nude yoga advertising: breaking the cycle

Jan 19, 2012 by

It’s possible to be strong, sexy and empowered – while fully clothed. (screengrab of Kripalu ad, via poppyonakite.com)

It’s only the third week of January and already we’ve seen two big raging conversations go down in the yoga world: the NYT article (which has come to affectionately be known as “NYT yoga wreck-gate”) and a certain viral Equinox ad. I’ve resisted commenting on the later because I find it disheartening. And repetitive.

I’m starting to think that the best policy is to let my silence speak louder than my words. And more importantly, to not drive any more clicks to the video, to not keep talking about it because this is what the brand wants (this is the intention behind the video: not to show a “powerful” or “empowered” or “beautiful” practice; it’s viral marketing, and its ROI – return on investment – is determined by how many people are talking about it, how many click-throughs they get).

The scenario goes something like this:

  • brand creates attractive and stylish ad using partially-clothed (or totally naked), highly-skilled female practitioner in advanced yoga postures
  • a flurry of blog posts ensue, followed by raging discussion which breaks down into several camps: art vs beauty vs commercialism vs objectification of women
  • the argument dissolves into attacks on the partially-clothed (or totally naked), highly-skilled female practitioner, and defenses of her beauty and dedication to practice
  • partially-clothed (or totally naked), highly-skilled female practitioner claims she feels “judged,” feels the need to justify her decision and explain her intention (preferably in vague new agey language) to pose nude for said advertisement

Marketers see increased click-throughs and improved brand recognition.

Laura at Bending over Backwards brilliantly summarizes the strategy: “The more people who discuss it, the more people there are to log on and view it and then weigh in on the subject, which is exactly how viral marketing works – the company’s advertising message is sent via social networks across the globe and the cost to Equinox was in the high quality production – which is much less than they would have had to pay to secure ad space for a 3+ minute ad on television.” That’s it.

And despite all the impassioned conversation and debate, nothing changes. The cycle continues.

Sexy advertising (whether for yoga or anything else) is easy. Even as a blogger, I see the temptation: a good 20% of my traffic comes from searches on variations of “naked yoga,” based on a few posts that I made two years ago. If I commented on this phenomenon on a weekly basis, I would probably get 300 times as much traffic as I do now (although less retention, because these searchers don’t want to read critical commentary – they just want photos).

But I didn’t blog about the Equinox video because it felt like an uphill battle. I definitely feel that it’s important to discuss the hypersexualization of yoga advertising, and how the body is commodified by brands. But the conversation in this context goes nowhere. It simply fuels the fire and leads to more sexy yoga advertising.

I also feel like I’ve already lived this conversation before, in the long ago days of summer 2010. That conversation was sparked by a greater call, however, when Judith Hanson Lasater had the courage to speak out against sexualized advertising of yoga products.

What makes me sad, however, is to see that nothing was learned from that conversation. The only people who learned anything were marketers: that sexy advertising gets people talking, gets people clicking.

“No one expected or hoped for controversy,” the model in the viral Equinox video told the Huffington Post. Right. She also claimed that the decision behind the lingerie was because “minimal clothing was the best way to show the lines of the body.” The gratuitous ass shots helped, too.

What I’d like to see – instead of whiny justifications and vague artistic “intentions” – is some actual transparency. I’d love for these models to just say, “Suck it, bitches. Y’all are fat and inflexible and you just wish you could float from crow to handstand like me.” Tell us how much you were paid for that video shoot. Toesox, tell us the ROI on your Jasper Johal photo series (the ads are still running, so they must be working).

More importantly, what I want to see is a silent and powerful resistance from the yoga community. What would happen if we all just stopped talking? Stopped clicking links? Stopped driving traffic? What would happen if we just tried to break the cycle?

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31 Comments

  1. The only bad publicity is no publicity…

  2. Bravo, Roseanne. Beautifully written – plus, you made me laugh, which is a welcome change from the gnawing irritation I’ve been feeling about being once again pulled into this vicious cycle you so eloquently described.

    I, too, have not wanted to write about the Equinox flap, both because I didn’t want to promote the video further – and, truthfully, because it was getting under my skin enough that I didn’t feel sufficiently centered to say much publicly. You make a good case that more silence might make these ploys a bit less viral. The counterargument might be that there are in fact some people out there who are learning something from these arguments – just because they may be silent doesn’t mean they’re not out there.

    It’s important to develop a coherent critique of the commodification of yoga (and life in general – yoga is just one small part of the larger cultural picture). However, I totally agree that it’s best to do that in ways that don’t inadvertently promote these viral marketing strategies. This piece is a great start. Kudos.

  3. Thank you! Such a well thought out response to this “butt naked gymnastics = art” mess. I refused to post in on my website or share on Facebook for this very reason. I’ve had so many friends/family come to me with questions about yoga, most are hesitant to even try to take a class because they have this silly idea that you have to be young, slim and flexible to even set foot on a mat. This kind of advertising doesn’t do much to help debunk that thought process.

  4. i agree 100%. i figured that’s why you didn’t blog about it, which i supported whole heartedly.

    At the same time, I still think it’s important to talk about how to critically examine advertising and the (remaining) presence of the objectification of the female body and it’s effect in our culture and social representation. But then, that can be done without linking or supporting any publicity. :)

  5. Ashley shanti

    i absolutely agree. I’m only even posting on this to prove that some yogis are in fact giving these issues no response. Its like that quote by mother teresa- she said shed never go to a war protest but she would go to a peace rally. What you resist, persists. Support what you believe in, go your own way, ignore with compassion what you do nt wish to see in the world.

  6. ADAM SEWELL

    My question is this: What if it were a bloke posing nude instead of a woman? Would it still be “objectifying” men? Did this model choose to pose for this video or was she coerced into doing it? I’m assuming she could have said “no” if she’d wanted to…….

    • Another Dude

      There would be no uproar because it doesn’t fit the narrative.

      The objection to commercialization is silly. Yoga doesn’t belong to anyone, and it doesn’t exist outside the current practices of individuals doing it. YOGA is not being commercialized. Individuals (including those in companies) are using aspects of their practice or someone else’s practice to make a living. Get over it.

      Silence is an appropriate response if you don’t like it. As is not buying whatever product is being sold. If other people agree with you, it will probably go away. If not, perhaps others find something they like in it, and perhaps there is something useful about, even if it is not for you.

  7. My general impression is that the is a small but significant constituency of female yoga practitioners in the yoga community that are typically, a little bit snarky, I am no psychologist but it could be from a kind of self-unfulfilling prophecy that blames the (androcentric) system or “cycle” and thereby paves the way for apathy and cynicism.

    I find the arguments against nudity, advertising, objectification overly conflated, irrational, rambling, incoherent and unpersuasive.

    A lot I think has to do with what I see as a prevailing, rather juvenile attitude to what is for me, a very important problem, which is that “modern yoga” is so obviously irrelevant and deeply counter to male sentiments about spirituality.

    Women assume that they are at the centre of a revolution but it is contained by a much more pernicious status quo, men are still making all the decisions at board level in marketing.

    I think feminist, liberal bloggers would do well to leave the slighting of their semi-clothed peers to one side as they are easy targets for ridicule (if that is what floats your boat) and rather the yoga community should be highlighting the need for wholesale reform that currently puts women at the centre of the “Zeitgeist of affluent western societies, drawing housewives and hipsters, New Agers and the old-aged, body culture and corporate culture into a multi-billion dollar synergy… of the flat-tummied yoga babes who grace the covers of such glossy periodicals as the Yoga Journal…” (Yoga In Practice – White – p1) 

    To do this, you are right to want to start a wider, public debate about the future of women in yoga, but the debate will only bear fruit if it is discussed at board level – where as far as I know women are still vastly outnumbered by men.

    So I think should target resources at lobbying companies that try to persuade us to buy all this stuff and try and engage with them in a more creative way and the social discourse (or judging by this piece – the immanent curtailment of it) should then follow, this is easier than trying to get the tail to wag the dog?

    Change comes from within, and companies and communities are no different than any other body in this aspect, do you think These companies would have run these ads with a woman at the helm?

  8. While there is literal trueness about the traffic and click-throughs, being silent is not authentic for me. If anyone needs a little sacred silence to heal: be silent, and take care of your beautiful self (by all means). But to suggest silence as an online action, it sounds a bit like you are choosing the high road. Just pretend it’s not there while the Internet is exploding with commentary: you might as well say, “Stop judging.” and I know that’s not what you really mean…

    And yet you are talking about it and telling others to follow your intention of silence: that totally makes sense. In truth, I have trouble understanding that.

    I feel strongly that talking/writing is good. Not yell and rant, but talk, discuss: how is it helpful or inspiring/how is it a disservice to women and men and yoga?

    And if you don’t feel like talking: don’t cave to that irresistible pull.

    • hey brooks ~ if speaking out feels authentic to you, and gives you energy, then by all means do it. for me, i find it depleting and exhausting. as i watched this latest “scandal” play out, i couldn’t help but think about how it was exactly the same conversation that we were having during the JHL/toesox debacle. only this time, major media outlets picked up on it sooner (within a week of the equinox video there were articles in USA today and the globe & mail, as well as other news outlets). and they were portraying the yoga community as “losing their zen” about this.

      i was also reading the latest issue of yoga journal and saw the toesox ads, along with all the other regular ads, and that’s when i really felt that nothing had been learned or changed from that previous conversation. it seems to have all been accelerated, actually.

      if you feel like you’ve seen change, i’m curious to hear what it may be. because i haven’t seen any.

      i totally understand your point about silence being morally self-righteous. it can be easily interpreted that way. and obviously, i’m not that good at doing it myself, because i reached my breaking point this week (it was KB’s huffpo article that did it, actually ~ these women should not have to be speaking out; the creative directors of ad agencies and brand CEOs should be). i had to say something – and i understand the paradox in speaking out to say nothing.

      the idea of total silence unnerves me as well, to be honest. i agree that discourse is important and essential. what i want to see is intelligent, open-minded, focused discussion, with potential to make an impact. because heated, emotional, angry shouting out only drives traffic to the brand’s websites and reinforces their marketing strategies.

      • Thanks, Roseanne! The only change I noted after the toesox/naked-females-in-yoga-ad critiques was that Yoga Journal did eventually stop using the topless pasasana for their Yoga Journal Conference ads, to my great relief. And I did tweet my gratitude for the one toesox ad over the last year or so with clothes on the model.

        I think that beautiful female bodies in yoga poses may be becoming (already are?) the modern-day pin-up girls.

        And call me silly, but I want to be honored for more than looks. And I want to see women honored in our culture for our tremendous creativity, resiliency, intelligence, endurance, the list goes on… it’s what’s inside that’s super-awesome! And having mass-market promotions of women’s value reduced to a small subset of the true treasure of ourselves is an attack on women. It reduces our perceived value in a culture that truly needs our full talents. 

        Let our actions speak our truth, and perhaps simultaneously finding compassion for this situation (that I perceive as violent) that may take time to change. I’m reminded of how Susan B Anthony focused her energy on women’s suffrage knowing that she would be unlikely to vote during her lifetime. And when women got the right to vote :1920, the Miss America contest was started: 1921. The message I get from this is: okay women you may participate, but you will be judged.

  9. LOVE this idea! I’ve also been feeling like these kinds of ads are played out, and you express why beautifully. Thank you!

  10. i’m one of those people who has been interested in yoga but unwilling to step onto a mat because of the barrage of images of young, thin, half-naked women advertising yoga products.

    if i had seen images like the one at the top of this page, i might have signed up for classes a long time ago.

    thanks for posting about this, it gives me encouragement to know people in the industry are aware of the problem of objectification of women being used to sell their product.

  11. great article speaking as a yogi activist I feel there so much more pressing issues to be concern with such as disability issues

  12. It’s all about the exploitation of the yoga community by commercial yoga interests to get yogis to spread their ads for free…Don’t Post That Ad!

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-y–6X9TvV3c/Txiiy6FINoI/AAAAAAAADiI/kLQlU72TZAY/s1600/2%2Bcopy.jpg

  13. I don’t even know where to begin because I love this post so much. You are right… responding to the hub bub furthers it. I did it myself. Nicely done Roseanne. Seriously this post rocks!

  14. Tina

    The larger problem is that this might affect yoga studios, as well as more downmarket health club chains (my beloved YogaFit system of memory… gone?):

    “I’d love for these models to just say, “Suck it, bitches. Y’all are fat and inflexible and you just wish you could float from crow to handstand like me.” Tell us how much you were paid for that video shoot. Toesox, tell us the ROI on your Jasper Johal photo series (the ads are still running, so they must be working).”

    I can just imagine a yoga studio that tells it like it is on the order of The Anti-Gym, (formerly of Denver, Colorado) now opening up, offering mostly private sessions … with their own Boom-Boom Room … I have in mind the kind of “yogi” who would run it, too – the yoga world’s answer to Michael Karolchyk … but it would be stealth in opening … kind of arriving on the scene under the guise of being a Kripalu studio (like showing the Kripalu model, above) or some mellow Hatha place like the one I’ve belonged to … [with NOT MUCH ambient heat, of course--getting high profit potential clients AND saving money on heat ... what a double-header!] ….

    But maybe there is a way not to have this trend go full-circle …

    “… what I want to see is a silent and powerful resistance from the yoga community. What would happen if we all just stopped talking? Stopped clicking links? Stopped driving traffic? What would happen if we just tried to break the cycle?”

  15. staying silent about this is not rocket science — that was the first thing I said and I never blogged about it. what is amazing to me is that people can’t figure that out.

    I wrote about yoga advertising when the whole Tara Stiles crap hit the fan…people have short memories, so thanks for reminders, Roseanne.

  16. p.s. silence is very powerful, btw, that is why there are silent retreats in yoga and Buddhism. which few, that I know at least, attend. it’s too hard to stay silent and it’s hard work. as one meditation group leader once said, people are too lazy to be silent. think about it.

    silence. less is more. try it sometimes.

  17. Yep. This is why I didn’t get involved in the NYT stuff OR the Equinox (whoever they are – so sorry, brand recognition didn’t really work) video.

    Sometimes the most powerful protest we can make is no protest at all. Silent resistance to the compulsion to say “our” piece on what we think, and why that’s so very important to have our opinion out there… that’s actually what these companies rely on.

    They court controversy so that we will be outraged and use our outrage to have our say on our blogs (which Google loves more than business websites).

    I figured this out for myself, which is why I haven’t bothered. We are doing the work of marketers (for free) by constantly bringing up these brand names (NYT, Equinox, ToeSox etc etc) and linking to their websites and/or videos etc. They get traffic which is a huge part of their goal.

    So like a child who learns that certain behaviours get them the attention they want, they learn to do it again and again and again…

    Hence the NYT constant barrage of “edgy” articles on yoga. They know the yoga blogosphere is pretty active, and they are harnessing us like the eager little puppies we have been.

    Ultimately, we do no service to our own values by speaking out against the outrages and misuse of yoga for marketing purposes.

    This is my big lesson, really.

    So I’m on board with the not linking/not talking about these things. Unless they REALLY piss me off, like EJ’s racist/sexist attack on Chelsea. That, I’m willing to go to bat for.

    But marketing people attempting to make a fuss to get our attention? Just don’t give it, people. Maybe they’ll move on to another industry to rile up if we keep our silence.

    • yes, well said! i especially love: “Silent resistance to the compulsion to say “our” piece on what we think, and why that’s so very important to have our opinion out there.”

  18. We need more of this: http://www.joshilynjackson.com/ftk/?p=1675

    And way less nude yoga photo shoots, and way less protesting of nude yoga photo shoots.

    Let’s promote the things that deserve our attention, not the things that don’t.

  19. Laura

    Wonderful article! Brilliant work NOT posting the ad – it is the best way to share your opinion in the marketing world!!!

  20. I support your views wholeheartedly. Over the years, I too have refrained from commenting on various “viral” incidents and people for exactly the reasons you give here. As anyone in Hollywood knows, any publicity is better than no publicity; and publicity that stirs lots of controversy and gains exposure for a product or brand is bliss to a marketer.

    Sure, for a blogger, those keywords would bring more traffic, but traffic is not the only goal. Readers who can and will contribute something useful to the dialogue are far more important to any blogger, whatever our topic.

  21. I like yoga, want to join classes now i was just checking about it & got your blog…

    Thanks,
    Jessica

  22. Elizabeth

    It saddens me that people feel that yoga isn’t for them because they aren’t thin, toned, and young. I’ll be the first to tell you that’s just not the case — I’m in my early 40s, overweight, and nothing like Kathryn Budding or the gal in the Equinox ad, physically speaking. I’m also a yoga teacher. I make sure to tell my students that yoga is for every body, regardless of what the ads and videos seem to portray. It isn’t necessarily to be a “yoga babe” in order to embrace a fulfilling and beneficial practice. It’s all about where it takes you, not what your body looks like as you’re going.

    I think the frustration a lot of people are feeling isn’t necessarily that young, thin, beautiful women are being shown scantily clad to sell yoga stuff — it’s that, more and more, young, thin, beautiful women are the ONLY ones portrayed in the media in connection with yoga and thus are assumed to be the ones for whom yoga is primarily intended. And despite people in the community pointing this out over and over again, as Roseanne said, nothing ever seems to change.

    That being said, I’ve noticed that Kripalu has run the ad with the lady at the top of this post, doing her flawless Pigeon, in Yoga Journal nearly every single month since the Toesox debacle. In order to combat the “yoga babe” image, we as yogis need to remind our students and each other than yoga is truly for every body, regardless of how it’s shaped. That, more than anything, will change the outcome of the dialogue.

  23. Great analysis. That any conversation comes up around sex and yoga is yawn worthy. Who gives a shit what some millionaires want to use to sell there image? Have you never seen a gorgeous woman in minimal clothing being used to sell something? If they piss you off they win, if they delight you they win – if you can create and execute an image that provokes people to love or hate you, then you should win. I will keep clicking through, I have no problem with people using sex to sell things, controversy to sell things. I like sex, I like money, I love yoga who draws what line where and why would you?

    • Tina

      Yup, just keep feeding the machine …
      If it works for you, great!

      There are more yoga studios than Starbucks where I live, but my bank account lives in a commercialized yoga free zone.

      And I deal with it.

      Obviously, Equinox is not really looking for my cash.

      But the same goes for fashion.
      And for gourmet restaurants.
      And for travel.
      The list does not end.

      But what a way to finally put the stake in yoga being spiritual and low cost and teachers teaching from their heart, using their heart … with little mercenary concern …

  24. Rob

    I don’t think Briohny Smyth is in any way saying “Suck it, bitches. Y’all are fat and inflexible and you just wish you could float from crow to handstand like me.” In fact I find her quiet, sincere compassion far more convincing as a Yogic philosophy than most of the self righteous indignation on display here.
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/01/briohny-smyth-the-full-story-straight-from-the-yoginis-mouth/?utm_source=Elephant+Journal+News&utm_campaign=January+24%2C+2012&utm_medium=email

  25. Wow, I had no idea there were controversies like this in yoga. But then again I’m a newbie, and decided to ditch gym style workouts for yoga to see what happens. I’d rather be strong and flexible.

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