History through the covers of Yoga Journal

Cover art for Yoga Journal
May 1975

Because this year is Yoga Journal‘s 35th anniversary, the magazine has been celebrating the milestone. Among them, they brought together all the cover art of Yoga Journal. Then they wanted visitors to pick the best all time, the most intriguing, the most inspiring and the favorite vintage. I did not vote because it seemed to be pointless exercise. But I did go through all 220 issues and began a reflection that came to some interesting conclusions. I’ve been a subscriber since 2004 (I have them all) and usually read it within a week of arrival. Stephanie Syman used the progress of Yoga Journal as a barometer of the discipline in the United States in her book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America.

The California Yoga Teachers Association started and owned Yoga Journal for the next 23 years. At its humble start in 1975, Yoga Journal looked completely amateurish (those were the days of photocopying the print run) and then gradually shifted to modestly acceptable for a niche magazine.

In late 1979, the magazine covers took a quantum leap in quality, becoming a professionally produced identifiable brand (or it may have reflected publishing tastes of the time). I don’t know anything about its content. I’m just speaking of its covers. [MLS: You can see the contents of all issues up to 2009 at Googlebook. The marvels of the Internet.]

Cover art of Yoga Journal
September 1979

Between about 1985 and 1995, the magazine veered away from being exclusively yoga-focused, but dealt with broader issues on the cover. The editors seemed to want to break out of the “yoga ghetto.” It almost looked as if they were trying to compete with Time or Newsweek. In 1990, it had a circulation of 55,000; five years later, 66,000; in 2000, 90,000. But it had been poorly managed, and was hanging on by a thread even though advertisers were knocking on their door to place ads (YJ did not have a sales rep to approach potential advertisers).


Cover art of Yoga Journal
September 2001

In 1997-8, with the financial situation worsening, John Abbott, a former investment banker and long-time yoga practitioner, bought a majority share of the magazine and took over management. Abbott brought in Jane Palecek, the design director of Mother Jones magazine, to give the magazine a new, clean look. He found a competent editor-in-chief, Kathryn Arnold. Phillip Moffitt, former owner and editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine, came in as a columnist and invested in the magazine in the early 2000s. He still sits on the advisory board.

From mid-1999 onwards, the cover art featured only yoga postures, almost exclusively a woman photographed under studio lights holding a difficult, but perfect pose for eternity. These are very professional shots that highlight the beauty of the female form and yoga as a physical practice.

During that same period, I only count six men on covers, plus one of David Life and Sharon Gannon on the cover together. During this same phase, only five covers were shot outdoors, in natural settings and light. At their worst, the covers  became repetitive, monotonous, formulaic.

Cover art of Yoga Journal
May 1999

Yoga Journal periodically commissions a market study, the “Yoga in America” survey: “15.8 million people in the United States now practice yoga, spending nearly 6 billion dollars a year on classes, equipment, clothing, vacations and media.”  This study is constantly quoted as evidence that yoga has become big business in the States. In other words, YJ knows who their market is, and is no longer flying by the seat of their pants. Circulation in June 2009 was 350,000 and it had a monthly readership of 1.2 million. I don’t know how the economic meltdown and great recession has hit it.

[Read another look at yoga as a business and YJ’s market study: It’s only money, but whose counting.]

The fantasy cover with Sarah McLaughlin (September 2010) broke the trend of the decade with a really imaginative creation. This cover was also voted the “Greatest of All Times.”


What’s clear is that during the 2000s, the magazine management has done multiple market surveys and focus groups that zeroed in on what the American public expected from a yoga publication. I know because I responded to several online survey asking me to give feedback about cover mock-up, alternative titles (stated as a question or a hook, for instance). The magazine content covers all kinds of issues, and scores of articles remind the readers that yoga has multiple dimensions, spiritual, social, health-oriented, historical, philosophical.

Although YJ’s critics say that the magazine is fixated on the physical practice, the editors go out of their way to commission articles on seva (selfless service), yoga’s historical roots from India, and deciphering the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Cover art for Yoga Journal
September 2010

The cover, however, has a single graphic message, made for the supermarket checkout line and mag racks: yoga, first and foremost, is a physical practice. That is a simple, visual and accessible concept that can be easily communicated; the meaning of the  samahdi is a lot harder to explain.

Yoga Journal has turned into a sophisticated business enterprise: print magazine, website, videos and audio products, books, conferences, liability insurance for studios. It’s expanded into international markets. Since mid-2006, it’s been part of a magazine chain that specializes in alternative life styles and enthusiasts (vegetarianism and nutrition, backpackers, black belt, optimum wellness, horses, log cabins).

But the editors still say that the magazine serves the yoga community, both teachers and practitioners.

But there are all those ads, cluttering up the page, taking up space between the instructional articles, interviews and think pieces.

Recently, there has been an online controversy over some of the ads that appeared in Yoga Journal, especially some that feature cleverly shot pictures of yoginis with just “yoga socks” on. Judith Hanson Lasater accused the magazine of exploiting the female form. You can also troll the forums and blogs and read even more scathing remarks: Georg Feuerstein, a expert in “classical” yoga , said that the magazine had “perverted yoga.”

There have been other yoga magazines: Yoga International, Yoga Times (gone out of business), FitYoga, Ascent (no longer published), iYogaLife (now a website, no print), LA Yoga, Breathe (out of business, no website).

Personally, I don’t hold anything against Yoga Journal. I’ve been a journalist for mainstream media and worked for free on self-less efforts  to promote worthy causes or independent viewpoints. The Internet has gone a long way towards opening up new venues of communication. But if a publication want to be an on-going commercial product (or even a non-profit with lofty — or ambitious — goals), media management has to cover its cost. You either get lots of readers who pay to see or lots of advertisers who want to put their products in front of those readers — or you find a deep-pocketed sponsor (talk about selling out). If you cover your costs and have something left over to plow back into the enterprise, then you are serving your audience.

Other online sources

3 thoughts on “History through the covers of Yoga Journal

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention History through the covers of Yoga Journal « Prana Journal -- Topsy.com
  2. I forgot to mention a personal angle on Yoga Journal: before I got into yoga, my wife picked up the magazine at the Whole Food checkout and brought it home for me — “Why don’t to try yoga?” It was just after I had finished my MA in 2003 and I was in terrible shape. I didn’t start right away away, but the magazine was like a seed. I read the issue. Later I picked up a Rodney Yee book and a CD. I started playing around with it on my own, and felt the pull.

    I probably would have gotten into yoga anyways, by another route, meditation, gym classes, who know.

    Thanks for your kind words.

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