Lululemon: Paragon of Modern Yoga?

Lululemon yoga class
Photo Credit: marispacifica

Ladies, if your slick $90 Lululemon pants are sheer or pilling, blame your thighs; “Quite frankly,” founder Chip Wilson shared, “some women’s bodies actually don’t work for [our pants].” Wilson’s comments have been met with popular outrage, although they’re hardly surprising given Lululemon’s corporate culture, a toxic slew of new age capitalist wish fulfillment that combines the Landmark Forum with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and “think yourself rich” platitudes inspired by The Secret. Yet this is a tale that well epitomizes the perils of modern yoga.

These comments are also unsurprising given Lululemon’s controversial history. In an interview with Canada’s National Post Business Magazine that’s since been removed, Wilson theorized a North American brand name with the letter “L” would garner popular appeal in Japan, where the associated sound does not exist in Japanese phonetics. He thus challenged himself to brainstorm a name with three Ls, which he found “funny” to observe the Japanese pronouncing. (The company has since changed its story as to how the name was chosen). When Lululemon started outsourcing to China, one ad campaign mocked child labor. And many have decried Lululemon’s sizeism.

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Lulu is the paradigmatic symbol of modern yoga in the US, and our response to it, a Rorschach for where we land in the modern yogascape. Our responses, ranging from discomfort to apathy, partially reside in the uncomfortable truths Lulu’s gaffes tell us about ourselves.

The “American dream” of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is codified by modern narratives valuing “grit,” self-control, and relentless positive thought. We’ve effectively extended the logic of Manifest Destiny to our mental, physical, emotional, and economic terrains. Thus, for well over a century, beliefs in the infinite capacity to alter our fate by merely changing the way that we think have persisted, from Napoleon Hill’s “Think and grow rich,” in the 1930s, to the 2006 film The Secret. Striking parallels in yoga philosophy have been appropriated and sometimes warped to reinforce these quasi-magical beliefs in absolute self-control/self-restraint, whilst yoga asana and purification practices strengthen the American equation of cleanliness, embodied perfection, and gymnastics with enlightenment, happiness, and godliness.

The flip side of this logic is less commonly discussed. In a culture that believes we are 100% responsible for charting our own destiny, those unable to “manifest” their desired reality are blamed for their misfortune. Thus, Wilson endorses the common belief that if you get sick, it’s your fault; and if Lulu’s pants pill, it has nothing to do with quality control issues, but with women that are too large to fit into them.

The darker and less politically correct truths this worldview harbors are the denial of racism, prejudice, and other stigmas, blaming individuals rather than attributing ownership to interpersonal, collective and corporate factors. This is convenient for individuals in denial of uncomfortable realities and desirous of maintaining their privilege, and for corporations, who profit from marketing to a selective and elite demographic while cutting costs. Such denial—or at the very least, the Lululemonesque worldview that foments it—is common among the privileged demographics often drawn to yoga practices.

Former Lululemon employee Elizabeth Licorish shared the following thought-provoking observation. A crime scene photo from the Bethesda, MD Lululemon murder depicts the employee room where Brittany Norwood, a Black employee, murdered her White co-worker. Chalk paint on the door states “May each of us equally enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” The chalk is in pink, with the word “equally” written in red; blood is spattered all over the floor.

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What is your reaction to Lululemon’s slights against women, sweatshop workers, the Japanese, or the overweight?

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