Yoga Journal’s “Body Issue” Rebranding: Encouraging, Disturbing, Contradictory

YJ body issue cover

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.

So when I got YJ’s new “Body Issue” in the mail yesterday (I have a subscription through my yoga teacher insurance policy), I was truly interested to see what it would contain. As soon as I could, I sat down and read/skimmed through the whole thing, cover to cover. And because I think that what happens with YJ is important to the yoga community and beyond, I wanted to share my thoughts, and encourage others to do the same.

Bottom line: I found the “new” issue to be both encouraging and disturbing. It’s encouraging in that it reveals the work of a thoughtful, intelligent editorial team, which, by all appearances, seems committed to the project of communicating images and ideas about yoga intended to make the practice safer, healthier, and more empowering for a much wider range of people. The visuals and writing reflect a new dedication to being more inclusive and diverse. There’s also evident support for the growing yoga service and outreach movement. Further, articles promoting fair trade, veganism, and local food sourcing communicate the message that yoga, properly understood, extends far beyond asana to include active concern for other people, animals, and our environment. All of this is really good, and encouraging. There is a lot to celebrate in the new, “rebranded” Yoga Journal.

But. Precisely because of these commitments, the issue also inadvertently highlights just how big the disjuncture between the healthy versus the dysfunctional sides of yoga has become. On the one hand, the magazine shares some authentic, inspiring, and deeply positive stories and images that communicate the healing, transformative possibilities of a truly mindful practice. On the other, thanks to Chelsea Roff’s excellent article, it also presents some exceptionally graphic, hard-hitting reporting on how yoga has been increasingly turned into a practice that can encourage body dysmorphia and physical, psychological, and emotional self-harm.

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.

 

A Maze of Contradictions

Here’s some concrete examples of how the “new” Yoga Journal presents a contradictory mix of images and information that’s simultaneously encouraging and disturbing:

Page 40: This is a standout page in terms of breaking out of the “old” YJ paradigm, which tended to make everyone who couldn’t identity with an idealized image of a thin, bendy, beautiful, white, heteronormative yogini feel marginalized and/or inadequate. There’s an eye-catching photo of self-described “fat, black yoga teacher” Dianne Bondy in Ustrasana, looking authentically lovely and real. Part of a set of six short excerpts from the forthcoming anthology, Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery, & Loving Your Body, Dianne’s quote also succinctly acknowledges the continued reality of racism in North American societies, an explosive topic that the “old” YJ would have likely avoided entirely.

Perhaps even more startlingly, YJ editors saw fit to highlight a quote form Teo Drake’s essay about how yoga helped him make the transition from female to male. Such de facto support for transgender rights is certainly controversial and a bold move on the “new” YJ’s part.

Pages 42-43: Turning the page to continue reading the “Yoga and Body Image” excerpts, one encounters a strange sight. One the left side of the spread, we find a hard-hitting statement 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.” Yet, on the right-hand side of the spread, what do we find but a full-page ad of Kathryn Budig – the same woman who’s on the cover and the leading figurehead of the “rebranding” charge – in her oh-so-familiar incarnation as Our Naked Lady of Toesox Perfection, Beauty, and Bliss.

 

Kathyrn Budig YJ Toesox ad

 

Sorry to be snarky, but . . . huh? I found the juxtaposition of content on these two pages to be really, really strange. Surely, it couldn’t have been deliberate irony on the editors’ part? But, how could they possibly miss the contradiction? (which only deepens as you read on).

I flipped back to look at Kathryn’s image on the magazine’s cover. Again, I found it to be a bizarre juxtaposition with the Toesox advertisement. To me, it’s hard to believe that the woman portrayed on each full-page spread is really the same person. She looks so different. Plus, symbolically, the images do not communicate anything close to the same message. The cover says: Natural! Happy! Strong! I don’t need to be Photoshopped to look super-tall and thin to be on a magazine cover! Meanwhile, the Toesox ad says: Cool. Perfect. Beautiful. Untouchable. Effortlessly in control. Absolutely and utterly flawless.

Particularly given the larger context of the magazine itself, the messages that these two images communicate directly contradict each other. Are we not supposed to notice this?

Pages 96-118: Chelsea Roff’s article on “Yoga’s Shadow Side” breaks important new ground for the magazine with a powerful, emotionally arresting analysis of how yoga is alternately being used to either exacerbate or heal our current epidemic of body dysmorphia and disordered eating. This one article alone is sufficient to command respect for the fact that YJ’s “rebranding” is not simply marketing fluff: there is important, meaningful, and challenging new work being supported and shared. As with the “Yoga and Body Image” excerpt, YJ’s proves that it’s willing to take some risks to present information that has teeth. This is not fluffy, feel-good, mass-market yoga pabulum; it is serious writing on a critically important, literally life-or-death issue.

Pages 99 & 112: Chelsea’s article highlights yoga teacher and clinical psychologist Bo Forbes’ critique of how commercialized yoga imagery can – and often does – have a profoundly negative impact on women’s psyches. “It’s not enough to be thin; female yogis often feel the pressure to be thin, strong, and flexible. They’re critiquing their bodies with unattainable ideals,” Bo states.

A bit further on in the article, Lauren Medeiros, a 31-year old woman suffering from severe anorexia, is profiled as one of several women whose health problems worsened as she became psychologically entangled in this “unattainable ideal” of the perfect “yoga body”: “The image of an ideal yogini as thin, toned, and spiritual – represented in media images and often personified in her classmates – became a yardstick she used to criticize and berate herself,” Chelsea writes.

Back cover: Fresh from Chelsea’s hard-hitting critique, what do I find gracing the back cover of the magazine but a super-glossy Hardtail ad of two yoginis who not only appear perfectly “thin, toned, and spiritual,” but are also performing a super-advanced partner yoga pose with apparent effortlessness and ease. The beautiful blonde’s handstand backbend is perfectly poised on the stunning brunette’s knees (yikes – can bearing all that weight really be safe for such a sensitive and injury-prone joint?), who gazes beatifically up to heaven.

Between these two “yoga goddesses,” Chelsea’s article on “Yoga’s Shadow Side,” the Our Naked Lady of Toesox ad, and Kate McIntyre Clere’s injunction to bring “a conscious and critical eye to the media, challenging the capitalist business model,” I’m starting to feel more than a little psychologically whipsawed by all of the unacknowledged mixed messaging in the rebranded “Body Issue.”

 

YJ body issue 2

 

Curvy Confusion

Page 59: Of course, I realize that Yoga Journal needs ad revenue, and that ToeSox and HardTail may not have gotten the memo about the ways in which the idealized “yoga body” imagery they’re pushing is causing harm. The contradictions I saw in the magazine, however, were not limited to the ads.

The featured interview with cover model and Toesox goddess Kathryn Budig particularly stood out in this regard. The first surprise of the feature was hearing Kathryn characterize herself as “curvy” – a term that I would have never, ever in a million years have thought of associating with her before. After all, her Toesox campaign – which, according to the interview, has been running for a good eight years now – is nothing if not a parade of images celebrating idealized physical perfection and beauty. The term “curvy,” in contrast, is frequently used synonymously with “fat.”

So suddenly, yoga goddess Kathryn Budig is “curvy”? Say what?

Pages 48-55: Yet, it’s true: When I looked at the photo of Kathryn on the cover of the magazine, as well as in the photo spread in which she demos Uttanasana and Tittibhasana, she does not, in fact, have the sort of exceptionally tall, thin, and yet still inexplicably full-breasted figure that is so favored by our insane “women’s media.” Of course, she’s not the least bit fat, either. But, let’s not get into the horrible process of dissecting a woman’s body in print, other than to say the obvious: she looks strong, healthy, pretty, and great.

But, OK, fine: “Curvy” it is.

Page 59: Kathryn’s interview goes on to discuss the impact of social media, and how posting endless pictures of “smiling, pretty” people who seem to “have it all” can (in her words) get “really, really dangerous.” Recently, she’s started working to counter that trend by posting photos that show visible “flaws,” such as cellulite. For sure, this is cool, and even brave, given the horrifying level of scrutiny that the bodies of women in the public eye are subject to today. She can have a lot of positive impact doing this, and should be applauded for it.

Yet, when asked by YJ if she has any second thoughts about her ToeSox ads, she replies: “I don’t believe in changing anything, but it has been a challenge to watch my 25-year-old body turn into a 32-year-old body.”

Whoa. As someone who’s 20 years ahead of her on the female body-aging curve, I found that statement quite arresting. Because, oh my oh my: at 32, you are still way, way closer to having a youthful body than you are going to be in just a few short years. Statistically, women’s bodies undergo a major shift at age 35 that makes us less fertile and more prone to gaining weight easily. Plus, if you have a child (or several), your waistline will almost certainly remain forever thickened. And from there . . . well, I won’t go on. Suffice it to say that as an older woman, I found this statement quite poignant, if disappointingly obtuse. Because, of course, most women were never in a position to identify with the vision of perfected beauty that the 25-year old Kathryn Budig represented in the first place.

If she finds it hard to confront images of her 25-year-old self at the still relatively young age of 32, how does she imagine her 8-year long ad campaign went down among aspiring yoginis who really are “curvy”? Or not “prettily” white? Or any number of other attributes that don’t fit this mass marketed ideal?

Or, for that matter, what about the sort of young, pretty, white women portrayed in Chelsea’s article who did identify with such imagery – but in ways that tragically fed their sickness?

I’m not trying to blame Kathryn Budig for other people’s eating disorders, which of course have many causes beyond any single ad campaign, no matter how long-running, successful, and influential. My key point here is not about her as an individual: rather, it’s about the mixed messaging that the “Body Image” issue represents as a whole.

And I really do think it’s awesome that Kathryn is now leading a charge for “curvy” body acceptance. Lots and lots of women love and admire her, and changing her public image by releasing more realistic photos and talking up body positivity is going to have a positive impact. On the other hand, it’s clear that the negative relationship between idealized images of the “yoga body,” body dysmorphia, and disordered eating, which Chelsea describes so powerfully in her article, has not been adequately understood and internalized by the woman who’s leading YJ’s body-positive “rebranding.” Personally, I view this as a problem.

 

Tara Stiles W Hotels tweet

 

Page 118: Following the same pattern, Chelsea’s otherwise excellent article uncritically presents Tara Stiles as something of a thought leader on the subject of how yoga teachers can best work with students they suspect may be suffering from disordering eating. Yet, this is the same woman who recently made headlines by pushing the envelope on soft-pornified imagery of the idealized “yoga body” with her highly publicized campaign for the high-end W hotel chain. It’s puzzling that someone who was recently being driven around Manhattan performing provocative yoga poses on a bed in a big glass box is so easily accepted as a sage voice of insightful teaching and healing when it comes to precisely the same set of “yoga body” issues that the article is otherwise critiquing.

If such critiques are really going to stick, 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.

I’m all for having celebrity yoga teachers (among others) take leadership roles in a new body-positive campaign. But, I think that they need to walk their talk consistently, if necessary taking the time to educate themselves deeply on issues that will almost certainly prove difficult to confront. The same, of course, holds true for yoga advertisers, Yoga Journal, and all of us involved in the yoga world today.

I believe that we can shift the paradigm, and the time is now. But to do it, we’ll need to be radically honest with ourselves and cut the it’s-all-good bullshit. It’s not.

Yet, yoga continues to offer incredible resources for healing, transformation, and renewal. In a world that’s so deeply confused, suffering, and broken, let’s not waste time with anything but meaningful teaching and practice – starting where we are today, yes, but moving forward with honesty, courage, and determination.

 

If you’d like to support the growing movement to create an authentically body-positive yoga culture, you can follow the Yoga and Body Image Coalition here.

 


33 Comments

  1. babs

    As you point out your contradictions, using Kathryn Budig as the example, I think you hugely miss that she has been fed the same media images and BS as the rest of us. And, I feel that her comments really illustrate that. She is completely as you say “strong, healthy, pretty, and great.” But, what I think you miss is that she doesn’t see herself that way. When she refers to her 25 year old body and her 32 year old body, you call her comments “obtuse” when in reality these comments are supporting the very thing you are arguing: how deeply ingrained all this BS really is. And one does not have to be obese to be affected by it.

    I appreciate the full review. I won’t be buying the magazine.

    • Laura Sharkey

      I disagree. Yes, Bndig has been ”fed the same media images and BS as the rest of us,” but she is – both by her own volition and by the spokesperson role assigned to her by YJ – a very visible representative of YJ’s rebranding effort. As such, she has a responsibility to be better informed than the average yogalebrity. If she isn’t, why did YJ pick her, instead of someone with a more inclusive & nuanced awareness of the issue? the term “obtuse” is a very accurate description because a big part of the problem, as pointed out by Carol in this article, is the overarching obtuse quality of this entire YJ effort. That being said, I will buy this issue of YJ for several reasons. First, I am thrilled by the inclusion of the incomparables Dianne Bondy, Teo Drake and Chelsea Roff, and would reward YJ with my purchase of this issue even if there was nothing else worthwhile in it. Second, as conflicted, contradictory and confusing as the presentation appears to be, I believe that to be evidence of a bold step. While it may be a misstep in many ways, that is the nature of drastic change, and a necessary part of growth. I don’t expect the YJ editorial staff to do a new thing perfectly any more than I would expect that of myself. What I do expect is that YJ – and everyone contributing to this issue – will be open to the kind of constructive criticism that Carol has offered here so that this issue can be the start of a learning curve rather than a new status quo. I look forward to the process of feedback and continued awareness & change that I hope has been initiated with this issue.

      • chorton

        Babs & Laura – Thanks for your thoughts. I want to reiterate that I really do think it’s good that Kathryn Budig has stepped into a new role in which she wants to model positive body self-regard to others (appearing relatively unPhotoshopped on the YJ cover, embracing the term “curvy,” posting pictures of her that include physical “flaws” on Instagram, etc.) She can really have a positive influence, and I’m all for it.

        However, what I was questioning was whether she really has a deep understanding of the issues in play yet. My sense is that she does not, and that if she chooses to be a leader on this issue (and Yoga Journal supports her in that), then she should work hard to educate herself fully and deeply on it. This will not be easy, most likely, as there is a history of controversy surrounding her use of her own body images (and that of others) that I didn’t go into in this post.

        Specifically, her Toesox campaign was at the center of a very passionate but also very difficult debate that broke out over yoga and body image issues back around 2010. At that time, she was quite aggressive in denouncing people who were raising the very same set of issues that are now being embraced (at least up to a point) by the “rebranded” Yoga Journal. The same was true in the later controversy over the Brionyn Smith Equinox video – Kathryn showed no understanding of the criticisms being made in her denunciations of them.

        So, in this new interview, I was looking for clues as to how she’s processed this history and where she is now. I interpreted the comment about having difficulty looking back at her 25-year-old body as evidence that she still doesn’t really get the larger issues, because to do that, you have to shift from a personal, individual frame of reference to a social and cultural one. I didn’t want to go into all this in the post, but, in truth, without this history in mind my assessments of what’s happening now don’t make as much sense.

        So, my comment about “poignant” but also “obtuse” was meant both acknowledge Babs’ insight that this age comment most likely reveals the negative impact of all this negative body image conditioning. And in fact, I remember listening to some podcast maybe two years ago in which Kathryn talked about struggling with negative body image issues. So I think that Babs is pointing out something important (which, I would add, mostly likely also extends to many of the female editors at YJ, the execs at lululemon, etc. In fact, at least one such person, Rachel Acheson, a Lulu VP, recently wrote a very moving piece about (if I remember correctly) struggling with disordered eating and negative body image. There is a level on which it’s reasonable to think that a good number of these corporate yoga women really do want to be on the same team as the body image activists – they get it, and want to use their position to make things better. But, they also have bosses and shareholders, and the constraints of keeping their businesses profitable.

        This is why I agree with Laura over Babs on how those of us who care about this issues should interface with YJ on them. Given that they are making an effort to change, rather than denounce them utterly for not being perfect, let’s support the effort to the fullest extent possible without being co-opted into cheerleading or polite silence about the evident issues that remain. This won’t be a quick or easy problem to solve. But there’s already been more movement on in than I would have ever expected possible even a year ago. So, I’m feeling hopeful about the possibilities for positive change.

        • You what solves and settles all the convolutions? Patanjali’s sutras. Take a look and get back to me, at your own pace.

  2. These are great points. I appreciate the review. I love to see more diversity in the world of yoga. But please, let’s not start shaming people for being white, thin, atheletic, etc… I do not think that those people should be excluded from the magazine. I fit into the stereotypical yoga girl category: 28 years old, white, fit and toned. I’ve always been thin. I know that it is intimidating to those who do not fit into this “category” to come and take a yoga class from me, but hey… I’m not going to change just so that I can make other people feel more comfortable. I just don’t want to see people being dismissed just because they’re thin.
    As far as the Tara Stiles thing goes- I could easily dismiss her because she is so thin and beautiful, but the thing is… she teaches GREAT classes. I have felt more alive in my own body from her classes than I have from any others that I’ve tried. I feel more free to be me. She is often criticized for being too “thin” but that’s her body type and she is happy to rock it as is. You don’t see her complaining that she doesn’t have bigger boobs or bigger arm muscles or anything.
    So my main point here is, just because a yogi or yogini is thin and fit and white, does not mean that they intend to be shaming other people and they deserve to also not be judged and they be all means should be included in the yoga world as people of all diversity.

    • chorton

      Hi Alayne – I totally agree with you that having some sort of backlash against young, pretty, thin white women would be terrible. I hope that there was no language in my article that suggested otherwise. If so, please let me know as that was certainly not my intent.

      For what it’s worth, I am also on the naturally thin side and certainly in my 20s, could eat more than any other woman I knew and not gain an ounce. Zero body fat until my 30s. It was great. But, it does change. But, still, I have always felt slighted, if not insulted by well-meaning taglines like, “real women have curves.” So I do get your concerns.

      That said, my point about Tara Stiles had nothing to do with her body type per se. Rather, it was about how she has chosen to work with her body image publicly. I feel that her W hotel ad campaign traded on all of the pernicious associations between yoga and body image that this YJ issue is supposedly critiquing. The problem isn’t that Tara Stiles is young, beautiful, tall, thin, and white. The problem is that rather than using the privilege that confers in creative and progressive ways, she is cashing in on it in super-commercial and crass ones. For that reason, I think it’s very confusing to uncritically cite her as an authority on how to work with women suffering from body image issues and disordered eating.

      I also don’t doubt that she is a fantastic asana teacher, and has lots of other good things going on as well. But on this issue, I see a glaring problem.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying, I am a somewhat traditional Yogi, in the sense that I feel Yoga is a spiritual path, not one for glory and ego fed glamor.

        I feel in truth there are very few true Yoga Teachers in our Western world, in fact I have yet to meet a teacher I could say that about, period. I feel we’ve taken Yoga to the limit of our own personal understanding, in a culture that values money, appearances, and status over compassion, kindness and generosity.

        Truly we cannot expect much more from these so called ‘Yoga celebrities’, they are over paid (when in fact teaching Yoga is supposed to be a service to humanity, NOT a money maker per say), and glorified like idols. Truly this is typical behavior from a very infantile culture who puts athletes up on huge pedestals than throws them to the wolves when they fail to preform the way we expected them to. I guess what the bottom line is for me, I would not choose to look up to any of these people as my role model, in fact I look at them and think this is not how I’d choose to behave as a Teacher, period.

        In the Yoga Sutras, it is mentioned that any flagrant display of the Yogic gifts (siddhis) would result in said powers being revoked, on the basis of ego glorification. Truly those that are selfless and giving of themselves, not media hungry attention seekers, are the true Teachers I look up to. Sorry Tara Stiles, you just don’t have that place in my heart. Have fun posing on beds in glass cages (quite symbolic really!).

        Thanks for a very authentic read, so much nicer than the nonsense being fed to us by magazines and the like.

        Namaste! <3

      • Thank you. Your response is very valid. I can see what you mean, regarding teachers like Tara Stiles, and we don’t need to name more names, who are working towards self-promotion or flaunting sexuality rather than promoting awareness of some more critical issues. I’ve been really learning a lot from reading all of these comment threads and chewing on thoughts. I appreciate this discussion as an opportunity to view this issue from a multitude of perspectives.

        One other thing that I do want to point on, on how Yoga Journal has been been more progressive than most popular magazines:
        At the high school where I teach art, we were asked by the local Women’s Shelter/Service Providers for domestic violence, if we would decorate a bench to auction off for their annual fundraiser. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to teach young women and men about women in the arts, how under-represented they are, and women who have made powerful statements through art about women’s issues. After analyzing and discussing these women’s art, we brainstormed ideas for the bench. The group decided to do a collage it in positive messages about femininity.
        I keep a giant box of magazines in my room, ones that get donated from dentists offices and stuff, and of course, I always threw in my Yoga Journals.
        We went through hundreds of magazines analyzing the images depicted of women in the media, and we found mostly disturbingly the obvious super thin, pale, blonde, young, white, affluent looking female, and many disturbing messages with sexuality, passivity, and violence.
        Yoga Journal was one of the sources where we found the most positive images of women. We were able to find women with muscles, curves, different weights, young and old, and of some different races. Now yes, the majority was still white, young……. but still, we noticed what a better job they were doing.
        I hope that this upcoming generation of young thinkers can recognize that the trend towards a more realistic representation of women’s beauty (and men’s) to be inspiring, and to put their work and their dollars towards this.

  3. paul

    i think some things are missing in your evaluation, especially as it seems the only you take is with the ads. the magazine opens with a four page ad from aveda thanking donors to their clean water drive, and has full page ads from jade with four white kinda beefy female rowers, manduka asking readers to comment on their site about what yoga “is”, and hugger mugger that features a white, thicker male, showing the norm isn’t the ascetic-looking (childless/infertile) female ala stiles. of the ads that show people (most don’t!) most show whites, but there are a lot of ads with non-whites; across from the toe sox ad is an ad with a black female. the worst for me is page 35 with plos one used to say get slim in the morning sun, opposite one of the few full page near nude way fit ads (this the only one of the sort with a male). best was the many pages and information on vegetarian diets, eating a variety of foods, and even mention that eating saturated fats isn’t as heart-unhealthy as we’ve been told for the last decades.
    what is missing is something of india, which sally kempton usually added; i saw a lady in a chopra center ad, and a book about chai. they also used ‘ç’ to spell “façade” in the anorexia article, yet in the past when they’ve included mantras, no diacritics are used. this last may seem most niggling, but it isn’t! it’s equivalent to bad adviç about posture.
    it seems a magazine that has turned to the idea peace, but has positioned itself just so, so it doesn’t have to talk about it, or otherwise name (or face) peace directly.

    • chorton

      Hi Paul – I agree with you – there are a lot of “good” ads as well. I thought about doing the sort of list that you provided, but felt that it was better to simply make a general statement about the many positive dimensions of the magazine, which I summarized in my third paragraph. When writing, I need to prioritize what I think the most important point I want to make is and then hone in on that. I felt that the “contradictory” one was the most powerful for me, so that’s what I focused on.

      By the same token, there are other issues that could be taken with what was left out, such as connections to India. However, again, that was not what I decided to focus on.

      I agree however that it’s very important not to disconnect from yoga’s roots in India, which many young North American practitioners have relatively little awareness of.

  4. Rebecca

    Thank you Carol for this thoughtful and specific analysis. I too felt a bit confused after reading this much anticipated issue. A definite mix of good and bad and your analysis was right on.

    I have a few thoughts on your comments regarding Budig, and would love to hear more thoughts from others.

    I’ll be honest that I feel some solidarity with Budig. Being myself a genetically thin woman, I really struggle with what my role as a yoga teacher is in terms of contributing to making yoga a safe space for all body types and for all people. My existence often feels like a reinforcement of the very yoga stereotypes I so much want to see changed.

    As a yogi in her 30’s I also certainly have my own story of how yoga has helped me love and accept myself on every level including the physical, and it is tempting from my current vantage point to want to stand up and share this journey and champion how yoga is about self-acceptance. From that perspective I think I understand where Budig is coming from.

    BUT, the truth of the matter is that my story (and in my opinion, hers too) is probably not the one that needs to be heard. In order for the landscape of yoga to change and become more inclusive and empowering, it means the stories of the people who are being marginalized and ignored are the ones that need to be front and center.

    I think that for me was where Budig (and this YJ issue) missed the mark. I absolutely believe she is sincere in her efforts and intentions and I’m sure this is an issue that she is passionate about and has a deep personal connection to. I imagine her temptation is to use her existing platform and celebrity status to champion a diversified face of yoga. On the surface that sounds great, but the truth is in order for us to see that diversity in yoga (of size, race, gender, all of it) those who inherently embody the status quo (a fact which she has no control over, and believe me, I sympathize because I am in the same boat) perhaps need to choose to not put themselves forwards. The priority has to be making space for people from a more diverse field. In my mind common sense dictates that you pick a spokesperson and give a voice to someone who represents the change we all hope to see in the yoga world.

    So, those are some thoughts that I am wrestling with personally. I would love to hear more perspectives and also ideas of how individuals (thin, white woman like myself) who embody the status quo can be a part of this conversation.

    • chorton

      Hi Rebecca:

      I would really disagree that your story (and that of other young, white, thin, etc. women) should not be heard now. On the contrary, I think that such stories are really vital and important. However, because you are in a privileged social and cultural position compared to many other people due to your body type, it’s important to also be well-educated about the broader set of issues involved that go beyond your own direct personal experience. While we can’t ever really know what it’s like to be someone else, we can listen to the stories of people who don’t fit the standards that our society and mass media hold up as ideal. That way, it’s possible to enter the conversation with sensitivity and awareness to how very different the experiences of others may be in some ways – and how also it’s possible to find deep similarities that show how we really do all have a common investment in making progress on these issues.

      I would point to the work of the Off the Mat, Into the World team (Seane Corn, Suzanne Sterling, Hala Khouri, and Kerri Kelly) as great examples of how women who fit the beauty norm have leveraged that power into positive social action. I would particularly encourage you to read Seane’s essay in the forthcoming volume of essays on “yoga and body image” that I linked to in the post. It’s really good and addresses the issues that you’re concerned about with great honesty and insight, from someone who, like Kathryn Budig, found herself in the position of being a popular yoga teacher and cover model at a very young age.

  5. Thank you Carol for your consistent presence and questioning of the culture of yoga. As well as for a great analysis of this particular issue of yoga journal. I’d love to see Yoga Journal offer you a position on the editorial board! Someone should be taking this broad view of the journal and critiquing it’s presence a whole, advertising included.

    Honestly, I quit reading yoga journal a number of years ago when I shifted my liability insurance over to another carrier and stopped receiving it for free. I quit reading women’s magazines about 10 years ago and I am very conscious of the television and film I consume. Because I find my self esteem is better served by limiting my consumption of mass media images of women than it is by limiting my consumption of calories.

    I am a yoga teacher and a curvy woman, at least from the waist down. To be technical, my bmi floats right around 25, considered at the top of the range of normal weight or the base of the range of overweight. Over my 15 years of teaching I can tell you that my weight has nothing to do with the popularity of my yoga classes. If I put on 10 pounds or lose 10 pounds, my yoga classes seem to be equally popular. As a studio owner I can tell you that there is no correlation between a yoga teacher’s bmi and the popularity of their classes. So, if it helps any yoga teachers out there, know this, you don’t need to be thin, white, and flexible to be a successful yoga teacher.

    Here is the problem with analyzing yoga based on yoga-lebrities: most of use take yoga in our home towns from normal people, not rock stars. Most of us teach yoga to bodies that are happy to practice a decent triangle pose and don’t ever aspire to practicing scorpion. I’d love to see Yoga Journal publish an article on the real yoga that is out here, begin practiced every day, in small towns in America. Not just at studios who can afford to pay to be included in Yoga Journal’s registry. Let’s feature people like the beautiful yogis of all sizes and shapes who show up in my classes day after day and just do their practice, happy and content that yoga is keeping them out of pain (or at least reducing their pain) and giving them tools to deal with the day to day stress of their lives.

    This is not to say that we don’t need to make yoga more inclusive. I agree wholeheartedly with that. Yoga can serve all genders, all colors, all sexualities, all classes and all abilities. Many of us on the ground are quietly trying to make that happen. Maybe from that groundswell Yoga Journal will follow suit and start writing stories about the normal yogis teaching and practicing all over the world and making a difference in ordinary peoples lives.

    Thanks again for the good work Carol.

    • chorton

      Thanks, Lisa! In general, I would agree that unless you live in New York, LA, or San Francisco, there is a huge disconnect between how yoga appears in the media (both print publications and online), and what’s happening on the ground in local studios. Even in Chicago, where i live, the yoga scene feels way, way more grounded and sane than so much of what I encounter on social media or via YJ. Down-to-earth Midwestern sensibilities are not well represented in the glitzy rock star yoga scene! (or the cult-y weird ones, either). So, I guess we’re just lucky to be out of the fray 🙂 I agree that it would be great to write up what’s cool about this much more “normal” alternative reality in a way that makes it come alive for others . . . there are many hidden gems underneath that seemingly mundane surface.

  6. Michelle Marchildon

    If she’s worried about adjusting to her 32 year old body, wait until 53.

    • chorton

      But then she can be a Wisdom Warrior. So, an easy trade-off, no?

  7. Paula

    @ Michelle Marchildon EXACTLY!!! And I LOVE your book!!

  8. Excellent articulation of something I felt while reading through this issue of YJ. I was really disappointed because I expected more consistency (which you pointed out very well). Honestly I was hoping Dianne Bondy or Anna from Curvy Yoga would be featured on the cover. To me that is walking the walking. I’m still waiting to see if they truly make the transition to a body positive and inclusive magazine…

    • chorton

      Hi Lana – To be fair, we have to remember that the editorial team is beholden to bosses and shareholders, and charged with continuing to run a profitable business. So, I think there are some really practical constraints on how quickly they can revamp the magazine. Certainly, they are not going to be able to turn down full page advertisers, as that’s how they make most of their money and stay in business.

      However, the more that advertisers hear from their target markets (that is, us) that we want something different, the faster everything will change. We are consumers have an important role to play to pushing this ball down the court. Once advertisers are convinced that the stock yoga body is no longer “cool,” they will drop it. This will make the messages conveyed by YJ less contradictory, and give the editorial team more room to maneuver. Or at least, so I hope.

  9. Allison

    From ‘nude’ trends, to ‘curvy is the ‘new’ strong’ trends, budig’s objective is to be famous. She will be onto the next best trend tomorrow, adjusting her physical form to ensure her popularity rises. She doesn’t care if the whole yoga community is being served, just as long as her own personal agenda is, moving her social media numbers higher is the only goal here. She is using the curvy audience, just like she used the feminist audience a few years back. Her interest in yoga, no, her love for yoga pales in comparison to the love she has for popularity. Her endorsement of healthy body image isn’t genuine. True colors show eventually…

    • chorton

      Hi Alison – I’m not interested in bashing KB as such for two key reasons. One, I have no reason to do so (maybe you’ve had negative personal experiences with her, but I haven’t – in fact, we’ve never even met). Two, the biggest struggle I’ve encountered when trying to get people in the yoga community to think into body image issues (as well as many others) is shifting from a strictly personal, individual framework of understanding to also incorporating a larger social, cultural, and political one. The US has such a highly individualized, neoliberal culture right now, most people (not simply in the yoga world but in general) just have no familiarity with thinking into social issues. But without this larger framework, none of the body image discussion makes any real sense. So, while I think that it’s legitimate to criticize work that individuals do in their roles as leaders in the yoga community, I don’t think that it’s helpful to attack them as individuals.

  10. Thank you for putting this all into words. I’m a big fan of yours.

    Trying to do my part (besides just being an overweight yoga teacher), I submitted a piece to mindbodygreen called 6 Yoga Tips for Anyone with a Bigger Body. It exploded! It has 34.4k shares and I am still receiving email through my website from people thanking me for saying it’s ok for big bodies to show up to yoga. Just to show up!

    Today elephant put up a little piece I wrote, which they retitled The Philosophy of the Yoga Body. It’s a (really simplified) look at the place of the body in the Upanishads, Tantra, and Hatha Yoga. The message is that we are all manifestations of the Sacred, just as we are. They used pictures of skinny, flexible, white women with it.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I’m happy to be reminded that I’m not alone in the frustration and grief at how deeply lost the message of Yoga has become. Thank you.

    • chorton

      Hi Amy: Congrats on your 34.4K shares! I’m jealous 🙂

      Also, complain to Elephant about the images. As an author, you should have the right to demand that they pull content that contradicts the core message of your work.

  11. myrna composto

    I understand this whole controversy and the discussion is great. Due to practicing yoga for over 40 years, I am one of those slim, flexible, toned women. At age 66 I am a size 2, buy my clothes at Forever 21! And no, I do not practice obsessively, I do not have an eating disorder, and I am not a vegan. I eat a fairly healthy diet which, believe it or not, includes a good amount of butter, mayonnaise, and lots of chocolate. I just have a great metabolism, which, I believe, is due to a lifetime of practicing yoga. But, I do think that women who are definitely way more “curvy” and more women of color should be in yoga journal! Of course! All that being said, I would like to read articles by yoga masters such as Eric Shiffman, Dharma Mittra, Mark Whitwell, and many others. I would like to see more men in Yoga Journal!! Not just young “hot” men, but wise older men who have something substantial to say about yoga! It seems Yoga Journal has become a magazine for young women.

    • chorton

      Hi Myrna: Thanks for your comment and for being an inspiration to younger women!

      I agree about the need to feature more men. To be fair, I’ll note that YJ did include a short feature with photos of a man who looked like a “real person,” not another hot, perfect bod. I don’t remember the title and don’t have the magazine here, but I noticed it because it was different – the guy was (I think) a runner and yoga practitioner, pretty heavily tattooed (which I don’t remember seeing in YJ before), and “normal” looking (at least, for a Boulder-based athlete 🙂

  12. Thanks for raising some important questions. 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?

    • chorton

      Thanks, Charlotte, for bringing the conversation to a deeper level, as always. I think that the growing movement to change the image of the “yoga body” can and should address these questions as well. I hope that the current focus on social and cultural issues can provide an opening to talk about, well, yoga. I think it’s possible. But, if the goal is to reach a broad audience, it will require some creative thinking regarding how to communicate effectively. My sense is that an increasingly large part of the yoga community has never really been exposed to the sort of understanding of yoga that your questions raise before. Yet, I also feel that for many, the practice itself does naturally open up a space in which they can begin to resonate if and when they are heard.

  13. AlannaH

    Thanks for this article! It was shared with a yoga group that I follow on Facebook and I’ll post what I posted there. Representation is SO important. Anyone who thinks otherwise is probably a man (lol). But seriously the more that people, young kids and young women in particular see themselves represented in a positive light, the better it is for our society. With Yoga Journal it’s particularly disappointing because yoga is something that supposedly advocates health for all bodies, and is possibly seen as modern or new-age; yet, all you see are skinny white ladies as if it was a beauty magazine from the 1950’s. I commend Yoga Journal for tackling some of the issues, but as the author of this article points out, they still have a loooooooooong way to go. No, the author is not body-shaming Kathryn Budig, or idealized bodies. The author is simply pointing out the contradiction of having someone whose body is already the ideal talk about body acceptance, or juxtaposing that conversation with ads featuring idealized bodies. We’ve seen those bodies before! Give us something different! If you think I’m diminishing Kathryn’s experience and struggles, imagine what someone who never sees themselves represented feels like.

    I think it’s indicative of a larger problem in the American yoga community as a whole. Feel free to disagree, but I don’t see a lot of diversity in the people who own yoga studios, teach at yoga studios, or run teacher trainings. There’s nothing wrong with flexible white women, but it’s 2014 and I don’t think I need to tell anyone why diversity in the workplace is important.

  14. Mark jacopec

    Men do not exist in YJ’s eyes. Curvy or not.

  15. Here’s my conundrum and it’s not specific to body image but it feels related. It seems that mainstream media (print, social, electronic) has a very homogenous idea of beauty in general…be it web/home/graphic design beauty; fashion beauty; art beauty; human beauty; environmental beauty; culinary beauty. When the “beauty” we’re exposed to from a young age is so heartbreakingly narrow, is the only way to manage a problem this endemic a reductionist (but really, really necessary) look at the so significant and real symptoms of very serious body issues, overwhelming discontent, constant struggles to find happiness? If we can find meaningful ways to connect beauty to something much, much deeper than ubiquitous visual images, could we begin to teach and learn a new definition of beauty altogether? I don’t mean this to sound like a rant against “first world problems” but I can’t help but think that in a country where it’s a struggle to find clean water and adequate food to stay alive, beauty means something very, very different than what it means in my very fortunate world. Is it possible to help each other find ways into the beauty of the soul where we find new ways to feel into beauty? I have let media lead me into making financially risky purchases, saying terrible terrible things to my reflection in the mirror, thinking unspeakable things about people I don’t know at all—to some degree, in my mind, as a pursuit of a “beautiful life”. I know I’ve purchased yoga pants with a previously unconscious desire to get into the pose the model was pictured in rather than because I was in danger of being Our Teacher of Naked Yoga because I just had NOTHING to wear to class. “That pose is just so beautiful and she is so slender unlike me,” says my reptilian brain, “I must have her pants!” Why is it, really, that I don’t think, “In those pants, I could do so much good, I could change the world?” or, even better, “Without those pants— (this magazine, this response to this advertisement) the withholding of my dollars, I could sit quietly and find some friendliness for the chitta of my mind?”

    • chorton

      Thanks for the thoughtful and poignant comment. My view is that we are social animals, and that powerful, symbolic images that are widely shared and culturally resonant are going to have a substantial impact on most people. It’s entirely natural. That’s why advertising and marketing are big businesses.

      For the same reason, I think that changing the symbols and images that have come to represent yoga today will have a substantial impact. True, they are not on their own going to take people to any sort of deep yogic experience. But, they can do a lot to help open doors.

      Having a wider array of body types represented will make more people feel welcome and included. It’s effectively an invitation to practice. At the same time, that diversity will be enormously helpful to the people who do find themselves identifying with the current “yoga body” ideal. There’s nothing liberating about comparing yourself to a fake, stock image. Yet I feel quite certain that the vast majority of self-aware and honest practitioners would admit that they, too, have found themselves afflicted by the sort of problems you describe.

  16. Erin

    Thank you for this insightful and important commentary! I had similar thoughts and feelings reading the “Body Image” issue and appreciated seeing some of my conflicting feelings so clearly articulated. The first thing I noticed flipping through the magazine was how often Katherine Budig appeared. I guess it’s great that YJ has identified a frontwoman for the healthy-body-image movement in yoga, but: 1) as you point out, Budig’s body fits quite well with the mainstream “yoga body” ideal, so she may not be the best “face” or body for the movement anyway; and 2) I started to feel like the magazine couldn’t find any other yogis or teachers with curves. I kept thinking, “Really? Katherine Budig is the ONLY qualified curvy (or “curvy”) yoga teacher you could find to photograph?” Of course there were a couple of exceptions, but featuring Budig on the cover, in an interview, and demonstrating asana – not to mention in the Toesox ad – started to feel like tokenism rather than real inclusiveness.

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