I’ve been reading the online debate over Judith Hanson Lasater’s letter to Yoga Journal with great interest. In case you missed it, the latest issue of the magazine published a letter from Ms. Lasater – one of its five original founders back in the mid-70s – protesting its willingness to run ads using “photos of naked or half-naked women” to sell stuff. “This approach is something I thought belonged (unfortunately) to the larger culture, but not in Yoga Journal,” she protested.
Certainly, the debate over the commercialization of yoga is not new. But having one of the founders of YJ publicly criticizing the magazine for it is significant.
Thanks to It’s All Yoga, Baby’s timely blog post, Ms. Lasater’s letter has generated a storm of commentary in the blogosphere. The fact that IAYB’s post was illustrated with an ad featuring a naked-except-for-Toesox (the featured product) Kathryn Budig, however, inadvertently turned the discussion into something of a referendum on that ad in particular.
This is rather unfortunate, I think. It doesn’t seem fair that Ms. Budig should have to bear the brunt of this much larger issue (even if only for this week). On the other hand, it does help to have a visual to focus on in the debate, and that ad is as good a symbol of the dynamic under discussion as any.
At any rate, reading the comments on IAYB and elsewhere (as the issue has gone viral) has been instructive for me. It’s made me want to clarify what I think is at stake, and realize that this isn’t as easy as I initially thought it might be.
Because I think that a lot of big issues are in play here. It’s not just about me and my experience; it’s about yoga and whether it will help to open or close cultural space, and help or hinder positive social change.
The Personal and the Political
For me, the most significant divide in this debate is over whether the issues involved are purely personal and individual, or also social and political.
Many commentators are insistent that it’s all strictly personal.
How you view this ad and what you imagine it represents depends on your personal history, and nothing more.
Whether it’s OK to use photos of a beautiful naked yoga teacher to push products depends on how the model feels about it, and nothing more.
If you’re negatively affected by these ads, then that’s your issue, and nothing more.
From this perspective, anything that could possibly be at stake occurs exclusively on the individual level. The social, cultural, and political dimensions of the issue are either invisible, or dismissed as irrelevant.
At the extreme end, the opposing view – that the ads and commercialization have a cultural force that impacts individuals – is attacked as fostering a victim mentality. Pointing out that the social environment may negatively impact individuals is accused of eroding personal responsibility and self-empowerment.
I strongly disagree with this perspective. To me, all of this hyper-individualization is itself a product of American culture. While there’s a lot to be celebrated in American individualism, it can also be taken to an extreme – which, I think, is the case here.
To me, reducing the debate about the use of beautiful naked yoga teachers to sell stuff to the level of personal experience and nothing more is a problem. Why? Because it destroys the possibility of imagining yoga as a force that could help create a healthier culture and a better society.
Yoga for the Social Good
When I think about the issues at stake in Ms. Lasaster’s letter, it’s simply not all about me.
For me as an individual, the Toesox ad is not important. Even the commercialization of yoga is not really important. I have my own practice; I have my own students; I have my own teachers; I have a great yoga community. At the individual level, yoga is working wonders for me, and no amount of questionable advertising is going to change that.
But I also have a lot of hopes for yoga as a cultural force. Which may be naïve and idealistic. Or maybe it really is all about me, and my imagined cultural politics are really just a selfish means of bolstering my own sense of self-importance. But I don’t think so.
I believe that I have a heart-felt desire to have yoga serve as a positive force in American society – because we desperately need what it has to offer.
That’s why I’m really excited to see yoga teachers and psychologists working together to help soldiers with PTSD. Why I love the idea of promoting yoga for all body types, including overweight ones. Why I get jazzed to see teachers bringing yoga to violent, impoverished, and socially marginalized communities. Why I love the idea of integrating yoga into hospital care as a complementary therapy for cancer patients.
Now, I don’t doubt that everyone holding the individualistic view that I just criticized feels positive about these things too. But my question is: Are they connecting the dots? Are they really thinking into how tying yoga more and more to commercialized images of the supposedly perfect body and using that imagery to sell stuff impacts people other than themselves? If it’s helpful or harmful to having yoga serve as a positive social force?
If we care about yoga’s place in our society, then we also have to think into issues involving yoga on a social, cultural, and even in a sense political level.
The Commodification of the Body
For me, the problem with the Toesox ad and all that it represents is that it makes yoga part of the larger cultural movement to turn our bodies – and by extension, our selves – into commodities. That is, objects whose worth is determined by their market value, whether monetary (who gets paid the big bucks) or cultural (who’s commonly perceived as sexy, admirable, desirable, and so on).
That’s not to suggest that Ms. Budig or any other yogis consciously endorse such an agenda. But that’s the thing about the dominant culture: If it’s invisible to us – if we uncritically accept it as normal and natural without reflection – we get sucked into it and end up reinforcing its norms unintentionally.
Which is why Ms. Lasater’s letter to Yoga Journal is important. She has the stature and reputation to take what’s become normal (commodifying the bodies of prominent yoga teachers by using them as props for selling stuff) and change it into something to be questioned.
That’s why people who cry “censorship” whenever anyone suggests that some standard of values other than the market should play a role in what magazines publish are actually themselves the ones insisting on creating a homogeneous, one dimensional culture. While centralized, state-sponsored censorship, such as existed in the former USSR, is of course reprehensible, it’s also true that having only market values rule is awful. And the fact that this happens invisibly, under the radar screen of many people’s consciousness, is what makes it both so powerful and so pernicious.
Intelligent cultural critique is incredibly important – for a healthy democracy, for positive social change, and for socially engaged individuals. It opens up new social space in a way that’s analogous to how yoga opens up new space in the mind and body.
I want to see yoga become more and more powerful on a societal level, opening up a new, healthier, and more spiritually vibrant cultural space in America. In order for this to happen, the yoga community needs to be critical of negative aspects of the dominant culture – most definitely including the widespread tendency to turn our bodies into commodities whose worth is determined by market values.