Spiritual insight, tranquility and me-first capitalism. So where’s the problem?
Yoga can seem strange to the uninitiated. One must master poses like downward dog, crane, and revolved cobra while concentrating on chakras and purging the mind of all thought except the need for free markets unburdened by confiscatory taxation and government regulation.
It’s that last element that comes as a surprise to some. Most yoga poseurs are under the impression that they’re practicing an ancient Indian tradition that promotes physical well-being and spiritual peace. But not Lululemon Athletica Inc. founder Chip Wilson. After Lululemon bags began sporting the phrase “Who is John Galt?” taken from the 1957 Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged, the Vancouver yoga-wear titan revealed himself to be an avid Rand disciple. As the company blog explained: “Chip Wilson first read [Atlas Shrugged] when he was 18 years old . . . . Only later . . . did he realize the impact the book’s ideology had on his quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness.”
Atlas Shrugged is over 1,100 pages long, but yoga isn’t mentioned even once. Instead Rand tells a story of how government suffocates the giants of industry, how selfishness is the best policy and how living your life to help others is for chumps. Rand trumpets a philosophy she calls “objectivism.” Politically, she opposes taxation, rejects social programs on principle and favours completely unregulated capitalism. Not for nothing is she considered the prophet of the American Tea Party movement. In terms of image betrayal, Lululemon’s Ayn Rand connection may rank right up there with Clint Eastwood’s support for gun control.
I suppose there must be some folks who practice yoga so they’ll be better prepared to hoist sacks of gold bullion and beat down the hobos they meet on street corners, but it seems a little more Steven Seagal than Lululemon. Competitors certainly took notice, and the result was the truly odd spectacle of a philosophical bun fight breaking out among the makers of trendy stretch pants. On its website, Lucy Activewear published a tongue-in-cheek break-up note addressed to Rand’s fictional hero, John Galt: “It’s over between us. . . . My success would be meaningless if it didn’t include others.” It was like watching hockey players drop their gloves and argue about existentialism.
Who really knows the private beliefs of corporate giants? Many Apple fans were probably surprised when they read how the late Cupertino mastermind Steve Jobs lectured Barack Obama about getting government off the backs of private enterprise. And would-be tycoons must have been horrified when Warren Buffett advocated higher taxes for the super-rich. For the faithful it can feel like discovering Jimmy Swaggart in a motel room with a hooker. But entrepreneurs are under no obligation to share the beliefs of their admirers.
There have been complaints from some Lululemon customers and calls for boycotts in the blogosphere. Still, unless Wilson’s book club moves on to Mein Kampf, it’s hard to imagine the controversy having much long-term effect. Most Lululemon customers have their own version of objectivism, but it has more to do with objectively judging whether a pair of yoga pants make their asses look huge.
If Wilson is cherry-picking parts of Rand’s philosophy, it won’t be the first time her ideas have been manipulated like an extended side-angle stretch. The Tea Party movement loves Rand so fiercely it tends to skip over her complete rejection of religious faith and religious symbols in government buildings, and her opposition to military conscription.
Besides, there’s no reason why Rand and yoga can’t go together. The final line of Atlas Shrugged is, “He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.” Ah, the rising dollar pose. All together now, class.