The other night, while leaving my waitressing job, my boss and I were joking about whether he would ever come to a yoga class, and he asked me whether I could do a split.
It was Sunday night, which is our “Friday” at the restaurant, so I gave him the short answer—no.
Here’s the long answer: “If I’m really warm and misalign my hips and risk possibly throwing my sacrum slightly out, then, yes, I can do a split. But if I’m prioritizing my breath, orienting to sensation, and respecting the boundaries of that sensation, then, no, no splits for me right now.”
He responded, “Well, then, I don’t know if I trust you as a yoga teacher. Yoga teachers are supposed to be supple and flexible.”
Now, while I don’t agree with the oversimplification, I do understand what he was saying and where he was coming from.
There is no way around the fact that we live lives that are largely absorbed in images—images that sell ideas. There are images that sell us the idea of happiness, health, achievement, courage, danger, and fear. As technology increases, the more images we absorb. And the more images we absorb, the more consciousness is required to remember that the way something is represented is often not what that thing actually is.
In other words, the image of something is not necessarily the essence or truth of that same thing—hence the difference between how things and people appear in social media feeds and how they appear in real life.
Along those same lines—the more popular yoga becomes, the more we are inundated with images intended to represent what yoga “is.” We know these images. The people in them are beautiful, fit, flexible, and often doing things with their bodies that seem otherworldly.
Now—let me be clear that I’m not against these images or these people. I am for beauty, I am for skill, I am for the discipline and dedication that is required to get into those poses, and I am for people expressing themselves however they feel called to.
Even more than all of that, though, I’m for the healing benefits of yoga being accessible to as many people as possible. And for that to happen, it’s important to take a moment to get really clear on the difference between the representation of yoga and the essence of yoga—or the image of yoga and the experience of yoga.
The images of yoga that flood our social media feeds and magazine covers are beautiful—but they are also misleading. Whether intentionally or not, they imply that there is a direct correlation between physical strength, flexibility, and the depth of a yoga practice. In other words, these images make it too easy to conclude that yoga is these poses and that these poses are yoga. They imply that an advanced posture equals an advanced practitioner.
In truth, the poses are a part of yoga, and the benefits of them come not from the way the pose looks on the outside, but from the experience of the pose on the inside. Yes—they’re a means to become more flexible, strong, and grounded in our body. But more than that, they’re a means to become more conscious and purposeful in how we’re relating to ourselves—to the depth of our breath, the flow of our thoughts, and the presence of what exists within us, behind and beyond those thoughts.
This is the practice that the poses open up for us. And this internal practice of awareness is as accessible to someone who can’t touch their toes as it is to someone doing a one-arm handstand.
A handful of years ago, in a home studio crawling with cats, Joan White, a revered Philadelphia Iyengar teacher, summed this point up perfectly; “An advanced yoga practice,” she said, “is not one that has become more flexible, but one that has become more sensitive.”
The modern portrayal of yoga makes this all too easy to forget.
It also makes it easy to forget that there is a deep lineage to this practice, that there are ancient texts with teachings that speak to human suffering and present a methodical approach to relieving that suffering. And, while the poses are an element of that methodology, they are not, by any means, the whole of it or the goal of it.
There’s nothing wrong with image and representation, and there’s nothing wrong with loving yoga poses—I know I do! They’re fun, beautiful, challenging, and physiologically beneficial.
But it’s incredibly helpful—especially in this age of social media—to remember that, if we get overly involved in the way yoga is represented, we can easily miss the essential truth of the practice and all it has to offer (to both the flexible and the inflexible). We can miss the fact that the experience, power, beauty, and benefits of yoga are equally available and accessible to anyone who is willing to breathe, stretch, and shift their attention inside of their felt experience.