The Asana, the Body, and the Image
If you’ve been practicing Ashtanga for a while, chances are you’re seen the 2003 documentary, Ashtanga NY (Caroline Laskow and Mary Wigmore, directors). The film is an episodic series of interviews with practioners and teachers, set in Eddie Stern’s shala during Guruji’s last North American tour in the momentous month of September 2001.
The film I’m sure started out to be something other than what it became. But for many of us, it was our first “external” look at the practice, seeing it through a camera lens, and through the voices of long-time students and teachers.
Some of those students in the film are celebrities, although there’s no particular emphasis on such things. The film itself is beautiful, with a sad serenity as its tone; there’s no “wow, look at that” quality as Eddie adjusts (occasionally famous) students in advanced poses. But at one point, the interviewees recognize one of the side benefits of the practice: “Oh yeah. You’ll get a great body!”
This isn’t something much talked about in the yoga circles I run in. Steve alluded to why in his recent post about home practice. Vanity, it seems, is not among the yamas or the niyamas.
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” says the Preacher in the Bible. “Vanity” as in “in vain” or meaningless—to no purpose. I’m thinking of that old George Carlin joke, his lists of “book titles” in his book club: Eat Right, Stay Fit, Die Anyway.
I’ve been thinking about it because of my recent photo shoot with photographer Michelle Haymoz. Personality-wise, I avoid being in front of a camera, and err on the side of physical insecurity. Now I have an amazing collection of images of myself that, honestly, I don’t know what to do with.
I loved watching Michelle work with other Ashtangis, and I love her work overall, what she brings out in her subjects–her photos adorn our walls. When it was my turn as a subject, Michelle made me feel instantly comfortable. But this was a first for me. And I’m still unsure how to respond to my own image, especially when it seems so much more dignified and pleasing that I think of myself.
I remember at a party years ago, a guy I was talking to paused suddenly, looked at me, and said in a moment of realization, “You’re an aesthete!”–as if he just realized I was a traitor to my country. It was an insult, really; but it’s true. Certainly, part of the appeal of Ashtanga to me is its visual beauty. Just watching others practice is a pleasing experience.
Probably, many of us came initially to the practice because it is an ass-kicking workout. I see these students in my led Primary class. Although I also have a few that come that, like me, have been suffering with chronic pain and are looking for non-chemical relief, most are there because they are looking for that “great body.” Many of these folks stay, I think, because the practice becomes a habit, like their morning run used to be. They get healthier and stronger. But most of them disappear eventually because, really, there are easier ways to do that than Ashtanga.
Some will be seduced beyond that level. Some will slowly change their diets, habits, and thought patterns. Some few more may even change their entire belief systems, their lives. It’s a refining process that will continue, never really stopping. Come for the body, stay for the soul.
So my time with Michelle, and the beautiful images she’s made of me, are leaving me with a question at a transitional moment in my practice, a moment when I am choosing to continue: What relationship does this body (pictured above!) have to me?
I suspect answering that question will now become a part of my practice, effort aiming at a new kind of understanding of my self.
Posted by Bobbie