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Yoga Journal’s Rebranding Dilemma of Mixed Messages and Conscious Contradiction

in YD News

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Have you been keeping up with the evolution of positive body image awareness in yoga? The love your body message has made it all the way to the pages and the cover of what many of us might have considered to be the antithesis of body positivity before now: Yoga Journal. But the folks at YJ, with their rebranding and the magazine’s own image “refreshing” are making an effort, especially recently, with their (albeit ill-fated) “Love Your Curves” article from the September 2014 issue, and the newest issue, also known as their “Body Issue,” with Kathryn Budig gracing the cover and an article touching on the serious matter of eating disorders. Recognize, this is most likely not something we’d expect to find in the YJ we’ve all come to know, though it’s probably something we’d have found in the magazine when it was first started back in 1975. Somewhere along the way they fell into a spin cycle of yoga fluff and tired uniformity.

But that could all change. It’s baby steps, but at least there’s potential. According to a press release about the rebranding, Editor in Chief Carin Gorrell et. al will be ”a part of the more difficult conversations that are happening within our community, such as addressing body-image issues and related concerns like eating disorders.”

“The yoga community is growing and becoming more diverse daily, and with that growth, their needs and desires are evolving,” says Gorrell. “We want to better reflect and serve that community by delivering on their call for a more welcoming, inclusive voice, more-accessible instruction that meets them wherever they are on the mat, and more timely news and trends. This also means being a part of the more difficult conversations that are happening within our community, such as addressing body-image issues and related concerns like eating disorders, as we do in the October issue. That said, we continue to remain dedicated to honoring the traditions of yoga and maintaining the authority and authenticity of our almost 40-year-old brand.”

For those of you who have seen the cover of the October issue and were not impressed, perhaps you’re not entirely sold on their new mission to be more inclusive and accessible. Carol Horton, yoga blogger and author of “Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind & the Wisdom of the Body,” wasn’t exactly convinced herself, sharing that she found the issue to be “both encouraging and disturbing,” while also explaining why it’s something worth caring about. She writes via her blog:

According to their recent press release, YJ has “2 million print readers, 1 million unique Web users, 1.2 million Facebook fans, half a million newsletter subscribers, and 11 international editions,” making it “the number-one, leading yoga media brand in the world.” That’s a wide reach, and a lot of media influence. I care about what Yoga Journal does because I care about how yoga is being taught in the world – and magazines, web platforms, and social media are powerful ways in which people transmit ideas and information and, for better or worse, learn about yoga today.

…Of course, insofar as the “rebranding” brings such literally life-threatening problems to light, it’s important and good, regardless of how disturbing the news it communicates may be. But here’s the twister: While the “Body Issue” frankly acknowledges that there’s a huge shadow side to yoga today, it does so in a context that in many ways perpetuates the very same problems it’s critiquing.

The “Body Issue’s” unacknowledged internal contradictions makes reading it a strangely contradictory experience: encouraging for the many positive steps it makes toward developing a more healthy and inclusive practice, and disturbing for the dysfunctional silences surrounding content that’s part of the very same set of problems being critiqued.

Horton goes on to point out, in a full critique of the issue, the jarring juxtaposition of progressive content, like an excerpt from the forthcoming  Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body by Dianne Bondy, a self-described “fat, black yoga teacher,” and a quote from Kate McIntyre Clere, director of “Yogawoman,” about how she wants to raise her daughter to be free from body image issues by “bringing a conscious and critical eye to the media, challenging the capitalist business model,” which appears directly next to the full-page Toesox ad with the now-famous naked image of cover model Kathryn Budig. “Particularly given the larger context of the magazine itself,” says Horton, ”the messages that these two images communicate directly contradict each other. Are we not supposed to notice this?” she asks, only half rhetorically.

Anyone who knows modern media, has watched it, read it, worked in it, spent time creating it, understands the conflict faced when it comes to an ad-supported business model. But what happens when the original message gets muddled and marred by its own sponsors?

Horton establishes balance in her critique by commending YJ for taking risks and sharing “nonfluffy” articles, but to us, at this point, we feel content like this is a no brainer, and, quite frankly, necessary. Ignoring the growing concern and awareness over the lack of diversity in yoga culture is just plain dumb, and not in the best interest of a publication wishing to succeed in today’s increasingly conscious yoga community. You can only pull the sweat-wicking wool over our eyes for so long.

But it’s not only YJ editors, though they do seem to be the enablers in this situation. Horton makes the distinction between being an advocate for healthy body image and capitalizing on it when it’s the hot buzz topic of the moment, taking on mixed messages conveyed by the likes of today’s popular faces of yoga, such as Kathryn Budig and Tara Stiles, though it’s a comment made to the general yogapop culture.

I don’t believe the yogalebrities can have their cake and eat it too, capitalizing on the idealized “yoga body” one day and advocating for healthy body imagery the next. If such mixed messaging continues unchecked, this pattern is simply going to produce a new round of confusion, dysfunction, and denial in the yoga community, which already has a history of serious problems on all counts.

And maybe that’s the underlying problem. Yoga Journal can’t have its cake and eat it, either. If they’re going to make a real shift, real change, real “rebranding” they need to take a look at the entire magazine, dig between the pages, and not just pat themselves on the back for the popular of-the-moment cover stories.

If you’re interested in body positivity in yoga, the Yoga and Body Image Coalition is on a mission to create a safe space for bodies of all types and promote yoga that is accessible, body positive and reflects the full range of human diversity. Learn more about them here.

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9 comments… add one

  • It seems like Yoga Journal of late is just chasing its tail like a dog. It is trying to keep up and respond to its criticism based on each successive issue. It has no grounding in theory or solid practice. In the “Body Issues” article, they quote Tars Stiles on how to help women with eating disorders. It reminds me of my college newspaper where a popular sorority reporter would quote her same five friends for every story she as assigned no matter what the issue. Like Carol says, this would not be so big of a deal except that YJ has millions of worldwide readers. YJ is perpetuating the avidya prevalent in Western yoga culture and appears to not care.

  • “Appears not to care”…. do they have a choice? Can we expect a cat to bark or can we teach it to? They are or have become a certain publication within certain conditions that dictate their current shape. They will never morph into the true yoga literature we crave. We can’t change a system by fighting against it we can though by turning without judgement towards something that does represent us and build it. We can do that. The focus has to shift to that rather than critique and analysis of status quo. It is as it is. It can’t be other.

  • Tami

    Kathryn Budig’s body is a yoga body. The ToeSox image is not something we need to get upset over due to it’s placement next to any article. We can celebrate all yoga bodies.

  • Thanks for raising some important questions here. The problems with Yoga Journal, and the reason that many people have stopped taking it seriously, go beyond the body image question. The proliferation of attractive, young, bendy, white women on the cover is a symptom of the popularization and reduction of yoga that has made it into a pop culture phenomenon. In order to attract people to an ancient practice with a premise that goes counter to our cultural conditioning—settling of the mind and cultivation of non-attachment vs. striving for cultural ideals of physical beauty, wealth and status—we’ve had to remake it to reflect the latter, ideals that make sense to our culture. So it makes sense that businesses such as Yoga Journal will orient their look and their content to fit what the largest segment of the population is comfortable with. The fact that images of attractive, young women are used to sell magazines is yet another reflection of yoga culture’s disconnect with the intention of yoga.

    It is a positive step that Yoga Journal has waded into the body image conversation, and I’m very glad they’ve begun including images of women of different body types. It is a positive step. But I think the Yoga Journal many of us yearn for—and remember from decades ago—might use the body image conversation to delve deeper than the external image of the body. Perhaps the Yoga Journal we’d like to see would explore more thought-provoking questions about the body: What is the experience of living in a body? How can our bodies serve as vehicles for awakening? How can asana practice take us deeper into our physical/mental/emotional/spiritual being?

  • NJacana

    I don’t want to wear a bra in class [even though guys are allowed to go topless], I don’t want pants below my belly button, and I don’t want smelly make-up. I need help with Pratyahara and Dharana in my practice on the mat and at home. Seems to me the origins of yoga are revolutionary, so why dilute the practice with more Best-of. YouTube has millions of hits on beheadings, TV cop shows that plot women getting killed, tortured, raped get played over and over and over. You really want to stoop to ratings to survive?

  • Diane

    I’ve been a subscriber for a long time and have been practicing hatha yoga for a long time & have also studied yogic scriptures quite a bit, finding them interesting, uplifting, wonderful… I think this new iteration finishes my relationship with YJ. Honestly, I couldn’t find the articles for the ads, which distracted me, they are so good and I’m interested in the products, so I spent more time thumbing through it looking at the ads than I did reading the magazine. LOL! It’s been a long time since I’ve read a whole article in YJ. It got to the point where if the featured sequence was interesting, I’d cut it out and save it and that was the extent of my reading it. That’s what I looked forward to. Now, that’s gone! It’s been so long since YJ was about yoga philosophy, or celebrated the ancient yoga tradition, or truly conveyed the sacredness of the body as a temple, I can’t remember the last article that was more than fluff. The timing of this change is ver interesting as it coincides with the passing of B.K.S. Iyengar, who inspired the magazine to begin with. RIP.

  • Visionista

    You see, Yoga Journal is banking on the fact that yogis (who, in their eyes, seem to be mostly yoginis) are scatterbrained and have not developed their powers of pratyahara. Reinforcing this by not publishing anything about the yamas and niyamas and in creating a vicious cycle of killing the one-pointed focus that the proper practice of 8 limbed yoga seeks to aspire to ….

  • Annie

    I left Yoga Journal behind years ago….now I read Yoga International & follow them on twitter. Much more approachable, accessible, understandable….and there are always Iyengar’s publications too. Books are better resources!

    Practice…all is coming!

  • D

    I’d like to see YJ lose the articles on makeup and trendy clothes — there are plenty of other magazines for that. How about more ayurveda? Meditation? Different traditions?

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