What is in an image?
Can beauty be harmful?
When is an image information, art or communication? When does an image fill us with beauty, and when does it demand expectations or communicate standards.
What are the roles of images in our modern culture of yoga? To answer that question one must first look at history to understand our current nature. I will start my essay from an image from 500 years ago.
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Take a single painting from renaissance such as “The School of Athens” by Raphael painted 1509-1510. What is the image saying? Is it a pretty depiction of a bunch of men in togas in three dimensional space? Yes, but they are the representational images of Greek philosophers. Why would someone in the Renaissance era interested in Greek philosophy? Is the depiction of space being geometrical an accident? I am not about to write a paper on this now, many books have been written just on this one image. What I am trying to say is that in order to decrypt this image one must know history, both ancient and renaissance, art history and development of painting techniques. Then there is the question of where exactly is this fresco placed.
When we look at art we go through all these great measures to understand how a single image makes sense in our mind. But all images have a message and history. That is what artist like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were commenting on in the 60’s with their art that was rooted in pop culture.
So why am I writing about all this and how can this possibly have anything to do with yoga? Asanas, poses are only a very small part of yoga. Most of what makes up the practice of yoga is the breath and internal focus, the awareness of the individual. I am not going to go through all 8 limbs of yoga, for the purposes of my argument I am going to focus in only on Pratyahara the fifth limb. Yoga journal described this limb as; “Withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. Keenly aware of, yet cultivating a detachment from, our senses, we direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth.”
When we practice yoga we are aware of our surrounding and its effects on our mind and body. The asanas put us into situations that are either comfortable or not, but the point of the practice is not the asana but its internal effect on our mind and our breath. The watching is happening both on the inside and on the outside, or in other words what the eye can see is only a very small part of the story.
So what is being represented in a yoga image? Is the artist (photographer) and practitioner (often one and the same) aware of everything that is being communicated? Does the image represent all aspect of yoga? Maybe, maybe not…
The lines of bifurcation between advertisement, sexuality, sensuality, yoga, artistry and just plain self-obsession are often blended together and not always intentionally.
What happens when awareness is gone from the creator of an image?
We live in a culture bombarded by images and there are no longer clear lines to help us navigate the meaning, so we are left with a lot of sensory impact that I believe has a subconscious effect on our body.
What do I mean by no clear lines to navigate? Well, think of newspaper advertisements or television advertisements. When you are seeing those images you are conscious of the fact that they are advertisements. These images want you do or buy something. But what about product placements in a movie or a TV show? Well you may or may not register what is happening in your brain when you see a specific car or drink in the hands of your favorite actor. Then what happens with social media? Now your friends are posting stuff? Are they conscious of what messages they are sending? Many studies now shown over and over again that people post the life they want others to see, not necessarily what is actual. So what percentage of that is fake, selective or just a product of social pressure? Are these pressures a result of other advertisements in our life? You see the line is not so simple. The unfortunate side effect of social media is heightened judgment and comparison to what we perceive others possess.
I believe we yoga teachers have an extra responsibility when it comes to the treatment of social media. If we truly teach yoga, that is not just the asana but also the Yamas and the Niyamas, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and so on then we must make sure that the images that we use are communicating as much of our teaching as possible.
So what is the meaning of an image of a person in a yoga pose on Instagram or Facebook?
I heard people explain; “Oh it is just fun, self-expression.” “Inspirational poses for my students.” “A way to reach out to my students.” I think all of this could be true, but we must be more aware than this simple explanation because it is not that simple. For me to explain I must again step back from yoga and into the word of a social scientist on the history of the female image.
Our lives are filled with symbols and they are powerful. Take a painting in your mind, there is a female in blue, mother and child, iIs that the Virgin Mary? Well it depends, but we know the symbolism when we see it. Let’s take another, Female nude. Is it pornographic, artistic or a commentary? It depends, right. We must ask what else is there in the image and how is it presented. The female form has been used in many ways throughout the centuries but we recognize clues that help us tell a story, but the story does not end with what is depicted on the image. Images take to life after they have been created. To demonstrate, think of famous models, are they simply beautiful females on photographs? Of course on one level it is simply art. The female form is beautiful why not celebrate it, but what reaction does this “simple art” create in our society when we are bombarded with beautiful images of females? At what point does the art of fashion turn into social pressure and body dysmorphic problems? Not so simple… There is no clear line.
Now in fashion, we know that beyond art there is a product, an image to buy. But what about yoga? What is the product here? Is there a product?
The answer is yes. Yoga is a product. Of course there is truth in the matter that the more folks practice yoga, no matter what got them into it, the better. True again, but not so simple.
Not that long ago I went to a workshop held by an “Instagram celebrity” yoga teacher, that is a teacher who came into popularity by posting images and gaining social media followers. I overheard young girls talk about how beautiful she is and “did you see what she was wearing?” Perfectly innocent stuff that all young girls talk about but previously this discussion was mostly restricted to actresses and models. There was a lot of physical yoga but not much teaching. That is Teaching with a capital T. Yoga got reduced to exercise and image without awareness work or philosophy. Now I will be a bit controversial but I am willing to put it out there for the sake of ahimsa and satya also because I’ve got to keep you awake while reading this clearly way too long article…. A trained monkey can teach exercise yoga, simply standing and calling the poses. What makes a teacher a Teacher is the rest of the yoga. Now don’t get me wrong, I love exercise, it is beneficial and necessary for our current lifestyle, and anybody who takes my class knows that I do not shy away from hard physical practice, but is that alone yoga?
Yes this teacher was posting pretty images of herself as “inspiration”. But something got lost in the translation because now her image acts more like images of models and celebrities.
Did she fail to communicate the rest of the art or has the number of images out there of pretty females doing perfect yoga lost its original message, much like a fashion photographer can function as artist or leader of social pressure. Not so simple.
Sometimes of course it is really simple, if only we pause and really think about what the image is representing. Not that long ago I spotted yoga teachers taking Instagram photos of themselves in back bending poses wearing Jimmy Choos stiletto high heels and branded yoga clothes. Now it does not take a social scientist to figure out the imagery behind that… Jimmy Choos cost around $700+ add to that a flexible female and I believe we have something that fits the cover of many magazines that have little to do with yoga. Please don’t take it the wrong way, I am not a prude, I am from Europe and I think it can be empowering to represent female beauty in a sexual way, but we must also be conscious that this is a double edged sword.
I understand that tagging the manufacturer of the pants is a way to gets more visibility, which is advertisement for both the teacher and the pants, but what about the stilettoes? Women have been fighting for equal rights and equal treatment since the beginning of time. What do stilettoes symbolize in your mind? Where do you go when you see those images? One could make the argument for female empowerment, counter culture, but ask a man what he thinks and he most likely will not be mentioning her amazing teaching style and philosophy as things that come to mind. We must know that when we choose to put these images out there we open ourselves up to interpretations.
I often heard the argument, “Oh Dora, it is a game, you must play the game, it is fun and pretty and that is how you grow your business.” I have to be honest, I have been tempted to play the game. After all, I could position myself as an exotic, powerful, sexy blond from Eastern Europe. I got the image, why not do it?
Why not? Because I believe if we are having mindless fun with these images, it can be dangerous. I am all for getting more people to participate in yoga, and trust me as a small business owner I want to advertise really-really badly, but at a certain point in this game yoga gets lost and all that is left is marketing and image. I know I am myself guilty. I walk the line. I know I look a certain way and I sometimes use my image as a tool. Again the line is not clear, but the more images we pump out as “inspirations” the more we run the danger of creating yoga idols and that leads to social pressures. Even if these pictures are beautiful, taken in good taste in nature, if we are only picking the “glory asanas” represented by what our culture considers a perfect female form then we are doing injustice to the new generation of girls growing up. We may mean it differently but like I reasoned above, images can take a life of their own after being created. There is something about volume, the number of similar perfect photos out there that overwhelms and overpowers original intentions of a single image. The more we advertise with our perfect body in perfect poses the more we reduce yoga to a product. Do we truly want people walking out of a yoga workshop discussing what the teacher looked like and what he-she was wearing and on top of that being frustrated that the glory pose that they so much want to possess is still out of their reach? We may gain followers but what price are we paying for popularity?
I believe there is a way to be responsible with images. There is a way to teach all limbs of yoga. But it is harder. It is like fighting the sugar epidemic with a celery stick in kindergarten class. Humans always craved beauty and idolatry, that is a given due to our ego. Humans also always needed awareness and inner peace to be taught so we can coexist in harmony. As yoga a teacher it is my job to teach inner peace and harmony and not to re-emphasize the ego. Are we as teacher going to go with what is easy or are we willing to stand up and Teach and maybe not be as popular? How do we show love, humility, honesty and asanas? How do we show the inner world of a being as well as the outside? I think it can be done. But we must think before we click and tag.
What are we creating in the name of yoga? Is this still yoga? I believe we live in a world where the fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, is more important than ever. When we are bombarded with images, we must learn to become aware of the effect of these images on us before the images RULE us. It is not just for fun, it is not just pretty. Every minute of your life you are creating a world. With images you are communicating your values and your place in the universe. Young generations are gobbling up all this information that we put out. Social media is forming the world view of so many young adults. The world of super models of the 80s and 90s have been exchanged for the quasi-celebrities of the Instagram world. What are we saying when we use social media? How to look? What to wear? Are we teaching them to only have fun or are we offering something more? Can they look reach in toward their yoga practice and find peace during a future life crisis?
We have gone photograph crazy. Images are cheap and fast. We no longer wait for development. We no longer view a photo session as special occasion. That does not mean that the image has lost its power to communicate, we are simply losing awareness of what we are communicating. But don’t forget, pictures are worth a thousand words. I wonder what Art Historians will say about our images 500 years from now?
Many gratitude to my wonderful photographers; Elizabeth McElveen and Nityia @ nityiadesign both residing in Seattle Washington.