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Yes, Yoga is Commercialized; So What?

So it looks like the Wall Street Journal has also become obsessed with yoga, following on the heels of the NY Times’ yoga blitz last month. After last week’s lululemon story, another article about yoga turned up on their Speakeasy blog yesterday – Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body, with an analysis and history lesson on the commercialization of  yoga.

Like “Star Wars” or Matisse, the merchandising, advertising, and profiteering of yoga has run the full gamut, from action figures to deluxe vacations to how-to-books that apply yoga to almost every human endeavor…

Now, there’s nothing left to exploit. But before you condemn any number of culprits (shareholders, American materialism, craven gurus, cynical marketers), you better understand that this process took some time — a century in fact — and yoga’s most committed followers have hurried it along. (via WSJ Speakeasy blog)

She notes that the early American practitioners were from families with money, and that the first time yoga was used to sell something non-yoga-related was a 1963 7-Up ad in Life Magazine. Basically, what I hear her saying in this post is “Yoga in the west has always been commercialized, what’s the big deal?” Like much of Stefanie’s writing and yoga commentary, I find this piece to be complacent (she also told Well+GoodNYC, “What I find more surprising is how much Sturm und Drang ads like ToeSox and Girls in Yoga Pants stir up. Isn’t it pretty obvious that a sustained yoga practice has nothing to do with either of these cultural instances, that women’s sexuality will long be exploited to move merchandise, and that the best thing to do is to ignore them?”).

However, this article did me cause to reflect on my stance against the commercialization of yoga, and why I feel compelled to monitor and write about it. I realized that my anti-commercialization views aren’t fueled by nostalgia (believing that yoga used to be much less commercialized or market driven) or a desire for purity (I don’t consider myself a yoga purist at all ~ mainly because I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a “pure yoga”).

I realized that I resist the commercialization of yoga because I resist the commercialization of everything. I don’t believe that yoga deserves special treatment; I believe that the commercialization of everything, from food to sex to art, is unhealthy for people and our world.

I just happen to write and blog about the commercialization of yoga because I have a background in cultural studies and yoga media production. And because I enjoy thinking and writing about it. For me, blogging and critical thinking are part of my yoga practice. Also, I feel that the yoga community has a tendency to focus on the body, on asana practice, while not applying a critical lens to where yoga fits in contemporary culture. I use this space to draw attention to the cultural context of yoga.

My feeling is that we can accept that there is a history of commercialization in North American yoga (and yoga in other parts of the world, too) – but it doesn’t mean that we have to accept some of the contemporary forms that this commercialization is taking. Certainly, yoga exists has a place in our market driven economy: studios are businesses, teachers have to self-promote,  props/books/DVDs/clothing can enrich our practices. But branded yoga mats, useless yoga accessories, corporate-sponsored teachers and sexist advertising – these do not enrich anyone’s practice, and they can actually do harm to how yoga is perceived by non-practitioners.

Stefanie’s article ends on a positive note, and while I disagree with much of what she says, I agree with her final thought: “Yoga is here to stay as are all of its crass permutations.” Amen to that.


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