Yoga Journal (and yoga), then and now

Last month I acquired a couple of Yoga Journal magazines from the late 1980s and early 1990s. What a revelation! I’m familiar with the magazine, having subscribed on and off (mostly on) since the late 1990s. But what a difference two decades can make.

So impressive were the back issues that I found limited archives online at Yoga Journal on Google Books. Here are my observations, albeit from a third-person point of view:

Personal transformation

Back then yoga was less about fitness and more about transforming one’s mindset. YJ readers were seeking a mind-blowing, life-changing experience. They wanted to uproot their whole way of being—away from convention and banality. Today, most yoga practitioners, even serious ones, aren’t trying to overhaul their lifestyles, but to reduce stress, to tone the body, to still the mind. Mainstream yoga is more popular now because it’s more approachable, less of a leap. Of course, true transformation remains as slippery as ever.

While yoga was the focus, there was ample coverage of other disciplines, including tai chi, aikido, Buddhism, Taoism, and psychology/psychiatry (particularly Jung-based exploration of the unconscious). The common thread was profound awakening. As an Iyengar practitioner, I noticed that Iyengar yoga was prominent, probably partly because BKS Iyengar was still actively teaching worldwide.

Timeless writing

Feature articles back then were satisfyingly lengthy and thorough. Reading them forced me to think. The content remains valid and fascinating. I read interviews and profiles featuring genuine scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Joan Borysenko, Charles Tart, Emilie Conrad-Da’oud, Jean Klein, and Stanislav Grof, names new to me.

The asana teachings still ring true. What a treat to read Elise Browning Miller‘s primer on her specialty, scoliosis (May/Jun 1990), or Donald Moyer‘s inimitable insights on Marichyasana I (Nov/Dec 1987) and Salabhasana (Sep/Oct 1989). Perhaps the coverage is deep because the magazine was run by people such as Stephan Bodian, an editor in chief who is an ordained Zen monk and an Advaita Vedanta scholar.

Don’t get me wrong: I regard today’s YJ (especially the writings of Sally Kempton and Roger Cole) highly enough to subscribe. But it lacks its former gravitas. In 10 years will anyone care to read the September 2011 music issue’s mini interviews with Alanis or Moby or the guys from Maroon 5? (No offense.) Further, the book reviews were actually critical. Nowadays, unless you’re dealing with the New York Times and Ms Kakutani, scoring a review generally guarantees either praise or summary. What’s the point?!

Fringe element

Yoga wasn’t trendy and ubiquitous in the 1980s and prior. Practitioners and YJ readers (judging by the letters to the editor) possessed an exploratory, eccentric bent. With the Beat Generation and the revolutionary Sixties still driving American culture, yoga had a streak of radicalism. Today, it’s more rebellious not to do yoga than to do it!

The juxtaposition between serious study and the far-out fringe element quite amused me. Magazine ads offered futuristic contraptions to alter consciousness; an article bio might read, “… is a writer, ritualist, and hypnotherapist…” I’m not particularly New Agey myself and can’t help regarding ESP, channeling, astrology, etc, with skepticism. But the kooky dimensions don’t detract from the whole—rather, they only emphasize the era’s quest for alternate, higher consciousness, whatever the means.

That said, asana was also a highlight, classily illustrated in pictorial calendars and the occasional magazine cover (see Angela Farmer‘s silhouette above). But most covers featured a portrait of a leading thinker; only in the 2000s did the lithe female “cover model” become standard.

Yogic pioneers

Reading the old YJs was rather a humbling experience. Those who did yoga before the 1990s were pioneers. While we respectfully honor the giants, such as T Krishnamacharya and his successors, we must also acknowledge prior generations of less-famous (or anonymous) yogis. I consider myself a fairly serious student, but let’s face it: I’m a yoga child of the late 1990s and 2000s, swept up with the tide. Those pioneers were the real deal, and they trod a distinct path for us to follow.

Images from top to bottom: Nov/Dec 1988, Nov/Dec 1987, Apr 1982.

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19 thoughts on “Yoga Journal (and yoga), then and now

  1. Thanks for the article!

    I was wondering too just how much Yoga Journal has changed over the years. I went to their recent convention in San Francisco, and thought to myself: “Wow, so this is mainstream Yoga.”

    I tried really hard not to be a snob about it, and to breathe. Really hard.

    Also, as a male, when was the last time YJ had a male on their cover? I find it a little sexist.

  2. Ah yes, the old Yoga Journal. I still have a binder full of clippings. That was when the magazine thought of itself as more of a scholarly journal than a popular publication.
    I was struck by your observation that the articles made you think.
    As a journalist, I experienced first-hand the move to shorter and shorter stories, because readers were presumed to no longer have the time or the attention span for long ones. I wonder if you’d find the same reduction in critical thinking and complexity in any comparison of magazines from the ’80s and earlier with magazines of today. The old Esquire and the old New Yorker would be especially dramatic contrasts, I think.

    1. Yoga Journal is likely suffering, to some extent, from the pressure of technology. Right now, Yoga Journal has a lot more competion, both for readers and writers than it has in the past. As a print medium, it has higher costs than the e-publications, both websites and privately-published materials, and cannot niche market like many websites, dvds, and other alternative publications do. When you couple this with the sheer volume of free and low-cost information available to people with an internet connection (making them less likely to pay for it from a magazine), it’s going to be a tough road for a traditional print medium publication on what is, for many, just a hobby. Many magazines with a classically more stable base then YJ have had similar problems. (Newsweek, Time, etc.) It is merely the tradeoff for the cheap, easily accessible information we have with the internet and otherwise. To some extent, it is just the natural evolution of Yoga Journal’s business as a magazine. Change is the norm, after all.

      Of course, this is also why Yoga Journal has a website for itself.

  3. Luci, thank you for this wonderful post about the beginnings of Yoga Journal. Judith Lasater was the main founder of Yoga Journal and she is an Iyengar inspired teacher as well as a physical therapist. Sad news is that a huge percentage of people in America think that yoga means doing ‘poses’ and the ancient knowledge of knowing yourself through breath, meditation, inner awareness and self inquiry has for many people turned into a fitness movement. Others think yoga is a religion rather than a system based on values for self and others that does not require religious belief systems or dogmas. I hope that people do not move away from the deeper levels of practicing yoga since there is so much negative press about the dangers of practicing yoga poses with the printing of the recent NY times article.

    I am hoping to have an impact on helping people to practice yoga poses with true ahimsa in ways that support our natural design and support joint functions. The experts in biomechanics are speaking out against some yoga poses like plow and straight-leg forward bending because the research shows these positions to be anatomically questionable. Apparently the most compressive position for the human spine is sitting with the legs straight and bending forward at the same time, which puts about 720 pounds of pressure on the anterior spine. The most common yoga injury or complaint is disorders of the SI joint and I feel it is because the joint has been over-stretched in these straight leg positions.

    We are at a turning point in yoga, which is now so mainstream that many are confused about its true origins. I suggest reading two books both entitled Yoga Body. Yoga Body by Mark Singleton is essential to learn about the history and true origin of yoga postures. Many yogis are not educated about anatomy and the other book to address that is Yoga Body by Judith Lasater, which is a full-color book showing the anatomy of the human structure as related to yoga. It should be a required book for all yoga teacher trainings. Lasater talks at length about the dangers of over-stretching the SI joint doing yoga and how many yogis are doing this and destabilizing the natural support and shock-absorbing elements of the human spine and hips. More yogis are needing hip replacements just like aging dancers and gymnasts have experienced from long careers that stress joints. Check out http://www.yogalign.com for more information.

  4. Yeah it’s a cryin’ shame……
    Are the yoga blogs where the real writing is now… seems so. Thanks for yours, Yoga Spy.

    Re:YJ – I fear our mind sets have changed… the medium really has become the message.
    Grant
    Certified Iyengar Yoga instructor

  5. I cancelled my subscription a few years ago when it seemed to lose its validity and become a self-promoting fashion journal — I don’t mean just clothing. Much of its nutritional advice — and most of its science and “medicine” — are lame. I go to yoga to NOT be in Hollywood.

  6. The people are pretty and the smiles friendly, the articles are much in the same vein, not too taxing and mildly pleasant.
    Nice to get read your blog.
    You would be interested to know that I now have a little black Greek dog from the island of Limnos that I flew out to Vancouver. I spend a lot of time saying “down dog” while she really loves “up dog”
    Vanoula Steinberg

  7. Great analysis! It’s amazing that Google allows us to access this old and archived material.

    On the YJ website, there is a brief history of the publication, including a change in leadership at the end of the 90s (as yoga’s popularity was ascending), rebranding/redesign in 2000, and a buy-out in 2006. http://www.yogajournal.com/global/34

    These are indeed tough times for print magazines, and so it’s no wonder that YJ chooses to be more mainstream and toned-down. With yoga’s popularity and the abundance of related products/retreats/teacher trainings (all potential advertisers), it’s not the right time to revert to stories about ESP and dream analysis. Although I’m sure there are many practitioners out there who are craving long and in-depth articles and profiles.

    I do believe the future is online, and we’re lucky to have a community of articulate, critical bloggers who are writing about yoga and increasing the breadth of the practice. Meanwhile, YJ can keep reigning in new practitioners with it’s bright covers and pretty bendy women…

  8. Oh yeah. thanks for this. I got YJ when it first started. Have been in yoga for 43 years! the mag had more heart way back when—that was before yoga became big business. Now it is a lot of GLAM. Goes after a young, trendy demographic now. All part of the play. May YJ play on and you too Yoga Spy. xo

  9. Excellent post. I daresay worthy of the old Yoga Journal. It may be obvious but there is a distinct parallel in American dharma practice.

  10. As a Yoga instsructor/practitioner/guide since 1972, I’ve spent decades on and off the subscriber’s list. Back then, I also taught T”ai Chi, studied most of the transcendant practices and, as I began to give birth, study midwifery and home then hospital births, I delighted in teaching prenatal and Mom & Baby classes. I do long for the days of natural, flowing yoga clothes (a teacher 5 mornings a week, some afternoons, i literally fly out of the uncomfortable, pocketless clothes in which I go to “work.”) It was such a pleasure to revisit those glorious issues that I still have on the shelf and in boxes! I couldn’t let them go, when the piles of Yoga Journals that replace them don’t have the call to the soul that shimmered inside them.
    If you come to SLC, look up Lin O.

  11. …and, I have to say I was touched by this:

    we must also acknowledge prior generations of less-famous (or anonymous) yogis.

    Being a post-menopausal teacher amidst the legions of teachers being cranked out monthly, the trendy “Yoga bodies” which abound, it is moving to find this small acknowledgement to a “lifer.”
    So many thanks!

  12. Thanks for a great post. I still have a few stacks of those old Yoga Journals from the 1980s. I haven’t parted with them because as you say, the articles have depth and currency because they were never meant to be trendy. Rather they are timeless—like yoga.

    Like globalsolution, I am a post-menopausal teacher who just passed my 30-year anniversary of practice. I began teaching 25 years ago. I also appreciated the statement: “We must acknowledge prior generations of less-famous (or anonymous) yogis.” It was never about fame for me and for legions of others who began practice before the “yoga boom.” It was, and is, about transformation—the slow, solitary path of patience and practice.

    1. Yes, Charlotte, you were the first person I thought of regarding this acknowledgement. Play on, inspiringly, as you have so substantively with such dedication. You’re my favorite post-menopausal lifer!

  13. I worked there from 1992 to 2001. Major changes in style and management. Most for the good. It entered the 21st century, but I hope it has regained some of the values lost at that time. Was a great experience with many lovely people.

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