Recently, in a brief moment of ‘omg thank goodness uni semester is over and now I can do other things!’ I decided to undertake a visual imagery project involving yoga selfies. It’s a project I’ve been thinking about for a while, truth be told, but the combination of having a bit of time, and fresh motivation gave me the push I evidently needed. This motivation came in the form of a number of conversations with people that have been feeling like they’d like to try yoga, but have been too intimidated by the common forms of yoga visual representation. We’ve all seen it, the magazine slick, airbrushed perfection of the thin, young (and white), bendy ‘yoga girl’, arranged in some kind of pretzel formation on a beach in Thailand, looking at ease with all of existence. From fitness magazine covers to laptop ads, she has become the modern symbol of the yogi.
A friend told me recently that a yoga selfie I’d shared online featuring myself in a very simple ‘Cobra’ posture had encouraged her to feel that maybe she could give yoga a go, that her body might be capable of practicing yoga after all. While I was glad my image had made yoga seem more approachable to my friend, her confession alarmed me. Among yoga teachers we laugh at how ridiculously common the statement ‘I’m not flexible enough to do yoga’ is. Rather than sharing a shrug, a knowing smile, and going home to post more images of our amazing backbends on recent beach holidays, shouldn’t we, as industry professionals, at least attempt to model something more approachable, something more real? What about all those mornings you did yoga in winter in your track pants, with a child or a dog interrupting? What about the 300 times you fell out of that arm balance while you were learning to stick it? What about the days you couldn’t drag yourself tearfully out of ‘Child’s’ pose to do anything else? So, I suppose that’s what I’ve attempted to do with this project. My intention was to share one selfie every day for a month, featuring my yoga practice, as it happened that day.
One selfie, of my ‘real’ yoga, every day for a month. This concept seemed simple, straightforward, and honest to me. Yet right away, on day one, I encountered a variety of problems. The first, and perhaps most obvious problem I perceived was that I fit quite neatly within the privileged ‘yoga girl’ symbolic category. I’m a thin, white, relatively young, and relatively bendy girl. I recognised right away that the extent to which I could disrupt the current normative ‘yoga girl’ body image would certainly be limited. However, knowing this spurred me to find other ways to challenge yoga representation. I decided to be conscious about how much ‘prepping’ for the camera I would do. I was careful to be aware of decisions about what I wore, whether or not I brushed and arranged my hair, removed my glasses, and arranged backdrops (or didn’t). At the same time I was very conscious that, to some extent, all selfies are a type of performance. By thinking about the framing of a photo I immediately objectified myself to some degree. Knowing that this too was inescapable, I allowed myself to be playful about when to be more vulnerable and honest, and when to be more creative and expressive. It sometimes seemed to me that the ‘reality’ of what I was trying to portray was limited by the simple fact that I was taking photos of myself, but on the other hand, selfies are a very real part of many people’s experience, and certainly those of us trying to build an online presence for some kind of relationally centered business.
As the month went on I encountered other challenges. At times I became frustrated when thinking about taking a photo was taking me out of my practice and interrupting the flow of a vinyasa or causing me to plan a camera angle in meditation. I was also unsure how to represent the days when I didn’t get to practice anything that might look to an outsider like yoga. As a yoga teacher it began to feel quite uncomfortably vulnerable to just flat out declare ‘yeah, I did pretty much nothing today.’ However, the reality of my life is that there are plenty of days when I don’t do anything yoga related worth capturing in a selfie.
As the days went on an interesting response to my various discomforts with the project arose. The selfie process began to act like a mirror. The commitment to the selfie project forced me to really look at the state of my practice, of what I consider yoga, in my life, right now. Many aspects of what I value about yoga, body image, self-esteem, and online honesty were called into question. It soon became very clear to me that I consider a very wide range of practices part of yoga, including mindfulness and self-reflection, which is difficult to selfie. I discovered the limits of my ability to be honest, and they were not exactly where I’d assumed they’d be. I discovered the desire not only to disrupt current body image norms, but a desire to fit in with them too.
Coming to the end of the 31 days was a great relief. While I was certainly committed to seeing the project through to the end, the introverted part of me was getting a bit cranky with sheer consistency of the selfies. As I put all the images together in one album I have the impression that in some ways I have succeeded. The images are diverse and reveal a much deeper picture of yoga than the usual asana centric one. On the other hand the visual imagery in this album seems to me to be so limiting. The photos are not professional quality (all taken on phone cameras) and in a way they fail to accurately describe the beauty, emotion, and sometimes comedy of those moments. Photography, even good photography, is by nature the capturing of surfaces, of external things, of one singular moment in time. An endeavour like yoga is experiential and encompasses a multitude of perceptions, sensations, thoughts, feelings, technical details, philosophies, and relationships. Perhaps in the final analysis photos are not very suited to capturing yoga. Clearly photographic representation of yoga is not going away any time soon. So then, to be more real in our yoga representation, recognising the limiting nature of the process, shouldn’t we at least make some effort to include the great diversity of yoga and the people who practice it?
Here they are, 31 selfies of my real yoga practice. You can click on individual images and/or go through the slide show (scroll down to read my day by day commentary).