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Selling Boutique Fitness to the Global Bourgeoisie

Equinox Yoga’s Lifestyle Offensive

by STEWART J. LAWRENCE

Its very name suggests an unattainable but infinitely desirable experience of cosmic well-being. But if company marketers have their way, Equinox — a boutique Manhattan-based fitness chain catering to the super-rich – will soon be all the rage. The company’s planning to bring its elite gym and wellness experience into top European and Asian cities – it’s already in New York, Toronto and London — by 2015. It also has its eye on broadening its position in the U.S. market.

Equinox’s new CEO, Sarah Robb, once helped build the Gatorade sports drink empire. Her senior marketing executive, Cie Nicholson, who’s charged with assisting Equinox’s corporate expansion, recently did the same for Pepsi in North America.

Equinox may never actually reach the obese and struggling middle class — but tapping its core demographic abroad could still boost company profits sky-high. And industry observers say that could well change the world of fitness forever.

But how does Equinox plan to attract the global bourgeoisie to its premium “offering”? The same way the posh apparel firm Lululemon – which caters to the same upscale consumers, only female – did: by tapping into the sacred – but increasingly flashy — Hindu mind-body practice of yoga to reinforce its distinctive brand.

It all started with a single You Tube video two years ago that virtually overnight became a viral sensation (with nearly 7 million page views to date). At the suggestion of Los Angeles yoga celebrity Kathryn Budig, who formerly represented Lululemon and a smaller yoga apparel company Toesox, Equinox became aware of another supremely lithe and athletic devotee of yoga who fit their desired cultural profile perfectly: Briohny Smyth. A former pop singer and aspiring actress, Smyth is of mixed European and Thai ancestry, and like Budig, comes off in person like a pert, down-home girl. She’s non-threatening and eminently likable. But unlike Budig, she’s also distinctly “Oriental.” Left to practice yoga, and filmed with a voyeuristic camera that lingers along the contours of her body, she projects – for Westerners, at least – a distinctly “exotic” allure.

The first Equinox You Tube video featured Smyth in super-tight bikini wear running through a challenging sequence of Level 4 yoga poses in what appears to be an expensive Eastside Manhattan apartment or loft. It’s shot in black and white, and the setting, largely devoid of furniture and household appurtenances, seems stark, almost austere. Smyth never speaks and there’s no voice-over, just a low-tone techno-hum, which together with the setting and her movements, transforms her — and her near-naked body — into an icon, inspiring a sense of awe. Equinox hopes the viewer will make the not-so-subtle semiotic connection: like Smyth, we offer a peak experience that few dare aspire to — let alone achieve.

What’s striking about this entire marketing approach is that Equinox in practice doesn’t actually feature yoga – far from it. Its gyms are mainly for leisure fitness junkies — and for extremely busy executives, so busy, in fact, that most clearly don’t have time for yoga. And even if they wanted to make time, since so many Equinox consumers are men, and trend older, it’s unlikely that most would. However, Equinox clearly knows the marketing value of this trend – and has deliberately moved to exploit it.

Even before promoting Smyth, in 2007 Equinox acquired the Hong Kong-based Pure Yoga, which now competes in the high-end yoga market with other big corporate chains like Yoga Works. Pure Yoga is also flooding the Asian market beyond Hong Kong into Singapore, Taipei, and even Shanghai. But Equinox is not actually selling yoga the practice – it’s simply using the “aura” of yoga, and its ethos, combined with Smyth’s cross-cultural persona, to project an image of competitive high-performance and balance and grace under pressure. These are values that any top Wall Street banker or stockbroker – eagerly carving up the globe’s finances or negotiating multi-billion dollar investment deals — can relate to. They may not be practicing yoga but they’re busy experiencing their own “mountain top” experience.

Equinox also knows the marketing value of controversy. Smyth’s first video went viral – in part, because it reignited a long-simmering debate among yogis about sex and beauty-based advertising as well as the use of yoga to sell consumer products and services. Budig has long challenged yoga to accept eroticism – even in the service of commerce – as a positive good, because it contains the message that body self-care for women is a plus, and that shapely beauty and good looks aren’t something the women that have them should be ashamed of. Smyth, naturally, espouses the same philosophy, which hasn’t really washed with most of the American yoga community. But it probably doesn’t matter. Real yogis don‘t need Equinox, and Equinox doesn’t really need yogis – except as sales props. Through them, high-end consumers get an alluring eyeful of yoga’s magic, without necessarily having to roll out a mat. Unless of course, they really want to – and if they do, it could cost them close to $80 a class in New York, and probably even more in Asia.

Subsequent Equinox videos have embellished the yoga theme still further, adding to the advertising mix Smyth’s husband, Dice lida-Klein — like her, about 30 and totally buff, his chest emblazoned with a huge tattoo representing a mysterious Eastern-looking totem. One video has the two of them performing “Acro Yoga,” in which lida-Klein lies on his back and braces his wife as she performs a series of delicate poses seemingly suspended in mid-air. In another video, lida-Klein appears by himself on a paddle board, transitioning from simple Warrior poses to more challenging headstands, as he gently floats down a lush river, past moored boats and exclusive shoreline houses. The setting could easily be somewhere along the French Riviera or the Seine. It even calls to mind – deliberately, it seems — the Impressionist works of Renoir and Monet, who delighted and amused their wealthy bourgeois patrons by depicting them on their summer vacations, gaily frolicking, as rowers in search of a boat fare beckoned nearby. Now, it’s lida-Klein’s who’s “rowing” and like his wife, wordlessly, he seems to be beckoning us, too.

Equinox’s tag line makes clear its marketing message. “It’s not just fitness. It’s life.” But is it? Not for most people, of course. And with repeat viewings, even the videos start to wear thin. Despite their impressive calisthenics, Smyth and her husband are clearly just actors, and their performances are relatively staid compared to the feats performed by trained acrobats – or even other yogis. In fact, even before the Equinox videos appeared, Renaissance Hotels had developed its own impressive TV spots featuring an elegant woman performing a high-flying balancing act, sweeping across a plush executive suite, using the room’s passion-infused red curtains for support, like a trapeze. She’s not Asian, but neither is the hotel chain’s target market. And Renaissance isn’t offering yoga or even fitness – at least not featuring them prominently as services. They’re just selling opulence, comfort, and leisure, what their 5-star guests crave and what Holiday Inn consumers might one day wish for, too. And in the upscale demographics they target, the ads, like Equinox’s, are a hit.

And judging from the continuing buzz – and gushing comments on You Tube and elsewhere — there are plenty of people in and around Yoga World who are prepared to embrace Equinox – or at least Smyth. Part of the sell, in fact, is that mascots like Budig and Smyth do get to develop their more folksy personas in public – and indeed are encouraged to do so — by their corporate sponsors, which helps “humanize” them – and by extension, their sponsors, too. Each model typically has a personal pet project or cause that she wants to support – in the case of Budig, it’s her PAWS animal rescue non-profit; for Smyth, it’s her consciousness-raising on addiction and bulimia. Companies like Toe Sox and Equinox agree to support these causes in some modest, even token, way, to lend their public image an air of “social” responsibility. It takes some of the edge off their hard-core luxury leisure message, which helps retain some demographics that might otherwise be turned off by such extravagant displays of conspicuous consumption.

And significantly, their corporate contracts with the likes of Smyth aren’t exclusive, either. Smyth is free to promote a number of smaller, boutique firms, like Hipswidth, which is based in Sydney, Australia, her hometown, and Palmpring, which produces “organic” cocoanut mattresses. In her videos promoting these companies, Smyth doesn’t even practice yoga. She simply sits in front of the camera, clothed informally, offering the standard first-person testimonial. The contrast in images is striking: for Equinox, she’s a titillating vessel of eternal longing, distant and unreachable; but for Hipswidth or Palmring, she wants us to get to know her – her life and her values. You’d never suspect that she’s also a high-flying corporate mascot.

Perhaps it’s a sign of just how flexible – and cross-cutting – yoga lifestyle marketing has become. Sometimes it’s the glamorous and sexy main act, putting a racy sheen on luxury. Other times, completely dressed down, it speaks in vernacular to the masses, giving them hope of a better life through low-brow – but still pricey — “green” consumption. In figures like Smyth, the two markets – traditionally far apart spatially and demographically – are literally joined at the hip –“yoked,” as it were, through yoga. Smyth may not be raising the level of spiritual consciousness much, but she’s making quite a few people awfully rich – including herself — and in the end, yoga or no yoga, that’s all that seems to matter.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com