SELFIES

I recently returned home from a trip to India. During my travels, I had the opportunity to check in online and post about my adventures. It was a rich and rewarding experience and I was thrilled to share my journey with those back home. Although, while I scrolled through my feed to see what the world was still up to, I saw one consistent theme – selfies. I first learned about the word listening to a NPR podcast a few years back. In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary announced “Selfie” and the word of the year; “noun, informal: a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”. At the time, I had never heard the word and was surprised that a social media phenomenon had become the word of the year. So, I naturally started to search online to see what people had been posting. Many were photos of themselves, usually out with friends, documenting before/after photos of a weight loss program or new baby about to be born, and finally pictures of yoga asana. As a model, I had worked with a number of photographers and posted photos of our sessions together. I posted the photos to share the work of the photographer as something we had co-created together.

When I first started practicing yoga, one thing stood out to me more so than anything else: the release of judgment. It was a sacred space where we covered the mirrors and were asked to look within. As a dancer, we always performed for ourselves – looking at the mirror to critique our technique and follow along in the sequence. With yoga, I was taught to close my eyes and listen to the body.   We do this first by focusing on the breath. The breath was a totally foreign concept and I quickly realized how I had been holding my breath for years as a performer. I never felt the release. This is an important piece of your yoga journey, to feel the surrender and let go of all expectations, judgments, and attachments so you can find steadiness in the mind.

Someone once told me, I think yoga on Instagram is okay, as long as you do not start to create memories for Instagram, then you know you’re in trouble.  When your life is shared on social media, it’s beautiful. Inspiring. Uplifting. Interesting. Engaging. I personally love it. I love it so much that I co-created an event to celebrate those on social media who were spreading inspiration all over the platform. I wanted to bring people together so those relationships that were being formed on social media could come to life.   It was an amazing experience. All of the people who participated and attended were amazing, talented, inspirational, supportive practitioners who were passionate about what they do. My faith in social media was restored and I was motivated to learn more about this selfie phenomenon.

Back to India. When you travel throughout India, you see a lot of poverty. It just exists. It is a third world country where there are more people living without indoor plumbing than living in the United States (yup, look it up). People sleep on hard floors, live amongst their trash, and barely get enough food to survive. Yet, they are peaceful people who are spiritually orientated and giving in nature. Sure, there are exceptions to any general statement (for example I only visited Kerala this time around) but what I observed was the presence of those walking the streets. While most of them had cell phones, they were not walking around taking pictures on themselves to post to social media. They were present. Some of that is necessary as there are no street signs, two lane roads or cross walks.  So it you’re not careful you will get run over (and no they will not slow down). People are constantly moving and passing each other with a light honk to notify the person in front of them that they are passing by. You are responsible for what is in front of you. When you go to the temple, people are moving at his/her own rhythm. You may stop for prayer and give an offering, but for the most part people are moving quickly, chanting, and making their way to the front of the line. It is a living, breathing, constantly moving display of devotion. It’s beautiful, really.

India is considered the birthplace of Yoga.  When I told people that I was a Yoga teacher in India, they all asked the same question: “Who is your Guru?”.  I explained that our system worked differently in the West, and that we studied under many different teachers to achieve a certification through a company called Yoga Alliance.  They didn’t really seem to understand or care, they were more interested in my heritage and who trained me than what certifications I held.  Some of them did not like the images they saw online of asana on Instagram, some of them didn’t seem to mind.  It was funny to see a group of fishermen in tree pose when we asked them to pose with us.  One thing was certain, this practice is sacred and is held with great reverence in India.  They practice daily in ritual, in routine, that includes asana, ayurveda, meditation, mantra and prayer.  I learned so much from the teachers of Kalaripayattu, an ancient Indian martial art form.  They were kind teachers who were patient and persistent when it came to really feeling and embodying the practice.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I started to practice again but did not find the same satisfaction from the classes I once did.  Sequences that used to be so easy now felt painful.   The practice I had loved so much for its clarity and inner work became a competition. I had started to grip my teeth and flex my muscles to obtain challenging poses. What’s worse is that I had no idea this was happening until I stepped away from it. Traveling gives you that perspective – what is working, what is not working. I decided in those first few classes that it was now my work to step back and refocus on the breath, the one thing that differentiated this practice from years of performing. I needed to undo what had been done when yoga became a performance rather than a practice. Time to put away the lens, close the mirrors, and step back into my body.

I love working with photographers.  I love sharing my story on social media. I may post a photo of myself, out with my friends, or hopefully the day I become pregnant showing the world the development of my belly. But today, I am choosing to check in before posting that selfie. Asking myself what I need in that moment. Is it approval? Self-love? Acceptance? Gratitude for my body and its abilities? Then, move from a place of love and contentment. At the end of the day, we cannot caste judgments on other people, we can only take responsibility for our own reactions.  And today, I am choosing to honor how this phenomenon is making me feel.  I will continue to share photos of work I create with photographers. I will continue to like and support my colleagues and friends who document their stories and successes.  If I feel inspired to capture the moment then I may give myself permission to post a selfie, but not from a place of lack or need for self approval or followers (really).  Right now, I am choosing to step back – for me, not for you, and definitely not to take a stance or prove a point.  I now realize how setting the camera up to take a photo brings me out of the moment and takes me away from what yoga originally taught me: self-observation without judgment.  So here we go, goodbye yoga selfies. It’s been fun but it’s time for the practice to do what it originally intended to do, heal.

With love and so much gratitude,

Ali


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