Lululemon has stopped selling their “namastay put” and “mula bandhawear” underwear lines, in part thanks to a woman named Nani Vishwanath.
As Vishwanath, who has long been involved in grass roots activism in Seattle, watched companies embrace the growing Black Lives Matter movement alongside industry-wide calls for diversity, she grew concerned that many of these corporations weren’t actually taking their flashy pledges seriously.
Lululemon, long an exercise brand of choice for the wealthy, recently put out a thorough statement about the company’s support for “inclusion, diversity, equity and action.” Writing on their website that “the Black Lives Matter movement has acted as a powerful catalyst within our organization,” Lululemon publicly committed to improving.
With their call to action in mind, Vishwanath was dismayed to see that their “namastay put” underwear line remained a Lululemon mainstay.
Vishwanath reached out to the company by messaging them on Instagram: “With your recent pledge to diversity and inclusion, please stop using ‘Namaste’ as a pun on your clothing items. Furthermore, you all should be doing some intentional work around the cultural roots of yoga and meditation as you profit off of both those activities. This is insulting and I know I am not alone in commenting on this. Yet the product remains on your site.”
A Change.org petition seeking the removal of the line also garnered 250 signatures.
To her surprise, Lululemon responded. A representative of the company thanked Vishwanath for reaching out to voice her “frustration surrounding Sanskrit in some of our product names. We recognize this is not okay, and after many real and impactful conversations with our greater community, we hear loud and clear that we need to change behaviours within our walls to support meaningful and lasting change.”
“Seeing the actual product really upset me,” Vishwanath says. “Namaste is a greeting with religious undertones and thousands of years of history attached to it, and to think about that word being used as a pun is offensive, especially in reference to keeping underwear on someone’s body. … Who approved this? And who thinks this could be an acceptable way to name a product?”
Many companies like Lululemon that sell clothing for yoga and meditation practices do so without offering any cultural context of the practice.
The word namaste and related puns seemingly appear on all sorts of merchandise: mugs, shirts, tote bags, yoga mats. Athleisure company Spiritual Gangster uses some form of the word on dozens of clothing items, including a “namaste all day” tank top and a “you had me at namaste” sweatshirt. Nordstrom, Shopbop, Bloomingdales, and other major retailers carry the line as well.
After a few days of back and forth with Vishwanath, the “namastay put” underwear line disappeared from the Lululemon website, and an error message now appears if you try to buy anything from the line. Another Lululemon item, the mula bandhawear thong — named after the mula bandha yoga pose — has also disappeared from the Lululemon website. As of reporting, the only namaste-related item of Lululemon clothing still available online is a pair of shorts called the “namaste at the beach short.”
In a message to Vishwanath, Lululemon thanked her for holding them accountable.
Although Lululemon has removed the “namastay put” line from their website, they never publicly announced their decision. The line vanished without any acknowledgment.
This doesn’t sit well with Vishwanath.
“To say we did this, this is why we did this, this is why it was wrong and this is what we’re doing to change it — that to me really speaks to a company that wants to make change rather than a company that wants to escape criticism,” Vishwanath says.
“Our teams are currently working to have Sanskrit removed from our product names,” a Lululemon company spokesperson said. “Ensuring our products and practices are aligned with our values is an important step in our journey, and we’re committed to listening and staying engaged in this conversation now and in future.”
This isn’t the first time that Lululemon has been accused of racism and cultural insensitivity. Founded in 1998 by Chip Wilson, the company was reportedly named Lululemon to make it difficult for Japanese buyers to pronounce the name. Wilson has also spoken in support of child labor, and after a 2013 recall of too-sheer Lululemon yoga pants, he was accused of fat shaming when he said “some women’s bodies don’t work for the pants.” Wilson has since resigned as chairman of Lululemon’s board, but he still owns company stock.
Issues of cultural appropriation in the athleisure industry and yoga go far beyond Lululemon.
“Being of Indian descent, there aren’t a lot of places in American culture where my own culture is recognized with respect,” Vishwanath said. “It has always really struck me that when yoga and meditation show up it’s not directly associated with India or with the religious or cultural origins, and they’re more or less whitewashed and appropriated for a profit.”
Vishwanath says she isn’t done challenging appropriative companies.
“In the past I wouldn’t have felt like one direct message on Instagram would have made any impact, but in this moment, they’re in the public eye to actually do what they say they’re going to do,” she said.
She recently reached out to Prana, a company that sells “sustainable clothes for yoga, travel and outdoor adventure.”
In a message sent last week, Vishwanath asked the company to engage with the root of their name. Prana, Vishwanath explained to them, is a Sanskrit word that means “breath” or “life force.” She says she was troubled by the use of the word without any recognition of its origin. On Prana’s website, the company doesn’t mention Sanskrit — instead writing about its Californian roots.
Prana responded, telling Vishwanath that their company onboarding includes the sharing of the origin and meaning of the name. “We have touched on this in our marketing before,” the company said, “but unfortunately it looks like that may have gotten lost as we have updated our website over these last few seasons and have shifted our focus to explaining our newly shared mission: clothing for positive change.”
“I have seen the appropriation of my culture my whole life in America,” Vishwanath said. “With clothing specifically, we’re literally wearing the brand and representing the brand in our day-to-day life and for me to put a brand on my body and walk around, I want to know that company is being responsible and stands for values that I stand for.”
This piece was updated to reflect a statement from Lululemon.