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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