yogic narcissism

I want to think a little about the concept of yogic narcissism that Matthew Remski presented in his workshop earlier this month titled “What are we actually doing in Asana?” at Dig Yoga in Philadelphia.  It was a wonderful three hours that really opened my eyes, and I’m excited to see his presentation develop into a book down the line.  Among many other topics, we talked about pain and injury in yoga.

We touched on one very popular yogini’s Instagram post, describing a hip injury. The accompanying text included the statement: “I always say that pain and injury are the teachers of the spiritual path,” which Remski points out “universalizes a subjective experience.”  Is it a bit irresponsible that her huge following could look at the image, read the quote, and think – I need to injure myself to attain true spirituality?

I do often wonder about all these images I see on Instagram, Facebook, etc of beautiful yogis and yoginis in perfect poses on beaches and the tops of rocks and mountains. Some of it seems so unattainable to me, and I try to note the feelings that rise up in me: a bit of jealousy, some inspiration, and perhaps an appreciation of the beauty of the human form.  Maybe I am also critically judging, reviewing alignment.  More often than not, I find myself cheering for those who are not the ideal of beauty or form.

I also wonder whether social media is changing the way we experience yoga as a culture – has it become more about the exterior? Don’t get me wrong, I myself am guilty of posting pics of a pose I’m proud of:  just look at this website.  I guess we need to ask ourselves, what’s happening here on an ego-ic level? Why do we feel the need to show people what we look like in any one pose? Is the visualization/commodification of yoga doing harm to the internal journey that could be experienced if we weren’t so focused on the exterior?  And finally, could this overstimulation of the visual parameters of poses lead to more injury in yoga?

I don’t know much about Bikram but I have a friend who does it, and I was surprised to learn the whole sequence is conducted in front of mirrors.  Another friend summed Bikram up by saying it’s “you against the mirror.”  I guess it would be helpful to make it more about you and your own personal goals rather than those around you – though I’m sure you’d be peeking at them too.  But I still wonder if seeing yourself or others in yoga poses might take away from what Remski calls “interoception,” or the ability to look within and sense internal states.  To feel what’s going on inside your body.  Until I try Bikram, I can’t speak from any place of experience.

However, I do know I have had a difficult time focusing inward and surrendering to poses, partly because of my competitive nature, my endless roving eye that seeks out the visual.  During my teacher training at Dhyana Yoga this past summer, I found myself surrounded by twenty-somethings in terrific shape.  All sorts of ego issues came up.  I had a hard time letting go and finding my starting point without judgement. I’m in my mid-forties, okay.  I have two herniated discs, and foraminal stenosis which leads to sciatica at times.  Yet I was still putting so much pressure on myself that I ended up hurting my back right at the beginning of the 5-week training.  Thanks, ego.  What that did, however, was allow me to focus on all the mental parts of doing yoga, and boy did I ever learn a lot.  So, while I had to skip a lot of poses, I did learn to recognize unhelpful ego-ic thoughts. To some degree, I think I will always attempting to discern what is the injury and a physical factor for adjusting or limiting practice; and what is an emotional barrier or rejection that is limiting my forward movement.

At any rate, comparing yourself to others on a visual level, whether in a class or via online images, is a place where injury can occur (in my personal experience.) If she can do it, I should be able to too, right?  Let me just crank my leg up a little higher!  Of course, it’s all up to you to recognize your own limits, but as Remski points out, the catch phrase “Listen to your body” is not necessarily enough to avoid injury, because your body is designed to trick you into persevering through pain.  And then there’s the idea that to some extent, some of us might welcome pain to feel like we’re getting somewhere in yoga.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to post a picture of yourself doing yoga, and I think that as with most things, it comes back to the intention, and trying to understand why we’re doing it.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. Maybe we’re tracking our progress, or want to share the joy of our experience. Perhaps it’s simply a way to celebrate beauty and effort. Do we want to inspire others, or did that particular image capture an important moment that we want others to experience?  Or, is there also the possibility that we are just showing off? I’d like to try and take more responsibility for the images and messages I send out, and I’d ask you to do the same: let’s fill our social media posts with not only the shining perfect moments in yoga, but the failed attempts that document the process of yoga as well. You don’t learn to walk without falling a few times, right?  Same goes for headstand 🙂  I’m still workin’ on it.

headstand process