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Pop Yoga, i.e. Yoga Journal, and the YJ Talent Search

Brenda via Gchat on March 3, 2011: Now it’s underground yoga vs. pop yoga! hahaha!and then the next scary question (to me) is… can we avoid that? we avoid the “pop”? of anything? or is it just part of capitalism? or is it just part of humans?

Yoga Journal is definitely pop yoga.  It is about as threatening to the status quo as Bob Dylan was when he started doing Victoria Secrets commercials.  It throws photo after photo at you of young, thin, mainly white women in poses that aren’t physically appropriate for most people.  It then extols meditation techniques in ways that I think only Susie Sunshine would enjoy.  And Susie, I’m going to warn you, if you start meditating, those demons do get quite nasty, and you need someone to remind you that hey the path to finding the God within sometimes is a battlefield.  And there is no airbrushing on the battlefield.

I started writing this post long before the Yoga Journal talent search.  At the beginning of March, the “holier than thou” yoga community mentality, the constant reminder that the closer to God I become the closer I will be to vegetarianism; the thin women who looked like YJ models before they ever saw a mat; the prasing of the thin, young women; and the reminder that “you don’t have to give up your Gucci bag to be a good yogi” started to piss me off.

We, as Americans, live in a wildly consumerist country; and much of the rest of the industrial world is wildly consumerist too.  The next time someone preaches to me about vegetarianism, I would like to ask if he/she really is pure enough to throw the first stone.  Is that condominium you bought owned by a land developer and a real estate developer who is doing sustainable work in other parts of the country?  Is that bag cruelty free?

I’m fine with dialogue.  I’m fine with being encouraged to read books that might better educate me on food production.  I’m fine with someone getting a PhD in agriculture/nutrition and then really teaching me and those of us that walk back and forth between our love of Korean BBQ and our curiosity about the other vegetarian loving side.  I’m fine with sharing POVs.

I just don’t want to be part of another dogmatic culture.  I’m also sick of defending myself by prefacing these statements with, “Ok, but I know there are plenty of conscientious, not self-righteous” vegetarians.  We all know there are plenty of everything.  And that there’s a real ambiguity to being a flawed human being and following a spiritual path, such as yoga.

Trust me, I’ve dealt with enough dogmatism.  I was raised in a very American suburb with tons of Christians of many stripes, Mormons, and Catholics.  Most of these churches told me from a very young age that homosexuality was wrong.  It was simply dogma, and yet, the main character in the Bible we read is a man who gives up everything to serve the poor, the leper, and the prostitute; he does not spend his life work condemning or analyzing homosexuality.  I think his criticism of today would be directed at Gucci, Fendi, bigger, better, faster, “plastic surgery outlets,” websites like Gawker. I don’t think he’d give a rat’s ass about that gay couple kissing in the park.

The churches oversimplification of the Bible’s take on homosexuality is similar to the Western yoga communities oversimplification of ahimsa, non-violence.  A philosopher might ask, if you get a massive community to become vegetarian, does the means matter if the end result is good?  Meaning, if yoga schools continue to present vegetarianism as the only righteous path to God, and if students just accept it, does the means still matter if the end result is good?

And if you are going to tell my fellow yogis not to eat other living animals, can you also remind them that in fact materialism really is in fact blocking their path to God?  Or, let’s be honest, we are all afraid of losing business.

I would say yes, yes the means matters.  I would say it’s our sheep mentality that has lead us to trust other authorities more than our own authority; it is the sheep mentality that has created a very impressive yoga industry selling all sorts of things people don’t need; it is the sheep mentality that gave one of my fellow yoga school students permission to say out loud, “I missed the election because I was at Whole Foods with my Mom” while she extolled vegetarianism.  It is the sheep mentality that has convinced many students that they will never practice alone because they need someone else to always tell them what to do.

The difference is that the final goal of the Western yoga community to promote vegetarianism may be a good thing.  (And the churches who condemn Christianity are promoting both intolerance and hatred.  The next time someone says they tolerate homosexuality I’m going to ask God to reign down upon them with a Bible in hand and ask them to “explicate” the real themes of the book, love and giving to the poor.)

So back to discussing the Yoga Journal talent search, Yoga Journal, or what I call Pop Yoga. There are rarely people of color, rarely men, no handicapped people (I can recall), no elderly (I can recall), and I don’t recall seeing any person male or female who did not have a body that is exquisitely worshipped by our society.  On top of that, look closely at this cover.  Right below the title “How I learned to listen to my body” there is an arrow pointing at this woman doing a very graceful eka pada raja kapotasana variation.

A variation that requires no compressive ‘bone on bone’ limitations in the front pigeon leg, and the humerus of the lifted arm.  A limitation that many of us mortals have.  And should not be encouraged to ignore.

As the yoga community and the practice has grown, so have our resources.  There’s Paul Grilley for example.

Paul Grilley is a yoga teacher who specializes in Yin Yoga and anatomy teachings specifically for yoga.  I bought his Anatomy for Yoga DVD only to discover that, ‘hey, bone on bone limitations mean that you can’t expect the full-expression of a pose to look the same on everybody.”  When Paul talks about anatomy, he emphasizes that he isn’t talking about people who have layers of muscular tension that can eventually be lengthened, this is called a ‘tensile’ limitation.  He is actually talking about yogis whose limitations are ‘compressive’, meaning there is a point where your femur or your humerus will run into its socket.  And people vary enough that some poses might never be appropriate for some students.

Durvasasana - Extreme External Rotation of the Femur


He addresses limitations people may have in agnistambasana (fire log pose) and urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose).  If a student finds compression before stacking the legs in agnistambasana, not only is agnistamabasana inappropriate but the pose above, durvasasana, is not possible.

These are bone on bone limitations.


If you look at this student in agnistambasana, her shins are perfectly stacked, but there is significant space between her right knee and her left heel.  Next week, I will present a test (as I learned from Paul Grilley’s video) to determine when that space is caused by muscle tension (and will take time and patience to change) and when it’s caused by compression (and cannot be changed, and another pose would be more appropriate.)

Someone with strong external rotation and few muscular limitations, can fold forward here, the ultimate yin experience, a long hold where everything yields to gravity and the yin tissue, the fasciae, is given the opportunity to stretch.

Someone whose femur hits his hip socket cannot.  Taking the legs in garundasana would be a better option; it’s a deep hip stretch that requires less external rotation.

Yoga Journal is Pop Yoga.  In 1965, Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival.   In the September issue of Sing Out!, singer Ewan MacColl wrote: “Our traditional songs and ballads are the creations of extraordinarily talented artists working inside disciplines formulated over time… ‘But what of Bobby Dylan?’ scream the outraged teenagers… Only a completely non-critical audience, nourished on the watery pap of pop music, could have fallen for such tenth-rate drivel.”[85]

I’m not a Yoga Journal archivist so I don’t really know when they sold out, but I know they did, and it was over a decade ago.

And it stands as a representation to the average American of what yoga is; or really what physical perfection should look like.  Just like modern day hip-hop represents to the masses something that was once a critique of those same things, Yoga Journal has become the mainstream culture it once critiqued.  Sadly, it’s part of a larger culture that is conditioning yoga teachers who are less equipped to work with older communities, those with disabilities, those who are tight, and those who basically don’t resemble the cover of Yoga Journal.

Let’s return to what yoga once was.

“Whatever we believe about what yoga might be, I believe it has to do with techniques which help us to become free of the tyranny of our thoughts.” – Judith Lasater

Amen, sister, and that is why I we meditate.


15 Responses to Pop Yoga, i.e. Yoga Journal, and the YJ Talent Search

  1. Shanti says:

    Awesome write up, Renee! I’m proud to know you. Keep up the important research and the good fight!

  2. Erinne says:

    Amen, Sister! Love it.

  3. linda says:

    great post. and thanks for mentioning my teacher Paul Grilley. When I did my first workshop with him in 2003 a lightbulb went off over my head about his “yoga is all in the bones” theory. I thought, why isn’t every yoga teacher listening to this?

    good job.

    • thursday says:

      I’m sure there are more yoga schools than I know already teaching this, but I think anatomy needs to be a more significant requirement than it currently is.

  4. Robin says:

    Beautifully put. The dogmatism, sheep mentality and subsequent self righteousness is a truly unsavory aspect of the yoga world. It’s always good to see people who recognize this and aren’t playing along. Great post.

  5. Awesome! You are a smart cookie, and they are dying breed in the yoga world.

  6. Nathalie says:

    thank you for the article.

    Is funny I just got back from India where I was studying yoga with my Indian teachers and they have no idea of the Yoga Journal’s existence.

    things like this are a far far reality in that other world.

    I wasn’t aware of Y.J. talent search – is silly…

    I can’t recall the last time I looked at a Y.J. that’s how insignificant it is.

    But if one lives in Los Angeles is probably impossible to not notice

    • thursday says:

      I really impressed you haven’t noticed the contest at all: not even in New Orleans? How long were you in India? And yes in L.A. it’s impossible, they have them at Whole Foods of course.

  7. Yogini5 says:

    Interesting that you should call this “pop” yoga; by the looks of things, I would think that Yoga Journal has degenerated into being a “trade journal” for yoga professionals, and not a consumer-oriented magazine at all ..

    Incidentally, in yoga classes, we are exhorted to “not be attached” to having (or saving, in order to have) money …

    What is up with that?

    • thursday says:

      Maybe it is more of a trade journal than a consumer-oriented magazine. I don’t know the statistics, but it’s true I don’t know anyone who gets the magazine who didn’t have to sign-up for liability insurance through YJ. I do think there’s a “pop” aspect to it in that it’s promoting mainstream popular culture. What do you think?

      • Yogini5 says:

        More like it’s segmenting the mainstream popular culture market, ensuring its share. Yoga Journal–its inside pages–has functioned like a kind of women’s house organ for a trendy, eco conscious, middle class, suburban type of woman. It has probably strayed far from its roots.

        The cover (until this last one, which kind of reminds me of competing yoga magazines in its whimsicality) has been strict to-the-trade appeal. But the “trade” as in target yoga professional, is changing.

  8. [...] beautiful, and just damn good.  On the other hand, I expressed my opinion just weeks ago about Yoga Journal.  My biggest complaint about Yoga Journal is that it doesn’t make me think.  I think if I keep [...]

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