stefanie syman on how yoga sold out

So it looks like the Wall Street Journal has also become obsessed with yoga, following on the heels of the NY Times’ yoga blitz last month. After last week’s lululemon story, another article about yoga turned up on their Speakeasy blog yesterday – Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body, with an analysis and history lesson on the commercialization of  yoga.

Like “Star Wars” or Matisse, the merchandising, advertising, and profiteering of yoga has run the full gamut, from action figures to deluxe vacations to how-to-books that apply yoga to almost every human endeavor…

Now, there’s nothing left to exploit. But before you condemn any number of culprits (shareholders, American materialism, craven gurus, cynical marketers), you better understand that this process took some time — a century in fact — and yoga’s most committed followers have hurried it along. (via WSJ Speakeasy blog)

She notes that the early American practitioners were from families with money and that the first time yoga was used to sell something non-yoga-related was a 1963 7-Up ad in Life Magazine. Basically, what I hear her saying in this post is “yoga in the west has always been commercialized, what’s the big deal?” Like much of Stefanie’s writing and yoga commentary, I find this piece to be complacent (she also told Well+GoodNYC, “What I find more surprising is how much Sturm und Drang ads like ToeSox and Girls in Yoga Pants stir up. Isn’t it pretty obvious that a sustained yoga practice has nothing to do with either of these cultural instances, that women’s sexuality will long be exploited to move merchandise, and that the best thing to do is to ignore them?”).

However, this article did make me pause to reflect on my stance against the commercialization of yoga, and why I feel compelled to monitor and write about it. I realized that my anti-commercialization views aren’t fueled by nostalgia (believing that yoga used to be much less commercialized or market driven) or a desire for purity (I don’t consider myself a yoga purist at all ~ mainly because I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a “pure yoga”).

I realized that I resist the commercialization of yoga because I resist the commercialization of everything. I don’t believe that yoga deserves special treatment; I believe that the commercialization of everything, from food to sex to art, is unhealthy for people and our world.

I just happen to write and blog about the commercialization of yoga because I have a background in cultural studies and yoga media production. And because I enjoy thinking and writing about it. For me, blogging and critical thinking are part of my yoga practice. Also, I feel that the yoga community has a tendency to focus on the body, on asana practice, while not applying a critical lense to where yoga fits in contemporary culture. I use this space to draw attention to the cultural context of yoga.

My feeling is that we can accept that there is a history of commercialization in North American yoga (and yoga in other parts of the world, too) – but it doesn’t mean that we have accept some of the contemporary forms that this commercialization is taking. Certainly, yoga exists has a place in our market driven economy: studios are businesses, teachers have to self-promote,  props/books/DVDs/clothing can enrich our practices. But branded yoga mats, useless yoga accessories, corporate-sponsored teachers and sexist advertising – these do not enrich anyone’s practice, and they can actually do harm to how yoga is perceived by non-practitioners.

Stefanie’s article ends on a positive note, and while I disagree with much of what she says, I agree with her final thought: “Yoga is here to stay as are all of its crass permutations.” Amen to that.

  1. I love this Roseanne! especially this: “I realized that I resist the commercialization of yoga because I resist the commercialization of everything. ”
    thanks 🙂

  2. Cogent. I almost don’t pay attention to commercialism in yoga because I don’t think it detracts from something that is so much more than the issue at hand – really, I don’t think a few American ads can harm such a primal practice.

    But comedian Bill Hicks sums up some feelings about marketing pretty well:

  3. background in cultural studies? be still my beating heart 🙂 (me too!)
    I feel the same way – I’m anti-capitalist about a lot of things, why should yoga be any different?

  4. Yes, I totally agree! A few additional thoughts:

    “I resist the commercialization of yoga because I resist the commercialization of everything.” I love this line – but from the examples given, I think that perhaps the “everything” should not be taken to mean that the commercialization of toothpaste or shampoo is just as worrisome as the commercialization of art or spirituality – or for that matter, yoga.

    It’s not that all commercialism is equally pernicious, no matter what it’s about. It’s the belief that certain realms of life are too important to be sucked into the cultural vortex of commercialism, coupled with a sense that contemporary culture makes it challenging to preserve the integrity of those realms.

    So the defense of yoga against increasingly aggressive commercialization is not just about yoga; it’s about the desire to safeguard cultural space against a materialist/consumerist mentality that threatens to subsume everything.

    Many people may feel that yoga should not be so political (because in a way, this is all about cultural politics). And certainly, there are good cases to be made against it (although so far I haven’t really heard anyone making them). But I think that we should remember that Vivekananda, who brought modern yoga to the West, was considered a “Father” of Indian nationalism. And Ghandi led a successful (nonviolent) revolutionary movement. There’s plenty of good precedent for linking yoga to cultural criticism, even if it’s relatively rare today.

  5. This was on my mind today. These writings on nudity, toe sox and all have been bothering me lately and mostly because the commercialization of yoga does not bother me and I don’t know why. Today the thought suddenly occurred; “I am practicing yoga differently from the way it was practiced in the past, differently from the way some practice it now. I practice for different reasons using different poses from the ancient styles. That is just fine”

    I love my yoga practice. I love my lululemon shorts and Prana shirt. I love my heated studio, my down dogs and forearm balances. I like yoga journal and I read the ads. K. Budig is an inspiration for me. I cant wait to find a class she is teaching. All this is just fine. I think I have felt that the deep sense of disdain for some of these things in recent writings was reflecting on me. ” I guess I have it wrong, I like the wrong things.”
    But today I realized that times have changed and so has yoga and so have I. Just glad to have it as a special part of my life.


  6. Commercialism in yoga (as well as almost anything else) doesn’t really bother me all that much either. I think I just try to tune it out and am grateful when it brings something interesting to my attention. We are lucky to be able to choose where we put our attention so I really try to limit my exposure to ads by listening to public radio, recording tv shows so I can skip the ads and sometimes favoring the more expensive magazines with fewer ads.

    I vaguely remember something from the yoga Sutras about ignoring the wicked. I don’t think capitalists are quite wicked (unless they use subversive techniques to market unhealthy products) but it helps my peace of mind to not get ruffled by ads and such that I find annoying or offensive. Maybe I should be more concerned but I just don’t feel like advertising is really that important. Thanks for letting me share my 2 cents.

  7. I like your question about whether commercialism enriches someones practice of yoga as a way to discern whether the product in question merits criticism. And further if the commercial ad, book, or other product might cause harm, also seems like a helpful way to decide how to think about it. In many cases marketed products might be helpful in some ways and have the potential to be harmful in others. So there is some complexity in the situation, in my view. And it can be problematic to simply say that something is “bad” or “good”. Some products might be helpful to some people, and totally offensive to others. 

  8. “But branded yoga mats, useless yoga accessories, corporate-sponsored teachers and sexist advertising – these do not enrich anyone’s practice, and they can actually do harm to how yoga is perceived by non-practitioners.” Exactly!
    I am not too bothered by yoga commercialism on a personal basis, because I’ve learned how to discern the good for me vs the bad for me.

    What I don’t like about it is how yoga is perceived by non-practitioners because of these ads and utilization of yoga.
    Plus the question of nudity goes beyond the realms of yoga, we reacted because we were the target, but it’s a cultural and political issue in all areas, I’m afraid.

  9. I’m with Emmanuelle–Exactly!

    We all love yoga. We all have a practice that resonates strongly. We wouldn’t feel these arguments so deeply if we didn’t. As a wise woman once said, “You do your yoga, I”ll do mine.”

    This isn’t about the practice, this is about yoga as a marketing tool (if it’s in WSJ it’s about making money, not personal well-being). And as a marketing tool, it’s been co-opted to reinforce many objectionable, cultural stereotypes and prejudices. How can an image be aspirational if it requires a scalpel, a time machine and, possibly, a sex change to achieve it?!?!

    Like Emmanuelle, I think I’m able to ignore most advertising, but my students don’t. They aren’t as tuned into the yoga community to hear how many of us feel, so they assume what they see in the media is an accepted standard. Thus the nervous jokes about not being “good” enough to do yoga.

    To care strongly is not un-yogic; to paraphrase Carol, some things are worth defending against “crass permutations.”

  10. The Magazine of Yoga had a great article on yoga for people 65+….made me think, again, how yoga is commercialized and compartmentalized based on certain social dynamics.

    As the article states, the largest growing segment of the population is people 65 and over. How is yoga being advertised to them? In an ageist advertising culture, what’s the deal?

  11. I am coming to these comments quite late, but I wanted to say that I do find the commodification of the world very harmful. The logic that frames yoga as a commodity to be standardized, bought and sold, is the same logic that drives us to commodify things like land, genetic sequences (and entire living organisms), water and other natural resources and even ideas (intellectual property) because capitalism is a system that requires market expansion to thrive.

    I think there is a great deal to be gained from expanding analysis from consumer culture to consumerism’s larger context of capitalism/neoliberalism and the great harm caused by these systems to other people and to the environment. It seems to me that yoga is not at all easily integrated into the logic of capitalist system, save at the most superficial levels. Going beyond that requires a deeper examination of the values, ideologies, worldviews etc. that support capitalism and most importantly, how power is distributed unequally within that system. Only looking at the consumer/pop culture aspect of yoga’s commodification may bring focus to a discussion but it also hides all kinds of complex issues and has the tendency to reduce everything to the perspective of the individual consumer.

    Also, I’m really enjoying reading the posts on this blog – thank you for creating a venue for discussing these issues!