I used to have a picture of myself doing a yoga posture on this blog.
I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about it.
It’s not that I dislike how it looked, or how I look in it – sure, there’s still some things to improve, but there are worse things in life than not having every public photo of ones self be a picture perfect portrait.
No, my ambivalence is more around a worry that the photo contributes to what seems to be a growing cult towards fetishizing yoga postures. Everywhere you look these days, you see pictures and video of people doing yoga poses: in ads, on Youtube and Facebook, on the beach and in parks. There’s even been a New York Times article on the subject, it’s so popular.
While in and of itself, a single photo and video may seem pretty innocuous, I want to use this post to point out what it is all part of.
It’s part of a continuing trend that highlights the ‘yoga body.’
Not only that, but often published yoga poses are quite “advanced,” and requite a significant amount of strength and flexibility. It emphasizes the seeming significance of doing a press handstand, or an intense backbend like kapotasana, over the simple embodiment of feeling, or being, in whatever form or pose there happens to be. It tends to privilege young, lithe, athletic forms that tend to look good in form-fitting clothes.
For a culture where the majority of women and men struggle with body image and self acceptance issues, it is sad that so often yoga – supposedly a pathway from these prisons – can’t find more diverse ways to represent itself. Given that my own day job exposes me to the challenges and stigmas surrounding obesity and imagery, perhaps I am more sensitive to these kinds of impacts from our ongoing cultural conditioning. I know I myself don’t like to look at yoga photos for too long, lest it either: a) bring out my critical tendencies, where I mark and demarcate all the ways the pose could be “better”, or b) create a sense of inadequacy and/or envy and/or some other emotion.
For both the people pictured and the viewer in the photos, I tend to think that it can potentially have negative repercussions as well. I won’t get more into it as there’s plenty on the web about differing aspects of this – (edit: including a recent post by Julie Peters about objectification in imagery), as well as writings of Matthew Remski, who has a section in his book, Yoga2point0, that discusses asana and photography. While I (disclaimer!) actually have not read all of Remski’s work, from what is available on his site, there is a thorough and considered perspective on this type of imagery from the perspective of yogic philosophy. I particularly like his point about the need to emphasize yoga for the individual:
“The asana teacher who submits to being photographed in postures is confounding himself. He is setting a visual example he must then spend his entire teaching career undoing. Students will want to imitate him, and he will have to teach them not to.”
Now goodness knows that I’ve sweat enough on my mat that I do not discount the physical element of the practice and discipline of yoga. Nor the beauty, athleticism, and grace that can be pictured in these images.. The fun of a nice profile photo. Artistic merit and communication. Even as marketing tools (yogis gotta make a living, too!) All of these things and then some can be happening ALL AT ONCE. That’s the joy and challenge of living in a complex world. I’m just trying to add a piece to the puzzle, a reminder of one part of the larger context of these images, and hope that next time we snap our next instagram shot, we are mindful of these, honest of our intentions, and loving of ourselves.