Self-Portrait as a Yogi

Regular readers of this blog may be wondering if Steve’s wife Bobbie fell off the end of the earth. I did not. The end of my mat, maybe. . .

As we prepare for our pilgrimage to India, a number thoughts about the practice of yoga have been rattling around in my mind. They are:

  • The selfie thing.
  • Yoga and women.
  • The role of religion in the practice. And:
  • Pain.

I propose, in my first post returning from my hiatus, to connect these things—yoke them, if you will. Off I go.

I had a seventeenth century literature professor (bet you didn’t see that coming) who came into class one day and stuck a yellow smiley face sticker on the board. That smiley face, she said, was the result of the early Protestant radicals in England (the fathers of the Founding Fathers) who believed that the number of people who would be allowed into heaven was very limited. As a result, it was very important to act happy, so that everyone around you would think you were one of The Elect (as opposed to one of The Reprobate—wouldn’t want to be one of those: the unhappy go to hell!).

Turns out that smiley face—you know it: the yellow one with black eyes and smile inside parentheses, the one made popular by Watchmen, Wal-Mart, and emoticons—was the invention of an ad man, hired by an insurance company to improve moral after a round of layoffs. “Be happy! You’re still here, one of The Elect!” My teacher saw this need to advertise one’s happiness as a fundamentally Protestant impulse, based in America’s distant religious past.

I have a similar theory with selfies. It’s important to establish your firm grip on happiness to people you do not or barely know. I believe yoga selfies also fulfill that role, only perhaps something of a professional imperative for yoga teachers, establishing your stability and happiness in a difficult practice to potential students.

I suppose at this point we can make a distinction among photos you actually shoot of yourself, finger on the button, in the pose and photos you shoot with a timer, just you, yourself, and the camera and photos someone shoots of you, and then you yourself post. But I get the general feeling that nobody else is really making that distinction, so why should I start now?

I understand it’s a tough road, being a yoga teacher. It’s a numbers game: One has to have enough students to establish one’s ability to live and support one’s family and pay the rent on the space. Add to that the fact that this is America. There’s enormous pressure to self-promote. Photography is a way of introducing yourself to new students, while at the same time theoretically establishing your expertise as a teacher because you can get both your feet behind your head.

It’s at this point that I’ll admit my own discomfort with 1) having my picture taken (which I’ve blogged about elsewhere) and 2) looking at pictures of myself and 3) people who like to have their picture taken.

I’ll maybe explain my discomfort, especially when it comes to yoga. It’s partly because of my gender. Since I started practicing yoga, I’ve thought it was part of my responsibility to see yoga (in its broadest sense, which includes asana practice), in some ways, as gender-neutral. Because yoga was for so many thousands of years practiced in a male-dominated society, and a non-Western society at that, it seemed to me that I had to approach it as an outsider, and with care. Because the female body is sexualized in a way very distinct from the male body, yoga poses, it seemed to me, had to be translated in a very respectful way, a way that must be aware of the male gaze.

The male gaze, as fans of feminist theory (and you’re out there!) know is the particular way the feminine gets translated by a male viewer. It happens in art, film, photography, culture. Something sexually neutral all by itself—like, say, a pair of shoes—becomes sexualized by the way the image of those shoes is presented. The situation does not work in reverse: there is no “female gaze.” A pair of men’s shoes is just a pair of shoes, and you can do what you want to them, they’ll never be “sexy.” Feminists theorists themselves recommend dealing with this in a wide variety of ways, from ignoring it to defying it to aggressively embracing it (and I’ve done all three). I don’t pretend to tell anybody how to handle it, but I do think that women who act unaware of it entirely do so at their peril (as the comments on Kino MacGregor’s latest video demonstrate).

Now, it would be wonderful if we lived in a society where women didn’t have to worry about how the way they look gets translated by society, but recent world events have demonstrated most emphatically that we do not.

So it’s seemed to me as a practitioner of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and as a Western woman, I must approach how I address the practice with a hefty dose of gender awareness and with additional respect. I am, in Nancy Gilgoff’s words, “a pioneer” in this field. The things I do as a student and as a teacher have an impact on the future of the practice. While much of Ashtanga is particularly beautiful when translated by a female body—and this is going to sound counter-intuitive to you I’m sure—we have to be careful not to express that beauty in an over-sexualized way, or even an overly feminine way.


Because yoga emerged from a deeply misogynistic (not unlike the rest of the world in this) and manifoldly complicated culture and religious philosophy. Sure, it’s good for you. But when you go so far as to advertise to the world how good it is for you, you have to be careful what you’re selling—intentionally or unintentionally—along with that, if only out of respect.

Poets, writers, painters and photographers have always been sharply aware of the power of what used to be called the self-portrait (see John Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”—itself based on a painting by Parmigianino—James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Leonardo’s touching line drawing of himself as an old man, Sue

My favorite: Salvator Rosa's "Self Portrait as a Philosopher" Via The National Gallery
My favorite: Salvator Rosa’s “Self Portrait as a Philosopher.” His tablet reads, “Be quiet, unless your speech be better than silence.” Via The National Gallery

Ford’s interpretation of that ancient mirror-image genre). It’s a way of very self-consciously self-interpreting. I suppose the “-ie” suffix is an indicator of the smallness of the selfie genre, and I’m giving it more attention than it deserves, and that it’s an unfair comparison. But this is yoga, dammit, and it demands more art. More respect. More faith.

Another disclaimer. Steve and I are about to go on our second pilgrimage to India in two years. We will be going to see and worship at Hindu temples. We are doing this because we have found in our study of yoga philosophy a deep connection between faith and the practice. I’m not saying it’s an easy connection, a simple connection, or a universal connection—in fact, I’m saying it’s the opposite: It’s hard, complicated, and personal. But to act as if this potential for connection doesn’t exist or as if it’s not part of the context of the practice. . .well, again, you do so at your peril.

I know there are many positions taken by wiser people than me to the contrary. And I’m very aware of the many translations of the word “yoga” (Sanskrit:  योग) and the purpose given to us by Patanjali. But to me, the practice of Ashtanga is a way of removing all that is not Real.

Initially, what was not Real was pain. (Ha! You thought I’d forgotten that bit!) That was not Real, and it took a steady practice of Ashtanga for me to stop identifying or confusing my self with pain. And I have no doubt that is what Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was attempting to give to his students: A way to clear pain from the mind, or at least to put it in its place, as something unreal, so you can see more clearly.

But once I was clear of that pain, I came to see many other things that weren’t Real. Our coming yatra (“pilgrimage”) is a way of continuing that quest of clearing (there’s a lot of unreal out there, people). The practice, in many ways, has become a sort of footnote to that quest. So it troubles me that this phenomenon of self-portraiture and self-importance may deceive both the practitioner and the one gazing on the practitioner, that they may be both sending and receiving in ways that are not real.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

7 thoughts on “Self-Portrait as a Yogi”

  1. Bobbie, this is by far the best observations on the topic of yoga selfies. Your final sentences crystallized my feelings that I’d been struggling to put into words. I agree, putting more “unreal” into the world is precisely what bothers me about yoga selfies.
    Thank goodness there are writers like you! By the way, I’m returning to Utila, Honduras to sub the Ashtanga classes. Thanks for that opportunity as well!

      1. I second Kim’s comment. This is a fantastic observation.

        I particularly like this line: “It’s important to establish your firm grip on happiness to people you do not or barely know”. I think this is precisely what’s going on.

        And, as Kim says, it just leads to more of the “unreal”.

        Great post, Bobbie!

  2. Well said!

    I think a lot of people go through phases of looking at the practice from the outside. It’s initially pretty interesting to compare what it looks like to what it feels like. But of course the danger lies in mistaking the tools (the asana) for the goal (understanding).

    Understanding for me equals the impermanence of everything, including the idea of the solid self. (I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhism lately.)

    Then again, perhaps the true self addicts out there will be forced by the nature of their addition to confront this impermanence, if the habit exists long enough. We all know progress in anything isn’t linear. Even if you don’t get injured from time to time, eventually the body grows old enough that you must discard it.

    I’m enjoying the debate anyway because it gives me interesting stuff to read while I’m stuck in my cubicle.

  3. Bobbi,

    Thank you for your great post on the male gaze and yoga. This topic is one that I can relate to. As I am learning new poses in the ashtanga series, I have felt some discomfort and uncertainty in doing certain poses, poses that are suppose to be neutral but could become sexualized when women practice them. I don’t know if my discomfort comes from the particular culture I grew up in, but it is something that has come up for me.

  4. Funnily enough I was just thinking about yoga & gender but in a different way. I recently met an old friend of mine who is now queer, as in, they don’t identify with the binary dualities of gender and sexuality. It’s been on my mind and I feel to some extent the process of yoga is similar, in the sense of it’s about more awareness of the ridiculousness of these separate dualities.

    I really like how you draw together different strands of your knowledge and life to weave them into this coherent presentation of what is wrong with selfies. Thank you very much for something to chew on.

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