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Asana Practice, Modern Postural Yoga, Self-Care, Social Issues, Westernization, Yoga Cultural History, Yoga Philosophy

Lululemon’s “Real” Problem: An Ocean Apart from Yoga

Originally published on AskYogaNerd blog, Jan 12, 2014.

I’ve never been able to fit or been willing to afford Lululemon pants. I was not shocked they were see-through. I was surprised when the murder happened, but I wasn’t surprised by the ultimate outcome. I wasn’t surprised by the yoga community’s public backlash against them, given that many more yoga practitioners are like me than are like the target hypothetical customer Ocean. I wasn’t shocked that a large corporation with values that seemed mis-aligned with yoga would prove to be smarmy. But the moment I chose to take on this topic was when I read the following headline a few weeks ago: “Lululemon’s Real Problem Is That It’s Still A Yoga Company.”

Dear investors, blog readers, and general population: I assure you, Lululemon’s problem is that it is NOT a yoga company.

Like many in the yoga community, I have been following the fate of Lululemon over the last few years. When I first opened my studio, I trudged out to their store in an especially affluent area and asked them to take my flyers even though I couldn’t shop there. I’ve always known that Lululemon, like many athletic stores, doesn’t believe in plus-sized clothing.

I also wasn’t shocked when yoga pants turned out to be see-through. Like many yoga instructors, I’ve known to check for that since 2003 after taking a class where I usually wound up behind my best friend. Most of my yoga pants come from Target or Old Navy because they carried pants in my size and price range. Even if I could fit into Lululemon clothing, unless Luon cures cancer I doubt the “technological advancements” in yoga pant science would have been enough to enamor me to the price tag. I just don’t care that much about branding and image.

Recently years of issues with the Lululemon company have been finding their way into the spotlight, despite no one caring over the decade when it was actually happening. Now that women have to face the fact that sometimes our thighs rub together, our society is willing to acknowledge that a murder occurred, and Chip Wilson says stupid things, yet people still keep handing them cash and rewarding their behavior. Unfortunately, there are more things rooted in the business that are being overlooked, including truth-challenged marketing practices regarding their new associated line of insta-Zen, a corporate culture-cum-cult, and a lack of yogic values being spread in their only community.

None of this really compelled me to take on this topic until I ran across this article on the Motley Fool, reprinted here on the author’s blog. The main argument is that Lululemon as a business lacks diversity in its pool of customers. If only it were more like Nike, that renowned fighter for global human rights and yogic principles, it could flourish because then it wouldn’t have to rely merely on those silly yoga people. Lululemon could get joggers, golfers, surfers and basketball players and become less dependent on the fickle female clientele of the yoga world:  “Lululemon has become perhaps too successful at catering to yoga fans, and the company now seems to be able to do little else. […] The simple fact is that Lululemon is having trouble expanding its audience outside of yoga circles and female patrons.” It seems that according to the financial community, what Lululemon really needs is a good man. To buy their products.

Because yoga is currently so dominated by women, I suppose it was statistically unlikely that Philip Saglimbeni would be a practitioner. As such, I think he is missing a major flaw in the company’s future, although his argument to diversify for survival is spot on. Lululemon is not a yoga company: Its employees are not yogis, its values are not yogic, even its ideal clientele are yoga hobbyists.

While Ocean (if you are not familiar with her, here’s a link to Lululemon glossary), Lululemon’s favorite pretend client, might not care about the company’s values being inconsistent with yoga, what with her busy pretend 32 year old life, running to spin class to maintain her size 2 figure after work as a trendy graphic designer, going out with her imaginary architect husband Duke only 2 years her elder. With their superficially hip and fit lifestyle, it isn’t surprising they haven’t noticed that Lululemon really isn’t very yogic. Even if they did notice, it is far more important to them that their ass look good in the branded pants than that they choose to use their dollars to support yoga principles they probably haven’t learned.

In addition to non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing or grasping, moderation, and other more personalized values, yoga as it is practiced currently in this culture values inclusiveness. While this has not always been true, many studios, community centers, and schools in the US try to accommodate a variety of body types and people. Yet Lululemon has reportedly maintained a culture of exclusion, going out of its way to prevent real yoga practitioners from wearing its clothes if they don’t fit the company’s vision for a Proper Client, since the customers who are interrogated and spied on are the most vital part of company promotion. Although body issues are a problem in yoga culture, this controversy helped to bring the concerns of “plus-sized” women into the conversation.

Although Chip issued a bland apology for comments about women’s bodies affecting the fabric, the issue became a forum on plus-sized women and their role in yoga. Male bloggerstried the experience on for size. Plus sized models countered the claim that it is reasonable to expect women to not have thighs that rub together. Yoga practitioners of all sizesflocked to social media to represent their own body types and inclusion in the community and show what “Real Yoga Bodies” look like. Plus sized instructors, previously forced to pay homage to the local showroom by market conditions have taken the potentially financially difficult position of respectfully standing up for their beliefs (and some not so respectfully). It would be easy to say that these ambassadors are leaving in a wave of bad PR, but as business mags and news outlets are quick to point out, bad PR doesn’t hurt Lululemon. They just don’t care.

What does Lululemon care about? According to this article from 2012, Ayn Rand values: survival of the fittest, forward momentum toward a driven and exceptional future, and individual triumph over the mediocrity for which lesser people settle. In fact, they believe in defying our enemy, Nature, which wants you to be mediocre, as stated in the Lululemon manifesto:

“Nature wants us to be mediocre because we have a greater chance to survive and reproduce.”

The manifesto, printed on consumer bags, includes hidden references to Ayn Rand and Wilson doesn’t hire yoga practitioners because they are too slow for him, instead hiring runners who like to do yoga sometimes because they stay true to their Type A, driven, future-thinking, goal-setting values. The manifesto also includes references to “Green” and “Eco” culture, although Lululemon has been caught in outright lies about their own “greenwashing” of products.

Like Nike, the business Lululemon should be emulating according to the financial world, Wilson believes that child labor and sweatshops are the secret to helping poverty-stricken third world countries pull themselves up by their bootstraps, a technique he mentioned way back in 2005 long before moving production of the ill-fated Luon fabric to a Taiwanese company he would initially try to blame for the sheerness debacle. Back then, nine years ago, Wilson was simply celebrating manufacturing as a way to keep Vancouver children out of trouble, something he was unable to do and thus had to shit manufacturing to “the Orient.” Wilson is even quoted as follows:

“We’re also sensitive of society’s tendency to villianize corporations, and as we grow, we wanted to be proactive and deter individuals and the media from condemning an innocent, ethical company as unethical.”

Really? Sensitivity isn’t the word that leaps to mind. Just as the Yoga Journal ad announcing the sale of clothing in China featuring adults dressed in diapers and bonnets to mock child labor conditions wasn’t sensitive. Just as his comments about watching the Japanese say his company name weren’t sensitive. Just as, well, any comments regardless of topic that come out of his mouth aren’t sensitive. The linked article is out of date and mentions that Wilson had stepped down as CEO giving the reigns to Christine Day, who promptly and acrimoniously exited at the time of Luongate. (Day, while still CEO, is quoted here on the importance of authenticity in a brand like Lululemon.) Although Wilson has finally stepped down as chairman, the fact that these problems have been present for over a decade proves they are systematic failures of the entire corporation that have poisoned every component of the business. As this expose by a former employee shows, the problems are ingrained in all aspects of the training and business model, and are unlikely to go away solely due to a talking head regime change.

That corporations may be evil despite claims otherwise doesn’t shock me. That Wall Street analysts reward bad behavior if it pays is not surprising. That there are millions of people participating blindly in yoga culture who keep shelling out money to support a deeply flawed organization, while saddening, is honestly why I keep teaching. But there are parts of this story that have flown under the radar that worry me just as much: A lot has been made of the company’s use of Landmark consulting, The Secret, Laws of Attraction, etc, in most of the articles linked above, but no one seems to notice the impending cult.

The original interview in which Wilson made the nonsensical comment about women’s thighs rubbing together had nothing to do with Lululemon. It was actually a Bloomberg interview that was supposed to promote the new venture of Wilson and his wife Shannon Wilson, also a co-founder and a former designer for Lululemon. Their new venture, Whil, is promoting a one minute meditation, a branded reset of mindfulness designed for CEOs, people in entertainment, and others suffering from egotism and stress to have an instant fix that doesn’t involve any kind of time investment.

Their website features “Whils”, little badges of commitment, similar to an intention-setting practice except that it promotes goal-driven, self-pressured motivation. Today I noticed Emily committed to rock out 2 hours of yoga so that she could be practicing inversions by 6pm. This sort of feeding of Type A tendencies in order to promote a physical practice devoid of introspection or meditation is exactly the kind of “feel the burn” pushing that leads to increased injuries and that so many teachers are trying to avoid. That a 60 second “meditation” practice encourages this sort of thinking seems antithetical to any deeper practice in which it is supposedly based.

Whil also continues with deceptive marketing practices by including quotes from assorted celebrities. When I first went to the site back in late November/early December, I saw this (and luckily took a screen capture to blog about later):

The importance of meditation in supporting media moguls in their vision to take over the world of communications is highlighted, to the point where it looks as though they are endorsing the product. This is despite the fact that Ellen DegeneresOprah Winfrey (andOprah Winfrey), and Russell Simmons are all on record as stating that they follow TM ™. (Transcendental Meditation, trademarked, litigious, and controversial itself.)

Lululemon’s founders have built an empire on their business model that harms clients, front-line employees, and manufacturers; truth-challenged and highly deceptive marketing claims; greedy fiscal perspective that shirks any responsibility or accountability so long as they are still earning; high-pressure corporate culture that encourages grasping and clinging goal-setting toward future wealth, power and prestige; and even unnecessarily sexualized “motivational quotes” including comparing being a parent to having an orgasm. That the retailer so obviously misses the boat on brahmacharya, meaning practicing energetic moderation but especially associated with a celibate and chaste life of one who follows the path of Brahman shouldn’t be shocking considering their own definition:

If it weren’t for Brahmacharya, I’d be eating greasy Church’s Chicken while refusing to do much else except play with puppies and take selfies with said chicken and puppies.

I didn’t need a blogger to tell me that Lululemon doesn’t care about the women who buy their gear, or that they don’t care about yoga principles, or that they don’t really believe in anything they say. I just needed a blogger to tell me that Lululemon’s biggest problem is that they are Too Yoga to make me realize that the yoga community needs to stand up, be counted, and try to keep this corporation from representing and altering Western expression and practice of yoga into the same self-interested, money-grubbing, high fashion sham that we try to escape and transform in our personal practices.

Take the pledge: Yogis don’t let friends buy Lululemon.

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