Once a month for the past five or six years I have been getting in the mail and thumbing through Yoga Journal magazine. I used to read it more than I do now, but then again, they used to have more writing in it than they do now. Nowadays, I read Sally Kempton or Tim McCall, if they happen to be in the magazine, dip into the asana photo spreads, nibble on the mini-reviews in the back, and, of course, spend most of my time on the meat-and-potatoes of the magazine: the advertisements.
I usually start with the inside cover of must-have merchandise like “karmalicious” shoes recommended as “super comfortable” and endorsed by “global yoga teachers” and then flip to the ubiquitous Hard Tail two-page spread, featuring young women in incredibly difficult upside-down poses. They never fail to look terrific and I am invariably impressed by their poise, balance, strength, and, well, hard tails, although the red star logo, which I associate with Communism, and the Hard Tail slogan of ‘Forever’ confuse me.
The yoga project has always seemed, at least to me, to be apolitical and focused on the here-and-now, gainsaying the permanent and not involved in the puzzling foreverness of fashion.
The rest of the magazine, slightly more than half of its hundred-or-so pages, is a bevy of ads: Alive supplements for “a lot more”; Re-Body weight loss supplements for “achieving your goals”; the “earth-friendly” Jade yoga mat; Norwegian Gold Omega supplements for when “you just want it all”; the Subaru station wagon which is “a whole lot to love”; Move Free supplements so that nothing “gets in the way of what moves you”; and lastly Ultimate Flora Critical Care supplements featuring a woman sitting cross-legged and meditating, her belly non-constipated, non-gaseous, and non-bloated.
The June 2013 issue of Yoga Journal delivered a special treat: a new back cover Lululemon advertisement designed by a team of marketing gurus and sold to the advertising gurus at the mass-circulation yoga magazine featuring an upside-down pole dancer, lurid purple lighting, and a pitch for the new Lululemon ‘om finder’ in the App Store.
I had recently been wondering about my own om, which was sounding scratchy, and was grateful for the new app, being hyped on Lululemon’s community page as “majorly exciting news for you”.
But, it turned out the ‘om finder’ was designed for another purpose.
Lululemon Athletica, for those not in the know, is a multi-billion dollar athletic apparel retailer, especially yoga apparel. In its own words, it is a company “where dreams come to fruition”. One of the slogans prominent in its manifesto is: “Friends are more important than money”.
In the same breath, however, most of Lululemon’s apparel is manufactured in third-world countries at the behest of the company’s founder, Chip Wilson, who believes, according to a speech he made at a conference of the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies in Vancouver, British Columbia, that third-world children should be encouraged to work in factories because it provides them with much-needed wages.
Charles Dickens would probably be rolling over in his grave if he knew.
At the same time Lululemon’s CEO Christine Day explains the company’s in-store philosophy of purposefully keeping inventories low in order to drive demand for its one hundred dollar yoga pants by saying: “Our guests know that there’s a limited supply, and it creates these fanatical shoppers.”
Employees are trained to eavesdrop on customers, according to The Wall Street Journal.
What were dynamic and clever constructs of the new Lululemon pitch, besides the scantily clad pole dancer, of course, were the optical center of the ad, and the text, a quote from a famous yoga teacher who is, as well, an “Elite Lululemon Ambassador”. The optical center of print advertisements, according to the Ogilvy Method, should always be one-third of the way down the page for maximum impact. The pole dancer’s butt is exactly one-third of the way down the page. The ad copy parallel with the pole dancer’s butt is a blurb by Chris Chavez, described as an “International yoga teacher and owner of Cihangir Yoga, Istanbul”, who said: “James! Hug your thighs together like a pole dancer.”
“He didn’t say “James! Hug your thighs together like Shiva Rea” or “James! Hug your thighs together like Jason Crandell”. Both of them are well-known yoga teachers. Opening the practice up to the brave new world of 21st century yoga he evoked the pseudo eroticism of pole dancing. Maybe other witty similes might find their way into yoga jargon, such as, “James! Bend your knee like a lunging swordsman in that Warrior Pose” and “James! Keep your drishti focused like a sniper with his sights on the Taliban”.
But, there is something not right about the back cover ad, because in the picture the pole dancer is not hugging her thighs together. One leg is stretched out straight in line with her torso and the other leg is crossed over the straight leg just above the knee. She is probably squeezing her butt to stay stuck to the pole, but she not hugging her thighs together. Either the pole dancer was misinformed about what pole-dancing move to make, or the marketing gurus were misinformed about what pole-dancing move was actually being portrayed in the photo shoot.
It is an unfortunate miscommunication, but for the sake of Lululemon’s bottom line it is a mistake we might all be willing to forgive.
Pole dancing, for those who practice yoga more than they frequent strip clubs, is a form of striptease in which go-go and lap dancing are actually the predominant parts of the performance. Strip club pole dancers often simply hold the pole and move around it without performing acrobatics. One of the most popular pole dancing schools in the world is Las Vegas’s Stripper 101, where “friendly instructors will teach you sexy strip club moves such as pole dancing, lap dancing, and striptease. Learn every seductive step to help you go from shy to OH MY!”
The earliest recorded pole dance, swinging sensually around a hollow steel pole wearing a bikini and six-inch stilettos, was in 1968, performed by Belle Jangles at the Mugwump men’s club in Oregon. A form of pole dancing had moved into strip clubs in the 1950s as burlesque became more accepted, but it was in the 1980s, especially in Canada, that it became popular. Canada is also, by sheer coincidence, the home of Lululemon.
Lululemon’s use of pole dancing in its Yoga Journal ad is a trope of advertising, namely that sex sells. Sex is an instinct and from the point-of-view of marketing has powerful biological and emotional effects on the viewer. Sex cuts through the mass of today’s ads and viewers generally spend a longer time looking at those ads that feature a substantial dose of it.
Why would Lululemon employ cheesecake to sell its yoga apparel, and by extension, referencing its placement in Yoga Journal, the practice of yoga itself?
The reason is that advertisers have used it to sell goods and services since advertising became what it is in our age. The earliest known use of sex in modern advertising parlance was by the Pearl Tobacco Company, which in 1871 featured a naked woman on its package cover. Although it doesn’t seem like there would be anywhere to go from there, in the past twenty years the use of increasingly explicit sexual imagery in print ads has become almost commonplace.
Maybe Lululemon knows more than it is letting on. Maybe it is tapping into the so-called “new burlesque”, which has been popping up from Los Angeles to New York City, although the old burlesque has never really left Coney Island. At posh clubs like Box ringside tables start at fifteen hundred dollars. In its own way Lululemon also knows how to fully maximize profits, selling forty eight dollar ‘Namaste’ mesh totes and one hundred and twenty eight dollar ‘Vinyasa’ canvas bags.
Some have said that the new burlesque is a feminist enterprise in which women can “enjoy their sexuality and take pride in their bodies,” writes Joan Acocella in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Lululemon’s implicit coding throughout much of its marketing references the same mantra.
It is possible that despite the lurid purple coloring, the spotlight on the pole dancer’s butt, the silhouetting of her body, and the reference to thighs instead of legs, that the Lululemon advertisement is really referencing pole acrobatics as an athletic form of dance.
Pole acrobatics can be traced back eight hundred years to India, where it was a sport for men. In China troupes of men used two poles to perform artistic gravity-defying tricks high off the ground. Internationally known Chinese circuses often incorporate poles in their acts. In the past twenty years pole acrobatics has emerged as a recreational and competitive sport, and there is even a campaign to include it in the 2016 Olympics.
It might also be said that purple symbolizes magic and mystery, as well as royalty. Purple is often seen as the color of people seeking spiritual fulfillment. It is thought if you surround yourself with purple you will have peace of mind and that purple is a good color to use in meditation. But, belying those presumptions is the fact that purple puts all fifty shades of gray to shame when it comes to sexy colors. In a recent survey of 2000 adults by online retailer Littlewoods, couples with purple-themed bedrooms had sex more often than anyone else, even ahead of those who preferred red.
It is possible that the signifiers in the advertisement are entirely different from its meaning.
It is possible, but I doubt it.
Whatever the case may be, whether Lululemon was using sex to sell its apparel, and whether Yoga Journal was kowtowing to one of its biggest advertisers, is beside the point. Yoga in the 21st century, from snappy apparel to studios in the best suburbs, from celebrity teachers to Caribbean retreats, from Bikram Choudhury’s fleet of Rolls Royce’s to Kripalu’s three hundred dollar-a-day “private lakeside“ rooms, is all about business. One of the oldest maxims in business is that sex sells, and if sales are the aim, then sex becomes another form of grist for the mill.
But, what is not just schlock about the Yoga Journal advertisement, but rather a reminder that consciousness depends on being conscious, is the disturbing tagline in the bottom right-hand corner, below the Lululemon logo: “When your teacher says it, it just makes sense.”
The proposition that teachers, whether they are newly hatched 200-hour graduates or international stars like Mr. Chavez, are nonpareil about all things yogic and should be followed unquestioningly is both cynical and devious. It is cynical because the proposition that no teacher, from the part-timer at the corner yoga studio to the superstars at national conferences, can ever err is ludicrous. It is devious because all teachers from part-timers to full-timers will and do err, and to offer it up as gospel otherwise is to offer up a gospel of deceit.
There are yoga teachers who walk, sleek and graceful as otters, as though a full-length mirror were being carried in front of them, but to follow in their wake unquestioningly is to compound the problem. To believe everything a yoga teacher says will always make sense makes no sense at all. The sense that stands on and appeals to authority is not always necessarily what it proclaims itself to be. More than two thousand years ago the Roman political theorist Cicero said, “The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”
Yoga is rife with teachers behaving badly. From Swami Muktananda to John Friend is a long litany of sexual indiscretion and even financial misconduct. In the mid-1990s the issue of sex in yoga studios became such a concern that the California Yoga Teachers Association called for higher standards. “We wrote the code,” said Judith Hanson Lasater, the group’s president, “because there were so many violations going on. It’s happened from the highest-level gurus in India to multiple generations of yoga teachers in the United States. It’s so common as to be beyond a cliché. Some of what these teachers are doing, they should be in jail for.”
Swami Muktananda, who died in 1982, was a hugely popular guru who at the height of his popularity had more than 70,000 followers worldwide, including Melanie Griffith, Diana Ross, and Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame. He claimed to have achieved sainthood and become so enlightened he was “perfect” and absolutely free of human weakness. Human weaknesses in his guru book of do’s-and-don’ts did not include sexual liaisons with a parade of young girls at his ashram nor his secret Swiss bank accounts. Joan Bridges, one of his students, was 26-years-old when she was sexually abused by Swami Muktananda, who was 73 at the time.
“I was both thrilled and confused,” she said. “He told us to be celibate, so how could this be sexual? I had no answers.”
In 1994 the Kripalu Center imploded when Amrit Desai, its saffron robed founder and ‘Spiritual Director’, was found out to have had multiple extra-marital affairs. “He was too often a teacher who was too charming for his own good,” writes Stephen Cope in his book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. Desai, who had preached about the value of celibacy as a way to focus on yoga, was forced to resign his $150,000.00 a year spiritual directorship. “My first reaction was shock,” said Jonathan Foust, who was the public relations director at Kripalu at the time, and who had been celibate for what he described as six “difficult” years before marrying.
“I felt betrayed because celibacy is no easy practice.”
John Friend’s Anusara Yoga, one of the world’s fastest-growing styles, collapsed in 2012 when its jet-setting founder and guiding light was accused of sexual improprieties and financial malfeasance. At the time Anusara was an international practice that claimed more than 1,500 teachers and 600,000 students. “It was a new thing,” said Joe Miller, owner of Willow Street Yoga in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It was yoga rock-stardom.” Although often sermonizing at yoga festivals about the value of relationships and the importance of trust, it was revealed that John Friend had engaged in drug use, had sexual relations with students, employees, and married women, and tampered with his company’s pension fund.
Just because a yoga teacher says let’s go pole dancing on the shores of the lagoon of bliss doesn’t make it right. And, parenthetically, just because the apparel behemoth Lululemon, trying to sell its trove of see-through yoga pants before being forced to recall them, says that see-through yoga pants are appropriate attire for practicing down dog, doesn’t make trying to unload them right, either.
“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis,” the Dalai Lama has said. Unless, of course, it is easier to be guided by the pleasant platitudes of teachers like Swami Muktananda, Amrit Desai, and John Friend.
But, it is absurd that a man should rule others who cannot rule himself. Leadership is partly about meeting moral challenges, partly about coalescing people around a shared vision, and mostly about being clear and courageous.
“The supreme quality of leadership is integrity,” said Dwight Eisenhower, Commander of the Allied Army during World War II and two-time President of the United States.
The environments and social milieus we live in shape us, just as the leaders we choose to follow shape us, for we become like them. One of the tests of integrity is its refusal to be compromised, its refusal to consider the bottom line, to meditate on profits before probity.
“Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” Bob Dylan warned in the song Subterranean Homesick Blues. When Lululemon weds pole dancing to yoga in order to sell its perky fitness apparel made for pennies on the dollar in third world countries, and Yoga Journal lends its hand to the tawdry enterprise, it may indeed be time to watch the parking meters and not follow leaders who are bleeding the meters dry.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.