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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