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Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2003 12:02 UK

The tyranny of yoga

By Megan Lane
BBC News Online

Women spend 670m a year on yoga and other holistic treats - this boom in "spiritual spending" has sparked a rush among advertisers to appeal to those seeking well-being. No wonder we can feel pressured to keep up with the bendy bunch.

In the grand finale of Gap's latest ad campaign, a cords-clad Madonna strikes a yoga pose, balancing on one leg with the other tucked into her hip.

While this complicated position perhaps says more about the Queen of Pop's interests than it does about Gap gear, it's the latest in a string of campaigns to feature yoga - or some other shorthand for peace and well-being - in the past year.

For yoga and meditation has left the weirdy-beardy fringe and joined the mainstream, so much so that women - and men - in lotus position or tree pose are used to sell us all manner of goods and services.

Yellow Pages yoga advert, image by Yell
James Nesbitt struggles to keep up
As well as those with obvious links to healthy living - low-fat cereal, vitamins, fitness clubs, water filters, pro-biotic yoghurts - adverts for cars, airlines, financial services, the Yellow Pages and even beer have featured the bendy arts in one form or another.

"Well-being is one of the mega-trends in the High Street now," says Richard Hammond, the managing partner of the advertising agency Spirit.

"Advertisers have latched on to that and well-being is now terribly over-used. The same thing happened with fitness about a decade ago - I remember a Mars bar ad with women leaping about in an aerobics class."

Personal space

As it is easier for women to imagine themselves doing yoga than following Paula Radcliffe's lead, it is regarded as both aspirational and accessible. Research for the advertising agency, St Luke's, describes yoga thus: "It is a reliable medium through which the advertiser can communicate with the Special K demographic."

Air Wick air freshener
Norwich Union Direct insurance
Benecol low-fat yoghurt
Cable & Wireless
Clear Blue pregnancy test
DFS and Homebase
John Smith extra smooth bitter
Special K cereal
Phostrogen weed and moss killer lawn feed
Source: St Luke's
While some adverts incorporate yoga into a montage of daily life - a few sun salutations followed by playing with the kids and doing the grocery shopping - others contrast meditating up a mountain with driving hell for leather in a gas-guzzling 4x4. An activity hardly in keeping with yogic principles.

"The latter really plays on the yin and yang of our personality; others aim to reflect real life, that effort to strike a balance between work, play and space for yourself," says Mr Hammond.

The underlying message is that if you can't take time out like the "ordinary" people who populate Ad Land, you are not managing your life properly.

"The suggestion is that this brand will allow you to take time out," Mr Hammond says. "That's the ultimate message of advertising - that if you're not living like these people, you're lagging behind, you're not part of the cool hunting brigade."

Bend and stretch

It is a message Britons have adopted with gusto. A Virgin Money survey released on Wednesday found that three-quarters of women turn to yoga, meditation and holistic therapies such as massage, shiatsu and reflexology to beat stress. But such pick-me-ups do not come cheap - so-called spiritual spending totals 670m a year, with another 20m spent on spa retreats and yoga holidays.

Woman in yoga position
Yoga's popularity has led to a shortage of qualified teachers
While the hype which surrounded yoga in recent years has eased, practitioners say demand remains high. New centres continue to open - some offering unconventional variations on traditional yoga - and timetables are packed with all manner of choices, from pregnancy classes to high-energy dynamic sessions.

"People are still coming to yoga. We recently had one man who had resisted coming to classes for two years," says Jenny Pretor-Pinney, of Yoga Place in east London.

For many taking up yoga and meditation, the non-competitiveness of it all must come as something of a surprise. Our obsession with excellence makes many want to strive to do things absolutely right. Yet perfectionism has no place in these practices.

"That's the collision between Eastern and Western values," says Jonathan Sattin, of Tri Yoga in north London's Primrose Hill, which operates up to 100 classes a week.

Bayer's ad for a handover cure, withdrawn after being judged offensive to some Hindus
This hangover cure ad was banned for being offensive to some Hindus
"There's a naturally competitive approach in the West, yet yoga is not competitive. How these two sit together is different for everyone, but yoga works on a far more subtle level. People in high-pressure jobs, for instance, may find that dynamic yoga suits them best at first, but over time they quieten down."

Ms Pretor-Pinney agrees. "There are people who come to yoga to emulate Madonna, to get a body beautiful and become incredibly bendy. That sets up a pressure to have that type of body, a striving to attain.

"But it doesn't bother me why people come to yoga; it just matters that they've found it - and hopefully it will work its changes on them."

Below is a selection of your comments.

It's a pity the tyranny of advertising hijacks enjoyable activities and turns them into lifestyle gimmicks. This distorts the public's view of these activities far from the reality. Rather than find out for ourselves, we rely on a 30 second series of pictures and commentry to provide our perception. Should we let what car we drive; what fashion we wear; what life we live be swayed in this way?
Graham, UK

Aren't there more damaging marketing ploys out there to entice a "cool" image? I teach at a university and recently had to get medical assistance for a young woman whose belly piercing had gotten caught in her zipper during class (ads that promote piercing don't come with warnings on how to dress your belly appropriately post-summer).
June, USA

I work in advertising as a creative. Our job is to get maximum results, which usually means appealing to the majority, not a tiny minority. The appearance of yoga in advertising merely reflects what a lot of people are already doing in their lives. That said, yoga has become so popular that it can no longer be used in ads as something that sets a particular person apart, unless it's used to promote a healthier way of life. I don't do yoga myself; I do kung fu - I haven't seen that in many ads... anyone remember "Hai Karate"?
Rob, UK

"Part of the cool-hunting brigade"? As any fool knows, if you have to hunt cool you can't possibly be cool. Cool isn't a thing you have, it's a thing you are. How's that for a little Western-style Zen?
Ian, N Ireland

One of the philosophies of yoga is to encourage detachment from material things. This flies in the face of using yoga to advertise consumerist goods and services. Maybe there should be a warning on the bottom of every advert, similar to a cigarette packet, reminding people that "material wealth may harm your spiritual wealth".
Robin Bose, UK

The tyranny of yoga? Your headline should be "The tyranny of advertising".
Chris, UK

Yoga is just another trend hook that marketers can use to sell things. Think skate culture for clothes, snowboarding and mobile phones, the list goes on. As always, when the masses adopt a trend, most don't really 'get it'.
Fred, UK

Marketing is second nature of capitalist western nations. They will try and capitalize on any thing famous. So it is no surprise that the principles of mental peace and balance of mind, the key principles of yoga, are many times lost to commercialism.
Amar Dave, USA

Well, I'd love to type some comments at length but I'm having trouble as my leg is stuck behind my head...
Helen, Wales

This is yet another case of ad companies trying to cash in on activities which are increasing in popularity. However I'm also critical of those who live an "organic eating, yoga practicing" lifestyle by driving to these places in order to buy into the latest tofu revelation. If people truly wanted to have a more tranquil lifestyle, the "alternatives" would be their norms, rather than something they do a few times each week to feel better about their stressful money- and work-driven existence.
Nicola Scott, UK

How can people spend so much on yoga? I've been doing it for 3 years, and maybe spent a total of 50. I had an initial course of lessons, bought a couple of second-hand books, looked at some websites and occasionally go back to my teacher for a refresher.
Alan, Scotland

I went to yoga classes for a month or so with a qualified teacher, but because it was so popular, I was thrown in at the deep end as there was no enough time to start me off properly. I ended up injuring myself and I can't do it anymore. Yoga has become too popular for its own good.
Helen, UK


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