Given that yoga clothes are a multi-billion-dollar industry, what to wear to yoga is clearly a concern among practitioners. According to a Yoga Alliance survey that relied on self-reporting, we spent 4.6 billion on yoga clothes in 2015, and that amount is projected to rise in the coming years. With my yoga-pants addiction, I’m doing my own small part to keep that number ticking upward.
And yet I feel a little guilty about my stockpile. It’s almost as though I’ve been waiting for someone to inspect my closet and ask me: How can you not see the disconnect between a practice that does tend to focus on the inner world of self-awareness, contentment, and compassion and a concern with the outer world of appearance strong enough to lead to the acquisition of more costly, stylish yoga duds than any one yogi can surely justify?
What I would say in my defense is, firstly, Don’t some of us make an attempt to look good when we have something important to do? Doesn’t pulling ourselves together help us focus and show others that we take what we are doing seriously? I would further take issue with the assumption that proof of intelligence or goodwill lies in a disregard for all appearances: I do not think that having depth means eschewing the superficial altogether. Don’t fine feathers make fine birds? I would go on to point out that, post-Buddha, isn’t the zeitgeist a little less ascetic than it used to be? If we believe that a full belly and un-mortified flesh present no significant blocks to our enlightenment, by extrapolation, can’t we infer that spending a little money on our appearance may not be an impasse to our growth? And, anyway, style and expense are not synonymous. I got great deals on a good number of my pants, and many others were hand-me-downs. …
But with these mad-scramble self-justifications, I know I’m squirming away from an uncomfortable truth: I’m just a wee bit hypocritical. The mindfulness I practice in yoga hasn’t quite trickled over into my shopping and dressing habits. While that closetful of pants might not stand in the way of my enlightenment, it’s not exactly a testament to it. I could probably make better choices about what I buy and how I spend my energy, choices that communicate my values and priorities as a yogi.
The questions I’m shouting out below are those I’ve been asking myself about my participation in yoga’s culture of style.
1. What is enough?
Admittedly, a yogi needs clothes to practice yoga in. These might as well be clothes designed especially for yoga. But how many yoga outfits do we need? When I am reassured by a teacher in yoga class that I have everything I need, I feel a deep relief. I am hoping that one of these days, I will be able to apply this concept of “enoughness” to my wardrobe.
Perhaps it would be possible to come up with an actual number for enough. Enough clothes to get us through a week of yoga? To get us through two weeks? (This is obviously a subjective number based on how often we practice, how sweaty we get, and how often we do laundry!) Once we figure out what is “enough,” might it be reasonable to donate the excess? And to ask ourselves apropos of slapping money down for yet another purchase, to ask, Wait, don’t I have enough?
2. Does what we spend on yoga clothes affect our ability to support worthy causes?
I do not think yoga clothes and donations to charitable causes necessarily have to be drawn from the same fund; we don’t necessarily spend on one instead of on the other. And just as less spend on clothes does not necessarily mean that we give the money saved or our time toward helping others, buying fashionable clothes does not preclude donating volunteering or generally going out of our way for others.
And yet, I think it’s worth asking from time to time whether the money we spend on our yoga garb could be better spent in a more worthwhile, and even a more “yogic,” way. If, say, we collectively reprioritized, what could we do for the world with those 4.6-plus billion dollars?
3. What is the effect of our yoga clothes on the planet, and the people who make them?
While on the one hand, we contribute to the economy by shopping, we may also be supporting corporations that are not worthy of our support.
The project of distinguishing upstanding companies from those that cause harm to the environment through the manufacturing of their products or cause harm to their workers through poor labor conditions is made difficult by many brands’ lack of transparency about their environmental impact and supply chains.
I’m a big fan of second-handing; through this activity I can tell myself I am being environmentally considerate by using “leftovers,” but second-handing, too, is fraught: how well are store’s salespeople paid? Where are the profits going? When I become exhausted by going down that rabbit hole, I give up and don’t shop, which may not be such a bad thing.
If we yogis would agree en masse to buy from those first- and secondhand sellers that are transparent and do make an effort toward sustainability and fairness, we’d have the combined purchase power to alter business practices.
4. Honestly, do our clothes help or hurt our practices?
Wearing tight fitting clothing may enhance our proprioception and allow our teachers—and ourselves—to see our alignment, but are they so uncomfortably tight that they make it hard to relax in savasana?
For me, the answer is yes. And not only do I have clothes I feel squashed in, I’ve had some that were too loose. I’m glad the wide-legged-yoga-pants trend has passed: I always tripped on my way to yoga class, never figured out how to negotiate with all that fabric during the vinyasa, and forgot about my knees and ankles for pretty much an entire year! But now I have some tank tops in which I can’t do cat and cow or twist without flashing way too much cleavage and pants whose strappy ankle detailing digs ruts into my skin. What am I doing, prizing style over general functionality?
Why let being a fashionista detract from our experience?
5. If we teach, does what we wear ever undermine what we say?
“It’s what’s happening inside that matters,” some yoga teachers say. Others explain, “Yoga is about how a pose feels, not how it looks.” These are noble reminders, but if they come from a teacher who is dressed to the nines, might students take them with a grain of salt? I wonder if I’ve ever dressed in a way that has given my students tacit permission to disregard some of my better suggestions.
If we lessen our focus on exterior accoutrements, then, when we place emphasis on the importance of the interior world and its sensations, we might spare ourselves the chafe of self-contradiction and better persuade our students to believe that it really is what happens inside that matters.
6. If we teach, does what we wear affect how we teach?
I had a favorite vinyasa teacher who dressed glamorously, usually in black outfits seemingly designed to minimize wind drag on flow speed. The care she put into her appearance made me feel that yoga was an event, an important one, to which we should pay attention. She did not sit on the floor or get too near our general sweaty mass; rather, from the stage, she demonstrated effectively and beautifully.
One of my other favorite teachers, whose class was slow and more therapeutic, dressed like a housepainter: baggy, stained T-shirt over loose, short pants. This made me feel as if we were getting down to business. She was comfortable lying down on the sandy, sweat-dappled floor, matless, next to anyone, at any moment, to inspect or assist with their poses or demonstrate side-by-side.
There is certainly a middle ground between these two fashion extremes. But what are we dressing for when we walk into the yoga studio: to be up on the stage or down on the floor? Do our clothes help or hurt us in our quest to be the kind of teachers we mean to be?
7. Are we motivated to buy our yoga clothes out of peer pressure?
Being part of a group can inspire us to hold a pose a touch longer or to try an unfamiliar pranayama or chant. But the persuasive power of the group can work in less positive ways, spurring us to buy what we don’t need. Influenced by my neighbors in class and yogis in magazines, I’ve bought pants illustrated with photorealistic images, super-high-waisted yoga pants, pants with the chevron thigh-stripes, metallic pants—and, wait, do those pants glitter?
But in truth, I haven’t needed any of them; my older and less-hip duds are perfectly fine. I wonder if I will ever be able to watch trends go by the way as in yoga class I have watched my moods pass. After all, “I need a new pair of yoga pants” is one thing, and “I need a new pair of yoga pants because this is the style people are wearing to class now” is another. If we ask ourselves what is truly prompting our yoga purchases, we might occasionally discover we can forgo them.
8. What pressure does what we wear exert on other students and potential students?
Just as we can be motivated by our peers to wear certain clothes, we in turn might play a role in exerting pressure on others by our choice of clothes. Are we alienating newcomers or potential yogis by making them feel that in order to participate they “have to” dress in brand-name, trendy, body-hugging outfits? Might some people glance in studio windows and then keep walking because they don’t want to dress that way or worry that they couldn’t afford to? Might our clothes, along with the increasing cost of classes, contribute to the perception that yoga is a luxury for the well-heeled?
It would be possible, of course, meritable and mature, for a new yoga student to show up to class simply wearing whatever he is comfortable wearing, impervious to the monolithic front of designer yoga duds. In fact, I once had a student who, having decided his jeans and belt weren’t working well, showed up for a good year in his plaid PJ set with no evident self-consciousness. And yet, most of us are sensitive to the social discomfort that comes with not having the “right” clothes.
All of us in class are representing yoga and do play a role in making others feel welcome. Why not make yoga a club anyone feels comfortable joining? While we can be friendly and kind in any type of clothing, we may not always have the chance to interact directly with everyone in class—let alone those looking in the windows at us. There are times when dressing simply might serve as a kindness.
Of course, we yogis should wear what we want to. But perhaps part of what we want might be to dress in a way that bespeaks our contentment with who we are and what we have and our mindfulness of the effects of our every action. A way that does no damage, that allows us to be comfortable and non-hypocritical as practitioners and teachers, that resists outside influences, and that makes others feel comfortable wearing what they want.
We do not need to wear paper bags, which would not work out very well in inversions, and might be “for show” in a different way. But if we spent less and dressed without ostentation—dressed to move rather than to be seen moving—maybe there would be a few other students who would feel greater ease as a result. And, hey, maybe we would too.
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