If you’ve picked up a Yoga Journal mag lately you may have noticed (although perhaps not consciously) that the covers are all starting to resemble the standard fashion magazine format. The cover models featured are female, white, and thin. These women, with seamless makeup and wearing tight clothing, are photographed from provocative and flattering angles. The only real defining characteristic here is that these models are yoga practitioners, are able to place themselves in (usually very challenging) yoga postures and are wearing (skimpy) fitness clothing.
While imagery like this is nothing new to magazine visual culture, there is growing concern among the international yoga community that magazines like Yoga Journal are perpetuating dominant gendered body image ideals. Gender body image ideals promoted by the western media have been strongly linked to pervasive and growing negative body image (and associated disorders), especially among women. From this perspective, the kinds of mainstream body image values that are showing up in yoga magazines are worrying.
There is no small amount of irony in this shift toward the fashionable mainstream. For many, yoga has provided a framework within which a more conscious, caring and accepting relationship with the body, mind, and beyond, can be developed. A number of sociological studies have shown that yoga practices can have a measurably positive impact on self-esteem, body satisfaction, body awareness, and an overall improvement of general body image. These studies reveal yoga as a means to counteract the negative impact of mainstream body image representation.
So what exactly is going on here? We have the practice of yoga on the one hand, which has a positive impact on body image, and yoga print media on the other, upholding mainstream body image ideals which contribute to poor body image. A brief look at the history of yoga representation sheds a little light on the issue.
Yoga media sits in a unique space in that it has been integral to the development and rise to popularity of yoga and the modern perception of the yoga body. According to Mark Singleton the phenomenon of modern yoga would not have occurred without the interaction of older Indian yoga practices with the print and photographic technological developments of the 1920s. Photographic representation of yoga postures (āsanas) brought yoga into the public eye and fundamentally changed the perception of the ‘yoga body’, that is, the body engaged in yogic practices. The appeal of new photographic visual culture gave popularity to yoga, while at the same time shifting the yoga body from a previously private, ritualised, and internally experienced body, to an observable, externally seen body. This process gave preference to the surface of the yoga body rather than the experiential body.
Yoga magazine covers neatly illustrate shifting mainstream body image values, from the 20s onward. Earlier photographic representations of the yoga body featured predominantly male physique, while modern magazine and book covers feature almost exclusively female bodies, with only one male Yoga Journal cover model since 2010. Even as late as the 1970s models of Indian decent were commonly featured, female bodies were represented with less figure hugging clothing and fleshier frames, and male bodies were represented as flexible and strong but not highly muscled. Recent yoga magazine covers reveal growing conformity to the mainstream increasing value of female thinness and male musculature, along with airbrushed perfection and culturally homogenous models.
Yoga’s story does of course, run much deeper than the surface. The representation of the yoga body is an integral part of yoga’s popularisation in the west and to a large extent the type of practices within what we term ‘yoga’ that have been retained. By and large though, yoga is an embodied practice. No matter the variety of yoga practiced, there is a common element of attending to movement (as well as breath, thought and emotion), which develops a more unified experience of the body, a feeling of greater wholeness and empowerment. This feeling of greater wholeness can form the foundation for shifts in body perceptions and thus body image.
Not only this, yoga is practiced in a variety of environments which are often emotionally invigorating and supportive. By providing a collective space which fosters open communication, trust, and support, practitioners are encouraged to develop greater self-confidence and initiative. All of these factors make yoga uniquely equipped to develop individual agency and social resistance to mainstream values, including those relating to body image.
Empowerment, agency and resistance is exactly what the international yoga community is beginning to display in response to more recent trends in Yoga Journal’s cover images (and editorial direction). Social media groups and personal blog sites like My Real Yoga Body, Yoga and Body Image Coalition, Yogadork, and Itsallyogababy are becoming openly critical and demanding dialogue with the yoga community.
In the end, yoga magazines are under the same profit driven commercial pressures as any other print media and they will make editorial decisions accordingly. Thankfully, there is a growing movement, ready to embrace the feeling of empowerment offered by yoga practice and speak out, demanding a style of yoga representation which embraces diversity and points to the experience below the surface of the body.
Barcelos, Christie. 2011. Exclusion and American Yoga in Sociological Images [on-line]. Available from: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/09/14/exclusion-and-american-yoga/
Featherstone, Mike. 1982. The Body in Consumer Culture in Theory Culture Society 1:18. Sage Publications. http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/1/2/18
Nevrin, K. 2008. Empowerment and Using the Body in Modern Postural Yoga. In M. Singleton (ed.) Yoga in the Modern World, pp. 119-139. New York: Routledge.
Singleton, M. 2010. Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Young, J. 2006. The Effects of Yoga Interventions on Body Image in Women. Xavier University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing.
Singleton, M & Byrne, J. 2008. Introduction. In M. Singleton (ed.) Yoga in the Modern World, pp. 1-14. New York: Routledge.
My Real Yoga Body on Facebook [on-line].
Yoga and Body Image Coalition on Facebook [on-line].
Hollypenny. 2014. Behold, This is Your Yoga Journal October ‘The Body Issue’ Cover Featuring Kathryn Budig… in Yogadork [on-line].
Hollypenny. 2014. Yoga Journal Has a Major Body Image Issue, and By Issue, I Mean Problem in Yogadork [on-line].
Klein, Melanie. 2014. Questioning the “Yoga Body” in Mantra: Yoga & Health [on-line].
Roseanne. 2014. Yoga journal’s body image issues: the Kathryn Budig cover in itsallyogababy.com