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Nama-stay away? Lululemon puts Ayn Rand quote on shopping bags and offends some yoga faithful

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Who is John Galt? This illustration can be found on Lulumelon.com explaining the words on the side of their shopping bags. Courtesy of Lulumelon
Austin Photo Set: News_Christina Pesoli_Lulumelon_Dec 2011_john galt
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Austin Photo: Author_Christina Pesoli

Here are two things that don’t normally go together: Yoga and outrage. But when upscale retailer Lululemon Athletica rolled out shopping bags with the question, “Who is John Galt?” printed on them, things got really heated — and I don’t mean in a Bikram sort of way.

Cast as the infidel in this yoga jihad is Lululemon, for having the gall to not-so-tacitly endorse the philosophies of Ayn Rand. By stamping the opening line from Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged on its shopping bags, Lululemon put its shoppers in the position of having to literally carry the author's message out into the world.

Playing the part of the faithful believers are well-heeled yoga aficionados who are willing to spend upwards of $75 on a single pair of Lululemon yoga pants — pants that are known for making your backside look yogalicious when you’re bottom’s up in downward dog (or simply strolling around Barnes & Noble sipping a Starbucks gingerbread latte).

 There is a villain in this fight, but it’s neither Lululemon nor the yoga faithful. It’s the lazy practice of making assumptions based on stereotypes.

 At stake was whether the yoga faithful would be able to continue to rock the pricey pants with pride or if wearing Lululemon gear was going to be reclassified as a guilty pleasure. And guilt doesn’t go with yoga any better than outrage does.

In some ways I can understand why the yoga camp is ready to go to the mat on this. Ayn Rand created Objectivism, the philosophy that holds that putting one’s own interests first is the only way an individual can achieve his true moral purpose. And by extension, the philosophy holds that the only social system that does not infringe upon individuals’ ability to achieve their true moral purpose is laissez faire capitalism.

In other words, it’s a philosophy of every man for himself — and that’s a pretty un-yoga mindset.  

High School Musical and Herman Cain

Yoga has its roots in eastern philosophies and at its core is a belief that we are all one. In fact, the very word yoga is Sanskrit for yoke, meaning to join, unite or attach together. With this background in mind it’s easy to see how the philosophy that espouses every man for himself is inconsistent with one that believes we’re all in this together.

(And yes, I totally just quoted High School Musical there. If you have a problem with that, you can take it up with my man Herman Cain. He recently broke new ground by quoting a song from the Pokémon movie in an important speech, thereby ushering in a new era where we are all free at last to use lines from cheesy movies that target folks who are too young to vote when we need words to express our more complicated thoughts and emotions.)

There is a villain in this fight, but it’s neither Lululemon nor the yoga faithful. It’s the lazy practice of making assumptions based on stereotypes. We all do it.  Like when you see a guy driving a Corvette and you assume he’s an insecure tool. Most of the time you’re right; but sometimes it’s just the mechanic from the corner garage test driving the car to make sure it’s been repaired correctly — and you know the mechanic is a nice guy because his real car is a Toyota Camry (and everyone knows Camry drivers are nice). 

 By coming out of the fitting room about his feelings for Ayn Rand, Wilson has helped un-deep yoga fans like me by debunking the stereotype that everyone who likes yoga also shops at Whole Foods, has a collection of crystals hanging in her kitchen window, drives a hybrid, and supports the Occupy movement — not that there’s anything wrong with any of that

 This is not the first time something like this has happened. Back in 2009, John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, wrote on op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal criticizing President Obama’s health care reform proposals, and it instantly sparked calls to boycott the store by the legions of Whole Foods shoppers who consider the store closer to a church than a place to buy groceries.

The outraged Whole Foods shoppers mistakenly assumed that just because Mackey founded a chain of natural foods grocery stores, he must also be a liberal Democrat like most of them. They focused on the fact that he had made his fortune in natural foods rather than the fact that he had made a fortune.

And while it’s true the stereotypical health food nut votes Democratic, the stereotypical business tycoon votes Republican. Not surprisingly, it turned out that neither stereotype was a perfect fit. John Mackey is a mixed bag. (Not an environment-killing plastic bag, but not an uber-green reusable hemp bag, either. He’s more like a recyclable brown paper bag made from second generation fibers.) 

Similarly, Lululemon shoppers assumed that just because Lululemon sells yoga wear, the company’s core philosophies must be “one with everything.” But founder and CEO Dennis J. Wilson happens to be huge Ayn Rand fan. He read Atlas Shrugged as a young man and it made a lasting impression on him. He believes the message of the book is to fight against “the constraints and limitations on ourselves, which impede us from living our best lives.”

When put that way, it sounds pretty yoga-centric. And as the founder and CEO, it seems like he’s entitled to put whatever message he wants on the chain’s shopping bags.

Focus on the positive  

But since neither Lululemon nor the conscientious yoga crowd is at fault, I am willing to step in and act as your instructor so we can mend the britches breach and get back to feeling super relaxed again — and it won’t even take ninety minutes out of your day. Let’s start by having everyone take a few deep breaths.  Now let’s take our practice a little deeper and focus on what’s positive about Lululemon’s marketing ploy: 

  1. You may find fault with his philosophical views, but you can’t say Wilson isn’t honest. He had to realize that stamping an Ayn Rand quote on the Lululemon shopping bags was going to spark some controversy and might cost him some customers. He could have kept quiet about his beliefs while continuing to take your money, knowing that you were most likely ascribing a set of beliefs to him personally and the retailer generally that didn’t fit. And being a fraud is way more un-yoga than being an Ayn Rand fan.
  2. If you are someone who tries to shop your conscience by supporting businesses that are in line with your personal philosophies, Lululemon is making it easy on you. Now you know what you know, and if that sours you on Lululemon you are free to buy your yoga gear somewhere else. Your backside will not look nearly as good, but try to focus on the silver lining: you’re going to save gazillions of dollars. 
  3. If you don’t like Ayn Rand but you really want to keep wearing your Lululemon gear, think about it like this: if we’re really holding true to our yoga ideals shouldn’t the concept of oneness have at least as much stretch as a really awesome pair of Lululemon yoga pants? In other words, doesn’t being one with everything and everyone mean that we’re even yoked together with those who are only out for themselves? Or did I just blow your mind? (Maybe I should have warned you, I’m not teaching the beginners session here — this is the extreme class.)
  4. If you like yoga but are put off by all the downward dogma that typically goes along with it, Lululemon just did you a big favor. (And I put myself in this category since I don’t like to mix my exercise with my religion. When I want to exercise, I go to the gym. When I want spirituality, I go to church. A yoga class that provides me with lots of deep stretching but no deep thoughts is exactly what I’m looking for.) By coming out of the fitting room about his feelings for Ayn Rand, Wilson has helped un-deep yoga fans like me by debunking the stereotype that everyone who likes yoga also shops at Whole Foods, has a collection of crystals hanging in her kitchen window, drives a hybrid, and supports the Occupy movement — not that there’s anything wrong with any of that (other than the fact that it’s a stereotype, of course).   

So, there you have it. Together, we have taken the Lululemon controversy and made it into lemonade (but not the artificial kind — the healthy kind with only natural ingredients and sweetened with agave nectar). Now that we’ve worked through all the positions, pick the path that’s best for you and proceed accordingly. If you want to continue to shop at Lululemon you’re free to do so with a clear conscience.

But if you don’t, you are free to choose to Nama-stay away.

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