What is it about yoga pants that make those of us in the West lose our minds? In 2016, women around the world defended their right to wear yoga pants in response to a letter to the editor who criticised women for wearing them in public. More recently, a hotly contested op-ed piece produced by the New York Times over the weekend dared to make the case that “yoga pants are bad for women”.
All of this begs the question – why do those of us in the West get so fired up about this sartorial oddity?
It’s not as though some of the criticism levelled against yoga pants is without its merits. At the grave risk of losing all readers here and now, yoga pants are kind of stupid. In 2017 the Times of India reported that wearing yoga pants for an extended period comes with significant health risks, including reduced blood circulation, an increased risk of yeast infection and even body acne.
In the response to the New York Times piece, Twitter has erupted with the testimonies of women, most of whom are white and live in the West, howling with indignation.
“I always thought smoking, not sleeping enough and patriarchy are bad for women”, tweeted Eva Horn from Germany. “Turns out I was wrong” she deadpans. “It’s yoga pants”.
“Spending the day wearing yoga pants doing face masks reading my horoscope and boycotting op-eds” offered a New York-based tweeter, Hayley MacMillen.
Many of these testimonies are rife with the practical benefits of the stretchy yoga staple. One woman, Kimmie Karuba said, “As someone who has practiced yoga for years, it’s unbelievable that you think we wear yoga pants because they’re 'sexy?!' We wear them because they allow us to maneuver in ways other clothing doesn’t”, she insisted, while another mentioned that the practice “is actually really hard to do in sweatpants because the loose fabric moves around and can actually injure you if you’re in a pose and your pants slip”.
Other reactions to the article were firmly couched in themes “choice” and “empowerment” feminism, which remains an ideological staple in the West.
Perhaps what’s absent from all this outrage and bluster, however, is the acknowledgement that yoga pants are a western invention that has nothing to do with an ancient Indian practice steeped in over 5000 years of history.
While I’m no expert, I’m pretty sure yoga pants weren’t mentioned in the Yogic scriptures of the Bhagavad-Gita back in 500 B.C.E. Yoga pants are a peculiarity of the West; a symbol of the capitalist uptake of yoga in Western countries. They may carry social currency for middle-class women, but they’re hardly necessary.
The belief that you need to buy certain items of clothing in order to benefit from the practice runs counter to everything that yoga as an ancient philosophical practice stands for.
Once that history is taken into account, a criticism of yoga pants doesn’t seem that unreasonable. While the testimonies of many yoga fans on social media speaks to the fact that they don’t wear the pants to look “sexy”, I’ve come across a number women who feel intimidated by the sartorial aesthetic that many yoga studios seem to demand. The consequence of this is that women who are uncomfortable wearing skin-tight pair of pants are put off from attending classes.
And yes, I know that women can wear whatever they want while they exercise, and how very dare I? However, the belief that you need to buy certain items of clothing in order to benefit from the practice runs counter to everything that yoga as an ancient philosophical practice stands for. Yoga in its essence is a democratic and non-commercial practice, what you wear when you do it shouldn’t matter and your body shape shouldn’t be an issue.
So perhaps all those outraged at the criticism of yoga pants could instead have some humility for being a beneficiary of an ancient tradition steeped in thousands of years in history. Yes, you can wear what you want to yoga, but yoga pants are hardly a requirement.