Fun fact: even Vladimir Putin said he would be interested in trying yoga. It seems that in the 21st century, yoga really is for everyone. But is it really?
Even in ancient India, yoga wasn’t for everyone. The roots and history of yoga is generally marked by masculinity, as most of its guru’s and apprentices were men. But if you’ve ever attended a yoga class in Europe, and looked around you, you might notice a different pattern. Whether that’s in London at a hot yoga studio, or in Lisbon at a vinyasa yoga class, the majority of practitioners are women. What kind of bodies are represented in yoga? And what explains these gender demographics?
First, let’s look at some statistics. In 2020, the British Medical Journal found that 87% of British yoga practitioners were women. A further 91% of practitioners were white, and 71% had a university degree. Although this practice is intended to unite body, mind, and soul, it seems as though it is only designed for a certain type of person. The image of yoga is painfully narrow: magazines, websites, advertising, and social media all promote the same kind of ‘yoga body’. This body is almost always white, young, thin, able-bodied, and conveys a sense of economic well-being. After all, Lululemon yoga leggings start at £88 a pair and in this economy, few people can afford this kind of luxury.
White and wealthy women doing asanas, and the ideals of beauty they convey, are routinely used to signal sexiness and sell products. Corporations use these images to signify what kind of body and economic status is necessary to be able to participate in yoga. A load of cultural icons and celebrities also endorse yoga (such as Madonna, Sting, Bjork, or Britney Spears) which only adds to the practice’s commodification, commercialisation, and exclusivity. Signing up for a yoga class and buying the “appropriate” wear is an important investment that implies accessibility to a specific socio-economic bracket. Yoga also requires a strong commitment to the practice, which not only entails practitioners to buy multiple classes but also to have enough spare time to attend, leading to the inevitable exclusion of some. Companies often imply that by buying all of the expensive accessories, you may be let into this exclusive club. However, more often than not, you are still left on the outside looking in.
Unfortunately, yoga is not free from contemporary Western culture’s power dynamics and body politics. Yoga is often advertised as a means to achieve “body perfection” and ultimately become “more desirable,” according to patriarchal standards of beauty. Scholars have found that mass media representations of yoga specifically target young, thin, white, and assigned female at birth (AFAB) bodies, encouraging them to adopt what we call technologies of beautytechnologies of femininity refers to the disciplinary practices women engage in to appear more desirable or attractive, according the patriarchal standards of beauty.close. This often includes tips on how to reduce fat through the exercise of yoga. Yoga is thus marketed as an “appropriate” exercise for women, a way in which they can police their bodies and keep themselves slender. This specific reality of yoga is at complete odds with what it claims to be: ‘every body is a yoga body’. If that is really the case, why are plus-sized people routinely made to feel excluded from yoga?
The Gatorade advert with queer yoga-instructor and body positivity activist Jessamyn Stanley only proved how present fatphobia still is in the yoga world. Gatorade is described as “sports fuel for performance athletes” and their 2023 ad chose to feature a plus-size woman doing yoga: the almost immediate backlash didn’t surprise anyone. Even though Jesamine is a thousand times fitter than those negatively commenting on her body, misconceptions about body size and health means plus-size bodies are rarely represented as ‘fit’. It doesn’t matter if a fat person exercises every day, if they don’t have a thin body, it is assumed they are not healthy.
While this explains the ‘thin-ideal’, it still doesn’t explain why yoga is now dominated by women in Europe. Studies show that gender-related perceptions explain why less men engage in yoga. The non-competitive nature of the activity, as well as the predominance of women in classes, makes it less appealing to men. Men tend to often avoid activities associated with femininity as a way to maintain their masculine identity, which in turn influences their behaviours. Because yoga is seen as gentle, less challenging, and also including a spiritual component (and men are, in general, less inclined to believe in religion/spirituality), they often regard yoga as feminine. Interestingly enough, yoga classes marketed as ‘Broga’ (bro-yoga) or ‘Joga’ (jock-yoga) have more success among men than regular yoga classes. Maybe marketing yoga as more masculine could be a way forward?
Not only has the association between white femininity and yoga increased in the past 30 years, but since the late 90s, men and people of colour have increasingly disappeared from media representations of yoga. Considering that yoga is rooted in Hinduism and Vedic ontology, it is worrying how much modern yoga has been appropriated by white people and how the practice has been separated from its ancestral roots. Some academics argue that white people practicing yoga engage in a form of cultural ‘brown face,’ of adopting personas that do not belong to them and stripping out the elements of the tradition that do not appeal to them, such as the spiritual/religious aspect. The Om symbol, idols of Buddha, tattoos of decontextualised Sanskrit, and Tibetan bells are used as ‘casual decor’ by yoga teachers, probably without any of the knowledge (or interest) of the original and spiritual meanings behind them.
But don’t worry, all is not lost! While it is true that (physical) yoga classes are geared towards white, able-bodied, and wealthier women, many people choose to practice yoga online (myself included). This is a less costly and inclusive way to reap the benefits of the practice, either through watching free videos, purchasing books, or cheaper online classes. Although many of the youtube teachers still represent the stereotypical ‘yoga body’, yoga still provides a sense of community for women, and in recent years, has become a site of resistance working to change the way we understand beauty. The mind, body, and soul connection enables practitioners to cope with stress, connect to their spirituality, and improve their mental health. Yoga has also been found helpful in releasing symptoms of PTSD and trauma, as it teaches you to embrace your body and vulnerability.
Yoga also doesn’t have to be an all-consuming way of life, you can just enjoy a casual practice and move your body. Yoga can be a helpful tool to understand yourself, a form of exercise that helps reduce stress, but the representation of yoga bodies in mass media is problematic. I suggest we work together to dismantle them!