Yoga as “Self Expression” is About Getting You to Buy Stuff

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Commercial yoga culture casts its net far and wide

It’s pretty hard to find moments when we aren’t expressing ourselves. For instance, when we help a homeless man covered in a million bags hop a turnstile, we’re expressing our love of a thrifty deal. When we pass out drunk on a subway and wake up in Coney Island at four in the morning, we’re expressing how much we love trains. Self-expression seems to be a pretty f’ing constant occurrence.

Commercial yoga culture uses the ubiquity of self expression as a way to make yoga culture forever relevant to consumers by defining “yoga” as the very thing we can never not do. It’s a wondrous logical coup that allows commercial yoga culture to package and sell back to consumers whatever it is they want, and at the same time call it “yoga.” Think about it: If self-expression is all we ever do, and yoga is self-expression, than yoga is by definition anything you ever feel like doing.

  • If painting is a form of self-expression, than painting is yoga.
  • If dancing is a form of self-expression, than dancing is yoga.
  • If singing is a form of self-expression, than singing is yoga.

It’s a win-win!

Although, not everyone thinks yoga is about self-expression. “Lila,” put up a response to Monday’s post discussing her doubts about the commercial trend:

I love to boogie…..on the dance floor or in my kitchen, not on my yoga mat. I love to twirl and sing and have a good time, but that’s not what I look to yoga for. I don’t need to practice yoga to express myself. I express myself with my written words, with my fashion sense, the way I decorate my house, the art that I create, the flowers that I arrange, the collages I make, the songs that I sing, the conversations that I share. That feels like real self-expression to me. Making a yoga pose “mine” doesn’t really do it for me. I don’t feel the need to throw by body around in order to feel free to be me. I’m me all the time. I’m so into being me so much of the time, that yoga is one of the few times when I can and need to focus on something more, something other than just being “me.”

However, some people don’t see it that way. Looking back at Meghan Blalock’s piece “The Shared Truths of Fashion and Yoga,” we get a rather different point of view. Here, Blalock quotes yoga practitioner and writer, Sarah Herrington:

“Yoga is about authentic experience and expression to me. I think the same can be said about fashion,” she says. “It’s also about finding freedom within structure. Can you find the sense of freedom and ease within a structured [yoga] shape like warrior two? Same with fashion: can you find the freedom and expression within the forms of clothing/accessories? That’s one thing that amazes me about fashion: essentially designers work with the same template: the body. But they find freedom and expression within those bounds.”

Blalock also quotes YAMA Talent founder, Ava Taylor who toes a similar line:

“There is definitely a correlation between [fashion and yoga],” she says. “If you call yourself a yogi, it’s a self-proclaimed title. With the clothing you put on your body, you want to show, ‘Hey, I’m a yogi!’

Blalock herself states quite frankly that:

[Yoga and fashion] share a core truth: they are vehicles by which one can both discover one’s core self and endlessly re-shape one’s identity.

Personally, I don’t really get the arguments laid out above that are pro-yoga-as-self-expression. It’s kinda like saying, “Eating a banana is the same as sucking a penis, ’cause both go in your mouth.” I mean, yes. Both require a bit of “peeling,” and both have the potential of “regulating” your bowel movements, but come on. Only one turns a weird color if not attended to.

Although….

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33 comments

  1. Yoga Whelp

    Gee, the shoe bomber also “worked with the body,” and found “freedom and expression” in that form. Some people accessorize with knapsacks when they want transport homemade explosive devices. Some people carry yoga mats for maximum psychological damage. It’s all fashion really.

    • As a home practitioner (and owner of a yoga towel/mat, which can’t be “rolled up” and stuck in a fancy-ass mat bag, and who also practices from time to time at a studio (shhhh!–big secret!) that throws in mat usage for free … I think I should carry a THIN yoga mat around my neighborhood–just for effect.

      I can tell the show-off students-with-a-bogus-headstand practice by the pilates-mat thickness of their unsheathed carry-arounds … because I ask about which pilates they are on their way to …

      • amphibi1yogini

        I think by now you could tell I am partial to pilates, and I know mat pilates (in particular Stott, in my knowledge) has its own Dana Flynn types. But I think it seems to “work much better” there.

      • Yoga Whelp

        God, I miss seeing those large, wide-bodied, John Friend signature yoga mats made by Manduka. The Anusarans say it took two hands to handle that whopper – uh, the mat, that is

  2. Yoga Whelp

    Love that you brought Dana Flynn back in. What was her slogan? “Keep Yoga Clunky.”

  3. Greenpoint

    I prefer the “music oriented” videos, at least I can watch them for more than 35 seconds…

    man that’s painful…

  4. annikalei

    i’m still having trouble understanding what a yoga asana practice that is un-self expressive would look like – only because you’re working with your very unique physical body. choosing a style, which poses you want to do, how you want to do them (fast, slow, with props, without props) all seems to be choosing your asana practice to express your preferences, and express yourself.

    when it gets to the point where the most important part of your yoga practice is that you just HAVE to think of a creative way to link 67 poses into one sequence, or you just HAVE to make up a “new” pose with a funny name, then yes, i see the link to consumer culture. but i don’t think so many people are engaging in flowy yoga classes for that specific purpose. at least not in my neck of the woods.

    and we’re talking about asana here – i understand why, because it’s what most people choose to do out of the eight limbs. there’s far less room to be creative when it comes to the other limbs of yoga, and i’ve seen the inclusion pranayama, meditation, and some references to the yamas and niyamas in what i considered to be some silly-ass dancey yoga classes. i’ve never thought to myself, “wow, that was a creative meditation session.”

    but! now, i’m thinking the proliferation of new-age snake oil salesmen a la deepak chopra, the secret, and all those hucksters might be the other side of this self-expressive, consumerist coin!

    • Hi, Anna. I think your confusion is stemming from missing an important distinction we are making. As I’ve said in a few places, there is never a moment when a person is not expressing the self. Self expression occurs in asana practice simply because it involves a human. However, commercial yoga culture attempts to sell yoga as not only a unique form of self expression, but a more “true” or “authentic” variety of self expression. I would argue that in some circles yoga is touted as self expression itself. Personally, I think this stance is meant only to “diversify” the yoga market in order to net more fish. It is a form of feigned inclusivity driven by the philosophy which states that “getting more people in the door” is in its very essence a good thing.

      • annikalei

        i get it – i just don’t see that many studios/teachers taking this stance, aside from LL and the teachers there. getting students in the door because everything is yoga? yes. but not always by linking it to some sort of self-expressive need – more often, mass-market yoga just co-opts fitness industry language and techniques that are more about making you feel like you need something they’re offering that you don’t have. and by something, i’m talking about a physical something, not the ability to more authentically express your creative self. but then again, i don’t live in nyc any more, and i don’t go to workshops too much, and i don’t go to yoga journal conferences. i mostly just roll out my mat and practice the way i please.

        how’d you know my first name, anyway? i prefer to go by my super-expressive-authentically-creative-made-up-when-i-was-in-a-rock-band name on the internet.

        • Oh! I actually meant to write “Anni” but spellcheck thwarted me without me knowing. Had no idea you were “Anna” in the real world! If you feel like sharing your rock band name, I’d be happy to know it. But, I get it if you don’t.

        • annikalei is it – i just got a little rumplestiltskin-y when i thought you knew my first name, since my first teacher training certificate is signed by DTF herself… from way back in the day, long before going to practice there was like this video. the last time i was in the city and went to class there, we were told to shout “i’m free!” a bunch of times, and i was more wanting to shout, “WTF?”

  5. amphibi1yogini

    A comment about the video “Dana Trixie Flynn Yoga: Radical Flow” on the actual streaming-and-download site from leesya:

    “Class is good, but I found myself not following about 85% of her vocal instructions – I had to keep my eyes glued to the screen to see what she was doing. Great if you want to build your own practice – but then, I wouldn’t be watching a video class if I wanted to make up my own flow.”

    Q.E.D.

  6. jorge

    I think there is a certain amount of self-expression in yoga asana, maybe i would call it self exploration though, that crosses over with other types of movement practices/arts/etc. for me the difference is that yoga has always been more abut what comes AFTER that. yes, i want to know and understand/perfect(?) the physical aspects of my body and mind, take care of myself, and to have a good time. through lots practice and discipline i slowly learn more about what it is that makes me who and what i am on a physical, mental, and emotional level. i get to see all the shit that comes up day in and day out and try and let it all go. there is the ideal though(speaking for myself) that im doing this practice to eventually move beyond my attachments and limitations to who and what i am. it is a spiritual mission first and foremost. its a practice of learning to shave off everything that i dont actually need and that which only buffers what/who i truly am. i practice yoga to learn how to shut the fuck up. its more of a reduction process happening rather than one of accumulation, ideally. ive seen videos of that guy doing some pretty amazing movement stuff and its inspiring to watch, he’s clearly a badass with his art form. granted, i think he is at the better end of the self expression spectrum(anusara being the furthest reaches of hell), but there is still a certain amount of fetishism with the body and grasping or collecting experiences that to me is only a wall to jump over. the anusara empire perfected the art of chasing only “good” things and experiences while denying or pushing off the bad, making whatever abundance you thought you needed or deserved a righteous spiritual endeavor to be consumed and collected with out seeing the trappings of this. it was also conveniently something that could be quite profitable. whatever you wanted yoga to be was yoga indeed! Ma will give you whatever it is you want i suppose, but you still have to take the responsibility of keeping your eye on the prize and navigating through your own bullshit, cuz its deep. this world is full of crashing bores…..

  7. jorge

    and i must be one.

  8. jorge

    shoulda just posted this, talk about some self-expression master shanipoo!:

    “Encouraging Words” by Zen Master Guishan
    Some day you will die.
    Lying on your sick bed about to breathe your last, you will be assailed by every kind of pain,
    Your mind will be filled with fears and anxieties and you will not know where to go or what to do,
    Only then you will realize you have not practiced well.
    The skandhas/aggregates (matter, sensations, conceptions, impulses and consciousness)
    and the four elements in you will quickly disintegrate, and your consciousness will be pulled wherever your ancient, twisted karma leads it.
    Impermanence does not hesitate.
    Death will not wait.
    You will not be able to extend you life by even a second.
    How many thousands times more will you have to pass through the gates of birth and death.
    If these words are challenging, even insulting, let them be an encouragement for you to change
    Practice heroically
    Do not accumulate unnecessary possessions.
    Don’t give up.
    Still your mind, end wrong perceptions, concentrate and do not run after the objects of your senses.
    Practice diligently.
    Be determined not to let your days and months pass by wastefully.

    • Yoga Whelp

      “Carpe diem” is a lot more succinct.

      • But not nearly as scary.

        • Yoga Whelp

          No shit. Sure, let’s just imagine the future dread of dying a ghastly painful death all the while realizing that our life was meaningless. Why? To get us to live well. NOT. I really don’t need to live in the imaginary wreckage of the imaginary future to live fully in the moment. Keep you endlessly projected shame and your guilt to yourself yoga bozo. Actually, I may just have a heart attack crossing the street or get hit by a car and it will all be neat and tidy, and by the time I am even dimly aware of what the fuck just happened I’ll be flying over Hades trying to find Brower and Sadie.

      • agentpete

        YW, you are one of the many reasons this is such a damn good site. Thank you, and thank you Babs :)

    • And, here’s the video that it has come to be linked with. Still gives me a bit of the ol’ chills.

      • Greenpoint

        “Only then you will realise that you have not practiced well…”

        that’s just awesome…

      • gross

        chant HARE KRISHNA in that moment and all will be well….. of course, in a sense we are ALWAYS on our death bed. we have NO idea when it will come. so ALWAYS chant HARE KRISHNA and all will be well! CHANT HEROICALLY!

      • the moment already came

        Wow. On the one hand that has the appearance of an amazing, dedicated practice…

        On the other hand it looks like the accumulation of a lot of unnecessary possessions and running after the objects of senses.

  9. voxygen

    Isn’t all this “self-expression” simply the expression of our preferences? We are what we buy, what we wear, what we do, who we hang out with, what we “like” on Facebook… Who are we without preferences? I think Patanjali and the Buddha had something to say about it… maybe I should look it up. Then I can post the quote on my blog or have it tattooed on my forehead in Sanskrit.

  10. gross

    she is not even doing a single asana in this video. approaching it, then ditching it for some akward transition. and what is up with that awful bent knee in the almost uttita hasta? “swirl it around….” . then SPIT it out!

  11. e

    Babs I’m loving your site. A friend just sent me this I thought you might enjoy it as an example of the intersections you are discussing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=T-k6-3Sfk1g#!

  12. Seeker

    Umm… That encouragement is very… Encouraging?

    So someone explain to me why it’s so difficult to find a teacher up in NYC like that crazy dude above and not like that crazy chick above?

    • Yoga Whelp

      In other words, you want to know why the male archetype turns out to be a stronger foundation for spiritual growth and development than the female archetype? And when women try to pretend otherwise — and confuse the mere acquisition of social power with the bestowing of spiritual authority — they tend to leave chaos,. confusion, and destruction in their wake? Or did I misread your question?

    • Susan Tanner

      Look for some ashtangis, Seeker. NYC has multiple mysore ashtanga teachers of a variety of genders. Google and ye shalt find.

  13. gross

    seeker, its not THAT! hard. try the iyengar institute for some teachers who have serious sadhana…

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