Sometimes I think, just as there are no mirrors in good yoga studios, there should be no photographs of people practicing yoga.
I understand the value of photos as teaching tools, or as records of physical accomplishment, but aside from showing the anatomy of a pose, is it really possible to capture yoga on film? And if it isn’t yoga we are capturing, then what is it?
I recently saw series of nude yoga pictures taken by Peter Hegre of his girlfriend Luba Shumeyko, which raised a lot of red flags for me on this issue.
The photos are simple, of a stunningly beautiful woman in a series of poses which look like they came straight out of a yoga instruction manual—except she is naked. Her face is expressionless, (at least that’s how it looks to me, some viewers remarked that she appears peaceful) and her genitals shaved, leaving the impression that she is little more than a mannequin.
After I saw the pictures I learned that Peter Hegre is in fact, a pornographer, and Luba Shumeyko, one of his models. Obviously, these are two people who are comfortable creating polarizing and/or titillating images, so I had to wonder, what was their motive with the yoga spread (excuse the pun)?
Let me add here that I often wonder what the motive is behind yoga pictures, including my own yoga pictures. So, it is not the nudity or link to pornography exclusively that is raising my eyebrows, it is the whole culture of glossy exteriors and marketing, which is so contrary to the philosophy of yoga.
As I looked at image after sterile image of this woman, who has a deep practice technically, but who is absolutely unreadable emotionally, I asked myself, what exactly is she and her photographer husband trying to convey (and not just the PR thing they say they’re trying to convey)?
If I could be a fly on the wall of their unconscious minds, would I hear what I suspect is the truth, that these photos are all about vanity (as many of my own yoga photos in the past have been), or are they honestly somehow celebrating or attempting to capture yoga? Am I just projecting my own ego onto a sincere practitioner of yoga, and the artist who tried to memorialize her, or is something else going on?
What difference does it even make anyway?
To me, yoga pictures that are about exteriors are damaging to the discipline as a whole. When yoga becomes performance, it is no longer yoga, and that misrepresentation frightens people away, creates a culture of competition, and sets ego as the star atop the eight limbs when it doesn’t have any place on the tree at all.
Let me be crystal clear, I do think it’s possible to take honest pictures of people practicing yoga, but I also think it’s nearly impossible to determine if a picture is authentic or not.
The yogi who is in sirsasana (headstand) and is focusing intently on her breath, staying with each moment as it rises and evaporates, looks the same as the yogi in sirsasana who is worried that her butt looks too big, but hopes her picture will get chosen to “be in the yoga scene” on the back page of Yoga Journal. Only the yogi knows what’s happening in her head.
Which is why I think it’s paramount that we choose to take pictures of our own practice mindfully, with full disclosure to ourselves about our intent—whatever it may be, and that we look at pictures of other people’s practice equally mindfully, remembering that the shapes a person’s body makes are incidental to the person.
Yoga is never about what’s happening on the outside, but this is one of the most difficult points for us frail human beings to grasp. We all want to be beautiful and admired, but it takes a much stronger character to practice in obscurity, with only the reflection of our own thoughts to inform us.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum