Yoga Sells...Zippos?

Advertisers are using yoga to sell everything from stocks to cars. Are you buying?

It started a few years ago with Kelly Harmon and a Tic Tac commercial. A yoga class of baby-boomer women in leotards flanked the actress as she touted the calming powers of breath mints. You don't want foul-smelling three-part breathing, do you?

Since those humble beginnings, there's been a proliferation of yoga images in the mass media. In the past year, yoga poses were featured in ads for Nike shoes, Kellogg's Smart Start cereal, Jeep, J Crew, Oil of Olay, and Oxford Health Plan, just to name a handful. Yoga is being used to sell everything from skin cream to HMOs. Advertisers have locked onto the yoga demographic, which begs the questions, "Who are we?" and "Why us?" and "Are we buying?"

All About Women Consumers, a marketing industry prospectus, pegs the average yogi as a "younger, affluent, educated single woman." Can you say "shopper?" To marketing professionals, this audience, which makes up 17 percent of the population, is part of a psychographic group known as "Inward Alternative Seekers," who use techniques like massage and aromatherapy—as well as yoga—to relax. Perhaps more telling is a recent survey by American Demographics magazine that found just over half of those asked had heard of yoga and believe it's moderately to very effective. No wonder big corporations are trying to woo us. Yoga is taken seriously by half the general populace. We can't even elect leaders by that margin.

"I think that the increased exposure is a positive thing," says Alan Finger who, along with his wife, Greta, co-owns New York-based Yoga Zone studios. "If a Jeep ad sparks spiritual interest in just one individual, the whole planet evolves." In October of 1999, the studio helped Banana Republic unveil a new line of stretch-wear. A Yoga Zone teacher led 50 models through various poses in Grand Central Station. "As long as yoga images are used by the media tastefully and in the true spirit of the practice, I don't see a conflict. Billboards all over New York show people meditating; it's the age of spirituality. If not through a commercial context, how else do you reach the masses with this important message?" adds Finger.

But what does it mean to say an ad reflects the "true spirit of the practice?" Is it something pictures can convey? Rama Berch, president of the Yoga Alliance and founder of Master Yoga Academy in La Jolla, California, acknowledges that the popularity of yoga images in advertisements indicates that more people are familiar with its benefits, and that "the more people who do yoga, the kinder and happier our world will be." But, she cautions, "You can't photograph the parts of yoga practice that are the most significant—that inner point of peace."

Maybe the pairing of yoga and marketing is an uneasy partnership, but it is probably unavoidable in America. Ads sell their products by selling us values like prosperity, peace, and contentment. And that, marketing representatives seem to have recognized, sounds a lot like what sells us on yoga.