The Modern Yoga Body Image

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Shifting throughout history, the ideal yoga body has changed over time and place but in modern western society, it has looked the same—young, white, thin, females. Trends in the model yoga body size have shifted with culturally dominant body ideals over time. These shifting trends pose a few questions: 1.) has modern yoga become a practice for white, elitist, fit, females? and 2.) has modern yoga neglected majority of the population by branding itself as elitist? and 3.) have modern yoga advertisements featuring such models left a negative impact on those who do not represent the ideal yoga body? and 4.) how does the intensity and self-investment for the ideal yoga body compare to that of any religion? These questions I plan to address throughout this paper by examining multiple scholarly sources, as well as, conducting my own research on how the ideal yoga body is represented today in advertisements. I also plan to address if any yoga brands have taken initiative to include a more diverse representation of the modern yoga body.

Back in 2013, lululemon, a high-end yoga apparel brand was finally criticized for only stocking sizes eight and under. "The exiling of larger clothing by lululemon is a central piece of the company’s strategy to market its brand as the look of choice for the stylishly fitness-conscious” (Bhasin, 2013). This discriminatory treatment of larger clothes and customers left a sour taste in the eyes of the media, but has that really changed? Indeed it has not, with slowing growth and staying away from the $14 billion-dollar plus-size industry, lululemon has no interest in attracting plus-size shoppers in order to protect its brand image. In fact, when cross referencing multiple sites for their sizing charts, all of them are similar, expect for lululemon’s. lululemon’s sizing chart does not go above a size 14, which they deem as an XXL. When cross referencing multiple women’s sizing charts, a size 14 was a L. Clearly, they have no motivation to change their small size perception as the ideal yoga body.

However, when also looking at the models on lululemon’s site, 12/13 of models featured on the front page, are not in fact, white. The models are diverse in backgrounds and ethnicities. One thing they share in common though, is their tall body and small frame. Although lululemon itself may not be deemed as “white elitist” in terms of their advertisements, in the eyes of many yoga teachers and consumers, it is still elitist. Paying an average of $98 dollars per pair of yoga pants that do not seem to be keep in mind the comfort yoga teachers are looking for when practicing is something many teachers see as being elitist. The only people wearing those pants are the stereotypical “lululemon moms and daughters.” Also known as, white women wearing expensive fitness apparel (Boccio, 2012). As lululemon’s online advertisements may be more diverse with the intention of being inclusive, their customer base is not. This leaves the majority of women, especially in the US to feel left out, as their body sizes and wallets do not match the ideal yoga body that lululemon and many other major yoga advertisers have created.

“Got yoga?” was a study conducted on advertisements seen in Yoga Journal spanning over a four decade period of time. The results suggested that Yoga Journal now contains significantly more advertisements for food, nutritional supplements, and apparel and fewer advertisements for meditation and nutritional practices than in its early years of publication. Apparel took a 2500% increase between the years of 1975-2015, which increased its need for models. The study also found that overtime, models were more frequently rated as white and in their 20s and 30s. Across all four decades, 53.4% of models were rated as white, 57.1% were rated in their 20s and 30s, and 52.2% of the models were rated as underweight or low-normal weight. A range of BMIs (between 16-28) was used to rate the body size of these models and over a four decade period, only one model was found to have a BMI over 25, most models averaging a BMI of 18.5. This study suggests a shift away from yoga’s traditional philosophies to an increasingly objectifying and commercialized yoga culture emphasizing the purchase and use of products and an ideal “yoga body.” Most notably, I want to address that between 1985-1994, models in all yoga advertisements were significantly thinner and majority being white, than models featured in past and later decades. This specific period in time suggests the association between the consolidation of affluent white women and yoga shifting from counterculture to pop culture. As yoga has become increasingly popular among these western consumers, they have been the center focus of yoga advertising within the industry.

As yoga’s ideal practitioner has shifted over history, it has become known in the US as the affluent white female. However, years prior, the ideal yoga body was represented by Indian men who sculpted their bodies to look like Scandinavian men through the use and practice of yoga. With the help of Iyer, Indian men were starting to body sculpt and bodybuild through the use of yoga. They were the face of yoga and they were the ones assisting in the formation of postural yoga. Soon thereafter, a shift from male models to female models began as more women became involved in physical activity in the 1930s. Through harmonial gymnastics in Britain, many women were adopting the trend of building the body beautifully. “The gender division established at the dawn of modern physical culture between regimens aiming at (masculine) strength and vigor on the one hand and those that sought to cultivate (feminine) grace and ease of movement on the other persists throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first” (Singleton, 159). The transformation of ideal yoga bodies started early and has continually shifted throughout decades. As yoga was introduced in the US and consumers became more intrigued by yoga and less afraid of it, that Indian male model has morphed its way into a young, white, female. This shift can be attributed to the introduction of yoga to women in Britain, as well as, yoga becoming popular culture rather than counter culture. The philosophies and mental practices have faded, while the physical aspects (asana) have received most attention from the affluent white contingency. As the workout craze of the 1980s hit, affluent white women have helped shift the pre-existing model into what it is today.
Yoga is said to be all-inclusive, and beyond all man-made ‘isms’, yet, many people feel that yoga has a racism problem. Noted from the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, about one in every fifteen Americans practices yoga, yet more than four-fifths of them are white. As outlined above, the ideal yoga body has shifted throughout history. It is likely that it will shift again, but for now, it is still predominantly the affluent white female. This has left majority of the population feeling left out. This may have to do with the fact that most, if not all yoga studios are concentrated in wealthy white neighborhoods. This leaves postural yoga under the criticism that there are also religious, economic, and social divisions that underlie yoga’s racial divide.

A 2011 CDC report, “Health Disparities and Inequalities,” found that people who live in households with incomes below $15,000 experience significantly more health problems due to inactivity, and are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes or asthma and to be obese than those from households with incomes above $50,000. There are often fewer parks, gyms, and recreational facilities in poorer neighborhoods, which reduces the likelihood that people in these communities will exercise at all. Comprehensive current data is difficult to find but a 2002 survey of just over 31,000 yoga practitioners published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that they tend to be female, college-educated, and white. Forty-eight percent of respondents made $65,000 a year or more. Advertisements of postural yoga, have not helped to mediate these issues. Nearly every spread within LA Yoga, Yoga Journal, and Yoga Magazine features a thin woman, usually in slim yoga pants and a tight tank, stretching her arms toward the sky or closing her eyes in meditation. Again, nearly all of these women are white.

Due to the shift throughout time, yoga’s focus is now based mainly on physical wellness rather than it’s philosophies. This leaves room for racial and socioeconomic inequalities. Yoga is advertised under health and wellness, an industry that is largely accessible to affluent white people and neglecting many others. When searching for the price of a yoga class, I found many results, therefore I took the average of those prices and found that the average price for a single yoga class is around $20. With postural yoga classes priced so highly, with the advertisements neglecting majority of Americans, and with the ideal yoga body being an almost unattainable image, yoga leaves a large divide in today’s society.

Good branding and advertising is inclusive. It is important that audiences can experience reassurance and comfort that comes with seeing themselves reflected in the media they consume. The entire yoga advertising industry, has neglected to do that. Yoga, being under the wellness industry, should be accessible to everyone. Not only has yoga neglected many consumers who are not white, but it has also neglected many women who are not skinny. Another research article called, “Is the “Yoga Bod” the New Skinny?” examines a set of 142 yoga magazine publications from 2010-2015. Results show that models were mainly white females, who are lean and fit, portraying the media fitness aesthetic. Implications of this show that to practice yoga, women must be thin. Not only are yoga advertisements leaving out other races, they are leaving out a large majority of their core target market, white women. The average American woman is around 5’3 and wears around a size 16-18 (Zarracina, 2018). All models are a minimum of 5’7 and a maximum size 2-4. It is estimated that 68% of American women wear a size 14 or above (Plunkett, 2018). This statistic, does not take into account the percentage of women between sizes 6-12 which are sizes also not represented in yoga advertisements. When consumers cannot see themselves in a brand, they will not partake in the brand’s practices, in this case, yoga.

For those that do see themselves within brand advertising, those brands can be like a religion to them. One instance of a religious-like brand is goop, a brand closely studied by Dana Logan in her article called, “The Lean Closet.” goop is a minimalist brand that follows the “religious now,” an imperative that combines contemporary capitalism and spirituality. “It is an overlap between religious practice and economic habit. As a brand it participates in the institutional history of the Christian church as a form of ascetic piety” (Logan, pg 602). goop distinguishes itself from other lifestyle brands through its distinctive take on elimination as lifestyle. For instance, detox is a form of consumption found in goop that requires purchase at almost every point through juices, saunas, retreats, etc. Even though it is supposed to be a minimalist brand, it still requires multiple purchases. “It blends the practices of religious asceticism and consumption through the highly mediated form of post industrial capitalism, where capital accumulates without proximate relations of making, selling, and buying objects” (Logam, pg 603). Thus relating directly to the branding and advertising of yoga. As goop is a minimalist brand that has a background in the Christian church, lululemon and yoga journal have backgrounds in multiple religions associated with yoga. Both goop and lululemon overlap between religious practices and economic habits creating forms of consumption that consumers did not know they needed but now want or aspire to.

Like goop, many yoga brands have an aspirational goal that many want to achieve by buying and living the brand’s lifestyle. For many yoga brands, that aspirational goal may not be enlightenment but rather, the ideal yoga body. When researching in the Journal of Consumer Culture, I found that highly successful forms of branded fitness such as bikram yoga, give insight into the enormous power and permeation of branded sensibilities into everyday life. In this case, going so far as to inform how consumers relate to, and attempt to modify, their own bodies. “Branded fitness is to be quite literally embodied: experienced within the devotee as well as on display, sometimes in highly promotional ways, to those with whom the devotee interacts” (Powers, pg 528). The article “Branded Fitness and Promotional Culture” explains how capitalism and the state have exercised biopower to discipline the body into a productive asset and most notably, how a fit body may produce physical capital for the person who possesses it, reflecting a sense of diligence, self-care, and self-worth.

This sense of intense diligence, self-care, and self-worth associated with a fit body, I argue are the aspirational goals similar to that of an actual religion. The costs associated with the ideal yoga body for certain brands like lululemon or non-yoga brands like goop, are very high. Again, take into consideration that one pair of lululemon leggings cost an average of $98 and to reach the ideal, yoga models must have multiple pairs of those leggings, and dressed head to mat in lululemon. Attaining the end goal of the ultimate yoga body is no easy feat and requires a lot of money, time, self-investment and brand investment, similar to a religious institution. Religious institutions require their practitioners to invest much of their time, money and self into the institute before attaining the end goal. Yoga brands have become forms of religion in this post industrial capitalist society that require their brand ambassadors/practitioners/consumers to partake in the brand at almost all times, not just through fitness initiatives.

Unfortunately, these brands are leaving many consumers behind who cannot afford to partake in the religious-like intensities of the brand. Throughout my research, I have attempted to find yoga brands that are more inclusive in race, body type, age, and gender. As lululemon advertisements are diverse in race, they are not diverse in body type. Good American, a clothing brand by Khloe Kardashian, shows models diverse in race and body type but all women shown are young and there are no males on the site at all. Also, Good American fitness apparel does not appeal to everyone as the average price of leggings on the site are around $129. Again, although the advertisements may look diverse and indicate inclusivity, the price reflects the elitist brand culture. Searching through multiple sites and brands like Yogaoutlet, Manduka, Athleta, Fabletics, I found that the models on these sites are barely diverse in race, age, body-type, and gender leading me to believe that yoga has become branded as a young, white, fit, female, elitist culture that neglects majority of American consumers. This is also reflected in the pricing of the clothes on each site. Sadly, brands have yet to take a stand and promote inclusivity but some non-profits have taken a stand by insisting that yoga practice is for everyone, not just for people who can afford the class and a mat.

In response to the non-inclusive brands, organizations like Street Yoga and Yoga 4 Change are aiming to bring yoga to populations that cannot afford it. Yoga 4 Change trains teachers to bring yoga into places where people do not usually have access to it, including schools, veterans’ facilities, public housing, and substance-abuse treatment centers. “When we come in, this is the first time that 90 percent of our students have experienced yoga” - Kathryn Thomas (founder of Yoga 4 Change). By bringing yoga into places where yoga is not found, it increases the inclusivity that yoga was once about. Hopefully, brands will start pairing up with these non-profits to increase the overall number of yoga practitioners.

Throughout my research I have found that the ideal yoga body has shifted throughout history but for the past 30+ years, it has stayed relatively the same--young, affluent, white females who portray the perfectly sculpted yoga body. Brands have neglected majority of Americans by only catering to the target audience of affluent, white women. They have left women and men alike to feel left out by not giving them the ability to attain the perfect yoga body due to high prices and elitist culture. Yoga advertisements have shown a clear pattern in their model choices by only showing models who are under a size four and who are mainly white. For those who have taken on the ideal yoga body, I argued that these people have a certain brand that they have adopted as their religion. To attain the ideal yoga body, these people have invested a multitude of time, money, and their physical and mental selves, much like that of any religious institution. As the yoga body continues to shift throughout history, my hope is that brands take the initiative to become more inclusive, at the very least in their advertising by showing a variety of races, genders, ages, and body types so consumers can see themselves within the ads and not feel so neglected. Yoga was intended to be inclusive, brands should be too.

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The modern yoga body image. (2019, Aug 12). Retrieved June 18, 2024 , from

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