Yoga Joes, the Deadly Peaceful Toys that Bring Men into Yoga: An Interview with the Creator
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If I ask random people in the street what’s the first thing that comes to their minds when they think of yoga, it’s quite possible I get answers like: yoga mats, sophisticated postures, workout for girls, yoga pants; or maybe if I come across some yogis, they’ll probably use a more Zen-ish terminology and say union, balance, focus, energy, etc. One thing is certain, it would be really hard to find someone who relates yoga with a soldier (yes, a soldier!). Unless, of course, I conduct my survey in Dan Abramson’s neighborhood in San Francisco.
Who is this silly person who puts soldiers and yoga in the same sentence? Well, we’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to chat with Dan, the creator of the Yoga Joes, possibly one of the coolest toys you’ll ever find. These plastic soldiers are just like the famous little green army men, but instead of holding guns and grenades, they practice perfectly shaped yoga poses.
Dan Abramson with his Yoga Joes
Transforming a seemly violent toy into a peaceful one – what a genius idea, right? The funny thing is that there was never an ‘eureka’ moment for Dan Abramson. He was just drinking latte with his friend Paul, brainstorming ways to make yoga appear more manly. “It would've been funny if I'd sprayed latte everywhere at the moment the idea hit us, but really we had no idea Yoga Joes would be this big. We laughed like giddy little children, with the belief that maybe we would ‘fake it in Photoshop’ and make a funny image for the internet. We certainly never anticipated it would be a mass produced toy” remembers Dan.
Dan’s Journey as a Yogi
Yoga Joe Crow Pose in front of the Golden Gate Bridge
So, why was Dan trying to come up with something to make yoga look manlier? It all started 5 years ago when he was going through physical therapy to recover from his chronic back pain, “And then they started offering yoga for free at work, and I noticed that the yoga poses were the same as physical therapy stretches. So I switched to yoga. Yoga was the sport I never thought I'd get into.
“Initially I hesitated to try it, because at the time, I mostly saw women walking around with yoga mats on their backs to and from yoga class. So I thought ‘okay, yoga is for women.’ Anyone might make that assumption. But then, once I actually tried it, it was clear yoga also has enormous benefits for men. Yoga worked out the body parts I had missed while lifting weights and running. Areas like the knees and the hips had gone unattended for years!
“I think there is a huge barrier to entry for both men and women alike. Anyone who walks into a class full of people doing synchronized movements would be intimidated. But imagine that class was 100% women, and you can't do some things as well as everyone else, because you're a dude, and your body's a little different.”
In short, Dan wanted to bring more men into yoga. He knew that it could be intimidating for new men practitioners, but maybe if a prototypical macho soldier could do it, so would everyone.
The Yoga Joes Are Born
Image credit: Yoga Joes
Without certainty about anything, he created his soldiers and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his project. It was a long process and he shares with us all the ups and downs of it:
“It began by melting army men. I bought every kind of classic green army men sets I could find, put a bandana over my face, and heated them with a heat gun. I frankensteined little yoga monsters. It took a year of failure and redesign, melting, bending, 3D-scanning, and 3D-printing, but I eventually figured out how to make a set from scratch. I used a really simple 3D poser software and printed a set. At that point it was clear that this was awesome, but I wasn't really sure if anyone would actually buy it.
“Big-time toy companies like Mattel and Hasbro probably spend thousands of dollars on focus groups and testing before they invest the upfront costs of putting a toy into production. But I didn't have any money, in fact I spent only $1400 total on the Yoga Joes project before the Kickstarter video went up. Kickstarter was my focus group.
“And so, I launched the project with a goal of $40,000. Week One, nothing happened, and I was a wreck. People on the Kickstarter message boards were saying I was asking for too much money, and as cool as it was, it'll never reach $40,000. I remember going for long runs to deal with my anxiety. But then in Week Two, something magical happened. All of a sudden there was a huge spike in donations. All of a sudden bloggers started to cover it. All of a sudden all of the journalists who had been ignoring me, were touting Yoga Joes as the greatest thing that ever was. It was a dream-like moment of pure adrenaline. By the end of the 30 days it had raised over $108,000, and I owed people about 8,000 sets of Yoga Joes!”
He worked hard to get all the Joes delivered and build a business around it. During the process, Dan had to deal with some problems that we might not even think about. For example, how to balance a plastic figure doing a Tree Pose? A human can contract the muscles to stand on one leg, but not an inanimate object. The solution was another case of brilliance: he added little green yoga mats to support the soldiers doing more complicated asanas.
Where are Yoga Joes Standing Now?
Green Yoga Joes
It was an extenuating 5-month period until Dan Abramson could finally establish the Yoga Joes as a legitimate toy. After he gave the soldier sets to all his supporters and structured his brand, he finally had time to breathe and enjoy his creation. But it was not until he went on social media that it hit him: “And then I looked on Instagram, and that was the weirdest and most rewarding part of the entire roller coaster ride. There were Yoga Joes in people's homes, being held by strangers' hands. It only became real when I started to see people taking pictures of their Yoga Joes.
Since then it has continued to be an unusual, but real business. It was featured in the New York Times holiday gift guide last Christmas, and is now sold in a lot of really cool museum gift stores, like SF MoMA and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.”
Right now there are 9 different Yoga Joes doing different poses: Lotus, Cobra, Crow, Warrior One, Warrior Two, Tree Pose, Child's Pose, Headstand, and Downward-facing Dog. Which one is Dan’s favorite? Warrior Two, and he has a very good reason for it: “This is my favorite one because it was incredibly similar to one of the original green army man toys. There's one figure that is throwing a grenade with one arm forward and one arm back. Green army men were already doing yoga!”.
Bringing Men into Yoga
Soldier practicing yoga. Image credit: Yoga Joes Blog
Today, the Yoga Joes are a total success in terms of acceptance and sales. But, is the original intention of making yoga look manly a success too? Do the Joes make yoga at least a bit more appealing for men after their creation? Personally, I believe they have. Especially because it has helped to show the world how many actual soldiers do yoga. And that’s one of the aspects of his journey that Dan has enjoyed the most:
“I was blown away by the response of a new category of people. Military yoga aficionados. There are a lot of them! And they came from all over the world. As far as Okinawa, Australia, and Israel. I never knew so many different armies, from so many different countries, were practicing yoga.
“I thought maybe this could convince a few people to try yoga. But then I started to see a reaction from military folks and their families. But I never knew there was such an enormous global community of people in the military that do yoga. Messages poured in from armies all over the world (not just my home country) from like-minded people in military that have found benefits in yoga and wanted to convince others to do the same. Yoga Joes became about convincing hearts and minds of soldiers to try yoga and to get through hard times.
Yoga Joes camp
“I get emails all the time from soldiers and their families. The latest was from an Airforce Captain's girlfriend, who wanted to buy a bunch of Lotus Pose Yoga Joes, because her boyfriend has been giving them to pilots just before getting in their planes, so they remember to breathe and stay extra focused during flight. How cool is that! Another email was from a retired Vet with Post Traumatic Stress, who keeps a Yoga Joe in his pocket to remind him to do his breathing exercises.”
For all these reasons, the positive impact that the Yoga Joes have had is undeniable. Dan has even partnered with non-profits organizations that help veterans like Connected Warriors. With them, he’s sent his great invention all the way to Afghanistan, where they were given to soldiers during signup for yoga class.
So, do you relate yoga with soldiers now? I know I do. And if you want to feel those plastic figures in your fingers, you can get them at YogaJoes.com. The poses they’re doing are perfectly aligned, so they can be a helpful guide for your next yoga retreat!
Dan dressed up as a Yoga Joe holding a pigeon