Last summer, on a gorgeous Saturday morning in New York, I arose very, very early, around 5:30 A.M., to get ready for my inaugural hot yoga class. It was a mandatory part of my teacher training, and I had spent the previous night guzzling water and munching on fruit and almonds, trying to prepare my body for the immense amount of sweat it would surely produce as a result of the 105-degree room and the 26-posture sequence I would do during the 90-minute class. I had been doing a ton of yoga that summer, but hot yoga is a different beast entirely, so I wanted to ensure that I was as equipped as I could possibly be.
But it seemed the most important part of my preparation took place that morning after I got up, and had nothing to do with sustenance or hydration. I wanted the perfect outfit. I wanted to wear something that was, obviously, lightweight, and that I didn’t particularly care if I soaked through with sweat – but more than that, I wanted to wear something that helped me feel fierce, strong, nearly invincible. Fashion has always been that for me: something close to armor, a way to assert myself in the world with strength, present the image I want to present to the world, and endow myself with the traits I aspire to. I chose to wear a cut-off vintage camo Top Gun t-shirt, a bandanna tied around my head, and black high-waisted undies.
That morning got me thinking about the roles fashion and yoga play in my life. During my training, I had a teacher who was fond of saying, “Yoga is not a fashion show.” He meant to express that yoga is not a performance for others, but rather an internal experience contingent upon the practitioner’s looking and focusing inward. He was speaking out against the current trendiness of yoga and observing that people sometimes go to yoga class not to work on themselves, but to show off their new yoga clothes, mat, or even their levels of strength and flexibility. I practice and teach yoga regularly, and I’ve been fanning the flames of my lifelong love for fashion through writing for this beloved site as well as creating my own blog, and I’ve come to believe that contrary to appearances, the two enterprises share a core truth: they are vehicles by which one can both discover one’s core self and endlessly re-shape one's identity.
The interplay between yoga and fashion can be a touchy subject, particularly when it comes to industry. Capitalizing on a thousands-year-old spiritual tradition such as yoga has companies like Lululemon on what seems like constant defense against those who attest that yoga should be free and available to all, that yoga indeed cannot be owned, and thus how can it be right to charge $100 (or more) for yoga pants? Ava Taylor, a former store manager and community coordinator for Lululemon who left the company in 2009 to found YAMA Talent, the country’s first talent representation agency for yoga teachers (YAMA stands for Yoga Artist Management Agency), sees the debate from multiple sides.
“There is definitely a correlation between [fashion and yoga],” she says. “If you call yourself a yogi, it’s a self-proclaimed title. With the clothing you put on your body, you want to show, ‘Hey, I’m a yogi!’ Lululemon was the first to capitalize on that – at that time everyone was wearing pajamas and boys’ basketball shorts [to yoga]. It was a mess.”
She is quick, however, to agree with the assessment that yoga should not be a mechanism for showing off, but rather for showing up.
“The goal of yoga is to become your authentic self,” she says. “You learn about yourself once you begin a [yoga] practice. How you show up on your yoga mat is how you show up in the rest of your life. How you move your body says something about the kind of person you are. Fashion is a similar form of expression.”
Erica Barth, co-owner of Harlem Yoga Studio (full disclosure: where I teach a weekly class), tends to distance herself a bit more from the idea that fashion and yoga have similar aims.
“Just putting on your Lululemon pants does not a yogi make,” she says. “Fashion is an entryway. But if Lululemon attracts people to yoga, that’s great. I’d rather have someone do yoga than not, because yoga can benefit so many people.”
Barth also makes the point that fashion can point back to yoga, as she describes a heart pendant necklace she wears everyday as a reminder of her mother, who passed away in 2008. “Fashion is used to portray identity, and for me personally, fashion only serves as a reminder for what yoga really is,” she says. “Because yoga is more personal compared to other exercise — it’s not just exercise, it’s more spiritual and meaningful — people wear clothing or jewelry that reminds them of their practice.”
While many in the yoga world might say they love fashion and even be quite stylish personally, few have had the opportunity to cross the divide professionally. Sarah Herrington is an exception – she currently teaches children’s yoga and meditation via her business Om Schooled, and she formerly worked as a model for brands like L’Oréal and Cosmopolitan, as well as assisting both the sales and design teams at Marc Jacobs. She was also featured last year in a fashion-focused editorial in O The Oprah Magazine about up-and-coming female poets.
“Yoga is about authentic experience and expression to me. I think the same can be said about fashion,” she says. “It’s also about finding freedom within structure. Can you find the sense of freedom and ease within a structured [yoga] shape like warrior two? Same with fashion: can you find the freedom and expression within the forms of clothing/accessories? That’s one thing that amazes me about fashion: essentially designers work with the same template: the body. But they find freedom and expression within those bounds.”
As vehicles for both self-expression and identity metamorphosis, both yoga and fashion can be, as Taylor puts it, “Powerful ways to transform oneself.” Yves Saint Laurent is famous for saying that dressing is a way of life, and most yogis would likely describe yoga in the same terms. Yoga is not a part-time gig; once you begin practicing, yoga becomes a lifestyle choice that extends from the boundaries of your mat to the rest of your activities. Fashion shares this omnipresence, and both share another crucial characteristic: they never end. As a yogi, I will practice my whole life; and as a human being, I will get dressed my whole life. I am married to yoga and fashion, and both will continue to guide me and bring joy.