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Yoga Americana: The Full-Pose Phenomenon

in YD News, Yogitorials

katherine-oakes-full-poseby Katherine Oakes 

If you have been online these past couple of years you may have noticed the “yoga selfie” trend that’s taken place during yoga’s rapid ascent into popular culture. The girl on a beach somewhere covered in tribal-themed jewelry and loose-flowing clothing balancing upside down on her forearms (maybe with her toes resting upon her head), or the shirtless dude in tight pants doing a one-armed handstand in front of a graffiti-ridden urban wall, and other images similar to these, are plastered relentlessly on follower’s profiles, news feeds, homepages etc., becoming ubiquitous symbols of the modern day Western yogi.

I am not one to judge, nor point fingers. I possess a collection of my own yoga photos (some I’m proud of, some that I’m not) that strive to ooze cool, funky, nirvanic yogi and at the risk of offending any one of my dear friends and fellow practitioners, see it constantly elsewhere.

This is contemporary convention. It’s normal now for anyone who practices yoga to take these pictures and post them just as it is normal for people with their own passions like cooking, fashion, or their adorable two-year old baby to do the same. We are a culture of “self.”

As Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird, “It provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist.” I think that in some way for yogis it does validate the work we do. Most especially for yoga teachers. At times, yoga feels so intangible, it feels distant, it’s hard, it’s a struggle; it’s about the process and not the product because we are not performing on stage like a dancer or a gymnast, and we do these poses on a mat with our own body next to people doing the same thing. So perhaps this one-dimensional imagery is a nod to the fruits of our labor.

I would never say “don’t post those pictures” because in many ways they are wonderful and I encourage people to be proud of their bodies and their practice. You’ve dedicated so much of your time and effort to getting there and you have the right to celebrate it! However, the meaning behind it, just like anything that is exploited and over-exposed via media, begins to fade.

When the yoga selfie has more significance than the actual yoga, our focus shifts away from practicing for the sake of practice itself and closer towards superficiality… of self-ness; selfishness, if you will. A habit and frame of mind that bars community and instead beckons in exclusivity.

It’s no surprise that yoga has taken very well to commercialization, branding, and celebrification in the Western world. In fact, it has flourished. The Yoga Americana brand has a very distinct motto: Do a pose. Take a picture. Be a yogi. As Mark Singleton says in his book Yoga Body, “Today, the yoga body has become the centerpiece of a transnational tableau of personalized well-being and quotidian of redemption, relentlessly embellished on the pages of glossy publications…”. I’d be remiss to find a person whose Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Linkedin account is a completely accurate, full depiction of who they are. It’s just not! They are extensions of us–embellishments– that admittedly wield significant power, authority and necessity in society and that’s okay, yet, are largely lists of accolades, accomplishments and self-definitions.

It’s a snapshot, a sliver of ourselves and although we know this intellectually to be true it is of course easier to cultivate a more pleasing online persona than to accept the complicated and paradoxical self that creates it.

At the very epicenter of what propels the American full-pose phenomenon seems to be the desire to create an image of success. To quote Singleton again, “ [yoga] in its dissemination in the Western world, has undergone radical transformation in response to the [...] aspirations of modern audiences” and I would agree. Our measure of success is no longer simply in “a job well done.” Perhaps fifty to seventy five years ago it was, but I would argue that in order for yoga to be popular in our culture today these yoga selfies of incredibly athletic and contortion-like poses needed to exist. We like to put the pedal to the medal. We crave a visual representation outside of our self that verifies we exist and that our work does too.

However, I would like to challenge and remind us all that we are already a success. Our power is not in a picture. Practice for practice’s sake. Be proud of your efforts and your sheer willingness to show up to the mat. To endure the hardships, the difficulties, the doldrums and lows and all the while keep doing the work. Do whatever it is you do in earnest. Own the mistakes as proudly as you do your successes. Western yoga is as diverse as our populous is and always will be. So I encourage us all to redefine the stale and limiting image of the modern-day, full-pose yogi and see every pose as a full pose. Let us embrace the former full-pose phenomenon as the new and proud Yoga Americana.

~

About Katherine Oakes: Freelancer. Hatha-Alignment Yoga Instructor 500-RYT. Social Media + Creative Consultant. Taco Tuesday Fanatic living in the Greater NYC Area. Just another damn asana teacher. Let’s chat: www.katherineoakes.com

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15 comments… add one

  • Frank Reyes

    To play devil’s advocate but isn’t “beauty in the eye of the beholder”? I mean look at these yoga selfies but I don’t perceive any superficiality with them. Their pictures and I interpret differently. For instance, I can look at a still photo and see exactly where I need to shore my own form/technique. It is very had sometimes to watch a video in order to lean a flow or pose. Plus the subjects seem to be “in” the moment and not really concerned about appearances. It can be a touchy subject.

  • Frank,
    Thank you for saying that. I agree, it’s a tricky subject, and I too love yoga selfies, both my own and the ones that inspire me. I suppose that this article is mostly a conversation about the over-exposure of yoga selfies rather than labeling them good or bad. It’s more about finding the grey area than black or white. I appreciate what you said, thank you for reading and adding your thoughts!
    -Katherine

  • Without Yamas and Niyamas, it’s just crossfit.

  • laportama

    NOW you’re talking!

  • John

    One benefit you forgot to mention is that this trend has irrevocably made yoga more democratic. Back in the non-existent “golden age” of modern yoga – which is 5, 10, 15, 20, or 25 years ago – whenever the person lamenting it went through their “honeymoon yoga” phase – there was a clear hierarchy to yoga. Those (usually middle aged men) who could get books full of pictures of themselves doing yoga published were in charge and those who read the books and imitated the pictures (usually younger women) were not. Now every one is publishing their photos in a much more democratic way – another of the many benefits of a “western” approach.

    Also… all this “western” stuff – it doesn’t hold. Think yoga isn’t commercialised in India? At least yoga in the “west” isn’t tainted by long association with the least savoury aspects of the BJP, for example.

  • Jen

    Great article, Katherine! What stood out for me, is that it reminds yogis of their motivations for their action, but subtley and without judgement. It’s one of my favourite things about a deepening practice, when the quiet voice of Intelligence says ‘OK, so here is an action you are taking. Do you know why you’re going that?’ Lovely :)
    Bless~ Jen

  • Thank you Jen. You’re right about that, it gets hard to UN-know all you’ve learned haha! I thought this was a particularly interesting subject to critically think about.

  • Jen

    Great article, Katherine! What stood out for me, is that it reminds yogis of their motivations for their action, but subtley and without judgement. It’s one of my favourite things about a deepening practice, when the quiet voice of Intelligence says ‘OK, so here is an action you are taking. Do you know why you’re doing that?’ Lovely :)
    Bless~ Jen

  • VQ2

    Selfies of the full expression of the yoga pose are nothing more than 21st century, non- or semi-sexualized fetishes. Yoga will outlive this fetishism, as more and more the selfie-shooters’ motivations for doing so do not bring in the admiration or the cool ca$h …

    Then, it’s on to Jen Selter’s kind of stuff – weight training (which it has started to be, anyway …)

    Because (heh, heh …) it really IS all about the female backside without the help of Lululemon. The New York Times says so … lol
    Looking it up, full definition:

    fe·tish noun \ˈfe-tish also ˈfē-\

    : a strong and unusual need or desire for something

    : a need or desire for an object, body part, or activity for sexual excitement

    : an object that is believed to have magical powers

    Full Definition of FETISH

    1
    a : an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner; broadly : a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence
    b : an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion : prepossession
    c : an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression
    2
    : a rite or cult of fetish worshipers
    3
    : fixation

  • John

    Some people take photos of themselves when they think they’ve achieved something.

    Other people claim to be able to read their minds, determine their motives, and know for sure that they take these photos of themselves for their own sexual gratification.

    Only in yoga land does any one pay attention to the second group.

    I can read minds too. Your envy leaps off the page

  • VQ2

    And you share in the selfie posters’ rampant narcissism and non-embrace of the minimalism inherent in practicing yoga … http://darleneseto.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/fetishism-of-yoga-postures/

  • Vanita

    My Pinterest and Tumblr are full of hundreds of friends and strangers in beautiful poses to inspire me and remind me that everything is yoga. I have never given any thought to why they took or posted the photo, I am just thrilled that they did.

  • THANK YOU for writing this! As a studio owner, I see this “full pose” mindset all the time, and it’s really been bugging me and my teachers recently, especially when we see other studios playing into it. Yoga is, at its core, inclusive – if you can breathe, you can do it. The only asana in Patanjali is seated meditation, after all. All of these other poses are British gymnastics that were added in later, and while they are physically demanding and good for our health, they are not ultimately what we are practicing. If we truly, as yoga teachers and studio owners, want to embrace every-body and every person in our communities, then displaying ourselves as constantly in these full poses – and displaying only visually-stimulating, “difficult” poses as full poses – limits our possibilities of bringing yoga to the masses. If these poses, arm-balance flows, etc, are part of your yoga (read: breathing) practice, then power to you. But I hope that we can stop perpetuating the idea that the extreme full-pose selfie is what a yogi actually looks like.

  • jitterbugperfume

    yes. thank you.

  • Amazing article! Thanks for sharing with the world. I love seeing pics of dedicated yogis achieving great postures in their practice. Thanks for reminding us to stay present, forget the ego and ‘practice for practice’s sake’ :)

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