So far, a key focus of this project has been upon how the well-worn language, metaphors, and platitudes of modern postural yoga either conceal an unexamined metaphysics, or actively distort the goals that practitioners say they have. I’ve asked what Ashtanga culture might mean by saying “lazy people can’t practice”. I’ve asked what the “geometry of yoga” implies about the eccentricities of the human form. I’ve examined the assumptions underlying the comparison between Mr. Iyengar and someone who carves religious idols out of stone. I’ve looked at what it means to say “Anyone can do these [elite, advanced] postures.” I’ve looked at ways in which the empathy that practitioners claim to develop can be confounded by redirection, blaming, and dismissal through self-referral.
Following along these lines, this is a post about a bit of language that we don’t use. And how, if we did, things might be a little more clear.
Alix was describing how in the dance world she comes from, saying “S/he’s a beautiful dancer” expresses a generalized appreciation for a way of moving felt to be unique and/or authentic. The implicit understanding in dance culture is that this beauty comes not only from opportunity and discipline, but also from innate talent. “Talent” here carries the common meaning: a pre-existing exceptional quality or ability that exceeds the typical capacities of those who engage a particular skill. Without the defining threshold of “talent”, everybody who worked hard in the dance studio would be equally suited to a professional career. Talent is the glass ceiling on the world of professional dance (or music/writing/painting).
It is in Yogaland as well, but we don’t talk about it.
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard or seen the word “talent” applied to the top asana yogis of MPY. But I’ve heard this, thousands of times: She has a beautiful practice. I’ve heard this said about people I know and about people I don’t know, like Kino MacGregor. Kino has a practice, for sure. And she creates beautiful images while doing it. But by calling her practice “beautiful” we generally imply that it has become that way, through, um, practice. This must be partially true. She has no doubt worked extremely hard to attain the postures she performs so gracefully, and certainly that work has impacted her on many levels. But that hard work is also capitalizing on something. She’s not starting from the same place as the vast majority. She comes with talent. Or maybe genes that have programmed her hip sockets in a particularly mobile way. Is there a difference between talent and genes?
Everyone has a beautiful practice when they’re practicing. And everyone can take selfies. But only a few of those selfies can go viral. Maybe talent makes the difference.
In Yogaland, the valorization of talent happens beneath the surface, because every reason for everything has a hidden esoteric default. Kino, Mr. Iyengar, Cameron Shayne — they all have that something special that shows up in their practice. We don’t want it to be talent. We want it to be a virtue, accessible to everyone. But if we’re honest, talent is probably all we can really claim to see on the yoga mat. If we think we see more than that, we’re getting into the weird projective territory of guessing at the internal states of others.
Using the word “talent” to describe what Kino is working with would come with a price. It would confound the democratic promise of postural learning that fuels the marketing of contemporary yoga. It sounds deterministic, and yoga’s all about freedom, right? Explanations based upon talent or genes would seem to rob the yogi of agency. “Talent” would also reposition the desirability of the skill by obscuring an implied therapeutic benefit that everyone should have access to.
Everyone wants to have a beautiful practice. But most people understand that we are not all developing the same talents for the same reasons. Despite our traumatized, what-else-can-we-do? belief in neoliberal meritocracy, most of us know that talent itself, much like the accident of happening to express conventional ideals of beauty, is the primary engine of visual renown and influence. Nature bestows differences that can look and even feel like inequalities. Perhaps difference is its own beautiful practice.
Talent is not unlike inherited money. It’s the accumulation of beneficial cultural and genetic transactions. Unfortunately, our entire social architecture is set up to believe that it is the earned property of the individual.
On the bright side, the acknowledgement of “talent” might also demystify the process and charisma of exemplary postural yogis, and perhaps encourage more people to practice within their means — or, according to their difference.
At the Kirov ballet, the faculty running the admissions process have no illusions about what that “something special” is. You cannot count the fucks they do not give about virtue. They are purely interested in the genetic endowment of joint mobility, with a submissive demeanour running a close second. Check out this 2006 documentary called “Ballerina”, which follows five young women from admissions through graduation.
The whole doc is fascinating and chilling and poignant. If you watch from time cue 4:34, you’ll see the battle-axe director (see the lede image above) introduce the admissions exam, where you will watch horrified as twiggy topless ten-year-old girls are manhandled like dogs in a show. What’s the difference between this selection process and how your yoga magazine cover gets shot? Just time, really. And the fact that the yoga model is exercising more consent in the process. But in a way it’s worse, because it’s less honest. The panoptic culture of objectification manhandles everyone, while claiming it facilitates self-expression.
You might have heard of Jill Miller. Her new book, The Roll Model, is the culmination of years of yoga practice, injury, biomechanics research, massage experimentation, and recovery. There’s a lot to say about the book, but I’d like to close by focusing on a few out-of-the-way captions she writes beneath images of herself demonstrating difficult postures. The captions put talent in its place.
In the first (Kindle loc. 5707), she stands on two blocks in a forward fold so deep that she can flatten her palms onto the floor. The caption reads:
I am demonstrating a fairly extreme range of motion in this forward bend. Please do not try to force yourself into this shape. I use this image to make it obvious that this sequence aims to open the entire back of your body.
In the second (loc. 5762), she’s in a mesmerizing expression of revolved side-angle. The caption:
I am demonstrating an extreme range of motion in this twisted side bend. Please do not try to force yourself into this shape. I use this image to make it obvious that this sequence targets the sides of your body.
Finally, loc. 6494 shows her in three advanced postures, including padmasana. Here’s the best caption of all:
Just because you can do a pose does not mean that you should. These are poses that I have retired from my repertoire. Retired. They made my hips, knees, and spine click and pop and are not suitable for my body.
I might be wrong, but I believe this is the first time in the history of yoga instructional literature in which a teacher/presenter has disclaimed images of their own achievements with the warning “Do not try at home.” It’s like the caption in the sports car commercials: “Closed track. Professional driver. Do not attempt.”
Here’s someone who has the courage to demonstrate a unique skill — a talent — that was maladaptive to her, and that she knows would be toxic for others to mimic. In a way, Miller is sneaking a paraphrase of Krishna’s key teaching in through the backdoor of a biomechanics manual: “It is far better to follow one’s own dharma poorly than someone else’s dharma well.” (Gita 3.35) Don’t imitate, says the avatar.
It reminded me of an interview I did recently with a well-known asana teacher once known for extreme postural flash. He sounded like he’d love the chance to be able to add new captions to old images of himself in elite postures. He said:
If I have to look at a picture of me back when I was doing ashtanga yoga – and sometimes I do – somebody wants me to sign one of my books – and I’m a little bit disgusted when I see myself, because I can see what I would call the psychological aggression that’s in my body, that so many people admire, that they think is something fantastic. But I look at it, and I – and you know, I can see the aesthetics of it, whatever – but I can also see the psychology of it, and it makes me feel very uncomfortable, on the one hand, but also it makes me very glad, because I’m not that person anymore…
I had to go to my publishers four years ago, because in my contract, there was a clause that said something like if they didn’t re-print for two years, then I had the right to take the rights back, and I’d been watching. I went to them and I said, ‘I want the rights back to all of my books!’ And they said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because you haven’t printed them in two years.’ And they said, ‘Yes, yes, we do understand that that’s the clause that you’re responding to, but why do you want to take them back?’ I said, ‘It’s my business, I just want to take them back, I don’t want these books on the market anymore.’ Because – because – you know, people say, ‘But they were great books.’ And I say, ‘Well maybe they were great books, but that’s relative. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not helpful, and it’s especially because of the images.
This teacher now says that he teaches simplicity. “I give them only very, very simple things to do, and I make it very clear that the purpose, the basic purpose of what we’re doing, is for them to learn how to listen to their body… People willing to come back to a second class with me have a very high boredom threshold,” he says, laughing. He’s exchanged the pizzazz for something quieter.
Miller and my interview subject both had a talent for high-end asana. In setting aside the prerogative of their genes for the chance to deepen yoga — and then being transparent about it — it would seem they’ve made their practice more beautiful. In fact, we might say that they’ve given new meaning to “beauty”.