Yoga as performance art

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

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “Yoga as performance art

  1. I feel uncomfortable with the idea of yoga performance. I’m a supporter of the idea “fit the pose to your body, not your body to the pose”. Not everyone can rock the asanas like these people can, and I’m worried it will make newbies feel like yoga is inaccessible to them. That being said, I’m sure it’s amazing to see!!

  2. Hmmm, interesting stuff. I also have mixed feelings about yoga as performance art. Like you, I admire the skill and the potential of the human body. But on the other hand, I have to say that these kinds of displays actually make me feel really crappy and inadequate. Obviously, this is my issue ~ but when I see yoga performances, it makes me question my own capabilities. It almost makes me ask, who am I to do this practice? Who am I to teach in my community, to offer what I know about yoga, with my short legs, little belly, fused vertebrae?

    Of course, I’m able to talk myself out of these negative thoughts (one of the most valuable skills I’ve learned from yoga). But there’s this line, for me, where exhibitions of extreme yoga cease being aspirational and become simply inaccessible.

    My body is a site of struggle (and I have the scars to prove it). I spent the first 25 years of my life loathing my body. Hatha yoga has provided some relief and space to develop compassion, and a way to expand my sense of my physical self. I teach yoga 4 times a week, and each time I’m amazed that I have the ability to stand up in front of a room full of people and connect to them through my body. Ten years ago, I never would have imagined that I’d develop the confidence in my body to do that. And so when I see people who are just naturally contortionists, or with a background in gymnastics or dance which allows them to access challenging poses… it almost bores me, actually.

    I’m with you on admiring yoga performers as great bodies, rather than great yogis (I also have to admire Yogi Laser’s crazy style ~ love the patterned tights and matching headware, especially the leopard print!). At least Yogi Laser is honest about what he does being entertainment, and doesn’t try to pretend that he’s offering enlightenment to the masses.

    Ultimately though, I’m less interested in yoga as performance or yoga as entertainment, and more interested in yoga as a tool for personal transformation and community building. That’s just where my values are, these days.

    btw, there was an interesting discussion on elephant journal about Tripsichore recently: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2009/10/yoga-dance-tripsichore/

  3. I had this discussion with some of my students not too long ago — they felt that the way yoga is advertised (young-skinny-white and the “yoga performances”) actually keeps people from coming to yoga.

    they said the photos of people like the guy in your post or someone like Ana Forrest doing some super advanced pose are extremely disingenuous about what yoga is “really all about” (their words.)

  4. actually, i disagree here…
    i watched these videos and saw a woman who was passionate and involved in her yoga practice. Music has always been a part of my life, with listening and moving to music become spiritual. watching Theresa it isn’t like watching the Bikram ridiculousness of yoga competition (or yoga performance) or is it like watching Tara Stiles of the *perfect* body. It’s watching her move in response to something internal.
    those women and one man were having SO much fun, and laughter and light. Experiencing life is light and love- which I saw. Watching her “Call to Prayer” was like watching the description of Seane Corn’s Movement Prayer.

    Your reference to these sets of videos I saw BOTH spiritual and physical.
    I’m sad to hear that you did not.

    1. EcoYogini: Thanks for your comment. Actually I never gave specific opinions on the various performers whom I cited, so please don’t assume that I consider them all the same.

      I, too, agree that Theresa’s compositions were unshowy and felt sincere and real. (I might be influenced by my prior determination that she is a wise and committed yoga teacher.)

      My point is essentially that yoga “legitimacy” cannot be determined by physical skill alone: some of those performers are indeed respected yogis, others are not. I was not generalizing that all performers are superficial and merely physical specimens.

      Thanks again,
      YS

  5. There are many issues raised here, and rather than responding to them all separately, here is my perspective.

    I start with the premise that yoga is about cultivating awareness and the ability to be present.  Ideally, it is something that is practiced all day long, wherever you are – not just in the warm cocoon of solitude.  
     
    I find through my personal practice, and I have maintained one for over 22 years, the distractions and triggers of my life are decreased, and I as a yoga practitioner am left to face myself in self-reflection.  Not at all easy, but the solo practice is, to me, training wheels for the rest of my life. 
     
    The question then becomes, what do presence and awareness look like in action?  The current buzz phrase for this notion is “Yoga Off the Mat.” It has become a way people discuss the issue of how to take what one has learned “on the mat” and express it in daily life.
     
    The attempt to stay in the moment occurs all day long, whether a person is gardening, talking with a neighbor, or participating in a yoga class.  Some situations make it harder to stay present, like when drinking alcohol, having a disagreement, or performing in front of an audience with adrenaline coursing through your veins.  To me it doesn’t mean these situations are innately “unyogic,” but they do test the ability of the practitioner even more so.  And sure, like most people, when the ante of life goes up, I can fall into patterns that do not serve me.  So it’s back to the cave for daily solitary practice and self-reflection.
     
    Introspection is invaluable, but at some point, you have to come back out.  I believe it is our responsibility to show who we are and to engage in our communities:  Well Gulliver, what did you find in there?  Please show us what you have discovered! I learned in my practice, among other things, that I have a deeply kinetic animal in me, and that if I step out of the way, this force will connect the dots between posture, music and movement.  I do not so much feel that I make these pieces up, but that I find them, and the only way I can “do” that is to be aware, present and listening.  
     
    If in sharing what I have discovered, I inspire someone to look within, I have done my job.
     
    Theresa Elliott
    Director, Taj Yoga
    Co-Director, Pacific Yoga Teacher Training

  6. What is my take on Yoga as a performance art? Right? That’s the original question?

    It is quite impossible to answer since it only begs the question of “what is yoga”. Since yoga is not asana – though asana can be a sliver of yoga – then yoga cannot be performed. Only asana can be performed.

    My take on asana performance is incredibly simple. It can serve many beneficial purposes or it can fan the fires of Ego like a bellows. Some do not care about the nature of their ego in the practice of yoga. Thus there are three possibilities: one knows about ego but rejects the concept, one has no idea how ego and yoga interrelate, or one understand the interrelation and cultivates a practice which does not aggrandize the ego (as best they are able).

    Personally, I find Theresa to be an enjoyable person who is very real and teaches based on her living. There is nothing more fecund than a teacher that teaches from that sort of authenticity and integrity. Others I cannot speak for.

  7. This is an interesting thing to think about. I recently learned from my sister who was attending a mainly Black church in Harlem that tourists from Europe (mainly White) visit churches as part of their tour circuit. As soon as the singing/dancing portion of the service is over, they leave. I found that very disconcerting-that folks could be so be so bold or so insensitive as to watch the spiritual/sacred going on and view it simply as a show and nothing more. I think in a way performance yoga can end up being just that–as show– if great care is not taken. On another note but along the same lines, I was practicing yoga along with a DVD by Baron Baptiste. The two practitioners who were doing the practice were (and I hate to say it) of course, very fit, thin, young White women. Baptiste says once or twice throughout the program that these were “yoga bodies” and I can’t say it didn’t sting a bit. Now, I haven’t been practicing all that long and I’m pleased with the changes in my body but you better believe I’ve still got a lot of “problem” areas–the natural ones that come from having children. For him to suggest that those were “yoga bodies” made me feel 1) like I haven’t got a yoga body and 2) like I may never have a yoga body. Of course, that’s not true but I thought about this example because in some ways, yoga DVDs are also performances and therefore can influence the way we think about yoga and ourselves.

  8. I think yoga practice is an awesome thing to share with the world now and then.

    Yes, absolutely, it’s something that one does for oneself. And the old guy doing pranayama breathing in a wheelchair is just as much of an incredible yogi as the pretty skinny girl doing perfect standing splits.

    But there are people who can do incredibly beautiful postures, and what’s wrong with inviting them to share that, if they don’t cross over into ego? It’s so beautiful, and I find it really inspiring.

    Do performers get too caught up in the ego sometimes? Sure, probably. I’ve seen it happen. That’s why you need your personal practice to keep you grounded. 364 days out of 365, do your practice for yourself.

    I think the ultimate goal of a yoga performance should be to make someone look at it and say, “Wow, that was so weird and beautiful, so wicked and radical and interesting, so dorky and so sublime, that now I want to go and try it myself!!”

    I’ve participated in a couple of the Bikram yoga championships (just at the regional level), and those events can be really fun and inspiring, because we DO get all different ages and levels and bodies and abilities up on that stage, we all cheer each other on, and everyone goes home feeling excited about yoga and inspired to practice. I hate those DVDs of the cookie cutter skinny white girls doing synchronized yoga, but this… this is something else. People get up on stage and offer themselves to you so earnestly, and you get to really SEE them. It can be quite lovely.

  9. Oh, and Gordon is right on in his distinction. You can only perform yoga ASANA. That needs to remain very clear. “Yoga competitions/performances” do not exist. Not possible. “Asana competitions/performances” do. No problem.

  10. I published a comment someone left on a post I wrote about Mark Whitwell (I published the notes I took during my 8 hours with him.) One of my notes was about what Mark thinks about yoga performances:

    “yoga demonstrations at yoga conferences are merely exercises in ego and acrobatics — stop the performances because they’re about an inch deep.”

  11. This is a fabulous discussion. Reading down the blogs on this list, I see that people see this differently. So here’s this yoga dance form that’s presenting itself the same to different people and evoking different responses because there’s a judgement on what’s yoga, or what’s dance, and comparing these pieces. The reactions tell us something about ourselves, not about the object of our discussion.

    I agree that anytime any form is placed on a pedestal there’s potential problems, but then there’s freedom of expression, beauty, and collaboration– and just plain admirable skill and capacity. Asana is athletic and it doesn’t make it any less valid. From my perspective, I like seeing what people are doing from the standpoint of sharing, without a reflection on myself. I enjoy reading these posts… it reminds me of a fun game of mental tennis and there’s nothing wrong with that if it exercises my intellect and help me to see more clearly.

  12. These are exactly the kinds of arguments I’m encountering as I pose the question…can there be an Ecstatic Dance Company?

Please post a comment. Your email address will be kept confidential.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s