Is "Transnational" Yoga Elitist?

Whether you
practice yoga or have just seen it on TV, you could probably conjure to mind
the stereotypical yoga consumer: affluent, Caucasian, female, and bendy. A
recent Wall Street Journal article’s depiction
of yoga instructor Colleen Saidman
, the willowy blonde, newly appointed
ambassador for California winery Estansia, does little to disabuse us of this
perception. Self-described as “uncommonly balanced” like a good glass of wine,
Saidman points to her $600 thigh-high blue suede boots, expensive watch, and
enjoyment of dark chocolate, sex, and wine as she notes, “I want to have fun in
this life.”

As
of 2008, surveys indicate the average American yoga practitioner—Caucasian, female, educated,
and relatively affluent—reflects
the stereotype. Yet some benefits derive from yoga practitioners’ comparative
privilege. Many use their position and love for the practice to devote valuable
time and resources to sharing the practice with those that may otherwise not
have access. Thus, yoga is increasingly offered in schools, prisons,
hospitals,
and war/trauma-ravaged
terrains
around the world.

Despite
these inroads, the unspoken demographic constant looms. Yoga is being imported
to Haiti
and Africa, and exploding in
popularity among middle
and upper socioeconomic groups
globally, earning
it the moniker “transnational yoga” by scholar Mark Singleton
. Yet it lags
persistently in gaining more widespread buy-in amidst men and those equally or
greater poised to benefit due to higher levels of stress and economic
insecurity: ethnic minorities and the majority of lower-income individuals. While
current efforts to teach yoga in diverse settings are well underway, greater
efforts are needed to render yoga palatable to a broader range of people.

Why
might there be greater interest in yoga and related practices among upper
socioeconomic strata? Numerous explanations abound. Yoga “culture” entails
consumption of organic food and other high-cost commodities, while the money
needed to afford yoga studio classes, workshops, retreats, and trainings could quickly
tap pinched bank accounts. “Conceptual
marketing,”
capitalized upon by Lululemon and other companies selling yoga
pants for upwards of $80 per pair, has successfully branded yoga as a lifestyle
for the comparative elite. As such, yoga is bundled with other healthy
activities that have long been associated with the western middle or upper
class.

Media
representations of women practicing yoga contribute to as well as reflect
yoga’s elitist identity, often over-sexualized, airbrushed, contortionist, and
possessing the appearance, if not always the reality, of wealth. Such images tie
closely into the obsessive pursuit of youth and beauty, both necessitating time
and money in the cultural imagination.

In
Part 2, we discuss some of the common perceived barriers to yoga practice
(cost, time, culture, flexibility), and strategies to tackle these head-on,
potentially rendering yoga more accessible to all who may benefit.

Do you think yoga is becoming elitist?

Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a two-part series. Read Part Two here.

Comments 2

  1. This article is the kind that we absolutely need to see in the media. Thank you for putting this on your site.
    I just linked to your site on my blog, and I plan to write about this article later this week.

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