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Is Yoga Sexy?

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We asked yoga’s cultural critics—Neal Pollack and Stefanie Syman—to weigh in on the representation war in yoga right now.

Flattering yoga pants Omala Bamboo Madhu Yoga
Omala Bamboo Madhu yoga pants are the brand's "sexy" fanny-flattering pants

The recent round of websites and ads that spotlight the (especially lithe and fit) body of the yogi—or non-yogi wearing yoga pants—seem to be making us very nervous right now.

Of course, these cultural representations fly in the face of devoted New York City yoga practitioners who are motivated by inner beauty, not a toned booty. And spirituality, not sexuality.

(Though we expect our yoga pants be seriously flattering.)

Try as we might to rest our drishti on yoga's virtuous side, an unwelcome reminder of yoga's supposed sexiness seems ever more present—as do misrepresentations of yoga—as if we're being asked us to wrap our minds around a challenging new pose. One that takes us way out of our comfort zone.

To help us wrestle with the yin/yang in yoga right now, we asked yogi-authors Neal Pollack and Stefanie Syman to weigh in. Are the sexy representations we're seeing in yoga a new, fleeting, or not-so-pretty repressed side of the practice that we have to accept and deal with? Or is it a crank call with heavy breathing coming from outside the community?

Turns out, yoga has been associated with sex for a very long time, says Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. “First because of Tantra—which in some forms, does use ritualized intercourse for spiritual liberation—and second because Americans feared that yoga was being used as a bait for more lurid and scandalous sexual rituals when the practice took hold around the turn of the century.”

Girls in Yoga Pants, as an example, exploits this association, says Syman. “And another one, which is that many people practice yoga precisely to be more sexually attractive (also not a new phenomenon, yoga was the top celebrity beauty "secret" in the 1950s).”

Neal Pollack, who’s just released Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, provides a both/and response to the issue: “Putting aside the given fact that women's butts DO look good in yoga pants, I think this Girls in Yoga Pants website says a lot about yoga in the West and how it's used and misused,” says Pollack.

“We have this mistaken impression that yoga is about the body, that if you practice it long enough and hard enough, you're going to have a hot bod, a perfect shape, and all your problems are going to be solved. But as my teacher Richard Freeman once said to me during a class, ‘Some people think you do yoga to get a perfect body. And you CAN get a perfect body doing yoga. But you're still going to die. And then you'll have a perfect dead body.’”

Yoga exists to help us deal with the spirit and life, suggests Pollack. “Not to give us yet one more reason to strut and preen and show off our egos—or make people who don't look as hot as us feel bad.” (Assuming, that we think we’re all that…)

To that, Mr. Pollack, we say “Namaste.”

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