yoga journal’s special “yoga for weight loss” issue: an analysis

Yoga Journal “special edition” cover, spotted in a Montreal Indigo store (image via Amy Walsh, @amyhwalsh, on Twitter)

Hot on the heels of the yoga blogosphere conversation about the complexities of marketing “yoga for weight loss” comes a special edition of Yoga Journal called – wait for it – Yoga for Weight Loss!

Given the time lapse in magazine production, this issue was conceived and commissioned long before the latest incarnation of this debate started a few months around Sadie Nardini’s “summer yoga body” Udemy campaign. Yoga Journal’s special issue appeared to have landed on North American (or at least, Montreal) newsstands sometime in the past week or so, and will remain there until early October.*

Just to contextualize things, these YJ special editions, branded as “From the editors of Yoga Journal,” come out on an apparently bi-annual basis, and in the past have been focused on developing a home yoga practice and yoga for beginners.

At first glance, and to anyone not familiar with magazine cover design and marketing, it may appear that there is a whole new yoga magazine on the market called Yoga for Weight Loss. Whoa, kind of alarming! Luckily, not true – phew!

However, the story on the cover is different from the story in the pages of the magazine (which I spent a good hour reading, photographing and taking notes on at my neighbourhood magazine store – I did not purchase it).

The Cover

Model: first of all, this cover model DOES NOT NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT. Not even close. But note how she is wearing a loose fitting shirt, how she is posed in a very basic asana (Tree Pose). Observe the somber blues and blacks, the home environment in which she’s practicing.

Compare this to the cover of the September issue, with the hot pink background, the active and uplifting asana, the smile on the model’s face (and send some kudos to YJ for featuring a black woman on the cover!).

The underlying message here: losing weight is serious. Kind of drab. Kind of boring.

That said, if the cover model was a rotund beauty paired with the magazine title “Yoga for Weight Loss,” it would have been painfully offensive. So this was a no-win situation.

Let’s analyze some of the main cover lines (or, as they’re also known in magazine-speak, “sell lines” – because that’s what they do. Sell stuff):

Feel great & lose weight: pretty self-explanatory. The placement and size of this text indicates that it’s a predominant theme throughout the issue. Placing “feel great” before “lose weight” was a wise move.

Everything you need to transform the way you think about food and exercise!: this is prime magazine real estate, as it’s often the only line that is visible on newsstands. The line has a vaguely positive, self-empowerment flavour.

Yoga tips for every shape & size: sounds promising, yet is contradicted and negated by the title of the magazine.

The rest of the cover lines, however, are generic enough to be on any cover of YJ: Delicious recipes for optimal nutrition; 9 sequences to practice at home; Learn how to make lasting changes.

Women’s magazines are notorious for having a wide discrepancy between the cover and the interior content. This is part of the reason why leading magazines have started to either include the page numbers of correlating stories on the cover, or a whole sidebar on the table of contents with cover lines and stories.

This issue, however, subscribed to the old school rules of “Figure it out yourself.” That said, the story inside the pages of the magazine is actually more progressive and size-positive than the cover image and title initially lead me to believe. Seriously.

The Content

In her editorial column, YJ Editor-In-Chief, Kaitlin Quistgaard writes, “This special edition is dedicated to helping you tap into the natural weight management tools that yoga offers.” She then goes on to say, “These lifelong practices can do more than take off pounds – they can help you make peace with your body and shift your attitudes about food.”

This was a recurring theme throughout the issue. In a “personal transformation” story from Ashley Miller, YJ’s current marketing manager, we see ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos and testimonials about how yoga helped her overcome yo-yo dieting and lose 60 pounds.

The ‘Start from where you are’ story is accompanied by a healthy and beautiful plus-sized model – but again, the blue and purple tones of her loose-fitting clothing position her as “other” in contrast with the bright spandex and dynamic asanas of the standard models in the magazine.

A healthy and hot plus-sized model!

As promised on the cover, we get some asana sequences, courtesy of Ana Forrest, Shiva Rea and Jason Crandell. These sequences focus on core strength and aren’t any different than anything you’d find in a regular issue (and are most likely repurposed from previous issues or web content).

The food section had potential to be problematic, but the short motivational pieces on applying the concept of truthfulness to your relationship with food and rethinking the underlying motives of eating were generally benign. The pages of plant-based recipes provide concrete ways for healthy eating. And none of the recipes included calorie counts (a common practice in women’s and health magazines).

The Underlying Cultural Factors

Finally, the closing section, “Think: Change your thoughts to change your life,” takes a closer look at the psychological relationship between food and our bodies, and even provides a cultural context for body image issues.

“Yogis certainly aren’t immune to the complex web of cultural forces that contribute to [the] epidemic of self-loathing,” writes former YJ editor Nora Isaacs in a long article, ‘Love Your Body.’ “After all, it’s not easy to reconcile life in an image-conscious world with the yogic notion that the body is more or less the vessel through which we navigate a spiritual path.”

These three words in an issue of YJ = almost radical.

Isaacs references a 1997 study on body image and the article is accompanied by a sidebar titled, ‘Can yoga fuel the body image blues?’ The sidebar answers its own question with “Yes, in subtle ways,” citing yoga’s position as a big business and schools of yoga that over-emphasize perfect alignment among the reasons.

A pull-quote from the article reads, “Perhaps one byproduct of the yoga boom will be a collective cry: ‘Stop the madness! We are satisfied with who we are!’” YJ didn’t acknowledge that this cry is still a murmur coming from the trenches, but it’s slowly growing in strength.

And so…

My initial reaction to this issue was admittedly anger and outrage, based entirely on what I saw on the cover. And a little bit of boredom, as well. “Really? This again/still?” I sighed as I rolled up my sleeves and pulled out my Catwoman claws, ready to tear into it. I was relieved to analyze the content of the magazine and discover that many of the articles  addressed the complexity of yoga’s relationship with the quest for losing weight and even had size-positive messaging.

That said, this issue is far from perfect. Yoga Journal is perfectly positioned to lead “the collective cry” and, as the dominant voice in North American yoga media, it almost has a responsibility to do so. Here’s how:

1)    Drop the “weight loss yoga” schtick. Just drop it (that goes for you too, Sadie Nardini, Gaiam, and anyone else who uses these keywords to market and sell their products). This phrase is a disservice to the practice of yoga and insults the intelligence of both seasoned and would-be practitioners. Stop defending it, stop using the old “whatever brings people to the mat” argument. Just stop.

2)    Let’s see a wider variety of body types modeling asana throughout the monthly issues. Don’t just keep them hidden in the “special editions.” And let’s see those models wearing clothes that fit YJ’s regular colour palette, let’s see them in expressive, dynamic poses.

3)    Adopt and discuss the HAES (Health at Every Size) model throughout the magazine’s editorial content, design and advertisers. (Note: This issue warranted no discussion or analysis of the advertising because there was none. I’m assuming that this is because of the higher newsstand price and the nature of the “special issue.” It was a welcome relief to see no ads for diet pills and clothing.)

And secretly, optimistically, naively, what I’m waiting for is the yoga version of this:

Gossip lead singer Beth Ditto, on the premier cover of UK-based fashion magazine, Love, 2009.

* According to the YJ website, the Yoga for Weight Loss issue came out in 2011. I’m not sure if there’s a difference between USA and Canada release dates, or if they’ve just decided to reissue the edition again this year.

  1. This is a great analysis. I still don’t really know how to feel about the yoga for weight loss claim. I definitely feel like it’s not what yoga is about. The only exception to the rule I can see is if this claim is being made about some kind of yoga-aerobic hybrid class in which case, it’s not yoga at all. I also just don’t understand how people lose weight from doing yoga. The two things just don’t fit together in my mind.

  2. It must be me and my problems with insulin and such but to me yoga for weight loss works no more than other exercising practices.
    Anyway, interesting points. I’m actually quite annoyed as how the mainstream images of yogi are always as real as models on fashion magazines. Most people I know who are into yoga (women) are from the curvy-pin up to the curvy-curvy level…and then it’s not only 30someting!
    Best representation to me was that episode of According to Jim in which he went to a class with Cheryl and became obsessed and Andy went too I don’t remember at which point.

  3. During the first year I got into yoga, I actually did lose a lot of fat (though the fact that I simultaneously got back into biking also had a lot to do with that). However, I also gained a lot of muscle in my upper body. The net result, though I was, unquestionably, far leaner than I’d been before, was that I went from 210 to 220 lbs. So, kind of sidestepping the issue of whether it’s a good thing to see yoga as a way to lose fat, or whether losing fat should be held up as an ideal, anyway (both of which I think are certainly valid questions), it’s often highly questionable whether “weight” is the best gauge of that, anyway…

  4. It’s funny, only when I stopped trying and started listening to my body did the weight start to come off. It would be nice if YJ, as a representative of the yoga community, would not exploit people desperate to lose weight.

  5. Down in the states, this is not the first issue of Yoga Journal Yoga for Weight Loss, in fact, I’d seen such an issue about 10 months ago.

    I clearly and distinctly remember several articles subtly and not-so-subtly guiding the reader towards practicing Gentle Yoga … and cautioning that Power Yoga was “not the best choice” for anyone with more than an extra 15 or 20 pounds on them.

    They are assuming that you, the “overweight” reader, are taking ONE kind of power yoga offered at ONE kind of snobby, upscale, possibly take-no-prisoners, my-way-or-the highway, or heavily Astanga-based type of LIVE studio.

    This is why even someone like Sadie Nardini has a following …. she seems to have a way to teach many different kinds of bodies … the rest of the teachers have to learn, anyway (possibly from someone like Anna Guest-Jelley); This is why Power Yoga is still Power Yoga even if the person learns it off of a download, CD or DVD. Not that I support weight-loss-oriented teachers who fail to take a relativist approach to size management, making even the yoga teachers from the gym seem welcoming and forgiving …

    The elitist approach to yoga makes me gag at my age … I walk into a studio and right away they tell me I should go to Gentle Yoga.
    No thanks. And when I’m old enough to crawl to a further away studio, the one who ASSumed so, still won’t be getting my business ….

  6. Thanks for taking the time to do this thorough analysis. When I first saw the cover, I assumed that this person’s body was the result of having done yoga (and she seems to have healthy proportions), not the image of a person who needs weight loss. But I hadn’t picked up on the blue and black, and how different those colours are from other, happier covers.

    I’m also impressed to hear that there’s no mention of number of calories. Overall it sounds like they’re trying to walk that fine line between playing up the catch-phrases people want to hear (and that will sell the magazine), and being true to the spirit of yoga.

  7. One of the best teachers I ever had used to say in class “yoga allows you to let go of that which is not authentically yours”. This includes weight. Some of us are authentically fat people. We can do yoga everyday, eat intuitively and still be fat – this is my authentic self. So yes, you may lose weight when you have a regular yoga practice, but you may not. When we can let go of the desire to look a certain way, or weigh a certain amount we can find joy and bliss in living our authentic life.

  8. A few weeks ago as I was checking out of whole foods I saw this at the register and literally wanted to heave. I have seen this “lose weight” marketing ploy sneak its way into the way in which Yoga is presented and here it was being endorsed by YJ. It’s not just this but the overly hot yoga studios popping up promoting how they “detoxify you” but always with cursory “this will also leads to weight loss”–so happy you wrote this –thank you!

  9. I purchased this issue and have been reading the articles for a couple of days. The beautiful cover photo is of someone who has found that a consistent yoga practice enabled her over time to develop a deep acceptance of her body, and a mindfulness in eating, so she could separate eating for emotional release from eating for health.

    That is exactly the issue I have been struggling with for many years. Truthfully, I have so far found this issue to be one of the most helpful issues I’ve read, because it contains experiences by many people who have walked this path as well.

    I just returned from a 2 week holiday, and it was clear to me for the first time in years, that by holding on to this excess weight, I’m hiding myself away from life, and that I’m really not physically able to do the things I want to do to experience life….like go for a kayak trip, or go bicycling, or walking for extended periods.

    I do accept myself at one level, but I don’t want to accept giving up on myself.

    I really appreciated this magazine, because for me, it’s the right read at the right time.

    Sorry, I’ve gone on FAR too long, but just wanted to share my perspective.

    • hi kushala ~ thanks for your honest and brave comment. i’m so glad to hear that you found the issue helpful and inspiring.

      as you can see from my post, after my initial reaction, i was surprised to discover that the content of the magazine was empowering and holistic. i did feel that the stories and articles addressed the many factors around weight loss and body image issues.

      best of luck on your journey towards health!

  10. Thoughtful and thorough commentary as usual, Roseanne. I so agree that yoga culture needs to grow beyond the “yoga for weight loss” selling of a practice that is so much more than that. Yes, losing weight might be a side benefit of practicing asana, but it is certainly not the intent. Nor is being obsessed with making our bodies conform to a culturally made-up and agreed-upon idea of what attractive is.

    On another note, I am saddened by commenters that constantly demean what they call Gentle Yoga, which is apparently anything that is not balls-to-the-wall power vinyasa or Ashtanga.

    Asana has developed over the centuries as a practice that’s intended to calm the nervous system to prepare the body for meditation. While fast-moving yoga styles yield a particular type of benefit, the traditional, slower-paced practice that is now considered “less than” yields benefits that are more aligned with asana’s original intent.

    In a society that craves strong sensation—and IMO is addicted to strong sensation—so-called “Gentle Yoga” is far more challenging to our minds than intense, fast-paced practice is. If Gentle Yoga feels boring, it might mean that boredom is something worthy of investigation.

    • By your definition, then, I practice “Gentle Yoga” …
      I don’t consider the cortisol-stimulating effects of balls-to-the-wall power yoga practices conducive to inch-loss or mental health, in any case …

      • Hi Tina, It’s not actually my definition. It seems generally accepted that anything that’s not sweaty, intense and cortisol stimulating is deemed to be gentle yoga. I also practice gentle yoga by the accepted definition. It suits me and balances the busyness of the rest of my life. My adrenals are happier for it!

  11. Great article. I had the same reaction when I saw the magazine – basically, really Yoga Journal?? Oy. I do wish that yoga marketing would let go of the “weight loss schtick” as your called it (brilliantly). My experience is that yoga resets systems in the body and if your body wants to lose weight as a result, it probably will. BUT, if your body does not want to lose weight, it won’t. There are so many benefits to yoga whether one loses weight or not, and it drives me crazy that someone might not think they practiced successfully if their weight stayed the same.

  12. I recently took a Sadie N. Workshop. I knew nothing about her other than my “home” studio was bringing her in. A yoga teacher friend (I’m an RYT 200) told me some facts about her…and mentioned she used to be “heavy”. This “fact” hit me funny as this friend has a different body type than mine…I’m a size 12 yogi.

    So, I took the workshop. It was challenging. There was, however, a message about using the curves you’re given. I was intimidated by the “thin” crowd, but not by Sadie. Her message is very warm and open, but she will kick your butt in a workshop. I allowed this butt kicking because I enjoy a challenge.

    Just a few thoughts. Not a hater. I liked Sadie. I do, however, limit myself because of weight, and find that others assume I’m weak (which I’m not) or lazy or adverse to a more intense practice. Truth be told, I love ALL yoga. I’m a yoga slut that way. 😉

  13. THANK YOU, Rosanne. great piece. just wanted to add that i practice yoga and struggle with body image issues but have seriously gone off YJ for the past 2 years. Love your suggestions. I was in a yoga class a few years ago and felt overweight and weak during the practice, and beside me was a woman in her 40’s (older than me at the time), larger than me, busting out amazing pincha mayurasana with such strength and grace! definitely more photos of all of our amazing bodies would be great to see.

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