Monday, January 28, 2019

A Leadership Issue in Yoga Media

by Jivana Heyman

I’m so happy to see our Accessible Yoga Blog growing, thanks to the hard work of our volunteer editors, Nina Zolotow and Priya Wagner. Our goal is to create a forum for the diversity of voices in yoga to be heard. I’ll also be writing regularly, and I look forward to exploring issues around accessibility and diversity in yoga.

In fact, the current lack of diversity in mainstream yoga media came to light recently when there was an outcry regarding the cover of Yoga Journal’s January issue. A few months ago, they announced that Jessamyn Stanley, a well-known, large-bodied, queer, African-American yoga teacher, would be on their January cover. The announcement was met with sheer joy and relief by all of us who don’t feel represented by the stream of thin, white, flexible women who have been on the cover of the most popular yoga magazine for years on end.

But Yoga Journal (YJ) didn’t handle it well. After the initial announcement that Jessamyn would be on the cover a few months ago, they posted a survey on Facebook asking their readers to select between Jessamyn and Maty Ezraty, a well known, thin, white teacher, for their January cover. In the end, they printed half of the magazines with Jessamyn on the cover and the other half with Maty.

This follows a similarly bizarre cover drama in November when YJ announced that the winner of their 2018 Good Karma Award would be on their cover. When the winner ended up being an African-American man, Marshawn Feltus, they only printed half the issues with his image on the cover. For the other half, they printed a thin, white woman in a complicated pose. She was a teacher from the amazing Warriors at Ease organization, and she was wearing fatigues, but she fit the standard YJ cover image narrative. When these two issues occur back-to-back it’s hard to say it’s an accident, and you have to wonder what’s at the heart of the matter.

Last week after a few teachers called out Yoga Journal, including Michelle Cassandra Johnson, Susanna Barkataki, Heather Jones, and myself, we elicited a response from YJ’s editor, Tasha Eichenseher, which you can find here. You can also read a response from Jessamyn Stanley here regarding how she felt about being on the cover of what she calls, “ of the whitest magazines in history.”

It’s worth noting that many yoga activists have been talking to Yoga Journal about this for years (in particular, the Yoga and Body Image Coalition). One issue that this brings up is how much our understanding of yoga is shaped by the media. Is what we see on the cover of Yoga Journal actually yoga? Scholars refer to the Westernized yoga practice as MPY (Modern Postural Yoga), and this is what most people think of when they hear the word, “Yoga.”

While MPY is relatively new in the history of yoga, it has such a loud booming voice that it has drowned out much of the other subtler traditional practices like ethical living, chanting, meditation, and self-inquiry. It has also had the unfortunate effect of convincing people that yoga is only for the young and able-bodied by making us believe that contortionism is the same as embodiment.

The media has had a strong influence on the growth of MPY, and Yoga Journal, in particular, has helped to shape the way we perceive these ancient, and not so ancient, practices. But anyone who has studied the history and philosophy of yoga knows that it is complex and diverse. Yoga is more of an organic, living thing than a static, definable object. Yet MPY has convinced us that yoga is simply a form of exercise, and that performing complex asanas makes us more “advanced” when it may just mean that we’re hypermobile or used to be a gymnast when we were younger.

There has even been research that specifically explores the impact of Yoga Journal cover imagery on self-image. After reviewing thirty years of YJ covers, researchers concluded, “Findings suggest that the female “yoga body” conforms to the contemporary thin-and-toned media fitness ideal, particularly recently, which may promote objectified body competence, an unhealthy drive for leanness, and dissuade higher weight women from considering yoga practice.”

In her January 2019 YJ editor’s letter, Tasha Eichenseher says, “We want to bridge old and new, the past and the future, in an effort to find common ground, to celebrate the benefits of the practice, and to help lead the community toward solutions to some of modern yoga’s biggest challenges including, but not limited to, accessibility, safety, abuse of power, and the best way forward.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I pray that it’s true. But there’s some painful irony here. YJ is the very magazine that has not only perpetuated these problems, but may have helped create them in the first place. For example, the first step in resolving the lack of accessibility in yoga is to stop glorifying complex asanas such as the one that Maty Ezraty is doing on the cover. To address safety and the abuse of power, stop referencing known sexual abusers such as Pattabhi Jois, as Maty Ezraty also does in her interview in this issue.

In a way, Yoga Journal has defined a period of time in yoga and Tasha is referencing it in her letter with the idea of bridging past and future, old and new. But the past of yoga goes way beyond Maty Ezraty. The past of yoga is thousands and thousands of years old. The challenge of the next generation of yoga media leadership is to reconcile the ancient past of yoga with MPY’s false idols and abusive gurus.

This is a special moment in the evolution of yoga because these topics are finally being discussed openly. Perhaps we are disillusioned with the yoga-like lifestyle that YJ is selling, and we’ve discovered through our own practice that the power of yoga is not in poses but in the peace of mind they bring.

I invite you to join this conversation. At Accessible Yoga we create platforms for this discussion at our Conferences and through social media. Our work has been about finding ways to bring the whole of yoga to people who don’t normally have access because they are either excluded or unwelcome in yoga spaces - or they simply feel unwelcome. Accessible Yoga has focused on education and advocacy in this area. But, our goal isn’t to simply show that anyone can practice asana, rather it’s to expose the underlying spiritual essence of yoga which is by nature equitable and inclusive.

The heart of yoga is naturally accessible because it connects us to our very own heart beating within our own chest. We don’t need to buy anything or get anything to experience yoga. We simply need to find a way to turn our attention inward – to find the sound and texture of our breath as compelling as likes and shares on Facebook.

I challenge Yoga Journal and mainstream yoga media to become leaders – to find a way to reflect the truth of yoga, which we have experienced in our lives. The truth that yoga can be found in any moment, when we focus our attention. This can happen when we’re taking care of our children, or elderly parent, or when we’re taking care of ourselves. Nothing to buy and nothing to sell. Nothing to become or create. With the body we have at this very moment - without an ounce less fat or an inch more flexibility. Yoga is awareness, full presence, complete acceptance. Can we put that on the cover of Yoga Journal?

Jivana Heyman is the founder of Accessible Yoga, co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center and an Integral Yoga Minister. With over twenty years of training and teaching in a traditional yoga lineage, Jivana has specialized in teaching the subtle practices of yoga: pranayama, meditation, as well as sharing yoga philosophy. His passion is making Yoga accessible to everyone. Accessible Yoga has grown into an international advocacy and education organization, and now offers two Conferences per year, trainings around the world, an ambassador program and online Network. Jivana has taught with the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program through UCSF, California Pacific Medical Center’s Institute of Health and Healing, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He has led over 40 Yoga teacher training programs over the past 16 years, and created the Accessible Yoga Training program in 2007. On December 3rd, 2015, Jivana taught Accessible Yoga at the United Nations in Geneva for their International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Jivana’s strengths are sharing esoteric and complex teaching in a readily accessible way, and applying the ancient teachings of Yoga to our day-to-day lives.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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  1. I can't wait to quote this endlessly. Jivana yet again delivers and absolutely honest and real view of what yoga journal is portraying yoga to be. And with it in the checkout aisle at Whole Foods, as an ad on Facebook, and Beyond, it has and will become a voice to the future of yoga. Let's set the tone right now, correctly. Thank you so much, Jivana for writing this.