There’s no denying that 2013 was the “year of the selfie.” In November 2013, Oxford Dictionaries named selfie (which they define as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”) their international word of the year, reporting that the frequency of its usage had increased by 17,000 percent since November 2012. 17,000 percent! For those of us who spend a significant amount of time using social media, this likely doesn’t come as a huge shock, as scrolling through a barrage of selfies on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter has become par for the daily course.
Yoga selfies in particular have garnered their own share of media attention recently—most notably with a July 2013 New York Times piece profiling some of the most popular Instagram yoga celebrities (yes, that is a thing). Since then, the yoga blogsphere has been awash with commentary on the pitfalls and merits of the yoga selfie, and one only needs to go as far as the community page on the insanely popular viral content hub, BuzzFeed, to find a list called “The 10 Best Yoga Instagram Accounts.”
Me . . . I suppose I was a bit late (as far as Internet trends go, anyway) to jump on the yoga-selfie bandwagon. To be honest, even just the word selfie makes me cringe a bit, and (at least initially) the idea of showing my asana practice to all of my Internet acquaintances seemed kind of frightening. Would fellow practitioners criticize my alignment? Would posting photos of myself make me seem narcissistic or unyogic? It was only after the NYT article piqued my interest (and I traded in my old smartphone for a newer model with a fancier camera) that I decided to set my misgivings aside and experiment with taking some asana photos of my own.
The idea of showing my asana practice to all of my internet acquaintances seemed kind of frightening.
My initial attempt was kind of hilarious, as I honestly couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to hold a camera and practice asana at the same time. Like your typical twentysomething, I turned to Facebook for advice:
Me: For real, how am I supposed to take a picture of myself if both of my hands are on the floor?
Helpful friend: Camera timer?
Oh yeah, there probably is an app for that, huh? Turns out there are lots of apps for that—many of them free (here is a free option).
Things went a bit more smoothly from then on. I set my newly acquired timer app, snapped a shot of myself practicing an asana that I considered to be one of my “best,” and hit the “share” button (all in the name of research, of course) without any further snafus.
And the response? Well, actually, people were pretty nice. Really, like a lot nice. No one picked apart my alignment (or even my awkward lighting and camera angle), nor did worried friends private-message me to inform me that I was indeed a terribly unyogic narcissist. As I continued to post photos, the niceness continued, and a few super-geeky asana discussions (which are, like, my favorite thing ever) sprung up as a result of my newfound yoga-selfie hobby.
That was a few months ago, and since then I’ve been taking and sharing yoga selfies on a semi-regular basis (about two times per week), and for the most part, having a surprising amount of fun doing it (even though the word still makes me cringe). One of the biggest benefits I’ve discovered along the way has been a greater connection to both the local and global yoga communities. I’m very much an introvert, and though splashing photos of myself all over the Internet might not seem like the most introverted of activities, I’ve generally found it much easier to connect with fellow practitioners via a shared hashtag, or to comment on a photo with an alignment question, than to strike up an asana-related conversation in person.
This virtual yoga community can be especially beneficial for practitioners in areas where yoga is not particularly prevalent. “Not every area is a booming area,” explains yoga teacher Patrick Beach (@Patrickbeach on Instagram). “I’ve met so many people from sharing photos of myself doing yoga on the Internet; it’s a huge way for people to connect. Where I live, there aren’t a lot of teachers that teach in the style that I practice, so I rely on online [resources like] yoga selfies to keep learning and growing my practice.”
It doesn't really register how many people you can affect by being honest, open, and pressing "post,"
Social media can be an especially effective way for teachers to connect with their students, as well. “It doesn't really register how many people you can affect by being honest, open, and pressing 'post,’ says international yoga teacher and writer, Kathryn Budig (@KathrynBudig on Instagram). “I've received letters from people I've never met thanking me for the constant support and inspiration they garner from my social media pages. It's like Christmas for me. I love knowing being open and honest can inspire others to do the same.”
“It’s a fantastic teaching tool,” agrees Beach. “I use Instagram to stay connected with students who come to my workshops. It’s great for traveling teachers in particular.”
Yoga Selfies as Body Positive (Well, Sort Of)
While interactive online platforms like Facebook and Instagram can for sure serve as a great way for tech-savvy yogis to connect with their teachers and with each other, there’s no mistaking that practitioners like Budig and Beach have very advanced practices—more advanced than most, to be sure—and while looking at photos of very advanced practitioners can certainly be inspiring, it can also feel a little discouraging sometimes.
“I'm cautious to post anything that is overly advanced without a warning label of sorts,” says Budig. “It's a big passion of mine to break down the impossible and make it possible. In that sense, it's complicated. You want to keep people inspired but not deflated by what they see. It's a very fine balance and even then you'll always upset someone . . . I post bloopers. I want my students to know that the really inspiring photos are the best, shiny moments and that there are lots of flops in between.”
I can personally attest that I’ve felt apprehensive about posting selfies that weren’t “perfect.” I don’t know how to use Photoshop—heck, I can barely work the camera on my phone—so while I may snap a few shots before I get one that I’m satisfied with, my selfies pretty much portray my practice—and my body—as they are. So when I receive kind feedback, honestly, it feels pretty validating. In a sense, that validation—the recognition that all sorts of bodies exist and practice yoga—is something I see as a major point in favor of the yoga selfie. While, as Budig pointed out, it is typically the “best shiny moments” of one’s practice that tend to be shared, the “real factor” is still more prevalent than we typically see in other yoga-related media.
Practitioners are able to see real, unphotoshopped yoga bodies.
Case in point: While I’ve seen strong asana practitioners of all shapes and sizes rock advanced poses in the classroom, rarely, in professionally produced yoga-related media (books, magazines, DVDs, advertisements, etc.), do I see body types that deviate from the young, thin, conventionally beautiful (and usually photoshopped) standard, and when I do, it’s usually not in advanced asana. Of course this doesn’t mean that the only poses worth snapping photos of are the big, flashy ones either, and sharing “easier” poses can be tremendously beneficial as well, serving as a reminder that that you don’t have to contort yourself into Cirque du Soleil-esque forms to benefit considerably from yoga practice.
One of the greatest merits of the yoga selfie is that anyone can take one, and thanks to social media and the virtual yoga community that it's created, practitioners are able to see real, unphotoshopped yoga bodies. Or, as one of my favorite bloggers, Leslie Kinzel, put it in an impassioned (and convincing) defense of selfies (in general) on the xoJane blog recently:
"[S]elfies are important to a lot of folks for the simple reason that they offer a rare opportunity to see a woman who looks like they do represented in media, even if it's simply social media. The overwhelming majority of women we see held up as idealized beauty every day are very slender and very white, not to mention very able-bodied and very “feminine” according to traditional standards."
And I think this applies to yoga selfies, too (including those taken by men). The Facebook page, “My Real Yoga Body” (recently profiled by YogaDork), which invites yogis of all ages, levels, and body types to take and share yoga selfies, serves as a great example. It’s not such a novel concept really—basically, it’s just people posting photos of themselves practicing asana—but despite the fact that the page is less than three months old at the time I’m writing this, they already have well over 3,200 “likes.” Perhaps because, in what many feel to be an increasingly air-brushed, profit-centered Western yoga culture, a simple Facebook page proclaiming to “celebrate all of the yogis and yoginis out there,” and actually, you know, meaning it, feels pretty refreshing. And honestly, pretty badass and subversive, too.
The Shadow Side of Yoga Selfies
While I might personally be inclined to argue that there’s more redeeming value in a photo that you take of yourself demonstrating a backbend you’ve been working on than there is in a photo you took of your face in the bathroom mirror, I still have to acknowledge that yoga selfies aren’t all empowerment and rainbows. Selfies in general are often criticized as promoting narcissism and elevating style over substance, and yoga selfies aren’t immune from these same criticisms—often rightfully so.
I still have to acknowledge that yoga selfies aren’t all empowerment and rainbows.
“It’s almost like [yoga selfies] have become the new food pics,” says It's All Yoga, Baby blogger Roseanne Harvey. “It’s the same psychology—the same kind of almost bragging quality. In some ways, it’s inspiring to see people show pride in their practices and their accomplishments, but there’s also a level of display there—a show-offiness.” At the same time, “It’s really easy to be critical—and we should,” says Harvey, “but people like these photos—they get huge amounts of 'likes' and 'shares,' and the question that we need to be asking is not only why people do it, but why do people like it? Why do people resonate with it? It’s kind of a two-sided coin. I can see how that propels people, keeps them posting more. [They get] more likes, more followers, more attention, and they keep on doing it. We need to ask ourselves what gratifies people in posting. What feeds that?"
As a means of challenging this yoga-selfie paradigm, while undertaking the asana, food, and lifestyle plan outlined in Sadie Nardini’s 21-Day Yoga Body, and sharing the experience via her blog and social media, Harvey intentionally posted what she calls “awkward selfies”—“bad angles on purpose," she says, "like rear-view pictures of cobra. [The idea was] to expose the shadow body—parts of the body that we don’t acknowledge or recognize because they’re not culturally acknowledged as being beautiful or desirable. Literally, like, ‘here’s my lumpy butt in a really ordinary pose—cobra.’ I felt very vulnerable and exposed,” she acknowledges, “but part of my work and mandate is challenging a lot of ideas of what yoga practice is, and how it’s perceived culturally. In doing that, I need to challenge myself and put myself out there.”
Questions We Need to Be Asking
So which is it? Are yoga selfies unyogic? Are they gratuitous explosions of privilege and our cultural obsession with beauty, or are they fun and empowering? Well, like the answer so often is with anything pertaining to yoga—it depends.
Obviously, as Harvey pointed out, there are important questions we need to be asking here. Absolutely, yoga selfies can be fun and empowering. I know I’ve recognized the benefits that taking photos and connecting with other practitioners via virtual community has had for my practice; however, I also can’t (or at least I shouldn’t) ignore the role that things like ego, privilege, and body image play in what I share and how I choose to share it. I mean, let’s be real here. While I like to think of myself as a body-positive feminist yogi, a couple of weeks ago I took a photo of myself in this super-cool arm balance I had worked really hard at learning, but I didn’t share it because the angle highlighted the cellulite on my thighs. Isn’t that, well, at least a little messed up?
A perfect pose may be sitting cross-legged with eyes closed, and that’s probably not going to get you thousands of "likes" on Instagram.
While the term mindful yoga selfie might evoke a few eye-rolls (full disclosure: I may have rolled my eyes as I typed that), infusing a little more mindfulness into this whole yoga-selfie thing certainly couldn’t hurt. For me, that means honestly asking myself why I’m sharing what I’m sharing, or why I have an urge to immediately delete a photo that I deem “unflattering.”
Ultimately, a picture-perfect asana practice isn’t really the point. Or at least it shouldn’t be, because honestly, it really doesn’t matter if I can do a handstand in the middle of the room; it’s what I learn through the process of practice that really counts, not the final form of a pose. Or, as Harvey puts it, “compassion, acceptance, and inner peace is hard to document. It’s hard to take a physical photo of that. A perfect pose may be sitting cross-legged with eyes closed, and that’s probably not going to get you thousands of ‘likes’ on Instagram.”
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!