According to a 2008 market research study, 72% of yoga practitioners in the U.S. are women; 71% are college educated and 27% have postgraduate degrees; and 44% have annual incomes of $75,000 or more. Yoga practitioners, then, do not reflect the general population.
So how inclusive is yoga? A collection of covers from the magazine Yoga Journal, spanning the years 1975 to 2010, sent in by Janet T., gives us a clue.
As she points out, the historical progression of covers illustrates how the magazine started out with explicit connections to India and traditional yogis (below) and gradually moved towards featuring (and thus creating) western yoga superstars.
Of the 186 Yoga Journal covers that include a photograph (not an illustration) 78% show only white people. Though a 1997 issue with a story on “yoga in the inner-city” features a man of color:
66% of single-person photos are of a woman. At least two covers include a story on yoga for people who aren’t necessarily young, thin, and able-bodied, but show a photograph women who are.
Although the feminization of yoga has been noted (and conversely, the need to masculinize yoga in order to appeal to men), it is rarely acknowledged that while women make up the majority of yoga practitioners, studio owners are more likely to be men. Moreover, yoga superstars, such as Bikram Choudhury (the creator of the Bikram style of yoga practiced in a heated room), with incomes in the multi-millions, are overwhelmingly men.
In addition, while most yoga practitioners are female, the language of yoga is male, and assumes a gender-conforming (and often athletic and thin) body. Some bloggers have called attention to raced, classed, gendered, sizist, and trans–phobic practices in American yoga culture that can be alienating and discouraging to current or would-be yogis, thus denying the potentially therapeutic elements of yoga to much of the U.S. population. For example, the costs associated with yoga practice (classes, equipment, etc.) make it out of reach for most low-income people, while the gendered way that yoga philosophy understands the human body can make it uncomfortable for some transgender folks.
So, through the past 35 years of Yoga Journal covers, we can see how the representation of yoga in America both creates and reinforces a symbolic understanding of a practice intended for a very particular audience.
Christie Barcelos is a doctoral student in Public Health at the University of Massachusetts who rarely sees anyone who looks like her in yoga class.
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Douglas Haddow — September 14, 2011
"So, through the past 35 years of Yoga Journal covers, we can see how the representation of yoga in America both creates and reinforces a symbolic understanding of a practice intended for a very particular audience."
Or perhaps it reflects who is more likely to buy a magazine about yoga. Just a hunch.
Umlud — September 14, 2011
Yoga in the US has always seemed odd to me. I took courses in yoga while at Northern Arizona University and at the University of Michigan (offered through their respective student fitness programs), and I was never in a majority (racially, ethnically, nor in gender). Compare this to what I saw in India (outside of the retreats that are put together for Western groups): mostly men (that I saw anyway; I wasn't there to do yoga, and therefore can only share my very anecdotal memories).
So, too, with the amount of equipment necessary to "participate" in practice. Here, you can find yoga kits that include a mat, a block, a strap, and (occasionally) a hoop and an inflatable ball. Oh, and a nice bag to carry them all. What I saw in India was, at most, a mat.
Umlud — September 14, 2011
Another thing, with regard to men in the US joining yoga, it seems to me (from what I've seen) the perception that it's somehow "emasculating" is stronger
than the rather obvious reality that it can be a great place to meet people (i.e., have a common interest around which to draw a
As far as I know, however, unlike the associations with ballet,
step-aerobics, or figure skating, neither yoga nor Pilates (which is almost always women as well) are
associated with being gay (at least to my observations). However, neither yoga nor Pilates can be held up as a goal for strength training (which still seems to prize the bulky strength of the body builder over the lithe strength of the dancer or yoga practitioner) nor endurance training. ... and (again from my observations) strength-through-flexibility training isn't a huge priority for men (or even on the radar).
Go — September 14, 2011
Fascinating. It would be interesting to find a if it is the same link that exists between consuming New Age spirituality and gender/race/social status/gender.
Most New Age followers
C. D. Leavitt — September 14, 2011
Here is an example of just how distressingly divorced Yoga has become in the west from its roots:
Myth #3)You have to be a Buddhist to learn yoga.
Any person of any religious or nonreligious belief system can benefit
from a regular yoga practice. Yoga does teach not to judge others or
yourself. Most practices include meditation or reflection. Knowledge of
Buddhist philosophy not required.
This from a Yoga instructor. One who apparently does not even recognize what religion the practice is associated with.
Regarding the body assumptions of Yoga, many of the poses are also clearly intended for someone with a flat (or at least modest) chest. Even an athletic and thin body may not be adequate for some poses if the practitioner has breasts larger than a B cup. I'm not unusually well-endowed, but my breasts seem to cause the most discomfort and difficulty for me.
laguiri — September 14, 2011
As a yoga practitioner outside the US, what strikes me from these covers is the emphasis in backbends. What I have been taught is that one of the great virtues of yoga is that it is non-competitive and that we should just work to be a bit better every day, but not compare ourselves with the person in the next mat.
But then, these covers focus on difficult poses, that many body types simply cannot do, making a kind of "here! look!" spectacle of them. Of course a magazine needs to stand out on a shop rack, but this focus on backbends is weird.
Jenny — September 14, 2011
Is it accurate or fair to take Yoga Journal as representative of the entire spectrum of yoga practice in the U.S.? Of course it does tell us something about how yoga works in our cultural imagination, but I think a study like this should be complemented with a discussion of how the actual variety in the practice of yoga (e.g. Anna Guest-Jelley's Curvy Yoga, The American Association of Black Yoga Teachers, studios that offer classes on a barter or "suggested donation" system) might exceed or challenge the dominant presentation of it as a leisure activity for rich white women. Rather than implying that the limitations of Yoga Journal are inherent to yoga as a practice, let's highlight current practitioners outside the mainstream and talk about whether we should and how we can make yoga more widely accessible.
Leah Alsiekh — September 14, 2011
"For example, the costs associated with yoga practice (classes, equipment, etc.) make it out of reach for most low-income people"...
I disagree. My income is just a fraction of what the majority of the practitioners earn, but I can still manage to practice yoga with just a mat and a few dvds. I've seen a few different dvds at Redbox kiosks and have been able to do yoga without a mat in a pinch. Maybe the way yoga is marketed makes it seem like you need to invest quite a bit of money to purchase the extra equipment or to go to the classes, but it's not the actual minimal cost that keeps low-income people from participating.
I think with all the magazines and specialty classes, like the Bikram yoga, it's become such an elite sport that most people feel like you need to HAVE the clothing and equipment and BE a serious practitioner instead of just going through a personal set of poses everyday.
Guest — September 14, 2011
These yoga ladies would go into shock if they witnessed one of the yoga classes held at my (Hindu) temple. Young, white, thin, scantily clad women with fancy 'yoga clothes' and 'yoga equipment'? Nope -- middle-aged and older, mostly south asian, all sizes and both genders, dressed in modest and loose-fitting clothing.
Exclusion and American Yoga » Sociological Images | Free Images — September 14, 2011
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DownDog-and Cats — September 14, 2011
Love this article. It's about time Yoga Journal is taken to task on their covers AND their advertising. One month they featured a GNC ad where the model was PhotoCHOPPED to a skeleton.
guest — September 14, 2011
"Christie Barcelos is a doctoral student in Public Health at the University of Massachusetts who rarely sees anyone who looks like her in yoga class."
Perhaps Christie Barcelos should find a better yoga class, instead of belittling an activity with great personal significance to many practitioners, including upper-class, white, women (not all of whom are as vapid as this post implies).
Anonymous — September 14, 2011
umm i feel like the cost associated with yoga needs to be pointed out more. it costs nothing to keep a yoga studio going, once its open, like a hotel. its gonna cost the same to run the place whether you have 5 students or 30. why then does it cost 120$/month for TEN visits for one hour, for beginner yoga?!?!?!?!? there is no equipment to maintain, there are no supplies to supply (you have to get your own 50$ piece of foam to lay on), and there seems not to be the liability of say, a swimming pool's calibre. on top of that, i feel extremely uncomfortable amongst skinny young girls who have had everything given to them, including their 400$ yoga outfits. ugh. its a pretentious, overpriced bunch of BS.
Freda — September 14, 2011
Here is a pretty funny spoof on a yoga magazine for males http://yogadawg.blogspot.com/2007/11/yoga-news-innovative-new-magazine.html
Richard Hudak — September 14, 2011
Yet the feature article of one recent issue of Yoga Journal was devoted to women's leadership. Has the practice become feminized in the West because alternatives are constrained? Does yoga offer women a place to distinguish themselves? Do we denigrate the vocation of K-12 teaching because it is feminized? Why denigrate a space where women do excel and are leaders? Are we really critiquing the cultural context in which Yoga Journal must have mass appeal for its growing audience?
Why focus on covers? What about content? Do we need to look beneath the surface? Do we need to look deeper than description to explanation?
There are all kinds of practitioners: some practice only at home, and others take classes with varying frequencies. There are all kinds of styles. Some are more conducive to a diversity of students and abilities than others.
Looking more deeply into yoga philosophy we realize the religious underpinnings do exhibit greater tolerance for LGBT than other religions. One need look no further than the tale of Ila, recounted in several places and in several ways, for a transgender hero. More generally, in some traditions, in the realm of the sacred, the feminine principle is the active one (Parvati) and the masculine is more passive (Shiva).
Yoga for the People attempts to offer bare bones, style-agnostic, fashion-simple and sliding scale classes for the masses.
I match neither the sex nor income most of the people described by the market survey, though admittedly I match them on education. I have always found my way, particularly in a style that is at once uniquely American and ancient. The benefits to my well-being have overcome what might otherwise be obstacles to my participation. I think we need to look underneath the magazine covers.
Lyn — September 14, 2011
Hormone Replacement Therapy.
That stood out to me for a moment.
Then I just smiled.
Michael Smith — September 15, 2011
I went through this process almost a year when Yoga Journal brought out its 35 anniversary issue: http://pranajournal.com/tag/yoga-journal/
What’s clear is that during the 2000s, the magazine management
has done multiple market surveys and focus groups that zeroed in on
what the American public expected from a yoga publication. I know
because I responded to several online survey asking me to give
feedback about cover mock-up, alternative titles (stated as a
question or a hook, for instance). The magazine content covers all
kinds of issues, and scores of articles remind the readers that yoga
has multiple dimensions, spiritual, social, health-oriented,
Although YJ’s critics say that the
magazine is fixated on the physical practice, the editors go out
of their way to commission articles on seva (selfless service), yoga’s historical roots from India, and deciphering the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The September 2010 cover, however, has a single graphic message, made for the
supermarket checkout line and mag racks: yoga, first and foremost,
is a physical practice. That is a simple, visual and accessible
concept that can be easily communicated; the meaning of the samahdi is a lot harder to explain.
Yoga Journal has turned into a sophisticated business
enterprise: print magazine, website, videos and audio products,
books, conferences, liability insurance for studios. It’s
expanded into international markets. Since mid-2006, it’s been part of a magazine chain
that specializes in alternative life styles and enthusiasts
(vegetarianism and nutrition, backpackers, black belt, optimum
wellness, horses, log cabins).
But the editors still say that the magazine serves the yoga community, both teachers and practitioners.
Umlud — September 15, 2011
This link was sent to me:
In it, one yoga instructor discusses some of the things that she finds quite annoying about yoga. It covers some of the topics discussed above and in the comments.
Nathan — September 15, 2011
I think one of the challenges here is that while it's fairly easy to get
materials to learn yoga from - either online or at a library - it's not
as easy for poor folks to gain access to an in the flesh teacher. Even YMCA classes have a price tag which, while not too much, might be too
much for the person living paycheck to paycheck. Some people can't learn
effectively from books or videos, and I'd
argue that few of us are with it enough to deepen our yoga practice
Varalakshmi — September 16, 2011
I have been a yoga practitioner and a teacher for 15 years. I have to admit that when I first started it was just another form of physical exercise, until my uncle told me to spirtualize my yoga practice. Then everything changed. I have read many books and watched dozens of videos, learned about all the 8 limbs of yoga. One of my favorite books by Beryl Bender Birch titled "Beyond Power Yoga". which I got for Christmas present one year by my son. I now practice Pranayama and meditation everyday.
Yes, Yoga has become a big business. Just leaf through the back pages of yoga journal. There are props, cloths and jewelry. They have I pod doc stations built into the mat!! Is it really necessary? There are naked ladies selling toe sox!! It is disgusting! I wish Yoga Journal chooses their advertisers more carefully. I am not trying to defend yoga journal but it also has nice articles by people like Sally Kempton, Kate Holcombe and and William Powers ETC. I get lot of ideas from the magazine for my classes. Yes, I do wish they put real people like me on the cover with a severe RA in every joint and a little over weight doing simple poses. I do wish they dedicate the magazine more towards other 7 limbs of yoga. In my yoga class and for majority of Americans yoga is just poses. When I go to corpse pose many of them roll up their mats and leave the class. For them it is just a waste of time.Hopefully someday they turn around just like I did and see yoga as a way of life.
If it was't for yoga I would't be walking today. It has changed my life. I am forever grateful to my uncle.
Kanani Fong — September 18, 2011
About time someone wrote about what a lot of us have observed all along. Yoga classes --or the cultural phenomenon is very commercial, and it is out of reach for most people for whom the cost of a week's worth of classes competes with buying groceries. This being said, one could (and many do) come up with a variety of movements and practice at home and that is their yoga (watch "The Extra Man" for an example).
As far as a yoga studio, with the acoutrements: "the right" mat, clothing, block, retreats, etc etc yes, it's exclusive. But then again -intentional exercise is an exclusive act. In other words, where in other times people would get their work out by walking, plowing the fields, or doing other chores, we now pay huge amounts of money to buy the equipment or pay for the circumstances to "work out." So yeah, it's either do yoga or buy forty acres and a mule.
For all its exclusivity, I'm going to suggest people who do yoga aren't necessarily exclusive to yoga. I'm going to GUESS that the average American will probably have partaken in many sports --from T-ball when they were young, soccer, as they grew older, baseball, football, volleyball, walking, bicycling, hiking, skiing, and yoga. So yoga isn't the only thing that they do --though I think for a lot of yoga teachers it's the be-all and end-all. But for most people doing yoga, I would guess that it's one of many things they have tried in their lifetime. And I would also guess, it's not the only form of "exercise" (since that's how most people initially approach it) they will do, opting instead to combine it with something else. It is also very presumptive that everyone who walks in the door seeks the spiritual side. If they do better by feeling better, so be it. But sadly, in the U.S. yoga is often combined with a spirituality that has political undertones as well.
I think Yoga Journal, as a business, sells an image that is very commercial based largely on an idealized version beauty and fitness. That's their business. They are writing it to make money, and what sells is this artificial construct of what beauty and fitness are. In regard to the cover, and the ads, it's no different from Vogue in that on the surface --it's selling a lifestyle. But they are not alone. Others do it as well.
Anyway, the struggle to bring it into the realm to give it therapeutic validity is underway. Studies are being done funded by the NIH, and also by the US Military on the effects of yoga on patients with complex, chronic PTSD. One study, by Bessel van der Kolk's team at the Trauma Center at JRI is due out this Fall. Perhaps once we see the physical changes, we can unbind the mystical edge and center on physiological and psychological ways of reducing stress through yoga. Very Best, Kanani Fong. http://warretreat.org
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David — September 21, 2011
www.doyogawithme.com. I saw someone earlier mention this site. It's fantastic. Totally free and amazing yoga class videos from a variety of very good teachers.
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DownDog-and Cats — September 24, 2011
My two year subscription to Yoga Journal is about to expire. I almost
let it do so without renewing. The magazine has become the latest
victim of the less than healthy trend of putting ultra slim models on
their cover. Never mind that most of their readership cannot or will not
reach the body type they are using to sell magazines though the poses
are undeniably beautiful.
Is yoga only for the young, fit, or skinny? Nope. Matter of fact,it
is one of the few forms of mental, physical, and emotional exercise that
a person of any size or shape could benefit from.
I often hear ‘I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible.’ To which I
kindly respond and say “YOU are the type of person who would most
benefit from yoga.”
Or ‘I’m too fat and can’t touch my toes.’ Again, I have to gently
respond that few of us could touch our toes from the first time we tried
yoga. Yes, I could touch my toes the first time but Half Moon still
challenges me after years of trying to do it. And, it turns out I was
touching my toes in a harmful fashion by hyper-extending my legs…for
YEARS. But I digress.
The point is that yoga is not FOR anyone in particular. However there
are body types that have a different experience than the Yoga Journal
models. They are the obese, the elderly, the injured, and those who are
pregnant. They can practice yoga though initially in a modified sense
which will lead them to more success in their practice.
The tide is turning and more and more people of all shapes and sizes
are now practicing yoga. Witness the increase of the “MegaYoga”, “Curvy
Yoga”, and “Livin Large Yoga” books, videos, classes and studios. The
women who started these programs, and others like them, wanted to
experience yoga but found few options which catered to their bodies, and
more importantly, their psyches. As an average sized middle aged woman,
I appreciate how difficult it is to enter a yoga studio where everyone
seems to be size 2. It is unnerving.
So what is behind the change here? Certainly with the population
waist sizes getting bigger there was an untapped market. What I imagine
was an even more powerful catalyst for this change was the brave and
pioneer women who were not afraid of their body type or what others
thought and paved the way.
People like Ragen Chastain who describes herself as a “Dancer,
Choreographer, Writer, Speaker, Fat Person.” People like her break the
mold. They have learned to love themselves at any size and are not
afraid to put themselves out there in the face of criticism and
People like her are hard for me to understand even though I admire
them. They are disconcerting to those of us who struggle with body
dysmorphia even at our smallest size. Correction, ESPECIALLY at our
I don’t begrudge anyone the right to be whatever size makes them
happy. However, I can’t give the same to myself. In all honestly, my
inner demons struggle with becoming obese. There is no way in hell I’d
be happy and love myself if I were. Not that I am a bad person rather
life long body dysmorphia would prevent it.
These are my issues which I continue to work on. Yoga has helped me
with this over the years. But I’ll be damned if I don’t see my sagging
tummy or back fat when looking in the mirror while I’m in a pose.I love
studios with no mirrors. It’s one of the reasons why it’s taken me ten
years to figure out and accept that I could some day teach yoga. I’ve
come a long way though. I used to notice the ‘not size 2 parts’ first.
Now I notice my alignment and where I can adjust.
I look at Ragen’s blog entries and pictures and see freedom,
discipline, beauty and self acceptance attributes I would not see in
myself. I could not be so brave to post pictures of myself doing yoga at
my larger sizes. You won’t find any now even though I’m at a low part
of the yo-yo cycle.
So kudos to Ragen Chastain, Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga, Megan
Garcia of Megayoga, and so many others for having the courage and self
love to do what others have or could not. Myself included.
Yoga Journal could learn a thing from these women and others like
them who are doing yoga, teaching yoga, loving yoga and are nowhere
close to size 2. Could they be so mindful?
Yoga Journal called out…rightly so « Health « Down Dog And Cats — September 24, 2011
[...] http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/09/14/exclusion-and-american-yoga/ [...]
Marcela McGuffin — October 5, 2011
A similar phenomenon can also be examined in the UK it seems:-
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[...] There is this weird perception in America that yoga is just for skinny white girls with perfect bodi... [...]
Corey Lee Wrenn — August 28, 2013
Amazing. This relates to a content analysis I am doing...has Janet published on these findings?
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Yoga Representation, Body Image and Gender | YOGA WITH JESS — January 22, 2015
[…] 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/ […]