The phenomenon of international posture-based yoga would not have occurred without the rapid expansion of print technology and the cheap, ready availability of photography. Furthermore, yoga’s expression through such media fundamentally changed the perception of the “yoga body” and the perceived function of yoga practice. [Photography] is by no means an objective medium reflecting what is simply “there” but an active structuring process through which society and “reality” are themselves endowed with meaning.
~Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010)
The development of modern yoga in the early 20th century depended on the then-revolutionary technology of photography to represent and popularize it.
Today, photography is more important to yoga than ever, as we’re inundated with images of the “yoga body” everywhere from billboard advertisements to our personal Facebook feeds. Reflecting on its production, distribution and reception is consequently both fascinating and important.
This post continues the discussion of yoga, photography and the body begun in “Marketing Yoga without a Hot Barbie Body: Challenges and Opportunities,” part of the 21st Century Yoga online book club. Here, I’m pleased to interview Sarit Rogers, who conceptualized and shot the cover for 21st Century Yoga (as well as for my new book, Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body.)
Carol: My understanding (and correct me if I’m wrong) is that you’ve been doing yoga and photography for years, but didn’t bring the two together until you were asked if you’d produce the cover for 21st Century Yoga. Given your love of yoga and photography and long history with both, I’m wondering why you hadn’t pursued yoga photography before, and what made you decide to give it a try this time?
Sarit: I’ve danced with my yoga practice since I was a kid, planting those roots with my Mom on the sands of the Santa Monica beach; I revisited it time and time again throughout my life. It’s always been there for me. However, it wasn’t really consistent until the last four or so years.
My photography has always been a way in which I can communicate visually. But I didn’t really start paying attention to yoga photography until I found myself immersed in that world. It was shocking to me how similar everyone looked; how pastel, and beautiful in their likeness but how unlike the people involved in my direct practice.
When I was approached to shoot 21st Century Yoga, I felt like it was an incredible opportunity to take my body image advocacy and kinship to realism, and touch the yoga community. I photograph a lot of musicians. As soon as I started photographing Keri and all of the other yogis I captured during this process, I found that they resonated with me as deeply as musicians do: yogis make music with their bodies and breath. Capturing that has been exhilarating.
Carol: Once I started looking more closely at yoga photography for my book covers, I was surprised how difficult it was to find images that capture this sense of “making music with the body and breath” you describe. Of course, a lot of yoga photography is deliberately commercial and/or has other aims (e.g., selling stuff). But I’d assume that even when you approach yoga photography as art, it’s not easy to capture that feeling of vibrant musicality in the body. As a photographer, what do you need in order to make it work?
Sarit: It’s hard to really put this in words, to be honest. From my perspective, our bodies are like landscapes, and to photograph them is to embrace and paint the lines and angles with light. That, in and of itself, is lyrical to me. In order to make this work, I need collaboration with my subject from start to finish. My shoots are never me and the camera against whomever I’m photographing. Instead, we are a team. As a result, that collaboration brings about a sense of harmony.
Carol: When Melanie (Klein, one of the 21st Century Yoga contributors) contacted you and explained the problems we were having coming up with a workable cover that didn’t reproduce the sort of commercialized yoga imagery critiqued in the book, you produced the photo shoot that created the book cover incredibly quickly. Could you explain a bit about what went into the process of conceptualizing that shoot?
Or, to reframe the question in more general terms: Are there certain ideas and experiences you bring to the table when it comes to yoga photography that inform the more relational, aesthetic dimensions of the work you’ve described already?
Sarit: When Melanie approached me about shooting the cover, I asked her to delve a little bit further into the meaning and subjects contained within the contents of the book itself. I was familiar with her piece, which resonates with me and my body image advocacy. We are used to seeing yoga presented in the clean, sun-drenched rooms of yoga studios or the on the golden sands of the beach. I felt that this this was an opportunity to express visually how I felt emotionally connected to my own practice: or rather, its variability.
Sharon Salzberg says that “our breath is portable.” When I translate that concept into my yoga practice, I realize I can deeply breathe anywhere, thereby I can practice anywhere. I was immediately inspired to create an image which showed viewers an alternative view of yoga, one that is atypical to what is common. I don’t look like the quintessential yogi, and I wanted to capture something that had the potentiality to speak to more than one group. In the end, the road symbolized the path to stillness, awakening, and breath; it is indicative of one’s ability to find balance anywhere: on the road, the sidewalk, or the grocery store.
I was graciously accommodated by Keri, Joe, and a few others which allowed me to shoot quickly, providing an enormous body of work in a short period of time. My creativity hit me like a wave of fire. It opened up a flood of conceptual and focused inspiration which is still happening. Photographing yogis was tantamount to working with musicians: instead of making music with horns or strings, they are making music with their open hearts, breath and bodies.
Carol: Can you say a little more about your work as a body image advocate? Are there ways in which it informs your work as a yoga photographer?
Sarit: I’m in recovery from an eating disorder, and as part of that work, I found myself inadvertently addressing body image through my photography. Later, it was with intent that I began photographing people from the social lens of self-love, self-care and body-image advocacy. It was a natural progression for me.
Photography in its very nature is objectifying. But I don’t want to allow that objectification to inform how I shoot. I choose to approach my subjects as creative cohorts who are in partnership with me to create the best image possible. Through compassionate and honest conversation, the walls of insecurity tend to come down authentically. Still, because of cultural pressures for perfection, the issue of body image does tend to come up a lot, and yogis aren’t exempt.
Carol: Can you say a little more about how you see body images issues coming up in the course of your work? How do you know this is happening?
Sarit: Unfortunately, It comes up fairly fast in conversation. Comments like these are brought up casually, but quite often: “I need to lose 10 pounds before we shoot,” “Wait until I lose the holiday weight,” “Can you make my waist smaller?” It goes on and on. We are terribly transparent in our self-loathing. I do my best to encourage self-acceptance and self-love, be it in the shoot itself or in post-production. I believe we are beautiful, just as we are. Often times, when someone I’m photographing sees their images in camera, they get excited and begin to look at themselves in a different light. Being graced with the opportunity to photograph people is a true gift for which I am truly grateful.
Carol: That’s lovely. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on already?
Sarit: Thank you. I would say my greatest hope is that the varied lot of photographers can support one another and come to a place of honoring those we photograph with integrity and compassion. The impetus behind my life and my work is to “Love More.”
Carol: Thanks, Sarit. That’s beautiful. It has been a joy to work with you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and work!
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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger