out. Yes going to the gym is always a good thing. staying in shape is the best thing someone can do to their body. There is no "perfect women" or "perfect man in this world everyone is beautiful and perfect in their own way. I think yoga is extremely helpful for women because its puts your mind at ease. it relaxes your brain and your body at the same time. The Media blows things up and puts words into other peoples mouth. they try to convince people what is right and what is wrong but life doesnt work like that.

  26. Essence H says:

    I couldn't agree with you more! I enjoyed reading this article. I think it's crazy how the media try to make men and women feel that we have to get surgery in order to look like the next person. The media is actually making men and women feel insecure about thier body by how they have ads out only showing "skinny" women and "buff" men. I personally think that they should stop sending out fake ads. It would make men and women feel more comfortable in their bodies.

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  28. Sonya trachsel says:

    Yoga is a definitely yes thing for me and should be the same for all people.. Media has often lead us to wrong paths by showing false and fake images. Its good to be your own guide at times. I believe in delivering the truth and so does my passion of photography.. check out some of my work on my website..