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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
* 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.