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It’s not exactly the “Pope-Mobile,” but it’s close. Tara Stiles, the gangly and goofy ballet dancer-turned-yoga rebel-turned Reebok sales mascot is traveling the streets of New York this summer — in a motorized glass display case. It’s actually the back end of a specially-equipped vehicle – much like the Catholic Pontiff’s, but it’s not designed to let Stiles deliver homilies or bless passersby. As a yogini, the 33-year old protégé of former fitness maven Jane Fonda likes to let her body talk. This time she’ll be practicing some of her favorite yoga poses on behalf of W Hotels, a luxury hotel chain that came up with the idea for the “Tara-Mobile” as a way of spreading buzz about its fitness services.
The buzz is spreading alright, and so are the nasty vibes among other yogis, many of who have taken to their blogs to denounce Stiles as a shameless carpetbagger. Some have even compared her to the Dutch prostitutes in Amsterdam that strut before plate glass windows beckoning to prospective clients as they bare it all. Ouch.
Stiles has felt the wrath of Shakti before – but never quite like this. When she first burst on the scene in 2010, thanks to a flattering profile in The New York Times, she angered many long-established yoga veterans by calling them “snobs.” Yoga, she argued, should be targeted to professional women on-the-go who aren’t Jonesing for mystical enlightenment but could still use a speedball of psychic bliss injected into their daily lives. Her first book Slim Calm Sexy Yoga preached the gospel of a callisthenic-oriented practice that would help women trim down, de-stress and feel better in their bodies; it soon became a best-seller. Stiles opened a boutique studio, established her own unique yoga brand (Strala), and quickly became a star and a widely sought after private teacher. In a world long dominated by men – and by male yogis like Rodney Yee – she broke the glass ceiling, and even many of her critics, especially women, still admire her for it.
Stiles has no intention of breaking any glass in her latest incarnation, however. She’ll be out among the teeming masses but they’ll only be able to gawk at her. W Hotels is actively promoting the idea of passersby shooting videos or Instagrams of Stiles and then posting them online. They’ve also come up with some racy glamour shoots in which Stiles primps in front of a mirror putting on glossy lipstick, or, more tellingly perhaps, lies on the floor in a sexy blue party dress, legs akimbo, fumbling around for an overturned champagne bottle, spilling her half-empty glass. “Have a hangover?” the ad asks. (Apparently, even half-drunk, yoga is the “cure”).
Stiles likes to think that these images place yoga squarely in the mainstream of American life but few of the financially-strapped middle-class consumers that she claims she wants to reach with yoga could ever afford the pricey accommodations and exotic retreats she’s promoting. W Hotels is far more honest about its core demographic: it’s the young, hip nouveau riche — the “winners” in today’s recession. And for Stiles – who’s imbibed more than a few marketing lessons from Madonna, one of her first students — it’s an opportunity to cultivate an irreverent “bad girl” image that sets her apart from the competition. Stiles is reminding fans and foes alike that while she’s sometimes imitated – by the likes of Sadie Nardini, Shiva Rea, and Elena Brower, among others — she can never be equaled. She may be a quiet and shy Midwesterner, but when it comes to commercial self-invention, this material girl’s clearly no dummy.
So far, though, it’s mainly just the tabloids and the yoga trade press that have taken notice. For example, The New York Post, in major spread published on May 28 used the latest Stiles’ promo as the peg for a story about the bevy of female celebrities, including Hollywood actresses like Giselle Bündchen and Miranda Kerr, who have taken to posing in public and shooting “selfies” as they practice yoga. A number of yoga bloggers, including Roseanne Harvey, who publishes “It’s All Yoga, Baby,” have parodied the blatant narcissism of this latest trend, even shooting some unflattering selfies of their own – for example, of their large rump or of a hairy arm — in protest. However, in the roar of naked commerce that has engulfed American yoga in recent years, these soft and muted cries barely register an “Om.”
And that’s just it. American yoga, dominated so completely by women – to the point where most yoga studios seem to have given up on marketing to men – can’t quite decide what to do about the hard-core “one per-centers” like Stiles in its midst. As successful business women, they are an object of admiration, indeed, envy. And yet, most yoga women know perfectly well that these same celebrities are reinforcing some of the worst misogynistic myths about women’s bodies in the guise of modern “wellness.” The circle of complicity runs even deeper: Tara’s enlarging the yoga market, and a larger market means that everyone has more access to yoga consumers. More people can become teachers, and more teachers – even the wacky self-absorbed mystics of Ashtanga and Jivamukti — can aspire to become successful, too. For there to be Cicero, there must be Caesar, the Romans used to say. Apparently, for there to be yogic enlightenment, there must be sexy – and sexist – commercialism, too.
In fact, some of Stiles’ leading critics including not only Roseanne Harvey but Jennilyn Carlson of “Yoga Dork” and Waylon Lewis of “Elephant Journal” are part and parcel of this same self-serving universe. Sure, they offer a forum for internal debate, but they’re busy stoking the yoga market at every turn, eagerly hyping their own favorite yoga celebrities in sports and Hollywood and blessing every new yoga “research” study as if it were legitimate medical science — rather than another cleverly packaged industry promo. They’re like 16th century Jesuits, hypocritically complaining of the Spanish Crown’s “excesses,” yet walking hand in hand with the conquistadors to recruit and “enlighten” new converts. Even staunch critics of specific marketing campaigns like this one tend to tame their fire when it comes to the powerful personalities involved for fear of appearing less than “sisterly” and of one day finding themselves alone in their basement ashram as the fast-moving Yoga Gravy Train just waves and passes them by.
So, don’t expect any effective protest to emerge from this latest round of yogic hand-wringing. There will be no yoga women in their tony stretch pants practicing civil disobedience by prostrating themselves before the Tara-Mobile. No one will be handing out leaflets at the W Hotels or protesting any other corporate sponsor of Yoga, Inc. Sure, Tara Stiles is misguided, many say, but if we judge her, aren’t we guilty of creating “harm” (ahimsa), too? If we criticize her, aren’t we just spreading more disunity? For committed spiritual progressives, such talk may seem laughable, even obscene, but for most of Yoga World, considerations of social responsibility have long felt like unwelcome intrusions. Yogis have their own version of the NIMBY syndrome – it’s called “Not in My Yoga Studio,” even if the studio’s just a traveling boudoir with Queen Tara — the “Leggy Lady with the Bedroom Eyes” — inside.
Who knows – with any luck, maybe the Tara-Mobile will get lost in the Bronx.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org