Lusty Lulu.

 

Photo: weendotnetforum16662.yuku.com.

Photo: weendotnetforum16662.yuku.com.

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 always start with the inside cover which features must-have merchandise like karmalicious shoes recommended as “super comfortable” and endorsed by “global yoga teachers”. Then I flip to the ubiquitous Hard Tail two-page spread, which always features 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, “Forever”, confuse me.

The yoga project has always seemed, to me at least, to be apolitical and focused on the here-and-now, gainsaying the permanent, and eschewing the puzzling Forever of ever-changing 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”; Camelback water bottles that “improve muscle strength”; 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”; Milk-Bone biscuits for dogs “made with love”; and Ultimate Flora Critical Care supplements featuring a woman sitting cross-legged and meditating, her belly neither constipated, gaseous, nor bloated.

The June, 2013 issue of Yoga Journal featured 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 what had happened to my om, which had been sounding scraggly lately, and was grateful for the new app, which was 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 focused on 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 must be rolling over in his grave and chomping at the bit.

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 clever and dynamic elements 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 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.

Photo: lululemon.

Photo: lululemon.

“James! Hug your thighs together like a pole dancer.”

There is something odd about the 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.

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: sex sells.

Sex is a primitive instinct and, from a bull’s eye marketing point-of-view, 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 healthy 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 utilized sex 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 maiden 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 NYC’s 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, as Joan Acocella writes in a recent issue of The New Yorker, can “enjoy their sexuality and take pride in their bodies.” Lululemon’s implicit coding references the same mantra throughout much of its marketing.

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, the Lululemon advertisement is really referencing pole acrobatics as an athletic form of dance.

Pole dancing 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 dancing 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 selling is the intent, then sex is simply another kind of grist for the mill.

But, what is not simple 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, are nonpareil about all things yogic and should be followed unquestioningly is both wrong and villainous.

It is wrong 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 villainous 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 that 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 allegedly 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 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 sheer yoga pants before being forced to recall them, says that see-through yoga pants are wonderful attire for practicing down dog, doesn’t make trying to sell its trove of sheer yoga pants 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,” sang Bob Dylan in 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 the leaders who are bleeding the meters dry.

 

 *****

 

{Pay attention.}

 

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Ed Staskus
Edward Staskus lives in Lakewood, Ohio, where he practices yoga and subscribes to Buddhism. His short novel, Searching for Sebastian, is available on Amazon's Kindle Books. Read more of Ed’s writing at Paperback Yoga.

27 Comments

  • Lucie commented on July 9, 2013 Reply
    Always good to point it out!! Thank you, Edward!! :-)
  • Rachelle Smith Stokes
    writeryogi commented on July 9, 2013 Reply
    What an impressive analysis! Thank you
  • Ron commented on July 9, 2013 Reply
    You are such a downer, Edward. Pointing out the obvious. (To everyone but our yoga friends, of course.) I still have a close acquaintence who looks at others in their rather provacative clothes in yoga class with an askance glance but doesn’t realize that she is the only person in the room who is clearly displaying her rather lovely vulva in the semi-see through yoga pants that she wears. On a much cheerier note I finally fully understand and unabashadely embrace – upon seeing the picture at the top of this article – the fact that I am an inveterate ass man.
  • Dana commented on July 9, 2013 Reply
    Great read. In the grand scheme of life my struggle with LULU is frivolous, but I feel sick everytime I go into the stores, see the pics….it just does not seem right. I have not purchased anything from them in a long while, but still wear the LULUs that I have….I do feel a little dirty wearing them. I wonder as a yoga teacher if I have to sport it, do I have to be an abassador for something that does not feel right so more people will come to my classes. For now I still follow my gut and remain true to me and have not fallen in love with the lies behind LULU’s messages. To be honest I would feel very differnt if they were just selling overpriced clothing, but they are dealing a lot mor.
  • Anusour commented on July 10, 2013 Reply
    Puzzled why you would enjoy reading Sally Kempton, who was closely aligned with Swami Muktananda and John Friend and currently appears with Marc Gafni, who has his own history of sexual accusations.
  • James Abro
    James Abro commented on July 10, 2013 Reply
    Yoga Journal? I wrote a book called An American Yoga; The Kripalu Story that provides an accurate account of the founding of Kripalu Yoga and gives Yogi Desai the credit he is due for achieving that. The book also recounts his dramatic departure from Kripalu including the incidents that forced his resignation. Because I credit Yogi Desai for founding Kripalu, the Kripalu Center will not promote my book. Because I candidly and accurately describe the scandal that led to Yogi Desai’s departure, The Amrit Yogi Institute will not endorse my book. And lastly, because both of them purchase advertising in Yoga Journal, Yoga Journal will not review my book. So — so much for Yoga Journal and integrity.,(See-through purple stockings or not.) My only solace is in the quote about how ‘If you piss EVERYONE off you must be doing something right.
    • Bob Weisenberg commented on July 10, 2013 Reply
      Hi, James. Talk about being caught in the middle. That’s a story in itself, which might be worth an article in itself, if you haven’t done it already! Strongly suggest you include a direct link to your book at the end of each of your comments so those of us who are interested can find it easily (although I see it’s readily available at your website by clicking on your name above, too). Bob W.
      • James Abro
        James Abro commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
        Thanks Bob. But I’m still not getting notifications in my email. Are you? Please let me know by email. Haven’t heard from Andrea since our exchange on the weekend.
        • Bob Weisenberg commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
          No, James. That might take a little time to solve, I’m sure. Bob
  • allise rhode commented on July 10, 2013 Reply
    Ha Ha Ha. You made me laugh.
  • jennifer commented on July 10, 2013 Reply
    Sexualised yoga wear and marketing is a reflection of certain aspects of society, yoga practice is assimilated in line with contemporary values – how can it not be? i’m not comfortable with such images, yet when i started out over 10 years ago, i was into skimpy clingy clothing and showed my body as an object, i had not yet found humility and i was young. it is equally easy to find – as in my community – practitioners who wear loose cotton layers and are extremely modest, make-up and perfume are rare- this doesnt make us better yogis by the way – its a different way of relating to ourselves, our sexuality and the practice. All is well; we show up to practice and allow our yoga to declutter us and reveal our true nature – with perfect timing and manifestation Please lets not judge each other and our society, acceptance is a more loving response that benefits all and heals separation.
  • Ina Sahaja commented on July 10, 2013 Reply
    This is a great article and well written! It’s obvious that yes, sex sells, and it’s annoying, at the least, to watch the beautiful art and transformative power of yoga asana reduced to hedonistic advertising for more $. However, I strongly believe that there’s nothing inherently wrong or un-Yogic about sex, the physical body, or with living as fully embodied and free beings on the planet. I actually think that the more we embrace our physical nature with integrity, the more we will find liberation from limiting beliefs and manipulation (by advertisers or gurus). How we get there from here, I don’t know. But we gotta keep trying. Thanks for the article!
  • Bob Weisenberg commented on July 10, 2013 Reply
    Hi, Edward. I appreciated you carefully thought-out article here. I enjoy your writing. I don’t wish to defend specific indefensible offences, like some you cite here, but regarding commercialism in Yoga in general, here are two things to consider. First, here are two articles in defense of Yoga Journal I wrote a couple of years ago, still relevant today, I think, even though they were in reaction to strong attacks against YJ and Capitalism in general, not your carefully reasoned arguments above: Capitalism is Good for Yoga (Rebuttal: “Sex, Lies and Yoga”) http://bit.ly/1bgY77R My Wife Loves Yoga Journal Just the Way It Is, Thank You http://bit.ly/1bgYvTO Meanwhile, there is an even better reason why I’m not so very concerned about commercial Yoga. There is a very strong and growing pure yoga philosophy movement out there: Science and Nonduality Confernce http://bit.ly/1bgZcwh Even though this group doesn’t call itself “Yoga”, a quick review of their mission reveals that this is a very direct successor to the original ancient yoga texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. This is where much of the best Yoga philosophy thinking and research in the West is going on now, in addition to the traditional yoga institutions, like the ones I mention in the first article above, many of which are still going strong, again and ironically, partly because of the commercial success of Yoga Journal. Some of the speakers at this conference have followings approaching those of the Yoga Journal stars, with ideas that are straight out of the ancient texts! Thanks again for a great article. Bob W. Yoga Demystified
  • shiggie commented on July 10, 2013 Reply
    This is the only place where I’ve read that Lululemon was forced to recall their pants. They realized it was a manufacturing problem, and then recalled them. I wonder if the rock star yoga teachers should just start their own harems. So, instead of being outed like a repressed conservative politician, it’ll all be out front from the beginning. I wonder how that would work.
    • Ed Staskus
      Edward Staskus commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
      This is from MSN Money, dated June 4, 2013, in which they (and several other articles) used the word “forced”: People wearing Lululemon’s iconic black Luon yoga pants should no longer see red. The Canadian company says it has fixed the manufacturing problem in those pants that made them too sheer and forced Lululemon to pull them from the market earlier this year. Though Lululemon is using humor to address an embarrassing situation, it isn’t a laughing matter. The affected pants accounted for about 17% of its total sales before the recall. The chief products officer resigned as a result of the fiasco, and the company slashed its earnings outlook. Lululemon lost between $57 million to $67 million in sales because of the recall.
  • FunkyChick commented on July 10, 2013 Reply
    Not into Lulu or yoga teachers who are Lulu ambassadors. Haven’t these teachers done their research? Why would they represent this company? It always puzzles me. I’m truly curious what the allure is.
  • Funny commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
    Strange world we live in, where people read or purchase magazines like this
  • Sarah S. commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
    Pay attention. Never been a big lulu fan but definitely not now. Exploitation of women is so antithetical to what yoga stands for that the fact an ad campaign like this can possibly exist makes me ill….
  • Franz commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
    Edward, if you practiced Buddhism instead of “subscribing” to it like a Yoga Journal magazine, you might not write such a judgemental article. Judgement only breeds more judgement, as the comments following reflect. Try LOVE instead.
    • misslisted commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
      Duh Franz. With that logic, no one would ever get to speak critically and reasonably about anything, because every time you open your mouth to do so, it would be “un-loving” or “judgemental”. Everyone should just be nice and accept the status quo because that’s the “Buddhist” thing to do?
      • fragginfraggin commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
        Not necessarily, but omitting harsh judgement based on second hand knowledge, the unabashed slander of yoga teachers, and a public display of misogyny would have been slightly more aligned with the precepts of Buddhism.
  • SL commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
    If you’ve ever pole danced you would know that she actually would be hugging her thighs together, squeezing the pole. I do realize that’s not the point of the piece.
  • T commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
    Uhh yeah? I love when my wife wears Lulu’s and specifically because they are “revealing”.
  • coolpillowslee commented on July 11, 2013 Reply
    Great article…well written. We live in a world where marketing and advertising are so perfasive that every second of our lives is judged as potential for a commercial transaction. The best we can do is fight the good fight, stay aware and note the insanity as you have done. For me, I do it through my Museum of Marketing Madness (http://www.madnessmuseum.com). I may have to use this there if that’s okay. I’m not familiar w/Rebelle Society, but I have to admit the banner advertising to advertise on Rebelle Society on this page looks like the woman has 2 snakes peeking around her neck or something. No idea what it all means…it’s everywhere this madness…we just try to stay sane.
  • Liz commented on August 18, 2013 Reply
    This pose in yoga would be called (Inverted) Figure four pose, or Sucirandhrasana. She is using her thighs, hips and abs (not her butt) . Pole dancing, dates back much further than the 1950’s, to Chinese circus arts and Indian gymnastics, most of this performed by men.
  • Patty commented on February 14, 2015 Reply
    Super jazzed about getting that knoowh-w.

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