The Pose and the Machine (part 1)

This week, as I perused my e-mail and regular news reading, Google, Yahoo and the New York Times’ algorithms apparently agreed that I would be interested in SoulPose, an outdoor yoga “Freakin. Awesome. Yoga. Party” that’s happening in Waltham at the end of this week.  (note to marketing people, Waltham is not Boston.  Lovely in it’s own right, but half an hour away with no traffic, 90 minutes away at rush hour,  and a different vibe.  We provincial Bostonians take that kind of shit personally)  Do some yoga, get some swag, party.  Hmmm….

Now I’ve been part of various big yoga events, as participant, teacher and other.  Just this month I was an acro performer at a “yoga rave” that was a lot of fun and got some press.  I’ve gladly assisted and donated to Yoga Reaches Out, a local yoga fundraiser that has gotten big and done some big things, and taught and participated in other fundraisers, rock star classes and the like.  And while I haven’t loved everything about every (or any, actually) event, I’m generally on board.  This one, however, feels weird.

For one thing, it seems to come out of nowhere, and it’s not attached to any studio, or Yoga Journal, or, well, anything, it seems.  Wanderlust, for all its flaws, started as an idea of a couple of brilliant and ambitious yoga teachers in New York City, and uses lots of teachers prominent and well regarded in the regions where they camp out.  YRO (Yoga Reaches Out) has had every “Best of Boston” in recent memory, and also bring a big, established national name.  But for SoulPose, I’m supposed to drop twice or more my usual class fee to take with… who, exactly?

Needless to say, I’m not going.  But I point it out because I think SoulPose highlights some of the most pernicious trends that are affecting yoga today:

  1. Big, faceless corporate entities entering what has been a mom-and-pop business.  Until three years ago, Boston was a collection of entirely local, entrepreneurial studios, where one or two people had a big dream and made it happen.  It wasn’t (isn’t) perfect, but it’s pretty sincere.  Three years ago, Core Power, the biggest yoga chain in the country, planted its flag here*, and is growing, and last week, confirming a year’s worth of rumors, Yogaworks, the other 500 pound gorilla of the yoga world, followed suit, buying out Back Bay Yoga and it’s baby Sweat and Soul.  (more on that later)

It turns out (thanks to my colleague Sher Breen for doing the legwork), SoulPose is the brainchild of the company that brings you Color Runs, the exciting but somewhat dodgy 5K plus paint that have popped up all over the country.  Yoga as color run… icky, maybe.  Profitable?  They sure think so.

2. I find it interesting that Soulpose believes like they can sell the event without telling us who the teacher is.  These big events, like the yoga scene at large, have run as cults of personality.  Put a big prominent sexy headliner on the top of the bill and the masses will come (see the recent Lola Tour via Yogadork).  Soulpose seems to think that the event, and “yoga” writ large, is enough.  I think this is a shift worth considering.

First, the cynic speaks- the architects of this event, who I think are no fools, think that the lure of “yoga” and yoga stuff (a swag bag is heavily marketed for this event) are enough to pull people to the event.  But what kind of yoga are we getting? How do I know if the person leading class is even competent to lead a safe class?  How do they teach, who did they study with, how do they think about the body?  Why should I trust them?  (Clearly, I don’t.)

Now the optimist- as people who know or follow me know, I am a huge fan of the movement inside of yoga to dissect, deconstruct and upend the norms of what we’re now calling modern postural yoga, encapsulated best by Matthew Remski and his “What Are We Doing in Asana” project.  This movement is, among other things, casting a healthy skepticism on the “guru complex”, the dangerous symbiotic relationship between charismatic teachers and the students who fall into their sway and are often exploited by them.  Maybe Soulpose, which markets an event without a teacher, is a positive sign, that we can bring big groups of people to yoga without a big guru and all the drama that goes along with him/her.  (though, let’s be real, the biggest drama is always him.)

3. Yoga as event rather than simply as practice.  This is less a development than an evolution.  No doubt that as yoga grew studios anchored their schedule around “it” classes, where the combination of time spot and popular teacher would usually pack the house.  Likewise when a big guest teacher came through, it was a thing- part of the fun of taking with Ana Forrest or Shiva Rea or whomever is knowing I like who I rarely see in the hubbub of life.  I suppose it was only a matter of time before this was further refracted into a “yoga party”, with as much emphasis on the party as on the yoga.

And hey, if once and awhile you want to take your yoga into these bigger stages, I’m all for it.  But- and this is my fear- if this trend of yoga events means people are just chasing high after high from the circumstances rather than the work, well then we’ve turned yoga into a “Mad Men” sales pitch, rather than a real practice with peaks and valleys and divots (and divots).

Full disclosure- over the past two years my practice has been moving in two directions simultaneously.  One, I’m training to do the hard and interesting things that being an AcroYoga base requires- handstands, hand-to-hand (which I’m getting slowly) and standing basing (which I’m not sure I’ll ever get).  That requires certain skills, which requires certain work.  Two, I’m really interested in the idea of novel functional movement, drawing in different ways from Tom Myers, Katy Bowman, Aaron Cantor and Ido Portal.  If you follow me on Instagram, I’ll be documenting some of my experiments, basically playing with functional range of movement, creating (or stealing) movements and games that play with range of movement and mobility.  Because to me, it’s fun.  But these are not things that translate easily into drop-in classes or large-scale events.  I’m fortunate to have employers that let me experiment rather than follow a script, and students who will at least indulge, and often encourage my curiosity.  But I don’t think it’s an approach that lends itself to teaching at SoulPose, at least not yet.  (and maybe not ever)

That is the long way of saying- my practice at this moment is not particularly interested in “event” classes on big estates.  Should yours be?  I guess it goes back to the question I ask myself most days, and I hope mature practitioners will- what are you practicing FOR?  Is a swag bag enough?

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Yoga, the self, and the selfie (part 3): the beauty and peril of flexibility

Among the comments I mentioned in part 1a, a commenter noted that yoga (or yoga poses) on Instagram are overwhelmingly deep backbends and arm balances, poses that certainly require a great deal of discipline, but also (especially in the case of the backbends) an unusually broad range of motion, a level of mobility that is moving close to the extreme range of human flexibility.  Another poster pointed out that this is not an Instagram phenomenon, this is the norm in yoga culture at large. A little digging around would seem to bear this out.  I examined this month’s issues the two largest yoga magazines, Yoga Journal and Mantra Yoga and Health, and a disproportionate number of the photos were of yogis in deep backbends- dancer, king pigeon, a deep wheel variation, etc.  For instance, in a three page spread of “NJ Mantra Ambassadors” by renowned photographer Robert Sturman, almost half of the photos were of yoginis in a deep backbend.  By contrast, in a Baptiste power class, one of the most back-bendy of the mainline yoga systems in America, you would do at most five deep backbends, and they certainly wouldn’t take up 50% of a class.  (I’ll go into some detail on how I reached these conclusions in an accompanying post, along with some other thoughts on spending time with these yoga mags.)  At the two largest studios in Boston proper, if a teacher has an “action shot” on the studio’s webpage, there’s an almost 65% chance it will be in a deep backbend.

Aesthetically, this makes sense- backbends are dramatic, and expressive, and pretty to look at.  Tree pose, while a big accomplishment for many practitioners, doesn’t have the same wow factor.  And there is something to be said about the discipline that it takes to get something like scorpion pose consistently enough to photograph it comfortable.  I bow to these practitioners dedication. BUT, (you knew that was coming), this celebration of tremendous flexibility has its downsides, which we as a yoga community are only starting to come to grips with.  Specifically:

1. Not everyone has the bone structure to do those kinds of backbends.  Different bodies are built with different bone structures, which accommodate different backbends.  Paul Grilley, the noted Yin teacher, has done and documented substantial work in this area.  (please note, this is not an endorsement of Mr. Grilley’s teaching.  I am grateful for his documentation, but I- and I’m not alone- draw very different conclusions from this data than he does, especially about the risks and benefits of long hold, “Yin” style passive static stretching.  But that’s another post…)

I could work diligently through the Astanga system for years and years, the way Kino McGregor and other notable Astanga teachers do, and I would never, NEVER have their backbend.  I would have a deeper backbend almost certainly, but my spine will simply never do that; it’s not built that way.  In fact, I spent quite a bit of time earlier in my career trying to do those kinds of drop backs and camel to kapotasana sequences, and my reward was low back pain and a lot of loud noises during class*.  I had to rebuild my backbending practice pretty much from scratch, and learn to be okay with the fact that if I want to walk, never mind practice without pain into my 50s, or 80s perhaps pursuing full chakrasana is not the best use of my time on the mat.

2. As my teacher Jill Miller blogged about, and Matthew Remski emphasized in a recent “What are we Doing” post, for some bodies this tremendous emphasis on flexibility can have dire consequences.  An excess of mobility can negatively affect the body’s stability, which can lead to injury as surely as being stiff as a board can. Most bodies that can backbend don’t need that kind of practice- that flexibility is a given, and a well-rounded practice will emphasize work that stabilizes that natural flexibility.  (As a teacher, this was driven home for me when I started to see a handful of dancers from Boston Ballet come to my classes.  Deep backbends were so easy for them, but holding a plank, not so much.  I tried to emphasize the latter kind of work with them.)

So if we as a yoga community model present yoga as primarily a deep back bending practice, do we risk celebrating something that the bendy really don’t need, and that the less bendy- for whom claiming or reclaiming flexibility would be a huge positive- are put off because “I can’t do THAT!”  And is that really what we want?

3. Think about what flexibility means to someone who could give two hoots about yoga.  In a work environment, in a parenting situation, to be flexible is to try to do more in less time, or do multiple things at once.  To multitask.  Especially- not exclusively, but especially- if you are a woman. When I was lived in New York, I made much of my living as a secretary, the rare man in that job, and believe me I was most valuable to my employer when I was (seemingly) doing three things at once, well.  (I was bullshitting in most of these situations, but they rarely caught on. Or they didn’t say anything)  My worst sin at most of these jobs wasn’t doing something wrong, it was not looking busy.  I actually started to believe it was the norm, so I’d try to do three of their things, and then add my own shit- booking gigs, managing relationships, etc- on the job, which rarely worked out for me or my boss.  I do my damnedest not do that anymore.  (The joys of self-employment…)  And what research we have on multitasking suggests that if we try to do too many things at once, we end up doing all of our tasks badly.

Looking back, if I’d wanted to stay in that environment for the long term, I didn’t need to get more flexible, I needed the confidence and discernment to know when to hold my ground.  And my yoga practice HAS been a powerful tool in my life for building those qualities.  I’m just not sure the best visual expression of these qualities would be dropping back into wheel.

(Aside- I shudder to think about what a spin class means in this line of analysis…)

If we as a yoga community emphasize flexibility over strength and stability, and I believe we do, are we encouraging a practitioner who is just bendy enough to be walked all over, rather than standing their ground?  Is it a good thing to be a more flexible employee if it means doing 125% of the work you used to do because the company downsized?  Are you accommodating of others, especially superiors or relationship partners, at the expense of your own well-being?  (A theme coming up constantly in Remski’s “WAWADIA” project in yoga teacher/student relationships.)   Maybe I’m overthinking this, and we just show lots of backbends because they really are beautiful to look at.  But I know many, many yoga teachers who started to teach (and in many cases open studios and led teacher trainings), like myself did so partly because we do think that yoga can make the world a better place.  Not to help mold a better office tron.

*  Thankfully, through some careful anatomical study and a lot of solid teaching, I have learned to deepen my backbend without compromising my lumbar spine. (And I’m very lucky to study in Boston where many teachers, from Barbara Benagh to Todd Skogland to Ame Wren to Peter Crowley and several others I’m forgetting- and me- are trying to forge better ways for more bodies to enjoy and benefit from a safe, deep back bending practice.)

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5 tips to usher in summer (that you didn’t see coming)

Last weekend, Memorial Day marked the unofficial beginning of summer here in the (unofficial and self-proclaimed) most important city in the world. And this week it’s raining and sixty degrees. Ah ,Boston, such arrogance, such delusion… However, summer is on it’s way, and summer is always a good time for me to shift to enjoy the season.  I don’t worry about my beach body, or getting that base tan, but I do try to make some shifts so my body and being are ready for a great summer. My (mostly) yogic tips for a happier, healthier summer:

1. Eat local, as local as you can. This is the time of year when it’s easiest to go from “farm to fork”, especially with the proliferation of farmers’ markets and farmshares. Or better yet, start a garden. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a meal that you were some part from the get-go.

From a yogic point of view, eating local is smart on several levels. The food is at its freshest and most nutritious. Your eating in a way that’s in tune with where you live, not buying food from some distant climate.  (We’re actually seeing this in growing this year- blights affecting tomato plants that were started in southern nurseries rather than here) And you’re supporting local farmers.   Win, win, win.

2. Open up your practice: while we don’t hibernate like bears or horde our nuts like squirrels, our bodies respond to the changing seasons, and this is the time when we really open up, as if we were biologically programmed to sunbathe. That makes it a great time to commit to energizing your practice. For me, that means more backbending and hip work- balancing the hips and legs by opening the often tight piriformis and quads, and toning the glutes. (I use the term hip-opening less and less; it’s too vague.) But if you have that pose you’ve been dying to figure out, or just to get on your mat more and longer, now is a good time to take big steps in that direction.  (videos to come, in the mean time, follow Yoga Tune Up on Youtube for great quick hits).

As luck would have it, I’m running a special on private yoga sessions. What better way to juice up your practice?

3. Mute the thong song: Flip-flops, thong sandals, whatever you want to call them- I’ve got a secret for you. They’re messing with your body. To hold a flip-flop in place, you have to tense your plantar fascia, which causes a pulling all the way up the back line of your legs, and can even cause back pain. (If you want the details, here is a video from CrossFit guru Kelly Starret. Warning, it’s very bro-nerdy, but spot on anatomically)

Here’s more on how to make your feet and calves (and by proxy your hips and back) happier

4. Walk. Walk slower. Use your arms: The more exploration I do in the functional and primal movement world, the more I realize how much our current ways of using our bodies, specifically sitting and staring at screens more than we ever had, is negatively impacting our overall health. Even a lot of yoga (or pilates, or TRX, or other workout of choice) is not enough by itself to counteract all of that time in what one professional calls “the artificial womb”.

The good news is that we all have an easy, cheap antidote- two feet. Walking resets the body and the brain. There’s a reason writers and thinkers of another generation celebrated the “constitutional”. Plus, during the summer, especially here in a city, there are gardens and parks and waterfronts and oodles and oodles of fascinating people watching.

(For those who want to geek out on why walking changes the brain, my Yoga Tune-Up colleague Brooke Thomas just hosted a podcast about how movement even before we walked shapes us to the present that I recommend)

5. Don’t wait, don’t project, enjoy. Yesterday I saw the first local strawberries on sale at the grocery, and I got really excited. And Friday at the farmers’ market I will buy some and eat them fast. Because local strawberries are around for a month tops here in New England- eat ‘em or wait until next year.

One of the perils of living in the northeast is that summer feels short. It doesn’t wait for the close of the second quarter, or for you to change how you look or where you live.   One of the reasons mindfulness practices emphasize being in the moment is because this moment is the only one guaranteed to us.  As Rumi says: “This is now.  Now is.  Now is all there is.  Don’t wait ’til then.  Light the spark.”

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Yoga, the self and the selfie, part 2- merely the body

In my last post I quoted several of the responses I and others got to the current “yoga selfies” conversation.  I want to unpack some of those thoughts and concerns over the next few posts.  I hope to have several short(ish) posts rather than a comprehensive essay.  But first, two more “ground rules”

1. “It’s all good”, or “stop being judgmental” is just as inadequate and immature a response to a critical argument as an ad hominem attack.   Charlotte Bell says it better than I– discernment is critical to any training (disciplining) of mind or body, and to critique an activity is not the same thing as judging someone’s life.  (which is one way of saying if you think I’m writing about you personally, that’s highly unlikely, see below) To that end…

2.  I’d appreciate it if in your responses you focus comments and concerns on what I actually write, not the entire Tara Stiles/yoga selfie/judge mcjudgy conversation.  In the next few posts I hope to examine the “yoga selfie” meme through lenses of commerce, feminism, representation of mindfulness practice in mass media, hyper mobility, and probably a couple of other things I haven’t considered yet.

3. I get the necessity of self-promotion, believe me.  If you want to survive as a working yoga teacher, you need photos of you doing poses; they drive virtual and real traffic towards your classes.  Do I need a selfie of me doing all kinds of poses every day, and how does that affect me and my student body/audience?   That’s the question I want to explore.

In preparing these posts, I tried to imagine if one of my students, who is or wants to be a yoga teacher and who I had asked me to mentor them towards that goal (I do that, by the way), was an “Instagram yogi”, and what I might say to them.

And full disclosure: to prep this post, I did join Instagram, though I haven’t posted anything yet and don’t know if I will.  I tried to look at a lot of “yoga selfies”, focusing on Instagram members who advertise themselves yoga teachers and post a lot of photos of themselves in asanas (Kathryn Budig and Cameron Shayne, for example).  Most of the photos I will be referencing are of people I am at least two degrees removed from personally (i.e. they are followed by people who are followed by people I follow).  Now then…

One common theme of yoga selfie critics is that this kind of imagery externalizes what is “supposed to be” an internal practice.  There are few words in English as dangerous as “supposed to”, but…  There is a kind of exhibitionism in these extravagant displays of asana (perhaps augmented by the practitioner not wearing much) that seems to run counter to a practice whose scripture dedicates four of its eight limbs towards variations on deep meditation.  (the last four limbs of the scriptural astanga yoga, five if you want to throw pranayama in there)

Interestingly, in my very unscientific Instagram study, men were much more likely to have pictures of themselves in images that suggested them meditating than women were.  I’d be interested in others’ thoughts on that one…

There are a couple of threads arguing whether this is a valid critique (on Matthew Remski’s FB page notably), since western yoga is so focused on asana first, second, and third, with anything else a distant fourth.  Well, if you are a Yoga Alliance registered yoga teacher (the only standard we have), you are expected to be trained for the bulk of your training in yoga practices:

“Topics in this category could include, but would not be limited to: asanas, pranayamas, kriyas, chanting, mantra, meditation and other traditional yoga techniques.”

Plus, another 10% of your training dedicated to “yoga ethics and lifestyle”.  Mind you, these criteria are pretty vague, but clearly they intended to graduate teachers who know that yoga is more than asana.  So if your entire yoga identity, especially if you are a teacher, is only tied up in showing picture of fancy poses, yeah, I have some concerns with that.  Specifically:

1. Feeding the wrong beast- posting lots of these photos takes puts you at risk of worrying more about what other people think of your practice than about what’s actually happening in your practice.  This is not bad or evil, it’s human nature.  If I notice that something I post on Facebook starts to get a lot of likes of positive feedback, I start paying more attention to getting more likes, or posting something else that I think will get me more of this positive feedback.  We all want people to like us, right?  But I know my time is better spent on the work that will make my practices stronger and more functional (not just physically) than on work that I think will make other people like me.

One of the most compelling arguments I’ve gotten for the yoga selfie is that it is a way for people who may not be getting positive validation in any realm of their life to find people who will say “this is how you are, and I think that’s great!”  (Including some very poignant personal narratives to that end- it’s not selfies per say, but YogaHope founder and old friend Sue Jones wrote about this for EJ)  This gets thick quickly with issues of gender and commerce and shame, which I’ll try to touch next time.  For now, I’ll say that I hear that argument, BUT…

Baron Baptiste likes to reference the Native America adage of the two wolves- we all have two wolves living inside us, and the wolf we feed is the wolf that grows strong. (I’d argue we have many wolves, not just two, but that’s another conversation…)  And if social media is a source of validation in an otherwise unvalidated life, there’s clearly a value there.  But it’s a stepping stone or a crutch- no amount of external validation will ever make you happy.  When I worked on cruise ships, some of the most misanthropic people on the boat were the stand-up comics, the once whose career relied on the external validation of getting people to laugh at them.  Their validation day in and day out was often entirely on what drunk strangers in the dark as they riffed onstage. Which is not a pretty sight offstage…

If much of the energy in a yoga practice is directed towards what’s going on Instagram (or Facebook, or a blog), is that a useful and sustainable practice, especially if you are going to be sharing it as a teacher?  Has the image of the practice outflanked the practice itself?  Are you telling students and potential students that A.) you have all your shit together, or B) to get your shit together, do this pose!  In other words, are you feeding the right beast?

2. It creates a performer/audience dynamic in a yoga practice.  While there has been yoga performance for about as long as we have a record of the modern asana practice (which I’m defining as starting with Gosh and Krishnamacharaya in the 1910s), most of us define postural yoga as something one DOES, not looks at. If I go to yoga class, I am going to practice, to do the asanas. There are demonstrations and explanations, and maybe the teacher showing off once or twice (shuffles feet and looks at floor meekly) but mostly I’m going to move (or in a restorative class, not move, but still to participate). The “yoga selfie” on some level subverts this paradigm, and creates a performer/spectator dynamic. I go to Instagram to look at yoga selfies the same way I go to Pandora to listen to music, or the Poetry Foundation’s app to read poetry.  (which, by the way, is the bomb, but I digress)

What effect does this have on the person posting the picture, and the one looking at it?  I ask because I’m not sure of the answer.  A perfectly lit natarajasana may inspire some people to jump on their mats, but I worry that it can deflate others because what they see looks so impossible (not just the pose, but the perfect hair and $200 outfit and whatever other signifiers are in and around the body), or triggers something else.  I know that I love going to Red Sox games, but seeing Big Papi bust one is not going to make me start swinging a bat anytime soon.

One meditation I’ve run across several at teacher trainings and elsewhere in the yoga world is the “neti, neti” meditation, which asks the practitioner to remove all of the signifiers they identify with.  “I am not my job, I am not my clothes, I am not my family name, I am not my body…” until (theoretically) there is nothing but perhaps an unnamed essence left.

While “I am not my body” is an impossibility in this lifetime- I can no more drop my body and pick up another than I can fly or teleport myself- I work with the mantra that I am not merely my body, and one of the reasons I practice yoga is not just to strengthen and stretch the body but to celebrate the parts of me that the body enables but can’t nourish all by itself.  The higher Maslovian needs, or the higher chakras, or heaven help us the spirit– call it what you like.

I might ask my mythical instagram mentee to meditate on the notion that “I am my body, but not merely my body.”  And see where that takes us.

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Yoga, the self and the selfie, part 1a: Looking at looking

I appreciate all of the feedback that my post about our current yoga selfie dust-up, and the more famous posts by Matthew Remski, Yogadork and Rosanne Harvey have generated. I have more to say about the subject, but before I present my own opinions first I want to be very clear the terms I’m working on, and the prejudices I bring to the table (well, some of them). I realize the first few are pretty standard “cultural criticism” stuff, but it bears saying out loud. In further analysis, I’m treating these premises as self-evident:

The modern yoga asana practice wouldn’t exist without modern photography. Marc Singleton spends a whole chapter discussing this in The Yoga Body. Photography allowed authors (and teachers) to present a specific, credible image of what a pose “should” look like. (and we’ve been arguing about the details of the should ever since…)

Any image captures at best only one moment in time, and doesn’t even necessarily capture it honestly. Everyone knows that depending on lighting, angles and the like, the cameras add ten pounds or drop five, make you look older or younger, more drawn or more vigorous than you actually are in that Kodak moment. And then there’s Photoshop.  This is especially important in photographs of bodies in motion- anyone who has modeled yoga poses can tell you that at times you have to perform a pose “wrong” (out of alignment) in order for it to look right on a photograph. I’ve done poses on photo shoots in ways I’d never, ever teach them, because we needed it to “look right”.

Nothing exists in a bubble. In analyzing any image, it’s important to consider both what the intent of the creator, and how it is being received, fairly or unfairly by the audience(s).

 In particles and in people, observing something changes how it behaves. We act differently when we know we’re being watched, or being photographed or filmed

And since I see this word get thrown around a lot in these discussions, this is the definition of narcissism (it’s a little clearer than Miriam-Webster’s but almost identical):

1; inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity. self-centeredness,smugness, egocentrism.
2. Psychoanalysis erotic gratification derived from admiration of one’s own physical or mental attributes,being a normal condition at the infantile level of personality development.

These are the opinions (or ideologies, depending on your point of view) that come with me to the table of ideas:.

I believe that in the yoga world, we are well beyond a place where any press is good press. (The NY Times has learned that if it needs to drive web traffic, one sure way to do it is to post a zippy yoga article.) I think critical debates like this one about how “yoga” is presented, by teachers and the media, is healthy, and leads to a more healthy understanding of yoga by practitioners and the culture at large.

I am personally troubled by the paradigm that dominates mainstream yoga culture of the West, intentional or not, that yoga is primarily the realm of upper middle-class white women (and some men). I want a yoga culture that everyone feels welcome in, and for a variety of reasons, I don’t feel that it exists yet.


A few outside voices on the topic:

Matthew Remski wrote a strange and lovely meditation on this topic, juxtaposing Ms. Styles in her glass box with an Indian guru sitting in a freezer, legally dead but allegedly meditation, basically the pawn in a $170M custody battle.  (go read it now) He pushes back hard at the notion, heard often in this conversation and in many like it that “hey, it’s yoga, it’s all good, right?”:

“It’s all good” is such a flexible mantra, innit? Serving not only yoga marketing, but also global capitalism and hyperindividualism, which sells a crucial lie: Tara Stiles is a free agent whose wealth and fame are the natural outcomes of hard work and a positive attitude – and we should all enjoy such blessings, regardless of race, class, education, or body type. Of course the social constructions of her desirability are erased by her flawless pigeon pose. Of course she is being asked to advertise atotally accessible physical ideal and economic reality that would never depress the self-esteem of women or the poor. Of course she inspires more people than she alienates. Of course she isn’t emphasizing flexibility over stability and extreme-range movement over pleasure and function. Of course she is honouring the great introspective traditions of India by being gawked at in what looks like a porno web-cam set. Of course she’s not being objectified while shilling for a multinational hotel chain. Of course her Slim Calm Sexy hypermobility is not being sexualized by dysmorphic delusion. Could her submissive display trigger some people? No way! Not a chance! None of the bad things those haters are whining about are really happening. Because if they are, we’d have to do something. We’d have to give up guarding the freezer, and making money by lying about what’s really inside.”

Below, are some of the more the thoughtful responses I’ve seen to my post and other posts about the NY Post story and the yoga selfie, to give a sense of the various voices I’m hearing. (they’re in no special order) I’ll pick up some of these threads in the next post:

“Their pictures and practices are stunning and they are usually not wearing a lot of clothes but I know it’s not born of narcissism and suspect is born of being in recovery and being in a place where they are actively trying not to continue to harm their increasingly healthy bodies and maybe getting 2000 likes on a picture of a body they can’t quite yet see as beautiful gets them through their day.”

“I celebrate this and celebrate anyone, male or female, who wants to show their stuff off wherever in the best way that they see fit.” (see my above critique)

“I’m getting tired of the same extreme backbends and inversions being posted all the time by Instagram yogis”  (this is an observation I absolutely want to return to, and was the focus of a FB exchange on Matthew Remski’s page)

“There is a vast difference between like-minded community and participating in a scene that feels, far too often, like a bit of a 3 ring circus, facilitated and fed by these kind of self-serving actions.”

from Yogadork’s Stiles article:

“I just find her and the whole glamorous/pompous yoga scene lame and uninteresting. If it weren’t because I have a 4 year old daughter, I would not even spend time thinking about it. However, I want a richer, fuller, and healthier future for her. So this kind of message just pisses me off.”

“I’m initially disturbed by the use of what our culture considers to be an attractive female body to sell what is meant to be an internal practice.”

From It’s All Yoga, Baby (Rosanne Harvey) comment thread:

“Some people need to have a visual to what is possible to be motivated. On the other hand it can be dangerous as naive people will expect unrealistic things from their bodies and when they can not achieve them it causes stress and decreases self-confidence.”


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Yoga, the self and the selfie, part 1: I read my Instagram today, Oh Boy…

(part of my continuing series “The Ten Year Itch”, a reflection of a decade in the yoga world)  and with sincere apologies to the Beatles for the title…

Every once and a while I miss living in New York City- the grand skyline, all the amazing (often cheap) food, being able to go out any night of the week and hear world-class live music in any genre (again, often for pretty cheap), walking down Broadway and seeing a woman doing yoga in a glass cage on the back of a truck…

Wait, WHAT???

In case you missed it, celebrity bad-girl yogini Kara Stiles, in a cross-promotion with the W Hotel chain, was driven around Manhattan in a glass box, flexing her asana. Yogadork picked it up, and then the NY Post ran with it in a larger article about celebrity yoga selfies, which also called out Gisele (or around here, Mrs. Brady) and Hillaria Baldwin (Alec’s yoga teacher wife).*

The phenomenon of the yoga selfie has drawn a lot of attention, press and conversation, with articles in the New York Times, and now the post, as well as blog conversations at Yogadork and It’s All Yoga Baby (which, as mentioned in the article, ran a countercampaign posting awkward yoga moments). I think there’s actually a lot going on behind all of these instagram natarajasanas, and I want to unpack a few things as part of the ten-year itch series. (In the meantime, I enjoyed my colleague Michael Mann’s blog on the subject.  He puts snark to good use)  But for now I want to address the Post’s piece and the uproar it’s caused specifically.

As an aside, I didn’t know the Post had anyone left who could write this well- this is really happening prose!

“… it spotlights a growing phenomenon, the yoga showoff who’s more circus sideshow than beacon of motivation.”.

This is one for all of us involved in spreading the physical practice of yoga to chew on for awhile, and something I’ll continue to think and write about. But to the matter at hand…

In the case of Ms. Bundchen,(or Lea Michelle, or Sting, or any celebrity who does yoga, rather than a “celebrity yogi”) I’m fine with all of it. Giselle is a model and an entrepreneur; her image is her brand is her business, just like Oprah or Russell Simmons (also mentioned, though his featured shot isn’t quite so glam). She likes yoga, she likes to be photographed, who am I to say what she should and shouldn’t post? And as an AcroYoga teacher, I think it’s great that more people see acro, and maybe even want to do it- fly away! (full disclosure: the photo in the Post article also features Kadri Kurgun, a friend and colleague who has allowed me to use some of his photographs before)

In the case of folks who are promoting themselves as yoga teachers, however, I think more scrutiny is due, because I think we do and should hold yoga teachers to a higher standard.  Yoga is not Giselle’s living, but it is how Tara Stiles defines, markets and supports herself.

First, a hot girl doing yoga in a glass cage- paging Dr. Freud, Dr. Freud?   There’s enough cultural and sexual baggage in that particular choice of message delivery to fill it’s own truck, and I think all it does is make Ms. Stiles look like a circus freak, not a teacher worthy of following. I’m all for “creative marketing”, as Stiles advocates, but this is way too far out for me, and all I thing when I look at this is “make it stop, please!”**

And, if you’re going to post yoga selfies, for god sakes model the poses in a healthy way! The photo of Ms. Baldwin (and baby) doing warrior II in heels in front of Tiffany’s made me shudder- so many yoga teachers understand the dangers of constantly wearing high heels, and work to help our students counter the damage heels can cause. The last thing I want to see is a yoga teacher, one with a mass audience at that, modeling poses in ways that needlessly harms the body. (The setting of Tiffany’s and what I’m guessing is a $1,000+ outfit also bring up some uncomfortable issues of yoga and classism, but I’ll save that for another day) And I don’t even want to start about her hip alignment in airplane on the airplane…

I guess my larger question, especially for Instagram yoga teachers, is what exactly are you selling when you post your photos and videos? What is the message you’re sending, or is it just “look at me!” Because whatever you’re selling here, I’d be embarrassed to sell to my students.  Needless to say, I’m not buying.


* Full disclosure- While I certainly have and use plenty of images of me in yoga and AcroYoga poses, I don’t have an instagram account, and I readily confess that I don’t get instagram at all, so that certainly colors my commentary. I often think I could certainly use some of the marketing finesse of these uber-popular instagram yogis.

**  Matthew Remski noted in his link to the post article on Facebook that when early Indian yoga entrepreneurs like Vivikenanda were trying to popularize yoga in the West, they were adamantly opposed to big shows of asana, comparing them negatively to the street hustling fakirs in India.  (I think this is what Iyengar is alluding to in Light on Yoga when he says that when he started yoga teachers were held in lower regard than beggars.)

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The ten-year itch: What is a flow class, exactly?

My next episode of “The Ten Year Itch” has been sitting on my desktop for a couple of weeks now.  And it’s not (entirely) due to my usual busi/laziness.  A few weeks ago I have the good fortune to meet Matthew Remski, a yoga and Ayurveda teacher, thinker and critic.  His writing and thinking have really blown me (and a lot of other people) away, and has both helped clarify and confuse what I want to say here.  I’ll explain a little, but I simply can’t recommend reading his essays often enough.

Remski is currently engaged in a project he’s calling “What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?“, interviewing different yogis all over the world, with many different experiences of the yoga practice positive and negative, who have (or believe they have) been seriously injured in a long term asana (postural yoga) practice.  The place he keeps landing that is interesting to me is a nagging paradox that in a movement form being widely promoted as therapeutic, there are a lot of techniques that can’t help but lead to injury, and there is a (usually but not aways) unspoken belief that there is some kind of magic to a yoga practice that will make it all okay.  (This is my description, not his, though I showed it to him before publishing this and he thought it fair.)

Like most yoga teachers these days.  I made my bones as a teacher teaching vinyasa, or “flow” yoga, first specifically power flow, then to a more eclectic brew. And while I’ve broadened what I do as a teacher, it is still the crux of my public teaching.  One of the big national gym chains defines vinyasa as follows, and I think it fairly reflects a popular understanding of vinyasa:

“A vigorous, more athletic approach to yoga techniques characterized by flowing poses and sequences that are linked to the breath. Classes are diverse and sequencing will vary with instructor philosophy.”

As I’m following this line of inquiry that Matthew and others are leading, I’m thinking specifically about how vinyasa yoga, or “the flow” was sold to me and the other students I learned with.

Through many trainings and workshops and classes, these are some memorable descriptions of vinyasa yoga, from teachers, dedicated students, and yoga curmudgeons alike.  (those from a senior teacher or school are marked with a *.  I don’t want to turn this into a post fighting about particular teachers or styles, so I won’t ID them beyond that):

– A series of conscious movements, connected by breath, designed to stretch and strengthen the body, improve mobility and stability.

– A movement metaphor for the life cycle: we start in child’s pose and end in corpse.*

– “A moving meditation”*

– a kick-ass workout.

– Yoga as choreography.

– “a catalyst for transforming old patterns and paradigms of the body, self and
the world to discover the potency and creativity within a way of liberating the natural flow of the spontaneous intelligence”*

– a physical path to a whole life transformation.  A place for breakthroughs.

– “That’s not yoga!  That’s Jane Fonda!”*  (okay, I’ll attribute that one.  That’s Bikram describing Baron Baptiste’s Power Yoga)

– a path to healing.

– a lot of Sun Salutations and really loud music.

– “Yoga church.”

– “Through the integration of body and breath, movement and meditative awareness, we are made aware of the interdependency of all things, to the knowing that we are all here to learn about love, and that God- truth and love- is in all experiences.”*

So just in those eleven descriptions, you have flow yoga imagined as physical fitness, physical therapy, dance rehearsal, psychotherapy, rave, meditation, social activism, and religious ritual. (and maybe catfight)

Add to that the various physical forms that vinyasa yoga liberally borrows from- modern dance, traditional physical therapy, martial arts, pilates, strength training, capoeira, acrobatics, and of course “traditional” asana.  (whatever that is)

And then there are the philosophical schools and systems that various major vinyasa teachers and schools incorporate into their teaching and teacher training beyond just the major yoga texts: Ayurveda, Tantra, several different schools of Buddhism, The “Law of Attraction”, Gestalt therapy techniques, EST, the Tao Te Ching,  The Work of Byron Katie, Astrology Vedic and otherwise, various “new age” propositions, Rumi (who remember, was a Sufi Muslim), and, and, and…

To be clear, I’m don’t want to argue here that flow yoga, or any yoga, should or shouldn’t include any of the movement styles I listed above, or that any of the descriptions are wrong.   I have neither the wisdom nor the chutzpah to start making those judgements.  (I have strong opinions, for sure, especially about philosophy, but another day).

But I don’t think a flow class can be ALL of the things on that list.  Rarely have I seen a “kick-ass workout” in any format that didn’t put the body at risk; it usually involves a speed where safety is easily compromised (power yoga, looking at you).  So can you have a kick-ass workout that is yoga therapy?  Is a yoga class where choreography (i.e. creative sequencing) is the primary focus going to provide adequate stability for the body?  Is it really necessary to (re)enact my whole life on the mat every time I take a flow class?

So what exactly IS vinyasa yoga?  Aerobic Eucharist?  Side plank as therapist’s couch?  Sweat ecstasy?  All, none, some of the above?

Am I using a bit of a rhetorical straw man, probably, but my point is, what are teachers teaching, and students looking for, in flow yoga?  And is what we are looking for best serving us, in mind and body?  I don’t have an answer, but I am going to to continue to explore the question in the broader context of what we’re really doing in asana.  I appreciate thoughts and feedback.

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