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)

Comments

  1. Linda-Sama says:
    • Linda- I always look forward to your comments on these issues at Ele and am happy to find you participating here, too. You are an inspiration and make me feel I'm not alone on this side of the fence.

  2. i really appreciate the awareness drawn to this issue. for every body diverse & socially aware yoga community or teacher, there are just as many that cling to the status quo and use yoga and enlightenment as ways of reinforcing rigid standards of beauty & health. it bothers the hell out of me that yoga–which has been a huge, positive force in my life since i was 16 years old–is used to keep people down this way. thanks again!

  3. thanks for a wonderful synopsis of the whole conversation! and you're right – it's not over and the issue is not going away soon. it's really great to get a feminist and non-yoga blogger/writer point of view on the debate.

  4. elephantjournal says:

    An interview with Judith Hanson Lasater, who inspired the first debate re young women, sex and advertising in yoga…that may be of help in giving closure to said debate: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/08/walk-the-t… Since elephant and our many columnists, including some of those you link above, have had the walking-on-eggshells honor of inspiring some of these debates, I'm disappointed you didn't care to link to more than an article or two of ours above. Give us a read—an easy way to stay in touch is to fan http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal our lively, huge-ish Facebook page, or on twitter, http://www.twitter.com/elephantjournal , where we were named #1 in US for green content this year (Shorty Awards).

    In any case, honor that you thought of us and linked to ele above, big fan.

    Yours, Waylon Lewis waylon at elephantjournal dot com

  5. I recently signed up for Zenergy Yoga, located inside Az on the rocks, Scottsdale, Az. They have various programs and best yoga trainers. and to compliment it they have indoor climbing and a gym. To have a perfect yoga experience check them out at: http://www.azontherocks.com/services/zenergyyoga….

  6. Thank you for linking to my post! :)

    I'm currently half way through a two-parter looking at this issue in more detail (and with a little less obvious outrage!).

    The first part is here: <a href="http://svasti.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/samskaras-in-samsara-%E2%80%93-part-1/">Samskaras in samsara
    The second part is coming soon.

    Though I've calmed down a little, I still very much object to the Tara Stiles type of yoga marketing, and in general, the terrible use of women and in particular, naked or partially clothed women to promote yoga.

    Not only does it demean women and play on their existing self-esteem issues, there are also many men who find the impossibly glamourous-skinny-white-female promotion of yoga to be intimidating. Not to mention that it's all incredibly out of touch with the essence of yoga!

    I personally don't believe that any yoga is good yoga. If someone comes to yoga in a way that obscures the rich body of teachings and mind/body wisdom that goes with it, then that can be damaging.

    As a yoga teacher, I can already tell you that people have a hard enough time understanding yoga as anything more than "stretching". But they come anyway. Sure, they might come to lose weight, and hopefully that's not the only reason they stay.

    But having yoga sold out by yoga teachers is quite shocking to me. And I wouldn't say those yogis who support such things are enlightened in the least…

  7. Alex Bollag says:

    I teach a yoga class for a non for profit in Toronto called Sheena's Place that supports women with eating disorders. It is shocking how difficult is it for women who identify with having an eating disorder to find safe spaces to practice yoga. I see a huge lack of awareness around criticizing peoples bodies and how they move (you have "bad" posture etc), no boundaries around touching students, emphasis on restrictive diets, cleansing etc and a huge focus on achieving some kind of "idea" yoga pose. I feel that there is an amazing hypocrisy around what people talk about and preach as "yogic" and the actually teaching practices and behaviors in the average yoga class. Principles and practices do not match up and it creates a very triggering, challenging and even sometimes abusive space for anyone in recovery.

  8. heatheraurelia13 says:

    Its a problem because women's bodies are used to sell, SELL, S-E-L-L! This is just another program dipping into the ad campaighn's bandwagaon.

  9. snobographer says:

    If it's really not a big deal, and the issue is all in the heads of a bunch of uptight prudes, then I trust there are an equivalent number of photos in YG featuring gratuitously naked men. That's how it always works, isn't it.

  10. Do you know how many times I've heard in recent past, "Oh… I don't have the body for Yoga" when I suggest it to women? I too thought the same way before I met a Yoga teacher who educated me otherwise. I sincerely thought I had to be a size 4 or below because every advertisement I'd ever seen for yoga showed that. It's true one may attain a higher fitness level if they practice yoga regularly… but for beginners, it's very intimidating. To attract a wider base of yogis, I'd suggest they market to the majority… If they want to use fit bodies to inspire, make it known these people are at a higher level or professional. (I'm a size 6 btw… in case anyone tries to claim I'm coming from a bitter/ jealous perception.)

  11. @Krista. I recently had a woman say she didn't have the body for yoga. I didn't comprehend it. I hadn't realised that yoga had become perceived as a skinny-person's activity. I'm not a regular yoga person but I have been to many classes over the years (maybe when it was full of older people who started doing yoga in the 70s?) when people were all shapes and sizes and were doing it for well-being, not weightloss and body shape wasn't even a factor. I guess when I do read weekly magazines, the young actress are crediting yoga with being lean and skinny. Hmmm. Yoga has lost its heart, perhaps.

  12. For the yoga hipsters take on this issue, check out http://www.yogadawg.com/appendix22.htm
    on how yoga magazines and blog manipulate yogi/nis and what fairness in yoga advertising might look like in the future
    http://www.yogadawg.com/appendix21.htm

  13. There are also a lot of yoga instructors who are more concerned with making a buck than sharing the practice. And since now yoga is associated with women, rather than men as it was once traditionally taught, even P&G is using it in advertising. Nothing is sacred.

  14. Thanks for posting news of the debate over here. I blog at feministfatale.com, write for Ms and Elephant Journal and try to bring feminism to the community at Elephant as much as possible. In fact, I weigh in on this debate in a post scheduled for publication in the next few days. I have been dismayed at many of the reactions to the called out sexism you mention. I have been incredibly dismayed at the one-dimensional, oversimplified and misguided arguments. This debate is far from over.

  15. To add to my most recent comment, I am sharing a link to a post about the comments I received from the yoga community after I posted Pam Anderson's most recent PETA ad. http://www.feministfatale.com/2010/07/take-a-brea… You'll see the same sort of dismissive remarks (and worse). You summed it up well- time to take a WS course. I have a wait list running for the spring ;)

  16. Body image issues have become so intertwined with every aspect of marketing these days. It's not surprising to see them in connection to yoga.

  17. Much of what I read on blogs is quite explicitly a plain dialectic between those that think they are "doing it right", (like Judith Lasseter) and those that probably couldn't care less about what those that think they are doing it right actually think because they are doing very well for themselves and can easily defend their position along the lines of Bob Weisenbergs more convenient, universalist frame, (e.g. Tara Stiles, Kathryn Budig, ToeSox and Yoga Journal)

  18. Yoga is for every body!

  19. Once a young woman asked me,
    "How does it feel to be a man?"
    And I replied,
    "My dear,
    I am not so sure."
    Then she said,
    "Well, aren’t you a man?"
    And this time I replied,
    "I view gender
    As a beautiful animal
    That people often take for a walk on a leash
    And might try to enter in some odd contest
    To try to win prizes.
    "My dear,
    A better question for Hafiz
    Would have been,
    "How does it feel to be a heart?"
    For all I know is Love,
    And I find my heart Infinite
    And Everywhere!

    • Wow. Talk about clueless male privilege… Must be nice to be in the unmarked gender and be able to pompously explain to people in the marked one how you don't really "see" gender, just like white people don't "see" color.

    • My dear, I'm not sure if you're trying to say that you think gender is irrelevant. If so, you're in the wrong place. Gender maybe should be irrelevant to say, and employer who choses his employees based on sex, but it is clearly not an attribute that people are willing to ignore. Until women are treated equally, gender is relevant.

      What is this comment doing in response to this article anyways? Does it make a point that is relevant? If so, I assume that you mean it doesn't matter that these are female bodies being exploited. If that is the case, then why aren't any male bodies being sexed up for yoga advertisements? Or ambiguous sex bodies? Why specfically females? And, if the bodies were male would your feelings on the matter be different?

  20. So: as a subscriber to yoga journal, I happened to read Judith's article and couldn't agree with her more. I feel that because the ancient practice of yoga has become so mainstream- the new "it" thing – the media has once again taken over a… wholesome practice intended to bring about good health, a peace of mind and a conscious awakening, and turned yoga into the new 'fad'.

    Not only is the media sexing yoga up, but non-yogic ways are seeping their way into the classroom: I went to a random yoga class back in Ipswich just to spice it up and I swear the Instructor had to have been lost and missed her aerobics class. She was counting for each Asana "and 1-and-2-and- 3-and-SWITCH!)

    I mean come on… who actually practices yoga naked? And while bouncing like in a step class?? I gave it a try just for principal purposes and I'll say- wouldn't do it again-EVER.

    Here is a video I would like to share of a very dear and sacred yogi- Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa. SHE is a woman whom I suggest future yogi's look up to- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2RCNS1qvb8

  21. It's just sad to know that women bodies are being used to malicious advertisement. Thanks for bringing up this issue. This is an important matter that needs to be considered.

  22. EviRotklee says:

    I can't wait till she gets sued for injuring a student by having them do some cracker jack version of a yoga pose, like her "couch yoga" video on youtube, which jumps them into twists they may not be ready for… Can they take away your license to teach yoga? What about your unwarranted sense of self-righteousness?

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