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From Backlash to Benefit of the Doubt: On Yoga Journal, Body Image and Building a Conscious Community

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Melanie-Klein-yoga-body-image

by Melanie Klein

The Backlash

Yoga Journal’s September 2014 print edition made a big splash recently – and not in a good way. Critics were up in arms over the “Love Your Curves” article, one that seemed to cancel out it’s “love your body” mantra by the end of the article. It would have been disappointing in itself, but it was more so given Yoga Journal’s recent participation in the Practice of Leadership panel discussion on yoga and body image in San Diego. Rachel MeyerHolly Penny and my Yoga and Body Image co-editor, Anna Guest – Jelley, represent just a vocal few who were disappointed by Yoga Journal’s “body love” delivery (and cancelled their subscriptions).

I’m all about challenging harmful media imagery and I’m thrilled that there are more and more yogis calling out yoga businesses, industries and culture makers for content that is clichéd, tired and destructive. In fact, I cancelled my Yoga Journal subscription years ago after coming across an ad for diet pills and posed the question, “should members of the yoga community and yoga publications emphasize weight loss, size zero bodies and advertise diet pills?” almost 4 years ago.

Representing the “Yoga Body” – What’s the Problem?

A yoga practice has the ability to transform and heal negative body image – but, when the yoga culture is flooded with one-dimensional imagery of the “yoga body” the power to cultivate wellness and wholeness is significantly lowered and yoga begins to mimic the diet and fitness industry on multiple levels.

As Hala Khouri, Off the Mat, Into the World and the Practice of Leadership panel moderator, stated when discussing this issue with me recently:
“I think that since yoga can benefit all kinds of people, visible organizations and publications do a disservice when their advertising promotes yoga as being “for” and done by mostly people who fit a stereotype of health and beauty promoted in the fashion industry.  It minimizes the depth and healing possibilities of a safe yoga practice which can help (and be done by) those of any shape, size, race, health status, sexual orientation and gender identity.   In fact, the people who can really benefit from yoga are those with chronic illness, disabilities, and trauma. Yet, ironically, they are marginalized by the mainstream yoga press which reinforces that health looks like a skinny woman with no visible flaws.”

And with the forthcoming anthology on yoga and body image and the formation of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, my fellow body image activists and I are looking to make authentic change, not simply promoting an empty slogan or hashtag.

Creating safe spaces and representing all yogis, as my co-editor, Anna Guest-Jelley, states in the conclusion of our book, “does not mean, as we saw in the essays, asking people who are currently on the margins of yoga, or not even currently practicing, to “fit in” with yoga-culture-as-usual. Rather, it’s a call to change yoga-culture-as-usual.”

Not So Fast – Defending Yoga Journal and Filling in the Blanks

I never thought I’d defend Yoga Journal, but here I am. And, no, I don’t work for them, I’m not a brand ambassador for any major yoga industry giant and I haven’t sold out. What’s happened is that I believe they truly want to create change. I do.

Yoga Journal and lululemon recently sat down for two Practice of Leadership panels – the first focused on leadership and corporate responsibility and the second focused on yoga, body image and representation. A lot of people had cynical reactions, and understandably so – claiming that YJ and lulu’s intentions in coming to the table were simply related to re-branding efforts. While I remained positive and grateful to sit down and have a talk on a long overdue subject, I knew that it was a possibility.

But, after having countless email threads circulate through my inbox and holding conference calls in anticipation of the event, as well as having several one-on-one conversations with Carin Gorrell and her team and having a conscious and respectful dialogue on the panel discussion itself, I know these women are dedicated to making positive change. They make not know exactly how to do it perfectly and there may be mistakes along the way, but I have faith and trust in their integrity and intention.

One thing that struck me by the backlash was that the issue that contained the article was created months before July’s body image discussion in San Diego. In fact, in my recent interview with Carin Gorrell, she stated, “The September issue was planned and mostly shot before the April Yoga Journal LIVE event in New York City and it shipped before the YJ LIVE event in San Diego in July.” I felt that was a big gap in the criticism.

And I’ve seen some things pop up on their blog that would have been unheard of even two months ago. Posts such as “Getty’s Lean In Collection is More Than Pretty Pictures,” “Transegender Models Strike A Pose,” “Teaching Yoga and Self-Love” and “A Body Positive Anthem.” And they don’t read like mere fluff – many of the posts ask much more critical questions than we’ve seen in the past and they reference the recent panel discussions. It’s clear to me that the YJ team is starting to think and see things differently (and apply what’s been discovered at these discussions). And, yes, perhaps, these posts have been sandwiched between content that hasn’t been in complete alignment, but change is happening. And, while I am one of the first to call out missteps and mistakes, I think it is equally important to applaud valiant efforts such as these. It’s another gap in the criticism – the recognition that there are some positive things unfolding – and I want to fill in those blanks.

Yoga Journal Responds – And Apologizes

Holly Penny’s post at YogaDork was met with a swift comment from Carin Gorrell herself – and I found that impressive. In my interview with Gorrell, she reaffirmed her stance by stating, “Our ‘Love Your Curves’ feature was intended to celebrate women’s bodies, definitely not to shame them. I’m happy that the images of beautiful yoga teachers support that intention. I’ve also been told by some women that they were hesitant to even consider trying yoga because they didn’t want to wear tight fitting yoga clothes, so if the service in the feature broke down that barrier to entry for some readers, that’s a good thing. But, I’m very unhappy if we gave the impression that people’s body shapes need to be concealed, which was not our intention.”

And if that sounds like a sell-out to people, consider the fact that body-positive talk and representing a diverse range of body shapes, ages, races and ethnicities isn’t common practice in many spaces. From our homes to our kitchen tables to conversations we have with ourselves in the mirror, “fat talk” and body snarking is rampant – and normative.

And one-dimensional and digitally altered images of beauty aren’t exclusive to Yoga Journal – they’re standard practice in the mainstream media. As Brigitte Kouba, a.k.a. Gigi Yogini and founder of YOGAudacious, stated, “Yoga magazines are just one of the many media entities that perpetuate this unrealistic image of thin white women as the cultural norm. What’s exciting is the opportunity for the yoga community to bring consciousness to this epidemic and take action for positive change towards inclusivity.”

Carin Gorrell and the new team at Yoga Journal shouldn’t be expected to be experts on the subject of self-love and body positivity. They’re plagued by their own conditioning, body image issues and market expectations. How can we expect them to roll over one morning and have all the answers?

But they should be expected to respond to our critiques and educate themselves – and they are (and that’s more than most major media outlets have done in recent history).

Moving the Conversation Forward

My co-editor, Anna Guest – Jelley, and I have been committed to driving the conversation forward for almost 5 years in the yoga community (and for much longer outside of it). And my Yoga and Body Image Coalition co-founder, Brigitte Kouba, and I are continuing that work with the coalition, an active off-shoot of the anthology, in which Anna Guest – Jelley and dozens of other experts, body image activists, yoga teachers and academics are members. And we’re here to consult and educate individuals, yoga community leaders, yoga businesses and organizations on issues, such as body-positive language, consistent messaging and privilege, issues that aren’t commonly discussed outside activist and academic spaces.

Creating social change by challenging and unhinging deeply ingrained stereotypes and expectations takes time. But each ripple contributes to the raging sea change that awaits us. And it’s coming.

As Anna Guest – Jelley said in our recent conversation, “The idea of ‘Loving Your Curves’ getting mainstream exposure in yoga is so new and exciting; I was thrilled to see it in Yoga Journal after years of advocating for just that. And while I was disappointed with the execution, I’m grateful for the resulting conversation and look forward to seeing how the magazine — and our community as a whole — continues to deepen into what it truly means to love the body you have today. Yoga has such power to facilitate that process; I think it’s worth it for us all to figure out how to take that journey together.”

Brigitte Kouba echoes those sentiments, “Let’s face it, massive social change takes time. I really admire Yoga Journal for being willing to have the conversation about where they can do a better job of representing the vast diversity of individuals who benefit from the practice of yoga.”

Tiina Veer, Yoga for Round Bodies and coalition member, posted this comment in her August 21 status update on Facebook when sharing Holly Penny’s article, “Yoga Journal has definitely not had a history of representing diversity, but they may have crossed a line recently that has motivated a number of yogis to cancel their subscriptions and speak out about it. I hope YJ is listening. It’s not too late to change the track from the dark side.”

It’s not too late because the conversation is happening and it’s not over.

In fact, the next Practice of Leadership panel discussion on power, privilege and practice with an emphasis on race and representation is scheduled to be held in Estes Park, CO on September 19 and includes Yoga and Body Image Coalition members Kerrie Kauer and Chelsea Jackson as well as Jacoby Ballard and Tyrone Beverly.

This is just the beginning.

Looking Toward the Future

Body positivity, diversity and equity are the wave of the future. As coalition member and Practice of Leadership panel participant, Dianne Bondy, states in her recent post, talking about yoga and body image is one of the latest (and hottest) trends. But we’re not looking for this trend to be a passing fad. We’re looking to make long-lasting change and shift the current paradigm to one that doesn’t recycle the same old script.

As I recently stated, “What’s bold and daring is creating something anew, representations that are authentic, inclusive and equitable.”

What’s Yoga Journal, Gorrell and her team committed to?

Well, as Gorrell said to me, “I’m committed to tackling hard topics like body image and want to do it in a way that moves the conversation forward. And I intend to continue to represent a range of body shapes in the magazine, as well as integrate more diversity into our pages. Our upcoming October issue is the “body issue,” where we include excerpts from the new book “Yoga and Body Image” to share a range of perspectives on body image, as well as a report on yoga and disordered eating.”

We’re looking forward to the next edition and, if we have grumbles with its execution, we’ll be sure to tell them (and we hope you do, too). These issues are complex and difficult and I am committed to meeting them head on with consciousness, compassion and empathy. If we’re going to create a yoga culture that is as beautiful as the practice itself, it requires a team effort – one filled with personal responsibility, insight and reflection. Dealing with the complexities that mark a shift as large as this one, we live our practice and serve as a shining example of conscious community.

~

Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker and Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College teaching Sociology and Women’s Studies. She is a contributing author in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice and is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body, and co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.

photo credit Sarit Z. Rogers

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16 comments… add one
  • S.

    If YJ wants to be legit, I’d recommend the following:

    1) Drop any and every affiliation with Lululemon and don’t accept their advertising. They do not represent yoga like they say they do and only cater to white thin privileged women.

    2) Hire people who have thoroughly studied and practiced yoga based on ancient texts, not newly minted Yoga Alliance teachers.

    3) Don’t have any writers who have not been practicing for at least 10 years and get verification.

    4)Avoid celebri-yogis or anyone who headlines Wanderlust style festivals.

    5) Avoid coverage of Wanderlust style festivals. That’s not yoga either.

    6) Seek advice from Sanskrit scholars and other practitioners that don’t emphasize asana.

    7) Read early editions of Yoga Journal and the now defunct Ascend Magazine.

    8) Realize that there are men who have a serious yoga practice too.

    The above may not be profitable, but yoga is not designed as a business model. Maybe it is time for Yoga Journal to go extinct if they want to stay status quo. There are certainly other ways to get the above information without having to stomach another Hilaria/Tara selfie.

    • e.r.b.

      didn’t realize you were the yoga police.

      • S.

        Since when does a police officer give recommendations? I’m just passionate about a subject that has been watered down to commercialized drivel by YJ’s current issue. If I don’t fight for yoga, who will? Thanks for the compliment.

    • Denise

      LIKE! Completely agree- over the years the articles are dumbed down, more “celebrities” are profiled and the spiritual aspect of yoga has been completely diminished. And all the embedded ads for make up clothes, shoes, water bottles, ect. is really annoying.

    • Big Om Shanti

      I have some others that you can add in:

      9) All employees of Yoga Journal must be completely vegetarian. Anyone who is caught eating meat will be terminated.

      10) All employees must adhere to the yogic principle of Brahmacharya meaning they must abstain from sex or any forms of alcohol.

      11) All employees should have lived in an Ashram for 1 year. It also must be a real ashram in India.

      12) All employees must attend mandatory daily meditations with gong and chanting.

      13) Mala beads will be worn at all times while on the Yoga Journal premises.

      • Big Om Shanti

        Oops. This was meant for S. list…

  • A thoughtful dissertation , for sure. The one fact that continues to bother me is the association of YJ and LuLu. This association detracts from the neutrality of YJ when it comes to advertising. Clearly their bias will be LuLu if they are business partners. Grant it, I have a bias against LuLu myself from their clothing prices to their former business model. Even so, to be inclusive, YJ should not align itself with only one company.

  • VQ2

    Maybe even Lulu would change. Ditch primarily serving the yoga market for good (and for once–unlike Athleta they do serve men). There is money to be made in the “new” “fads”, including Cross-Fit. So, then, any alliance remaining would not be monolithic. The Hard Tail and PrAna ads, have been around seemingly forever. And so many “lifestyle” companies (Gaiam, Acacia) might step up.

    This is the tail end (no pun intended) of the Kali Yuga. I think YJ knows what to do. Their more general-interest women’s magazine competitors have been tackling (and winning) the body image issue (problems) for years. They should study them: Glamor, Real Simple, Cosmopolitan, Prevention et. al.

  • MOVEMENT TO METAMORPHOSIS

    I am a full figured yoga teacher who is very happy with my body. Lululemon gives yoga teachers a discount BUT here is the rub. There products only go up to size 12. So guess what if you have a bust or larger figure you cannot wear their clothing. I have emailed at least three times requesting that they address this issue in their designs and have not gotten any response. I am not confident they are really supporting body image unless it is lithe and lean.

    • big Om Shanti

      M to M
      I am curious, why are you trying to change Lululemon’s business? They cater to the athletic crowd and not the broader yoga community. That is what has worked for them. How about finding an alternative instead of forcing your values on them.

      Would you like it if I told you that I would like to come to your class but you should change your sequences to be more male friendly and less emasculating. For example, could you not say “Goddess Pose” but instead create an alternative “God Pose”?

  • Ahalya

    Hey there!
    I would like to share with you a friend’s dream of becoming a yoga instructor, she is raising money to help cover the expenses, this is the page: http://www.gofundme.com/e5yxv8

    If you can’t donate then please help spread the word and share the page.
    Any donation is welcome and highly appreciated.
    Thank you!

    om shanti

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