Yoga is often marketed as a “new age” trend for the thin, able-bodied, and wealthy. Here’s why that needs to change.
As an Indian American woman, I was raised with the principles of ancient Indian yoga as part of my culture and community. Coming into my practice didn’t require stretchy outfits, beach sunsets, or sleek studios—the sort of things commonly seen in images depicting yoga, at least in Western marketing, today.
Instead, I learned yoga by living it.
I watched my elders offer unconditional kindness to others, the ancient yoga teaching of ahimsa notably followed by Gandhi. We practiced pranayama, breathing techniques to clear the mind and body that you can turn to anytime, anywhere. We wore our usual cotton Indian clothing and sat on the ground in an ashram, temple, or at someone’s home for lectures and yogasana (physical movements).
Now a writer and educator, I often find myself in search of images that speak to my experiences with yoga. While I’ve been glad to see a slight positive shift in how the practice is represented, I still notice that photos rarely include authentic portrayals of life in India, South Asians, people over the age of thirty-five, or much diversity at all.
While the popularity of yoga retreats, studios, and support equipment isn’t necessarily wrong, the dominance of Western ideas and people in yoga marketing is a problem. It excludes and often mocks traditional practitioners of all backgrounds, obscuring the true meaning of yoga—presence and the appreciation of life.
Understanding the History of Yoga
Scholars suggest yoga began some 2,500 years ago in the Indus Valley of India, formerly known as Bhārat. Under British colonization, from the 1700s until the mid-1900s, the practice was ridiculed and banned. Indian yogis faced prejudice and restrictions in their own country. Now, yoga is a multi-billion dollar industry in the West.
But, how much do brands and influencers share—or really know—about the origins of yoga?
When marketers have a superficial understanding of the practice from which they profit, they often have a superficial approach to their marketing, as well. That often leads them to quickly check boxes around skin color or appearance, which, in turn, tokenizes people. It rarely leads to meaningful inclusivity.
The truth is, gaining a deeper understanding of yoga takes time. Start by asking yourself, “What is yoga?” According to yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, who helped bring the practice to the U.S. in the 1920s, yoga is about self-acceptance and positive transformation for all. Images of yoga should, therefore, reflect that.
One of my favorite teachers, Dr. Maya Angelou, shared the practical spiritual principle, “When you know better, do better.” If you’re in marketing with images of yoga and realize that you’ve been representing it mainly as a fashionable studio practice or an exclusive fitness routine (even if unintentionally), consider how you can revise your approach going forward.
Is it possible to pick up one of your previous campaigns and update representation away from just pictures of athletic, young yoga teachers who are often white, and more toward photos of perhaps Eastern teachers or diverse practitioners? Can you be inclusive of all ages, races, abilities, and genders?
For future projects, instead of showing downward-facing dog at a resort, can you represent seated meditation or hand positions known as mudras? Can you move away from showing elite yoga studios and, instead, offer diverse people perhaps coexisting with animals, wearing their authentic clothing, and practicing in a variety of everyday environments?
We know that capital power tends to eclipse social responsibility. This is likely one reason yoga has long been marketed as a “new age” trend when, in fact, the teaching is ancient, wise, and withstanding time. But, we also know that consumer expectations are shifting. More people are demanding cultural sensitivity from the brands they trust. It’s up to those brands to keep up.
Looking to the Future
Seven years ago, I remember seeing an article titled “The 100 Best Yoga Teachers” published in a major publication. In it, all the teachers except for one were white. That same week, I caught a sitcom that featured an Indian guru stereotyped as flighty, offering “weird, new age teachings.”
This exclusion and misportrayal made me think of a teacher my aunt had recently taken me to in Mumbai, India. We met in a small, sunlit room where we could hear the sounds of busy streets and sat on simple cotton rugs with just our comfortably clothed bodies and minds. I gained such a deep philosophical understanding of yoga from that experience—the result of being guided through one person’s lifetime commitment to the practice.
I wondered how Indian representation in yoga would ever transform from being either completely ignored or cheaply mocked on TV. I wondered when the beauty of diversity and an appreciation for my life and all life—the true meaning of yoga—would be part of how the practice was shared.
It was then that I made a decision to write and speak on how to transform the way yoga is represented. An attempt to correct Western marketing’s depiction of yoga may seem futile, but change lies in each of our hands. Yoga reminds us that we can always reflect and make revisions as individuals, and that brings positive transformation, little-by-little, to the collective world.
A few more articles concerning diversity and inclusion, just for you:
- How We Show It: Bodies
- How We Show It: Black Hair
- Diversity in Design: Building Connections Through Inclusion
- It Gets Better Collaboration: The Importance of LGBTQ+ Representation
- LGBTQ+ Photographers Redefining Wedding Ceremonies
Cover image via michaeljung.