Advertising gurus know how to use imagery to create associations and a precedent of thought that steer behavior. As yoga has grown into a common pop-culture reference, the image of someone executing balance poses has become the symbol of one’s steadiness in life. But many are learning the hard way that, actually, equanimity within requires more than these sort of displays.
Yoga imagery is being used to sell us everything from investment products to vaginal cream. Seems like whenever I turn my TV on I see yoga showing up in the strangest of places. Why would having the Geico pig checking his cell phone in a yoga class be a way to drive people to purchase car insurance? Is that because the people they think are most likely to buy Geico insurance are going to think it’s funny and then the next time they go to buy car insurance they just have some unexplainable urge to choose Geico instead of State Farm? Or perhaps it’s that Geico insurance will help reduce your stress, just like yoga. Regardless of the strategy, it’s clear that associating something with yoga is appealing to a need in the public that is easily exploited.
All this imagery of people getting healthy doing yoga is also driving more people to try yoga. And the majority of those people report that the main reason is because they hear it’s good for stress reduction and they want to feel more balanced. But that motivation is often quickly supplanted by a striving to execute the external forms that have come to be associated with the hoped-for results. And not being able to execute the forms as impressively as the idealized image, or not seeing observable progress towards ever more difficult poses, becomes just another enabler for the very imbalance that wanted to be addressed in the first place.
The skill of being able to stand on one leg without falling over is of no real value to us in the scheme of our lives. But the ritual of standing on one leg is potentially about cultivating something more than just that.
A recent Yoga Journal promotion reads: “A lively sequence of asymmetrical poses to help you practice steadiness and cultivate balance in the midst of life’s ups and downs.” This meme that the physical forms are examples of equilibrium that translate into how we deal with life challenges is ubiquitous among the yoga-selfie culture, as we can now show everyone the balance that we have achieved by posting a picture of it on our timelines.
But really, there is no worse possible way to gauge whether or not we have a sense of balance in our lives than to equate it with the execution of poses. Sure, there is plenty of lip service given to the notion that we will take that challenging arm balance “off the mat” but it’s not usually clear how that might happen. Especially when, most often, people are spending a whole lot more time struggling to master difficult balance poses than being empowered in the doing of them. The emphasis on difficult balance poses is not only proving ineffective at reducing stress but is also causing a considerable amount of harm.
Coveting yoga poses and making them a measure of our strengths and weaknesses in life are fostering misunderstanding about the way yoga works, creating more imbalance and misery than not.
It’s a myth that all this work we are doing on body poses is somehow correlative with the characteristics that have come to be attributed to them. Performing more gymnastic feats will require an immediate focus and attention that can be quite exhilarating and feel gratifying in the moment. But this exercise does not necessarily amount to anything that can be sustained over time. And it’s certainly possible to achieve physical prowess and still be quite unbalanced as a person.
To determine whether a person in a balance pose is truly balanced, we need to see what happens when they fall over. What is expressed in the moment when events veer from our willful design is more an indicator of our state than any flashy yoga pose can ever be. Utilizing poses to bring balance into our lives requires context and a nuanced process that is greatly belied by the eye-catching imagery that has become associated with yoga. But you’re not going to be able to sell any yogurt with that.
Steadiness and the ability to meet challenges stem from the workings of our minds more than from any accomplishments with our bodies. When we are in a balanced state, the mind is directable. And a directable mind is the fertile soil upon which a balanced life is built. For when the mind is directable we are in a position to better discern attitudes and actions that mitigate the sway of advertisers and encourage clearer perception. Learning how to quiet ourselves enough to hear the truest voices from within may not look like much from the outside, but it’s the only real means to equilibrate our lives.
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 jbrownyoga.com.
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I think exactly the same thing when I see pilates used in advertising. Except the sight of them bothers me a lot less, because it is almost always in machine pilates where that incredible gymnastics action is taking place! And I do mat pilates.
With yoga – and with my medical indications – I have become a cardio bunny (heh, heh!!)
So, the selfies now bother me a lot less. I still think they are ego-imbued, narcissistic and self indulgent. Yoga is and should always be represented as being more about how you FEEL rather than how you look–especially, mistakenly (so mistakenly!) how you look while DOING yoga… If mat (or even machine) pilates looked (in its execution) anywhere near as “sexy” or “thrilling” as yoga, advertising would be all over mat pilates in a FLASH! Even faster because the pilates world is hungry for it; yoga had stolen its fire a while back …
Long live a yoga practice I once had.
I submitted this link a while back, to one of those huffy, self-righteous “Regular Yoga Body”-type, but more of the #represent school of selfie-cataloging than the #yogastruggle type (i.e., a lady wearing a double-digit size doing a perfect handstand (in my uneducated eyes) – NOT something I wanted to see!!), and they pretty much shamed me off their site.
But HERE IT IS!!
I thought that balancing helped with proprioception?
Yes it does, except when the noetic effects of struggling with that nascent balance combined with everything else about your comprehensive practice; render you feeling very calm, open, and aware after the practice. The main thing I’m (or, more accurately, HAD been) going for with yoga is that your sweet spot has to be in that struggle area, that overcoming area … (without pain of course!! – one needs the baseline strength and stamina) … that point that is just a smidge beyond your capabilities at that particular time …
Wow, thanks for this article. I appreciate your approach to yoga. If I’m ever in Brooklyn, I’d love to take a class at your studio.
Thanks for this, another thought-provoking piece. I so appreciate your viewpoint and your ability communicate complicated ideas.
As I’m sure you know, the Yoga Sutras expound upon asana in only three of the verses. 2.46: The physical posture should be steady and comfortable. 2.47: It is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite. 2.48: Then we are no longer upset by the play of opposites. To me, this says that it doesn’t matter a whit what pose you’re doing. It’s the releasing of effort—as opposed to the continuous application of it in order to achieve fancy pose status—that creates equilibrium off the mat. If what you do on the mat is to have any effect on the rest of your life, I think it’s about relaxing, rather than exciting, the nervous system, and making a relaxed nervous system your baseline.
Not to mention what all that increased cortisol could do to your endocrine system, and in the insulin-resistant or in other ways susceptible–your waistline. Every striving yogini I’ve seen, who battled some kind of weight problem successfully and hit those advanced inverted poses, also’d hit that ballooning-waistline point in some of the frequent yoga practices I’ve seen. In a certain style. And they’d picked up chronic shoulder problems, and they did the cleanses, and they followed the instructor to the letter.
Yes, it’s that very similar cortisol response as in long-distance running or any moderate intensity aerobic activity … we are very much NOT talking about finding that sweet spot here 😉
Where are they now?
Well said! Mr. Brown once again captures my sentiment perfectly. thank you for a well-written piece. I have taken myself off twitter, instagram, and unfollowed many on Facebook for the sake not distracting myself into countless comparison and self-defeating thoughts.
Interesting discussion! Not so much re. advertising (none of which I ever pay any mind), but re. the many “6 Poses to Help You With [some area of your life]…”-type article often encountered in “Yoga Journal” and elsewhere. I’ve never been able to grasp the premise behind such articles.
Yeah, even the ones on Care2 that are like that get real tone-deaf, sometimes … and the ones on FitSugar? Watch out! They really have thinspo, fitspo and pro-ana going on over there, even in their 10 poses recommended for ______________ articles …
Just go to the mat, do your practice, and bow with a nama-damn-sté to being open and kind, taking the awareness into life. Crimminies. Ego discussions abound!