why i’m obsessed with the NYT’s obsession with yoga

Good yoga journalism always includes a photo of an advanced pose in nature. (image via nytimes.com)

Last week, an obscene number of articles about yoga appeared in The New York Times (three in one day, in the Sunday, July 25 paper). Even people outside of the yoga blogging community seemed to notice it. “Why is the New York Times so obsessed – and confused – about yoga?” asked Paul Raeburn on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker (he followed up with another post tracking the NYT obsession). Good question! He astutely observed that “the Times, whenever it encounters yoga, seems ready to pounce on the entrepreneur-charlatan, or the spiritually inclined numbskull, or the 20-something fashion victim.” This prompted a summary – although no response or retort – on The Atlantic Wire.

Here’s a list of the articles that appeared in the paper in the past weeks (dates refer to online publication):

While the NY Times’ yoga coverage seemed to have reached some cosmic climax last week, it was only slightly more obsessive than usual. A quick glance at the NY Times Topics page for the subject of Yoga reveals 224 articles published since the beginning of time – or at least since the mid-90s, which is when the NY Times and the rest of the world really started paying attention to yoga.

Since the beginning of 2010 alone, the NY Times has covered donation-based yoga, “entertainment” yoga in hotels and resorts, and the ethics of yoga practice and food (especially meat, wine and chocolate). Last year, the paper was preoccupied with yoga competitions, Lululemon (repeatedly), the yoga regulation debate, and doga. The paper is especially fascinated by the marketing and commodification of the practice.

“The irony is that yoga, and spiritual ideals for which it stands, have become the ultimate commodity,” the paper quoted Mark Singleton, the author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, as saying in the April 23 article on donation-based yoga. “Spirituality is a style, and the ‘rock star’ yoga teachers are the style gurus.” And in a gesture of even greater irony, the article itself appeared in the Fashion & Style section of the paper.

Which is where most of the NY Times’ yoga articles show up ~ or in the Fitness, Business and occasionally Travel/Leisure sections. Fair enough, since the paper doesn’t seem to devote a lot of space to faith or spirituality, and – despite what us yoga bloggers may think – yoga is hardly front page news.

But it’s difficult to deny that the underlying tone of the NY Times’ yoga journalism is often condescending, bewildered or critical. Even last week’s uncritical and supportive profile of YogaDork managed to trivialize her work in the opening paragraph: “In mid-July, while the oil slick in the Gulf and the Goldman Sachs settlement were dominating the news, a blog named YogaDork had a worldwide exclusive. “Lady Gaga Takes Private Yoga Class in Cleveland,” the post read…”

Journalism, by nature, is a cynical and distrustful field. And so it should be. I wouldn’t expect lovey, feel-good articles about yoga in America’s leading paper. After all, it’s not The New Yoga Times. But there are plenty of positive, innovative ways that yoga is being applied in the world. There are plenty of  inspiring leaders, amazing communities and thoughtful practitioners who could all use a little more coverage.

As for myself, I’m obsessed with the paper’s coverage because I see it an interesting barometre of the mainstream culture’s perception of yoga ~ unfortunately, it’s also an influencer, so its biased coverage may have a negative impact on people considering yoga, or those who are already confused by it. In the end, I have to agree with Paul Raeburn’s concluding question for the NY Times about yoga: “Why does it frighten you so?” Yeah, NY Times, why?

  1. This was so good! I kind of think the NYT uses the word yoga like they used the term .com in the early 90’s: just throw it in there and see who – no excuse me, how many – stop to look …

  2. This is terrific, Roseanne. I’m using your list to catch up on everything I missed. In general I had read all the commentaries but none of the original articles. Your roadmap here is really helping me a lot. Thanks for writing it.

    Bob Weisenberg

    • Just finished reading all the articles above. It’s hard for me to imagine why there was such a fuss about the Friend article, with his rebuttal that was almost as long as the article. I thought the article was very positive and favorable to Friend and Anusara.

      And c’mon, do you think he really minded having to defend himself against that horrible nasty charge that women pressed their room keys into his hand? My guess is he loved the article. I could be wrong, but I think the rebuttal was written by his PR firm.

      Bob Weisenberg

  3. Forgot to mention that I agree with your main point–that there is a whole other story to be told about Yoga in America that will never get much coverage in the press.

    Example–all the wonderful stuff going on at Kripalu, probably the best marriage of all the different strands of Yoga into a cohesive, serious yet modern, spiritual yet physical, Yogic yet universal whole.

    It would not make a very interesting article precisely because they eschew any hint of the cult of personality. There is no character to portray, except the Swami Kripalu and the Amrit Desai of its history.

    Stephen Cope is among the best American Yoga has to offer, but he’s just not any sort of character of the kind journalism thrives on. I think the same is true of the whole Kripalu approach. They have systematically evolved from the guru orientation (all lovingly documented in Cope’s “Yoga and the Quest for the True Self”, by the way.)

    Bob Weisenberg

  4. Papers and media are entertainment venues, which means that yes, they often cater to fear. I couldn’t really care less- well maybe I DO care in that it entertains me to watch everyone being entertained. But yoga is everything and it will always be everything no matter what the New York Times decides to say and no matter how materialistic some people might claim some of it is. *shrug* If it helps more people to find yoga then so much the better, eh?

  5. I really like your summaries on all going on in the NYT, makes it easier to keep up with all of it! Thank you.

    At this point in the US, there is just SO MUCH yoga. One can choose to focus on pretty much anything with it – yoga in schools, naked yoga, yoga celebrities, yoga in prisons, yoga therapy, yoga with your cat, Babar’s yoga books, and so on… so it is very interesting to observe what aspects of yoga the NYT is choosing to focus on. And it makes sense that they would appear confused, as yoga in the west is rather confusing with its many schools and also the many trends, perhaps making it seem that yoga itself is the trend. I think a paper like the NYT could do well to look more into WHY yoga is so popular right now – well, it is because we need it. Whether it is in a 106 degree room or with a person they think is a yoga mogul or whatevs – yoga is helping many people to recenter and reevaluate their lives.

    • The Yoga scene has yet to sort out it’s different strands and the philosophies behind them. I’m reminded of my years in a liberal seminary in the early 90s (the liberal voice of Christianity is largely silent now, but it was in the lead of the civil rights movement (MLK) and anti-war movement (the Berrigan Brothers) in the 60s and 70s, not to mention its place for the founding fathers). In any case, H. Richard Neibhur’s work was central and described 5 ways in which spirituality (Christianity in this case) is situated toward culture: in it, above it, against it, changing it, or in confused relation to it. Judith, and many others of us, are struggling with the relation of the “against” and “in” models, roughly ascetic or householder, Yoga Sutra model or Tantric model (these categories are a little slippery, so scholar colleagues please have mercy). Tantra, especially the modern version, embraces this world and sees all of it–its sexuality, market culture, and free-form styles of being as divine, while the ascetic approach (and, incidentally, the activist approaches we see in Shiva Rea, Seane Corn and John F’s work) are “against culture” or “transforming culture” models. The ascetic approach, getting away from distraction–as Judith formulates it–is a classic and dignified yogic tradition and it has its place. We might say that Yoga Journal (to the degree that it has been guided by anything other than marketing) is plying Tantric waters–which says its all OK, it will all work out in the end, find your divinity in sexy toe-socks ads and everywhere. A loosey goosey, feel-good Tantra is divine enough for all.

  6. This has been really interesting to read because yoga doesn’t really get a mention in our mainstream media in Australia, maybe a small par in a Body/Life/Fitness section every once in a while. In regards to Friend, yoga can seem to be (to me) big business in America and with that brings more interest in the business side of things from people who don’t necessarily give a crap about the actual yoga. It’s such a shame when yoga itself and the benefits are overlooked.

  7. well said, r! NYT’s fashion & style section deterioration/market-culture bizarroness also being noticed by others, incl gawker-writer friend of mine: http://gawker.com/5607886/is-this-new-york-times-article-even-worth-making-fun-of
    pretty funny…

Trackbacks for this post

  1. EPL WTFness « yay
  2. Apologies for a half-ass job « Prana Journal
  3. wsj.com: stefanie syman on how yoga sold out « it's all yoga, baby
  4. john friend + ana forrest + tara stiles: a NYT compare & contrast « it's all yoga, baby
  5. how yoga can wreck your body: the NYT takes on yoga (again)
  6. Adapting exotic things for non-exotic markets: how to replace authenticity with wedges & wedgies « VERY ETHNIC