The Yogilebrity as Brand /// From Human to Un-Human

[All illustrations by the very wonderful Lisa Hanawalt]

This weekend I found myself thinking about branding, what branding can accomplish, and possible reasons a yoga instructor might choose to make merchandise out of his/herself. One of the functions of branding I continually returned to had to do with a yoga instructor’s presence when teaching versus their absence, and how branding makes the former obsolete.

Scenario #1
Imagine a yoga instructor who is both well-liked and sought after by enthusiastic students. This instructor has no DVD, no website, and teaches in a studio or space without any sign. Without a brand, this teacher is more or less required to be present in order to collect payment for his services. This instructor’s income is linked directly to his being in a physical space to teach.

Scenario #2
Compare this to an instructor with the same following, but who has branded himself. In doing so, this instructor is able to sell his images, teachings, and trademarked sequences to an audience not in his immediate vicinity. In effect, this instructor now has the ability to collect money solely on the strength of his branded identity. He merely has to ship his image, name, and presentation of material to a locale that is receptive to his teaching. From here this yoga instructor may simply collect from afar.

In scenario #1 the yoga instructor necessitates a physical presence in order to make a living. In scenario #2 the yoga instructor employs absence. Both “presence” and “absence” are typically loaded terms when it comes to spiritual discourse. And yet, of the two, “presence” holds more weight as a social meme in the yoga world despite the fact that its usage has become ubiquitous to the point of being irrelevant.

Still, in order for a branded yogilebrity to connect with students across digital borders (and they are borders) some sort of “presence” must remain.

When thinking about this deferred presence and how that presence relates to yogilebrity branding, I find it helpful to think in terms of “brand personality.” Brand personality is essentially the personification of a brand used as a way to make potential consumers resonate with the product. As the website Management Study Guide states,

“Brand personality is the way a brand speaks and behaves. It means assigning human personality traits/characteristics to a brand so as to achieve differentiation….

“Brand personality and celebrity should supplement each other. Trustworthy celebrity ensures immediate awareness, acceptability and optimism towards the brand. This will influence consumers’ purchase decision and also create brand loyalty.”

The idea of brand personality becomes very curious when thought of in regards to, say, the branding of Rodney Yee, a person. When Rodney brands his image, he essentially de-humanizes himself in order to make himself an object of consumption. The problem is that people tend to relate better to humans and not objects. In order to rectify this situation Rodney must employ brand personality to re-humanize his product. Here, the brand personality not only becomes, but is, the personality branded. No longer is a celebrity even needed to reinforce the sentiment of the brand, for the yogilebrity is the brand itself.

However, if brand personality means to ascribe human traits onto a non-human product, how might a yogilebrity make his/herself non-human? The yogilebrity must first make a product of himself—that is, commodify himself—in order to then have his personality super-imposed back onto his de-humanized image-brand so that the brand might be perceived as human and thus relate-to-able!

It gets even more interesting when you realize that all of this occurs in a state of absence. The branded yogilebrity acting out his routines via webisode isn’t in your presence. He is absent. He collects his money from a safe distance allowing his represented personality do the teaching. Like a yoga king, the yogilebrity need only sit back and accept the funds flooding his bank account.

25 comments

  1. Yoga_Dude

    I believe of all you have blogged about, this is your finest work. This could be the basis of some very profound research and discussion.

    • Thank you, Y_D. I agree. I’d love to see someone write up a piece that investigates these strange phenomenon. Tomorrow we’re talking about being colonized by the yogilebrity mind. Just a bit.

      • amphibi1yogini

        For sure, but you have to remember those wannabe yogalebrities who cut their teeth trying to colonize the local market; then you get the entire picture ..

  2. IAMTHAT

    What has been omitted is the essence of the teachings. “yogalebrity” or not, if what that instructor has embodied comes from a genuine source (not one manufactured, not one from their own revenue-seeking mind) then the demand and supply transcend the need for a brand and the ‘brand’ is just a natural outcome of those teachings, is just the personality that can be used to recognize the teachings. If the transmitter, that is, the teacher, is true with his or her students then they are all aware that what is being ‘sold’ or, shared, does not come from the teacher but has just been passed down via a lineage of teachers and masters before them. If its real yoga we’re talking about then that ultimate source is god. But since god has become so incredibly taboo (thanks, religion and miscreants misrepresenting truth for your own personal gain and satisfaction), we’ve completely cut out the heart and soul of yoga and left a silly shell to sell in terms most people are left to understand and relate to: health, hot bods, great sex, more mindless sense gratification.
    Anywho, all that to say that these discussions are revolving around maya maya and more maya when the purpose of yoga is to see maya for what it is and transcend its binding effect in our growth as souls. Not yoga butts.

    • It’s unfortunate that such luminaries from Swami Satchidinanda and Lilias Folan, through Dharma Mittra (and I didn’t even get started on the kirtan sharers) could not escape from becoming brands.

      “What has been omitted is the essence of the teachings. “yogalebrity” or not, if what that instructor has embodied comes from a genuine source (not one manufactured, not one from their own revenue-seeking mind) then the demand and supply transcend the need for a brand and the ‘brand’ is just a natural outcome of those teachings”

      So true.

      Of course there is another approach to yoga, one I resonate to quite a bit more:

      http://recoveringyogi.com/i-hate-yoga-i-love-this-2/

      • gross

        not sure what kirtan sharers you refer to. the old skool ones and plenty of the newer kids on the block are pretty un-branded, they just are who they are. of course, people like cc. white is a brand.

    • I also tend to believe that if the teachings are strong enough they can actually transcend the banality of commerce. For some who are into this sort of thinking, even the words of Jesus, who has been the commercialized prophet, par excellance, still retain their power.

  3. The problem in the services industry is that now you need to brand yourself, like tampons or deodorant to the point of overkill. It’s not just a brand, it’s an image and ultimately another illusion which you are insidiously asked to fall for albeit, minus the slickness of Madison Avenue marketing companies.
    I think beneath this “to brand or not to brand” issue is a deeper question of “Is yoga a service, an economic commodity, a teaching or another spiritual modality?” Some people will say all of the above, and some will side with one answer. I think what answer you give will in some way influence what you decide to offer or how you present yourself. If yoga instructors want to go out and follow the Suzy Orman school of branding, I guess that’s their business but please don’t expect me to also take you seriously as some spiritual teacher with infinite levels of wisdom and insight as well.

  4. Thoughtful article and comments. As IAMTHAT says, we’ve cut the heart out of the system of yoga in order to make it marketable. It’s not so easy to attract hoards of people to your classes when you subscribe to yoga’s actual tenets, which are antithetical to everything we’re told is going to make us happy—”health, hot bods, great sex, more mindless sense gratification” (again quoting IAMTHAT). Branding creates a superficial image that’s easy to for people to connect with. No messy delving into uncomfortable truths is necessary.

  5. I practiced on the west side of LA for a decade. Celebrity people, celebrity street corners, celebrity experiences – they’re a dime a dozen over them. Mike D or Tobey Macguire or whoever next to you on a yoga mat is actually boring; and every class at YogaWorks feels like 50% B-listers. In person, celebrity people are slightly smaller than life. Once I started teaching yoga, I learned that the only way to regard them was with the studied nonchalance they can expect of, like, their directors. It helps them.

    But yogalebrities actually have way more charisma that screen celebrities. Contrary to regular celebrities, yogalebrity allure derives largely from the experience of being seen BY the yogalebrity. Not seeing them. This is why they are experienced as being charismatic. One attunes one’s nervous system to make it glow in the eyes of the yogalebrity… and thus one is transformed.

    In this sense, Max Weber was correct when he theorized that charisma is a property of an admiring group, not of the charismatic figure himself.

    Doing it to a video just ain’t that good, because it’s a one-way view. Most nervous systems don’t rise to the occasion when there is no real Thou in the room. So yogalebrity self-smallscreenification and self-export continues to drain the juice out of the practice of yoga itself.

    Here’s a talk I did with Matthew Remski last month, commenting a bit on the practicalities of Scenario 1. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/whereismyguru/2012/10/19/21st-century-yoga-matthew-remski-angela-jamison

    • amphibi1yogini

      Excellent podcast. The model would still be a private model, though; and maybe not as sustainable as it would be if parks departments and recreation centers/community centers, etc., ran yoga spaces the way they did in the old days–the way they also did for other kinds of classes. The trendy push of this model, corrupted the model. Enter online … I have mixed feelings about online/dvd yoga and that 4th wall.

      Agreed that videos work somewhat better with the conscious-dancelebrities than with yogalebrities, simply because yoga is less physically accessible than dance is, to the vast majority–you have an element of the theatrical 4th wall despite video being a “cool” medium (after Marshall McLuhan)

      But a lot of my yoga home practice is cobbled together myself and requires no video.

      That 4th wall feeling–watching a performer–bugs me … when I am trying to follow and learn …

  6. EER: I think “yoga” can and will be all of those things. I also think its important for people to be able to read the signs and have the ability to determine what they mean so as to choose between lineages (commercial, traditional, festival, etc.)

    Charlotte: I agree that branding creates a superficial image. I also agree that this superficiality can make for a disconnect between consumer and product. Even advertising agencies recognize this. hence the concept of brand personality. Isn’t it interesting how a person who becomes a brand must re-personalize their own image somehow???

    (OvO): I stand by the Babarazzi dictum stating that “yoga as personal practice” will make it through this period of hyper-commercialization. Hopefully that came across in our break dancing piece. Will have to check out that interview. Now you should interview us!

  7. Linda-Sama

    I am most definitely in Scenario 1 although I do have a website. the realization that I am a yoga freak (I like to think iconoclast) in what and how I teach in my area of far west suburban Chicago hit me over the head like a shovel last week.

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  9. There is a difference between converting oneself into a brand and branding the services that one provides. A brand only exists within peoples’ imaginations. It is not a tangible thing. That is, I cannot become a brand any more than I can become a religion. I may choose to *package* myself as a brand, and I may choose to codify my beliefs into a religion, but these are entirely different from my *branding* myself. This is how so many people can claim to be pious Christians while behaving nothing like the historical Jesus.

    As a writer, I have published many “branded”–i.e., pieces bearing my byline–products. My words, however, are not me. If you disagree with my work, you can label it as idiotic, but to label me as idiotic is to fall prey to the fallacy of the ad hominem attack.

    Let’s take human beings out of this and look at a recent example. When United Airlines and Continental Airlines merged, it was decided to maintain United’s name and Continental’s branding marks. Prior to 2012, when I flew the nonstop between Newark and Portland to visit my mom, it was on a “Continental” 737-700 aircraft. Now, when I take the exact same flight, I’m on the exact same 737-700, as assembled by Boeing at the factory. The aircraft has not changed a whit, save for the different name stamped on the fuselage and new title of the in-flight magazine. Its dimensions–its fundamental “plane-ness”–remain the same.

    Returning to living things, now. By training and experience, I’m quite familiar with both the persons Sharon Gannon and David Life and with their brand of yoga. When I teach Jivamukti Yoga, I recognize that while I may be something of a representative of the Jivamukti brand, I am not a representative of Sharon Gannon and/or David Life. I have different opinions and hold different judgments about the brand and about its founders. The assumption that, by creating a brand of one’s services, one automatically conflates himself with his work, is an erroneous one, based on a logical sleight of hand that is this conflation. One cannot be anything other than what one is. Still, there are many out there who choose to abide by this logical fallacy, which is what allows someone to claim to have “branded” himself–and therefore also allows others to criticize him for it. Those of us concerned with identity and consciousness, however, should know better.

    • It’s a fine argument, Simon, however I think yre underestimating the extent to which people exist *as* their image. When a person in this commercial culture assimilates their image with a service provided, so much so that that image is a direct reflection of the service, one could say that that person has in effect branded his/herself. When a person makes choices, commercial or otherwise, based on this facial representation, this is even more so the case. More so even still when we talk about people like Paris Hiltons et al. whose service really is to be themselves.

      As for your delineation between the person, their representation, and what they really “are, ” that seems a little easy. What exactly *are* they?

      Also, your statements about teaching as a representative of Jivamukti, as well as having bylines, I’m afraid don’t really apply here. I see what yre saying, but they aren’t really speaking to what we are.

      • __MikeG__

        Paris Hilton and others of her ilk are not being “themselves” in the slightest when the cameras are rolling. When the the cameras roll, Ms. Hilton puts on her “Paris Hilton Persona” in the same way she dons a designer coat. If one is to know who Ms. Hilton really “is” then one should hang out with her when there are no cameras in sight. I volunteer for that assignment, especially if she is picking up the bar tab.

        I don’t believe in the slightest that a “personified” brand tells us anything about who these rich, famous and absolutely fabulous yogi’s really “are”.

        The above is why I feel so uncomfortable with branded yoga celebrities. Because in my simple mind I see the brand as a nothing more than a construct. A construct which ultimately detracts from whatever message the fabulous yogi is trying to sell, err, teach with loving kindness and selfless service to others.

        And yes, I agree that the teaching Jivamukti is a bit off topic. But I do think that it does give insight into the life cycle of branding oneself and one’s “method”.

  10. Mahangun Kaur

    These illustrations are amazing!!

  11. I’d had a brush with the Dahn lineage twice removed (must be a real yoga mutt by now), so I feel I can also clue you in to yoga co-opting meta for their own branding purposes ….

    http://www.lifeparticle.com/new-videos/yoga-gangnam-style-contest

  12. I’m a little confused – what would your perfect yoga teaching world look like Babarazzi? We would only have access to the teachers closest to us who have not resorted to the sordid world of online advertisement?

    Not trying to be contrary here, totally agree with the points you make, just not sure where this goes if taken to its logical confusion? Would yoga teachers still be allowed to advertise their services or is that not yogic enough now? As someone based in Sydney, I think it’s great that I can go online and find DVDs, books, free resources and info from a variety of teachers in the US and Europe. You see, my yoga doesn’t always fit with the yoga taught by teachers in my area, so I look elsewhere for inspiration for my practice.

    Perhaps I am missing the point… Can you clarify?

  13. Absolutely. That would be great!

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