interview: judith hanson lasater responds to the response

Judith Hanson Lasater in action at a YJ conference.

Judith Hanson Lasater’s letter to the editor in the September 2010 issue of Yoga Journal, expressing her concern about the use of “naked and half-naked women” in ads for yoga products, has struck a deep nerve in yoga practitioners. She took the time (while teaching at a yoga retreat, no less!) to answer a few questions and go deeper into her reasons for letting YJ know how she feels.

Q: How do you feel about the reaction to your letter? It seems like there’s been an outpouring of agreement with your stance.

JHL: The response has been interesting, to say the least. Probably running about 98% in agreement with what I attempted to share. The passion of the responses is also a surprise.

Q: How long have you been feeling concerned about the direction of YJ’s advertising policy? Was there any ad in particular that prompted you to write the letter, or was it a general growing sentiment?

JHL: I like to pay attention to the US yoga scene in all its fascinating permutations. There was something about a particular ad that I saw in YJ that really touched me and so I decided to write a letter. Part of writing the letter was to articulate for myself first what was going on inside of me when I saw the ad. I guess I believe in the old adage that clear writing reflects clear thinking, and I wanted to get clear. (Isn’t  that we we are doing on the mat and on the meditation cushion and all day long  to practice yoga?) So I wrote the letter. I am a little surprised they published it.

Q: I understand that you must be disappointed to see YJ become another “voice of the status quo” and I’m sure that wasn’t your intention for the magazine when you helped start it 35 years ago. What kind of voice did you hope it would become?

JHL: I would love to be able to say that we had such a clear intention all those years ago, but it is not true. I do remember clearly that we all loved yoga (not just asana) and wanted to share it with the world. We were crazily naive about everything that went into publishing a magazine. We learned over and over again that you can’t publish if you can’t pay your staff, your distributors and your mailing costs. Business is the way of the world and nothing wrong with that. But I had and still have dreams about how the magazine and the world can be, part of my character I guess as an optimist.

Q: There have been many conversations and discussions about the commercialization/sexualization of yoga, and the response from many people is, “Yes, well we live in a capitalist society; everything is commercialized. Why not yoga?” But I see that you feel differently. What do you see as the problem with using sexual imagery to sell yoga? What is compromised?

JHL: I just want to help create a safe space for yoga to be taught. With all this sexualization of yoga clothes, props, etc., it must spill over into the environment of yoga classes in ways that do not honor the boundary between teacher and student. In the US, we pay people the most money who can distract us the best: actors, personalities and sports figures. Entertainment is all about distraction. As I understand it, the deepest practice of yoga is about the opposite: refusing at first, then later embracing, the act and art of not distracting myself anymore from myself and the moment. So it seems to me that the use of naked bodies to sell yoga products is about using distraction to sell introspection. For me it is not about the nakedness; rather, it is about using bodies to distract us instead of using ads that inspire us to practice yoga, to live in the present and to be open to compassion and grace in each moment. I am sad when I see yoga in general, and many yoga classes in particular, becoming about distraction and entertainment.

  1. AWESOME interview. Thanks so much for your coverage of this issue.

    Am I the only one wondering what Kathryn Budig has to say about the situation? Has she released anything official (besides the initial ads, of course)?

  2. this is so right on: “In the US, we pay people the most money who can distract us the best: actors, personalities and sports figures. Entertainment is all about distraction. As I understand it, the deepest practice of yoga is about the opposite…”

    thank you for saying this. i sometimes think that the yoga “superstars” are such forces of personality that they might, whether intended or not, end up having the classes they lead be about them, too.

  3. “For me it is not about the nakedness; rather, it is about using bodies to distract us instead of using ads that inspire us to practice yoga, to live in the present and to be open to compassion and grace in each moment. I am sad when I see yoga in general, and many yoga classes in particular, becoming about distraction and entertainment.”

    BRAVO!

  4. Wow, these yoga controversies are springing up all over the place these days, aren’t they?

    Any chance for an interview with Kathryn Budig to get her perspective about this?

    (She’s one of our fellow Elephant columnists, so getting in touch shouldn’t be difficult…).

  5. Yes! I stopped going to a local yoga studio because it just didn’t feel like I was in a yoga class, it felt like I was in a competition to see who could get the tightest ass EVER, who could buy the most expensive and revealing “yoga clothes” – and it was all distracting and often offensive. It was very concentrated on what we were doing physically and very shallow spiritually.
    I don’t find beautiful bodies offensive, but in my mind yoga is not about beaurtiful bodies. It may be a side effect, but not the purpose.

  6. I think it was all a perfect storm of nude ads in YJ. Judith’s letter, Friend-gate, and the new books on the history of yoga….just a matter of time for the backlash.

    as I used to yell in the ’60s, start the revolution now…..;)

  7. >”Kathryn Budig to get her perspective ” Thought so too, but think the more important person to get a perspective from all this would be from the editor of YJ, Kaitlin Quistgaard. Interesting how so many yogis are suddenly pissed off by a letter from the founder of YJ especially after the 35 anniversary year seal appeared on the recent issues.

    Also thought it was curious how in the 35th Anniversary Keepsake Issue, there is nothing about the history of the magazine except for a link to the covers. I hope we will get a statement from Kaitlin in the next issue. In the meantime here is the archive of Yoga Journal to form your own opinions on how YJ went awry (or not). http://books.google.com/books/serial/ISSN:01910965?rview=1&lr=&sa=N&start=210

  8. Dawg, I think people have been pissed off for a very long time. I know I’ve blogged about the issues that YJ does not write about. It just took a letter from one of the founders to set things off.

  9. As I understand it, US entertainment is not all about distraction. A true actor performs holy healing catharsis upon his audience, as he has for thousands of years since originally inspired by the ancient yogis in Dionysian theatre and others. We do yoga to train our temples to not only look beautiful, but to be functional to the most optimum degree. And we do mean to inspire people with our beautiful bodies.

    I don’t mean to nitpick, but it seems a lot of people in the yoga world today have some sort of bias against our kind. Not truly in their hearts I suppose… but they say such strange things sometimes! Surely, some US entertainment (reality tv anyone?) is just distraction from the mind, which indeed yoga means to stop. But not all of it like this ~generalization~ claims. So I thought I’d comment.

    That quote is not “so right on”, Emma. But perhaps it is just an oversight- someone not paying attention.

    • yeah, but how many true actors, who perform “holy healing catharsis” are paid the most money in the united states, as the quote states? last i checked, it was shmucks like mel gibson who create a spectacle that moves away from introspection. but i appreciate your response as an actor.

  10. I think I know the ad — it might be the one for the mat that has a massage texture on it? There’s a fantastically naked woman on it, with her hands coyly placed over her teeny breasts (NOT HEART CENTRE!). She kinda looked like a teenager and the nudity seemed so completely beyond the point, and very reminiscent of the cult of scrawny, perfect-skinned youth in the fashion magazines. It pulled me up short in my reading, it did!

    It just seemed so irrelevant. And it made me mad because that’s the kind of image that makes women (well, me at least, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone) judge their own bodies as inadequate by contrast.

    She didn’t look like a yogini. Scrawny, soft, very young. I’m not any of those things at 37, and I don’t want to be.

  11. Wrote this on Judith Hanson Lasater’s page, and am repeating it here, with an addendum:

    Judith, I just finished reading the book you co-wrote with Ike (What We Say Matters). In light of that, reading what you’re writing about here/around the Web shows an example of how you’re living the work. I support your work, writing and am inspired by your courage. Indeed, it’s not just what we say that matters. It’s also How We Advertise Matters. Above all, I believe, What We Consume Matters.

    //If you’ve not yet read What We Say Matters, I highly recommend it. Seeing her in action here takes the book a step further for me. I’m seeing how it’s possible to be both firm/take a stand and compassionate simultaneously. Based on this, I believe Judith’s doing some of the most important work being done in the yoga world today.

  12. Ok, sorry, but my job is to turn this into a real debate instead a mass pep rally in which, as Judith Hanson Lasater proudly proclaims, “98% of the response is positive”. That can only be because most of the people who actually buy the magazine aren’t responding. Perhaps they’re not even reading.

    Anyone who’s ever been to a Yoga Journal conference knows that a high percentage of attendees, both men and women, actually do look like the people in the ads! Not sure how that figures in. But I it’s an interesting thought.

    But even for those of us who don’t look like that, do we really want to go to the movies or open up magazines to see people who look just like the people living across the street or who we can see everyday at the grocery store. Of course pop culture is about fantasy and seeing people who aren’t like us.

    The critics are saying that Yoga Journal should be above pop culture. But yoga is part of pop culture. If one doesn’t like that, there are plenty of fine Yoga venues, and even magazines, that are more traditional, like the Himalayan Institute, or even a place as with-it as Kripalu. To do what these critics are asking, YJ would have to shrink to a fraction of its current size. They can only survive at their current size by appealing to pop culture, not eshewing it.

    Why does everyone and all publications have to be the same. People are different. Vive la difference! Vive la France! (The U.S. is far more puritanical in its magazines than Europe is, where actually nudity is the norm. And the worst mistreatment of women, across the board, occurs in those countries that are the most puritanical, not the least.)

    I hope you’ll all still be nice to me after this comment. I actually hesitated to respond because I thought it might be like talking about Krishna at a Jesus rally.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

    • ADDENDUM:

      Bob, and any others following this discussion,

      A perhaps bigger point that perhaps you overlooked is that from what I’ve been reading, this critique is NOT about nudity per se. At least Judith has addressed this issue directly. It’s about what is or is not appropriate advertising/marketing.

      From my perspective, there is a tension between yogic values and the values of capitalism. I’m enough of a realist to understand that this is a capitalist society, so I accept the reality of advertising and marketing, but am convinced there can be a more yogic way of going about it. And that has something to do with the fact that Yoga is — or has the capacity to be — quite radically counter-cultural. I’m old enough to have been there for the hippie and anit-war movement of the late 60s/early 70s and was smack in the middle of the punk movement later that decade, but nothing I have ever taken part in is as counter-cultural and deeply radical as Dharma practice.

      To reiterate, my questioning is not based upon nudity. For quite some time, Ana Brett and Ravi Singh have been running ads I find much more distasteful than the Yoga-Toes ad. All their ads feature a nearly anorexic Ana, in mid-drift bearing top and mini-hot pants and tellingly no photo of Ravi! Roseanne posted a link to Abby Winters, a women-run pornography site featuring a nude yoga spread (no pun intended!). I think it has more integrity than the type of marketing that is being discussed in these blogs.

      Again, I think more importantly than any particular viewpoint here is the fact of the discussion and that it is happening at all. I welcome it, and suspect that you do too.

      metta,
      frank jude

    • Bob,

      Krishna and Jesus aren’t that different from each other.

      “He/she who performs actions for Me who considers Me as the Supreme Goal, who is My devotee and is devoid of attachments; who is without animosity towards all living beings, he or she alone attains Me.” BG, Chapter 11 verse 55.

      “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverb 3:5-6

  13. Hi Bob,

    Just wanted to respond to a few statements from your post.

    You write:

    1. “…. do we really want to go to the movies or open up magazines to see people who look just like the people living across the street or who we can see everyday at the grocery store. Of course pop culture is about fantasy and seeing people who aren’t like us.”

    It’s a harsh ‘truth,’ but I remember a teacher of mine once talking about the practice of Yoga being about “disenchanting” us from the fantasy we live in, not promulgating it! To answer your question literally, “yes, I DO want to see real people, maybe EVEN the people living across the street, and have the opportunity to see how they live and think.” AND, I am most certainly NOT talking about what is presently offered as “reality tv” which is anything but! In a recent Dharma Talk based upon The Truman Show, I spoke about how what makes such trash ‘trash,’ is that no one is ‘real’ on such shows. They all act like the celebrities they’ve been exposed to, so that now it’s simulations of simulations! As The Truman Show points out, the spiritual journey begins when there is a rip in the fabric of constructed reality (symbolized in the film by the spotlight that falls from the artificial sky!

    Yoga has always been — as the Buddha put it — ‘against the stream’ which is perhaps why I was into Punk before it was co-opted as yet another style. What punks forgot while questioning everything is to question themselves! THIS is the work of yoga practice.

    2. You write: “…..The critics are saying that Yoga Journal should be above pop culture. But yoga is part of pop culture. If one doesn’t like that, there are plenty of fine Yoga venues, and even magazines, that are more traditional, like the Himalayan Institute, or even a place as with-it as Kripalu. To do what these critics are asking, YJ would have to shrink to a fraction of its current size. They can only survive at their current size by appealing to pop culture, not eshewing it.”

    Again, I think it healthy to question the criteria of ‘success.’ Is big better? Is appealing to pop culture necessarily a good thing? I am NOT saying I have the answer here, but I DO think the discussion is perhaps long overdue!

    3. You write: “Why does everyone and all publications have to be the same. People are different. Vive la difference!”

    This is where I am really confused. The ads that have provoked this discussion are exactly NOT different. Perhaps the critics are thinking that YJ could be a venue that does indeed buck the status quo and finds creative ways to get the message of yoga out to the masses. What I hear from the critics is that YJ is becoming less different from the other mass magazines out there. It started out differently, but in order to reach a larger audience, it has become — according to some of these critics — indistinguishable from Cosmopolitan, Vogue etc.

    AND, though I am grateful YJ has offered my opportunities to write un-watered down article on Dharma (and I must say that each issue still contains some good writing on subjects other than asana) I must say that from a cursory look on the magazine racks, they have a point. The YJ covers and ads seem quite like the covers and ads of most popular culture mags. Is this what you call being “different?”

    metta,
    frank jude

  14. I understand what Judith is saying, but as an artist, I have to say that the ad is spectacular, beautiful and to me, inspiring. I do not think “scrawny” or women with “teeny breasts” are ugly or emaciated. I find her beautiful and not in a contrived way. It’s art to me.

  15. It’s an ad which is not to say ads can’t be have beautiful design and ‘artful’ sterotypical black and white photography, but this is not art. By extension of your view, I would expect to see ads in art museums (and not just in the design section), art galleries (there is between ads and Warhol), art books and art magazines (okay that last one is dodgy). Let try this analogy, ads that are artsy are not art as ads that show yoga is not yoga.

  16. I so appreciate this discussion, and all the viewpoints that have been brought to the table. I’ve already stated a discomfort with using idealized, beautiful, nude or half-nude women in yoga ads. It’s not about the nudity, though. For me the use of young, beautiful, etc. women in yoga ads is one facet of a larger issue with the commercialization of yoga. For me this begs the question of how much we are willing to dilute the system of yoga in order to make it palatable to the largest numbers of people? And when does yoga cease to function as a system for freeing ourselves from those beliefs and ideas that cause us to suffer?

    Yoga is not simply about the body. Asana is just one of the eight limbs described by Patanjali; only three of the 196 sutras are about asana. Western culture is highly identified with the body, so it makes sense that asana is the gateway for most of us to begin to explore the system. Like most yoga practitioners, I also began my practice with asana. Asana is meant to create an environment of ease for the mind to reside. This supports the true purpose of the practice, the “settling of the mind into silence” (Alistair Shearer’s translation of Sutra 1.2). Flexibility, tone, physical beauty, etc. are by-products. They are not the point.

    As Frank Jude says, yoga is radical. It was developed as a method for transcending the suffering that comes from greed, hatred and ignorance. As a radical discipline, it is meant to shake us out of complacency, to give us tools to uncover the truth of who we are. The discovery of our truth involves navigating through our brightest and darkest moments with clear (not distracted) and open eyes, minds and hearts. And the truth rarely conforms to our deeply held cultural beliefs.

    Of course, in some ways yoga must adapt to the culture in which we live. Most of us can’t live in caves and practice all day long. We do need to fit the practice into our own lives in whatever way we can. But it makes me sad to see yoga’s potential being wasted in favor of making it appeal to popular culture. To me, the ads in question are not inappropriate because of the nudity in and of itself. They bother me because they are one more indication that Western culture has co-opted yoga to the point where it is promoting rather than questioning our cultural neurosis about body image. As many have said, the ads are not radical at all. They are business as usual. Rather than freeing us from our identification with the body, these ads reinforce it.

    With gratitude for everyone’s thoughtful input,
    Charlotte

  17. Frank Jude, remember Anne’s article in the 2003 Shambala Sun?

    http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=1575

    “So lately, I’m looking for a different kind of image to inspire my practice. The book I’m shopping for would show pictures of all sorts of people doing yoga and meditating. There would be old people, fat people, scarred people, profusely hairy people, people with bad skin and big noses, people with thighs riddled with cellulite, people with droopy breasts and flabby thighs and faces etched with lines from hard living. There would be people with cerebral palsy, people gone bald from chemotherapy, people paralyzed by drive-by shootings, people who’d lost limbs in wars. Some people would do the poses perfectly. Others would do them clumsily, propped up on sandbags and bolsters, unable even to touch their fingertips to the floor.”

    I hope her brilliant words from the past can put things into perspective NOW.

  18. I had thought about commenting on the ej site, but, for some reason, I can’t get it to save my comment. AND, things seem to be degenerating to the usual name-calling and sneering that comes from internet anonymity, so I’ll stay at Roseanne’s house.

    for me, this is not about nudity, or K. Budig, or even useless yoga products. It’s about the “face” of yoga chosen by the yoga industry and how out of line it is from the majority of the practitioners in this country. I have around 50 students and, maybe two of them look remotely like what you see in the average yoga ad.

    Of those 50, I’d say about two-thirds of them approached me when they started taking my class to apologize for being too old, too fat, too inflexible. I certainly never implied they had those limitations, so where do you think they got that idea? And how many others steer clear of yoga completely, because they figure they aren’t up to the task?

    That’s what pains me. There are plenty of beautiful young things hawking every other product out there, why do they have to hawk yoga, too? No, I’m not a frigid, jealous lesbian, as some of the ej commentors might imply…but I find beauty in the serene faces of a Kripalu ad. Isn’t that kind of inner peace what we’re really trying to “sell”?

    (I may have put it more eloquently here… http://groundingthruthesitbones.blogspot.com/2010/08/whose-beautiful-is-it-anyway.html)

  19. Great interview. Thanks for bringing this to the blogosphere!

  20. this was a fantastic interview- well done.

    Weirdly enough, I hadn’t bought a YJ in AGES until last weekend= cuz it had Canadian Sarah McLaughlan on the cover lol. I haven’t seen the ad in question, but looking through the magazine almost every ad has a message on beauty targeted to women.

    women are bombarded with hundreds of ads per day, with many of them having a direct (and even more an indirect) message on beauty. how we should look, feel, wear… all directed to some sort of external goal of physical improvement which is then directly linked to internal emotional states. It’s implied that if we were more (insert adjective= beautiful, had clearer skin, shinier hair) or if we took (insert product= probiotic pills, supplements, energy bars) we’d be happier.

    sadly internal happiness does not come from external “improvements” (if we can even call them that).

    As Brenda pointed out, women are disproportionately targeted by harmful messages regarding beauty and health and also make up 90% of diagnosed eating disorders. The majority of women have disordered eating habits and body-image issues. Advertising plays a role.

    I’m glad Judith spoke out.

    Thank you Roseanne for encouraging this discussion.

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