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Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon (NASDAQ: LULU ) , stepped aside as chairman of the board this morning. The press has had a field day with Wilson's numerous missteps, fumbled words, and poor judgment this year. As a business owner who is a product developer, writer, yoga nonprofit founder, and yoga and meditation teacher, I've watched Wilson's career and company come unhinged with wonder and befuddlement.
Chip Wilson damaged the global community of yoga
Lululemon may be better off for Wilson's decreased level of influence and power. Perhaps the company can repair its tattered public image with him out of the limelight.
Whether or not Lululemon survives and thrives in this next chapter, his departure from center stage is an enormous win for the global yoga community that he severely harmed. Wilson's most damaging comments to our culture targeted and blamed women's bodies for the malfunction of his now infamous see-through pants. In an age of serious body image issues, low self-esteem among women of all ages, and rampant consumerism as an accepted practice to alleviate low levels of confidence, Wilson's comments on women's bodies added fuel to this already intense and growing fire in our culture.
I see the damage he's caused written on the hearts, minds, and faces of my students. Many of my students are seniors and beginners. Their perception of yoga is largely determined by the glossy magazines on newsstands that depict too-thin model-esque yogis standing on their heads or balancing their full body weight on two fingers while scantily clad. Go to social media and the picture is even bleaker: Instagram photos and Facebook profile pictures of bikini-wearing yogis diving into the surf that get thousands of "likes."
Yoga's primary benefit comes from meditation, not physical postures and certainly not physical products
Most of the poses that we associate with yoga are only about 200 years old. Yoga is a 6,000-year-old practice whose roots lie in meditation, stilling, and focusing the mind. The modern postures were only developed to help Westerners who are largely sedentary in their every day lives get to a point where they can sit comfortably on the floor in meditation.
That history has been lost thanks to people like Chip Wilson.
The glorification of physical postures and products like Lululemon pants as the path to enlightenment have turned a holistic – mind, body, and spirit – practice into a circus that celebrates retail therapy more than self-study, introspection, and compassion.
Yoga has become more marketing than practice and more divisive than unifying (even though the word yoga literally means "to yoke together"). People like Wilson have played a major part in that transition.
In every class, I fight against the uninspired and degrading marketing engine of the yoga industry to explain the immense comprehensive health benefits my students can attain through yoga and meditation practice. The stress reduction alone provided by the consistent practice of a basic class has helped them improve their posture, increase their energy levels, enhance their flexibility, strength, and memory, heighten their confidence, pique their curiosity and creativity, and strengthen their relationships with others.
But it's hard for them to recognize all that they've accomplished to improve their own wellbeing when companies like Lululemon show them that "real" yogis are contortionists, and skinny ones at that. This inaccurate message has kept too many people away from trying yoga and pushed away many people who were once dedicated students of its teachings.
Despite incredible scientific research on its benefits, the therapeutic message of the practice is being lost to big brands that purport we need $80 pants and $100 mats to be practitioners. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just last week, the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater) released research results that show men recover more quickly and effectively from the treatment of prostate cancer when they take a therapeutic yoga class twice per week. Last week, top medical researchers at Harvard demonstrated that yoga and meditation reduce the progression of Alzheimer's to a crawl. These are only two examples in a sea of many scientific research studies on yoga happening every day all over the world.
What Wilson's departure means for the future of yoga
Why aren't these yoga stories being glorified? Why isn't yoga and meditation covered by health insurance? Why do most yoga studio classes encourage pushing the body beyond its limits and into injury rather than illuminating the potent benefit of simply breathing deeply and fully?
Companies like Lululemon have made many of us believe that the health benefits of yoga for mind and body are secondary, if they exist at all, to the physical aesthetic benefits. Ironically, Wilson is the modern day emperor who has no clothes, and we have blindly followed his lead for too long. His reign is over; the demand for his departure by consumers has proved that.
Chip Wilson's departure from his high-ranking position is a turning point for the yoga community. Yogis rose up, many of them women, in protest against him and that placed pressure on Lululemon to make changes. In small circles of yogis there are whispers of a tidal shift, one that will reintroduce the profound benefits of the practice to Western society – empathy, kindness, improved overall health, and a deeper sense of purpose and belonging in our communities – and move away from the emphasis on physique.
It's exciting to see that as we band together, unite, and practice yoga off the mat, we can have a significant impact. This is yoga's greatest lesson and best-kept secret: together we can create any change we can imagine within ourselves and in our society.
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