How do you know when your yoga teaching gig is too-legit-to-quit? When the toy company Mattel considers you so hip and marketable that it creates a special line of Barbie dolls in your honor.
That’s what happened last June when Mattel released “Yoga Barbie” as part of its “I want to be” series. It was a shocking sight: Barbie, pony-tailed and gaily balanced in “Standing Bow Pose,” decked out in colorful stretch pants and a tight-fitting Lycra top. With a pet pooch at her side, she seemed to resemble not so much America’s favorite play-doll but hotel heiress Paris Hilton — but a Hilton that couldn’t talk, let alone pout and complain.
Where was the uproar? Nowhere, actually, except for a few peeps of protest from yoga “purists” old-fashioned enough to think that a sacred mind-body practice might still privilege inner beauty and avoid crass commercialism. Fat chance. In less than a week, posh yoga clothing retailer Lululemon had spoofed Mattel’s plastic diva with a Barbie figurine of its own. These days, with Barbie-ish yoga supermodels – blonde, slim-figured women like Shiva Rea and Kathryn Budig — cutting ads for Fortune 500 firms like Reebok and Mercedes Benz, it’s probably no surprise that such a notorious symbol of female gender conformity could morph overnight into a spiritual “mascot” and retro emblem of Girl Power — all in the name of stoking the burgeoning yoga market.
Rich eccentrics and Hollywood celebrities have helped fund and nourish yoga sub-cultures in the past, but none of these earlier flirtations quite compare with today’s full-fledged — and increasingly global — yoga “boom.” Yoga hasn’t quite entered the popular consciousness yet, and despite the best efforts of its most avid promoters, it’s still far from “mainstream.” But follow the money: according to a study commissioned by Yoga Journal, the industry grossed $10.4 billion in total sales revenues in 2012, about a tenth of the total U.S. “wellness” market, and nearly double the $5.6 million in sales revenues it recorded just four years earlier. The practice, in one form or another, is spreading everywhere — to gyms, recreation centers, schools, and churches — andm of course, to gleaming corporate-franchised yoga “studios” that have become as ubiquitous as your corner Starbucks.
American capitalism has embraced yoga whole elephant, you might say. And not just yoga the discrete breathing and posture practice, but the entire yoga “ethos.” Markets have created an entirely new “psychographic” among American consumers known as the “Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability” segment (or LOHAS, for short). It’s all the rage among the most enlightened segments of the U.S. business class and it centers, more than anyone else, on women, who already account for an estimated 70% of all consumer purchasing decisions in America. LOHAS targets aging Baby-Boomers and upwardly mobile professional women who identify with “alternative” groups and causes, such as conservation and green energy, but are also big-time consumers of high-end — and “renewable” — fashion, clothing and beauty products. This is no niche market: a study by the Natural Marketing Institute identified 41 million LOHAS consumers, roughly double the number of estimated yoga practitioners, and about 30% of the total (adult) consumer market nationwide.
“Yoga Barbie” is emblematic of how marketers plan to close the gap between yoga and Middle America. Part of the LOHAS concept is to expand yoga-related marketing beyond the orbit of yoga classes, DVDs, workshops, and retreats so that yoga consumers will buy more mainstream goods not immediately related to their practice. However, LOHAS marketing also seeks to draw more mainstream consumers to the yoga “brand.” These consumers may not have much real relationship to yoga at all, and might not want one, in fact. But they can purchase a yoga-stamped product or service, and consider themselves part of the expanding yogic “universe” anyway, even if they never set foot in a yoga class. And what better way for marketers to reach those uninitiated yoga consumers than to work on their children, especially young girls, who have played with Barbie dolls for decades, and seem to genuinely see in her something of a role model for life?
Barbie’s just one of a growing number of consumer products that relects the broader LOHAS strategy. Another is “Yoga Bread,” produced by The Baker in Vermont. It looks like organic wheat bread, and it basically is, except that the company has added packaging and advertising to suggest that its product is part and parcel of a yoga-friendly lifestyle. Given the yoga hype, you’d almost expect the bread to toast itself, or to “Om.“ But take a closer look at the bread’s ingredients: it’s actually more fattening and less nutritious than other wheat brands, and isn’t even listed and recognized as a USDA-approved “organic” bread. Even some yoga teachers have bought The Baker’s con, promoting the cranberry-studded bread to their friends as some kind of dietary supplement to their morning yoga practice. And it’s not just neighborhood health food stores that sell it. You can find Yoga Bread prominently displayed at Whole Foods and even at major retail food outlets like Giant and Safeway.
The level of deception involved in LOHAS marketing varies. Sometimes it involves outright fabrication. In 2006, Lululemon claimed that its new line of pricey tops contained “seaweed” fiber with special healing properties, and sales of the product skyrocketed. However, a subsequent New York Times investigation revealed that the shirts were actually 100% cotton. It was a major marketing scandal, which led to new sanctions against Canadian-based apparel companies, and new industry guidelines. But Lululemon founder Chip Wilson brushed off the scandal, and the company’s operations remained largely unfazed. In fact, much of Lululemon’s entire product line – its raincoats and umbrellas, for example – has no real relationship to yoga – but as part of the LOHAS-inflected ethos, the firm markets them as such anyway. Not only has LOHAS-style marketing made Wilson a multi-billionaire but his company grosses nearly $900 million annually, making it the yoga industry’s corporate flagship – and the envy of mass-market clothing retailers like GAP, Nordstrom’s and Nike who have ambitions of rolling out their own yoga-related products — but at costs the middle class can afford. They’re even stealing elements of the Lulu business model, placing yoga teachers in their stores and designating them “brand ambassadors” in exchange for product discounts.
Exaggerating yoga-related food or clothing benefits is just one aspect of the LOHAS marketing deception. Another, perhaps more serious, is the enormous hype that surrounds the presumed health benefits of yoga. In recent months, some of the same prominent yoga teachers with high-profile corporate sponsors – Tara Stiles and Kathryn Budig, among them — have gone beyond the usual claims about yoga’s calming and de-stressing benefits to advance far more outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about yoga’s ability to “cure” an entire range of modern health ailments — everything from the common cold, wrinkles, and the hangover to more serious problems like arthritis, glaucoma and hypertension. In her 2013 book — with the astonishing title, Yoga Cures — Stiles recommends throwing a handful of advanced yoga poses at all your health problems the way doctors used to suggest taking a couple of aspirin, or a snake oil salesmen once proffered a healthy swig from their “elixir.” For support, she’s even called upon Deepak Chopra, a New Age pop philosopher who’s sold millions of books and regularly appears on television, to give her claims a patina of scientific credibility. Chopra’s not actually qualified, by training, to vouch for yoga health science. But he’s Indian after all. Somehow that lends the same cherished cultural “aura” that yoga idoes.
And it’s not just Chopra. In a pattern reminiscent of the tobacco or pharmaceutical drug companies, yoga-friendly scholars at various universities are promoting a bevy of “junk science” studies to “prove” that yoga “works.” Typically, these studies feature eager test subjects – often friends and associates of the researcher – who agree to practice yoga to see if the practice might positively affect a specific health condition. The problem? The samples are generally too small, and aren’t drawn at random, so the results are hardly “representative.” Moreover, none of the traditional experimental protocols – for example, the use of control groups — are in place to help validate the study’s methodology and findings. But that hasn’t kept study researchers and their industry allies – and virtually the entire yoga blogosphere – from declaring these studies “conclusive” and promoting them as gospel (conveniently ignoring the researchers’ own disclaimers buried in the fine print).
And there’s a flip side to all the yoga health hype: an increasingly scary campaign to try to discredit industry critics and watchdogs. Public enemy number one seems to be William Broad, a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist and author of the The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. Broad has steadfastly challenged many of the industry’s health and fitness claims while documenting the real threat of potential injury. In a series of adjoining articles, he has reviewed hospital emergency room statistics to suggest that a relatively large number of consumers are getting injured practicing yoga in part because the industry refuses to properly train and license its teachers. He’s even suggested that certain yoga poses, like the Plow, which compresses the carotid artery, could be fatal. Many other poses, through repetitive strain could cause chronic injuries over time, he argues. In the face of open hostility from Chopra and from other self-appointed industry experts like Dr. Timothy McCall and Eva Norlyk Smith, a growing number of yoga teachers, including Hawaii-based Michaelle Edwards, a 40-year veteran, have rushed to Broad’s defense, adding their own carefully documented accounts of yoga injuries and calling for industry-wide reform.
What would reform actually look like? Few in the industry seem to know, much less care, in the absence of consumer pressure that affects their bottom line. But the real problem may be the Faustian bargain that so many yoga “purists” have struck with industry marketers, maintaining a silence on its amped-up advertising — or actually believing the hype themselves — simply to see their beloved mind-body practice catch fire. Suggestions that companies like Lululemon be sanctioned or fined or — horror or horrors — boycotted — have met with stony silence. No one it seems, wants to see their own yoga pants taken away. And when it comes to the practice of yoga itself, yogis have resisted attempts by some state governments to try to rein in their teacher training programs, in part of protect consumers. Most industries subscribe to some form of regulation – if only voluntary collective self-regulation – to stave off more stringent government regulatory efforts. And they do so for good reason: to weed out charlatans and keep their consumers confident in the value and safety of their service. Even body workers like masseurs and masseuses as well as martial arts specialists submit to rigorous licensing standards, and fall under state purview. But not yogis. Like a church, yoga has sought, in effect, a permanent spiritual “exemption” from all public monitoring and oversight — to say nothing of taxation. When it comes to national politics, most yogis are good liberal Democrats; but when it comes to cleaning their own house, they’re mostly free-market libertarians.
And “Yoga Barbie” — like Lulu clothing — is selling like hotcakes. Especially at Target stores, where sales are brisk, where she’s helping the industry break out of the LOHAS orbit and finally reach the “masses.” Girls love her, in part, because she’s one of the bendiest Barbies ever. Bendy enough to perform even the most difficult yoga poses on a whim without breaking or falling apart, and having to be recalled. According to Mattel, the new Barbie’s setting a powerful example of what young women can do and be if they really set their hearts and minds on it. And, about 80,000 of them already have, according to the Yoga Alliance, a self-styled professional association that “certifies” yoga teachers. In just a few years, these eager, mostly 20-somethings – many of them barely schooled in life, let alone the sacred traditions of yoga — have become the flesh-and-blood embodiment of “Yoga Barbie,” teaching students twice their age how to twist and bend their bodies, while subjecting them to their own bon mots of spiritual wisdom drawn from a favorite book or one of their personal diary entries
In fact, “teacher training” is one more circle of complicity in the yoga world. And it’s key to keeping the entire industry together — one reason that efforts to regulate it are so hotly opposed. Most high-rent yoga studios couldn’t afford to keep their doors open if they relied on class or membership fees alone. They desperately need the revenues from their young students, many of them financed by their parents, just to keep their doors open. In fact, they charge these students a mint for their rudimentary training — lasting as little as six weeks, in some cases. Once trained, the studios help promote their former trainees as part of their official studio roster, and the new graduates, in turn, eagerly promote themselves and their studio on their web sites and Facebook pages — anywhere a willing flock may be found and marketed to.
Yoga Alliance’s primary mission, it seems, is to rubber-stamp these teacher training programs, in the process not inquiring too much about what is actually taught or how. The alliance isn’t even a real “trade association.“ It has no role in standardizing training curricula and offers no serious guidelines for consumer protection and service. It also has no monitoring or oversight role, and no investigatory power to enforce even its own low standards on its members, much less to impose a code of conduct that might sanction abusive or ineffective teachers. The Alliance does its best to promote the interests of the studios and their teachers, especially their desire to be free from government regulators and tax collectors. It serves as an informal public spokesman. But there are plenty of yoga teachers who have bypassed the Alliance system and set up shop on their own.
This is a far cry, of course, from the way yoga used to be taught — in secluded ashrams, based on years of patient and rigorous moral and spiritual training between a recognized guru and carefully selected disciples. A small minority of American yoga teachers first came to the practice this way. But that’s the Old World of Hindu spiritual devotion, divorced from pecuniary concerns. In the New World of mindful commerce, it‘s “Yoga Barbie” — not the goddess Shakti — who reigns supreme. She’s proof positive that yoga might one day conquer the American middle class, forswearing the goal of “ahmadi” — the attainment of spiritual “enlightenment” — in favor of something far more tangible: mass consumer bliss. And the fact that so many otherwise socially responsible LOHAS women have largely agreed to “go with the flow,“ ignoring the industry’s corrupt and deceptive practices — while continuing to embrace all-things-yoga — is nothing short of a modern marketing miracle.
“Yoga Barbie.“ She’s not quite the Virgin Mary, but if current trends hold, the yoga industry may one day declare her a saint.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com