Mere moments into his breakthrough album, Black on Both Sides, Brooklyn rapper Mos Def likens people's perception of hip-hop to a "giant living in the hillsides." The assertion is that the music form has been removed from its fans' everyday experiences, which Def addresses: "If we smoked out, hip-hop's gonna be smoked out. If we doing alright, hip-hop's gonna be doing alright."
While specifically referencing rap music, Def is recognizing our cultural habit of dissecting and dismissing, as well as claiming ownership, to art forms that become successful in America. This sense of ownership empowers the art, yet cripples its universality, with some people thinking they are more "true" or know more about it than others. Thus it might not be surprising that "yoga" has taken such heat of late.
Written off as some esoteric, women-stealing, barbarian philosophy for the first century of its existence in this country, most of us recognize yoga as a physical fitness routine with some breathing, some meditation, and, at times, some fruity and bourgeoise elements. In fact, the styles of yoga that have emerged over the last 80 years are so broad and sometimes unrelated to one another that any attempt of speaking of one "yoga" is challenging, which makes a recent surge of criticism so frustrating.
Standing atop the proverbial yogic mountain is Lululemon, a publicly traded apparel company that caters to, among other physical activities, yoga. Recently, the company was attacked by HuffPo columnist Stewart J. Lawrence in a spiraling tirade of accusations, many of which hold weight yet are written in such a rampant, curmudgeonly tone that it's challenging deciphering fact from opinion. It's a shame, because with some actual reporting Lawrence was on to a potentially biting expose that's lost under his aggressive deluge.
Lawrence's article is so one-sided that it's hard to believe he is, as once claimed in his bio, a "veteran news journalist." While I worked only briefly in news before moving to entertainment and health, maybe I'm romanticizing when I recall checking with all my sources to publish as well rounded an opinion as possible. His sources seem to be a series of links (fair enough in today's blogging world), but I wonder why he would have published his screed without interviewing an employee, ambassador or anyone at all affiliated with Lululemon.
I have a long relationship with Lululemon. I am a two-time ambassador for New York City stores, yet this was not prompted by the company. In fact, as stated, Lawrence has many valid points worth exploring. One of them, however, is not the tragic murder that happened earlier this year in a Bethesda store. Connecting Lululemon specifically with that murder, which is what Lawrence attempts in the second paragraph, is a sad and unfortunate foundation upon which to base an article against a company that you happen to not like. And there is absolutely no reason to believe that the murderer was a "yogi," as Lawrence writes -- practicing yoga is not a requirement of working there. Lululemon promotes a wide range of group fitness classes (they offer each employee a weekly allowance), but the idea that every employee must make yoga their lifestyle is untrue, and the connection to the murder creates a false and dangerous association. Executives may not have apologized in a manner that Lawrence finds acceptable, but there is no reason to suspect that the murder happened because of Lululemon, the tone he leads his article with.
My second contention is the recurring reference to Lululemon's "cultish" aspects, which ties into a second article on Slate about its printing of "Who is John Galt?" on reusable shopping bags. To further explain, I have to journey back to Whistler, Canada, to early April when I was among the 100+ ambassadors that the company flew in for its semi-annual "Ambassador's Summit."
The Landmark connection that Lawrence cites is spot on; in fact, company executives opened the three-day event discussing their history with the self-improvement program. There were personal and group exercises related around the self-empowering themes one would expect from A Course in Miracles, and which I politely and quietly sat out. There was no pressure on me to join in, nor guilt for not doing so -- it simply isn't my thing. I was not the only one present not engaged in these exercises, but no one I talked to felt the pull of a cultish leader. Some people in that room really got a lot out of it. I just happen to do my therapy on my own terms and time.
After a few hours of this, there was an executive roundtable. The moderator asked each that oh-so-revealing question: What person, living or dead, would you most like to have lunch with? The expectable came: Gandhi, Bob Dylan (I think), and then ... Ayn Rand. My jaw nearly hit the floor. One by one, each person stopped and said, "Oh yes, me too." I turned to look for the hidden camera. What I saw was fellow ambassadors taking out journals to write her name down. How could the champion of ego-boosting, capitalism-as-our-first-and-best-state ideology -- forget the Tea Party, this goes way beyond them -- have influenced these people to the point where they'd want to meet her? Did they realize that Rand herself would want nothing to do with them? Did they comprehend that one of her major acolytes, whom she personally wrote off, is directly responsible for the underlying economic principles that lead to the crash of the American economy?
Which is where I agree with both Slate's Molly Worthen and Lawrence. Separating the way that you work and the reason that you work is a neurosis. For a lot of people, this is extremely challenging -- jobs are hard enough to come by, and sometimes survival trumps ideology. When survival becomes your ideology, anything becomes feasible. There is no specific sutra stating that yoga cannot be involved in business, or that successful teachers or companies should not thrive. To have that pedestal and use it to promote the self-righteous drivel that Rand wrote is simply bad form, and is revealing of the mindset of the company's board.
But I have to leave it there. I take from it what works, and from my experiences with Lululemon, plenty else does. I've developed a number of personal relationships with employees who are genuinely interested in yoga. I've witnessed the company partake in numerous charities, and managers have allowed me to use their stores to hold fundraising events, with the one requirement that 100% of money raised had to go to the chosen charity. And while many people complain about the "$90 yoga pants," I have four pairs. Two are six years old and look and function like new. You have to pay for quality products, especially if it's your career, and being inside a studio is mine. It is a shame, as Lawrence pointed out, that some clothing was produced in sweatshops. That is exactly the type of the story that needs to be made public, so that the company can be held accountable. This would require a lot more research than one link.
The reason I sat down to write this piece today, however, is not directly aimed at Lawrence or Worthen or even Lululemon. It was after reading comments posted by fellow yogis and friends after they read the HuffPo piece, responding with statements like "I'll never support this company again" or "I can't believe this." One of the first principles you learn when studying yoga is viveka, or discernment. While on a grand scale it means differentiating between the "self" and "non-self," it is the ability to tell right from wrong, fact from fiction. It means weighing both sides before handing down judgment. As informative as Lawerence's piece was to a number of people, you can't base an entire opinion on one article. You can't not do your own research to uncover what else may be out there. In a culture of click-throughs and headline-sized opinions passing as reporting, it's too easy to forge an opinion based on one person's rant.
"Yoga" has needed to come down off the mountain ever since Thoreau wrote about the Bhagavad Gita. Self-righteousness may have worked for John Galt; what we need is self-investigation, as well as social investigation. Striking this balance is crucial if we really want to create a better world for everyone. Waiting around for someone else to write it is going to keep us waiting indeed.
Follow Derek Beres on Twitter: www.twitter.com/derekberes