Yoga, Lululemon, and the Common Good: Is a New Paradigm Possible?

Photo of "The Practice of Leadership" at Yoga Journal LIVE! courtesy of Yogadork. I'm in the blue shirt on the left.

Photo of “The Practice of Leadership” at Yoga Journal LIVE! courtesy of Yogadork. I’m in the blue shirt on the left.

If you had told me a few weeks ago that I’d soon be spending a weekend in NYC as a panelist at a Yoga Journal conference event along with Seane Corn and the CEO of Lululemon (among others), I’d have laughed and said you were crazy. And if you had nonetheless insisted on going on and telling me that not only would I be part of this event, but that doing it would radically reorient my feelings toward Lululemon – a company that I’ve long had a visceral aversion to – I’d have felt worried.

Why? Because the first thing that jumps to mind in such a scenario is a simple equation: Struggling yoga writer + unexpected corporate support = co-optation. And I’ve poured far too much of my mind, heart, and soul (not to mention, family finances) into my yoga madness to want to entertain that possibility. (Rationally, however, I remain well aware of the power of that basic formula, and that it happens all the time.)

Nonetheless, I want to take ownership of the fact that participating in the “Practice of Leadership” panel last Saturday has left me with a much more positive feeling toward Lululemon than I would have ever expected. And I’m OK with that. I’m willing to change my views as circumstances alter. And it seems to me that both Lululemon and the larger North American yoga culture that it’s a part of are changing – fast.

Times of rapid change create new openings. Could interested members of the yoga community step up to work proactively with the new possibilities being generated? Might this time offer an opportunity to (among other things) dialog with Lululemon about how best to shift the collective energies generated by yoga and yoga-based businesses in more socially conscious, positive directions?

I don’t know. But I think it’s worth a try. And from what I understand, the leadership of Off the Mat, Into the World, which organized the “Practice of Leadership” event, shares this perspective. If we want to leverage such a paradigm shift, however, we need all the support we can get. That means that if you care about how yoga interfaces with the world of which we’re a part, we need you (if you’re interested).


Researching Lulu

Cynics and skeptics may well ask: How the hell can a corporation known for lionizing Ayn Rand, defending child labor, and fat-shaming women possibly contribute anything worthwhile to yoga, let alone positive social change? Certainly, something like this would have been the first question to pop into my mind until quite recently, when I started researching the company more thoroughly in preparation for the panel.

Now, however, I’d say that while this is a legitimate question, it’s based on incomplete information. Because what I discovered in prepping for the panel is that such an uncompromisingly hostile orientation toward the company is unfair. Which is not to say that it’s entirely wrong, or that the many of the criticisms that have been made of Lululemon aren’t warranted. They are. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that the entirety of the situation is (as is often the case) more complex and multi-dimensional than any such simplistic all-bad (or, for that matter, all-good) assessments allow.

I like to research issues that I’m interested in. This is not only my personality, but what I’ve been trained in and practiced professionally for many years. So, when I was (much to my shock) invited to be on this panel to discuss “corporate responsibility and spiritual values” with Lululemon execs and others, I started doing research to prepare.

My research progressed on several fronts: 1) studying the company website, 2) reading relevant news and blog coverage, 3) upping my knowledge of labor and environmental issues in the international apparel industry, and 4) last but not least, reaching out to a number of yoga teachers and studio owners I know personally who’ve been (and in some cases, remain) involved with Lululemon as Ambassadors or studio partners.

What I learned was extremely interesting – and, for me, paradigm shifting.


Research Results

In a nutshell, I found that while research strategies #1-3 tended to reinforce my negative perceptions of the company, the personal feedback provided by #4 did not. Instead, I found myself in the rather uncomfortable position of receiving some passionate testimonials about how great a company Lulu is – at least on the local level – from people who I not only like, but hold in high esteem for their intelligence, hard work, and commitment to contributing meaningfully to both the yoga community and the world.

For example, one woman who I have the highest regard for shared the following feelings about squaring her personal experience with Lululemon with its recent corporate fiascos:

I haven’t spoken publicly about it because my experiences are mostly personal. But I have experienced the people who work at Lululemon to be extremely, almost over-the-top supportive, and with no personal or corporate gain. No other company or organization (including yoga studios), in my experience, goes out of their way to make a personal connection with the community (in and out of their store), to create community experiences that people remember (whether that’s large yoga events, a weekly free fitness experience, or just making a personal connection at the store and genuinely caring about a person).

Their culture is very unique. The comments that are associated with the founder – I don’t know that that’s the common mindset throughout the company. At least it’s not the mindset that I’ve gotten, and have just chosen to ignore it because it’s inconsistent with my experience . . . I realize that there is a bigger corporate culture and corporate system, but I would say that my experience at the local level is uniquely and extraordinarily positive.

I have the ultimate respect for the way that they support their staff and team members to set and reach goals in their lives. What other kind of community, whether professional, religious, or social does that? I think the people who I’ve known who work there get farther in their lives than some yoga teachers due to this support system. I’ve never walked into a situation where people I’ve just met have been so generous to help with a project or networking, or taking on your particular project as if it’s their own as they have at Lululemon. And that is what I associate with the company and the brand.

In a personal conversation I had with someone on the regional level, it sounds like they’re not too happy when they hear those comments from their CEO. They worked very hard to create their quality of culture, which is what I personally have experienced and associate with the brand. When I hear people boycotting the brand, I take a stand too, and support my local Lululemon stores knowing that I support the jobs of these individuals.

To be sure, not every response I received was so passionately pro-Lulu. But none were strongly negative, either. One woman, for example, was alienated by the company’s mandatory “goal setting” exercises, and felt that they couldn’t understand – let alone respect – why she refused to participate. Nonetheless, she had none of the vitriol against the company evidenced by many others who’ve commented on it publicly. In all cases, having personal dealings with the company at the local level dramatically tempered whatever negative feelings were held toward its corporate policies and/or the controversial statements made by founder and ex-CEO Chip Wilson.

While hardly a scientific survey, the consistent line that threaded through the various personal reflections on the company I collected was that there were a lot of really kind, well intentioned, and supportive people working in their local Lululemon store. No one was happy with Wilson’s offensive comments. One woman said that they made her feel “ashamed” to be an Ambassador. Most, however, reported that much as they disliked the messages coming out of HQ, they chose to ignore them because they were so incongruent with their exceptionally positive experience with the company on the local level.


Personal Reactions

I try to listen to other people’s experiences and take them seriously, even – and in some cases, especially – when they’re incongruent with mine. In this case, the fact that I had previously had no personal experience whatsoever with Lululemon other than reading about it and walking into some random store a few times (I don’t own any of their clothing) made me feel that it was particularly important to listen carefully to the perspectives of others who have been directly involved. Doing so changed my perspective on the company, causing me to believe that there was a surprising disjuncture between what has been happening on the ground with many (perhaps most?) local stores, and what we’ve seen coming out of national headquarters.

My perspective shifted further as I had the (entirely unexpected) opportunity to talk with several company executives, both as a part of the panel and in one case, over coffee in Chicago. I had expected “the corporate brass” to be arrogant, smug in their taken-for-granted social position, and disdainful of all but the most elite sectors of the yoga community. My experience, however, proved this negative projection wrong. Much like my friends who had had positive experiences with store employees at the local level, I’ve found the Lulu execs that I’ve interacted with to be unpretentious, respectful, intelligent, likeable, and good listeners. In short, my gut level sense is that I like these people.

I think it’s worth noting that many people who share my own left-of-center political orientation tend to unreflectively dehumanize (and therefore demonize) many, if not most individuals who work in the corporate sector as stooges of a monolithically evil system of global capitalism. Without digressing into a dissertation on 21st century political economy, I’ll just say that in this case, I believe such projections are not only unwarranted, but unproductive.

Lululemon has an exceptionally good base of local level operations to build on. They have new leadership at headquarters, including a CEO known for his commitment to corporate responsibility. They are willing to dialog with interested voices in the yoga community, including outspoken progressives such as Seane Corn. So, why shouldn’t those of us who care about social issues try and work with them to shift the company – and the larger yoga culture that it’s part of – in a more consistently positive direction?

Personally, I feel like this is an opportune moment to explore the possibility of win/win/win scenarios that might be good for both Lululemon, the yoga community, and the world.



Deluded Idealism?

To skeptics and cynics, this will undoubtedly sound like deluded idealism at best. That’s OK. Bring on your critical commentary and incisive questions. (Just be civil about it.) We need such perspectives to keep any potential initiative from falling into meaningless rhetoric and/or PR fluff.

To staunch loyalists who love the brand and can’t understand why so many people have problems with it – do your own research, and reconsider. To those who simply want to focus on their own practice and aren’t interested in related social issues – that’s OK, maybe later.

But for those who are curious about what concrete steps might be taken to leverage some potential win/win/win paradigm shifts, I have a few suggestions. Obviously, I’m not a business consultant, so they may be full of holes I don’t see. That’s one reason why we need a growing conversation – to get more, and perhaps better ideas on the table.

Another reason is that even if nothing remotely like what I envision ever transpires at Lululemon, simply getting the yoga community more engaged with questions of corporate – not to mention, consumer and civic – responsibility will be a tremendously positive change, in and of itself. After all, if and when a solid level of interest in these issues is generated, if Lululemon proves impossible to work with, we can move on to greener pastures.


Imagining Possibilities

Here a few paradigm shifts that (best case scenario) I can realistically imagine happening within the next five years:

1) Transforming the “Yoga Body.” The dominant cultural understanding of the “yoga body” could shift from that of a young, thin, beautiful, bendy white woman to one that includes a diverse array of ages, body types, genders, races, and ethnicities – all united by a shared experience of working with the body/mind through asana to discover new resources for healing, transformation, and liberation. In the process, the default orientation of yoga newbies could shift from one of inadequacy (“I’m too fat/old/inflexible/etc. to do yoga”) to one of open possibility (“What’s special about yoga is that it adapts to work with every body.”)

Lululemon (along with other corporations, studios, and even individual yoga teachers) could leverage this change by strategically selecting the images used to represent yoga so that they’re as inclusive as possible. At the same time, they/we could chose to work with photographers and designers who are skilled at crafting images of yoga that illuminate the inner experience of the practice. Shifting the “inspirational” element of yoga photography away from its current fixation on gymnastic-style advanced asanas and toward the practice’s ability to revitalize the life force within would make it appear much more accessible and meaningful. Given that successfully doing this would actually widen the market for yoga, it’s not an unreasonable commitment to make from a business perspective. And, having more people feel less intimated by (or even excluded from) yoga would be good for the yoga community, and the world.

2) Improving Labor and Environmental Standards in Yoga-Related Industries. This would be a far tougher shift than changing the public image of yoga. In my opinion, however, it’s a substantially more important one to make. Why? Because it has the potential to positively impact the lives of untold numbers of people who don’t share the social privileges of the average North American yoga practitioner. If we care about being socially conscious, then the circle of our concern needs to widen to include those outside of our own particular communities, and even nations.

These are complex issues and would require a separate post of their own to even begin to unpack adequately. That said, imagine a scenario in which yoga clothing manufacture becomes known as a sector of the apparel industry that’s leading the way in terms of progressive labor and environmental practices. This would give “yogic values” some relevant cultural meaning in an age of global corporate capitalism.

What would encourage companies like Lululemon to invest in upping their game in this notoriously difficult to navigate arena? That’s easy: Demand from their customer base. “We” can’t ask “them” to do the hard work required for no reason other than their own socially responsible values – because even if top execs hold them, they’re still responsible to company shareholders. In order for the company to invest more resources in improving labor and environmental standards, shareholders need to see that the yoga community cares about how the clothes we practice in are manufactured – and that we’re paying attention to what different companies are doing. The more that this happens, the more there will be compelling business reasons to orient the company’s branding, reputation, and investments in such socially responsible directions.

3) Integrating Personal Growth and Professional Development with Social Awareness. The yoga community is heavily into “personal growth,” and from what I know, Lululemon shares this orientation so much that it’s part of their professional development program. The most notorious element of this commitment is, of course, the company’s investment in sending employees who’ve been with the company a year to Landmark Forum. Bracketing all of the (in my mind, well deserved) controversy surrounding Landmark, I think it’s safe to say that this type of training is one that focuses very much on the individual and personal, and very little, if at all, in the social, cultural, political, and economic realms.

Yet if a company (or an individual) wants to become more socially responsible, it stands to reason that they actually have to know something about the society of which they’re a part. And in today’s highly complex and rapidly changing world, this requires education and training. What if programs designed to explore yoga’s social position, and real and potential relevance in our society (and the world) became an optional component of Lululemon’s professional development training? For example, employees might be given the option to do their one-year company training either at Landmark, OTM, or the Leading Change Network. This could have incredible ripple effects not only throughout the company, but the yoga community and, by extension, society at large.

4) Connecting Local Community Building to the Yoga Service Movement. As noted above, Lululemon’s exceptional strength as a company (beyond their product line) seems to be their track record in creating a strong sense of community centered around their local stores. While I don’t know the details, my understanding is that each store has considerable discretion in terms of envisioning what that looks like and how best to pursue it. While this sort of decentralization is great in many ways, it doesn’t generate a shared vision or strategy when it comes to supporting positive work in the world that goes beyond the immediate task of helping the company’s chosen Ambassadors and studio partners.

What if local store managers were regularly briefed on important developments in the rapidly expanding world of yoga service and outreach (i.e., bringing yoga to nontraditional setting such as community health clinics, low-income schools, prisons, V.A. hospitals, mental health centers, etc.)? And, what if they were given concrete strategies for reaching out to local yoga teachers engaged in this work, in order to better support and connect them to other parts of the local community?

Such a paradigm shift wouldn’t require significant corporate restructuring or reallocation of resources. Rather, it would simply require working with what’s already in place more deliberately and strategically. This could be a “win” for the company in terms of branding, morale, and corporate culture. It could also be a “win” for the local yoga community by integrating its “mainstream” and “service” components, which almost certainly have much to offer each other. And, most importantly, it could be a “win” for the larger community, which, at least in most places in the U.S., will include many people who would love to access yoga’s healing capacities, but lack the means to attend classes.

While these ideas are ambitious, I don’t believe they’re unrealistic or out of reach. That said, realizing them (or anything similar) demands collaboration and synergy, with the yoga community and yoga-based businesses working together to leverage change. While this is a good time to focus on Lululemon, there’s no reason that the conversation needs to stop there. Rather, the initiative launched by the “Practice of Leadership” event can and should be an opportunity to spark an ongoing dialog about how best to realize the potential of yoga to be a powerful force for healing, justice, and liberation in our troubled and divided world.

To receive updates on the ongoing “Practice of Leadership” series from Yoga Journal LIVE!, click here.



  1. I agree with most of what you’ve put forth here, especially the parsing of what actually happens at the grassroots level and the abstract nature of corporate governance. However, I do fear that you may have been successfully snowed by people who are much better trained at such things then we are. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that all the people you spoke to were totally earnest and great people who said what they really felt. And your suggestions, while interesting and helpful even if you are being subtly manipulated some, are the exact PR that they were looking for in organizing the event at YJ Conference. Truth is, things rarely happen from the bottom up in large corporations and we have little reason to think they will start now.

    Two days ago, I happened to have a conversation with someone whose intimate partner is currently working with the Lulu marketing team and told me that the conversation they were having was all about getting away from the whiny yoga world entirely and moving more into athletics in general. It makes perfect sense that they would do whatever they could do fix the mess they made with the yoga community but the individual feelings of employees and executives are not usually what drives a company.

    I’m just saying lets not drink the cool-aid too fast. I am for a realistic assessment of the mores and finding useful directives to promote. But again, the business world is full of coercive techniques that honest yogis are vulnerable too. Its not about being co-opted so much as effective PR and marketing.

    They managed to get you to sing their praises, and that is what they wanted. I’m not saying that is bad, I actually do own and wear Lululemon pants (although I bought them 10 years ago long before anyone knew Lulu.) The point is that it would be terribly naive to think that Lululemon will become a beacon of corporate and social conscience just because they happen to cater to the yoga community and we think they ought to. If they can maintain their bottom line while also blowing off the yoga community then you can bet they won’t hesitate to do that.

  2. Such a thoughtful post and I absolutely agree with you that there are new possibilities for yoga/wellness as part of a social justice project if we can get a major concern on board. The reflexive demonization of anything vaguely corporate is also unproductive, I agree. Also, as a former ambassador, I have tried to make sure even in my “attack” on them specified that my experience with Lulu has been fantastic support on the store/community level, but less impressive with the top brass… Not very eloquent thoughts here, but writing in haste! Thanks for these reflections!

  3. Carol, I can’t see what Lulu is doing as anything other than a PR repair campaign. As much as it would be nice to think that they actually intend to a beacon of change in the corporate world, the fact is that they’re still arranged in the traditional corporate manner, and are at the ultimate demand of their shareholders’ wishes. Being embedded within a global system that is, by design, about squeezing profits out of anything and everything in the world, these companies talk big, but never deliver precisely because they refuse to actually change how they are organized in the world. Using capitalist structures to transform capitalist created social problems isn’t gonna happen. The main reason Lulu was there, in my view, was to use you all as market research, so they can change just enough of what they’re doing to keep folks happy. To be honest, the very fact that the North American yoga community puts so much attention and energy towards a corporation, either to defend it or to get it to act more yogic, says volumes.

    As far as your 4 visions, my gut sense is that I’d rather see corporations die off than become even more enmeshed as the hubs of our social action and activities. Take #4 for instance. Would a large corporation like Lulu be willing to support community efforts without needing to promote their brand, or use those efforts to market how “great” they are in the community? In other words, how likely is it that a sponsored yoga program in a lower income neighborhood, for example, would be string free, or mostly string free? Would they be willing to forgo the “look at us helping the poor people photos” and the piles of data collecting to “demonstrate” to the world how much “good” we’re doing? I’ve worked in non-profit settings on the other end of sponsored programs (corporate and foundation), and more often than not, there are so many strings attached that not only significantly limit what can happen on the ground, but also require that groups with limited financial means must hire people specifically to tackle all the busywork called for to help with maintaining the donor’s public image. At the end of the day, it’s less about truly giving, than being seen as “a giver” who “cares.” The only real way to change that dynamic is for these companies to do the work without any expectation of “being seen,” or being able to market or brand in any shape or form.

    Overall, I have to wonder why anyone really wants to save this company anyway. Their products are the purview of the affluent, and somewhat monied middle class. There’s no real “need” for much of anything they offer. All the efforts to get them to support people at the margins seems like an attempt to give meaning and value to a corporation that currently provides little or no meaning or value to the world.

  4. Carol, I appreciate the principle of refusing to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and I think the paradigm shifts you imagine halo-effecting from dialogues such as these are in everyone’s interest. Nathan’s general point that such attention amounts to naive corporate apologetics is a strong one, and I know you can fit it under your big tent.

    My comment is about your research narrative. After analyzing the LL site, reporting coverage and the labour/environmental context of their industry, you turn to personal interviews to reach for the human story beneath the machine. While you heard some positive stories from your subjects, I think it’s good to recognize the complexity out of which they emerge.

    I’ve witnessed the “Ambassador” and “community building” arc of LL first-hand in its home country of Canada. Nobody heard those terms without irony in the beginning — especially those of us who were actively engaged in fostering grass-roots community and trying to offer non-commercial and affordable alternatives to the type of big-ticket conferences that hosted your panel. My take on it was that the “Ambassador” position was taken on with a grain of salt by the more solo-preneurish of teachers in town, forced in varying degrees by market saturation to constantly look for an edge, a new venue to push, a new organization to validate them. For many, becoming an Ambassador was a way to distinguish themselves in a crowded market, a way to supplement income with professional-looking gear, and a way to present themselves as coherent with a larger cultural narrative than studios alone could generate. In-laws and aunts would see your life-size picture in the store before ever seeing you practice in the studio. The role demanded an emotional investment (or a performed emotional investment) that many eventually felt ambivalent about.

    So when you collect these stories, I imagine you’re hearing from some people who made the best out of a weird situation, and certainly made many positive connections and even found friendship and support. These are things that they could have done in any shared space. But they had to partially attribute these values to the company they invested in (even though the company did nothing inherently to foster those values) to avoid that sunk-cost feeling, or to avoid changing their own teaching narrative. Or worse, the company fostered those values for the sole purpose of selling expensive pants to those who could fit into them. And when those values don’t sell those pants, they’ll change.

    We have to remember that it’s one of the hallmarks of creative neoliberalism to make everyone believe that they are personally growing in unique and independent ways when in fact the very opposite may be true: their time is being funnelled into mall-store schedules, their money is being funnelled into global inequality, their bodies are being sculpted into aesthetic uniformity, and their emotional resources are being hijacked by Landmark myopia. It seems that the hardest thing for us to recognize in the neoliberal maze is that the system needs you to feel independent and in control while it constructs your self-perception in minute detail. It sells you normativity by making you believe it is authenticity and freedom, and then recycles your gratitude into its advertising.

    All this is to say: the personal stories describe the resilience of your friends, I think, and not the virtue or potential of the company.

  5. I’m more than a casual bystander to the lululemon pile-up that happened soon after the release of our book “Yoga Wisdom at Work: Finding Sanity Off the Mat and On the Job.” Former CEO Christine Day graciously agreed to write the foreword, so watching the sagas unfold came to feel a little like watching a distant relative make a series of bad decisions that generated familial discord and resentments. As a business consultant, I also was fascinated by the case study it presented. How does a company with a solid business model and good intentions so quickly and disastrously skid off the road? Lululemon was generous in the material it gave its critics to work with, and the critics were generous with their scathing commentary. Much of it was legit, but as a long-time newspaper reporter and editor, I also knew there was much more to the story than bloggers, video snippets and sound bites could possibly convey. Our culture puts little value on complexity and nuance, and the social fabric suffers for it.

    Who can say for sure whether the Yoga Journal event was pure PR or penitence or some combination? I’m willing to give lululemon credit for being willing to have the conversation in NYC. And I was so happy to find this thorough, thoughtful and balanced perspective written by someone I respect. Like you, Carol, I also see potential and opportunity for corporation and community. In addition to your fine suggestions, I find myself wondering what might change for the corporation, its stakeholders and the world we live in if the company were willing to integrate the philosophy and practices of yoga (from which it has made considerable profits) into corporate values, policies and procedures? Naive? Maybe. But Patagonia has put its stake firmly in the ground around delivering value, outrageous customer service, environmentally responsibility and a culture that puts employee well-being at the center and been successful far beyond founder Yvon Chouinard’s original dream. True, it is a privately held company, but then again, views on the roles corporate shareholders play in corporate policy are distorted and widely misunderstood. (I highly recommend Lynn Stout’s book “The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public.”) How might the company (and the world) be improved if the yoga community used its voice not only to criticize and scold, but also to help shape the way lululemon’s vast resources and connections are used? What if corporation and community worked together in a way that reflects what yoga stands for?

    Thank you for your calm and reflective voice, Carol. Perhaps in this situation, everyone could be served by engaging a serious practice of svadyaya (self-study).

  6. Michelle Marchildon

    Carol, Carol, Carol. You are lucky to be so young. When you get to be my age, you can add one more thing to the list of issues with Lululemon, which is that the youngish, hip, Landmark culture really doesn’t like us old bats. But I do agree with some of what you say. Whenever we fight against an institution, we have to remember that it’s made up of people who are individuals. Many of the individuals who work in my local stores are lovely people, mortified by their management, and they have gone out of their way for me. However, management is management. I saw an article on the business pages recently where Lululemon was saying their new PR campaign was to “Take control of the conversation.” I’m pretty sure that taking control is not a “yogic” value. We have to try and be okay with what is. But it seems like they were pretty successful with you.

    If I see you becoming a corporate spokesperson for the company, I am going to come and find you, yoga-nap you, and take you to a remote desert island for a detox. Then if you still love the brand, and all they stand for in our community, I’ll respect your choice.

  7. Thanks everybody for your thoughtful replies. So many big and important issues are raised that it’s hard to know where to start. I wish that we could all have our own panel – better yet, weekend seminar with lots of good coffee – and hash through them in depth. But for now, comments on a blog post will have to do.

    Let’s start out with the easiest point first: Michelle, Michelle, Michelle. I’m not sure if I should be flattered or worried that you assume that I’m so much younger than you. My sense it that we’re more or less the same age – I’m turning 52 this summer! which is weird, but bracketing those more personal age-and-identity issues, I think it is relevant to this discussion in that I think age makes me more inclined to take what I can get when it comes to contributing to work in the world that promises to have at least some positive impact. I know the big theories about problems of global capitalism etc. I also know brilliant people who’ve spent their careers developing them (I’m thinking of well-known sociologists, etc.) – while, meanwhile, everything they are critiquing has gotten steadily worse. That’s not to disparage their work, but rather to say that I’ve spent years engaged with political theorists and am currently more interested in work that directly affects at least some people’s lives in the here and now on a practical level (as opposed to simply intellectually and culturally, which is also important, but not everything).

    It’s not very sexy, but I’m willing to work within whatever little interstices for change seem worthwhile. Like Nathan, I’ve spent a good amount of time in the nonprofit sector and seen much that has disillusioned me deeply. But in the moment, when it comes to practical issues that I’m currently involved in, such as: how do we get the funding to support Yoga for Recovery, a group that teaches yoga to women in Cook County Jail? the fact is that there’s nowhere else to go but foundations, rich people, and corporate donors. We in the group are burning out after running for years on all-volunteer labor. And the quality of our teaching is not where it should be because we don’t have the infrastructure to develop good training programs, etc. We need some money to make it happen – not huge amounts by any means, but more than $2K raised through a random fundraiser every year.

    So if Lululemon wanted to give us a small grant to support developing a training program, would I take it? Yes, absolutely. Would I feel compromised because I’m dealing with a corporation? No, not unless there were obvious strings attached that I couldn’t countenance.

    One thing that people need to think about is whether they care at all about the differences in how some corporations are run versus others. For example, does it matter to you that Costco is known for its relatively good labor practices, whereas Walmart is not? You can say it doesn’t matter because until the whole system is transformed, it’s all no good. But in the meantime, there are a lot of workers who care very much if they have a more or less decent wage, working conditions, etc.

    Closer to the Lululemon issue, consider the difference between Patagonia and Lululemon when it comes to environmental and labor issues. Just from what’s available online, I’d say that Patagonia is far ahead. If consumer pressure could move Lululemon up to the point where Patagonia is, I would consider that quite worthwhile to support. Again, it’s not transforming neoliberalism etc., but, who among us has the power to do that? So there are some very pragmatic issues to consider here.

    It seems like political views in the yoga community (at least as it shows up online) fall into three camps: 1) leftists who are very theoretical and dismissive of practical everyday issues as insufficient to effect enough change to matter, 2) libertarians who don’t believe in policies , regulation, labor standards etc. because individual choice and market forces are all that needed and legitimate, and 3) the vast majority who are deeply apolitical and don’t have the slightest interest in any of these issues. So the level of engagement that this Lululemon stuff demands falls through the cracks. There are just not a lot of people who want to engage with these questions in this community. Which is somewhat disappointing, but also understandable in many ways.

    In closing, I’ll just add that from being involved in the development of the NY YJ conference event, it seems clear that it was an Off the Mat-driven development and that it was not engineered by Lululemon’s PR department. In fact, I was VERY surprised that they agreed to it. And, I think that it was a really good event if for no other reason than it set a precedent for being able to bring up issues such as the relationship between yoga advertising, body image, and identity, and the social location of yoga in our highly unequal society in a way that’s never been done before. So, I am appreciative of the fact that the company supported that – and that they’re willing to do more. It’s hard for me to see what’s really in it for them, and still think they may want to pull out of the future events.

    Be that as it may, I basically feel that if this is indeed a time where the company is at a crossroads and they could go in a way that commits to modeling more corporate responsibility – or not – I’d like them to go the former route. It won’t transform the world but it could have some positive impacts. And again, at my age, I’m willing to take what I can get, given the often severely limited choice sets available.

  8. So let’s do a seminar. With lots and lots of good coffee. (Or tea).

    • chorton

      Maybe Lululemon will fund it! (um, no . . . strike that thought) 🙂

      [alarmists please note: that was meant to be a joke.]

  9. Carol, I really love your nuanced response, your care, and your passion. I also love that you offered solutions, through your imagined possibilities.

    #1, Transforming the (perceived) Yoga Body in particular… as it’s one that we can do with or without Lululemon. All of us who share images of yoga can take responsibility for how we do this, becoming more mindful in our choices of representation.

    In fact, reading through all of your suggestions… they can all be worked with regardless of Lululemon’s participation or not.

    All yoga teachers, yoga studios and yoga-related businesses could be asking themselves the same questions you’re asking, and figuring out how they can conduct their business in a way that improves labour and environmental standards, encourages personal growth and integrates community with yoga service.

    In a way, you’ve just written out a manifesto for the yoga community as a whole, and it’s distracting to argue about whether or not Lululemon is serious about making change. Maybe the real question is whether we as individuals are willing to make the same changes in our own small way.

  10. Laura Sharkey

    I will preface this by saying I hope you are right! And I hope I am wrong! That being said: While I really appreciate your nuanced examination of the complexity of attitude and intent throughout the lululemon organization, based on having worked in large corporate environments most of my adult life, I can say with certainty that the intentions and actions of public-facing employees at the lower levels of the hierarchy are as likely as not to reflect the culture, intentions and practices that guide the organization as a whole. There is a significant cultural imprint that flows from the top down, but in my experience, it tends to fork fairly high up the chain into two different entities: one that guides how public-facing employees are expected to represent the company to outsiders and another that guides how the company actually operates internally. Sometimes they are similar, sometimes not at all. The one personality trait that has been common – with no exceptions – across every corporation I have worked for is an unrelenting pursuit of profit above all else, driven by a considerably rigid and dogmatic ideology about the best way to do that. I tend to agree with a few of the common threads that appear in the comments here: 1) Lululemon is, above all, a corporation; regardless of the intentions or actions of employees at the ground level, the company’s ultimate – and only – purpose and goal is to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. 2) There really is a difference between publicly shared corporations and privately owned companies. I don’t think comparing Patagonia to Lululemon is likely to provide an accurate estimate of the potential for an internal paradigm shift. Privately owned companies have much more flexibility – both legally and culturally – in terms of prioritizing values and goals other than financial profit. Lululemon is beholden to shareholders, most of whom probably couldn’t care less about the what/how/why of the profits as long as the money keeps pouring in. Shift, if any, will most likely involve changes in perception about what is the best way to make record profits – not whether or not to forgo potential profit for the sake of honoring values around sustainability, equity or inclusivity. 3) Why do we take such an interest in Lululemon, anyway, instead of simply turning away from it, towards other businesses (preferably local and owner-operated) who better suit our community values?

  11. Carol, thank you for taking the time to craft such a thoughtful response to help the yoga community think differently on a topic about which most have already made their minds up. I don’t get the sense that you’ve swallowed the lulu bait at all – I hear in your piece as many questions of lululemon’s motivations as belief in the new image they’re peddling.

    I appreciate your openness to the possibility of reconsideration. Changing our minds about lulu could mean being duped by slick marketing, yes. But it could also mean moving beyond the theoretical to explore practical ways to leverage this opportunity to potentially elevate and transform the yoga community, whether via lululemon or other methods.

    Like Kara Leah-Grant, I hear a yoga community manifesto brewing in your wise words!

  12. chorton

    Thanks again everyone for your comments. I would like to address Laura’s question of, why bother with Lululemon, anyway? To answer is simple: if we can get Lululemon (and by extension, Yoga Journal, which is also involved in the ongoing “Practice of Leadership” initiative) to move in a more socially responsible direction, we can impact contemporary yoga culture as a whole much more quickly and effectively.

    These two companies have the most clout when it comes to representing the mainstream image of yoga to the public. We may not like that and wish that it weren’t so – but, I think it is. Therefore, if we can enlist them in an initiative for positive change, we can gain social/cultural traction much more quickly.

    Hala Khouri addresses this point in her excellent post for Yoga Journal online, which you can access here: The very fact that YJ was willing to publish this is encouraging. Personally, I haven’t seen anything like this in YJ except when researching the back issues from the 1970s (which, of course, addressed quite different issues, but were similar in that they directly addressed important social questions – something that has, on the whole, completely disappeared during the 2000s.)

    • Laura Sharkey

      Carol – I understand the theoretical argument for dialog with YJ and lululemon. My question – which I didn’t articulate very well the first time around – is not really about the possible benefits of doing so as much as it is about my concern that there is no point regardless of the possible benefits because they are not at all likely to make the kind of changes we are hoping they will. However, you (and Hala) are winning me over. I do recognize that I have a relatively rigid point of view about the potential for any corporation to included ethical considerations in business decisions. What is starting to sink in for me is the necessity of not predicting the future based on the past. I am not overly optimistic about the potential for YJ or Lululemon to become the kind of partner we are hoping for. Nevertheless, if I step out of the shadow of that jaded resentment that has accumulated over all the years I worked in the corporate arena, I can easily see the case for giving this partnership a try. I, too, was surprised that YJ was willing to print Hala’s blog post and have to admit that it is encouraging. I hope, though, that if we do engage these corporate entities and begin to rely on them as partners in creating change, that we keep our wits about us. As the saying goes: “Trust everyone, but cut the cards.”

  13. Can anyone really define what they mean when they want to talk about “yoga community”? Mostly I find it is used as shorthand to promote one “Brand vision” or another, some unproven theory of education, or puffed up complimentary therapy. It would be great to have a moratorium on all discourse concerning ‘yoga community’ until we get a better idea of the state/phase/shape of the thing we are trying to defend or criticize? Here’s my response: “Reforming Yoga (GMA Skunkworks)”


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