by J. Brown
Whenever I watch the latest viral video of a scantily clad babe doing acrobatic yoga in her living room, something in me laments. I realize that these videos serve as inspiration to others and I appreciate the beauty, skill and sense of personal empowerment they represent. But I can’t escape the feeling that these displays are better left to the performing arts than to a yoga mat.
To be clear, some of these clips are undeniably cool. I’m a sucker for good indie rock and, from a creative standpoint, the execution is certainly impressive. My problem is that, regardless of intent, these performances are playing right into prevalent and misconceived notions about yoga. In the same way that the use of abstracted and idealized body imagery in advertising has a diminishing effect on people’s self-esteem, so do these flashy presentations obfuscate the purpose of yoga practice and intimidate the uninitiated.
I remember when it first occurred to me that the display of challenging yoga positions as a means to inspire others is problematic. I had been asked to do a demonstration in class. After completing my handstand press in the middle of the room, my fellow students applauded and the teacher said: “Now that is what we are working towards.” In the moment, I felt pretty good about myself. I was the only person in the room who could do that handstand press. But on the way home from that class, I was wrought with dismay. At the time, I had all kinds of chronic pain in my body and was horribly disillusioned with life. I thought to myself: “If this is what we are working towards then we are really in trouble.”
Nowadays, my focus is almost entirely on the foundational and subtle aspects of yoga practice that were missing back then. Friends are often referred to me with reassurances not to worry, that this yoga class will be different. Still, new students readily come in with a mix of apprehension and fear. Almost always, they’ve been to one or two yoga classes before that were utterly traumatizing or they’ve never been to a yoga class before but they’ve seen some scary videos on YouTube.
Even when teachers give lip service to the idea that yoga practice is not about achieving poses, the schedule still says “beginner, intermediate, advanced” or “level I-II-III-IV” and the difference between one and the other is what you can or cannot do physically. Recently, a gentleman came in for his first yoga class ever and, out of curiosity, I asked: “When I say the words ‘advanced yoga’ to you, what is the first thing that comes to mind?” He replied: “Something I’ll never be able to do.”
For someone like myself, who defines “advanced yoga” as feeling healthy and enjoying life, the preconceived notion that advanced yoga means an exaggerated sense of physical prowess is profoundly disheartening. Of course, it’s possible to utilize yoga poses for all sorts of purposes. What is important to note is that just because people are doing the same yoga poses doesn’t mean they are practicing the same thing.
Articulating the differences is where it gets tricky. The best way I’ve ever heard it put was from a friend who had practiced with me for some time before he, with my encouragement, went on to explore other styles and approaches. About two years later, he returned and we had a conversation. I asked him to tell me, in his own words, about the differences he observed. He said: “Some styles are like porno and some are like trying to have a meaningful relationship.”
I maintain that yoga is an intimate and personal affair, meant to appeal to the most caring and nurturing aspects of ourselves and not the least bit concerned with external displays. What makes yoga practice powerful is not its ability to inspire dance choreography but rather its ability to help people work through life’s difficulties and find a way to be well. Good news is that, while it may not always be as easy to find or as enticing, if you search around for long enough then you can find a video about that on YouTube too.
This accompanying video blog discusses what it means to be “advanced” in yoga and different rubrics for gauging where we are in our yoga practice:
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com
Recent articles by J. Brown:
- Equinox Sexy Yoga Ad Gets Funny Parody, Dude
- Open Thread: The Yoga Man, Can He Be That Bad? Have Your Say, Share Your Experience on Business of Yoga
- Would You Sleep on This?
- The Yoga Teacher Firing Heard Round NYC – Truth and Consequences in the Business of Yoga
- Love Is In the Air – Reduce Stress, Get More Air Time with Your Own Oxygen Mask
Beautiful! As a yogi who is currently not practicing asana while my spine heals post-back-surgery, I so appreciate the definition of Advanced Yoga as “feeling healthy and enjoying life.” Which means while I’m moving gingerly through each day and enjoying being pain-free and more mobile than the day before, yet not on my mat, I’m still practicing. And maybe doing the most important yoga of my whole life. Big love.
the porn line is classic…..
In the same way that the use of abstracted and idealized body imagery in advertising has a diminishing effect on people’s self-esteem, so do these flashy presentations obfuscate the purpose of yoga practice and intimidate the uninitiated.
This is also what I’ve found troubling about these types of asana displays. My issue isn’t that they exist at all — some of them are totally cool — but that they quickly become the dominant images of how people perceive yoga: thin, strong, bendy people doing gravity-defying, flashy poses. Which ends up sending more “mundane” forms of yoga — ironically, the forms that may be most accessible to a lot of people — into the background.
Hmm. I definitely hear you but I’m not so sure. Overcoming intimidation and taking that first humbling step on the mat is always going to be difficult with or without advanced videos (it sure was hard for me and that was long before YouTube), and that step is the first and very important step in a long journey towards self-acceptance.
I think that we all start out knotted up, mentally or physically, the wonderful video of the Veteran that you link to is inspiring because it shows a person who, through mental and physical determination, overcame obstacles to improve his health and life. A video like Briohny Smyth’s is a similar example of someone who has overcome mental and physical obstacles to achieve something unexpected. Her personal story is inspiring as well, if she had included text on her video, she may have described her struggles with eating disorders and poor body image, both of which she has overcome through yoga.
I am no less inspired by the video of the Veteran because I can do all of the poses he does. Nor am I made to feel less of a yogi by Briohny’s video because she can do more poses than I will ever be able to do. I can accept that my body and situation are different than both of theirs and that my own story is inspiring for me, even if it never gets on YouTube. Accepting that we all have different starting points and not judging others’ or my own practice has been my own personal form of Advanced Yoga.
Quite the opposite. Although the video you have decided to target was very enjoyable, from a male perspective, …I was also impressed at her execution. I was impressed with her body. Whether it was achieved with yoga alone, or other healthy lifestyle pursuits, what does it matter? Would you rather watch a video promoting yoga with a grossly overweight person who is incapable of doing the poses attempted, and the background of the video to be sloppy, and the videography poor? Do you think that would promote yoga better, because there’s not a stereo-typical attractive woman, in a nice setting, doing very well at her practice? Really? I happen to have watched it purely because of the youtube thumbnail when I searched sexy yoga. However, after watching that very video, and getting past the ‘yummy’ aspect, I actually began to learn yoga. I’m new. I’m horrible at it. I’m doing extremely basic poses. Sometimes I barely get through my sequence/ practice. But I’ve started, and I’m seeing results already. Rather quickly actually. And THAT VIDEO is what tipped the scale for me to start. Why can’t people enjoy a well done video for what it is instead of bashing. It did wonders for me.
Thanks for reading,
Joe: Nowhere in J. Brown’s piece does he come across as “bashing” the video.
Oh, I forgot to add: Thank you. I’m enjoying your blog, and FB page.
I like how one of my teachers denotes her class levels: Beginning, Intermediate, and Continuing. It’s not about ‘advancing’ physically, although we do attempt to work toward more physically challenging postures with a healthy sense of respect for the body and in stages to explore the actions needed for the pose. Some people stay with the early stages of poses, some do complete them–we all work where it’s appropriate for us and that is as it should be. It’s really about the continuing understanding of the Self; observing how we react to these new challenges AND the old familiar challenges. What are the fluctuations of the mind going on here? How does this reflect in my day-to-day not-on-the-mat life? I’m a continuing student, always.
Perhaps bad wording. He opens with the video which, like I say, tipped the scales for me and convinced me to begin studying yoga with
…”Whenever I watch the latest viral video of a scantily clad babe doing acrobatic yoga in her living room, …”
That’s all I meant. The choice of which video to represent his point was a poor one.
And by the way, since you’ve singled my comment out for a reply…yes, I do believe that “.. But I can’t escape the feeling that these displays are better left to the performing arts than to a yoga mat…” in reference to the video was bashing. IMO.
Respectfully Joe, you left out the part where I said: “I appreciate the beauty, skill and sense of personal empowerment they represent…” or a few sentences later where I said: “To be clear, some of these clips are undeniably cool ….. from a creative standpoint, the execution is certainly impressive.”
I’m not knocking the video. I like the video. But what I like about it does not make yoga appealing to most people. Perhaps you are an exception, there is always some, but its hard to deny that making yoga out to be a gymnastic effort is misleading and off-putting to many.
I am glad you are enjoying the benefits of practice. You are right that it doesn’t really matter what brought you to it.
I’ve been teaching for eighteen years. Over the past half dozen or so my attitude has morphed from one who’s yoga goal was to ‘collect’ poses to a yogi who has eased her way through those attachments. I’ve settled into a state of humble grace. These days my practice is about feeling what I’m feeling without judgement or agenda.
But I am human and this post so beautifully expresses the conflict. The struggle between being at peace with my quiet practice and the nagging voice chiding me for not being pretty enough or strong enough or flexible enough to be the scantily clad woman in the video.
It’s funny. I teach yoga and Zumba and the same fear applies for both classes. In Zumba, people think that they can’t enjoy a class unless they are natural dancers or they look like Sofia Vergara (which, in full disclosure, I do not). There are so many instructors posting their most challenging choreography online that people think they could never handle a class. It also seems that no matter how often I stress not to compete or that the goal is to feel good and have fun, most of the students stress over the steps until they have perfected them, or they quit because they don’t think they can be the best in the class. As an instructor who wants to convey the love of dance, it is disheartening that people can’t seem to enjoy themselves without “beating” the other students in the class. Some students get it and others will always want to compete.
Another beautifully written article, thank you!!
Totally get this. When I first started practising my ultimate goals were headstand, handstand, forearm stand etc etc…. After a few years of dynamic vinyasa that I used sadly to continue my obsessive exercise as part of an eating disorder, my body had taken enough. This is when I happened to take a class with someone who was covering my regular class. She slowed the breath down, slowed the whole thing down and showed me a whole new world on my yoga mat. Here I could come to heal, to connect with the parts of myself I detested.
Six years on and my yoga practise is ever evolving, but I still can’t (and don’t particularly want to!) do headstand. I have neck issues, oh well. A few months ago I attended one of Mark Whitwell’s workshops on advancing your yoga and this too opened my eyes. I now practice simply, and daily. I can hear Mark’s sentiment’s echoes in this piece, and I wholeheartedly agree – we don’t need to ‘get’ anywhere, we just need to rejoice in the beauty of life, of us as life, in this very moment.
What a great topic. Thanks for getting it out there.
I have been practising for 12 years (where has the time gone?) and reflected on my journey as I read this. Yes, I can do all those poses – okay not with the same grace and style but still. . . However that is not the point.
What I have learned is that yoga provides something for everyone. It’s kind of like Yoda and the cave – whatever you bring with you is what you will find. You just want to be able to pick up your kid (or your groceries) without worrying about your back? You want to improve your flexibility for your next triathlon? You want to (re)connect with your eternal self? That’s yoga.
Now given this capability – and flexibility (pun intended) this creates challenges for teachers and students alike. Whatever the aspect of yoga you are pursuing there will be evident gradations in experience if not to say abilities. Imagine walking into a meditation where everyone else has been practising for years and you can’t even sit still for 5 minutes? Not fair for you nor the others – and you certainly won’t get the intended benefits. Or even more mundane, let’s say you want to learn cook Italian food and sign up for a class only to find out that they are working on the nuances of Osso Buco when all you know is how to boil pasta. And that’s usually overcooked.
So should there be levels? Yes. The basis can be whatever is relevant to the topic so that the students can self-select and the teacher can maximise the experience. Yoga – Joining. In all regards.
As a babe in the woods at the teaching of yoga to others, these blogs help give me insight into where I am in MY yoga practice. I always thought that I had to do a minimum of 1 hour practice per day, to be able to say I “do” yoga. Now I will play with one pose for 5 minutes and that could be my practice. i am slowly getting to that place of not “needing” to get into a pose, as opposed to “feeling” the pose. Will be dropping the “levels” references from my class vebaology. ;0 I modify to get my “perfect” pose, for me, but having said that, the vids can be inspiring….
J. Brown, you rock! you put it so beautifully!
This is a great little post. It inspired me to write one that takes a bit of a different angle. My friend, Nadine Fawell, published it on her blog. it’s yogawithnadine.com. Click on blog, and then you will see it — as it says ‘fancy yoga poses can happen to regular people’ — she even made a cool info graphic.
Very thought provoking indeed! Thanks!
I just read the blog in question.
This hardly helps me. I think my problems are more that I want to be practicing in the same room with the “big boys”. A class doesn’t dare keep me away from pranayama with or without bandha instruction, since I refuse to patronize studios, the so-called beginner classes of which, do not feature pranayama/bandhas. And I’ve been practicing regularly for 5 years. Many fast-moving vinyasa styles do not allow for a true All Levels format. Baptiste is a notable exception, but one that hardly influences my own sequence at home … lol
For what it’s worth, I think I have brought enough energy to the practice room, rather than draining it.
Finally, being an erstwhile swimmer, I think I did do that handstand scorpion once in the shallow end of a swimming pool. The curvy back and all (very lacking and laughable for pool posturing). We all have our limiting physical attributes and even our limiting fears–how many of you devout and practiced yogis are afraid of having your entire head underwater?
I don’t really know how your comment fits in response to the blog that I wrote, but thanks for reading it. 🙂
Did you write that blog to help people struggling with what is happening with the yoga world today?
It’s been over a year now for me with my branching-out, and the way the yoga world is today is not working. What’s trying to be sold, I’m not buying hook, line and sinker anymore.
So, consider how this form of “outreach” via a video of numerous pike handstand transitions (term from gymnastics used on purpose) in a three-minute period could be scaring off many who, unlike me and my 5 years of regular practice, otherwise would take to yoga.
Sure is a whole lot of ‘splainin’ to be done.
I wrote the blog because I thought the ideas that J presented were interesting, and it got me thinking about how I think about these fancy postures.
1. why they exist (or why I think they exist and why I have practiced them in the past based on this);
2. that it’s ok to do them or not do them;
3. that whether or not you do them doesn’t make you good or bad at yoga — and has no essential meaning; and
4. that we can’t really tell if what someone’s interior experience of yoga is just based on the flashiness or lack of flashiness of their postures.
J expressed in this blog that he was demonstrating handstand, but felt like a hot-mess in his interior world. The hand stand wasn’t curing the ills. The hand stand isn’t the goal of yoga, but it can help people develop an experience of yoga OR it can hinder it, but from the outside, we can’t know whether it is or isn’t for someone else, nor can we know.
But what we can know is whether or not we want to do or are ready for a given pose and whether or not it helps or hinders our practice and experience of yoga (that which is beyond asana, of course).
and sorry, VQ2, the post ended up in the wrong place. 🙂
I also noted that the article pre-supposes home practice, where a person would be choosing what to practice on their own, not necessarily through classes per se.
Though, influenced by Baptiste myself, it is where/how I learned to “regulate’ the all levels experience. I have a spectrum of how a given class could go — lots of beginners, it moves more slowly through the sequence with more modified versions described, more experienced people and some beginners who seem to handle the first 5-6 minutes well (this is always the same, as I use it as a barometer of people’s ‘assertion’ of their abilities), and so on.
And then I also level out the classes — all are “all levels” but we have gentle, power yoga basics, power yoga, power yoga exploration, and we’re starting a vinyasa yoga, but I can’t think of a word that’s not vinyasa and not flow to describe it. And, there’s also feldenkrais (that is awesome, if you haven’t done it before, it will give you a whole new perspective of your asana practice), chi power (tai chi and chi gong forms), and we’re adding pilates to the mix soon, too. I like diversity.
So, people have options — choose their general intensity or focus of their class, and then from there, depending upon who is there, what their special needs are, their energy levels, etc, the class is the adaptable to the group in the moment.
It is a pretty cool technique. I am thankful for my time in a Baptiste studio to be able to learn how to do that effectively.
I agree 100% with the statement, “What makes yoga practice powerful is not its ability to inspire dance choreography but rather its ability to help people work through life’s difficulties and find a way to be well.”
The awesome performances on youtube are just that – performances. They do include yoga poses, but are not a good demonstration of what yoga is for most people. These videos interest me because I did gymnastics as a teen and modern dance in my twenties, and practice yoga now. As a viewer, I am fascinated at these as works of art, not as an inspiration of what I am , “working towards,” in my practice, and certainly not what I would teach to 99.9% of the people who come to my classes!!
Real yoga– sitting still, focusing, breathing, stepping slowly and mindfully into mountain pose– would not be very exciting to view on youtube!!
It would have been 99.99999%, but the .09999% are now going to Zumba, Nia, and 5Rhythms, etc. Beto–as do the rest of them –thanks Equinox and the rest of the yoga poseurs for that uptick in their business …
It’s true – this makes yoga look like a spectator sport.
I was bothered by the video as well, but couldn’t quite articulate the bad feeling. I think you hit the nail on the head. Our bodies are very different. Some of us can do amazing arm balance poses, others backbends. However, to go outside of the natural limits of your body and be abusive is unacceptable. “Abusive” is a very important word in yoga and should be discussed more often. Yoga can attract those who self abuse. It is a practice, which you can push to painful limits, punishing your body over and over. We as a yoga community should not support this kind of use of a practice, which is otherwise nurturing. Due to Bryony’s past struggle with anorexia and bulimia, I can’t help but think that she has found another addiction.
A natural inclination, including probably a lot of talent, but pushed to self-mortifying limits. Instead of going to the extremes that they used to do, they do that with yoga …
If one is pursuing an advanced posture and is routinely quivering in it, where is the sukha? where is the sthira (steadyness)? If one is doing the same, steadily, but spending a long, long time in the posture and dropping out of it at the end …
I observe similar and such efforts a lot in unrehearsed (i.e., everyday and not for show) so-called “advanced yogis” (advanced may be in posture practice only) …
On the other hand, I have to come to terms with my own quivering and shaking in chaturanga held for a few breaths.
That quivering is not “vibrations”, folks–that is lactic acid buildup in the muscles … leading to wear-and-tear, later pain, and – at my age, I have to worry about free radical damage …
If practicing like that blows your minds, remember the endorphin rush is the body’s way of masking pain and damage, evolutionarily developed to enable the hunter to complete his/her mission until they could rest …
Agree, agree, agree. Every commenter on this thread has made valid points! To the side, however, my first reaction to the Equinox offering was that its purpose was (and still is, based on buzz longevity) an ad message created with the help of research, and its existence probably HAS increased Equinox membership, even if such a trend can only be measured in a soft way. What some peeps (not nec peeps commenting here) might not be fully seeing is that, artful or truly realistic or reflective of yoga or not, this is a component of a media bath that lives simply to sell you stuff. So while we (the royal we) wax about at what yoga is and isn’t to us (believe me I do just that all the time!), and worry about others getting hurt in classes that don’t truly serve them (yes, that too!), what we are really doing on some level is evaluating a TV commercial. 🙂