December 12, 2012

Marketing Yoga Without a Hot Barbie Body: Challenges & Opportunities.

Part of elephant’s 21st Century Yoga book club series, this post recounts some of the controversy that broke out among 21st Century Yoga contributors when it came to selecting an image for the book’s cover.

It’s ironic that even a collective dedicated to writing critically about yoga would struggle so much over the question of how to create a “marketable” cover that didn’t reproduce the commodification of the “yoga body” that the book itself so forcefully critiques.

It also raises larger questions about the challenges of marketing any sort of yoga offering—whether a book, DVD, workshop, retreat, class or even an individual teacher—without relying on the “yoga babe” imagery that has become so highly (and profitably) associated with contemporary North American yoga. As 21st Century Yoga was crafted to elicit dialog, I hope that you’ll leave your thoughts on these and/or related issues below.


When Roseanne Harvey and I set out to choose an image to represent 21st Century Yoga, we didn’t have any clue what we wanted. But we did know that we didn’t want to feature yet another air-brushed photo of a beautiful, slender, serene-looking young woman performing some impressively bendy pose.

We also knew that we had no budget to speak of. Hiring a professional artist, designer or photographer to come up with an original image would be way too expensive (or so we assumed at the time. Happily, we later got lucky by connecting with photographer Sarit Z. Rogers— but more on that later). So, we decided to brainstorm and see what we could come up with in the wonderful world of cheap stock photos.

Eventually, we came up with a concept. We wanted to represent what we experienced as the internal feeling of practicing yoga in our everyday North American contexts. To capture this, we decided that we wanted an image that juxtaposed a modern, high-tech, built environment against a timeless, open, natural space. The idea that we wanted to symbolically convey was that the internal experience of yoga transcends, but also encompasses the postmodern urban environments that we (like the majority of American and Canadian practitioners) spend most of our time in.

After much searching, I came up with the following image, which I thought captured this concept quite well:

I liked the juxtaposition of the open sky and the road-like grid of this ultra-modern building. I ran it by Roseanne; she was enthusiastic. And the photo rights were cheap.

So, we moved forward with a mockup of an inexpensive book cover design using this photo as our featured image.

Backlash & Controversy

When I shared our cover mockup with our ten 21st Century Yoga contributors, however, there was a strong negative backlash. Half immediately shot me alarmed emails insisting that it would be disaster to market the book with a cover like that. No one will know it’s about yoga. It’s cold, boring, and lifeless. It looks like a business book. It won’t sell. Etc., etc., etc.

Given that this was supposed to be a collaborative project, we listened to their concerns. And then we asked: Okay, if you don’t want to use this—then what do you want to use?

The ensuing discussion revealed just how challenging it can be to try and “sell” a yoga product without putting one of those bendy yoga babes on the cover. Because when it came right down to it, no one had any great ideas about how to represent yoga in a marketable way —featuring an image that would “sell” the book via its cover—without featuring a pretty lady doing some impressive asana. Everyone understood why we didn’t what to do that. And everyone agreed. But that didn’t mean that anyone had a compelling Plan B.

one of many rejected book cover ideas

One contributor with some design skills tried to help out by mocking up some sample covers featuring yoga mats—but no people!—laid out on studio floors. Others (including me), however, countered that such images felt boring, empty, and lifeless.

Someone else pushed for the idea of a close-up of the end a rolled-up yoga mat as an image that would both convey “yoga,” but also inherently convey symbolic meaning (potential waiting to be unfurled, etc.). Everyone else’s reaction? Meh.

The volume of group emails flying up and back increased to truly aggravating levels. Someone would raise a new idea only to have it immediately shot down by several others. And on and on it went . . .

Eventually, someone suggested that we consider using a familiar asana shot after all, arguing that if the path-breaking Yoga Body could do it, then we might want to follow suit:

I think a lot of people picked up and even bought Mark Singleton’s book who may not have if the cover was more abstract/intellectual/vague . . . the book is brilliant, the cover kinda stock yoga pose, but it works.

But this idea was quickly shot down as well.

The discussion then morphed into whether it would be okay to use a more “edgy” version of the same thing: e.g., a heavily tattooed model doing asana in some funky post-industrial setting. But this, too, was voted down as contrary to the spirit of the book. “I would not be in favor of using this sort of shot on the cover,” one contributor wrote. “Reason being that to me it’s very hard to use any sort of yoga model doing asana without triggering a ‘this is what a yoga body looks like’ reflex in many (most?) people. There is so much of that already that I really don’t want to replicate it, even in a more ‘edgy’ way.”

And so we found ourselves in a maddening bind. Every idea that didn’t feature strikingly impressive asana was rejected as lifeless, boring, and unmarketable. But every counter-idea suggesting some sort of “yoga body” image was rejected as perpetuating the standard “body beautiful” trope that the book itself critiques.


A New Direction

Finally, however, just as everybody (most certainly including me) was feeling completely fed up with this seemingly impossible process, a new door opened.

Contributor Melanie Klein offered to talk to a friend of hers, Sarit Rogers, who’s not only a professional photographer, but a yoga and meditation practitioner as well. Melanie would explain our dilemma, see if Sarit had any suggestions, and ask if she’d consider working on the 21st Century Yoga cover for a reduced rate.

Happily, Sarit was not only willing but eager to do so. As she recently explained on our joint IndieGoGo campaign, she’d been struggling with feeling “perpetually uninspired” by the “pastel world of yoga photography.” When, however, she was asked to work on the 21st Century Yoga, “a floodgate of creativity opened.” Within days, Sarit sent us a first round of inspired shots to consider, working with evocative parts of bodies rather than standard asana images, as well as lights and shadows, and urban and natural settings.

Not surprisingly, contributors continued to argue over which of Sarit’s images to use and why. But everyone immediately recognized that we’d been lucky enough to connect with someone capable of squaring the circle of creating a compelling yoga image that didn’t resort to the cliched, but obviously marketable default of the stock asana pose.

Questions to Consider

In my forthcoming book, Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body,I write that while “it would sadden me to see the already pronounced tendency to turn yoga into yet another means of commodifying the body go much further than it has already,” I believe that it “almost certainly will”:

The commercial potential of idealized images of the ‘yoga body’ has simply become too good to pass up. Without doubt, savvy brand strategists will cook up more yoga myths and icons designed to move product, sell tickets, promote teachers, or fuel whatever lucrative initiative comes down the pike. After all, harnessing the cultural power of the body for profit is so ubiquitous today that you almost have to make a calculated effort to avoid it if you have anything yoga-related to sell at all . . . Given the natural fit between the not infrequent natural beauty of the ‘yoga body’ and our society’s insatiable appetite for idealized images of seeming physical perfection, embracing their commercial merger simply follows the dominant cultural logic.

While I believe that 21st Century Yoga successfully resists this “dominant cultural logic,” the story of its cover design process reveals just how difficult this can be. (Even more revealing is the emotional and financial toll that working on such non-commercial yoga projects often takes on those that choose to do so. But I won’t go into that here . . . )

The next post in our elephant book club series will feature an interview with Sarit Rogers on how she understands both the challenges and opportunities involved in conceptualizing, shooting, and selling non-commercial yoga photography. In the meantime, however, I’d be  interested in hearing your thoughts on the following questions:

  1. If you’ve ever tried to market a yoga product yourself, have you found yourself confronting similar issues about selling images of the idealized “yoga body”?
  2. If you buy yoga products, do you feel emotionally affected (whether positively or negatively) by such images?
  3. If you teach (or attend) yoga classes, do you have expectations about what you (or your teacher) should look like?
  4. If so, to what extent do they impact the way that you experience your personal practice, and/or relate to North American yoga culture more generally?

Please feel free to share your thoughts on these or related issues below, and stay tuned for my upcoming interview with photographer Sarit Rogers!


Ed: Kate B.

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Barbie yoga photo credit: http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/raquelle/Interesting

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