1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  5. References

Cet article s'intéresse à l’énorme réussite de lululemon athletica, et en particulier à la façon dont ses stratégies de marque s'approprient la pratique du yoga pour les intégrer à un modèle consumériste de discipline et de soin de soi. On arguera que la stratégie de marque de lululemon est liée à l'hyperindividualisme néolibéral ainsi qu'aux discours plus généraux de développement personnel qui définissent le bien-être comme un accomplissement personnel et moral. Nous approfondissons la façon dont la stratégie de marque lululemon se reporte constamment à des concepts vagues, homogénéisateurs et extrême-orientaux des spiritualités du Levant, qui instrumentalisent les pratiques yogiques et renforcent les idéologies occidentales en matière de santéisme, parallèlement à la performance personnelle, corporelle et commerciale. Nous arguons que lululemon intègre au consumérisme des discours de prise de pouvoir, illustrant la façon dont les discours de choix et de soin de soi renforcent le soi responsabilisé qui est au cœur même des sociétés néolibérales contemporaines.

This paper examines the enormous success of lululemon athletica and specifically how its branding practices appropriate yogic practice into a consumerist model of discipline and self-care. lululemon branding is linked with neoliberal hyperindividualism and broader self-help discourses that define health and wellness as a personal and moral achievement. We explore how lululemon branding consistently refers to vague, homogenizing, and orientalist concepts of Eastern spiritualities that instrumentalize yogic practices, and reinforce Western ideologies of healthism along with personal, bodily, and market performance. We argue that lululemon folds empowerment into consumerism: discourses of choice and self-care reinforce the responsibilized self that is the core of contemporary neoliberal societies.

A HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL Canadian yoga apparel company, lululemon athletica, was founded in 1998 by Chip Wilson, who also founded and developed the West Beach brand. Branded as an athletic-wear provider driven by its founder's passion for “technical athletic fabrics” (lululemon athletica, our company history 2013a), lululemon has proven itself as a corporate model, reaching $1 billion in sales in the year ending 2012, up 40.6 percent from just two years earlier (Bishop 2012). Inscribed within lululemon's business discourse is a consistent and active narrative that combines the seemingly incongruent themes of social responsibility and self-optimization. In reporting the company's 2012 year-end results, then CEO Christine Day indicated that although the company is proud of its sales record,

far more important than the number itself are the beliefs, values, culture and people that achieved it. We really are so much more than our numbers; it is the everyday actions of our dedicated team that translates into an unparalleled guest experience and allows us to achieve our ultimate goal of elevating the world. (Day cited in Shayon 2012)

To help promote its brand, lululemon has employed a variety of advertising strategies but, relative to its significant success, it has a small advertising budget. The primary source of advertising has been the printing of “the lululemon manifesto” onto their red and white reusable bags. The manifesto, which provides the company's corporate and philosophical vision, includes a series of one-line prescriptions that map out the brand identity through appeals to self-betterment: “breathe deeply,” “do one thing a day that scares you,” and “this is not your practice life” (lululemon athletica, lululemon manifesto 2013b). The brand relies heavily, as well, on “stealth” advertising strategies (Holt 2002:85), such as approaching established yoga teachers and athletes to become “ambassadors” by wearing lululemon clothing and using related gear while teaching classes in communities in which lululemon is opening up new stores. The walls in lululemon stores feature large-scale images and biographical information about some of these local “ambassadors”—decked out, of course, in their lululemon clothing.

The lululemon corporate ethos presents the peddling and consumption of high-end yoga attire as a sort of social and spiritual activism rooted in bodily improvement and self-transformation. Yet, as Walters (2006) argues, we exist in “a social order where power is inseparable from mechanisms and circuits of desire, which are actualized by systems of advertising, marketing and self-actualization” (p. 190). In this context, we will explore how lululemon's branding defines personal achievement as a form of civic participation and how it articulates a series of contemporary cultural motifs linked with neoliberal hyperindividualism and broader self-help discourses that define wellness as a personal, obligatory, and moral achievement to both self and community. Moreover, it will be argued that lululemon branding consistently refers to vague, homogenizing, and orientalist concepts of Eastern spiritualities that instrumentalize yogic practices, serving to reinforce contemporary Western ideologies of healthism—an ideology prioritizing health and wellness—along with personal, bodily, and market performance.

Following from this, we argue, lululemon is a highly instructive case study for those interested in the intersections between neoliberalism, self-discipline, and consumption. This is because, as a highly visible example of Canadian popular culture, lululemon branding folds discourses of empowerment into consumerism, and illustrates how discourses of choice and self-care reinforce the responsibilized self, that is, the foundation of contemporary neoliberal societies.

The data for our analysis were collected through observations of lululemon stores—their layout, displays, and practices—and through the lululemon Web site. Personal conversations that took place between one of the authors and a former lululemon employee several years prior to the conception of this article flagged some of the themes that we take up below. Interesting themes from these conversations were granted special consideration in our review of the data. In addition, one of the authors has been a student of yoga since 2000 and has attended classes in five Canadian cities, which has informed this analysis of lululemon branding and Western yoga culture more broadly.

While the lululemon store in London, Ontario, was the primary site of our observations, both authors visited other stores (several in Toronto, as well as stores in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa) and observed significant similarities in the organization of the space, as well as the practices within that space. Time spent in the store during each visit ranged from 30 to 60 minutes and included analysis of the staging of the store and of product in terms of spatial layout, posters, displays, and the descriptive tags on items of clothing. We also observed consumer practices within the store and participated as potential consumers by browsing and trying on clothing. Our observations within the store were recorded through the use of smart phones, both by note-taking and taking photos of displays.

We supplemented these data with an analysis of secondary data gleaned from the lululemon Web site. Within the Web site, most of our analysis focuses upon the manifesto, which is linked to the webpage “who is lululemon athletica?” A page that provides a brief history of lululemon, an overview of its product, an introduction to activities that take place at the stores, and a store locator feature. In addition to analyzing the tenets set in lululemon's manifesto, we conducted a preliminary review of lululemon's product line.

Together, the stores and Web site represent the active construction of the lululemon brand. In this way, and for this article, we are more concerned with the ways in which lululemon marketing is linked with neoliberal expectations for self-governance than the ways in which lululemon branding is read and negotiated by its consumers. While it is valuable to focus on the reception of lululemon's signifiers, our project is to provide an empirically grounded analysis of neoliberalism. Our analysis identifies the ways that neoliberalism not only operates through, but buttresses and is itself reinforced by a highly successful corporation that markets not just product and lifestyle, but modern subjectivities.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  5. References

Neoliberalism constitutes a cultural, as well as economic, ideology with an emphasis on free markets, economic deregulation, privatization, and individualism. Within contemporary Western societies, individuals are increasingly expected to be both self-reliant and self-disciplining. Dominant discourses emphasize rights—defined in an individualized way—and choice is equated with freedom. In a neoliberal context, individuals are understood as enacting not only their “negative liberty” (i.e., freedom from external restrictions), but also their “positive liberty,” that is, the freedom to enact their potential (Berlin cited in Rose 1999:67). Given the links between neoliberalism and capitalism, individuals are encouraged to enact this freedom through their participation in the market economy. Citizenship is no longer understood as participation in a collective sphere, but rather in the context of “the citizen consumer whose contribution to society is mainly to purchase the products of global capitalism” (Guthman and DuPuis 2006:443).

In this manifestation, neoliberalism conflates “individualism and liberation,” along with “consumption and activism” through its consumer-driven logic (Butler 2013:46): Participation yields the opportunity to mark oneself as a good citizen subject through appropriate consumption. Through “the shift to neoliberal forms of governance in the West,” which has enabled “the development of discourses that emphasize consumer citizenship, personal responsibility, and individual empowerment” (Butler 2013:41), we take up the ways that lululemon constructs its appeal to their middle class consumers, who are predominantly women.

We situate our discussion of lululemon branding within the literature on neoliberal governance that has explored the shift away from state institutions to the collection of self-help and commercial practices that encourage the subject's “voluntary compliance” with broader state goals (Cruikshank 1999:4; Lemke 2007; Ouellette and Hay 2008; Rose 1999; Rose, O'Malley, and Valverde 2006). This line of inquiry issues from Foucault's (2010) work on governmentality and his observation that liberalism is not so much an “absence of government” but rather a series of more subtle practices that “align” conduct with broader political rationalities (Barry, Osbourne, and Rose 1996:9). The practice of governmentality emerges as a response to the liberal “critique of excessive government” (Rose et al. 2006:84) and operates instead through technologies of the self whereby subjects “produce the ends of government by fulfilling themselves rather than being merely obedient” (Rose et al. 2006:89). Hay (2003) argues that self-governance emphasizes how neoliberalism governs from a distance, generating “a kind of State control that values self-sufficiency and a kind of personal freedom that requires self-responsibility and self-discipline” (p. 167). Subjects are encouraged to develop skills and behaviors that, it is claimed, will help them to manage economic and social precarity (Brown 2003; Cruikshank 1996, 1999; Pupavac 2004). Failed and unworthy subjects who are unable to mitigate risk through self-vigilance emerge from this paradigm, where the unsuccessful are branded as leading “mismanaged” lives (Brown 2003).

Situated within neoliberalism, we explore how lululemon's branding strategy reflects concern with the body and the self as objects of discipline and anxiety in an era of moralized self-governance. As Isin (2004:217) points out, while the emphasis is increasingly placed on individuals to manage contemporary risks generated by economic deregulation, increased unemployment, mobility, terrorism, and so on, the literature on “risk” theorizing neoliberal subjectivities presupposes a rational and able subject. Isin (2004) argues that the anxieties that these conditions produce in subjects are underappreciated in the literature. While the subject is called upon to avoid risk through rational calculation, it also achieves citizenship “by calibrating its conduct on the basis of its anxieties and insecurities rather than rationalities” (Isin 2004:223). The body, because of its fallibility, is arguably one of the most heighted sites of anxiety under neoliberalism. Within this cultural and political climate, “wellness” is seen as the result of good choices made by morally autonomous and efficacious citizens, and is the central site of moral transformation and civic participation. Moreover, appropriate health management and the consumption of wellness lifestyles are ways in which citizens both abate and ultimately reinforce anxiety.

Within this framework, the management of self and emotions has become a key project in which individual practices of “ethical self-examination” and “self-improvement” are promoted in private and public venues (Lupton 1999:289). The project of knowing and continuously upgrading the self has become central to one's lifework, linked with what has been called the therapeutic or affective turn in Anglo-American culture (see Iliouz 2008). Emotional regulation is an obligation to both self and society: it is not just a personal project but a civic duty. As Cruikshank (1996:232) argues, within this paradigm, high self-esteem becomes a “vaccine” against sources of social instability, such as gender inequality and violent crime. In other words, it becomes up to individuals to develop the emotional proficiency necessary to overcome structural barriers and their consequences. The popularity of stress management therapies reflects the salience of models of subjectivity that prioritize the subject's ability to respond to precariousness. In such contexts, subjects are increasingly expected to not only manage, but also prosper in the context of omnipresent volatility (see Berlant 2011; Brown 2003).

The self is not just an object of self-surveillance and anxiety, but is driven by a need for continuous improvement and fine-tuning, reflecting what Ouellette and Hay (2008) describe as “the makeover” framework, which is a key political rationality of neoliberalism and has a deep affinity with consumer culture. Through this lens, lululemon can be read as a resocializing institution in which individuals happily abdicate their previous identities in favor of emergent identities, which are understood to be not only authentic, but also ultimately enhanced (Scott 2010). This voluntary renunciation of the self sits within a cultural context in which “reinventive institutions,” such as lululemon, respond to a “dissatisfaction with the fallible self” and “offer to process, reshape and reform by trimming away negative emotional experiences” (Scott 2010:219).

Such “reinventive institutions” (Scott 2010) represent new technologies of governance that are increasingly “commodified” and “tied to entrepreneurial imperatives” (Ouellette and Hay 2008:474) and work alongside the neoliberal interpellation of subjects as entrepreneurial agents in all aspects of their lives (Brown 2003). “Guests” of lululemon (aka customers) are offered a seductive and transformative experience, replete with motifs of self-discipline along with emotional, physical, and spiritual self-optimization. These discourses converge as the civic responsibility that is central to neoliberal political culture. As Rose et al. (2006) argue, the intention is to produce citizens who enact their obligation to freedom through self-fulfillment and, in so doing, displace the requirement for active government control. It is precisely this close and complex relationship between self-fulfillment and self-discipline that sits at the core of lululemon's branding and through which lululemon reiterates broader cultural tensions inherent in neoliberal models of subjectivity.

lululemon and Governmentality

Although the company celebrates the “beliefs, values, [and] culture” of the groups that have contributed to its success, the company takes an active role in shaping these beliefs, values, and culture. On their first year anniversary of employment, lululemon staff are given a “learning library” from lululemon, including self-help books The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Brian Tracy's The Phoenix Seminar on the Psychology of Achievement. They are also sent to a Landmark Forum learning seminar, where they are schooled in Werner Erhard's philosophy, teaching students how to “create a future of your own design” (Landmark Forum 2012). Chip Wilson's business model is said to be linked with his own “spiritual awakening,” inspired by pop psychology writers Werner Erhard, Brian Tracy, and Rhonda Byrne who claim to guide and motivate individuals toward the path to self-achievement (Sacks 2009). These writers are typical of self-help discourse that is hinged on personal agency, with an emphasis on goal setting and attitude adjustment, reflecting values of choice, personal autonomy, and rationality. They advocate new practices of selfhood that do not only transform the self, the body, and one's relationships, but even more ambitiously allow individuals to design the future selves they desire, an opportunity that cannot be refused by good liberal subject citizens. The ethos of lululemon branding and its broader corporate approach reflects this philosophy where governmental aspirations are aligned with the goals of individual achievement.

This philosophy is manifested in the requirement of sales representatives—“educators”—to fill out a form mapping out their short- and long-term personal, professional, and health goals. Not only is this goal setting mandatory, but a former employee confidentially reports that employee goals are vetted by managerial staff to ensure they are appropriately operationalized so as to be measurable: it is not enough for a lululemon employee to indicate that they would like to walk their dog more often, but instead they must concretely indicate how many kilometers or minutes their daily dog walks will be. Ultimately, these goals are framed and mounted on the wall of the stores to inspire clients. In this way, staff remain under surveillance of not only superiors, but also peers and customers.

Surveillance—both individual and public—also applies to those guests who choose to try on apparel in lululemon stores. In addition to providing their names, guests are often encouraged to indicate the specific purposes for which they are trying on the apparel. This public performance of self-care leads to a series of publicly identified ambitions (often incongruous with the popularity of lululemon attire as everyday wear that is used, not infrequently, for shopping itself). Additionally, by publicly identifying the activity for which the clothing is being purchased, consumers are subjected not only to the expert scrutiny of “educators,” but also to horizontal surveillance (Scott 2010) in which their self-actualization is presented to other consumers for judgment, much as the staff members are subjected to peer surveillance.

This practice of providing measurable goal setting is also suggested to customers—or “guests”—in a clear and highly individuated way in the lululemon athletica, lululemon manifesto (2013b): “write down two personal, two business and two health goals for the next 1, 5 and 10 years. do this four times a year. goal setting triggers your subconscious computer.” The manifesto also suggests that: “A university found only 3 percent of the students had written goals. 20 years later, the same 3 percent were wealthier than the other 97% combined” (lululemon athletica, lululemon manifesto 2013b). This tenet directly hails wealth as the desired marker of success. This principle sits alongside another to indicate that goals should be excellence-oriented: “nature wants us to be mediocre because we have a great chance to survive and reproduce. mediocrity is as close to the bottom as it is to the top, and will give you a lousy life” (lululemon athletica, lululemon manifesto 2013b). Thus, by way of external as well as internal surveillance, the goal writer is left to act as a compliant citizen who is expected to concretely map success, which is explicitly stated in terms of excelling, that is, “to be superior to: surpass in accomplishment or achievement” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary 2013).

The project of “encouraging” goal setting by educators/employees and guests/consumers reflects the emphatic belief in agency that is threaded throughout the lululemon brand and its corporate philosophy. It also reflects the company's deeply embedded commitment to a style of hyperindividualism, which contextualizes the controversial printing of “Who is John Galt?”—a question that appears throughout Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged—on lululemon's bags. On the lululemon blog, the decision to quote Rand is explained in the following way:

Think about it: we are all born with magical machines, aka human bodies, able to think, jump, laugh and run …. We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make, and how we spend our days though the choices we make … many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it. (lululemon athletica, Who is John Galt? 2011)

According to this claim, not only are our class positions, careers, and incomes the outcome of personal effort and choice, but the body is itself the primary site of achievement, described through machinist metaphors of control and mastery. Mediocrity and the failure to live up to one's full potential are significant transgressions within this paradigm, as noted above. As Rimke (2000) observes, self-help discourse empties the subject of its relationality and invests instead in the development of subjects who are healthy, who are predictable, and who are thus governable. These subjects are then rendered responsible for both success and failure: “effectiveness is predicated by replacing the words ‘wish,’ ‘should’ and ‘try’ with ‘i will’” (lululemon athletica, lululemon manifesto 2013b). Through the individuation of success and failure, contextualized by the condition of excellence necessary to avoid a “lousy life,” lululemon discourse is deeply enmeshed in the self-help discourse that cannot simply be dismissed as a fad as it is complementary to the broader project of governmentality (Rimke 2000).

lululemon and Bodywork

In the meaning system underpinning lululemon branding, the body is a site upon which success and mastery are to be mapped. One way in which weakness is addressed is through explicit references to health. Through foregrounded connections between body and mind, the lululemon athletica, lululemon manifesto (2013b) advocates care of the physical self to benefit the mental self—“a daily hit of athletic-induced endorphins gives you the power to make better decisions, helps you be at peace with yourself, and offsets stress”—as well as care of the mental self to benefit the physical self—“stress is related to 99% of all illness.” In fact, one could argue that within lululemon's framework the self and the body are one and the same, reflecting late modernity's rejection of the Cartesian mind-body binary, where vague and moralizing notions of holistic wellness often attribute physical health to psychological health. As former CEO of lululemon, Christine Day, articulated the performance of health in a market metaphor by claiming that lululemon is “part of, and contributing to, a bigger macro-trend that affects consumers from their early teens to their 70's. Investing in your health will pay big dividends for individuals and society… elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness” (Day cited in Taylor 2012). In this quote, Day situates lululemon and its consumers within a competitive market rather than a yogic context, bound by models of cost–benefit analysis that apply corporate logic to individual health with the corollary of global greatness.

This call to continuously rework the self as a central preoccupation of modern society is linked with broader narratives of healthy living as a means to mitigate risk, and is an ongoing moral and ritualized performance (Williams 1998). This performance reflects a specifically middle-class moral code about bodily control and personal responsibility. As Wagner (1997) argues, Anglo-American middle classes must “visibly achieve” (p. 104). Health and fitness are central to this doctrine because visible achievement can be enacted upon the body. Stokes (2008), who links lululemon to hegemonic ideologies of health and consumer culture, argues that lululemon's corporate language, in which retail outlets are “health hubs” and “epicenters of health” (p. 23), is related to a broader neoliberal ideology of “healthism,” described as “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary—often the primary—focus for the definition and achievement of well-being” (Crawford cited in Stokes 2008:25). Personal responsibility is emphasized, downplaying the broader social structures that influence health, with the result that well-being is undertaken as a personal ethical project. The healthy body becomes a marker of the responsible, conscientious citizen and is deeply performative, both in that there is a literal preoccupation with enhancing the physical performance of the body through lifestyle interventions (Heilbrunn cited in Askegaard and Eckhardt 2012:48) and in the display of one's personal and social responsibility through a fit body.

Consultation with experts and the consumption of the right foods, exercise regimes, and health products become central to this performance (Stokes 2008). Moreover, this narrative hinges on the instrumentalization of wellness that promotes self-optimization in the name of economic and social performance. This instrumentalization is facilitated by a growing number of life and fitness coaches, along with motivational speakers and champions of self-help who are “taking over the dispersed governmental work once performed by social workers, educators and other professionals” (Ouellette and Hay 2008:474). At the same time that this support is being deprofessionalized, the requirement for individuals to make strategic “lifestyle choices” is paramount as they seek to “maximize their interests as a condition of self-rule” (Ouellette and Hay 2008:476).

The optimization of bodily performance becomes the marker of productive and conscientious citizenship. The promotion of the goal of healthy bodies is no longer the exclusive domain of the state, because the state can now assume that good citizen subjects desire to be healthy and are actively working to this end (Rose 1999). Health, as a form of self-care, becomes the responsibility of the citizen. In this way, health and wellness as important elements of self-care are no longer policed and disciplined through injunction, such as institutionalization, but through a language of personal choice. This shift reflects the neoliberal ethic of selfhood, in which the optimal self is a perpetual project. The lululemon brand capitalizes on this “new ethic of self-conduct” (Rose 1999:87) in its implicit suggestions that the consumption of athletic wear reflects an ethic of personal commitment. As Taylor (2012) writes in his analysis of lululemon's branding philosophy, “lululemon isn't an indulgence, like Bordelle lingerie or Dolce and Gabbana pumps. It's a thing of virtue. Budget in other spending categories if you must, the brand seems to whisper, but don't stop taking care of your body and building a better society.” This echoes Weberian diagnoses of the affinities between puritanical teachings and modern capitalism, in which self-discipline and visible success are signs of moral and spiritual accomplishment. Taken to a new level, however, caring for the self and the body contribute to the overall well-being of the social body as evidenced in one of the consistent leitmotifs of lululemon corporate philosophy: to “elevate” not only the consumer, but society more broadly from “mediocrity to greatness” (Day cited in Taylor 2012).

While lululemon branding arguably represents highly classed ideas of health, it is also highly gendered; caring for the body and self is specifically the responsibility of women as the guardians of personal, familial, and civic integrity and wellness. As a target audience, women dominate yoga both as a physical practice and a practice of consumption. In 2008, Yoga Journal reported that those practicing yoga in the United States spent $5.7B on products and classes, with 72 percent of practitioners identifying as women. When yoga first emerged in American culture, the connections between white women and gurus of color was controversial, both because of the concern that white women would be duped into giving away their wealth to charismatic yogis and because women's interest in yoga represented an interest in something (and potentially someone) foreign (Gandhi 2009). Yet, as it currently operates in the social imaginary, yoga can be seen to recenter women as docile bodies. No longer are most yoga practices taught by gurus from the subcontinent; instead, the majority of instructors are Westerners who have taken yoga teacher-training courses, thus eliminating the risk of foreign-ness associated with yoga. The focus on the body of many contemporary forms of yoga is explicitly tied to women's subordination. As Gandhi (2009) notes, “using yoga to discipline female bodies in a specific way (to make them more slender, fit, etc …) is part of a larger means of social control of women” (p. 129).

Beyond the specific practice of yoga in which lululemon is perhaps only tangentially embedded, Mernissi (2007) points to the debilitating consequences of unrealistic body images on women's capacity to negotiate and deconstruct patriarchy. Although lululemon advocates taking control of one's life, its products suggest that this control is best carried out in pants that are widely reputed to lift butts, and bras that solve “one of life's greatest conundrums: the uni-boob” (lululemon athletica, the ‘a’ to ‘z’ of product features 2013c). Reflecting gendered discourses more broadly, this apparel implies that females bodies are never adequately feminine (Urla and Swedlund 2007). Such failure to be feminine, however, may be overcome through consumption. Urla and Swedlund (2007) identify women's consumption as a significant component of hegemonic femininity. Indeed, women's control over their bodies and women's consumption are tightly linked in advanced capitalist societies because “keeping control of one's body, not getting too fat or flabby, in other words, conforming to gendered norms of fitness and weight, have become signs of an individual's social and moral worth” (Urla and Swedlund 2007:141–42): Women's bodies constitute the sites on which achievement is visibly performed.

This self-surveillance in order to be socially and morally worthy is heightened within neo liberal regimes as there has been a movement from “objectification” to “subjectification,” the latter representing “sexual objectification” that is presented as “the freely chosen wish of active confident, assertive female subjects” (Gill 2007:153). Through this process, women accept a “self-policing narcissistic gaze” (Gill 2007:151) and see these practices of subjectification as “fun and pampering,” rather than coercive or self-disciplining (p. 155). The branding at lululemon specifically reflects this “subjectification” of postfeminist subjects: shopping at lululemon and following its principles of self-vigilance exemplify the commodification and self-surveillance characteristic of modern subjects.

More insidiously, these practices operate within euphemistic narratives of self-care, “me-time” and wellness. The stores themselves are staged to emulate spas, with wooden interiors that are vaguely “eastern” in their aesthetic, minimalist décor, soft lighting, and the keyhole entrance in some stores that sequester shoppers from the bustle of the shopping mall. These aspects may help account for the seductive nature of the lululemon experience. Shopping in a lululemon store is not merely an act of consumption, but promises a spa-like experience and a transformative purification ritual. After purchasing a pair of expensive yoga pants, one leaves the store having “elevated” one's virtue and potential for greatness in a blend of conspicuous consumption, self-discipline, and self-care that is at the core of the lululemon brand identity and, more broadly, neoliberalism.

While lululemon reconciles a series of contradictions between “transgression” and “bodily-discipline” (Williams 1998:451), it also prompts further contradictions. In their work on the politics of obesity, Guthman and DuPuis (2006) point out the incongruities inscribed within neoliberal corporeality where subjects are compelled to participate as both “out-of-control consumer” and “self-controlled subject” (p. 444). While uninhibited consumers are ideal consumers in a capitalist market economy because of their insatiable desire for goods, these goods are frequently marketed as a means to impose or demonstrate self-restraint or self-discipline.

Moreover, motivated by the fear of downward mobility, the middle classes according to Ehrenreich have a “fear of inner weakness, of growing soft, of failing to strive, of losing discipline and will. Even the affluence that is so often the goal of all this striving becomes a threat, for it holds out the possibility of hedonism and self-indulgence” (Ehrenreich cited in Wagner 1997:105). The risks abound: Hedonism threatens to undermine success before it happens and, once success is achieved, the indulgence that it affords continues to haunt the self.

lululemon and Spirituality

The healthy and fit body is haunted by spiritual deficiency. By linking consumption and self-mastery with Eastern spiritualities, lululemon both alerts us to this deficiency and offers us a solution for it. In this way, lululemon attempts to remedy the increasing secularity of Western culture in reference to a highly selective bricolage drawn from wide-ranging Eastern religions and philosophies, and provides a source of “authenticity” for Westerners seeking fulfillment outside of global capitalist relations. Not only does this form of spirituality take the form of a miscellany of spiritual principles but, as in the case of lululemon, these principles are instrumentalized for the purposes of a publicly traded capitalist project. Through its celebration of decontextualized tenets of yogic spirituality and Buddhism, as well as a conflation of these tenets in an Orientalist display of homogenization (Said 1979), lululemon situates ostensibly holistic aspects of Eastern philosophies—merging body and mind—against the idealized rational, disembodied subject of Western capitalist economies.

At lululemon, allusions to spirituality recenter Orientalism through references to exoticism. Yoga in the Americas, and increasingly in India (Askegaard and Echkardt 2012), has become focused on physicality and detached from explicit spiritual reflection. As Demeter (2006) observes, the form of yoga that was popularized in the United States (and Canada) in the second half of the twentieth century was hatha yoga, a form that has been taken up through only one of its eight foci: the physical benefits incurred through yogic practice. As a result, yoga practices typically focus on asanas (poses) in and of themselves, rather than as preparatory exercises for subsequent spiritual practices (Demeter 2006).

Although lululemon is necessarily focused on the physical aspects of yoga given its athletic wear niche, the company is dependent upon consumers’ assumptions of India—the birthplace of yoga—as infused with spirituality (O'Reilly 2006). “Eastern spirituality” is thus embedded within a broader Orientalist narrative that situates Indians, in this case, as suffering materially but inured to these hardships due to their spirituality (O'Reilly 2006). The corollary of the Orientalist self-other dialectic is that lululemon's consumers are situated otherwise: rich of wealth but weak of spirit. By providing consumers with a discourse that enables them to succeed through both capitalist accumulation and spiritual depth, lululemon's branding targets this implicit weakness of spirit.

In reference to Buddhist practice, the lululemon manifesto includes the tenets that one should “breathe deeply and appreciate the moment. living in the moment could be the meaning of life” and “visualize your eventual demise. it can have an amazing effect on how you live for the moment” (lululemon athletica, lululemon manifesto 2013b). These Buddhist references to being “in the moment” provide pseudo-spiritual veneer to the practice of Western yoga. Additionally, while locating the path to individual and collective well-being in fitness-cum-lifestyle, individuals are advised against seeking happiness itself. Indeed, as the lululemon manifesto indicates, “the pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness” (lululemon athletica, lululemon manifesto 2013b) invoking Buddhist language of nonattachment.

In the elevated world which, lululemon claims, will emerge from the sale of products that make consumers active and stress-free, individuals are held responsible for their success and lack thereof. Indeed, according to the lululemon manifesto, “life is full of setbacks. success is determined by how you handle setbacks” (lululemon athletica, lululemon manifesto 2013b). Both of these tenets have achievement at their center and contradict the idea of Buddhist nonattachment indicated above. In this example, lululemon's branding philosophy alerts us not only to the incongruence within its own branding, but also to broader cultural contradictions between the vulnerability and the efficacy of the subject, within contemporary capitalism.

For lululemon, Eastern philosophic and religious traditions serve as anchor points that obscure the sort of individual moralizing inherent in the company's branding. The significance of these touchstones is evidence of the embeddedness of Orientalism (Said 1979) in Western modes of thinking: The difference signified by yoga and by Buddhism is so entirely fetishized that imprecise references to associated practices come to stand in for entire belief systems. These systems, in their more traditional forms, may well pose legitimate challenges to capitalist models of consumption and emphasis on individual well-being. Yet, as co-opted by lululemon, these tenets simultaneously obscure and reinforce the individualist model of consumption that characterizes Western modernism.

This disciplining of not just the body, but also the self, reflects one of the most interesting elements of westernized yoga discourse: the instrumentalization and rationalization of yoga. Yoga is “not just a coping technique of relaxation and regeneration but also, paradoxically, an instrument in a contemporary ideology of performance” (Askegaard and Eckhardt 2012:50). It is this instrumentalization of yoga and its appropriation into broader Western paradigms of asceticism and performance that are reflected in yoga's marketing as promoting health, weight loss, stress management, and, significantly, enhanced productivity as businesses increasingly offer yoga classes at lunch hour. The tensions between yogic and capitalistic practice is expressed by Chip Wilson himself when he states that they used to hire yoga practitioners at lululemon, “but it didn't work because they were too slow. So we started hiring runners who like yoga. They're more on the ball, more type A” (Wilson cited in Sacks 2009).

These tensions are a reflection of late capitalism's inheritance of the elective affinity between secularized asceticism and the accumulation of capital that Weber foregrounded within the Protestant work ethic. Within India—and arguably within much of Western culture—yoga has evolved to fill the role of the Protestant work ethic inasmuch as yoga similarly reconciles these tensions. Indeed the trend of yoga as an instrument of achievement in the West is having an impact on its popularity in India. After being on the decline for decades, primarily within the middle-class urban market, Askegaard and Eckhardt (2012) point to the resurgence in yoga's popularity in India. For this cohort:

Yoga may be seen as a Hindu version of the Protestant ethic, where a modern ethic has repositioned the working rational man as first and foremost the self-actualizing man (Argyris, 1973). It is an enactment in body as well as mind of the values of discipline and self-management, of flexibility and (self-)responsibility. (p. 55)

Yoga displaces the Protestant work ethic not just through its bodywork, but also as it represents the shift, noted by Bauman (1997) from Protestant work ethic to a consumer ethic, in which work is no longer an end in itself but a means to conspicuous consumption. Similarly, Guthman and DuPuis (2006) argue that, while the old Puritan ethic positioned “wanting less” as a marker of grace, the contemporary version is “want less while spending more” (p. 445). In the twentieth century, Lears (1983) identifies a shift from the Protestant work ethic to a “permissive (but subtly coercive) morality of personal fulfillment” (p. 3) that manifested in the rise of “a therapeutic ethos stressing self-realization in this world—an ethos characterized by an almost obsessive concern with psychic and physical health” (Lears 1983:3 and p. 4). In other words, there has been a shift of emphasis away from a work ethic driven by the “hands to work, hearts to god” imperative, to an ethic of endless self-work, driven by the ascendance of the belief in the “sanctity of human potential” in the twentieth century (Lears 1983:14) and the preoccupation with the management and optimization of the self as a measure of one's moral—and perhaps spiritual—worth.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  5. References

In an ironic twist on Eastern religious philosophies, lululemon athletica dispenses spiritual advice while negotiating a tenuous relationship with “authentic” yoga culture and managing tensions between hyperindividualism and communitarianism. The lululemon branding is based on the paradoxical translation of yogic spiritual practice, with its emphasis on humility and the overcoming of self, into Western paradigms of performance and productivity based on an asceticism that bridges “eastern authenticity” with Western affluence.

The focus at lululemon on physical and spiritual aspects of the body as sites of ethical intervention and control alerts us to important questions about the relationship between “the personal practices of consumption” and governmentality—“the government of conduct” (Rose 1999:85). Through its branding, lululemon seeks to provide solutions for the anxieties of neoliberalism by stabilizing the body physically and spiritually. While this strategy seems illogical given the mortality and fallibility of both the body and the self, it nonetheless is at the core of lululemon's marketing strategy because of the significance of hyperindividualism to our contemporary cultural framework.

Until recently, lululemon branding relied heavily on earnest advertising motifs that promoted bodily care practices, positioning the citizen as engaged, responsible, effective, ethical, and successful. Of late, however, they have begun to use a more ironic and self-referential tone in some of their ads. In June 2012, lululemon released the “Yoga Barbie Ad.” It featured the doll in lululemon attire and was accompanied by a Facebook post that read: “We're so excited to announce the launch of our new Perfect Balance collection, inspired by our Silicone Valley yoga ambassador, Tiffani! Her 1 year goals include mastering tree pose in high heels and travelling across the country in the convertible of her dreams” (Leaman 2012). The ad was controversial. Many customers found the ad humorous and believed that lululemon was branching out into Barbie clothing, while other customers felt that they themselves were being parodied. Also lululemon released the “Sh*t Yogis Say” video, featuring a yogic practitioner poking fun at yoga stereotypes with one liners such as, “I bought some really cool eyeshadow for my third eye,” “I've got total yoga hair,” and “let's do wheat grass shots after this,” ending with “namaste, motherf*cker!” (youtube “sh*t yogis say” 2011). Moreover, the “manifesto” reusable bag has been replaced by the “poser” reusable bag, a simple black cloth bag with the word “poser” written on it and a lululemon logo inside the “o.” The “poser” can be literal, as in one who does yoga poses, but also references the pretentiousness and inauthenticity of which yoga culture more broadly has been accused. This change in advertising strategy can be read as an attempt to diffuse criticism of the brand into its own self-representation, as other brands have done before (see Goldman and Papson 1996). It is possible that those involved in marketing lululemon understand that its previous strategy of invoking yogic, eastern authenticity is dissonant with its remarkable capitalist success and its prevalence in North American malls, suburbs, gyms, and schools.

In the same way that “capitalism imagines itself, both for itself and its consumers, through the very language of ecology and non-exploitation that has until recently been used to critique it” (Thompson 2012:918), lululemon, through the microethics of responsible consumption, appropriates the language of critique—references to Barbie, overly serious or self-absorbed yogis, the juxtaposition of yoga and consumption, and the ambiguous “poser”—for its promotional practices. In yet another seemingly contradictory move, lululemon draws upon the volatility of critique to stabilize its branding narrative. While lululemon has most recently taken up self-critique as an ironic branding strategy, its broader success is premised on insidious social critiques of the individual, manifested and reconciled in the body. Moreover, this branding strategy exemplifies how the quests for self-fulfillment and consumption are mutually reinforcing, and illustrates how discourses of choice and self-care reiterate the responsibilized self that is at the core of contemporary neoliberal societies.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  5. References
  • Askegaard, S. and G. Eckhardt. 2012. “Glocal Yoga: Re-Appropriation in the Indian Consumptionscape.” Marketing Theory 12(1):4560.
  • Barry, A., T. Osbourne and N. Rose, eds. 1996. Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neo-Liberalism and Rationalities and Government. London: University College Press.
  • Bauman, Z. 1997. “The Haunted House.” New Internationalist 289. Retrieved August 29, 2013 (
  • Berlant, L. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Bishop, S. 2012. “lululemon Continues to Hit New Highs.” TSI Network, May 12. Retrieved July 30, 2012 ( highs/?floater=99).
  • Brown, W. 2003. “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory and Event 7(1). Retrieved Sept 28, 2013 (
  • Butler, J. 2013. “For White Girls Only?: Postmodernism and the Politics of Inclusion.” Feminist Formations 25(1, Spring):3558.
  • Cruikshank, B. 1996. “Revolution Within: Self Government and Self-Esteem.” Pp. 23151 in Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neoliberalism and Rationalities of Government, edited by A. Barry, T. Osbourne and N. Rose. London: University College Press.
  • Cruikshank, B. 1999. The Will to Empower: Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Demeter, M. 2006. “The Commodification of Yoga in Contemporary U.S. Culture.” MA Thesis, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL. Retrieved October 8, 2013 (
  • Foucault, M. 2010. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France (1978–9), edited by M. Senellart. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Gandhi, S. 2009. “Translating, Practicing and Commodifying Yoga in the U.S.” PhD Dissertation, Department of Religion, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
  • Gill, R. 2007. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10(2):14766.
  • Goldman, R. and S. Papson. 1996. Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Guthman, J. and M. DuPuis. 2006. “Embodying Neoliberalism: Economy, Culture, and the Politics of Fat.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24(3):42748.
  • Hay, J. 2003. “Unaided-Virtues: The (Neo)Liberalization of the Domestic Sphere.” Pp. 165206 in Foucault, Cultural Studies and Governmentality, edited by J. Bratich, J. Packer and C. McCarthy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Holt, D. 2002. “Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding.” Journal of Consumer Research 29(1):7090.
  • Iliouz, E. 2008. Saving the Modern Soul. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Isin, E. 2004.“The Neurotic Citizen.” Citizenship Studies 8(3):21735.
  • Lears, J. 1983. “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880–1930.” Pp. 138 in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980, edited by R.W. Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Landmark Forum. 2012. “Commitment—The Pathway to Adventure.” Retrieved April 15, 2013 (
  • Leaman, E. 2012. “Lululemon Spoofs New Yoga Teacher Barbie, Customers Don't Get Joke.” Be Well Philly, June 19. Retrieved August 28, 2013 (
  • Lemke, T. 2007. “An Indigestible Meal? Foucault, Governmentality and State Theory.” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 8:4364. Retrieved August 15, 2013 (
  • lululemon athletica. 2011. “Who is John Galt?” Retrieved July 18, 2013 (
  • lululemon athletica. 2013a. “lululemon athletica: our company history.” Retrieved July 18, 2013 (
  • lululemon athletica. 2013b. “lululemon manifesto.” Retrieved July 18, 2013 (
  • lululemon athletica. 2013c. “the ‘a’ to ‘z’ of product features.” Retrieved July 18, 2013 (
  • Lupton, D. 1999. “Developing the “Whole Me”: Citizenship, Neo-liberalism and the Contemporary Health and Physical Education Curriculum.” Critical Public Health 9(4):287300.
  • Mernissi, F. 2007. “Size 6: The Western Women's Harem.” Pp. 14752 in Gender Relations in Global Perspective: Essential Readings, edited N. Cook. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, Inc.
  • Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2013. “Excel.” Retrieved July 18, 2013 (
  • O'Reilly, C. 2006. “From Drifter to Gap Year Tourist: Mainstreaming Backpacker Travel.” Annals of Tourism Research 33(4):9981017.
  • Ouellette, L. and J. Hay. 2008. “Makeover Television, Governmentality and the Good Citizen.” Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 22(4, August):47184.
  • Pupavac, V. 2004. “War on the Couch: The Emotionology of the New International Security Paradigm.” European Journal of Social Theory 7(2):14970.
  • Rimke, H. 2000. “Governing Citizens Through Self-Help.” Cultural Studies 14(1):6178.
  • Rose, N. 1999. Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rose, N., P. O'Malley and M. Valverde. 2006. “Governmentality.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 2:83104.
  • Sacks, D. 2009. “lululemon's Cult of Selling.” Fast Company, April 1. Retrieved July 30, 2013 ('s-cult-of-selling).
  • Said, E. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Scott, S. 2010. “Revisiting the Total Institution: Performative Regulation in the Reinventive Institution.” Sociology 44(2):21331.
  • Shayon, S. 2012. “Lululemon Downplaying the Lulu to Keep from Turning into a Lemon.” brandchannel, April 27. Retrieved July 17, 2013 (
  • Stokes, C. 2008. “Healthiest Ideologies: The Case of lululemon athletica.” MA Thesis, School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen's University.
  • Taylor, T. 2012. “CEO of the Year: Christine Day of Lululemon.” The Globe and Mail, September 6. Retrieved August 21, 2013 (
  • Thompson, S. 2012. “The Micro-Ethics of Everyday Life: Ethics, Ideology and Anti-Consumerism.” Cultural Studies 26(6):895921.
  • Urla, J. and A.C. Swedlund. 2007. “Measuring Up to Barbie: Ideals of the Feminine Body in Popular Culture.” Pp. 13546 in Gender Relations in Global Perspective: Essential Readings, edited by N. Cook. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, Inc.
  • Wagner, D. 1997. The New Temperance: The American Obsession with Sin and Vice. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Walters, W. 2006. “Border/Control.” European Journal of Social Theory 9(2):187203.
  • Williams, S. 1998. “Health as Moral Performance: Ritual, Transgression and Taboo.” Health 2(4):43557.
  • Yoga Journal. 2008. “Yoga Journal Releases 2008 ‘Yoga in America’ Market Study.” Retrieved April 29 2012 (
  • YouTube. 2011. “Sh*t yogis say.” Retrieved July 30, 2013 (