Yogic Values, Diversity, and Inclusivity

LuluLogoDiversityI had the good fortune to score one of only a hundred seats for The Practice of Leadership, a panel discussion held at the Yoga Journal Conference in New York City this past weekend. The discussion grew out of Seane Corn’s decision to decline an invitation from Lululemon to participate in a leadership training program they were developing for the Yoga Journal Conferences. Ms. Corn explained the reason for her decision:

I told them that I couldn’t be a part of a training program they were hosting unless they themselves were willing to model true leadership, which includes ownership. Their lack of transparency and silence around the controversy in 2013 was irresponsible.”

The “controversy” was a perfect storm of long-standing questions regarding the compatibility of Lululemon’s philosophy and ethics with those of yoga combined with incendiary statements by Lululemon founder and majority shareholder Chip Wilson regarding, among other things, problems with Lululemon’s product line. It all resulted in a public relations disaster and an invitation from Alanna Kaivalya in a phenomenally viral Huffington Post article.

The Practice of Leadership panel discussion was described as follows:

“In this session, we will take on the delicate balance of spiritual values and corporate responsibility featuring community leaders, social change activists and Lululemon leadership. It will be an open and honest dialogue that gets at the heart of our practice, our role as conscious leaders and how to create community in conflict.”

Yogadork posted a nice summary of the proceedings and asked readers to stop and ponder a significant question: “Do you feel Lululemon (a corporation) should be held responsible for upholding yogic values, diversity and inclusivity?”

My answer is that Yogadork rolled two very different questions into one. A coherent response is not possible until the two questions are separated. Here’s why:

Panel member Rachel Acheson, Lululemon’s VP of Brand & Community, made the claim that Lululemon was “a reflection of the yoga community”. Whether or not this is, could be, or should be true, and the implications of each facet of the question, seemed to me to be the essence of the discussion.

If Lululemon is a reflection of the yoga community then I’ve turned into Tinker Bell so I reject Ms. Acheson’s assertion. Is it possible for Lululemon to be a reflection of the yoga community? No: a company selling a luxury product to a niche market within a niche market can’t be all things to all people; that would be an internal contradiction. Should they be a reflection of the entire yoga community? I doubt their shareholders think so.

Should Lululemon’s target market think that Lululemon is a reflection of the yoga community? If you’re in charge of strategic marketing and marketing communications at Lululemon, creating precisely that impression is your job: duh!

But it wasn’t Lululemon’s existential definition as a corporation beholden to its shareholders that had me thinking that something was wrong with this picture. As I listened to the discussion I heard a lot about diversity, inclusivity, community, and descriptions of people according to body size, body type, body image, gender identification, sexual orientation, socio-economic position, and geographic location; in other words, a wide variety of ways that people identify with the body. The conversation revolved entirely around bodily designations and the need for inclusion of all these bodily designations within the ‘yoga community’.

And therein was the unspoken premise of the discussion: that the ‘spiritual values’ and ‘yogic values’ at the ‘heart of our practice’ are synonymous with progressive ideals of inclusivity based on bodily conceptions of identity.

Are they?

Not according to the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita. The seminal texts of yoga waste no time in clearly stating their shared fundamental proposition: that we are not the body; that we are eternal, conscious, spiritual beings whose existence does not depend on the existence of a material mind/body complex. And the condition of identifying with the body is characterized as avidya; the absence of vision or, as it is commonly translated, ignorance.

So Lululemon is identifying the ‘yoga body’ as being one kind of body and the convocation of inquisitors was identifying the ‘yoga body’ as including every kind of body and no one among the ‘leaders’ of the yoga community was identifying anyone as not being their body. In spite of its primacy in yoga philosophy; the “spiritual values” under discussion did not include any distinction between spirit and matter, between ‘self’ and ‘body’.

Spiritual values are, by definition, based on a spiritual, rather than material, conception of life. And there is a sociological function of yoga that includes a system of economics and social organization that supports the transcendental function of yoga, namely, realization of the self beyond the body. The socio-economic model of yoga is antithetical to the current paradigm of industrialized global pseudo-free market capitalism. So for Lululemon to exemplify spiritual values they would have to lead the charge to demolish the very system their own core philosophy (Objectivism) champions, and, in doing so, orchestrate their own demise.

As time ran out I was granted the last question (in part because I’m in a male body and no other men, among perhaps three of us in the room, had been given the opportunity). So I asked the ‘leaders’ if they had any plans to lead the yoga community away from a preoccupation with identifying the self with the body and asked the folks from Lululemon if they were prepared to self-immolate in order to align themselves with the values of yoga.

Laurent Potdevin, Lululemon’s new CEO, didn’t have time to indicate whether or not he was familiar with the Yoga Sutras. But he graciously answered the second part of my question, assuring me and the assembled multitude that (surprise!) he had no intention of burning the company’s corpse on the banks of the Ganges. The facilitators (Ms. Corn and her partner, Hala Khouri) were obliged by the constraints of time to close the proceedings so they can be forgiven for not addressing my  question on the spot, but now that time is not an issue I would sure love to hear from them about it.

Make no mistake, I think the spirit of service that OTM encourages is great and I wholeheartedly support all of my friends and colleagues who accept these kinds of challenges. But there is a pinprick in the social body at large that ripples out into conflict, scarcity, and injustice and material solutions minus a genuinely spiritual component are insufficient to solve these problems because they remain within the framework of the cause to the effect. There’s a need for the re-spiritualization of the entire human society. The yoga community can, and should, fill this need for our own good, for the good of society, and for the good of the entire world.


  1. Taraka-balarama dasa
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 7:37 PM | Permalink | Reply

    As always Hari-kirtana das, your points are not only articulate, but cut right to the heart of the matter. I applaud your ability, and willingness, to continue speaking the truth of Yoga in and amongst the commercial world which has adopted “yoga” as its moniker.

  2. Hari
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 9:30 PM | Permalink | Reply

    do you believe someone can have yogic values, aspire to be kind and loving to all living creatures and work for lululemon?

  3. Tulasi-Priya
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:24 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Its always nice to define terms before beginning a discussion. For the yoga community to “re-spiritualize human society,” the leaders of said community would first have to have a clear idea of what spirit is, along with what it is not. Do they? It seems from your post that perhaps they don’t. But such questions lead to other questions, such as the nature of the self, the purpose of life, and why anyone should need to do yoga in the first place.

    • Posted April 29, 2014 at 7:41 AM | Permalink | Reply

      In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjlai proceeds in a very formal way: state a proposition, define the terms in the proposition, justify the proposition, then elaborate on each aspect of the proposition. So I agree: defining our terms when we talk about ‘yoga values’ and the like is essential in order to ensure that we’re all talking about the same thing. Thanks for your comment, Tulasi-Priya.

  4. Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:48 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Great article, Hari. Well thought out, as always. While Lululemon as a corporation struggles with it’s own corporeal hazards, I can’t even venture to think that they have remotely considered a fundamental question of yoga philosophy…because yoga philosophy is not what they stand for. It seems to me that there is a gross lack of actual yoga practice within the organization and a fundamental obsession with the body that skews them from being able to see past the separation at hand, past their own avidya and agenda to come to the only conclusion they could: they are not representing yoga.

    At the panel, I expressed my discomfort at the fact that people could be introduced to yoga by such a corporation as Lululemon with such individualistic and objectivistic ideals–which are starkly in contrast to that of yoga’s ideals. It pains me that people’s introduction to yoga could be under fluorescent lights in a capitalistic room filled with consumer goods manufactured from petroleum that they were expected to purchase post-shavasana from a yoga instructor who took a job there because she can’t afford to make a living otherwise.

    Until Lululemon is no longer obsessed with their corporate corporeal-ness, which frankly I don’t think is possible, they will not be able to uphold yogic values. Because a corporation is solely responsible for making money for it’s shareholders, it’s goals are fundamentally out of alignment with yoga’s unifying nature.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Hari! Appreciate you speaking up about this important issue and helping to redirect yogic thought….er…. back to yoga. 🙂

    • Posted April 29, 2014 at 8:20 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Alanna. I thought that handing Mssr. Potdevin a ring binder full of feedback from your follow-up Huff post was a great way to respond to someone who insisted they were there to listen. And I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he sincerely wants to hear from the yoga community (however we define it) and help Lululemon be a better company in every respect. Of course, all the listening in the world won’t change the fact that Lulu is built on a foundation that’s antithetical to a traditional understanding of yoga. In spite of that, I’m going to remain optimistic that people who are introduced to yoga through an opportunistic corporation may find the deeper experience of yoga in the course of their practice just as so many people develop an interest in yoga philosophy after initially coming to yoga just for it’s health and fitness benefits. Give Roxie a scratch behind the ear for me.

  5. Hari
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 7:10 AM | Permalink | Reply

    good to hear ~ thank you

  6. Posted April 29, 2014 at 12:46 PM | Permalink | Reply

    love your question to the panel at the end, Hari! I’d love to see a re-frame of the YogaDork question because, what may be hard to see here, the subject at hand has very little to do with one company. They just happen to be the biggest target. Something more like “What are you willing to do to help dismantle the socioeconomic system that allows corporations and individuals to profit massively off the yoga community and our vulnerabilities without honoring the interconnected web of all life?” >> pretty sure you could articulate that more fully, but yea. Thank you for sharing for those of us who could not be present.

    • Posted April 29, 2014 at 1:47 PM | Permalink | Reply

      I think you just articulated it perfectly. In fact, in retrospect, If I had phrased my question more like you did I probably would have gotten a more thoughtful rather than defensive response. Thanks for commenting – I’m looking forward to learning some anatomy from you via your course on 90 Monkeys.

  7. Jen
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 4:29 PM | Permalink | Reply

    How did we even get here talking so much about Lululemon? Other than pithy sayings on their shopping bags, I don’t understand how Lululemon was able to convince anyone that it has anything to do with yoga. It’s a company. That sells workout clothes. Clothes that are made from unsustainable petrochemicals in sweatshops likely with child labor. For me, the conversation stops there, and doesn’t even get to the point of how they characterize their customers’ bodies.

    Who’s to blame Lululemon for throwing their marketing dollars at luring their target customers into their stores any way they can figure out how? That’s what companies do. Are they actually co-opting yoga? Bc I honestly think they do a pretty bad job of that, even if you don’t know about their corporate ethics. Nothing in their stores or marketing really speaks to me of yoga philosophy or ideals. Or is it that their customers just really like their clothes and the trappings of “yoga peace and harmony” on their shopping bags just make that slightly more attractive than Nike?

    But now everyone is mad b/c Chip Wilson did the dumbest thing any CEO of a company can do: insult its customers. This isn’t about Lululemon not being yogic enough. If this was really about “the yoga” everyone should have stopped shopping at Lululemon years ago.

    • Posted April 29, 2014 at 5:31 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Maya Devi Georg over at Brahmaloka or Bust (in her comments on their FB page) made a similar point: there were already plenty of good reasons for yoga practitioners not to patronize Lululemon and for yoga-lebrities to distance themselves from Lululemon but the tipping point didn’t come until Chip Wilson said, in essence, that his customer’s bodies were too big for Lulu’s britches. So I agree: removing the demand for a product is the best way to make it go away so yogis still have a good reason not to shop there. But the point of my post isn’t that Lululemon is bad; it’s that the appropriation of yoga by consumer culture is bad because it re-defines yoga according to it’s own values. The re-spiritualization of society by way of yoga requires a massive push-back against consumer culture and its values. Lululemon is the effect, not the cause. Since yoga is about solving problems at the cause, the yogic response is not just to stop shopping at Lululemon; it’s to change the consciousness that made Lululemon possible. Thanks for your comments and observations, Jen.

      • Jen
        Posted April 30, 2014 at 10:37 AM | Permalink

        I agree, but I think it was less an appropriation of yoga and more an inevitable consequence of Americans practicing yoga. I think we come to yoga with consumerism virtually embedded in our DNA. If Americans are going to practice, consumerism will be a part of it. It’s a slow and challenging process to disentangle from these attachments (especially when every level of our society encourages consumption), but I think it can happen in the long run. Problem is in the short term I would guess most people practicing yoga in the US these days have been doing so less than 5 years. Sadly many of those people are are not only teaching group classes but are also training teachers. There’s a very superficial level of yoga practice being propagated. As a result, there are a lot of people practicing who have no idea that cute yoga pants and narcissistic selfies aren’t actually part of yoga. In some ways, I can excuse that (and maybe continue to be part of the chorus of people that think Yoga Alliance has a role in this problem as well as the solution if they would only step up). But…. Then there are the “senior” teachers with years of practice (which, if we’re to believe the system, should be further along on the path) who are out there regularly posting selfies at their photo shoots for yoga clothes and accessories. Even if they talk about non-attachment, they’re encouraging consumption with their behavior.

        So my question is whether practicing yoga will quietly and eventually turn the tide, or is there some other radical intervention that needs to happen sooner? As I mull over your comments and my own thoughts, I’m coming around to the latter. More people should speak up and perhaps start calling out the teachers that perpetuate all this attachment to stuff (is there an Occupy Yoga?). But this needs to dovetail on a more concerted effort on the part of grassroots teachers to teach the other limbs of yoga in daily classes, not just in workshops and sometimes on retreats. And I count myself as one of those who doesn’t usually talk about ethics in my weekly classes, in large measure b/c I am not sure how to do it without sounding preachy. A lot to consider. But I am willing and interested in continuing a discussion how to make this situation better.

        On a side note, a similar conversation is bubbling up in the American Buddhist community about the lack of instruction on the Buddha’s teachings on ethical conduct (sila). It’s an interesting time to be in these communities.

  8. mjeuland
    Posted May 5, 2014 at 6:41 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I love this discussion; thank you for standing up and bringing wonderful insights. I hope we can all figure out a way to make the changes necessary for more spiritual and ethical individuals leading to a changed society….

  9. Posted May 13, 2014 at 10:49 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Dear Tinker Bell,

    I see a couple of very hip “Lulumon is a reflection of Yoga” luminaries are having an event in NY to discuss “New directions in North American Yoga.” They are conveniently parsing the yoga community into “Modern” and “PreModern” Yoga. Class dismissed!

    • Posted May 13, 2014 at 11:12 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Bradd. I know about the event; can’t find a reference to “Modern” and “PreModern” Yoga in their descriptions but it sounds like their preferred analytical structure. I don’t know Roseanne Harvey and I don’t think ’21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice’ is of any great value. But I know Carol Horton, I respect her powers of observation and analysis, and her book, ‘Yoga, Phd’ is required reading for my Advanced Yoga Philosophy courses because there is no other coherent critique of yoga history and culture on the market that explains, as she does, how yoga went from ‘control the mind and senses so that you can realize you’re not your body’ to ‘enjoy your mind and senses because you are your body’. So while I don’t expect to agree with either the premise or the conclusion of their presentation I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss it if for no other reason than because hearing reasonable people articulate lucid arguments for positions which I oppose provides fuel for the formulation of reasonable arguments against such positions and you never know; a pearl may roll out of the conversation, as so often happens in the course of creative conflict.

      • akismet-a2e096fffffc5e21b4e477dca5826995
        Posted May 13, 2014 at 11:51 AM | Permalink

        I see no sense any longer in opposing anyone’s arguments. My energy is best spent elsewhere. I have my current opinions and everyone else has theirs; we will all do what we will do, pretty much regardless of what others say or think, and intellectual musings, however interesting, are ultimately beside the point at best and simple rationalizations for not-so-hidden egoic agendas at worst. Alternately standing in dropped-jaw amazement at or laughing at how seriously people take themselves and their thoughts is becoming the most useful response for me. That being said, I find what I’ve seen on your blog opinions pleasing to read, yet that itself is of no consequence other than fodder for further introspection on my part.

      • Posted May 13, 2014 at 12:32 PM | Permalink

        I’m glad to hear that you enjoy reading my posts. I’m obliged, however, to disagree with your proposition that everyone’s mind is already made up: I meet people all the time who are looking for answers to the most fundamental and important questions, who are open to ideas and ways of experiencing the world that they hadn’t considered before if for no other reason than that it never occurred to them to see the world or think about things in that way. To be an active participant in the marketplace of ideas is therefore a service. And if we take the humble position of servant to those who might not stumble across our ideas were we not to broadcast them then what we have to say becomes an offering rather than an expression of ego.

      • akismet-a2e096fffffc5e21b4e477dca5826995
        Posted May 13, 2014 at 2:55 PM | Permalink

        I don’t see where I made any such proposition that everyone’s mind is made up already, or implied that you should not be doing what you are doing. Time to get back to what is really important today — remodelling my basement!

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