One of the oldest verses idolising forerunners of yogins perhaps three thousand years ago tells of long-haired ascetics clad only in wind and dirty red rags (Ṛgveda 10.137.2, Doniger, 2005). Stepping across time, culture and geography, today’s idolisation occurs not through Sanskrit verse but film, photo and social media adoration of the lithe, female, white, slim, young, body-beautiful. This body is today clad – again scantily – in the ubiquitous yoga leggings.
The yoga community nurtures a craving and revulsion towards such leggings – and the whole associated health and holistic lifestyle paraphernalia that comes with them. Some revile consumption as the antithesis to spiritual non-attachment. Many pride themselves on the ancient pedigree of their mats and second-hand leggings. I’ve grown up (or sideways) in the yoga and alternative community and see the deep value in non-attachment. Yet I love and live in 3rd Rock clothes – and have recently become an ambassador for them. How do I square my love for pretty (and useful) things with a critique of late-stage capitalism’s yoga industrial complex? And a feminist critique of the objectification of women! But first, can we get cool leggings past the yoga ethics committee?
The iconic fourth century go-to text on yoga, Patañjali’s Yogasūtra (325-425 CE), dictates the yamas, non-negotiable ethical precepts which include non-harm (ahiṃsa) and truthfulness (satya). Understandable. Non-stealing (asteya) is also generally agreeable (though I idealise the anarchist’s ‘all property is theft’ and those spiritual heroes who renounce possessions and social ties). Trickier is non-grasping (aparigraha). Wanting things is insidious, inside our skin, inside our psyche, and incited by leggings, mala beads and gold mat bags (I do have one).
The Yogasūtra also gives inner or personal observances (niyamas) one of which is cleanliness or purification (śauca). Śauca could include sacred space, the mat as a sacred enclosure to delve into the body–heart–mind. Preparing and sanctifying that space helps us focus. Amidst such philosophising it may sound superficial to suggest that having specific clothes for practice could be an aspect of śauca – but I think it is important.
So, if we have got yoga apparel past the yoga ethics committee, what of the neoliberal critique? This is the idea that late stage capitalism has nefariously drawn yoga into its web of profit-driven control of the masses – by commodifying and selling yoga classes, equipment and life-style – to produce bodies fit for the labour market and inward-looking (navel-gazing) attitudes rather than social justice activists. This critique extends to sculpting the body-beautiful where ‘self-worth’ and social status is measured by image and usefulness. From a feminist perspective what women look like and their usefulness has often been taken as the sum total of their worth – in a patriarchal society where values are constructed from the male gaze. Are we now undermining the sisterhood when we wear clothes that make us look and feel good? Lip-stick feminism argues that embracing sexuality does not undermine feminism. Being fit and healthy tends to help you feel positive and confident – no matter your body shape, size, colour, age. It is ok to look good and feel good. The downside is when yoga is sold in aspirational mono-chrome. Images of lithe, female, white, slim, young, bodies can become a source of angst. This is the opposite of what Yoga was supposed to do. Yet many of us feel a subliminal need to conform.
With a 3rd Rock shoot in the diary my immediate concern is that I should be a little lighter, leaner, lither. But I don’t want to contribute to ‘yoga-body’ aspirationalism – I’d rather aspire, or perhaps succumb via the inevitability of Time, to the reality of the crone.
Where does all this fit with supporting 3rd Rock? 3rd Rock are an ethical fashion active-wear brand whose clothing has been my second skin since their inception (https://www.3rdrockclothing.com/). They focus on climbing and yoga wear and I trust their ethical sourcing and production. They use heaps of organic cotton and recycled materials. In their pursuit of sustainability they produce leggings from recycled Italian carpets. Their designs are just great – their clothing looks good and feels good and despite my best efforts and sweatiness they wear and wash excellently. And they don’t reduce women’s sportswear options to sprays of floral pink nausea.
I don’t want to promote unrealistic sculpted bodies and aspirational lifestyles. I do want to support 3rd Rock’s genuinely lovely, superb-wearing ethical clothing. Unlike the Keśins of old or sky-clad renunciants of now I am not ready to go naked through the yoga studios of London. And I haven’t got my aparigraha sufficiently sorted to resist pretty things.
Ruth Westoby is a yoga student, teacher, and doctoral researcher on yoga www.enigmatic.yoga.