For a while now, it’s been a trend to post pictures of oneself doing yoga poses, or “yoga selfies,” on social media. Some of these pictures show super-talented yogis doing some pretty crazy, bendy, acrobatic, and advanced stuff. There are many of these advanced poses I can’t do myself, even as a generally healthy and bendy yoga teacher with years of practice under my belt. In fact, before I go about discussing and defending yoga selfies, let me make it clear that I’m not talking about *my* yoga selfies, of which there are relatively few.
For almost as long as it’s been a trend to post yoga selfies, it’s been a trend for teachers and bloggers in the yoga community to write articles sharply criticizing the practice, and asserting that said selfies are “all about the ego.” I’ve read and absorbed many such articles, but something about them always struck me as off. Without fully articulating my reasons to myself, I felt that there was some dissonance between the articles, and the yogic ideals that they claimed to uphold. After ruminating about it for a while, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t see anything inherently wrong with yoga selfies, in principle. There can be wrong motivation behind them, in some cases, but they can also be harmless, fun, inspiring, and beautiful.
Before I go on to state why I don’t mind yoga selfies, I would like to give the significant disclaimer that your pictures should authentically reflect your practice, and that you should never injure yourself in the quest for the perfect yoga pose documented on social media. That is, if your practice is pretty solid, and you already feel comfortable in trickier, “wow” poses like visvamitrasana or titibasana (which are also both fun to say), then by all means prop your phone nearby and set it to snap a pic. On the other hand, if you just saw someone do the pose and thought it looked cool, then don’t wrestle yourself into the pose at the expense of your connective tissue just so that you can show people. Basically, the picture should be an accessory to the pose, not the pose an accessory to the picture.
If there’s a pose that you’ve struggled with for a long time (pincha mayurasana is my kryptonite), I can also see the benefit to taking a celebratory picture when you’ve finally conquered it. This is a happy event for both the yoga student, and the teachers who’ve helped them progress in the pose. Nonetheless, you should be trying to do the pose to do the pose, and not to take a picture of yourself doing the pose. (I know this is a nit-picky and meta distinction, but we live in an almost unbearably meta age, when collections of selfies from dubious pop-cultural figures are marketed as art).
As to the yoga pictures themselves, whether on social media, the cover of yoga magazines, or elsewhere, why celebrate them?
One reason is pretty obvious: they are visually enjoyable and interesting to look at, as few of the critics would care to admit. The ancient Greeks considered the human form to be the pinnacle of creation, and crafted amazingly lifelike sculptures to celebrate it that reproduced every curve, lock of hair, and straining muscle fiber in cold marble for the ages. They would definitely be fans of yoga pictures if they were around today (except for Plato, probably). Separating art from morality does raise some tricky ethical issues, but sometimes the sheer beauty of an image can, and should, be its own justification.
One unfortunate side effect of our culture’s over-sexualization of pretty much everything is that it makes many of us uncomfortable with our very natural enjoyment of the sight of the human form, or even afraid to acknowledge it. When half-naked, salacious images confront us in advertising everywhere we look, we tend to forget that the human body, even nude or semi-nude, doesn’t automatically have to be sexualized and objectified. The artists of the Renaissance recognized this when they filled churches in Florence and Rome with gorgeous, anatomically-correct, athletic nudes reenacting scenes from the Bible. Just because the human form (particularly the female form, nowadays) is often depicted in cheap and tasteless ways, doesn’t mean that it can’t be depicted in appreciative and respectful ways. There is definitely something Puritanical and over-scrupulous in assuming that pictures of healthy bodies doing asana are necessarily for the purpose of stirring up sexual desire, yet that is what critics of yoga selfies often do. (Again, a few obvious cases spring to mind when yoga pictures have been used for just this purpose, but this doesn’t mean that it’s always and everywhere the motivation).
It also seems, frankly, small-minded, petty, and ungenerous for one’s initial, default reaction to a beautiful image to be criticism. This is the same mentality that causes people to remark, when they see the Venus de Milo, that it reinforces a patriarchal ideology, or to tour the cathedrals of Europe only to opine that the money expended in construction would have been much better spent improving local roads. It’s true: many of the poses depicted in yoga selfies are not possible or practical for many yoga practicioners’ bodies, but to regurgitate this line as a knee-jerk reaction is, in many ways, missing the point. It’s like focusing on the footnotes instead of the book.
In many ways, yoga selfies are art, except (to make another meta distinction) the art is not the photograph, but the yogi’s practice itself, which many yoga practicioners have spent years and untold hours of effort to develop. There is an aspect of natural or inherent talent, as well: just as not all of us have the capacity to create great art, even if we studied and practiced extensively, not all bodies have the capacity to do certain yoga poses, even if we practiced for years. Does this mean, then, that no one should ever paint, or write music, or do advanced yoga poses? The idea that you should never pursue excellence, in case you make other people feel bad or inferior, takes you down a very dangerous road that ends in something resembling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a bland paradise of mediocrity in which everyone is moderately content, and no one is unique. If you’ve reached adulthood without the psychological coping mechanisms to digest the fact that certain people will always be more talented at certain things than you, then you have bigger problems than someone else’s yoga selfies.
The most important reason why I’m not going to criticize yoga selfies, however, is the unwarranted judgement and sense of spiritual superiority inherent in the criticism. When a yoga writer says that yoga selfies are “all about the ego,” he or she is making some pretty big, and ungrounded, assumptions about the person doing the asana. How would you know that they’re doing it out of ego? Why wouldn’t they be taking a picture out of simple enjoyment of the pose, to document their progress, or to educate others? I’m pretty sure pop-culture yoga spirituality emphasizes acceptance without judgment, and this seems like an epic failure to carry that out.
Behind statements that yoga selfies are all about the ego is often the unspoken corollary: unlike me, for I am not filled with ego, and am therefore spiritually superior to the poor unenlightened schmuck executing a perfect titibasana from the depths of his ignorance. This is spiritual arrogance- thinking that you are morally better than other people- which is a far deeper and more deadly failing than a little self-congratulation for one’s physical asana practice. No matter which religious or spiritual path you are on, this mindset is absolutely deadly to your inner life. Spiritual arrogance blinds us to our own faults, effectively freezing us in place and making us unable to progress and improve ourselves. It separates us from others by ossifying us in a shell of our own self-satisfaction and complacency. It blinds us to the good qualities of the people around us, and gives us a laser-like focus on their failings instead. Compared to spiritual arrogance, a little gloating that you’re able to grab your toe and extend your leg in vasisthasana is relatively small potatoes. Choose your faults wisely, I would say.
Spiritual arrogance, not rampant selfies, is the great disease of modern yoga culture. In fairness, I’m sure that I’m not free from it myself. No one is. I at least try to keep it in check, although sometimes I realize something about myself that me cringe as I peel back the layers and introspect. The fact that you can find both selfies and spiritual pride in modern yoga reflects its ambiguous status as a system of physical self-improvement with strong numinous undertones.
You can do yoga for the spirituality, or just for the stretching and stress relief. Regardless, “selfie” away. I won’t judge.