yoga performance


Last month, I stumbled upon a yoga presentation by Patricia Walden on her 60th birthday. Wow. Her backbends are awesome and need no comment. But it got me thinking about yoga videos, performances, and “demonstrations.”

Bear in mind, I’m talking not about instructional videos. I’m focusing on displays done silently or, more likely, accompanied by music. Some are professionally shot, such as the Briohny Smyth video for Equinox that went viral. Most are self-shot videos posted on websites, on Facebook, on YouTube–followed by lots of likes and “you go, girl!” type comments.

DSC_0315What is the point of yoga displays? To inspire? To share? To instruct without instructions? To advertise? To embrace the new media age? To claim a few Warholian minutes of fame?

I’m not against such videos as a rule, but I wonder if and how they sync with yoga philosophy. How is showcasing oneself congruent with loss of ego? Instructional videos are one thing, but pure performance?

That said, I was unbothered by Patricia Walden’s backbend show (and the ensuing video), perhaps because it was done for a reason, her birthday celebration. Or perhaps because the grainy video was obviously not uploaded for fame or an ego boost. (As a senior-level teacher, among BKS Iyengar’s foremost students, already world famous through her Gaiam videos and long career, she doesn’t need to promote herself.)

Generally, yoga videos are uncommon among Iyengar yogis, who tend to be less “out there” in the way they practice. Once, I complimented Yves, an Iyengar yoga teacher based in Austin, on the elegantly shot portraits on his website. He thanked me almost apologetically, mentioning the need to do some Internet publicity nowadays. I could relate to his dilemma. Creating an Internet presence is expected, but it can feel awkward and showy.

DSC_0317_2Actually, BKS Iyengar himself was a big proponent of the yoga “demonstration.” In his day, yoga was esoteric and he performed in Europe and elsewhere to introduce the practice to non-yogis. Then and now, people are generally first drawn to yoga by its physical feats.

Maybe, simply by seeing a pose, people learn. After all, a good visual can be more effective than words to guide one into a pose. Watching BKS Iyengar practicing (at any age) and Patricia Walden dropping back (and standing up) changes us, doesn’t it?

DSC_0304Perhaps my reaction to yoga performances depends on the practitioner’s attitude (or my perception of their attitude). A few years ago, I taught at a general studio (mostly power/flow yoga); I was the only Iyengar yoga teacher there. When leaving, I’d sometimes see the next teacher doing handstands in the middle of the room before starting his class. It was a large drop-in class of casual students not ready for handstand balance. Why demonstrate a pose you’re not teaching? What was the point of that pre-class performance?

It is a tricky subject. I know serious, deep practitioners who have also performed yoga in a dance troupe. I also know professional dancers who prefer to keep their dance (public/outward) separate from their yoga (private/inward). What about yoga competitions? While much criticized as antithetical to the crux of yoga philosophy, proponents say that being judged onstage motivates them to dig deeper and to develop courage, poise, and other positive traits

I have one general conclusion: We cannot let ourselves get too fixated on asana, the bodily aspect of yoga.  Asana was my introduction to yoga and I love it! But a video or photo or demo cannot quite capture the invisible aspects of yoga.

After President Obama’s second inauguration in January, Beyoncé got flak for performing the US national anthem using a pre-recorded version. At first, I agreed that singing live is not only superior, but also expected.

On second thought, her recorded version is still her. We hear her voice, her interpretation. So what if she sang it beforehand? Music is an art form experienced mostly through recording anyway.

I researched and found some famous renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner”: Whitney Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl XXV performance apparently was pre-recorded:

Marvin Gaye 1983 NBA All-Star Game performance was not:

Yet both are fantastic.

I proceeded to think about other forms of video recording—yoga videos in particular. Nowadays many yoga teachers film themselves doing asana, not only teaching poses, but simply doing them. Music is almost de rigueur (who knows, you might gain an audience with a “cool playlist”). While the videos can be impressive, I wonder if prospective students understand that a choreographed display does not necessarily translate to good teaching.

The teaching of yoga—Iyengar yoga in particular—is hard to capture on video. That’s because the demonstrations and verbal instructions are only the beginning. The real benefit of this method is the direct teacher-student interaction. Teachers observe and correct/adjust/advise students. Obviously this requires firsthand contact.

Are there many (any?) good Iyengar yoga teaching videos out there? I Googled “Iyengar yoga video” and found a random mix of websites and videos. The only name I recognized on the first page of URLs was Gabriella Giubilaro, who released a teaching DVD in 2005. I’ve taken only two workshops with Gabriella, so I’m no expert on her teaching or her style. But, watching a brief trailer of the video, I found her tone unexpectedly subdued. Further, on film there’s no way to convey how she exhorts students to move, how she ruthlessly exposes errors, how she steers her teaching to what she sees in the moment. I thought, “This captures only a fraction of who she is in person!”

Maybe in other types of yoga teaching, videos are a decent substitute for classes. If all that’s needed is a good sequence and a good performer, a video can do the trick. But in Iyengar yoga there’s no substitute for the real thing. That’s the difference between performance (such as Beyoncé pre-recording her singing) and teaching (which cannot be pre-recorded).

Note: I am not panning yoga performance videos altogether. It can be inspiring to watch the grace and power of the human body—and by watching one can visually imprint the right actions to replicate an asana. For starters, my Google search also found this 1991 video of BKS Iyengar, then 73, doing backbends, including doing Sirsasana dropovers in reverse.

Nature, its three qualities, sattva, rajas, and tamas, and its evolutes, the elements, mind, senses of perception and organs of action, exist eternally to serve the seer, for enjoyment (bhoga) or emancipation (apavarga).

Yoga Sutra II.18, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, BKS Iyengar

Yoga and hula hooping? Yes, according to an August 2011 Yoga Journal article, “You Spin Me Round”: Hoop-yoga is trendy among Anusara yoga practitioners. The magazine profiles performer Shakti Sunfire (aka Laura Blakeman), who’s “part whirling dervish, part pinup girl, and 100 percent yogini.” It quotes Anusara’s founder, John Friend: “Hooping rocks.”

My reaction was mixed. On one hand, I’m all for innovation. I myself have invented new props, practicing one-legged standing poses on the flat side of a Bosu. The added wobbliness upped the ante: I had to stabilize my ankle, rediscover my balance, and risk toppling over. By forcing me to adapt, the Bosu woke me from complacency. So I’m not anti hooping (and the performers are amazing to watch).

On the other hand, does a hoop actually deepen the yoga experience or simply add another distracting flourish? To me, asana is interesting enough. A mere glance at Light on Yoga (BKS Iyengar) points out dozens of poses yet untried, while even the basics are teeming with details to refine.

Yogis just want to have fun?

What really perplexed me, however, was the notion that yoga asana needs to be more fun and playful. Anusara teacher Sianna Sherman says, “I feel like the appeal has something to do with people’s longing to play, to feel beautiful, to dance, to not be so burdened by the pressures of everyday life. You get a hoop on and some music, and suddenly you get a little lighter, freer, happier. It energizes you and draws more light into your life.”

Maybe it’s a matter of defining “fun.” To me, my regular yoga class is… fun. It’s intense and challenging in a calm way: There’s no loud music or party atmosphere. While there’s humor and camaraderie, it’s not a rip-roaring scene. And that’s exactly what I want from a yoga class.

Modern yoga is full of distractions: legendary masters, YouTube celebrities, crowded classes, the cult of lululemon. For me, the asanas themselves can be distracting in my ambition to do them—and to do them well. I, too, must remember that the real practice is actually introspective and solitary, subtle rather than spectacular (and you can wear your oldest T-shirt and shorts!).

Yoga offshoots introducing new “fun” elements reminds me of how I prefer my tea and coffee: au naturel. Quality tea. Quality coffee. Why tamper with a good thing? And where is the tipping point? A Frappuccino does contain coffee amid the milk, syrup, ice, and whipped cream, but, seriously, it’s a different species.

Elation and empowerment

The emphasis on fun and play repeated throughout the issue: Acro Yoga founder Jenny Sauer-Klein writes about the connection between play and bliss. “When I teach Acro Yoga,” she writes, “I’m helping adults to feel like children again, to trust themselves and each other, and to rediscover that belief in infinite possibility.” She describes how the pure joy of being held in the air turns fear and doubt into elation and empowerment.

Sound positive, if unmistakably American (nevermind my critique of Acro Yoga here). But do most folks who choose hoop-yoga or Acro Yoga need lessons on elation and empowerment? I suspect that able-bodied Western yogis (including me) actually need lessons on taming the ego. On stilling the mind. On being solitary and self-sufficient. On being content with less rather than more.

These new varieties of yoga do promote fun and play—and they’re certainly creative. I’d probably enjoy trying an Acro Yoga session or watching a hoop-yoga performance. Indeed, I relish the physical aspect of yoga and the exhilaration of a breakthrough. But, admittedly, I must work on the opposite: To find freshness in fundamental poses, day after day, year after year. To be more honest and humble in my asana practice (and in the rest of life).

Asana is inherently bhoga for me, so I need not increase its fun and playfulness. For me, a simple, serious practice is best.

Images: Shakti Sunfire; The Yoga SpaceAcro Yoga

I’ve lived mostly in balmy climates, from Hawaii to California, so winter sports are quite foreign to me. Luge? Biathlon? Curling? But I’ve also made Canada my home, and I’m riveted by the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

The snowboarding and alpine skiing events blow my mind, the way they require utter fearlessness about big air and breakneck speed. I’m also waiting for a Canada-Russia showdown in men’s hockey, the Canadian national obsession and a sport that requires every athletic skill known to mankind.

Sports competition is a fascinating display of mind-body control. Besides warfare and other life-or-death crises, few situations truly push humans to their limits: elite sports are an exception. Contact sports such as hockey and football take competition a step further: athletes are tested not only in scoring points but in fighting opponents doing their utmost to take you down.

Watching the Olympics reminds me of the laughable movement (mostly by Bikram and his followers) to make yoga a competitive sport and even an Olympic event. After all, the objective in sports is competition-day performance. In yoga, asana “performance” is not an end, but a means to mental and spiritual development. Yoga cannot be judged from the outside.

LgImg40.JPGWhat’s your take on yoga as performance art? I just viewed Seattle yoga teacher Theresa Elliott’s yoga-dance compositions, posted on Nikki Chau’s yoga blog. I’ve never met Elliott, director of Taj Yoga but I’ve gathered that she’s a serious and respected yogi. Clicking through her photo gallery, I immediately see that her asana practice is outstanding. Watching her perform choreographed yoga to music, I was struck by both admiration (“I want to lift into handstand from prasarita padottanasana!”) and mild dismay (“Should yoga be performed?”).

I’m not adamantly for or against yoga performances, a yoga offshoot that’s been around for decades. London-based Tripsichore Yoga is one established example, and its founder, Edward Clark, is a ripped gymnast of a yogi. Shiva Rea is also famous for her videos, in which the goddess of Trance Dance performs perfect sun salutations in the great outdoors. At the Yoga Room in Berkeley, Gay White founded a yoga-dance company, Yoga Garden Dancers, in the 1990s. One of my first teachers was part of that group, so I’ve always viewed yoga dance with a benign eye.

But are all yoga-dance performances actually yoga? After all, any Cirque du Soleil acrobat could do the craziest asanas half-asleep. What if some modern-dance group riffs on yoga, throwing in a few pretzel poses merely for crowd-pleasing value? Even regarding respectable yoga performances, I’m a tad skeptical (sorry, respected teachers). I see the point in demonstrating asanas for a class, as students learn primarily from visual examples. Same with illustrations in books and magazines. We see, we copy, we practice. But, beyond that, should we glorify asanas in performances for performances’ sake? Yoga as art? Yoga as entertainment? Yoga as achievement?

On one hand, I believe that yoga should be a private, not public, practice. If you work to perfect your asanas with an eye toward performance, isn’t your mindset veering in the wrong direction? (Regarding dancers who are also passionate about yoga, why mix the two? While yoga will inevitably inform their bodies—and their minds and creativity—why is it necessary to glorify sun salutations and identifiable poses onstage?)

On the other hand, anyone with an appreciation of dance, music, and the human form will find yoga performances quite compelling—and yoga practitioners will viscerally grasp the complexity of the poses and movements. Admittedly, I love the asana part of yoga. The physicality, the strenuousness, the challenge, the tangible progress. Maybe I’m slightly leery of asana performances because they further my own affinity toward this limb of yoga.

Certainly I can enjoy yoga performances. Just glancing through yogi-contortionist Yogi Laser’s gallery fascinates me. But, unless I really know a performer’s background and character, I will admire them purely as great bodies. Great yogis? Who knows?

Image: Yogi Laser