Yoga Journal commissioned commentary from 5 South Asian teachers/scholars on cultural appropriation, marginalization of POC in yoga, and how to honor the roots of yoga. They hid that content in the back of the May/June 2019 magazine; YJ doesn’t seem to stand behind it. This is the letter I sent to Yoga Journal.
Dear Tasha & the Yoga Journal Editorial team,
I was delighted to learn that Yoga Journal featured five South Asian yoga teachers and scholars in the May/June issue and offered these experts a platform to encourage critical thinking on social justice and cultural appropriation in the yoga community.
Historically, the perspectives of women of color, transgender folks, and indigenous folks (among others) have been marginalized and erased in North American culture and in Western yoga culture. YJ, as a leading North American yoga publication, has been a consistent contributor to that erasure in yoga discourse. YJ has also been consistent in encouraging the misappropriation of South Asian culture. That’s why I was really glad to see YJ attempting to correct these missteps.
I purchased the May/June 2019 print issue and enjoyed reading the thoughtful pieces written by Susanna Barkataki, Hemalayya Behl, Rina Deshpande, Rumya S. Putcha, and Sangeeta Vallabhan. These articles raise the bar in thinking critically and compassionately about what constitutes cultural appropriation and how to honor the roots of yoga. This entire section (albeit placed all the way in the back of the magazine) was truly thought provoking.
I’d like to offer critique of the overall design of the magazine, its cover, and the way that design and editorial choices embody racial bias. It’s darkly ironic that the design of this issue demonstrates the very problems it claims to address and correct: cultural appropriation and marginalization of POC’s voices.
To give context to my critique, I’m a longtime graphic designer and design educator, as well as a practitioner and teacher of yoga. Here are some problematic issues I saw in the design and content of the May/June magazine:
The scholarly expertise and social justice advocacy work of Barkataki, Behl, Deshpande, Putcha, and Vallabhan is hidden in the back of the magazine, amongst ads and recipes (pp. 106-120). If platforming these writers’ words is important to YJ, the choice to place the section ‘Honoring the Roots of Yoga’ at the very end is odd. This groundbreaking section should be front and center, illustrated boldly on the cover of the magazine and placed in the front of the book.
Why then is this section hidden in the back of the print edition, surrounded by apologetic editorial commentary? Does YJ truly stand behind these women’s words? The design of the magazine indicates YJ doesn’t understand the significance of including and centering previously marginalized voices.
YJ is likely afraid to offend its advertisers for whom cultural appropriation is big business; but being afraid to offend doesn’t lead to deep insight or editorial excellence. In January/February 2019 the dual cover of Jessamyn Stanley and Maty Ezraty demonstrated that YJ could not wholly commit to putting a woman of color on the cover. “Featuring a queer, black, fat woman on the cover of YJ magazine without countering the image with the standard thin, white, exclusionary ideal, is apparently too unorthodox” wrote Dianne Bondy of Yoga for All.
Bondy quotes Jivana Heyman of Accessible Yoga: “It’s not a grand gesture to put Jessamyn Stanley on the cover – instead, it’s the first step in sharing the truth of what yoga really is. Western yoga didn’t begin with the yoga celebrities of the last thirty years, it ended with them.” I recommend reading Bondy’s incisive commentary on the January/February issue in its entirety.
Just two issues later, in May/June, YJ relegates important voices of color to the “back of the bus”, segregating them from the usual, fluffy content. If YJ truly wants to honor yoga, they would place these voices at the front, out of respect for their expertise and lived experience.
The articles edited by Meghan Rabbitt in the center of the magazine encourage travel to India and conflict with the thoughtful perspectives outlined by Putcha, Vallabhan, and Ballard at the end of the magazine. Editors did not acknowledge this conflict. Most readers will probably read “A Yoga Guide to India” on page 82, and “8 Tips to Consider When Planning a Trip To India” on page 88, before they read the thoughtful rebuttal by Putcha and Vallabhan in “The Trouble with Tourism” on page 115 (the magazine ends at page 120). Or maybe they will never even get to that section at all.
The editorial team should have featured “The Trouble with Tourism” much earlier in the magazine since this is a travel themed issue. By posing these points of view earlier in the magazine, YJ would lend them the credence they deserve and provoke readers to think critically as they browse through the many articles featuring travel and retreats.
The magazine cover embodies the same issues of cultural appropriation and marginalization. The cover showcases a stock image of a headless white woman’s folded palms in Añjali Mudrā (a sacred hand position), her hands entwined with mālā beads (traditionally used for meditation, not visual decoration). The meaning of the image in this context is unclear. Is the image meant to embody honor for the roots of yoga? If it meant to honor the roots of yoga, why wasn’t it an image of a South Asian person’s hands? Or was it meant to be controversial—to generate attention and clicks?
On her Instagram account, Barkataki defined two main criteria for assessing cultural appropriation: power imbalance and harm. With this cover, Yoga Journal is using a sacred, spiritual symbol from a marginalized culture to sell their magazine and generate profit. It seems YJ didn’t learn anything from their esteemed contributors, or bother to consult them about the cover illustration.
A magazine cover is the place to make a bold and artistic editorial statement, so it’s uncommon to see a stock image used as a cover. This strange choice indicates to me that the editors had difficulty deciding on the cover’s content and wanted to choose a “safe” option that wouldn’t alienate their advertisers.
It saddens and disappoints me that YJ doesn’t have the courage to fully stand behind the voices of Barkataki, Behl, Deshpande, Putcha, and Vallabhan, by placing them on the cover. Instead, YJ is tokenizing them to burnish its image as savvy and current, essentially wokewashing their image with the pretense of diverse representation.
Despite being critiqued many times by advocates in the yoga community, YJ doesn’t seem able to recognize the deep-seated racial biases in its editorial and brand voice. I wonder: does YJ have any people of color on staff who could have identified these issues before going to print? If not, what immediate steps is YJ taking to correct course?
In writing this letter, I looked for a place to send it: a ‘letters to the editor’ section in the printed magazine, a contact email on the website, or a comments section for the online article. There was none to be found. By placing its editorial staff in a protected bubble, YJ ensures that no criticism or questioning can penetrate. If YJ wants to do better, it needs to open itself to honest, detailed, critical feedback from its diverse readers, not just the data of likes and dislikes.
I look forward to your response.
Referenced articles (by author’s name):
Rumya Putcha & Sangeeta Vallabhan (titled ‘The Trouble with Tourism’ in the print magazine)