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

Via Carol Horton
on Dec 12, 2012
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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:


About Carol Horton

Carol Horton, Ph.D. is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body. With Roseanne Harvey, she is co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Carol blogs at Think Body Electric, and enjoys social media via Facebook and Twitter.


33 Responses to “Marketing Yoga Without a Hot Barbie Body: Challenges & Opportunities.”

  1. […] Marketing Yoga Without a Hot Barbie Body: Challenges & Opportunities ~ Carol […]

  2. Brian says:

    It's ironic that you started with using stock images, because what you ended up using looks very "stock". As if a designer in the mid-nineties/early-00s searched for "yoga", "cool", "urban". As a designer, and yoga practitioner/teacher, I would just like to see more HONESTY in how yoga is represented. Your book is purportedly about yoga in the 21st Century, so ask yourself, "what does that look like"? I think the honest answer is that it doesn't look like anything that can be summed up by one singular image, unless that image either cleverly represents the vast variety of styles of yoga and wide range of people who practice, or avoids trying to be representational at all and is more metaphorical. I think something interesting could have been done with the more abstract/evocative images that your photographer presented early on, but it seems as though eventually those ideas were beaten into submission by a committee and you're left with something that looks very narrow-minded and dated before it even hits the shelves. What's honest about this image? No one practices in the middle of the road. Sure, young or middle-aged people with tattoos practice yoga, but so do a lot of people without tattoos, both young and old. If you want to see a cover that is simple and honest, and works because of that, have a look at Elena Brower's new book: That's what happens when someone who loves yoga collaborates with someone who loves yoga AND design.
    By the way, I'm not here just to criticize. If you'd like me to work up some concepts for you, I'd happily do it for free. Because I love yoga and design, and I want to help represent it in an honest, sophisticated, intelligent way.

  3. carolhortonbooks says:

    From Facebook:

    Harvee Lau I've see full figured yogis doing amazing yoga poses, ones I can only hope to do someday.

    Laura Shaw Feit I tried to leave this over on EJ but they are down: "Welcome to my world! As a professional book designer for 20+ years, this is what I do all day long. I'm also an Ashtanga practitioner and have spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges of successfully portraying yoga while avoiding the endless asana shots. Your cover process was worse than usual because you had so many cooks. I understand why you chose to do it this way, but honestly? even with an easy topic like food, this would have been fraught. Someone always needs to take the lead and have the strong vision. Ask 10 people what they think and you will get 10 answers. So what would I have done? It's an interesting question. One I don't have an answer to because I would have to actually work up some ideas, but it intrigues me. I will say that I don't relate all that much to the cover (tattoos feel just as predictable to me as bendy lovelies), but was happy that it was so well-designed with very well done photos—that in and of itself was a big step-up from the bulk of self-published books. I was more interested in what was inside. And what's inside is really good stuff. So thank you for tackling this project!

  4. Sadly I agree but I wonder if it's only because we are designers? I always want to 'fix' yoga books BTW. Design-by-committee results in watered down designs every time, whether by self-publishers or in-house. I always warn clients about that. Very few listen. The best book covers have a strong vision and take risks.

  5. carolhortonbooks says:

    Brian – I get that the image doesn't speak to you, which is fine – there's no way to please everyone. But I think you are missing the point. 'What's honest about this image"? To start with, that is came out of an organic process of collaboration, creativity, and experimentation. Elena's cover is beautiful, and also succeeds in breaking out of that predictable "yoga body" box. But something like that wouldn't have been appropriate for our content (which also is not going to be to everyone's liking). The point of identifying the problem of feeling stymied by standard images is not to develop another one-size-fist-all pseudo-solution – in fact, it's precisely the opposite.

  6. but perhaps it CAN'T be captured in an image? Perhaps an all-type cover could have served better? You have so many different voices in the book. I would have let that guide me away from a single-image approach. I've spent a lot of time trying to find an alternative to the usual yoga art but haven't come up with a definitive answer. Elena's cover is very nice but is STILL stuck in the same old same old in my opinion.

  7. carolhortonbooks says:

    Laura: That's a great comment in that it really speaks to the difficulties involved. We didn't plan on having 10 cooks – and, in fact, got some strong complaints from those involved about having opened up the process too much! Clearly, it wasn't the most efficient way to proceed. However, Roseanne and I were both committed to the vision of an open, inclusive, collaborative process. Not everyone shares this as a value (particularly in American culture, which champions business efficiency but doesn't care much about civic engagement. My sense is that Canada is a bit different – and more to my liking – on this point). But, it was something that we wanted to try to actualize at the time. But in the end, I'm very pleased with the way it worked out. I love Sarit's work; I love the cover (we also had a great designer, Drew Fansler, to help us with that); and it would never have come together any other way.

  8. carolhortonbooks says:

    "I've spent a lot of time trying to find an alternative to the usual yoga art but haven't come up with a definitive answer." And you're a professional book designer! My point exactly.

    Again, the idea here is not to say that we hit on the one right alternative – there is no such thing, and obviously no one would ever come to agreement even on what core concepts they like best!

    The point is rather to use this an an example of how difficult it is to visually represent yoga in a non-standard way – particularly when you do want to market a product (or person or class or whatever). Obviously, we are not the only ones who've had to grapple with this problem.

    My hope is that with more awareness and discussion of the issue, more ideas and creativity may be sparked.

  9. Sarit Rogers says:

    Your feedback is appreciated, but I have to agree with Carol that you are missing the point. You ask "what is honest with this image?" Everything. The idea is that we can practice and do practice everywhere, not just within the confines of a yoga studio or ashram. Sure, a mat in the road, when viewed superficially, may look out of place, but in truth, it's not. It's representative of our abilities to go against the grain, against the stream, if you will, and take our breath on the road. Additionally, the idea wasn't "beaten into submission" as you said, though having several people weigh in was surely a challenge. The bottom line is, we can't please everyone: not as a photographer or a designer or as a yogi. Art is subjective, as is anything creative.

  10. As an ideal I can see why you favored this approach. As an artist I can't help but think it makes for poor design. Absolutely nothing great is ever done by committee IMO. But I realize that I am in the minority about this. I strongly disagree that 'business efficiency' in any way equals someone having a singular strong bold and innovative vision!! Business Efficiency has in fact ruined so many covers I can't begin to tell you! It's the current horror of publishing. The best book covers out there are done by talented artists who were given freedom to create without thinking about pleasing everyone. Your cover is all about pleasing everyone because everyone was asked to be pleased. One of the best book designers ever is Chip Kidd. Believe me, NO ONE tells him what to do. I could show you 10 covers in a matter of minutes that are stunning, unique and memorable and none of them was designed by committee but instead by talented artists. This said, you chose the process and are happy with the results, so bravo! But please know that the end result pleased you in no small part because you value this invisible-to-the-rest-of-us process. When you open it up for general discussion, people will tell you what they see. Designers in particular can tell what happened at a glance. But as I said before, the book itself is what matters. We can natter on endlessly about the cover, as you found out! but in the end it won't hurt sales.

  11. Lisa says:

    Just want to express a simple point. Changing attitudes needs to start with putting all types of yogis and yoginis on the cover of yoga magazines, in particular Yoga Journal.

  12. Melanie says:

    Absolutely! Agreed.

  13. Hey Carol!

    In response to your questions:

    1. Though the publisher of my book went with one white woman as the model (and a young, white male for the modifications), she wears a decidedly un-sexy unitard with just feet and arms exposed. And the cover is a graphic, not any bendy "yoga babe." That was a decision to reject the typical body commodification.

    For our next book, the plan is for inclusivity of body types, colors and sexes.

    2. I don't buy yoga products that play on or exploit the "yoga babe" imagery. Not interested.

    3. To be honest, I was going to say "NO!" and then I realized I DO expect yoga teachers to be washed and not smelly.

    4. I don't think there's much or any impact on my personal practice. I've written already about how I think they impact north american yoga 'culture' generally.

  14. Last year around this time the yoga blogs were abuzz about this question because of the Kathryn Budig naked Toe Sox ads. I began answering this question that that point……. Let's keep the dialogue and the diversification of images going!

  15. Oh! I had meant to add this link for those who are unfamiliar and interested in my book:

  16. Hey what an interesting post! I'd like to say that I love your first cover idea of looking up toward and past the modern corporate office building into the sky. It says 21st century to me and it's an expansive vision. The cover you picked is interesting to me as well as a person who does not relate to the pierced or tatooed contemporary yoga style that is so popular. However, popular it is and so indeed it is a good marketing tool. It does not offend me. No marketing particularly offends me if the product is good. I don't judge a book by its cover or a teacher by her/his looks. If does not translate. If I was marketing a product I would hope it would be honest and nothing less. In the case of 21st I think you came up with something just fine and hopefully all were comfortable to be represented as such.

  17. Hilary,

    Funny, seeing that photo of the 'corporate' building and blue sky, I thought "How awesome!" I was in the minority though,,,,, AND am indeed happy with the cover as is, but much happier with the quality within the covers…. Delighted to be among such company!

  18. carolhortonbooks says:

    Agreed in principle. But in practice – it won't happen because it won't sell enough for YJ's bottom line. So – I'd say that the change must come from a more grassroots level, at least to start with. (And, of course, that's already happening – I love Curvy Yoga in particular, for example).

  19. carolhortonbooks says:

    Quite true re your book; I have it on my shelf and checked (not to verify, but just as I was curious) – and the model definitely doesn't have that sexy "babe" vibe at all. Yet she is young, pretty, and slender. Which just goes to show it is not so much *who* is photographed, but *how* they are portrayed. Not that greater diversity isn't important, that's not my point . . . rather, the fact that there's such a strong contrast of symbolic associations even with the same *type* of model is very, very instructive.

  20. Jenifer says:

    This is interesting to read. I'll 'bite' at the 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”?

    I market services, and we focus on using what are called "outcome images" rather than "process images" — according to our brand designer. Instead of pictures of people in postures, or environments, we show outcomes — people living happy lives.

    This moves us away from what "yoga bodies" look like or even postures look like and which are important, and instead focuses on outcomes — happy people. Our clients submit their own photos that show them "doing something that you love" — and then we use those. Sometimes, we take pictures during events (workshops, parties, etc) and are given permission to use those.

    Also, our designer helped us by asserting that we should use "snaps" — snapshots — rather than professional photography, because it's more brand compliant, natural, and fun.

    2. If you buy yoga products, do you feel emotionally affected (whether positively or negatively) by such images?

    Mostly, I question what people are selling.

    Recently, I saw (yet another) advertisement that said "Yoga for everybody!" and showed a very muscular young man in scorpion pose and then another with a very fit, thin young woman in a complex arm-balancing posture. That doesn't communicate "Yoga for Everybody!"

    In a similar campaign (using yoga for everybody!), we had snaps of one of our clients laughing, putting on their shoes after class. It shows people of all sizes, ages, and sexes, as well as several with knee braces, wrist braces, and one woman was standing up using her cane. It truly communicated "everybody."

    3. If you teach (or attend) yoga classes, do you have expectations about what you (or your teacher) should look like?

    No. But I would say that a lot of my clients do have that expectation of themselves and of me (or other teachers) starting out. But, the culture of our studio is inclusive, and it's "come as you are" and we communicate that in as many ways as possible.

    3.a. 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?

    I suppose because my practice started in our family home, it's been more of a curiousity rather than impacting me in a deep way or impacting my practice in a deep way.

  21. illuma says:

    As a matter of course I can't help but respond to your question about what post modern north american yoga culture looks like.
    A voice can be heard saying " It looks like a group of people in a room with a teacher practicing yoga". Perhaps this is so apparent to me as I am not one of them.

  22. Carol Horton says:

    Yes! I remember that post and see that I commented on it back when it first came out.

    What if the images that you show there were just as, if not more closely associated with yoga in our culture than the ones of the beautiful bendy babes? I believe that we'd be in a very different – and much better – place for all concerned.

  23. Corinna says:

    i still like building and blue sky photo but wonder how to incorporate the image of yoga. also like the first image of yoga on the street in the city as that does express how i actually race through urban traffic and bring my busy day into the studio and why I do so. So I can leave the studio liking people again, being o.k. and thoughtful about myself, and connected to my body, my environment and others again. As a 50+ overweight woman I get the onslaught of images that could easily keep me from a studio. I applaud your quest to find an image that speaks more to the practice than the butt and the clothes.

  24. […] you sell anything yoga products without hot, flexible mega-babes? (The Elephant via […]

  25. carolhortonbooks says:

    Hey Jenifer – Thanks for such an interesting and thoughtful response! Clearly, you and your team have carefully thought through what images you want to use to represent yoga and why, which is fantastic. I think that it's interesting that you came to yoga from your family – I can definitely see why that would make you more immune to the effects of commercialized yoga imagery than most of us.

    I just came back from a holiday party where I was talking about my yoga books to several women who were very interested in yoga but don't practice, and they all agreed that they find yoga "intimidating" because they associate it with being super-fit, super-slim, and super-flexible. None of them appeared to be in particularly bad shape, but nonetheless they all felt this way. When I told them about the kind of critical discussion of this sort of now-stock imagery that's going on in the yoga community, they really lit up – they could easily see how commercialization would produce images that they felt excluded by – but like the idea of that not being the case.

    It was definitely affirming to me and also very much speaks to the value of the work that you're doing and how it's being represented. Thanks for commenting!

  26. carolhortonbooks says:

    I agree that is the practical, empirical reality – most people in the US take yoga in group classes. However, try to imagine this making a compelling magazine or book cover. Not so easy: it would be very busy, not everyone "looks good" practicing asana, etc. So, this is the problem – how to represent yoga in an image that works commercially without turning it into yet another "body beautiful" advertisement, that could just as easily be for shampoo except for the model's yoga clothing and gymnastic-type pose. The process of working through the book cover made me realize that this is much more difficult than I had imagined.

  27. carolhortonbooks says:

    The street setting was taken to be symbolic rather than realistic – we were thinking of the idea of "21st Century Yoga" as a phenomenon that's moving fast and/or changing quickly, that takes one unexpected places, that is moving toward a crossroads, or whatever. We had also considered an image simply of a mat on a road (no body at all), but decided against it for various reasons alluded to in this post. But of course, when you present an image that's supposed to work symbolically, different people have all sorts of different associations with it – this was the problem with the original sky image, which spoke strongly to some of us on a symbolic level, but not at all to others. Clearly, this cover is similar in that not everyone will "see" it in the same way. But, with the mat and the legs in Tree pose, it does connote "yoga" more immediately than if those elements weren't there.

  28. bobcat says:

    This is a very worthy topic. It is common to see yoga teachers in yoga poses on their website or studio posters. I find the posing for marketing purpose to be either unconscious or narcissistic or both. Yoga is an individual practice. it is counter-intuitive to encourage people to expect a final result in a certain shape or form. Prana is fluid and formless.

    As a yoga teacher I make a conscious choice to not pose myself in asana for any promotional material. I do use photos of me with a circle of participants or just the participants as a group and not in yoga poses to build a sense of community. You can see a healthy glow and joy in their eyes after practicing together.

  29. carolhortonbooks says:

    Thanks for your comment. It's wonderful to hear that others are thinking into this issue of how to represent yoga in promotional photos seriously and coming up with workable, creative alternatives to the standard "yoga babe" imagery. I think that the more reflecting on this question becomes SOP rather than controversial critique, the better off the North American yoga world will be.

  30. Julie says:

    I thought the book "Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga" by Rolf Gates did a nice job of conveying a strong message without using a bendy yoga body.

  31. […] Marketing Yoga Without a Hot Barbie Body: Challenges & Opportunities. […]

  32. […] post continues the discussion of yoga, photography and the body begun in “Marketing Yoga without a Hot Barbie Body: Challenges and Opportunities,” part of the 21st Century Yoga online book club. Here, I’m pleased to interview Sarit […]