When the cover of Yoga Journal is not enough

There is inherent value to diversity in yoga. Everyone benefits from a yoga community which represents a wide range of ages, abilities, ethnicities, gender identities and life experiences. Which is why the cover of the Yoga Journal has been such a colossal missed opportunity for so long. Flip back through the last few years, and you will find the cover models to be overwhelmingly white, female, and very, very fit.

Yoga Journal is conducting a “Talent Search” to find their cover model for the September issue. When I announced my candidacy over brunch one morning, I jokingly asserted that I was going to bring “diversity” to the YJ cover. My friend Erin of the blog Bows and Sparrows kindly (and astutely!) pointed out that I am white. I conceded that there aren’t many venues where being queer and a size 14 makes you a possible candidate for affirmative action, but then again there aren’t many venues as homogenous as that cover.

Not to say the magazine is necessarily misjudging their target audience. If you were to be dropped into a class at a yoga studio here (let me speak for Northern California, but my instincts tell me the case would be similar across the country)  you would find yourself amongst primarily slender white women. I do not mean to demean the participation of this majority group, or the contribution they make to the practice of yoga. I whole-heartedly admire and cherish every student who walks in the door of our studio. But I would be doing them, and yoga, a disservice were I not to also to reflect on who is not walking through the door and why not.

There are plenty of people right now doing a lot more than reflecting. I don’t have to reach far to find people shifting the demographic of yoga in California – and America – profoundly.

My own teacher, Mary Paffard, heads LYRI-CA – (Latino Yoga Research Institute–California  and the Americas)  – a non-profit offering Spanish language classes in California, and yoga teacher trainings and educational exchange with Latin America, including Cuba.

The Yoga Seed, Sacramento’s first non-profit yoga studio, seeks to make yoga available regardless of socio-economic status by making all classes and events completely donation based.

Recent graduates of our teacher training program here at It’s All Yoga are going on to teach low income seniors, the homeless, and those living with developmental and physical disabilities.

Curvy Yoga, a website and blog published by Nashville Yoga Teacher Anna Guest-Jelley, explains why people of size might want to practice yoga besides for weight loss.

It was the Curvy Yoga blog, in fact, who inspired some colleagues and I to take a crack at this talent search. She encouraged yogis of all shapes and sizes to send in photos, to represent! So we did.

My lovely friends and I, photographed by the incredibly talented and yet low-key Vanessa Vichit-Vadakan tried out our favorite poses and picked our best pictures. We then all held our breath and hit “submit.”

What has happened since we hit that button has been completely bizarre.

Here’s what we didn’t know before we submitted the photos:  the Yoga Journal search is using a star system so that voters can “rate” each pose on a scale from one to five. It’s like a yogic version of the Internet game “Hot or Not.” The general sinking feeling that something very strange is going on is compounded by the photos with one or two stars. Who would take the time to go online and vote, only to give a pose one puny star? And what are the stars meant to grade – the alignment of the pose? The difficulty? The hotness? Add to this the general abundance of very bare, very toned midriff, and the whole thing is kind of making me kind of crazy.

If you would like to enjoy the fruits of our labors, please visit our submissions. Each of us has a photo, along with a statement about what yoga means to us.

My Pigeon pose is right here

Leili Khalessi in Janu Sirsasana – find her blog here

Tami Hackbarth in Parsvakonasana– read her blog here

Ryan Fong in Trikonasana – and read his blog here

And while you’re there, you might slip us five stars, please. We’re all a little traumatized.

The shape of yoga in the United States is shifting, whether or not that is reflected in the shapes and faces on the cover of a magazine. Yoga Journal’s responsibility really isn’t to the philosophy of yoga but to its advertisers. I no more look to a magazine to represent practitioners of yoga than I used to look to the “L Word” to represent the community of gay women. They’re both in the entertainment business, pure and simple. The question is, when Yoga Journal does finally get on board with the revolution, will anyone still be paying attention?

About madyoga

Yoga Teacher and Massage Therapist in Sacramento, CA
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29 Responses to When the cover of Yoga Journal is not enough

  1. Nancy says:

    This post kinda broke my heart. I entered (mine was the sukasana from behind pic w/ the grey wrap). I did it not in hopes of winning but b/c I wanted to protest exactly this feeling. I wrote a post about it on my blog (fight the power it’s called).

    I want diversity and inclusion. But what they’ve offered is appalling. You’ll see me encouraging a vote for Anna and other pals, but you won’t see me asking for my own pic. I have not even looked at mine b/c you know what, I graduated from high school 24 yrs ago. It feels like YJ wants to bring it back.

  2. *applause* You’ve put eloquent words to the frustration and confusion in my head. As Nancy said, I want(ed) to protest this feeling. And yet, here I was still hoping to be pleasantly surprised by this “talent search” thing.

    The photos you posted make my heart swell.

    • This. Exactly this.

      I took many photos, and chose a couple to submit to Anna of Curvy Yoga for her “Curvy Yogis Represent” project – but was too late for the YJ deadline. I must admit, I am also really disappointed. The wording of the contest did not seem all that welcoming to me of diversity. And I am really NOT loving the five star rating system. As far as I’m concerned it should simply be a yes or no system not a “how many stars” system. Ugh.

      Still, BIG TIME applause from me to you two for participating – your photos came out great! 🙂 I’m giving five stars all over the place!


  3. alicia says:

    clapping for madeleine! clapping!!! for all.

  4. I hope you can hear me hootin’ and hollerin’ in support from here! Agree, agree, agree!!

    I love this whole post but found this to be particularly genius: “I no more look to a magazine to represent practitioners of yoga than I used to look to the “L Word” to represent the community of gay women.” Amen!

    I’m so, so glad you posted this. The rating system and whole thing is bizarre; this is why I wanted to share that it was happening but primarily encourage people to submit pics for the CY site if they feel comfortable. There will definitely not be any voting options there! 🙂 Besides, everyone is far too glorious to be contained with a miniscule 5-star system. The pics y’all sent alone almost made me want to pass out with joy they are so fantastic.

    What I think has been most productive, if you can put it that way, about the YJ contest is the conversation (like this brilliant one) it has sparked about representation and accessibility. While I think it could be cool if some non-typical people get into the final running, I could care less if it’s me. The work that I really care about has been, and will continue to be, done in homes, gyms, rec centers, studios and online communities like you have here.

    I’ll add a few other orgs to those you listed who are doing great work making yoga accessible to different communities:

    Street Yoga–for homeless youth
    The Art of Yoga Project–for girls in the juvenile justice system
    Prison Yoga–for people in prison
    YogaHope–for survivors of domestic violence, homeless women, and women in recovery from addiction
    Sprout Yoga–for people in recovery from eating disorders

    I know there are many more, too. It makes me so proud and hopeful to know of the good work these groups do.

    Thanks again for this!

    • madyoga says:

      Anna – thank you thank you for your words and also for the other groups you mention. The more we get the word out about these the better.

      I agree that this has been one of the best conversations I’ve had about yoga…ever. With my friends as well as my online community. So, way to go YJ!

  5. linda says:

    I posted a link to YJ’s latest popularity contest on my FB page. It’s garnered almost 20 comments already, most scathing. And I’ve written my rants about YJ in my blog years ago whether it’s about the lack of people of color or rounder bodies.

    But my feelings are….forget about the paucity of people of color or plus size yogins on the cover. Where are the models that represent me and my students? 50+?

    uh, hello Yoga Journal….not every 50+ yogi only does chair yoga or only “yoga for menopause” or “yoga for osteoporosis”! I’ll be 57 next month and while I have my share of aches and pains from arthritis and scoliosis of my lumbar spine, I and other OLD YOGINS know can still fly so get a freakin’ clue!

    For the most part, when I see a video about “yoga for older people” or however it’s titled, I feel like I’m watching a Depends commercial. Racism, classism, ageism: all a part of modern American yoga. Spare me.

    • madyoga says:

      Ha! Brilliant, Linda, and you made me laugh. A Yogic Depends commercial!

    • blogasana says:

      Hi Linda,

      I’m with the “It’s All Yoga” crew… and I love your point here. Our population at the studio is at least 50% 50+ and we have a VERY committed group of yogis 60+, and what they can do and are willing to try is AMAZING. Arm balances, inversions, etc. Their approach to poses is mature, mindful, as well as playful and joyous. They only thing they’d do with a chair is use it to set their stuff on 🙂

  6. Heidi says:

    Excellent Post Maddie!


  7. blogasana says:

    awesome, of course, friend. thanks for calling this out.

  8. Spousey says:

    Wow – Maddie – you make me so proud to know you and to get to be in your life. thanks for being such an inspirational person!!!

  9. Ann Wehrman says:

    Hi Madeleine and friends,

    Madeleine, you said it!

    Here is the link to my Yoga Journal submission, from the wonderful Curvy Yoga shoot at It’s All Yoga:


    I voted for myself believing there is no chance I’d win. Yes, it was depressing finding I’d only earned three stars from others, and I agree, I’d like to see YJ handle those lovely submission photos in an all-inclusive way, in addition to choosing a “winner.” Perhaps in a collage or in some other way, publish them all.

    Yet, when I fast clicked through the many submissions, I was glad at least to see that many diverse people are practicing yoga. Some are the slender white women, yes, but I saw photos of seniors in wheel chairs doing poses and one of a classroom of children–there was some diversity. Some of the photos were humorous, too.

    Let’s work toward a world where yoga is embraced by all.

    • bachatero80 says:

      Ann, you just got five more stars. Not that you needed them, because you look gorge in your photo. A true bodhisattva warrior right there!

    • madyoga says:

      Ann! Thank you so much for posting this!!! I didn’t find you on the site, and therefore assumed you didn’t submit yours – I assumed wrong! So sorry for the omission, glad you’ve included the link here now.

  10. nancy says:

    On a purely practical level, I don’t think YJ thought through the voting. On the first day, there was no search box for names – I clicked through 1838 pictures to find my student, and I think the clickable button said “Vote” but I might be wrong. The number of votes was visible. The next day, there was a search box, no indication of number of votes, and a “Rate” button with stars. There’s a vaguely worded warning about how often one can vote (apparently once a day for each person).
    I happily voted for everyone who posted a link, and I hope that readers select a diverse group of five. I also vote for more student galleries on blogs and websites throughout the world.

  11. vanessa says:

    it was a wonderful experience to be included in this endeavor, madeleine, and i appreciate the message in your post. there’s a part of me that’s disappointed and, frankly, disgusted by yoga journal’s choices for models. those editorial calls are shallow and predictable and blatantly commercial and seem to have very little to do with the heart of yoga. but then again, how can i blame yoga journal for trying to sell magazines when that is what they do? light skin sells. pretty faces sells. jutting hip bones and rib cages sell. so while i can hope that yoga journal will eventually represent yoga in a broader, more inclusive light, i certainly don’t expect them to so long as there is a bottom line involved. instead i’ll trust my friends to spread the word, one gorgeous photo at a time.

  12. Jenna says:

    While one might not guess it by looking at me (another white female as you mentioned above!), diversity is something I live for and is critical to my work. The feeling of inclusion at It’s All Yoga is one of the reasons I love that space and its teachers. It keeps the students coming back.
    Hooray to you and the others for your bravery, for your beauty, and for helping break down stereotypes.

  13. Max says:

    Just a quick note to say that this thoughtful post deserves more lengthy praise, but please accept my heartfelt +1, and my praise of your gorgeous Pigeon. Its beauty is inspiring. Thank you!

  14. alice says:

    i just went onto the site and gave all of you 5 stars!

  15. heidicakes says:

    Yes, and some people practice yoga to reach enlightenment, not for mere weight-loss. 😉 I love yoga b/c the first time I watched hatha yoga on PBS and followed along with cow-head pose, I felt comfortable, in MY body, for the first time. Ever.

    I voted the full five stars for your picture, not simply b/c you are an awesome person who deserves her lovely face on the cover of a magazine representing her life’s craft, but also b/c I think your pic showcases that yoga is so much more than an exercise routine. It’s a beautiful union between mind and body, that can be experienced by ANY body, regardless of size or color.

    Well said, Maddie, as always. Thanks for sharing.

  16. keishua says:

    yes, the star thing is quite awkward. I think there is a body revolution going on in the yoga community but I am not sure if it has trickled down to the everyone. I was trying to talk to someone about it today and they were very non-receptive. Their loss. Anyway, great post.

  17. I loved (and rated) them all. Good luck! xoxo

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