This Is What a Yogi Looks Like: Media Series from the Yoga and Body Image Coalition

November 23, 2015    BY Melanie Klein

Magazine covers are more than simple images to spike revenue—they make a statement.

What statement are yoga magazine covers making?

The world of mainstream yoga publications mirror the tone of larger mainstream publications by consistently showcasing only a small margin of the population. It’s the same old same old with a tendency to feature young, thin, toned, white, able-bodied women in socially constructed heteronormative and gender-appropriate scripts.

It’s just all too predictable. And it’s tired. Approximately 15 years ago, yoga went from existing at the margins of society as something “weird” and slightly “freakish” and passed through the filter of the larger popular culture. To remain competitive and capitalize on yoga’s increased popularity, yoga magazine covers changed, advertisements of an increasing number of “yoga-related products” increased and reflected the marketing tactics employed by many of the high-end fashion magazines,the emergence of the yoga celebrity and the cult of personality flourished, as well as the styles and “brands” of yoga taught.

Yoga imagery looks a lot more like the realm of our celebrity-obsessed, whitewashed, size-zero pop culture with a bit of “spirituality” thrown in here and there. And, unfortunately, the representation of the “yoga body” and the visual representation of a “yogi” in mainstream “yoga culture”—from yoga publications, yoga photography, and the increasing presence of yogis on social media sites—mimic the sterile, homogenous, and one-dimensional images of beauty in mainstream culture.

These images are not benign. They marginalize many members of the yoga community and elevate one “yoga body” over all others.

Go to the world of social media at large and you practically can’t escape filtered images of bendy bodies, often in bikinis, in beautiful locales demonstrating extraordinary physical feats of balance, strength, and flexibility. Yes, it’s true, many of these images are stunning and inspiring (and they’re wildly popular with many based on their “likes” and “shares”). But to me they’ve become boring—they’re predictable and expected. It’s what I have been exposed to my entire life: carefully crafted images featuring impossibly perfect humans that don’t look much like me, my life, or the people I know.

Let’s be clear, I’m not interested in tokens or exceptions, I am committed to a full-blown paradigm shift.

And while there are some exceptions, such as the popularity of Jessamyn Stanley (@mynameisjessamyn) and Valerie Sagun (@biggalyoga) on Instagram with over 100K followers each, or Chelsea Jackson gracing the cover of Yoga Journal, for the most part it’s business as usual. And there are plenty of other amazing yogis doing incredible and inspiring work in their communities who will never surpass 1,000 followers or appear in an advertisement or on a yoga magazine cover. And let’s be clear, I’m not interested in tokens or exceptions, I am committed to a full-blown paradigm shift.

In a mediated world fully constructed from filters, digital alteration, and hyperreal depictions of the real, I crave authenticity (and so do a lot of other folks).

This desire for authenticity and diversity by many members of the yoga community has brought various corporations, publications, and public figures under fire for perpetuating these stereotypes and fueling body anxiety (and, in many cases, deterring people from the mat).

It was my own desire (and my love of the practice) that compelled me to launch the Yoga and Body Image Coalition’s #whatayogilookslike campaign a year ago, an ongoing media series dedicated to showcasing a diverse array of yogis—bodies and faces not normally portrayed in popular yoga media. Corporations have never been the leaders of social change, and I didn’t expect yoga imagery to change if we didn’t make some noise and agitate for change. And change is happening, but we’re not there yet!

I started writing about the intersection of yoga and body image in 2010 because I wanted to share the countless ways a consistent yoga practice has created a positive impact on my body image, one that had been toxic and negative most of my life. It’s a stance that I continue to take—yoga has the potential to reconnect us to our bodies and return to ourselves wholly, full of compassion, humility, grace, love, and forgiveness.

While the campaign and its message have spread and grown (and gotten quite a bit of press), yoga covers continue to stick with what’s safe (and sells). Originally I pitched the idea of a #whatayogilookslike cover featuring a group of diverse yogis to three different mainstream yoga/health/wellness/spiritual publications and got turned down by all of them. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when Runner’s Magazine featured a plus-size model on its cover before a yoga publication. I saw it as a real missed opportunity for the yoga community to take the lead in promoting body positivity as well as diverse representations of health and wellness.

While the campaign and its message have spread and grown (and gotten quite a bit of press), yoga covers continue to stick with what’s safe (and sells).

Coming full circle over a year after the idea for the campaign was born, I’m thrilled to share this #whatayogilookslike virtual cover at Yoga International and highlight the often unsung work of the incredible yogis featured in this image in a series of individual spotlights over the next few weeks. I hope that these stories and minimally altered images convey our humanity, vulnerability, and joy and connect us further as a community, as well as inspire.

The Yoga and Body Image Coalition and I are dedicated to creating a movement, not a brand. And the spirit of our campaign and this series at Yoga International is not only to highlight individuals but to celebrate community. Because it is only through community that we can shift course. We are enhanced and elevated by our relationship to others. And through this connection and solidarity with others, we are able to make a profound impact.

We are diverse.

Our bodies are diverse and unique.

Our yoga practices are diverse, unique, and personal.

Every age.

Every race and ethnicity.

Every class and socioeconomic status.

Every gender identity and sexual orientation.

Every size, shape, height, weight, and dis/ability. 

This is what a yogi looks like. YOU are what a yogi looks like.

Melanie Klein
Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker, and Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Santa Monica College. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest - Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn's Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn,... Read more>>