Anything Is Possible? Um, No. /// A Yoga Selfie Blog Fail
As a rule, I try to avoid the low-hanging fruit on the ever-blooming tree of yoga idiocy. But every once in a while my news feed is smeared with dreck that so astounds me with its orgasmic smugness and contempt for critical thinking that I have two choices: punch back, or gnaw my arm off. And if I gnaw my arm off – oh no! How will I ever again do one-armed peacock and snap selfies at the same time?
On Tuesday of this week, the Ashtanga Picture Project published a (unconsciously, I hope) tone-deaf piece of body-shaming snark called “The Myth of the Unattainable Pose”, featuring a fine selection of impossibly beautiful Ashtanga selfies, some pithy hits from a Pattabhi Jois Quote Generator, and all the reasoning power of a gerbil on a wheel. If common sense is prana, this blog is doing some serious retention on the exhale.
Full disclosure/caveat/apology, etc: My critique here is not about the Ashtanga yoga system. I’ve taken about a dozen Ashtanga classes in my life. They thrilled me, and hurt me a little in what I then called a “good way”. But it wasn’t my scene. I’ve been friends with many practitioners – some who have stuck with it, and some who’ve moved on. It is true that I’m currently researching yoga injuries, and I’ve heard many of the harrowing stories you’d expect from AY practitioners, given the rigorous adventure they’ve chosen. And while this post does consider the injury implications of certain APP Ashtanga attitudes, what I’m writing here is absolutely not a bash at the lineage as a whole, because 1) AY isn’t any single thing to bash (anybody who tries ends up playing Whack-a-Mole) and 2) I know enough to say for sure that the sentiments of APP are not representative of the broader community, which is peopled by some of the smartest and most sensitive thinkers I know. Bottom line is that I’d call this APP post out regardless of its lineage affiliation, because this stuff hurts people. If it had just been about the pictures I would’ve given it a pass. But the post doubled down on its surface message by spiritualizing a form of body-discrimination.
Let’s walk through it. Nugget by nugget, I’m afraid.
Whenever I hear people talk about poses being unattainable, I ask one question: “How often do you practice that pose? [sic] 99.9% of the time, this shuts them up, because the answer 99.9% of the time is they don’t practice it.
So this raises a few questions. Do I need to strap on figure skates and take a ankle-knocking run at a triple salchow to know the triple salchow is unattainable to me and to most human beings? Do I need to streak onto the pitch in Rio and try to tackle Lionel Messi to know I will always suck at footy? Do I need to audition for the next Cirque show to know that a 90° extension angle at T1 will really really hurt my spine?
You shut them up all right. A pompous non-sequitur can do that. Thing is, the poor souls were talking about themselves, about bodies they know and experience and love and get hurt in. Bodies you could be curious about because they are different from yours — differently proportioned, differently flexible, with different effort capacities and pain thresholds.
This comes up frequently around the topic of instagram. People who are against yoga sefies [sic] on instagram often say, “the poses shown are unattainable. [sic] If they are unattainable, how was that picture taken? Isn’t that person doing the pose? Doesn’t that technically mean that it is attainable? Just because it is not attainable for you doesn’t mean it is not attainable for others.
I’ll just ignore the nyah-nyah reasoning here and turn the whole thing around for a tic. Consider this culture-jamming yoga selfie featuring what It’s All Yoga Baby‘s Roseanne Harvey calls her “lumpy butt”.
Roseanne’s cobra isn’t “attainable” for me either. Know why? Because Roseanne and I are diff-er-ent. Let it be known that my own butt has some lumps but is mainly scrawny and flaccid by comparison, flattened by way too much sitting, droopy with dysfunctional glutes from a bad game of yoga-telephone instructions, which is another story.
When we talk about “attainability” with regard to elite postures, APP, we’re talking first and foremost about bodily difference. Not about will power or practice time, not about strength, not about moral character, not about psychic openness or devotion. We’re not talking about psychological values mis-mapped onto physical prowess. We’re talking about material and structural conditions that – despite the stories of Hatha magic past and present – can usually only change in any stable way within a very small margin, influenced heavily by genetics, previous movement patterns, and injuries. I might manage a dropback one day if it ever interested me to try, and if I put in the requisite work: I have the spinal length and shoulder strength/mobility to maybe make it survivable. But Roseanne may never and probably should never do a drop-back. Our differing spines and butts preclude the wisdom of trying to attain each others’ postures.
It’s into this obvious world of difference that the over-represented bendy-elite selfie enters. Why over-represented? The progressive demands of the AY series mean that like with any other activity defined by physical intelligence applied to the accomplishment of forms, the most photogenic practitioners will belong to the predictable spectrum of constitutional body types that can reasonably perform them. In a very brief and unscientific survey of the APP gallery, it looks like only 11 of the 100 posted image sets feature subjects who deviate from the vata-pitta standard. (There’s one good pic of a guy my age using a strap in janu sirsasana.) The same performance-based selection based on constitution happens in soccer, if you’ve noticed, although the demographic is classic pitta, with Thomas Müller and Clint Dempsey being among the few more-vata-ish exceptions.
Ergo, the vast majority (89% according to my scan) of Instagr-asanas feature way-above-average joint mobility, way-below-average BMI, way-below-average median age, way-paler-than-global-average skin colour (a separate but related issue). This begins to congeal a hegemony of aesthetic expectations not unlike those demanded by high fashion modeling. Am I saying the bendy people on their runway mats are bad people, self-obsessed people, foolish people, people intent on soiling the purity of yoga? I’d be a fool. Who knows who they are? They certainly aren’t to be shamed for their physique or prowess. They’ve certainly worked at things: we just don’t know how much. The bendy didn’t make themselves bendy, or elite. They happened to be bendy, which has pros and cons with regard to overall health and functionality, and the culture made them elite, which tends to obscure the cons.
Why this elite-election happens is a mystery of MPY group psychology, which we can start to uncover by asking: What do the images do, collectively? How do they privilege the “open” over the “closed”, the mobile over the sturdy? More generally: how do they support or resist the dominant body-shaming culture of inadequacy that yoga might be trying to unravel? And what are we doing to participate in the production and circulation of these images? What are we actually doing, collectively? Or is yoga culture too individualistic for us to really bite into that one?
Let’s get this straight. Any reasonable critique of the yoga selfie habit isn’t about the character traits of the selfie shooters. If you post a selfie and someone criticizes your “ego” or implies you’re narcissistic, they’re full of shit in one major sense – they don’t know you and can’t grok your intentions through Instagram. So until Google fully perfects the surveillance monostate by releasing the Intentogram app, you’re missing the point when you take the attack personally.
It’s about the system. If you listen carefully, beneath the anti-selfie ad hominem you can hear the pain inherent in living in a pornographic spectacle machine running on autopilot, spitting out imagery that some call inspiring but in reality excludes and hurts many others. Those who are impacted aren’t calling you names for aiding and abetting the system, even when they sound like they’re calling you names. It’s more likely they’re saying: “Our bodies feel disembodied by a tyranny of images that do not reflect the diverse realities of our lives. Please stop.”
I know this may be hard, APP, because it seems your site depends on the bendy-elite selfie. Of course you’re free to curate as you wish, but many would ask you to take responsibility for how you shape public space. You are producing cultural artifacts that function as advertisements that sell products, activities, and worldviews. Just like Martha Stewart or Hugh Hefner. These artifacts have meanings and effects. They can exclude and harm people. And it’s really no surprise. Taking responsibility for the effects of the selfie is no different from dealing with the moral dilemma of driving a car, chanting a mantra that others feel has been stolen from their colonized land, or scarfing down tomatoes that came off an airplane.
Look at the bright side: the APP could be an awesome site if the number of bendy-elite images actually reflected the proportion of bendy-elite practitioners in the general practice population. This would test two things: how dependent is the site on bendy-elite click-bait, and the willingness of stiffies to rise up fearlessly and be seen, despite bumper stickers like these, popping up in boldface as the post continues:
Body is not stiff, mind is stiff – Pattabhi Jois
Body Strong. Mind Weak – Pattabhi Jois
It really doesn’t help anyone to parrot decontextualized aphorisms your late mentor uttered to particular individuals in the intimacy of his workplace as if he meant them to be universal platitudes. He delivered his teaching in an oral paradigm. Everything he said carries interpersonal nuance, which in print should be supplied by commentary if not caveats. Jois may have had startling insights into the subtle links between emotions and motor nerves, but these quotes are about as nuanced as a meniscus tear on a dude cranking into lotus. Probably better to avoid stiff-shaming people with them, or telling them they’re weak-minded if they can’t do a posture. I mean really.
The post continues:
Ashtanga is the yoga of seemingly “unattainable” poses. If you look up any ashtanga yoga chart you will find poses that are mind blowingly difficult. Here are some from the APP.
[Insert lots of bendy-elite pictures here.]
But yet, all over the world, Ashtanga practitioners are doing these poses everyday. Why can these people do these seemingly impossible poses? Because they work at them, day in and day out, year after year until they get them.
Why can’t you do them? Because you or someone else has told you that you can’t and you believed it or simply because you don’t work on them enough.
I imagine this is what it would sound like if Tea Partiers started reading The Secret and then got high to sing kirtan. Success rides on work and self-belief! Buckle down! Practice! Loosen your mind! Be the change! Live the dream! You’ll be loving it! Success will be yours! Success has nothing to do with your natal wellness, your build, your nutrition as a child, your early exposure to physical play and sports, your anxiety levels, your injuries, the fact that you haven’t been crushed by a car too badly, or even the leisure time you have to practice something with exactly zero survival value. Consider this: the workers who made the phone that’s taking your selfie don’t have time to do yoga. Even if they did, those of them who don’t fit the ideal physical demographic won’t likely “get” the postures.
(I’m waiting for some Kazakh slave-wage coder and nighttime hacker to figure out how to virally stamp every yoga selfie with the caption: “This image brought to you by someone in pain.”)
What kind of yoga would it be to be aware of the ethical implications of all of our actions? What kind of crucible would that be? Who could bear it? And who wants to practice anything less?
Is the APP writer aware of all this stuff? Prolly not. Did they mean to be so crass? I sincerely doubt it. Do they love practicing AY and feel themselves grow and develop through it? I’m sure they do, and that they’re lovely peoples besides. So am I being too harsh on somebody’s innocuous side-project that they lovingly tend? Maybe.
What I can say for sure is that people get injured in asana when they are encourashamed by unrealistic expectations projected by people who don’t notice or pay attention to difference because if they did they would have to modulate their belief in the universal value of whatever they’re selling. So I’m asking for that to stop, please.
The post winds down by talking about David Robson and Kino MacGregor overcoming obstacles. It doesn’t say what the obstacles were, but I doubt they involved manual labour injuries or rheumatoid arthritis. Then it ends with:
That is what I love about Ashtanga. Anything is possible with work and time.
So not true. But with work and time, empathy is coming.
Okay. I think I got enough of that out of my system to get back to my more objective research. Wish me luck.