Yoga has gained a pretty good foothold in the U.S. in recent years, so it’s not surprising that it’s undergone some scrutiny. In reality, this is probably a good thing (as long as it’s constructive), since it helps keep yoga on its toes. Most of the women I talked to for the last post agreed that yoga had to transform itself fairly drastically to make its entrée into this country, morphing into more a physical practice than a mental one (and still feeling this change today). But things are beginning to even out: More and more people are becoming interested in yoga’s greater benefits – attention, concentration, mindfulness – and this will probably become more the case as time goes on.
That said, there are some ways in which yoga’s relationship with the mainstream is still, if not exactly moving backwards, not really moving forwards. Melanie Klein, a Women’s Studies professor at Santa Monica College, brings up the issue of how yoga is promoted through the media. One of her critiques is a common one: “As yoga has become more mainstream,” she says, “the spiritual part of it has suffered, and the industry – and the business of yoga – has emerged. But what’s really disconcerting is that the same images of beauty from mainstream media are often reproduced in yoga magazines – young, white, skinny, hot. This is not what yoga is all about, but it’s the image we see over and over.” The practice and business, she says, are at odds, and this divide needs to be rectified.
But before we get too down on this phenomenon, Klein points out that the issue is double-edged: Though yoga may fall victim to the whims of the mainstream, it also relies on it to get it into the public’s consciousness. “Yoga gets absorbed by pop culture,” says Klein, “and it then reflects pop culture. This is both good and bad. But the trend in the last few years, I’ve noticed, is that many of the women who have emerged as public voices tend to look like models. I’m not saying that they’re not credible or important, but you can’t tell me that there aren’t other women who are as valuable. Are we really allowing everybody a platform?”
She adds that another issue is that pop culture isn’t always the most nurturing, and this shows up in yoga, too. “I see ads for diet pills in yoga magazines now, for example. And I find that problematic.“
Linda Sparrowe, who commented in the last post and who’s also the editor-in-chief of Yoga International, says, “yoga should be a help, but it’s not always, and can actually be a hindrance. For instance, there’s this trend to be decked out in Lululemon, and make comparisons to others in class. At Yoga International, we still grapple with whom to put on the cover… it’s a question of what sells vs. what’s the reality and what’s the integrity.” She adds though that it’s changing, and “yoga insinuates itself however it can. It adapts itself to the people it serves.” Maybe it’s up to us to give it a little push in the right direction.
Klein agrees that the power of yoga is that it can correct for the strange place in which it finds itself – particularly if we continue to move towards honest-to-goodness-yoga. “Yoga is a great way to come back into the body and transform really distorted images that we’ve been fed our whole lives,” says Klein. “A lot of women don’t fit the pop culture ideal, and are doing some phenomenal things, all over the world. Look at Ana Forrest; look at Seane Corn. They don’t fit the ideal, but they’re beautiful – and look at all they’ve done.”
In fact, Seane Corn herself makes a nice point about how yoga continues to move forward. “Maybe there’s still a misunderstanding about what yoga is. Some people may not understand how physically and emotionally challenging it can be… or maybe they do, and this is why they resist it. There are so many ways to approach yoga. There are women who are more ‘alpha,’ like me – I approach my yoga practice in a more confrontational way – but that’s also an aspect of femininity. For other people, other approaches are better. It’s exciting that there’s such diversity. ”
So yoga continues to reach more and more people in this country, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the ways in which it’s changed over the years. If one has experience with all the benefits of yoga, it can be easy to get down about its newer changes. But looked at another way, yoga (which, after all, is translated as “union”) is reaching more and more people every day. And that’s a pretty good place to start.
How do you feel about yoga’s adaptations? Is its relationship to pop culture a help or a hindrance?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.