by 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