Is "Transnational" Yoga Elitist?

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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 will 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?

This is Part One of a two-part series. Read Part Two here.


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