Representation matters. This is the opening article in series two of the “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” (#whatayogilookslike) media series, a collaboration between the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and Yoga International, based on the YBIC campaign that launched in 2014 and their continued work in challenging stereotypes, growing community, working collaboratively, and highlighting the diversity of yoga practitioners and yoga practices, as well as their staunch commitment to diversifying yoga media.
The undeniable truth is that we live in an ever-expanding media landscape that shows no signs of shrinking. The images and messages are ubiquitous and practically inescapable. Even if we try to be conscious of them, and to curb our exposure by limiting the amount of time we spend on social media or watching television and movies, we’re still bombarded with carefully crafted media messages when we drive down the street, pump gas, or stand in the check-out line. Media imagery is prolific and unavoidable. In fact, media images and messages, specifically advertisements, saturate our cultural space—and our consciousness.
Whether we are consciously aware of them or not, the cumulative impact of these repetitive images shapes our perception of ourselves and others as well as our expectations and values.
Undoubtedly, our worldview and self-development are impacted by many variables, such as our family of origin, peers, educators, religious leaders, politicians, and the communities we’re part of. But given the reach and scope of the media (as well as the amount of time we spend proverbially “plugged in”), it’s not hard to see how media often trumps these other influences and becomes one of the most, if not the most, significant influence on our worldview.
And that’s why representation matters, not just in terms of being represented in the first place, but how and how often.
It’s no secret that yoga publications have mirrored, and largely continue to mirror, mainstream publications by primarily featuring only a small margin of the population. Make no mistake about it, these images are not benign. They marginalize most members of the yoga community and elevate one “yoga body” over all others with cover images, stories, and advertisements featuring primarily young, white women who tend to be thin, super-flexy, toned, able-bodied, cisgender, heteronormative, and conventionally attractive by mainstream beauty standards. These images have so much impact and influence, in fact, that the narrow representations of yoga practitioners and yoga practice they depict are taken for granted, largely unquestioned, and rarely challenged.
Let’s get real, where is there any diversity of any kind on a consistent basis?
Interestingly enough, research findings in the 2016 Yoga in America Study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance reveal that American yoga practitioners have grown by 50% in the last four years, with nearly 37 million people practicing in 2016. And of those nearly 37 million, older practitioners (defined as 50+) and male practitioners have more than doubled since 2012. So where are the men on the covers and in the pages of yoga magazines? Where are the older practitioners? I mean, let’s get real, where is there any diversity of any kind on a consistent basis? After all, according to the study, Yoga Journal represents the primary source of yoga information for 61% of teachers and trainees. If that’s the case, where is the full range of diversity that’s present among yoga practitioners and aspiring yogis?
The bottom line is, it’s not there. Nor is that diversity present in most mainstream yoga spaces, yoga conferences, or in yoga imagery from social media or yoga-related advertising. Occasionally featuring someone outside of the “norm” doesn’t cut it either. That's tokenizing and insulting, and it’s unacceptable. It does not represent an authentic or radical change from the hyperreal, digitally altered, filtered images of a few to the exclusion of the many.
And that’s a shame. Not just because it’s regressive and stereotypical, but because yoga is freakin’ awesome in its benefits, but, unfortunately, the one-dimensional imagery of yoga practice and yoga bodies keeps many people away from the practice. Many people avoid yoga because they feel they’re not (fill in the blank) enough and are intimidated by what has been represented as “yoga” in mainstream pop and yoga culture.
My deep love and appreciation for my practice and my community compelled me to launch the Yoga and Body Image Coalition’s #whatayogilookslike campaign in 2014 as an ongoing effort to diversify media imagery by showcasing a diverse array of yogis—bodies and faces not normally portrayed in popular yoga media. This ongoing series showcases the often unsung work and experiences of incredible yogis in our community with interviews accompanied by minimally altered images that convey our authentic and diverse humanity.
It is only through community that we can shift course.
Not only does this series seek to smash tired stereotypes about what yoga and the “yoga body” look like, but also to counter the cult of celebrity that is so prominent in yoga culture. Each individual photo in the series is part of a larger community shoot. Because it is only through community that we can shift course. The Yoga and Body Image Coalition and I are dedicated to creating a movement, not a brand. And movements are rooted in collective action, solidarity, and grassroots efforts. 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.
You too can show everyone #whatayogilookslike and spread the message by creating your own #whatayogilookslike profile picture to share on social media.
We are diverse.
Our bodies are diverse and unique.
Our yoga practices are diverse, unique, and personal.
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, 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,... Read more>>