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‘Lululemon Diaries’ – Employee Recounts Cult-ish Corporate Culture And Disturbing Co-Opting Of Yoga

in Business of Yoga, YD News
Illustration by Tara Jacoby via Jezebel.com

Illustration by Tara Jacoby via Jezebel.com

In case you needed a reason to be even more creeped out, turned off, astonished by Lululemon, an anonymous employee’s account of the wacky behind the scenes will surely give you that extra push. Entitled “Lululemon Diaries: My Life in an Exploitative Libertarian Happiness Cult” the post appeared on Jezebel Wednesday and has been met with shaking heads, both of disbelief and told-you-so.

“Immediately after I started work at Lululemon, I realized that almost all their talk about empowerment and happiness was empty,” the author begins. “The years I’ve spent there since have confirmed it: the company’s culture is delusional, hypocritical, and cult-like.”

We might have guessed some of this just based on past accounts of what it’s like to work at Lulu, combined with their endless stream of public screw ups, including multiple marketing faux pas, and their notorious founder and former leader, Chip Wilson, who, steeped in the Landmark Forum philosophy of greatness, projected his ideologies on his brand and his employees, and even his female customers, who apparently don’t have the right body type to wear lulu pants.

Our anonymous employee’s story begins at the “lost” age of 21 when they were interviewed by a perky Lululemon rep who spoke of living your “best life,” setting goals and the whole song and dance selling the company line.

“I went for it hook, line and sinker.”

They became an educator, which is what lulu calls their salespeople. Turnover was high.

Since then, I’ve watched hundreds of people cycle through my store and the stores around me. The turnover at Lululemon is one of the highest for any retail company; even outside the store, upper-level management is constantly changing. It’s a company that really purports to be about their people, so you’d think they’d examine this more, especially since their 10-year goal is “getting our global collective scores within the top quartile of happiest people on the planet.” But who measures that, and with what measuring stick?

The entire account is worth a read, but one of the most interesting tidbits is about just how much yoga this “yoga-inspired” company practices.

Everything in the Lululemon corporate culture is based on a bastardized version of yoga: the employee regulations book is called “Pramana,” which is a word that roughly translates to knowledge in Sanskrit. Ironically, Pramana really means true knowledge you gain from experience, not just what people tell you. The theft guide is called “Asteya,” which means “non-stealing”—an ethical guideline from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. That’s typical Lululemon for you; they co-opt something from yoga and warp it until it loses its true meaning. We once made a shopper that spelled out the Sanskrit word Brahmacharya (virtue) in drugs, junk food and hypodermic needles. The company is so disproportionately tone-deaf it’s astounding. They mean to be relevant, and instead they manipulate good ideas until they become totally corrupt.

The emphasis on goodness and “yoga values” can be very insidious, very cult-like. You get constant feedback and “coaching,” which means that you’re scrutinized from the moment you walk in the door till the moment you leave. If you’re in a bad mood when you walk in, you have to do a “clearing,” which is this neo-spiritual way of making you say whatever is going on in your life, and then someone coaches you on how to get over it.

And again, this practice of mindfulness could be good in theory. But when it’s warped by who is in charge, it’s full-on positive psychology meets Tea Party. Ayn Rand’s books are in our “core library,” and you can’t escape that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mindset. When a customer comes in and is rude to you, it’s your choice to be offended. It’s you not taking personal responsibility for the situation. If you point out something wrong or unethical, it’s labeled as your choice to complain. One of my managers told me she had a conversation with the former founder, Chip Wilson, where he talked about how he didn’t believe in public assistance or welfare, that people who were “entrepreneurial” would survive and be successful.

Maybe this is all just feeding into what we already assumed? Again, this is one person’s account of what it’s like, but we’ve been hearing these tales of brainwashy-ness for years now. With “forced inspiration” and fake positivity as the core business methodology, as well as smoke and mirrors. Even with a new CEO – Laurent Potdevin formerly of TOMS – the message hasn’t changed.

Laurent kept talking about “real talk” and “being transparent,” which is laughable. Lululemon is the least transparent and real company. I get my news about Lululemon from Googling it.

Ideologies and ideals. This is Lululemon. And they’ll do what it takes to hold up the image. They even have an ideal customer which none of us could ever live up to but somehow helps explain why they’ve had so many issues regarding people with larger bodies and smaller budgets.

Lululemon is all about ideals. The man and woman Lululemon designs for and creates marketing for is called our “muse”: the man is called Duke, and the woman is called Ocean. Anything you do, you appeal to that ideal, imaginary muse. Ocean makes six figures, she doesn’t want to have kids, she has a master’s degree, her core workout is yoga and she also likes running and spinning. The whole idea is that your guest is never going to actually be Ocean. It’s aspirational. They can try, but they’ll never be.

This sounds familiar. Chip’s new pet project Kit and Ace also has its ideal yuppie unattainable lifestyle muses, who also sound white, childless, and affluent, by the way.

All in all, it’s not that Lululemon is evil. In fact, this anonymous employee actually still works at a store and has risen to manager since starting there, so it can’t be the devil, not entirely. But it’s also not what they want you to think it is from the outside looking in.

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the essential corporate strategy is basically to get people working and create this insane cult-like loyalty, and if anyone dissents, you just coach them out of their job. Nothing changes, no one acknowledges the hypocrisy, or the legitimacy of employee’s concerns. You have to stick to the party line. After the conference, I came back to the store, and I couldn’t say that any of it was a load of horseshit. If I did, I’d get fired. Instead, I just have to present it to my team, shove it down their throats. And everyone just has to smile and take it.

Read the whole account here.

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18 comments… add one
  • Norma Desmond

    If the label on your clothing makes you feel different about yourself, the brand really doesn’t matter.

  • Let’s not forget we are talking about the sales of clothing, etc. Some how with this company, the smoke and mirrors cover up their true mission which is making money. As yogi’s and consumers (whether we like it or not we do consume) we can impact the longevity of this company by our dollars. Or lack there of.

  • S.

    It’s nice that the gross veil of ignorance that Lululemon consumers have is slowly lifting about the insidiousness of this company. Pretty much from day one I spotted how Chip n’ Co. exploited Yoga and Yoga philosophy for its commercial gains, with hoards of women who deluded themselves into thinking they were “Ocean” spending their paychecks on shoddy merchandise with a shiny logo. When unpacking who “Duke” and “Ocean” truly represent, they are actually unabashed White privileged people who don’t give a damn about anyone else who is not in their yoga or spinning class.

    To say one should boycott Lululemon is too easy. Instead one should explore all the other things that are “sold” to use under the guise of Yoga which is actually some sort of cash cow for Big Yoga, Inc. I’ll give you a few hints: Yoga Alliance, Corepower Yoga, and any other studio who promotes the ubiquitous 200 hour teacher training for people who just walk in the door with no iota of yoga or teaching experience. To save yoga, keep money away from these folks.

    • Big Om Daddy

      Actually big money and capitalism have saved yoga from becoming a rather obscure and occult like practice. Today more people are exposed to it and at the bare minimum it is helping people become more active and even more conscious about the world around them. Even if buying a Prius is being done to “fit in”, it still is a positive step overall.

      I don’t have a problem with Lululemon not catering to obese people. I don’t expect to go into an Armani Exchange store and expect pants with a 40″ waste. The beauty of our country is that we are free to choose where we shop.

      It’s insane to try to shame or force a company like Lululemon to change their business practices to suit a demographic that is clearly not their customer base. Also if it really sucks so bad to work at Lululemon, then don’t. I would never work there. There is nothing “yogic” about tolerating such suffering.

  • John

    “When a customer comes in and is rude to you, it’s your choice to be offended.” To point out the obvious, that’s not a “distortion” of “yoga philosophy”, that pretty much is “yoga philosophy”. This sort of nonsense is why some of us prefer to get our philosophy from philosophers not people who thought teaching yoga, or, worse, writing and talking about it, beat getting a real job, like being a philosophy lecturer

  • allise

    I’ve got an almost sister-in-law who works for Nike. She has to wear Nike brand clothing at work in that: She is not allowed to wear a competitors brand with any other logo (except Nike). This demand continues over to her clothing on her FB page. I heard this second hand, so I’ll ask her more about the Nike culture when I see her next….

    • Mel

      WTF is an ‘almost sister in law’??
      Your post ‘almost’ made sense.

      • allise

        About to marry my brother is an almost sister-in-law. I know, you have to think. This takes effort. Whatever. Hope you can piece together the sad fact that Nike corporate presses ‘rules’ that infringe on workers –freedom to wear whatever they are wearing– when they are posting on their own (very own) FB page….. But like I said, I’ll check again about what she was saying next time I see her.

  • S.

    Every clothing company has their own evil side. What makes Lululemon particularly vile is that they have corrupted Yoga philosophy into their own money making agenda. I feel they are one of the main reasons why Westernized students have so much avidya and strange preconceptions when they come to class.

    • Big Om Daddy

      S. no one is Klesha free. No one is free from avidya and it stands to reason that students would come with all sorts of ideas.

      I would be interested in hearing what you qualify as “real” yoga. I know there are many who are so down on the “physical” practice of yoga but even BKS Iyengar stated in interviews that he got into it for purely physical reasons and only discovered the spiritual aspects much later.

      I don’t look down on yoga participants just because they aren’t acquainted with the idea of “yogas chitta vritti nirodhah” That would be only serving my ego as being the person who “knows the real yoga”

      I am not a fan of Lululemon or its business practices. However, they are not corrupting yoga. Yes, they are capitalizing over it like many have done before for hundreds of years including the so called masters.

      The real corruption of yoga occurs when people start saying things like “they aren’t practicing REAL yoga” and trying to out spiritualize others. This happens when critical thinking is dropped and religious dogma is adopted.

  • Harriet

    Very good article. I too had to depart from the “Dharma Yoga” cult due to seeing what was really going on behind the scenes. Heartbroken and disillusioned, I was blinded to it for a long time.

    • allise

      Yes, I too am stunned by the vicious nature of the Dharma Yoga Cult. They behave like rabid dogs with a bone (a bone they call yoga). The cult of personality, with ‘yoga’ dogma that’s tailored to control and manipulate. Yes, corporations can behave like –crazed yoga ‘luminaries’. And their crazed ‘followers’.

  • Jamie Brown

    Beware the Kit and Ace return policy. I had the unpleasant experience of receiving a Christmas gift purchased at Kit and Ace. They attach a tiny blue ribbon to the label that is folded over a loop on the garment. It is easily removed and does not damage the item at all. But if you remove the magic blue ribbon they won’t allow a refund, exchange or in-store credit. Banana Republic, The Bay, Holt Renfrew and others I have dealt with would never make such a ludicrous and consumer unfriendly rule. I wrote to head office but no movement at all – iron clad rule. Booo!

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