There’s so many things wrong with this Alo Yoga story, I don’t even know where to start.
The past year has been a year of reckoning. Of reexamining the strucural forces that shape and contort our American reality. It’s no surprise that the reckoning has (again) come for yoga.
If you’re not familiar with the latest in the Alo Yoga/Cody App controversy, check out this article which walks through the lawsuits. While I’m going to use this as a chance to give a quick master class (get it?) on some high-level conceptual issues, it’s important not to forget that there is a very real 24 year old woman dealing with the very intense financial burden from these lawsuits. You can support Dana here and sign the petition here.
What I want to offer here is a Readers Digest version of how macro-strucutural forces manifest themselves in micro or not so micro-aggressions. I want to give yogis the language to discuss what is at stake in the Westernization of yoga. And selfishly, I want you to understand why I’m so fucking mad about it. These are hard topics and I’ll try try try to keep it a little bit entertaining while we learn, okay?
Let’s begin with a lil…
What capitalism teaches us is that each individual is valued based on what they can bring to the marketplace. America was built on the idea that if you just work hard enough, you will get that house with a white picket fence. And maybe, just maybe, on the back nine you’ll find that ever elusive thing called happiness.
Yoga stands in direct contrast of this idea. It is a practice through which you to realize that the only attainable happiness comes from within. Non-attachment to physical things, places, people, the very self.
Let me say clearly, I have no inherent problem with the exchange of money or goods for yoga. We give yoga teachers money so they can spend their time devoted to the practice (more on this later). But let’s take a step back. What does Alo sell? It sells an idea of ethereal goddesses with breath-taking physical ability in impeccable white yoga pants on the beach. It monetizes the irresistibility of a mirage. There is almost no diversity in the color and size of Alo Yoga’s models because they don’t care about being representative of yogis or yoga teachers. They are advertising. Alo Yoga Ambassadors are models. They may also be yogis and yoga teachers, but they’re not being paid to teach. They’re being paid to model clothing.
Again, I am not knocking Ambassadors for accepting a paycheck to post pictures on Instagram. However, we need to ask what is being left out because of this shift in ownership of the story. Alo Yoga’s feed is predominately white, able-bodied, and slender people because that’s American advertising is.
Who does this leave out? The teachers who do not look like models and the students who see a version of yoga that is unattainable. The people (hey me too) that buy into the myth that if I could just be a size 2, do handstands, and go on vacations, I can finally be happy. This is not yoga. This is not yoga. This is not yoga. This is an advertising myth. A myth that Dana did not want to be part of, and has built her career fighting against.
Who else is left out? The same individuals who are always left out when the rich have access to things that the poor do not. Who benefits from showcasing the idealized privilege of being able-bodied, white, thin, pretty, and extremely athletic? Those in the image? Are they millionaires now? No, but Danny Harris sure is. It’s an advertising story, it’s someone else’s story, but it’s told by very specific people. Four men, actually, which brings me to…
Capitalism has very particular bedfellows and one of them is the patriarchy. This is a lot, I know, so let’s take a quick breather…
Okay, ready. Let’s do a thought experiemnt. If you were going to make pizza for dinner, what would you put on it? Well, the toppings you love most of course! While they may be delicious to you, they might not be the favorite of someone else. In fact, they might even make some people sick!
America is the pizza and white men are the pizza-makers. People feel justified in being angry at you for not wanting to eat their pizza (it’s delicious to them!), and often don’t believe you when you tell them it makes you sick. Privilege is the ability to be grandfathered into a pizza made for someone just like you, and entitlement is thinking you earned it and that everyone should be grateful to eat from your pie.
Dana’s “crime” was pointing out that Alo is not a company that she wants her voice to be part of, in part because it is defined by the male gaze. Taking her literal voice from her (and Kino as well) and saying that she no longer has ownership to it, how it is used, or the profits generated from it is Cody’s crime.
It’s worth mentioning that all of the responses both on Instagram and Elephant Journal have ignored the most glaring and distrubing piece of Kino’s story where she talks about meeting with Alo’s Danny Harris:
We had a series of conversations with the co-owner Danny Harris, where I felt he was verbally abusive and used phrases I consider derogatory, such as “honey” and “baby.”
This is sexual harrassment. Period. If the #Metoo movement has tried to teach us anything, it’s simply that we need to believe the women. So no, I don’t care the conversations and reassurances that other individuals have received from Alo and I don’t care to hear Danny’s side of the interaction is. I care what Kino experienced. As Kino rightly pointed out, Paul Javid’s response reeked of mysoginy. An attack does not have to make you sick for you to acknowledge that it has that effect on others.
Alo Yoga, run by two non-yoga-practicing men, have bought, sold, and profited off of the voices and images of yogis as advertising tools. Dana dared to fight against them, and they sued her for using her voice in her community. They sued her in two states she does not live in to shut her up and ruin her financially. They sued her to make an example of someone speaking out against the valuation of bodies by the male-gaze. They sued her for stating the FACT that Alo doesn’t even sell clothing in her size.
Dana is a healer. She has healed me. She has created a following who has resonated from her message by being vulnerable and authentic. Alo and Cody are punishing her for using her voice in her community. If that is not a fundamental attack on yoga, I truly do not know what is.
3. Cultural Appropriation & White Supremacy!
I’m white, so I’ll shut up and let others do the talking here:
8 Signs Your Yoga Practice Is Culturally Appropriated - And Why It Matters - Everyday Feminism
Author's Note: While this article emphasizes the South Asian roots of yoga, nisha celebrates and acknowledges the deep…
4. Individualism and American Exceptionalism
The great American myth is that if you can just work hard enough, you can succeed. And you can do it all on your own! It’s actually better if you do, and maybe in a garage in Silicon Valley. This is probably not surprising at this point, but this is not yoga. Yoga is inherently communal. Yoga is a relational practice.
A yoga practitioner needs a teacher. A teacher needs their students.
What is the point of a yoga teacher? A teacher sees a vision of their students that the student themselves cannot see. They use their voice to call that vision to reality in small, incremental ways as they guide their student through the practice.
What does the yoga student offer the teacher? The yoga student shows their gratitude for the teacher by supporting them financially and granting them the ability to refine their craft. (Taking this as an opportunity to shoutout my teacher in a grainy AF picture of us sweating our brains out in Nicaragua).
Self-taught yogis may find significant joy in the freedom of their practice. But yoga is not about freedom (surprise!), it’s not about handstands, it’s not about happiness. It’s about the discipline, burning, cleansing, and releasing work of the practice. Even the most insightful, introspective student cannot see the dirt on their face without a mirror. Yoga teachers are our mirrors and we need them quite desperately.
What companies like Cody App do is position themselves between teachers and students. They bring the voice of teachers to your computer screen. But they choose who and what messages they bring, and like all middlemen, they take a cut. This is incredibly beneficial to lots of yogis who, for a variety of reasons are lacking in yoga teacher in their area or who want to try out the practice before diving into a class. But it is a bandaid at best.
The teacher on the screen cannot see you, they cannot speak to you. They can guide, but they cannot guide you. There is no feed on their end with which to connect.
If you want to deepen your practice, you must get out of your house. Get off of your phone. Get into a studio. Find a teacher. The right ones will lead you back to yourself. Not the self you want to see on Instagram, but your true self, one with community, one with the light of them and the light of others. If you only go where you’ve always gone, you’ll only get what you’ve always gotten (my teacher taught me that).
5. What now?
If you’re a yoga studio owner and your staff is all white, straight, and thin, you have a problem. If you’re a yogi and you spend more time looking at pictures of the practice than doing it, there’s a problem. If you’ve internalized the idea that you could be happy if you just looked like ____, there’s a problem. If you benefit from privilege without acknowledging it, there’s a problem. If you have no one to speak hard truths to you, there’s a problem.
However small, we all have a platform. And it’s time that those of us who benefit from eating the pizza that suits our needs (ugh sorry I already hate this metaphor) to stand up for those who it does not. Everyone loves equality until it means redistributing their share. Yoga teaches us that it’s not enough to love the idea of principles but that we must live them every day.
Perhaps you haven’t been drawn into the recent surge of activism. That’s okay. We fight the battles where we are. We fight the battles in our mind and then in our community. And the fight has come to the yoga community. The fight has come to the yoga mat. And we need to decide what is sacred, what we will not allow to be changed, what we will not give ground on. This is truly a fight for the heart and soul of yoga and a fight for the heart and soul of yogis. And I, for one, will not let it go quietly.