Monday, October 11, 2010

Transnational Yoga Part 1: An Interview with Blogger Roseanne Harvey of "It's all Yoga Baby"

The community portals have been hacked. Advertisers have your home number; and now they're calling at dinnertime. Yoga blogs, once the independent voice of an online community, are now the locus of increased corporate sensibility; your discussions will be interrupted for "these special messages from our sponsors".  In this 3-part series on Transnational Yoga,  I interview 3 writers with regard to their own research on yoga and commodity, the practices that comprise contemporary yoga, and the origins of our asana-heavy, posturific, yoga culture.

I went into this interview assuming I would write a piece about what it means to be a blogger; a critical, independent voice in the yoga community, armed with the wit and candour to observe the fascinating negotiations that are happening between yoga and capitalism the world over. After all, my interview had been scheduled for over a month, and it was with the fabulous blogger, Roseanne Harvey, of It's All Yoga Baby.

Kamloops-raised, Roseanne Harvey came to yoga at University, originally as an attempt to manage the stress of a busy workload. Over time, however, the practice took root; and Harvey found herself settling in at Yasodhara Ashram, B.C, upon the advice of close friends. By the end of her stay, Harvey had found a deepened passion for yoga, and a new community newsletter to write for the ashram. Eventually, Ascent Magazine, an independent, not-for-profit publication dedicated to spirituality and yoga, was born through Yasodhara; and Roseanne Harvey was at the helm of its editorial functions. The publication ran from 1999 through 2009; and, when the much-loved magazine closed it doors, Harvey turned her attention to blogging.

In our interview, Harvey talks about the importance of resisting corporate interest, and how she hopes to serve as an example of an independent, anti-commercial voice for the yoga community; and, how yoga partnerships with corporations that propogate an idealized vision of the female body are problematic. Yet, by the time I reached her, late last week, Roseanne Harvey had signed a deal with Wonderbra for her blog. Furthermore, in our conversation, she details the contractual restrictions on her blogging voice inherent in this relationship.

Blogging for Yoga, Interview with Roseanne Harvey:

"I realized that I resist the commercialization of yoga because I resist the commercialization of everything. I don’t believe that yoga deserves special treatment; I believe that the commercialization of everything, from food to sex to art, is unhealthy for people and our world."
("WSJ Stefanie Syman on how Yoga Sold Out", from It's all Yoga Baby, by Roseanne Harvey) 

 PT: So Roseanne, you started a blog, would be a year and a half ago now?

Roseanne Harvey: Yeah I started the blog after the magazine closed. While I was at the magazine I was responsible for the magazine's blog, along with so many other things with editing etc. So it was always a pain in the butt. I always hated doing it. I had to handle that as well as so many other things. But then once when the magazine closed it was much easier as an independent person, to publish a blog, than to publish a magazine. So I just needed a space where i could continue to explore yoga and maintain the connections that I made while i was at the magazine; and, do it in a place where it was on my own terms, where i wasn't representing anyone else's interests.

PT: Do you find that a lot of yoga conversations, whether they happen through blogs, books or magazines, have been co-opted by something, or somebody else's interests?

Roseanne Harvey:  I find that in the blogging community it's not co-opted. There's a very independent spirit within the blogging community; and most people who blog do it for themselves. Most of them are yoga teachers or just yoga practitioners so they're not representing any other system or whatever. And in terms of being co-opted, I mean yeah, there's no kind of formalized system to really co-opt these voices, other than blogs like the Yoga Journal blogs and some others...If a writer/blogger is really ambitious and wants to contribute to the Huffington Post, then, sure it's been co-opted. But generally, I find there's a lot of independent voices.

PT: What would you say the difference is between writing for the the Yoga Journal blogs, or Huffington Post, and being an independent blogger?

Roseanne Harvey: Yeah, it's hard to say, because I haven't had the experience of writing for Yoga Journal etc; but I think that there's a different mandate. And Yoga Journal has several high profile teachers that are currently blogging for them and yeah, most of the writing I see is not critical and analytical or whatever. It tends to be experiential and anecdotal. 

(photo by erin vosti lal)

PT: Ok. I guess that leads into my question about magazine culture re. yoga in North America. What do you think of the kind of yoga advertising we're seeing in magazines? Where is it all going?

Roseanne Harvey:  Uh hmm... Yeah, well i think that a communication vehicle is good for the yoga community. I think that it's good to provide accessible information for people who are simply curious. And all magazines are fuelled by advertising because that's how the industry works.  In terms of yoga magazines I think that they're an essential part of the evolution of yoga in North America. If we look at yoga magazines now, there are only two I can think of in print right now; Yoga Journal and Yoga International, and then a handful of other spirituality magazines. But what I see there is not a lot of diversity, a big emphasis on the physical aspects of the practice, a certain kind of representation that's soft-focus, fuzzy, women-in-spandex, lotus flowers and candles.. this very idealized image of spiritual practice...which doesn't always represent the whole story of the practice.

"this article did make me pause to reflect on my stance against the commercialization of yoga, and why I feel compelled to monitor and write about it...."("WSJ Stefanie Syman on how Yoga Sold Out", from It's all Yoga Baby, by Roseanne Harvey)

PT: It looks as if advertisers see the yoga demographic as the perfect demographic to target certain kinds of products to... I have a quote from your blog where you talk about your stance against the commercialization of yoga, and your reasons for monitoring and writing about it...
The question I have is why does yoga need to be monitored? And, what exactly is your stance on the commercialization of yoga?

Roseanne Harvey: I think that there's a self-reflective process that's missing from yoga culture right now. And monitor is maybe a bit of a rigid word. Maybe observe would have been a better word. I feel that yoga's being exploited without any real criticism, without any kind of discussion around it. I think that there's an assumption that the demographic that practices yoga, which tends to be, -according to market studies-, affluent and has free time, are prime consumers. So there's an assumption that these people aren't critical, and aren't thinking and will just buy whatever is packaged in a certain way.

For instance, we had what I call an "Adidas" conversation on my blog last year. At the time their current ambassador (of Adidas) that represented their line of "sustainable yoga clothing", well it looked like their sustainability claim wasn't really validated in any of their press or whatever. That caused a kind of scandal...As in maybe their clothing was made out of bamboo or cotton, but it wasn't really sustainable, and it wasn't really stated anywhere what it was actually made out of...So in that conversation, there were actually CEO's of Adidas that were actually paying attention to the blogosphere. They noted that yoga practice was thinking and responding - so they re-aligned their strategy based on that feedback. I mean, I think they hadn't received feedback before. So there's a power in having these conversations online.

PT: I believe you came down quite hard on Kathryn Budig for her involvement in the Toe-Sox ad campaign. At least I think I recall that you denounced her involvement in that campaign.

Roseanne Harvey: I had no actual commentary on Kathryn Budig herself and her choice to represent toe-sox. I feel that toe-sox themselves are a useless product. That post itself was actually more to do with Judith Hanson Lasater's letter to Yoga Journal and her response to what she saw in their advertising which was a lot of nudity. So there was no actual criticism of Kathryn or of Toe-Sox themselves; except for maybe one little line like: "Kathryn Budig gets Naked for Toe-Sox". But that was just an accompaniment to the visual..

"The questions that Kathryn (about Kathryn Budig) should be addressing are: What kind of choices have I made? Am I willing to take responsibility for my actions? Calling herself a “scapegoat” and claiming that people’s perceived anger is the result of “misdirected frustrations about a deep-seeded issue in themselves” is irresponsible and dismissive. It’s easier to feel like a victim, place blame on others and resort to fuzzy new age moralizing than to stand behind one’s actions."
(Roseanne Harvey on Kathryn Budig's piece in the Huffington Post entitled, "Why Are We So Freakin' Angry?", It's All Yoga Baby, Sept 9, 2010)

PT: OK. So then you find that there's nothing wrong in terms of that kind of alignment between a product and a yoga asana. Right?

Roseanne Harvey: I think that it is problematic, but that's not the only example. That conversation was frustrating in how it became so loaded and focused on one person. For me, it's a bigger thing in yoga; and that's not the only ad that carried a naked body with regard to asana. And I think it's a very common tactic used in mainstream advertising culture. 

PT: Of course.

Roseanne Harvey: It's just disheartening to see yoga advertisers stoop to that level. I think it's contradictory to the essence of yoga. It's unimaginative; and it plays into a bigger cultural problem. I mean women's bodies are used to sell cars, products and now's frustrating to see.

PT: Do you think yogis and the blogging community have a responsibility to keep the commodification of yoga at bay? Can yoga really be a counter-cultural practice in North America?

Roseanne Harvey: Yeah I would like it to be...(laughing). And for me, my practice is a bit of an act of resistance. It's reclaiming my own body, and reclaiming my mind, and developing something within myself, that, for me, is part of how I understand the world. So your question was whether yogis have a responsibility?

PT: Well, specifically, with regard to the commodification of yoga, ie. when the practice of yoga promotes the sale of an unrelated product, does the community have a responsibility to try and keep these unrelated commodities separated?

Roseanne Harvey: I think yogis at least have a responsibility to speak out about it or be conscious of where their money is going. There's at least a responsibility for yogis not to be just complacent consumers.

So you think that ideally a yogi would resist corporate interest with regard to yoga?

Roseanne Harvey: In my ideal world yes (laughing). But, I also have to accept that not everybody feels that way. But I can do my best to try and set an example or help to inform people.

PT: Right, ok. So do you think the scope for actually having a yoga that is not overly influenced by corporate branding or marketing is even possible? Is there scope for a yoga that is relatively free of those interests?

Roseanne Harvey: Unless yoga becomes really uncool, like there's some new big trend that comes along..I mean, right now, yoga is on a trajectory to greater corporate sponsorship, and more corporate interest, as more people practice. I mean, there's more money to be made with more practitioners.

PT: You intimate that as yoga becomes more and more successful, that the corporate interest is ever on the increase. So I wonder, does the spotlight then fall onto all of the little community organizations, all the little yoga spots, including the blogs, to figure out what happens when the advertisers come calling? What should they do then?

Roseanne Harvey: Well I guess it's personal choice. But I think all these smaller institutions should be informed enough, and thoughtful enough to turn down the call I guess. And we live within a capitalist culture, so it can be difficult for the average struggling studio to turn down the opportunity of being bought out by say, a chain.

PT: And if that happens there's a cultural hegemony that sets in... right?

Roseanne Harvey: Yeah....yeah...(silence follows). It can be a struggle to be independent. It can be like, not lucrative. (laughs)

PT: Yes, of course...

PT: Ok. I want to take on the fact that you were approached by Wonderbra is that right?

Roseanne Harvey: Um hm. yes.

PT: So how does that play into this conversation?

Roseanne Harvey: Yeah, I don't know I'm still figuring that out. That was a big ethical question for me; I mean, how am I living my values? What am I doing here? What am I trying to say here? You know, have they actually read my blog, and seen my positioning on these kinds of things? But now I'm sort of going into it with a "beginner's mind",  hoping it will provide some insight into the whole sponsorship thing.

I mean with Wonder-Bra, there's not a lot of very overt pressure to be talking about their products. And you know, I definitely investigated their corporate social responsibility practices, and you know where their products are made, and what kind of standards they have...and it seems to be fairly conscious of that...So it's kind of in-line with my values. There's not a lot of pressure to be their spokesperson...or to be overtly promoting their products on my blog.

PT: Do you know what Wonderbra's interest in yoga is?

Roseanne Harvey: Well their interest is in women bloggers. So it's a campaign where they found five women that they found inspiring to take on this project. So we do these "missions" where have some kind of journey, and then we share that journey on our blogs.

PT: So does that attract a different demographic for Wonderbra than they currently attract?

Roseanne Harvey: It seems like it. It seems like they're trying to reach out. There's a mommy blogger, and a movie blogger, a designer...and I'm the yoga blogger. I think they were looking for people who had a good blog readership and reader involvement. And they said, you know, quote unquote "inspiring" women... so...So I'm going into it with open eyes and a critical mind; but it's also an opportunity for me to have greater readership, and some new experiences.
But they're not going to be having any big banner ads, and I'm not modelling the clothes, and I'm not expected to be promoting the products all the time...

PT: Sure. Of course. Well these days advertisers are so much more discrete about the way they work; so I'm sure you won't have to do that. You'll just have to name-drop here and there, not unlike what's happening right now.

Roseanne Harvey: Yes, exactly. GO wonderbra!! And also, in my contract I'm not allowed to "disparage" them either. So...

PT: oh yeah?

Roseanne Harvey: So..

PT: So you can't disparage or criticize at all even if...what exactly are you not allowed to disparage...???

Roseanne Harvey:: Well (laughing) I guess their name. So we'll see how that goes.

PT: (laughing) Yeah! I mean as a writer that must really curtail your movements...
Hmm. Well I'll check in with you to see how all that is going!

Well check in on the blog; I'll be writing about it - about the missions!
But I'm going into it critically you know.

PT: Yes, of course...Well great thank you for talking with me. I'm glad we could get this to happen.

That Wonderbra, or other recognizable brands, enter quietly into our yoga conversation via blogs, perhaps underscores the lucrative potential of the body obsession that has now come to characterize yoga. Between the rash of recent naked yoga ads, and a mounting reaction in the blogosphere with regard to a culture that sees the ideal body, and asana-yoga, as synonymous, it's no wonder Wonderbra is looking to find a niche in the blog world.

And despite my own preference for independent voices, I don't pretend to be an authority on how to navigate difficult choices regarding a sustainable yoga practice. Nor do I care to make a point of writing about every encounter yoga has with a corporate entity. But I do wonder about maintaining a critical stance, when one's voice is being monitored or curtailed by an employer. And in that sense, I'm curious to see what new adventures Roseanne Harvey will encounter in her new role as "Woman of Wonder", as she juggles her ideals of community service, anti-commercialism, and resisting corporate interest. You can follow the Wonderbra missions on, It's All Yoga Baby.

* The Wonderbra trademark is the property of Canadelle Limited Partnership of Canada, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of HanesBrands Inc. Here's what the web brings up re. their corporate responsibility:
• GreenAmericaToday (Your Guide to Promoting a Responsible Economy)
• Another Reason to Burn your Bra: The Woman who made your Underwear and The Company that Ruined her Life
• Inter Press Service - Global News Agency
• China Labour Watch
• US Leap: US Labour Education in the Americas Project
• Georgetown Solidarity Committee: "Don't let them Put their Dirty Hanes on You"


  1. Hi Priya,
    Really enjoyed this interview with Roseanne Harvey. Can't be easy for her to have to reconcile her anti-commercial beliefs about yoga
    culture in North America and her new contract with Wonderbra. Will be interesting to see how she handles the situation.
    Thanks for asking these questions and letting us hear what Roseanne has to say.
    Toronto Lotus 53

  2. hi priya ~ thanks for posting the interview and for taking the time to talk with me. your thoughtful and rigorous questions really helped me with my process. i also appreciate the resources you posted on hanesbrand's corporate responsibility practice. i didn't realize it was owned by disney... interesting.

    as the anonymous commentor above noted, it wasn't an easy decision. i'm still not entirely sure if i'm not contradicting or compromising myself. after a lot of thinking, discussion and analysis, in the end, i based my decision to accept the offer on my intuition: to say 'no' felt rigid, contracted and self-righteous; to say 'yes' felt expansive, adventurous and exciting.

    while i enjoy probing yoga's place in north american culture, i also want to avoid taking myself too seriously. this campaign seems like a way to have some fun, be open to new experiences, broaden my readership, and possibly even inspire some people. it's also kind of absurd (yoga, blogs, bras... a strange combination).

    most importantly, i felt it was important to be transparent with my blog readership about this opportunity. i reflected on it openly (here: and will continue to do so. i also remain open to criticism from my readers for the duration of the campaign. i've actually been really surprised by the support i've received so far - i was expecting more quesitoning!

    i also just wanted to point out a melodramatic statement in your introduction, regarding the "contractual restrictions on [my] blogging voice inherent in this relationship" (with wonderbra). basically, according to my contract, the only restriction is on "disparaging" remarks about wonderbra and their products. they have no claims over the rest of the content on my blog. i'm also not allowed to post any "blatant expressions of bigotry, racism, hatred or harassment" ~ but i don't publish that kind of content anyway. i'm not expected to write glowing reviews about their products or even put their logo on my homepage.

    my only obligation is to publish 7 blog posts about my missions, and in exchange i receive $1000 to cover the expense of the missions, a flip video camera and some (sports) bras. considering the hundreds of hours i've put into my blog (writing, researching, moderating comments and building community), it's a small compensation. i still do, for better or worse, consider my blog an independent voice, as this contract is short-term (until dec 31, 2010) and i don't have any other affiliations.

    i do like that you've observed that wonderbra is "entering quietly into our yoga conversations," and they do seem to be looking for a niche in the blog world. i find it amusing that they've identified 'it's all yoga, baby' as a way in ~ and i'm not sure if my blog will provide enough ROI!

    anyway, it's definitely an adventure! i'm also curious to see what emerges. please do stay tuned to see how the missions unfold, and feel free to jump in the conversation on my blog at any time. i appreciate your sharp insights and articulate views.

  3. There are so many ways to look at these issues! Really, a very interesting interview - thanks so much.

    D Linden

  4. hi roseanne, thanks for your comments back.
    i appreciate you taking the time to reconsider some of this from a different perspective; there are no easy prescriptions to anything - increased awareness, more thoughtful analysis, more scrutiny...keeps our planet vital and interesting... best to you. priya

  5. great interview....Roseanne's integrity and authenticity shone through. I don't believe those qualities are going to change because of Wonderbra.

  6. The point may have been missed. Yoga is not about finding the right propositional attitude to ethics and commercialism. Most philosophically this is a mistake, a wild goose chase. Kathryn got a duck and Roseanne got a plump, corn fed bird. Commercialism is a disease in search of its own cure, and the only ray of light in the sector is social enterprise and formats such as the L3C company. ( In this aspect yoga is quite nihlistic (not in a cold hearted or curmudgeonly (pejorative) sense but rather as a ludic enterprise, "a Dionysian affirmation of the world as it is, without subtraction, exception, or selection – it wants the eternal circulation: - the same things, the same logic and illogic of entanglements."

  7. Roseanne is the absolute best. Even though we often have opposite points of view, she is always constructive and welcoming, even in her sometimes strong critiques of my thinking!

    Give the fact that I was a software entrepreneur for thirty years, I guess it's not surprising that I have a whole different take on Yoga and commercialization, a kind of free-market, welcome variety, live and let live, people will choose what's right for them, there's no pie to protect because the pie is unlimited point of view.

    The way I see it, commercial Yoga is a big feeder system for traditional Yoga. Without commercialization Yoga in America would be like, say, Tai Chi in America. (That might be a good thing to some, but the majority of us wouldn't be practicing Yoga at all today if that were the case.)

    This has definitely created some really interesting discussions on Roseanne's blog and elsewhere. But I always have felt listened to and welcomed by Roseanne, no matter what our differences. I never miss a single "It's All Yoga, Baby" blog.

    Thank you for this excellent thought-provoking and uncompromising interview.

    Bob W.

  8. 1) The "pie is unlimited"

    The notion that we can continue to live beyond our earthly means and exploit the planet in the name of anything, let alone its appropriateness to yoga obviously looks wrong.

    The "divide and conquer" mindset is distinctly patriarchal and not at all in line with modern movements such as womanism, fair trade and ecology, let alone "ahingsa".

    2) People do not "choose what is right for them" if the "right" choice is not being offered.

    Perhaps this is why many creatives feel that yoga, in the most creative vein must be protected from narcissitic entrepreneurs that believe in the free market Nirvana Fallacy.