Yoga’s Feminist Awakening

The online yoga community is still feeling the aftershocks of a recent debate about the use of women’s bodies in asana-related advertising, and the conversation is far from finished.

It all started when the grand dame of U.S. yoga and Yoga Journal co-founder Judith Hanson Lasater wrote a letter expressing her unhappiness with the increasing frequency of “naked or half-naked women” inside the pages of Yoga Journal. There’ s speculation over which ad prompted Lasater’s letter, as she herself has not identified it, but there’s no shortage of potential culprits. One ad for a Yoga Journal conference featured a topless woman in a bound twist, while full-spread ads for the laughably named brand of yoga mats and clothing, Advaita, include the image of a topless girl lying on her back, covering her nipples with her hands. (Advaita Vedanta is a spiritual philosophy of non-dualism and the Oneness, or God-ness, of all.)

The resulting cycle will be a predictable one for most feminists: Women raise concerns about exploitation, defenders accuse those women of being prudish or jealous and conclude that the whole topic is a non-issue. Only this time, there’s a nasty twist: Some blog posts and comments asserted that criticizing advertising is in itself unyogic. Now practitioners with a bone to pick aren’t just bitter and sexphobic—they’re also bad yogis.

When one blog used a ToeSox ad to illustrate its coverage of the letter, the debate truly caught fire. It turns out many yogis had been frustrated for months by not only the nude ads but also by Yoga Journal’s exclusion of any model not white, young, thin, and uncommonly flexible. (Yoga Journal has acknowledged such complaints without changing their ways. Inevitably, for every letter to the editor claiming that images of “perfect” women scare away potential yogis who don’t fit the mold, another letter hails the photographs as inspirational and beautiful.)

But as grievances abounded, so did dismissals. “Get over it” was the predominant retort with “If you don’t like [it…] don’t read it” coming in a close second. Some replies got even more personal by implying that those who took issue with the ads were failing spiritually in the realm of non-attachment or power of discrimination or in any other yogic way. “We are what we think,” one person tweeted, while another promptly followed with “I feel the issue is in the persons[sic] head that feels there’s an issue….” And one of the most vocal dissenters, who equated the complaints about marketing with “demean[ing] the Yoga [that YJ readers] love,” wrote a blog post that pretty accurately summed up the rationale behind his responses: “My Wife Likes Yoga Journal Just the Way It Is , Thank You.”

The issue isn’t going away any time soon. Jivamukti teachers recently posed for an all-nude shoot as part of PETA’s anti-fur campaign, and model Tara Stiles is currently pushing her new book, Slim, Calm, Sexy, with outrageous weight loss claims (“from a size 8 to a size 00.”) Many teachers have pointed out that women with eating disorders, body dysmorphia and low self-esteem can benefit tremendously from yoga, but whether the community at large is receptive to creating a safe space for such women remains unseen. Already, critiques of Tara Stiles’s advertising are being shouted down with “Don’t hate her because she’s skinny!” and claims that any yoga is good yoga, regardless of how it’s sold. Looks like some otherwise enlightened yogis could do with a course in Women’s Studies 101.

Photo from Advaita ad in Yoga at Home: Beyond the Basics (published by Yoga Journal)


Monica Shores spends the majority of her time writing, reading, and practicing yoga. She writes for Alternet, Make/shift, and TheRumpus. Her work was included in "The Best Sex Writing 2010" which is a collection of nonfiction essays, not erotica—not that there's anything wrong with that.