Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.
Anyone who has picked up a few yoga magazines has probably noticed the predominant type of yoga practice images that are on the cover, accompanying the articles, and even in the advertisements. It is usually an attractive, young, white, thin woman in tight-fitting yoga clothing in a pose that requires an impressive level of flexibility and acrobatic prowess that many long-time yoga practitioners have never even attempted. Given the pressure of a magazine’s priority of selling copies and turning a profit, this is probably not surprising.
Subscribers to yoga magazines are predominantly women and selling using this method has proven effective. The predominance of the limited portrayal is noticeable enough that a few researchers have decided that it is worthy of research and analysis. In fact, there are now at least a half-dozen studies published since 2016 that have analyzed the specifics of this portrayal of yoga, with a view to analyzing and discussing its implications. The Yoga Journal, being perhaps the dominant yoga magazine with 2 million subscribers and a long publishing history going back to the 1970s, has been one of the main sources of data for most of these studies.
A research team led by Dr. Jennifer Webb in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has published four studies to date described below. The first three were published in the journal Body Image. The first study examined the cover images from three popular yoga magazines that were published in a five-year interval starting in 2010: Yoga Journal in the U.S., Om Yoga & Lifestyle in the U.K., and Yoga Magazine which is in both countries. Using a formal coding procedure with specifically trained research assistants, they examined race/ethnicity, body size, shape, and objectifying apparel characteristics of the magazine cover images of 142 female models. These characteristics fell into three thematic categories: socio-demographic attributes, body-related attributes, and body-as-object/body-as-process attributes. The results revealed that over 2/3 of the models were white, almost 90% appeared to be in their 20’s and 30’s, the average appearance was of low weight with a thin and lean body shape, almost 2/3 were in an active yoga pose, and the majority had high body visibility (i.e. clothing that was skin revealing). This was, therefore, consistent with the hypothesized/expected general stereotype.
In another study, this team tackled an analysis of the physical appearance and clothing characteristics of the images of female cover models over the course of 40 years of the Yoga Journal between 1975 and 2015. They conducted a formal analysis of 168 cover images of single female models using a coding and rating procedure. The results showed that over 80% of the images were of a full or ¾ full portrayal of the models’ bodies, which allowed for further analysis of the characteristics of body portrayal. About one-third of the images were underweight, and 62% were of low normal weight. Noticeably, only one cover image (out of 168) was overweight. Body shape was dominated by a skinny/boney appearance (22%) or a thin/lean appearance (58%), and accordingly, breast size was small with 42% flat-chested and 47% small-breasted. In terms of clothing, 13% were wearing a bra or sports bra and 48% were wearing tank tops. In the portrayal of the body position displayed, fully 68% of the covers showed an active yoga posture. In a further analysis of how these covers changed over time, they divided the cover images across four decades.
Although several attributes showed no change over time, more images of full or ¾ body portrayals, more thin/lean body shapes and more tank tops appeared in more recent decades, suggesting that the stereotype may be strengthening over time. The third and fourth studies also worked with Yoga Journal images. One of these focused on the analysis of a subsample of full-page or larger advertisements from 41 issues across four decades of publication. Female model characteristics in the ads revealed 47% of models were non-white, 57% appeared to be in their 20’s and 30’s and their body size was underweight (7%) or low-normal weight (45%), with only one model appearing overweight. More white and younger models have appeared in more recent decades of publication.
As with the magazine cover study above, the body images again favored the thin, lean, ideal physique. Their most recent study published in the International Journal of Yoga analyzed 230 images from a specific section of Yoga Journal called “Yogapedia” from 41 issues published in 2015 to 2016. This magazine section provides practice instructions for sequences of postures, accompanied by step-by-step practice images. Once again, the classic stereotypical body portrayal was observed, with over 80% female, 100% white, many (39%) in the 30’s age range, with predominantly (72%) low normal weight appearance. Only 11% were rated to be somewhat overweight, with none rated as underweight, obese, or with any disability.
Two other studies in a similar vein have been published out of the laboratory of Christiane Brems in the School of Graduate Psychology at Pacific University, both of which again focused on Yoga Journal images. Their first study analyzed 702 articles from a subsample of 33 journal issues between 2007 and 2014 and focused on a formal analysis of article content. They reported that postures (40% of articles) and breathwork (49% of articles) strongly dominated the content at the expense of content related to more philosophical/psychological content (i.e. introspection, meditation, absorption, etc.). In an analysis of trends, the postural aspect of yoga in the content was seen to increase over time, whereas there were declines in all of the other types of content including breathwork. The authors noted that “the current depiction of yoga in the popular media as exemplified by Yoga Journal is drifting from yoga’s deeper philosophical roots and becoming more of a fashion statement rather than a holistic lifestyle.” In their most recent study, they examined 3,129 images from both advertisements and article graphics that were a quarter of a page or larger from a subsample of 33 Yoga Journal issues between 2007 and 2014. They reported that the images were mostly white females (about ¾ of them) who were thinner than average (52%) and predominantly young adults (75%). Only 20% were persons of color and fewer than 2% were heavier than average.
Advertisements were more likely to depict females over males, thin body size, and younger age. Trends over time showed a propensity towards increasing female representation over males and increasing representation of a thin body type.
Clearly, the analyses from these studies have confirmed the general perceived representation in yoga magazines of younger, white, athletic females with thin bodies, i.e. the “yoga body”. A significant limitation of these studies is that they have been conducted on a very limited subset of public media, primarily targeted at yoga magazine subscribers and practitioners. What would be particularly useful would be similar studies of more mainstream media portrayals of yoga, which would be more relevant to implications of these portrayals on the perception of yoga by the general population (a couple of research studies have examined Instagram yoga images). The prediction would be that a similar representation of yoga would be observed. The implications of how a very limited portrayal of yoga in the media may affect the general population has been discussed in all of these research articles.
The major issues at stake include concerns about the exclusive portrayal of yoga practice as one severely limited by gender, age, body size, race, age, physical ability, and socioeconomic status, which serves as a barrier to practice for those on the other side of the stereotype. If fact, we know that yoga practice demographics are dominated by white females. There is also the issue of potential harm caused by promoting an unrealistic and unhealthy ideal body image (think the anatomically impossible body of the Barbie® dolls – there is actually a “Yoga Teacher Career Doll” version). This may be contributing to a form of “cultural programming” in the media in general that has been implicated in eating disorders. Future research should evaluate the image portrayal of yoga in the mainstream media, elucidate and quantify the actual perception of yoga by the general population, and evaluate potential strategies that might ameliorate the inaccurate perception of yoga practice and the barriers to practice. Perhaps it will be the “Barbie® Scientist Career Doll” that will do this research.
Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D. is the KRI Director of Research, Research Director for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has practiced a Kundalini Yoga lifestyle since 1973 and is a KRI certified Kundalini Yoga instructor. He has conducted research on yoga for insomnia, stress, anxiety disorders, and yoga in public schools. He is editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and The Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care and author of the Harvard Medical School ebook Your Brain on Yoga.
KRI is a non-profit organization that holds the teachings of Yogi Bhajan and provides accessible and relevant resources to teachers and students of Kundalini Yoga.