looking at the whole picture: nudity, commericalism & the future of yoga

Phew! Okay, so I have been closely following the maelstrom of discussion around last week’s post about Judith Hanson Lasater’s letter to Yoga Journal. Accompanying the letter, both here on it’s all yoga, baby, and on elephant journal, is the now iconic image of Kathryn Budig posing for Toesox ~ which has ended up being the centrepiece of the discussion and, in some ways, overridden the essence of Judith’s letter.

I’ve been on a roller coaster of emotions as I’ve watched the conversation play out. First, I was exhilarated by the sheer number of comments, the impassioned discussion. Then I watched as the focus shifted from the letter to the Toesox ad itself, and the abundance of comments on Kathyrn’s beauty, the integrity of the ad, and the “prudishness” of those who don’t see that. I started to feel dismayed, then irritated, then angered, then sad… and now, I’m just kind of exhausted and frustrated.

I also have to say that I feel somehow responsible for the whirlpool of commentary, for the misguided debate. There’s a part of me that wants to apologize to Kathryn, to Toesox, for using the image in the first place ~ but then I have to step back and question this. What do I need to say here: sorry Toesox, your sensationalist ad is finally garnering the attention and “controversy” that you hoped it would in the first place?

Perhaps I need apologize to Judith Hanson Lasater for launching her letter into the blogosphere with a picture that, as the old cliché goes, speaks a thousand words. My intention was to only stimulate conversation and give this issue the airtime that it deserves. I didn’t expect this kind of reaction, and I’m disappointed by it. But I guess this is the impact of effective advertising ~ it’s supposed to stimulate an emotional response. It preys on our most base desires, our primal urges, our insecurities, our humanness.

Several people have suggested that I take down the image, since it is detracting from the real issue at hand (the representation of yoga and the advertising policy of North America’s largest yoga magazine). The bigger questions are being obscured by the details. But I’ve chosen to leave the image up, and here I’ll explain my reason for including this image. It’s pretty random, actually. Basically, I Googled “sexy yoga ads” and it was the first image to come up. I thought that it exemplified the type of ad that Judith was referencing ~ a naked woman, a yoga product.

In short, the Toesox ad is a symbol. It’s a visual representation. It’s unfortunate that Kathryn has been attacked (and glorified) and it’s exasperating that Toesox has felt the need to justify, er, explain their intention for the ad. If anyone needs to explain anything here, it’s Yoga Journal, re: their advertising policy.

Mostly, though I’m sad about the huge divisions and aggression in this discussion. It’s degenerated beyond healthy debate into defenses and accusations. And I’m seeing these divisions in my own mind, as I read the comments. I judge who “gets it” and who doesn’t, who is intelligent and articulate and who isn’t, who knows their yoga and who doesn’t. Somewhere along the line, this has become about “us” against “them,” but I’m not even sure who is who and who is on which side.

To all of you who’ve taken the time to read the original post and respond from your heart: thank you. And to those of you who’ve just looked at the picture… well, you probably haven’t even read this far. In this murky water, in a conversation which has grown wild and unwieldy, there are a few voices out there who are bringing the topic back to basics, and I want to acknowledge them here, to open up the conversation further, rather than shutting it down.

Think Body Electric: Naked Yoga Beauties Selling Stuff! Or, the Personal, the Political, and the Commodification of the Body ~ for reinforcing the importance of cultural criticism within the yoga community. “For me, the problem with the Toesox ad and all that it represents is that it makes yoga part of the larger cultural movement to turn our bodies – and by extension, our selves – into commodities. That is, objects whose worth is determined by their market value, whether monetary (who gets paid the big bucks) or cultural (who’s commonly perceived as sexy, admirable, desirable, and so on).”

Yogic Muse: How We React to Nudity is Personal ~ for a personal response to advertising and sex that is grounded and reflective. “In our sexually-charged world how do we insure a safe space for practicing yoga? After all, pursuit of sex can be a form of predation. This is why sexuality around yoga must be consciously reckoned with. Otherwise our yoga classes just become another meat market.”

Linda’s Yoga Journey: In Review, the Personal is Political ~ for placing the whole conversation within a feminist context and reminding us that yes, the personal is political. “Lasater’s letter started a powerful discussion on the commodification and values implicit in yoga ads. What is interesting to me is how so many of the commenters on elephant journal and Facebook got caught up in the nudity issue and thereby missed the essential point: that Lasater’s letter was a question on “where the magazine is now and where it is headed.” If she attacked anything, it was the status quo.”

Grounding Thru The Sitbones: What Are You Lookin’ At? ~ for being just as frustrated by this whole conversation as I am. “I guess that’s why I got my feelings hurt this weekend by so many of the comments (and that’s exactly what it was, feelings getting hurt, I should not be taking so much of this personally). Judith was so calm, so reasoned in her letter, I thought it would inspire a really good conversation about the contemporary yoga industry and where it seems to be headed. Maybe some one would have insight into why naked yoga ads are a good thing and make me question my assumptions. Instead it was internet-commentary-as-usual: emotional and defensive and far from the original ideas in the letter.”

Zen Naturalism: Is the Body Beautiful ~ for questioning the whole notion of beauty and our culture’s obsession with hatha yoga. “I’d like to take a tangent and address this notion of ‘the body beautiful’… Is the body beautiful? Really? Is it only beautiful? What yogis like the Buddha point out is that such concepts themselves are conditioned and empty of any inherent nature or essence. For all those who think they are being progressive and perhaps even transgressive in arguing that these ads are beautiful because they portray the ‘beauty of the human body,’ I ask, “Really? Then why not portray a 64 year-old man with a bit of a belly-roll?” How about a nice nude shot of the character George Constanza from Seinfeld? Would you then argue for the ‘beauty of the human body? As much as I would like to think one would, why is it that I doubt it? Because our ideals of “beauty” are culturally and biologically conditioned. Folks somewhat facilely use abstract concepts and fail to see that they are caught in them.”

  1. brilliant! you have nothing to apologize for or feel bad about (whatever “bad” means!)

    view your original post as guerilla writing (or grr-rilla) much like guerilla theater. and remember that all things happen for a reason….;)

  2. Hi, Roseanne.

    I’m sorry to hear you are feeling discouraged about this far-ranging discussion. In my opinion you’ve done a great service by bringing this emotional topic to the fore and encouraging the debate. We all thank you.

    Don’t you think if you just ignore the most extreme responses on both sides it’s been a pretty fair and enlightening discussion overall? I feel it has.

    You’ve done a great job of summarizing the most eloquent blogs that are against sexy advertising above. (Except I would say that Brooks’ is distinctly neutral and non-judgmental without backing off the issue in any way, which is why I like hers best of anything else I’ve read.)

    I won’t try to summarize the equally strong point of view on the opposite side. It has been well expressed by many others.

    I will say this. To me the pivotal phrase in your article above is one you probably wouldn’t expect. It’s the seemingly innocuous phrase “the contemporary yoga industry and where it seems to be headed.”

    The fact is, or perhaps I should say, in my opinion, there is no such thing as a “contemporary yoga industry”. There is, in fact, a healthy and rambunctious explosion of Yoga in many different directions, all of which encourage and feed off each other, from the fitness oriented Yoga of Yoga Journal, to the very serious modern interpretation of the Upanishads which is Deepak Chopra, to the increasing popularity of trips to ashrams in India, to the growth of traditional ashrams here in the U.S. like Ananda in Sacramento, to the popularity of the uncompromising traditional Yoga of Linda Sama’s wonderful blog, to the surprising fact that a serious discussion of the Bhagavad Gita can be a big hit on a popular website like Elephant, etc. etc.

    It’s a healthy explosion in many different directions, not the monolithic sounding “the contemporary yoga industry and where it seems to be headed”. The problems starts, in my opinion, when one group or another in this explosion starts to try to tell another group they shouldn’t be exploding in that particular direction. It’s like trying to rein in the big bang.

    Thanks again for generating all this. I hope you will eventually feel good about it instead of discouraged. I do.

    Bob Weisenberg

    • bob, i have to say actually that it has often been your comments (and your desire for truth and justice, or whatever) that have brought in the idea of two sides to this conversation. for example, the tweet (by elephant journal): “As @BobWeisenberg suspected, flood of repressed support 4 @kathrynbudig +@Yoga_Journal. @itsallyoga_baby” left me feeling kind of attacked.

      “support?” seriously? and i see you perpetuating this here, too. “the blogs that are against sexy advertising,” etc. it’s really tedious and tiring. really, let’s look at this a multifaceted discussion, not “pro-nude advertising vs against-nude advertising.”

      and i also disagree with your assertion that there is “no such thing as a yoga industry.” certainly, it is only one aspect of the greater thing that is yoga at this time, and the practice is evolving in ways that aren’t dictated by market forces, and many of the things you’ve listed aren’t part of “the industry”. but if you’ve been to a YJ conference and stepped into the marketplace: that’s the yoga industry. the ads in yoga magazines (and the magazines themselves): the yoga industry. studio chains, many teacher training programs, yoga apparel companies: the yoga industry. to deny that it exists is naïve.

      • Guilty as charged, Roseanne. I kept telling myself “Stay out of this, Bob. There’s no way this can go well.” But the initial 30 comments on your blog were so one-sided, I actually thought you might appreciate someone drawing in the other side to get some real discussion going.

        If I overstepped my bounds in doing that, I sincerely apologize. I like the resulting debate. But if you’re not happy with it, then I was totally off-base and wish I hadn’t done. I’m wishing that right now.

        Let me make a very practical and high impact suggestion for all those who are upset with Yoga Journal over this issue. Mount a serious campaign to get people to switch their subscriptions from Yoga Journal to the publication I assume is already more like you’d like Yoga Journal to be, Yoga International.

        Vote with your subscriptions and persuade as many other people to do the same as you can. Keep track some how of the effort somehow and let Yoga Journal know the results on an ongoing basis. This will help Yoga International become strong enough to compete with Yoga Journal and reach more people with traditional Yoga and less commercialization. At the same time, if the impact is great enough, it will cause Yoga Journal to shift its policies.

        I agree with the point you have frequently made, Roseanne–that the only way to change this situation is to change what readers want and demand from these publications. I think it’s probably more effective to strongly back the publication that’s already closer to your ideals than to try to talk Yoga Journal into changing. If enough people follow you, that’s when Yoga Journal would start to take notice.

        Keep complaining to Yoga Journal, I agree, and try to do it en masse and with as much publicity as possible. But even more than that, work on getting everyone to support the publication with a vastly smaller circulation that’s already more like you would like YJ to be.

        Does that make sense as a practical course of action, as a way of trying to change things in the direction you’d like to see?

        Bob Weisenberg

    • Bob you might want to look at the book Yoga Inc which describes in quite some detail the “yoga industry”:



      • Thanks for the suggestion, Angela. I have read a lot about that book, but I haven’t actually read the book itself. I agree it would be good for me to read it.

        From what I do know about it already, I’m arguing that there are many other aspects to the Yoga industry that the book doesn’t address.

        But you’re right. I need to read it. Maybe it would change my mind.

        Bob W.

  3. I, too, am feeling a bit like I got off a roller coaster. And the self-reflection has been interesting to say the least; why do I feel attacked? why am I so irritated with the opposing views? why am I letting this get to me?

    And yet, through all of it I’ve been extremely energized by my blog ohana (Hawaiian for family). Not just the intelligent comments and posts, but the silly asides, mid-morning instant messages, adorable links (Oh, Yoga Dawg, you such a card, you ought to be dealt with). A lotta love in the room…at least some of them.

    None of this discussion will ever reach my students directly (at least not most of them). They come to my classes expecting serenity and calm, and that’s how they leave–completely unaware of the agitation I’ve been experiencing all weekend. So, in some ways, this really shouldn’t affect my practice and my teaching all that much–at least as far as how I do it and how they receive it. It’s almost too big for that.

    I’m so glad the issue is finally getting the air time it deserves (I’m sorry, haven’t we been discussing it for YEARS!?!). I’m so glad roseanne has had the balls to stick to her guns. And that we all keep thinking.

    Good lord, it makes the days of rainbeau seem almost quaint…

    • re: “the days of rainbeau” ~ haha! yeah, i revisited those posts and also thought how innocent and harmless they were. and completely wild and far-ranging!

      i have to admit that i’ve also been energized (and amused) by fun and supportive exchanges with my blog tribe. feelin’ the love, for sure! it’s just that yesterday, after 6 days of reading comments (and responses on other blogs) on a conversation that felt it was starting to spiral out of control and get way off base, i realized how exhausted i was, and how much i had emotionally invested in this.

  4. I don’t think you need to apologize Roseanne. We appreciate the dialogue you’ve inspired : )

  5. Roseanne you don’t need to apologise … this is all good healthy debate! And of course, some will agree and some will disagree … what’s important is the process of discussion itself that is taking place … that’s a good thing (and long overdue).

    As I mentioned on Linda’s blog, through teaching others I’ve become aware of the negative impact that the current images have on students … maybe the current debate will raise others awareness of the impact of such imagery …. but even if it doesn’t, it’s still healthy to talk, to engage, to discuss …

    Don’t diss yourself! xx

  6. BTW I really miss Ascent Magazine … that was a journal that was true to yoga’s values …

  7. brenda, thank you for not using the word “kula”…..;)

  8. I believe the phrase about the contemporary yoga industry was mine. I did not intend for it to be innocuous. If I was harshing on all the yoga variants being practiced in the world (or at least in North America) I would have said something like “yoga world.” I have no problem with people picking a practice that works for them. I’m glad there are lots of choices.

    I meant industry, a churning out of product for general consumption. As Angela notes, a lot of green changes hands over the buying and selling of yoga stuff. Some of it useful, some of it not-so. Again, I’m not against buying and selling–it’s a capitalist society.

    What I object to is the creating a sense of need for all this stuff by preying on people’s insecurities. Making yoga be about the superficial and the surface. I’m not talking about just my issues, I’m talking about what I hear from my students and others. There is definitely a message out there that says, “yoga is for the young and the fit” (“or it will make you seem yoga and fit”) I see a whole lot more of that than “yoga is for all shapes, sizes, races, economic backgrounds.” How about a better balance? Is that such a radical request?

    I am not censoring, I am not forbidding. I am just saying, I hoped there would be some clear-headed discussion about all of this and instead it feels like a free-for-all. A lot of mis-reading (or no reading at all) and a lot of mis-interpetation.

  9. Hey Roseanne,

    So, I wrote this on your facebook page, but I wanted to write it here too, thankyou so much for bringing my attention to all of this! I am a pilates teacher, which I know is completely different from yoga, but I do struggle with how the pilates and yoga industries are portrayed and advertised. I feel bummed out each time a student asks me if they will be skinny from doing pilates. I feel frusterated that both yoga and pilates are portrayed as the thing you do if you want to look like Jennifer Aniston.

    As well, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, and single standard, of beauty, physical beauty, as having some sort of inherent worth, that makes one person more valuble than another, whether as a partner, a teacher, and artist, etc. It is so limiting. And it limits our view of what is possible, in yoga, in pilates, in life.
    So, once again, thanks so much for putting all of this out in the world, it’s so good to see people talking about these ideas.

  10. Oof. So much to say, but I’ll try to keep it at least somewhat brief.

    First, Roseanne, thanks again for giving Judith’s letter the attention it deserves, for your support of my blog, and for your engagement not only with this issue, but with yoga, writing, and ideas more generally.

    I can understand why you’d feel battered at this point by the unexpected maelstrom and unintended consequences. But certainly, there’s nothing to apologize for whatsoever. Quite the contrary. I hope that soon you’ll be able to feel truly good about your work, because it is positive and consequential, even if some of what it produced you never anticipated or intended.

    Then – the whole “us” versus “them” thing – no need to hold onto that. Back when I was in academia, I realized that I could have profound intellectual connections with people, but no heart-level, personal connection. That was really dissatisfying. Later, in church and in the yoga world, I learned that I could have profound, heart-level connections with people, but no intellectual connection. That was better, but still not satisfying. Now, I believe that when I connect with people on both the head and heart, intellectual and emotional levels, it’s a blessing. In real life, those are the people that end up becoming my closest friends. But I can still have a positive connection with others, and, with work and spiritual practice, eventually, I hope, with everybody.

    So, on this issue, I’ve been thrilled to connect with people online where our love for yoga AND our thoughts about it mesh in creative and constructive ways. But, I still feel a positive connection to those who love yoga, but who don’t think my viewpoint makes sense, or disagree, or just don’t care. If there’s hostility or negativity, that of course can hurt, but really, unless it’s coming from me, that’s their issue, not mine. (Easier said than done, I know, but still true.)

    But the main point is the first one: THANKS!

  11. Thanks for helping to promote such an interesting debate. I guess the wider question is, how much can America change yoga and it still be yoga or how much can yoga change America? If you can commodify air and water then you can commodify anything.

    And am I alone in seeing a sense of irony in the fine looking young lady of the google ad under your blog post for “fitness singles: meet yoga singles!”? 🙂

  12. roseanne, you are awesome in your thoughtfulness and insight – and completely inspiring to me re: social media and public debate. sure, i have things to say about the topic at hand, but so many have said so much so well already that mostly i just want to say thanks for being a real person on the (rightly) untamed internet and not giving in to frustrations. always with you the revolution, r.

  13. No need to apologize. I’m very grateful that you started this debate. It’s obviously something that many feel passionate about. I’m sad to have seen some of the insensitive comments, and can understand why you’d feel a little battered. But I hope you know that there are a whole lot of us out there that are very grateful you took the reins.

    I’m with Tom. Since the West has adopted yoga, I’ve been concerned with the question of how much we can change it and not lose its essence and power. On so many blogs I’ve seen commodification of yoga rationalized by this phrase: “If [fill in the blank] gets more people into yoga, then it’s all good.” But if the yoga that people are coming to is simply a mirror of our cultural obsession about body image, is it really going to change people’s lives? Of course, more people adopting a healthy practice is good, even if it is just all about the physical. But yoga is so much more than this. And it’s the rest of yoga—the radical part, the part that requires us to slow down and see the truth of what’s inside us—that’s being ignored. Of course, there are still places one can go to learn about the heart of yoga, and teachers who are dedicated to all of yoga, but to some extent you have to look outside the mainstream to find them.

    Thanks again. I appreciate that you have given so much energy to this and other issues of the yoga world. I appreciate your balanced viewpoint.

  14. Hi Roseanne! Your sentiments in this post are exactly why I have stayed away from this conversation. I just knew if I put my heart out there that my feelers would get hurt. So I haven’t. I appreciate your thoughts and your writing and all of the other thoughts and writing you have inspired.

  15. hey y’all ~ thanks for your comments and support! i wasn’t fishing for sympathy or accolades when i made this post. i just needed to process what i was feeling as i watched the conversation develop, and i needed to vent a bit.

    i’m feeling less apologetic and overwhelmed today! and more hopeful and optimistic that this conversation will have the power to affect some kind of change.

    on her FB page, judith said: “Now that we have all vented, what is next? How can we live our compassion with regard to ads to sell yoga products which offer so many a “right livelihood?” yes yes yes! these are the questions we need to dig into.

  16. Hi, I am sorry to hear that you felt sorry Roseanne. I don’t think there’s anything to feel sorry about except that our society is in such a $h!t state that we even have to have this discussion in the first place. I’m guessing that your feeling bad about it all was an emotional reaction to something deeper, which you might want to look at. (That was very personal, and I’ve never contacted you before – I hope you don’t mind.)

    There’s one aspect of this whole debate which I feel has been missed by many people: namely, that the reason advertisers resort to sensationalism and titillation and exploitation is that they are pushing a product that probably won’t sell without it.

    The ToesUx ad exemplifies that: it is truly a product that someone has dreamed up to make money off of the back of the booming yoga industry. The fact is, anyone who knows anything about yoga wouldn’t dream of wearing the silly things whilst practicing, right?! And if you look at their website it becomes very clear, very quickly… I’ve written an article about this aspect of things, which I think you’ll enjoy – I hope it’s ok to post the link here:

    With love,

  17. This is such an interesting debate/discussion … and it coincides with my moving to a new home. Why is this relevant? Well, I’ve been packing and sorting and letting go of stuff I’ve bought over the years … and in the course of doing this I’ve become aware that I have way more yoga “stuff” (tapes/cds/dvds/books) than I ever realised … and a lot of it I bought and haven’t used much and yet, at the same time, some of it I’ve really struggled to let go of.

    In reflecting on this, it dawned on me that if I had spent the time that it took me to earn the money to buy these products – if I had set aside that time and just practised yoga instead of buying these products – where would my practice be now?!

    How many yoga products do we buy because they hold the promise/allure of improving our own practice?! And yet we don’t actually use them … or am I the only one with this habit?!

    I’ve now resolved not to buy anymore yoga cds/dvds/books until I actually use and process the knowledge from the ones I’ve already got.

    I’m also choosing not to connect to the internet at home when I move in order to remove another habit which has got in the way of my practice … and I’m really curious to see how these choices impact on my practice 6, 12 months from now …

    And it’s interesting to reflect also that in order to create more space for my practice I’m choosing to remove things in my life … not to add things (as advertising and consuming encourages us to do) … and how hard it is to live with these 2 paradigms simultaneously.

    But when I die, I don’t want to be surrounded by all my yoga practice tapes and books! I want to die having embodied those teachings in my mind/heart/body/soul … and that requires me to practice rather than to buy … which means setting aside time to practice which means conscious consuming so that I do not have to work so hard to earn money to buy things so that I have the time to practice …not sure where this reflection is going but it’s just interesting to me in the context of the commodification of yoga 🙂

  18. I think Judith, and everyone, feels a little exhausted by this conversation. And that’s healthy. It’s a sign that we’re not in this for the gossip, or a degenerated sort of gossip, as you said above (and linked to my defense of KB; thanks).

    I think we all care about the integrity of our practice, our community, the national yoga community and the evolution of yoga in our speedy, crazy, hazy modern world. And so we’ve examined this issue not out of titillation or even wanting traffic—but out of mission. Yoga is a powerful and fragile thing, both—much like Mother Earth, you could say. What will it be in 100 years? A demographic? A spiritual path? Both? It’s up to us.

  19. Thanks for keeping it real.
    It has been quite a roller-coaster ride.
    You appear to be getting off it with out feeling woozy.
    Thank god for that.
    I appreciate all the candor.
    Let’s see what the future holds.
    as my old buddy Guy and fellow yogi from Fugazi would say:

    “never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying and receiving undefiled ”

    peace yogis…and good night!

  20. Thank you, Roseanne, for bringing this topic to light. It wouldn’t have flown as well without a specific example, and the ad you chose does fit the topic. How everybody reacted to or examined the issue taught me a lot. 

  21. I have to say that writing my piece took a lot out of me, too. and frankly, I still see lots of people not getting the bigger picture.

  22. Thank you for your courage and your honesty in exploring these issues and in writing what is in your heart and mind without censoring yourself–for speaking your truth to the world and creating a safe space for your readers to do the same.

  23. The ads and concept are beautiful and done tastefully. In yoga, we are celebrating the human form and as yoga teachers and students we are looking at each others bodies to watch for alignment and posture in order to be strong, be present and evolve through the medium of our bodies.

    I’m just wondering….why would someone wear toesox during a yoga practice anyway? Aren’t we more prone to slipping on our mats (or the bamboo floor) if we are wearing sox? I guess the one benefit would be as we are in the more relaxing postures, my puggle (a pug, beagle mix) could lick my toes during the restorative parts of my practice.

    Jasmine Kaloudis, synergybyjasmine.com

  24. Hey Roseanne, I am proud of you. You are a strong and courageous lady who have brought this story in front of whole world. By posting the article you have shown an example of your honesty. Don’t apologise to anyone, because I don’t think there is anything to feel sorry about.

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