Now that yoga class attendees who were never really into the yoga have largely migrated to Crossfit, and the once freely-given pass on safety has expired, grassroots practitioners are reclaiming the terms of their trade. The old school of yoga is resurgent, offering an antidote to a cultural infatuation with youth and body image.
Of course, anyone taking cues from the New York Times Fashion & Style section is getting an entirely different story. In a recent article, the internet meme of the “yoga-selfie” was glamorized. For those not familiar with it, a yoga-selfie is a picture that someone takes of themselves doing yoga poses. These photos are then posted to social media outlets where they can be “liked” or “followed” by others. Reactions to the article were both for and against. Cautions to beginners who might want to try what they see in the pictures and the usual line on yoga as a means to get away from the ego were mostly outdone by the sentiment that yoga-selfies are an expression of personal growth.
The article featured a New Jersey mom who has garnered 245,000 followers. Seeing her execute impressive arm balances next to her cute daughter is endearing, and her dedication to daily practice is commendable. But this is greatly overshadowed by her admission that its mostly about the followers: “At first I thought, ‘If I get 100, I’ll be happy.’ And then my goal grew.” There is a brief mention about those who view yoga-selfies as vanity-driven but the article shifts just as quickly to advice on how to take the best pictures and get the most followers.
The question is not whether taking pictures of yoga poses for fifteen minutes of internet fame is good or bad. More relevant is the mentality that motivates the pursuit and whether the images created are genuinely of use to anyone.
Behind the phenomenon of the yoga-selfie is the idea that pushing our physical capabilities is how we utilize practice to grow as people. Which also easily translates into a justification for some teachers to abdicate responsibility for students’ safety. As one teacher put it: “If you let your teacher take you to a place where you get injured and you can’t figure out when to back off, it’s on you just as much as your teacher.” Even among teachers who take a more supportive stance, there is still an underlying suggestion that if you are not doing your maximum physical effort then you won’t see results.
As more people in their 30′s, 40′s, 50′s and beyond are turning to yoga as a form of self-care, this sentiment takes on even more deleterious ramifications. In another recent post that was meant to help younger teachers ingratiate themselves to older students, the 52 year-old author writes: “Teaching older students isn’t easy. We are cranky (it’s true.). Our bodies often hurt and creak with age …. On the other hand, it keeps us strong trying to keep up with the youth.” The mentality that looks to yoga-selfies as a document of yoga practice ultimately makes an enemy of aging. Sure, Tao Porchon-Lynch, the 94 year-old wonder, is amazing to behold but the therapeutic value of peacock pose begins to diminish exponentially past the age of say 35. And even if you disagree with that assertion, one thing is for sure: attempting to have everyone move like 20-something’s at a rave party for the rest of their lives is not going to pan out well in the long haul.
Fortunately, while the nineties boom raged and fell and the 21st century market waned, the old school of yogis have been keeping it real on the down-low in their own spheres this whole time. These teachers, and those they have trained to carry on the sort of work they do, can now be found again, right alongside the new school classes. At a recent visit to a high profile retreat venue, I overheard someone say: “Remember (so and so) who used to teach here when we first started coming ten years ago? She’s back! She teaches all the ‘gentle flow’ classes now.”
The main distinction between old and new school yoga is the mentality around the physical work of practice. Challenging yourself on the mat becomes something very different depending upon your definition of what that means. In the new school, it means to take the body just past the limit usually thought possible. But to the old school, challenging yourself on the mat means slowing down and getting away from the achievement-oriented nature of other pursuits in life, so we can learn how to take care of our subtle and sometimes ignored inner workings (see Nurturing is Cool.)
Ultimately, it’s fine for people to challenge both their physical and mental abilities. But the two ought not be conflated. And the more that yoga practice better serves as a way to honor the aging process as sacred instead of further perpetuating abstract and erroneous ideals, the sooner we will all look back on the yoga-selfie with a nostalgic smirk.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com
As an “old” practitioner who has indeed dropped vinyasa flow for other (slower) practices, I would say the pleasure IN (rather than after) the physical practice is about finding that sweet spot, where there is an opportunity to languish, intensify, retreat, explore, and “breathe into the tissues.” that are at play in the field of the pose. And I would say that the high that comes from intense practice is also valid. Why the continual effort to rank one form of practice higher than another? Nevertheless, if you are thinking you are one hot yogi/yogini, you have missed the point entirely.
This is so timely for me, as a recent back injury (in an “advanced” level yoga class) has caused me to dramatically re-think how I want to practice in my ove- 45-year-old body. It’s still great to play and work at my limits, but now I’m much more mindful of how to stay healthy, so I can continue to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of practice as I grow old.
J. Brown, you speak my language!
yes, yes, yes! absolutely 😉
esp liked, among several nice comparisons and quips,
“…the old school, challenging yourself on the mat means slowing down and getting away from the achievement-oriented nature of other pursuits in life, so we can learn how to take care of our subtle and sometimes ignored inner workings (see Nurturing is Cool.)”
I would only add, it the old(er) school 😉
This article is very thought-provoking. I’m someone who does a few forms of yoga depending on the needs of my body. I must say that the intense vinyasa classes were what drew me in and kept me there for years and has been a nice gateway to gentler, more restorative forms. While I agree that lots of people don’t appear to have the original yoga attitude, myself included, it’s been a good meta practice to restrain judgment of others. Honestly, if someone wants to do yoga to look good, that is just as valud a reason as any. Who knows what meaning they infuse into looking good? For some, it’s related to their line of work (which is also beyond my right to judge.) I think it’s great to keep an eye on the changing culture of yoga as long as we hold to some of the basics, like non-judgment and non-harming. I think this article does that.
Non-judgement has never been part of Yoga. Just the opposite, in fact. There’s this yoga thing called viaragya, usually translated as “discrimination.” Blaming and condemning and so on is contrary to ahimsa and is not part of Yoga, but “judging” certainly is.
“Honestly, if someone wants to do yoga to look good, that is just as valud a reason as any.”
Ummm, No. Not according to classical Yoga, which clearly states that focusing energy on the body in this way to look good to the outside world will end in suffering and disappointment .
Love this article….After 18 years of a personal practice that has steadily moved towards an inward focus, I am glad to see this is now the “new” advanced yoga.
Great article. I’ve practiced for 33 years, and even though I practiced the so-called “advanced” poses in my 20s and 30s, I have absolutely no desire to do that to my body now. If yoga is “the settling of the mind into silence” according to the sutras, practicing extreme poses is not going to move me in that direction. The inner landscape we get to visit when we slow our practice down is actually a far more challenging place to hang out than the distracted world of fast-paced, music-infused practice. Practice that produces extreme sensation provides a great workout, but it also mimics the extreme sensation of our daily lives—the world that yoga practice, if given a chance, can help us recover from.
I hope what you say is true, as many “old-school” yoga teachers I know have given up on the idea that there is a place for them in today’s yoga. I’d love to see a resurgence.
What a well written and nice piece! I appreciate your insights. Yoga for me has always been “gentle” yoga: the yoga of slowing down, focus and meditation. I teach this as well, and never have a shortage of students!
Thank you J Brown! I love being old school (or maybe it’s just old?). As a fellow yoga therapist, I appreciated your optimism about the power/sweat folks migrating to more honest forms of physical fitness. My own practice has always allowed for shifts in how my body is feeling, the season, mood, etc. — and sometimes that includes complementing mindfulness with strong flowing physical sequences — but I am grateful that what I most consistently get to teach is how to be gentle and kind to oneself. I am often surprised at how many students show up, but you’ve helped me connect the dots. Maybe the new level 3 will be 90 minute savasana?
A yoga class I don’t dread going to!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I’m def. old school .. while living in Panama in 1960 my first teacher had learned yoga when she lived in India in the 30’s-40’s when her Rheumatoid arthritis had started. While in my 20’s and 30’s I drifted into Ashtanga yoga as I got older I went back to “old school”. By my late 40’s and the onset of Post Polio Syndrome I was def. getting older school .. so much that after “medically” retiring in my early 50’s I did my 200RYT in Recuperative Yoga and specialize in working with “those that can’t do yoga” .. ie those with chronic illnesses, chronic pain, amputees, hip or knee joint replacements and those going though chemo .. as well as those that have had injuries, or just older and not quite as flexible. I guess I had the advantage of first being taught yoga as a “healing art” not just a competition to see how far one could flex.
I am 64 10/12, almost 65. Ive practiced on and off for over 40 years. I love to practice hard body fast vinyasa flow. I appreciate wheel and try to get handstand wiht my hands donw.. can’t so far unless I do that throw down move we did in gymnastics. While slowing down is good for many forcing others to slow down when their capabilities continue to increase is unfair.
Yoga is individaul. Do not teach by the numbers(age). Teach to the person.
Yay!!! Loved reading this article for sure!!! I’m 43 and have been practicing since 1995. I’ve always maintained a somewhat “gentle” or “slow” practice for mindfulness. My first teacher teaches a delicious gentle class that soothes the body and mind. She later certified me as a 200 hour Instructor and has continued to inspire Cleveland, Ohio yogi’s for more than 30 years!!! I’ve since been trained in a 500 hour Yoga Therapy program where I’m continuously undoing all the damage of the ego based, hot powerful classes!!!
I have to pride myself on never wanting to “achieve” certain poses. Although many times I began to question my “lack of” motivation to be content with the basics. I always tell my clients that there’s no such thing as an expert yogi. It’s a mindfulness practice that takes lifetimes to learn!
As a wellness advocate and chiropractor in Mount Pleasant, SC I can attest to keeping up with your stretching, and activity to stay healthier longer. Some patients I have at 80 get around better then those 10 or 15 yrs their junior, and I am convinced it’s because they are more active and take a healthier approach to living.
Dear J. Brown,
Please stop trying to paint me as “an enemy of aging.” I’m older than you for goodness sakes. Secondly, just because I attempted to coach a younger teacher to feel more comfortable with teaching people of different ages, and abilities, does not mean I condone her initial fears or attitude that to do so was frightening. I think many newer teachers, of any age, are overwhelmed to teach students with varying abilities, whether they admit it or not. It is easier to guide a Vinyasa class of updogs and downdogs, than it is to work with a student with a hip replacement. However, I work with students with hip replacements and new knees all the time as I am a Wisdom Warrior teacher for students over 50.
It is also quite a reach to say that because I enjoy practicing both with people my age and in classes of mixed ages and abilities, that I am a proponent of yoga selfies. Seriously? Have we even met? What else can you tell about me based on how I practice? How I vote? What I’m having for dinner?
You have gotten a lot of mileage out of misconstruing my article and my intention, which was to find a way to have both the old and young, the able and the disabled practice in a way that supports each other and in peace and harmony. I am asking you nicely to stop.
Forgive me, I was not trying to paint you as anything. You are right, I don’t know you at all. I certainly don’t think you are an enemy of aging. The actual sentence I wrote was: “The mentality that looks to yoga-selfies as a document of yoga practice ultimately makes an enemy of aging.”
But I did read your post and, as I mentioned in the comment thread there, it struck a cord in me. I used a quote from your piece because I felt that it spoke to the ideas that I was exploring. In fairness, I don’t think that I misconstrued anything. In fact, I intentionally included a link to your post so that readers could make there own determinations about it. I assure you that it was never my intention to attack you personally. Perhaps it was just a matter of writing style but your piece did not come off to me the way that you describe its intention.
Having said that, I trust that my post speaks for itself and I hope that you understand that I mean you no disrespect or harm. I was only inviting debate and dialogue, which is something that I think is in the spirit of discernment and yoga. You are certainly welcome to disagree with me and express your viewpoint as well.
Your apology is accepted. I understand you interpreted my article differently. But after it was explained, patiently, in at least three postings on the original site that I am a) old, b) empathetic with the younger teacher but not condoning her fears of teaching older students, and c) trying to help her by offering ideas of how to teach and include older students, you persisted with your misrepresentation of my work. It seems from your writing that you like to take a contrary approach, for example, gentle is good, challenging is bad. Old people are good, not being inclusive is bad, etc. May I suggest that you are better than this. You are a good writer. You don’t need to find someone to pick on or misrepresent to get readers’ attention. You can do it simply by sticking to the truth.
Having completely misinterpreted what was written, and then accused the author of misinterpreting you, your response to his (unnecessary) apology is to again say he is a liar (though again: your own invention), who didn’t have the courtesy to read the clarifications (which have nothing to do with what Brown wrote) tacked on in the comments, something your communications seem to regularly necessitate. Unnotable ad homenim withing but for your latest on ej where your misreading is presented alongside other (hopefully not imagined) defamation costing you fame and fortune. Brown could’ve been clearer, presenting the quote more accurately and its ideas more linearly. As counterpoint to his argument he could’ve included the true authentic real early advocate of monetizing the yoga-selfie Dharma Mittra along side you and Porchon-Lynch. But being quoted in the counterpoint doesn’t mean he called you an enemy nor an advocate of the yoga-selfie, nor does it make him out to get you. Peace.
A picture is worth a thousand words…
I have been practicing yoga for a couple of years now and I have to say that Guru Rattana is probably my favorite teacher out there. She is totally inspiring and her DVDs have helped me fine-tune my skills. You can find her DVDs at http://www.yogatech.com, as well as other DVDs from yoga gurus.