“When communities of people cannot recognize themselves in public institutions … [they] feel that they are strangers in society, that the society is not their society” – Raymond Breton, political theorist
Very recently (about 30 minutes ago) I was introduced to the issue of ‘yoga porn’ via this doyouyoga.com article called “Is Yoga Shaming the New Fat Shaming?” by Ali Washington.The article identifies ‘yoga porn’ as “white, young, thin, childless, disease-less women posting photos of themselves in challenging asana [(yoga poses)] on social media.” The author goes on to say, in a nut shell, that she is part of this demographic, that she posts and is inspired by such pictures, and that instead of complaining, those who feel unrepresented by such photos should represent themselves by posting their own pictures. Simple as that.
I was left with a lot of thoughts and feelings swirling around in my head when I finished this article. Not only do I try to practice social awareness in all things, but I am also of the demographic the author refers to, and I too post pictures of myself in yoga poses on social media. Even before I was able to fully articulate why and how, I knew that I disagreed with this author’s take and response to this issue and the whole thing generally left a bad taste in my mouth.
My overall feeling is that this author felt personally attacked by these claims of ‘yoga porn’ and she crafted a societally-appropriate individualistic response to it, failing to approach the issue critically and from a less personalized place.
The issues that I’ve identified are all issues of privilege – racial and body – and western societal structures that create and uphold them. My understanding of the situation, which is copied from my response to the article that I shared with my online yoga community, is as follows:
Regardless of my personal struggles in my life (depression, self-worth, body image, food shame), as a thin, white woman of the western world without disease or physical disability, I occupy an inherently privileged position. This is a fact because our society is arranged as such. Personally, when I post a picture of myself in supported headstand, I am oh so proud of the amount of emotional, mental, and physical strength and courage it has taken to get myself there; the focus I have conjured in my otherwise anxious mind. I also want to share aspects of my physical practice with my online community, as I have a home practice and I get much joy out of this community engagement. However, my intentions don’t preclude my act of posting those pictures from counting as yoga porn and I am not of the mind that the feelings of others are not mine to worry about. I want to live in a community of people instead of this individualistic society we have created. This, for me, means taking those feelings and experiences into account and really thinking about them critically. For me, this might mean I stop posting pictures, it might not. I’m not sure yet. I am, however, very interested in what it might feel like to keep my physical practice as personal as my emotional and mental practice has been. I think there might be something totally beautiful in this.
In other words, I can’t control how my pictures are received but I can control my contribution to public online spaces that inarguably showcase a blatantly narrow image of yoga – what it is, who does it, who it’s for, and what it should look like. This is not to say more diverse images don’t exist, the Instagram account @mynameisjessamyn is an awesome example of that, but it is to say that the space is way overpopulated by this demographic, and that amount of visibility says something important and the lack of diversity. If logging into Instagram and searching #yoga brings up hundreds of images of thin, young, white, similar-bodied women, what images are we not seeing? And why aren’t we seeing them?
Western culture and society welcomes and encourages the demographic in question to post pictures of their bodies in all kinds of poses and positions because they align with – indeed, epitomize – western cultural and societal beauty standards. This is a key aspect that the article’s author fails to address or even acknowledge. In her assertion of “the real truth,” that is, “if you are feeling shamed or unrepresented or otherwise negative when you look at yoga photos, this is your work […] something for you to look at within yourself,” Washington is effectively victim blaming. In her ignorance (or perhaps defensiveness), she fails to understand that society doesn’t invite, welcome, or encourage photos from those outside of this demographic – and the accompanying standards of body and beauty – in the same way. The response she puts forth and her complete dodge of personal accountability to other humans are thoughtless, self-serving, and do nothing to address the feelings and experiences of people who don’t feel they have the right to share images of their bodies because they are not thin, or not muscular, or not white, or in some other way different from the sea of ‘yoga porn’ pictures that dominate magazines and the internet.
That being so, for all of the reasons I mentioned above and because I honestly believe that I can grow my practice even more by treating it as something a little more precious than the world of Instagram allows, I have chosen to stop posting public pictures of myself in yoga poses.
I feel really good about this decision and I am so grateful that I’ve been alerted to this issue. I am always a little embarrassed when I learn that I am unwittingly contributing negatively to issues of social justice and I am happy to have the opportunity to make this informed decision. I’m also aware of issues of cultural appropriation in western yoga and I’ve had to make decisions with regard to that as well. For myself, as someone who really wants to practice, I believe I can do so in a non (or at least less) appropriative fashion by avoiding certain trends that I’ve seen happening around me. I won’t go into detail about this because everyone has to create their own boundaries. I also take to heart the words of world-renowned yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, who taught that yoga is for everyone – east and west – and is credited with bringing yoga to the west. It was Iyengar’s belief that if everyone embraced yoga – not just the popular physical movement but the spiritual aspect – everything could be different. I have to say, I don’t think he was wrong.