February 16, 2011

Yoga is Performance Art.

by Matthew Remski

PLEASE NOTE. No actual human beings were harmed in the generation of this post. Their internal realizations remain intact and pristine. Only their photographic and aural images have been deconstructed for evidence of the manufacture of authenticity.

I sometimes feel like a bullshitter while teaching asana, or advising a client, or lecturing. I’m not talking about those moments of heart-fart when my attunement goes south, and I feel the Big Blank of disconnection. I’m not talking about hearing myself, as if on a sound stage, repeat the same instruction that was useful long ago but now holds no juice for me.

I’m talking about a deeper structural flaw in the very transmission of yoga: being hyper-aware that I am consciously articulating knowledge or emotion that I don’t presently feel in my bones, and I’m trying to make it sound good. That moment when I know that my words are completely inadequate to describe my delightful or orgasmic or baffled memory of knowledge, but I keep speaking anyway, because people are looking at me, asking me to speak, because my speaking seems to soothe them, because my speech is occasionally interesting to me, because speaking is my paycheck.

All teaching includes showbiz, of course: an ambivalent shadow play of what you think you know and what you think someone needs or will be entertained by, all subconsciously designed to conceal your doubt. This will not leave me. As your fellow human I was born to dissemble, to be split between internal and external voices, private and public, real and ideal.

But the teaching of yoga is even more performative, because it needs to communicate the feeling of states that the teacher is not in.  It wants to transmit the thrill of that spontaneous growth that the teacher must ironically put on hold to describe. Teaching yoga asks that I communicate empathy when I’m not in it, or even when I’m roiling in confusion, or blank with apathy.

Does the showbiz make me inauthentic? No. It is a mark of my humanness. Like everyman, I’ve been performing the role of myself since the mirror-stage day I realized there could be a difference between how I felt and how others saw me. yoga 2.0 tells me: it’s alright, this is natural – know you’re performing, accept that you’re performing, hone your performance, love this stage.  A quick survey of modern yoga shows us that performance does not obstruct yoga’s authenticity, but is its very medium. We all preen for perfect posing.

The age of the photograph seals the deal. How have we conveyed internal states in the age of the external image? By staging our images precisely. Yogis become strange idols before the lens.

sri yukteshar as jesus-zombie

Take this tinnotype of Sri Yukteshwar from somewhere around 1910. He glares past the lens with ferocious intent. His robes are perfectly swaddled. The tigerskin looks brand new – still stiff from tanning, it seems. But did he really meditate with an open-eyed glare on a dais smaller than his lotus-span? Is he in his private room? Or is he getting ready to give satsang?

Most importantly: is he aware of the camera? The cross-shot angle wants to suggest no. But we weren’t born yesterday, buddy! We know that not ten feet away, there’s a man under a curtain in front of a clunky glass-plate machine mounted on a tripod, probably igniting a flash-bomb that pops out those hot-spots on his left shoulder and crown-of-head.

(We can leave for another post the question of whether old Yukti, the stylist, and the photographer were aware of his uncanny resemblance to the Jesus-face in the Shroud of Turin – the 1898 photo of which had recently circulated through the world. That post will talk about the elision of christian and yogic iconography through the darkrooms of the late Victorians. Stay tuned.)

i see showbiz in your future, Yukti

Reconstructing Yukteshwar’s set can only go so far before we push the evidence. But what we do know right now is that we have been trained to canonize saints through assessing what they appear to be doing. He is performing darshan, eternally, mesmerizing our wish to embody the invisible. His body carked it in 1936, but his image, his pomo soul, still burns in our cloud.


Performance has always governed the yoga scene. There are costumes, hairstyles, ashes, body paint, feats of memorization, absurd postures. Beside every guru is a dresser carrying his shawl. And anyone who has tried to learn vedic ritual knows that the puja is pure theatre. You even apologize to your audience (the deities), if you screw up the choreography.

Archaic mythology is spiked with the visually-confirmed exploits of saints: starvations, mortifications, battle scenes, heroic journeys. It has never been enough for us to simply hear about the ideas of Virtue. We have to see someone doing it to believe it can be done. But our inner conflict is this: being dissemblers ourselves, we know that we cannot fully trust what we see. So the icon exacts a steep price: that we suppress our doubt. Which is why icons become hateful and oppressive when our doubts are pricked and overflow.

Questioning the authenticity of Tara Stiles or John Friend because they clearly know they’re on stage is a subliminal rejection of ourselves, our own performative condition. Do we call them frauds out of self-defense?


Let’s check out Yogananda – or rather – the semiotics of Yogananda’s image. First: his mystic side-gaze. He’s looking past your imperfections, dear viewer, towards your ultimate reality:

you not lookin at me? you not lookin at me?

But Yogananda can rock the engaged look as well. Here he is, hitting his mark, flashing his spiritual Blue Steel. This one hits this ex-catholic right between the eyes. Jesus still wants me, it tells me, body and soul. The fact that Yogananda’s image is probably meant to push that tender button belongs to that future xtian/yoga post. Again, stay tuned.

yogananda remembers jesus

jesus anticipates yogananda


In the 20s, the talkies come in, making the performance of yoga audible, but according to the enunciation of the Victorian stage and early modern poetry. Check out Sivananda’s soaring and blustery oration:

Compare with Yeats (especially after minute 6, when he rips into “Innisfree”).  It doesn’t matter what Yeats and Sivananda are saying: the intonation is a performance of the authentic. If you were not a native English speaker, you would still think: these guys Know Something.


But the power of the haloed portrait and the old-timey wax-cylinder recording don’t have legs in the TV age. So along comes Sri Chinmoy, who showed his spiritual prowess by getting ripped and staying ripped, and organizing Feats of Yogic Strength for general televised consumption. (He inherits the venerable lineage of Indian National physical culture, as propogated by Rao and Yogeshwar and Kuvalyananda — read Mark Singleton if you haven’t already!) Here he is, on a velvet satsang lounger, surrounded by Japanese-y blossoms (or maybe a painted theatre-flat!), pumping iron along with that thousand-yard stare. He clearly didn’t listen to his stylist about the old-man Florida shirt. Ouch.

Sri Chinmoy, pumping the Self up. The bar is 8 pounds, each bell is 50: adds up to 108. He was known for 108 reps at a time. He was a pioneer in the industrial-age mala.

Every Thursday before my vedic astrology class I eat lunch at a delightful Chinmoy-folk restaurant in Toronto that I highly recommend for both its vegetarian sampler and indophile kitsch. There’s one TV hovering over the dining room, silent, playing an endless loop of Chinmoy doing chinups, Chinmoy running the mile, Chinmoy lifting chimps and small children with pulleys, Chinmoy playing his flute (glad it’s silent!), Chimnoy swimming across Tokyo harbour pulling an armada of boats with his teeth. Oops. That’s me remembering Jack LaLanne from an infomercial. But I do kind of expect Chinmoy to start selling a juicer or a tofu press. I sit there and munch my papadums and wonder WTF is going on.

Of course Chinmoy’s claims at physical prowess are laced with the bullshit of the showman. As the wiki-bit describes, he asked that photos of his weightlifting exploits be doctored for “clarity”. Then he got busted by a kinesiologist.

But is this really such a surprise? The guy claimed to lift 7000 lbs with one arm!  The claim demands that it appear to be so, or else his direct spiritual uplink is sketchy. So why not photoshop? We’re representing enlightenment after all – something that can’t be seen – through a visual medium. To screw things up even more, the Enlightened have declared that the visual is illusory. They’re saying: I’ll show you Who I Am That You May Believe, but put on these special glasses, will you? Maya is the hoax, after all.

yoga 2.0 is saying this about yoga and performance: there’s little difference between Yukteshwar pretending he’s in samadhi and Yogananda pretending he’s Jesus and Chinmoy pretending to lift a Volkswagon and Adi Da pretending to melt the ego with his eyes and Tara Stiles using her dancer’s body to perform asana and Bryan Kest using jockalect to remasculate the simpering yoga-voice and Seane Corne sounding like an evangelist and Sai Baba manifesting ash out of his ‘fro. Performance is performance: it neither confirms nor denies authenticity. It is simply the language of our multi-mediated and visual-primary consciousness. We will definitely be conflicted about it. Perhaps probing that conflict is a new path of jnana yoga.

Who would public yogis be without spectacle? Is there any chance at all that they would be as visible, or, to mind-bend a little more – that they would be as able to manifest as wide a range of the invisible things they cherish?

The authenticity problem is not about branding or set design. It’s about human beings having eyeballs. If we could sniff John Friend up close and personal and used that data alone to form relationship with him, a. most of these questions would dry up, and b. his kula would be limited to those within a two-yard a radius of his flesh. Maybe four yards after a good backbend class.


Perhaps the strangest but most common performance in the history of yoga occurs when the classic ascetic withdrawal from society must be staged and performed for us householding bottom-feeders for it to be meaningful.

Scott laid out the scene over lunch. A yogi resolves to become Enlightened. He dons his robe and walks up the mountain. The villagers watch him go. They gossip about him over bhang and chai. Then someone sees a star rise over his cave. Stories start up. Someone who saw the star is healed of bunions. Then someone suggests the yogi must be getting hungry. Somebody else says No, he’s given up food, and lives by Spirit alone. A third says Screw it – it would be a great good deed to feed the yogi – I’m going! So he takes a dosa up the mountain trail. And some ladoos. Maybe some lassi. He tries not to snack on the way.

When the food-devotee gets to the cave, the yogi greets him and gratefully shares the food. The nettle tea was getting old, after all. In return for the food, the yogi, of course, dispenses some nuggets of wisdom. Thus: performance of knowledge is born. Whatever that guy knew two weeks before when he was washing dishes down in the village is nothing compared to what we think he knows now. But we have to climb up to his theatre to hear it. Soon, tickets are sold, in the form of literal tickets, or through the various hazing activities endured by all nouveau-ascetics.

What is critical in the economy of yoga-knowledge is the performance of his solitude. But the lonely yogi is never truly alone. You’re watching him. From afar. Your gaze sanctifies him. Your gaze puts him in a perfect bubble that you dare not burst. But he cannot sanctify you. His separation from society, his robe, his reputed wisdom: these but serve to expose your inadequacy. He’s showing you something you cannot be. That’s different from sharing together what you already have.


yoga 2.0 says: we’re all performing yoga. We have to, because we have eyes. And now mirrors. And now cameras. And now webcams. And now stock photo sites. And of course porn, which drives nearly every aspect of our visual technology forward. From the moment of the mirror-stage, we have felt the split between internal and external states. In yoga media, we try to mend the split. We fail. We must fail. And it’s no big deal.


Flash-forward to now. Check out the behind-the-scenes machinations of a Yoga Journal cover shoot.

No different from any fashion trip. And how else could it be? What makes us cringe, except our failure to accept our own participation in the multiple layers of performance? What makes us icky, except our wish to disappear from this economy of seeing and being seen?

Or do we rebel against the performance of yoga because we hate being bodies?


Now I’ll really spin out into what may seem like left field. The yogi who is performing what must always remain concealed is using the body to play with the erotics of knowledge. Take Sadie Nardini’s EJ bio pic:

come hither, to thine mat

The left eye calls to me all bedroom-like, but the right eye is more ashram. The gaze teases, but the hands hold intention. There is sass, but calm. Elfishness, but curves. She’s ahead of me. She invites me onward into the Sedona vista, where unknown horizons of consciousness crack open. I imagine we’ll be barefoot in the sand there. I bet she has Larabars in her yoga-mat bag, and that they’re squishy in the desert heat and they’ll dribble down my chin when we share them with sticky fingers… Her image leads me to an arroyo consummation, just as Yogananda’s mug leads me to a cave of samadhi.

Sadie’s is definitely a more effective use of yoga-media than Yukteshwar’s. But we can’t blame him for not anticipating that the zombie-Jesus look would lose traction.

Of course, I’m not in love with Sadie Nardini, whom I have not had the pleasure of meeting in the flesh, with or without Larabars. I’m in love with the image. And I know I have no idea how the pic and the person align. And that’s exactly the delightful friction in yoga performance, and it always will be.  Her full personhood is separated from her image, which can only allude to it. The extent to which she works this split is important to her performance of yoga, and perhaps important to her capacity to connect to others, which is very strong indeed. Accepting her performance, speaking openly about her conscious branding, she exudes transparency, and yogis smell the sweet absence of bullshit.

the logo requires a perfect pose frozen in time

But some of us are literally enslaved by the image. Who can forget that creepy story of somebody watching B.K.S. Iyengar in his late seventies greeting a photographer at his ashram in Pune. The guy wanted pix for some magazine. The old man flared his nostrils and started to rip into full natarajasana without warming up. He struggled, tottered, turned white, fell out of the pose, waved the photographer away, and lay down in savasana. The great master probably had a minor coronary, all because he couldn’t stop himself from performing the asana which, we should note, is at the heart of his empire’s logo. This was a shaky moment for the brand, we might say. But it was totally in character for the guy whose showman guru made him perform as a teen yogi for the doyennes of the Mysore palace both brahminical and political, and even, one fateful day, for Yogananda himself.


Slowly, some of us are becoming self-reflexive about the performance of yoga, and what it discloses about us.  My friend Senem posted this recently:

This is the performance of vinyasa with steel rods in the spine. Amazing to see. This is how performance unites with empathy.


One of my favourite pictures of a contemporary yogi is this shot of my friend Michael Stone.

The venue is some modern studio: drywall, an IKEA baseboard. The blue suggests a swimming pool, which is amplified by what looks like a glass table which in turn looks like photoshopped water. The picture smells like chlorine. While the set is urban-ambivalent, the dias is battered and out-of-place. It looks like it was pulled out of a train station in Mumbai. The fake glass/water (will it crash or splash?) picks up the swimming-pool theme, suggesting all watery meanings of subconscious, generation – but also stagnancy? A flood in the modern yoga studio? The yogi is ascetic and grizzly, with whiskers you might find dipping into beer in a Latin American union hall. The gaze is primarily blank, but hints at a slight bemusement, a touch of who cares? and a pinch of no-big-deal. The pose itself is impressive and evocative. I look at it and hear an inner voice say: “If I look up, it will be from under my own leg. My gaze will pass through my earth element. I paw the sky with my foot; I’m a man of a very weird now, trying to see more clearly.”

The only muscularity in the pose is in the forearms, which makes me think there’s a little teeth-gritting going on. Part of him wants to smash something. I like that. He’s wearing 90s grunge/skater shorts from the Sally Ann. They have a velour sheen. There’s no cheesy tiger skin. Somehow he evokes – consciously and unconsciously, seen and unseen –  an ineffable contradictory internal life I think I share with him, in some shimmering way.

It’s a great performance. It unites us.

photo by ek park. author is wondering how he looks

matthew remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.

p.s. — Do you have any experience with yoga and performance that you’d like to share?

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