During the last few days there has been a lively discussion going on in the yoga world about public displays of yoga. For those who aren’t aware, the most recent firestorm on yoga-celebrity public posing began with yoga “rebel” Tara Stiles’ new campaign with W hotels, where she rode around in a glass box in NY city doing yoga poses. The publicity stunt was a promotion of, well, a lot of things, I think most adequately summed up by this awesome article on Yoga Dork.
The glass box is part of a newer trend of exhibitionism in the yoga world whether it’s well-known yogis “promoting yoga” through selfies, yoga in public places (read: Tara Stiles’ show), or hey, even yoga in the store windows of Lululemon. Now, I have no problem with yoga selfies. There are a ton of great reasons to use selfies to enhance your personal practice, increase interest in yoga, or draw people into studios. But is there a point when such practices aren’t yoga anymore? What exactly is going on here?
I think there are two sides to the debate that come up most often. The first is that there is nothing wrong with these exhibitionist yoga practices, and that those who think there is something wrong with it are just jealous and judgmental. Now I’d be the first to say that anyone, whether it’s Tara Stiles, Hilaria Baldwin (Alec Baldwin’s wife), or whoever, should be able to post awesome yoga selfies if they want to, or “perform” yoga in public if they want to (even in a glass box).
Yes, yoga is about non-judgment, and I’m not going around thinking any less of Tara Stiles or her yoga practice because she performed for the public in a glass box. Props to her, in fact! That takes some gall and serious self confidence. But while I do think the argument that we need to be “non-judgmental” of these very visible representations of yoga is important and valid, it’s not the full story. The root of yoga isn’t only about non-judgment, it’s about cultivating mindfulness for our actions. We need to unpack the most recent rendition of exhibitionist yoga to be able to fully understand, and be mindful of, what these practices mean for yoga and all of the people who practice it.
This newer trend of yoga exhibitionism, like Lululemon using live “models” in their store fronts or Tara Stiles in a glass box, has some serious issues. And this is where the second side of the debate comes in. The opposite side of the debate makes the (I think, incorrect) argument is that this type of “celebrity posing” is a betrayal of “true” yoga.
Fact check, y’all: yoga is a pluralistic practice. Meaning there are a ton of different ways to practice yoga, and no one way is morally “right.” Throughout the history of yoga there have been numerous variations in the practice, it’s meaning for practitioners, it’s use, and it’s reception among the general public. What yoga means changes depending on our socio-cultural location. It’s best summed up in this fabulous line: when you change the way you look at yoga, the yoga you look at changes.
So saying anything at all is “true” yoga is completely ridiculous, because what is “true” depends on your vantage point. Back in the day doing yoga primarily meant being male, meditating with some seated poses, and reaching a higher state of consciousness where you were one with all of the universe. Now, it often means following the eight limbs of yoga and performing complex, acrobatic asanas. Neither form of yoga is more authentic, or valid, or “true.” They are just different. So we can’t say exhibitionist yoga is “false” or “profane” yoga–it’s yoga, as it is at this time, at this place, and for those people. It gives them meaning; what right do we have to deny them their experience? But there are a number of valid and important critiques made in the debate about this type of yoga exhibitionism that I feel should be highlighted.
1. Capitalism: First, and foremost, often these exhibitions aren’t really promoting yoga–they are about selling products or earning money. Selfies promote the person, which gets them higher pay for their yoga classes or privates, or promotional deals, or a bigger market base for their retreats, workshops, or products. Lululemon live yogi models are, obviously, trying to get people to buy overpriced exercise clothing to a primary target market of skinny, wealthier women. They don’t even offer larger sizes, and the price range makes the brand practically impossible to afford on a budget unless you forego food–believe me, I’ve tried it… well, maybe.
Above: Photo of the glass-walled truck that roamed New York earlier this week. Below: Image posted to the W Hotel Instagram account with the caption: “Morning yoga with @TaraStiles at @whotelsnyc. Find Tara’s nontraditional tips for staying fabulously fit on the road in all W rooms and suites across the world.#POSEWHENEVER”
Tara Stiles essentially garnered a sponsorship with W hotels to promote both the hotel franchise, as well Stiles herself and her brand Strala Yoga. (Yoga as a sport analogy, anyone? Olympic sponsorship deals coming to mind?) Remember Kathryn Budig’s provocative ToeSox ads? A sponsorship that rocketed her to fame in the yoga world. When what we are buying is no longer yoga, but stuff that grants us “elite” (and wealthy) status within a yoga world, that’s problematic. That’s a yoga that has been so co-opted by capitalism and consumerism that it’s more exhibition than yoga. Sure, poor aesthetic yogis in the past in India often did flashy poses to panhandle money. But they were homeless, trying to buy their dinner. They weren’t getting paid big bucks to pose in the (near) nude for the sake of selling products.
Above: Toesox ad featuring a (nearly) nude Kathryn Budig.
2. Sexualization: Even more problematic, many of these exhibitions (whether an ad, instagram, or event) sexualize the practice as a result. Sure, consensual sex can be awesome, and who doesn’t love the beauty of Jasper Johal’s photography? But when yoga becomes synonymous with sexualized, thin, white women it creates stereotypes and associations that can be very problematic. For example, it can make it harder to men to feel comfortable in yoga because being “sexy” in these ways is often considered “acting gay” (unless you use yoga as a way to pick up on all the hot, sexualized, thin, white women). It also diminishes the art of the practice, to, well, the art of being sexy.
3. Exclusion: These images are throughout the yoga world, and with similar images of thin, white women frequenting content pages of Yoga Journal or other mainstream yoga products (to help sell Yoga Journal and these products, no less), there isn’t any diversity being shown. This white, thin, female representation is primarily the only type of “yoga” being represented and the only type of “yogi” being shown, so these images come to define how yoga is viewed by both the general public and yoga consumers. This is (unsurprisingly) reflected on who does, and has access to, yoga.
Recent statistics gathered by Yoga Journal in 2012 indicate that yoga consumers are 82.2% women and only 17.8% men. In 2008 44% of practitioners had household incomes of $75,000 or more, with 24% making more than $100,000. In 2008 71% of yoga practitioners were college educated with 27% having postgraduate degrees (Yoga Journal). Comparing this to the general population, only 28.2% of all US citizens had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the median household income in America was only $52,762 (Census.gov) While there are fewer statistics on race, an academic study by Birdee et al. found a significant difference in racial composition as of 2002, with 84% of practitioners being white and only 6% being African American (10% other).
By constructing yoga as a practice for white, thin, ultra-flexible, primarily upper class, heterosexual women (some of who were models or dancers before their yoga careers) these representations not only exclude men but also minority groups, those with different body types, and the poor (those who may not be able to afford regular yoga classes, let alone Lululemon clothing, W hotels, or Toesox). Yet it is arguably those groups who could stand to gain the most from a regular yoga practice.
So what do we do? I’m not sure, but I think blindly clinging to the idea that: “Anything goes! People who are bent out of shape about the content of other people’s Instagram feeds are often just jealous and spiteful!” is a recipe for further exclusion, commodification, and sexualization in yoga. Yoga asks us, and ultimately teaches us, to be mindful of the consequences of our actions. All of us, especially those in the spotlight, need to practice mindfulness in the use of exhibitionist yoga.
There’s a metaphor used in sociology, pioneered by Weber, describing how our capitalist society has resulted in our being locked in an iron cage that limits individual human freedom and potential instead setting us free. Let’s not build ourselves inside a glass box, only to find we forgot to include a door.
With love, light, and…