Saturday, August 7, 2010

Naked Yoga Beauties Selling Stuff! Or, the Personal, the Political, and the Commodification of the Body

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.


  1. Carol-

    I really enjoyed this post. As a young woman who is also a yoga teacher I feel societal pressure and expectations to not only be perfect at "yoga" but look perfect while doing it. When I read this article it made me think that I am becoming complacent and accepting a lot of norms that are being pushed by popular culture and companies I won't name, but are selling yoga as sexy. Ms. Budig has been an idol of mine, because of her teaching skills and her beauty and when I saw the toesox add awhile back, I just thought..."wow, i'll never do that pose and look so good."
    When I re-evaluate why yoga is important in my life and my students lives, it has nothing to do with outer beauty or perfect poses.
    Thanks for putting these issues into perspective.

    Your friend,

  2. I love your breakdown of how the ads and the culture focus on the value of bodies. The truth is a lot of the advertising out there is so focused on looking your best that after a while we start to believe that we need (insert here) product to be better than the beautiful person we already are. That's just one part of your article that I love, on the whole I'll say BRAVO!!! And Claire, i'm with you on Kathryn Budig's teaching skills, I love the fact that her classes are focused of cultivating fearlessness and a lack of judgment.

  3. Very cogent well-reasoned piece, Carol.

    The only point I'll make is that I don't see anyone questioning Judith's right to complain and suggest. The problem I was trying to address was the opposite--no one voicing the also very legitimate other side of this controversy.

    If you look back at the 30+ comments to Roseanne's original post they really were taking on the nature of a mass rally where very little dissent was being voiced at all. Some of them went so far as to explicitly accuse YJ and Kathryn of contributing to the mistreatment of women. That's what moved me to jump into a discussion I was originally determined to stay out of.

    I knew a large number of people disagreed with Judith. I was just trying to unleash their story for balance and truth, if nothing else.

    I enjoyed reading your well-thought arguments here and on the posts.


    Bob Weisenberg

  4. As one of many "unbendy" yoga teachers I see these ads/cover shots etc and just think "I really hope these aren't affecting people in the way they used to affect me". I can only say that in the days before I taught yoga and before I realised what I was capable of many images made the negative self talk in my head worse and worse. Every single one of us feels societal pressure to conform to a certain look/lifestyle and yoga was a place I escaped from that. I'd like it to remain that way really.

    A beautiful post and blog. Thanks for you comments about the cats. I'll fiddle with their food ratios, see what happens. And yay for the Grohl love ;)

  5. "Some of them went so far as to explicitly accuse YJ and Kathryn of contributing to the mistreatment of women."

    I don't think anything can be further from the truth. Unless I am totally clueless, I did not read one comment in both of Roseanne's posts that accused YJ or KB SPECIFICALLY of doing this. Many of the comments addressed advertising generally and yoga advertising in particular.

    To say that the commenters "went so far as to explicitly accuse YJ and Kathryn of contributing to the mistreatment of women" is IMO a real misreading. as I said, unless I am totally clueless, I did not see any explicit accusations, and in fact, thought Frank Jude's comments to be the most potent and well-reasoned.

  6. Wow, thank you Carol for this well-thought out and very cogent exploration of the issue.

    During the past year, as I've watched more and more nearly-naked ads appear in Yoga Journal, I've been increasingly bothered by them. My question has been "Why?"

    Why is it necessary to objectify women in this way? And I've been surprised that prominent teachers have gone along with it. I hope they've been paid at least a good fraction of what Playboy models receive. If not, why would they have done it?

    When we see the same amount of advertising nudity displayed by prominent male yoga teachers then maybe I can agree that there is no objectification involved. But, wait, that's not it, either. There would then be equality of objectification, but still, how does all of this serve yoga?

    Nudity is still "shocking" enough to draw attention to an ad, which is why companies have convinced teachers to be portrayed in this way.

    But what is the upside for the yoga profession? Do we see others in the helping professions posing nude? Psychologists, nurses, counselors, massage therapists, teachers?

    Do I need to lighten up? I don't know the answers to these questions, but at a deep level that I can't really explain, I think these depictions subtly devalue what yoga offers and subtly degrades the depth of knowledge, devotion, and professionalism that these teachers offer.


  7. wonderful, wonderful response, carol! yes!

    i'm so with you here: "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..." you have perfectly summed up why i blog, why i choose to write about the aspects of yoga that i write about. i so believe in yoga's power, in its force, in its potential – and it frustrates me to see it being undermined and trivialized in the greater culture. this definitely starts at an individual level - i believe in yoga's potential because i have experienced it in myself. since i've been practicing and living yoga, i have healed, grown, matured, learned how to live more fully. and of course, i want to see that happen at a cultural level. it's just that simple.

    i've learned a lot from the discussion on my blog and on elephant journal, and it's helped me solidify my worldview. thank you for articulating what's been going on in my own head over the past few days!

  8. I let my YJ subscription go when I saw the commercialization and crass shift toward pseudo-facts.

    My practice and participation of yoga will speak for itself, and the future will still bring devotees who understand sattya and learn tapas.

    So, re: nudity, would Patanjali point to Bramacharya? there's your answer. THe rest is just sales.

  9. Carol,

    Thank you for a succinct breakdown of the different angles to this.

  10. Nudity aside -- Just as people are critical of an ad showing a beautifully executed asana because it discourages some poor soul - next week we will be all a flutter about ads with poorly executed asana because they are so clueless. We are going to have to be able to handle seeing well executed poses in print, maybe in various states of clothing. Perhaps the next discussion should be when a male model (clothed or loin clothed) will return to the cover of Yoga Journal? It seems that they know their target demographic well.

  11. Ditto with roseanne. I think this is a thorough, eloquent piece. And I'm very excited about the role blogs and social networking have played in the discussion this weekend. As with most other special-interest groups, maybe the heyday and influence of the print media is on the wane in the yoga world...

    Bob, re-read Judith's letter again. The "other side" to her request would be to encourage YJ to exploit female sexuality to sell more products or magazines. Surely you don't think this is a legitimate argument...

  12. Thanks so much to everyone for your thoughtful comments. I really appreciate your taking the time to read and think into the post, as well as your willingness to step out and publicly comment.

    Claire and Ejiro, thanks for your kind comments and also for showing that it's possible both to admire KB, but still question the ad and what it stands for. In the past, I've struggled to come to terms with the fact that some of my yoga teachers at times do things that I find questionable at best. But I think that it's healthy to be able to hold both realities at once: You can learn a lot from someone and admire them but still have legitimate differences and disagreements with them as well.

    Bob, thanks for your willingness to get past your discomfort and step out and take a different view. I reread the comments and must say that like Linda and Brenda, I didn't see the charges there that you did. But I know that such accusations often come with this sort of issue, and that just like the Toesox photo, words will be interpreted in different ways. I'd be interested to hear more from your perspective so that I can understand it better.

    Rachel, good luck with the cats! And thanks for the honest acknowledgment of how media images affect you. I've had similar issues that I still struggle with, and it's helpful to connect with people doing the same sort of work.

    Rosetta, I love that you are able to acknowledge your discomfort and just be with it rather than having to leap to a conclusion about why you feel that way. That's so valuable; I think that we can all learn from your example.

    Roseanne, I am honored by your engagement here; you the lady who got Judith's letter the broader attention that it so well deserved! Thank you.

    LaPortaMA, thanks for your comment. It's hard for me to connect traditional sources so directly to this debate, but I appreciate your perspective.

    David: I agree that we should be able to handle photos of beautifully executed asana regardless of how the practitioner is dressed (or not). My concern is with asana and the body more generally being absorbed into a hyper-materialist, market-obsessed culture that I not only don't like, but think runs counter to yogic values. So take off the Toesox, jettison the advertising, and put the photo in a context that's simply about celebrating the beauty of the body and asana practice, and I at least would be totally happy with it. (Others of course may feel differently.)

    Brenda: I too think that this discussion (not just here but more broadly) is exciting and hope that we can build on this momentum. I'd caution however that as we tread out ont sensitive territory, we put just as much thought into how we communicate with one another as to what we have to say.

    One way in which yoga can help create positive social change is by developing a model of how we can talk to each other about issues that are complex and meaningful, personal and political, sensitive and challenging, in a deeply respectful way. Certainly, that's not what's happening out there in mainstream society, to say the least.

  13. I was really intrigued when I saw that letter in the current issue. It was powerful to see it there, and I think shows how much American yoga is struggling to maintain balance.

    What I find so interesting is that it takes half-naked models in perfect poses to get a large-scale discussion going about all this. The uber-individualism and commercialization of yoga has been going on for a long time now, and it's definitely impacting what people are doing, and thinking about the practice. I subscribe to Yoga Journal because it's a decent resource, but they fail terribly, in my opinion, to provide any thoughtful examination of the economics of yoga practice, what it means to be a teacher or student of a spiritual disciple that runs counter to a lot of 21st century culture, as well as the broad, social level ethics that are a part of the practice.

    But these issues are beyond YJ. They are really about the way in which "western" and "eastern" (i really don't care for these terms, but they are the best i have right now) are blending together, and how the globalization we are all experiencing is impacting what we do with our lives.

  14. Carol!

    You've a new fan! Your essay is wonderfully thoughtful, concise, and erudite. I too have a vision of the transformative power of Yoga/Dharma as 'going against the stream.' I think many practitioners of contemporary hatha-yoga miss this aspect of Yoga; it's deep investigation and questioning of -- as Roland Barthes said of his analysis of popular culture -- 'what goes without saying.' It is precisely that which goes without saying that must be questioned.

    Thank you, again.

    frank jude

  15. the momentum is here, and it is exciting and there is hope that we can build on it.

    the question is: Can a 6000 year old discipline remain intact despite commercial suggestion?

    the answer is the question.

    brian castellani

  16. Much of what I read on blogs is quite explicitly a plain dialectic between those that think they are "doing it right", (like Judith Lasseter) and those that probably couldn't care less about what those that think they are doing it right actually think because they are doing very well for themselves and can easily defend their position along the lines of Bobs' more convenient, universalist frame, (e.g. Tara Stiles, Kathryn Budig, ToeSox and Yoga Journal)

    America truly is the Land Of The Lost:-

  17. This was a thoughtful post. Thank you. My first reaction when I saw the ad was the irony that what is being sold is not needed and serves no good purpose.

  18. This sense of commodification is not the actual motivation behind the post. This image displays an ideal, not a commodification. As an ideal, it is one of many, and does not reduce or conflict with an other ideal. You could turn this into a commodity if you had more, but there aren't more.

    To wring your hands over this beautiful image is a waste of your time. Instead of claiming that the grand canyon or yosemite commoditizes and devalues all other places, look deeper and find your own fears, and face them.

  19. As a former yoga practitioner and a subscriber to Yoga Journal, I hate to admit that I now buy the magazine only for the photographs, which I use in my personal collage art. Apparently the Toe Sox ads (as an Art form) have deeply disturbed me, as I have sought to understand my personal attraction/aversion to spiritual comodification by cutting Ms Budig out of her spiritual context and placing her into contexts that I imagine for her. Through this process, I have discovered that yoga photography as an art form objectifies the yogi, and removes the spiritual practitioner from the self-reflective act of doing yoga into the art of performing yoga. Yoga has become more of a visual and performing art in our culture than a process of self-discovery. As with dancers, gymnasts and circus performers, the yoga model is simply a performer, albeit one who is role-playing what it means to be healthy and spiritual woman in our culture.

    When I cut out the Toe-Sox model from the context of Yoga Journal for my personal collage work, I move this performance into the context of my own fears, hopes and desires. I don't know who this yoga teacher is in her real life, nor do I care. By agreeing to be photographed, this teacher has sold a piece of her soul to my personal imagination. She has become static and divorced from her actual person. Some individuals may chose to use her as an object for masturbation and others for spiritual growth, but neither fate is better than the other. The point is that Ms. Budig's experience of herself as a woman, a spiritual teacher and a yogi is outside the domain of Art.