Are We Ready to Really Live by Our Deepest Values?

Yoga is a practice of union but too often it’s portrayed as something for just a select few. This needs to change.
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Yoga is a practice of union but too often it’s portrayed as something for just a select few. This needs to change.
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This special guest blog is written by Off the Mat Into the World co-founder Hala Khouri. Join the conversation at The Practice of Leadership Facebook page.

by Hala Khouri

A week ago I moderated a panel discussion on corporate responsibility and yogic values at Yoga Journal LIVE! NYC. The panel included leadership from Lululemon Athletica (including the new CEO Laurent Potdevin) as well as bloggers and yoga teachers who have been critical of the company. This has begun a conversation among yoga practitioners that I think is very important.

Panelists and audience members at The Practice of Leadership shared their concern that Lululemon does not operate according to yogic values, and thus is not a true reflection of the yoga community. Many expressed their opinion that Lululemon should change its marketing and production practices to be more inclusive and have more integrity.

I want to break down these arguments.

I'll start by sharing who I am, which inevitably informs my perspective. I am a mother of multi-cultural children, a trauma therapist, co-founder ofOff the Mat Into the World, a yoga teacher, a Lebanese immigrant, straight, able-bodied, educated and white (white is an ambiguous term that typically refers to people of European descent, so some would argue that I’m not white, but I pass as white and thus receive benefits from my skin color).

Who are we referring to when we say “yoga community”?

The way I see it, Lululemon, Yoga Journal, and most mainstream yoga studios, operate from the belief that the "yoga community" is mostly made up of upper/middle class, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, slim women. This is the audience they appear to cater to. Yet there are lots of other people doing yoga out there who may never walk into a mainstream studio, Lululemon store, or purchase a copy of Yoga Journal. I'm talking about people of color, poor people, people who are incarcerated, veterans, fat people, disabled people, queer and transgender people, old people, etc. And this is one of the problems with talking about a “yoga community”: There is not just one community of people all connected through their love of yoga. In fact, I believe that this lack of cohesion is, sadly, a reflection of the larger divide that exists in our society—there is the community of privilege, and then there is everyone else.

If yoga means union, then we should not allow ourselves to be a reflection of the divide that exists in world at large. If we strive for greater consciousness, we should think critically about whom we see as included in our community—and whom we don't. I know that some yogis are now thinking to themselves, "But everyone is welcome at our studio, no one is turned away!" And I’d say: This is a sweet, yet naive sentiment. Not rejecting people is not the same as actively creating spaces that invite everyone, and where everyone feels included.

This is where corporate responsibility and marketing comes in.

Do companies such as Lululemon and Yoga Journal have a responsibility to market yoga differently?

Lululemon is a multi-million-dollar company, with incredible visibility (254 stores worldwide and growing). Yoga Journal sells more than 300,000 magazines a year and is seen by millions. Because these companies are so visible, they play a significant role in shaping the cultural image of what yoga is. So when these companies portray yogis as white, able bodied, and slim, they definitely send a message about who yoga is for. This message is so strong that Leslie Booker, and African American yoga and mindfulness teacher, says that in every class she teaches to youth of color, she has to convince them that yoga is not just for white people. I'm always surprised when someone tells me that they couldn't ever do yoga because they're not flexible enough, as if that were a prerequisite. We’re scaring away people who could use yoga the most!

What is the consumer's responsibility here?

Corporations are fed by consumer dollars. We can't complain about their marketing practices without acknowledging that we've been feeding the mouth of the beast that we are now fighting. Profit-driven companies will inevitably respond to consumer demand, so as we ask them to change their ways, we must also change ours. There is a segment of the yoga community (and now I am using the phrase to include the community of everyone who does yoga) that lives by yogic values, and put their dollars where their values are. But there are a large number of people who do yoga who have not yet connected their practice on their mat to the rest of their lives.

This is the challenge we’re tasked with.

If we are to transform the yoga community to a yoga movement, which is what I believe is called for, we have to find a way to engage in a conversation about what yogis value and how we can live those values in all aspects of our life. It's easy to have this conversation with others with the same values, but how do we engage with those who don’t feel the calling to be part of this movement? How do we engage everyone who loves yoga, our true yoga community, in a way that is respectful to all points of view?

Privilege is real, and must be checked; but the truth is, the average mainstream yogi is swimming in an ocean of unacknowledged privilege. I know because that has been my process. I fit the mainstream yoga ideals in many ways (slim, white skinned, educated, and flexible). I've spent the last 15 years of my life unpacking my privilege (as well as the ways in which I don't have it). Each time I think I'm aware, I find a new blind spot, it can be as small as little as realizing that band aids match my skin but not dark skin, or as big as taking for granted that I'm never going to be judged by my skin color or gender identity.

How it can be different.

My vision is that the face of yoga includes everyone; that yoga does not appear—in advertising, in magazines, in the branding and marketing to a target audience, even in our own assumptions about it—to be an elite practice for a select few. Instead I want to see yoga portrayed and celebrated as something that everyone can benefit from.  In order for this to happen people who do yoga need to actively stand together. We need to use our voices, our purchasing power, our patience, our ability to stay grounded and have difficult conversations, our passion, and our dedication to strive toward letting all aspects of our life reflect our practice.

Carol Horton, who was on the panel, wrote a great piece about the possibility of creating a new paradigm around corporate practices. She offers some compelling solutions having to do with marketing, production, community building, and staff training.

What does this mean for you?

If you do yoga, and want your practice, and all aspects of your life, to reflect your deeper values, consider these questions:

Where in your life are you not making choices that are in alignment with what you value?

What would you need to give up or change in order change this?

Are you willing to sacrifice some of your privileges in order to live with more integrity?

What is one thing you can do right now to move toward this?

Hala Khouri, M.A. E-RYT is co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World. She is a trauma therapist, yoga teacher and mother dedicated to addressing the ways that trauma (personal and collective) keep us from living lives filled with joy, connection and love. If you want to engage in this conversation further, join Off the Mat in an online course on yoga and social justice.