Yoga is not a photo-op

A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded me a photo of yoga students seated in Sukhasana, eyes closed. “Got this in an email. I see you!” he wrote.

I immediately recognized the setting: September 2016. Firooza Razvi workshop. Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco (IYISF). I attended that workshop and, sure enough, there I was.

I had no idea that someone was taking pictures. Our eyes were closed! And I never agreed to let photos taken at the workshop be publicized or used for marketing. Here, the photo was included in a fundraising campaign.

While I enthusiastically participate in IYISF classes (and support the Iyengar Yoga Association of Northern California), I prefer not to participate in their online presence. I emailed them to request that the photo be switched out. A staffer wrote back, apologizing and confirming that their marketing department would mark the photo for non-use in future campaigns, in Facebook, and in Instagram.

It took several days (and the photo appeared in one more email message) but, as promised, it disappeared online. I appreciated IYISF’s prompt and understanding response.

Privacy expectations in yoga

I knew that I was probably the only one who complained. Many people are delighted to see their images splashed online (“Hey! Look at me in San Francisco!). They probably “like” or “share” the original post to snowball the effect.

Most people don’t mind—or they throw up their hands and accept that they could be photographed any time they leave home. We’ve all probably inadvertently photobombed countless shots just walking down the street!

Some people might object only if their images are used for commercial purposes. In the US, Canada, and many countries, using the name or likeness of a person for exploitative or commercial purposes is illegal. The right of publicity (also known as personality rights) is well established in law worldwide.

Me? I simply don’t want to be randomly photographed during yoga classes—while I’m being purely a yoga student in my private life. (I expect the same privacy while attending other types of classes, eating at a restaurant, shopping, riding pubic transit, or otherwise minding my own business.)

Professionally, I do have an online presence—including my blog, my website, and my own marketing pics. But my private life, including my yoga practice, is not shared with the Internet masses. I avoid social media. I much prefer interacting one to one, face to face.

If I myself don’t post selfies on social media, why would I agree to studios posting pics of me?

Even if I did post pics of me on vacation, or me with my family, or me eating a fantastic sushi dinner… I would never post pics of other people without their agreement.

Photo etiquette

In the yoga realm, particularly off-limits are poses with closed eyes, such as Savasana, discussed in Savasana Is Not a Photo Op, Yoga International. Pranayama and meditation are likewise not meant for unexpected photography. And who would intrude on these private moments? Common courtesy stops people from photographing mourners at a funeral or patients in a hospital. To me, it’s likewise in yoga settings.

What if students are informed and give consent? There might be no legal breach, but how can anyone relax and disengage from the outside world if they know they’re being photographed? The class would devolve into a staged performance.

Real-life yoga workshop examples

In everyday Iyengar yoga classes, photography is rare. But at workshops I have seen a range of camera protocols:

  • During Chris Saudek‘s recent workshop in Victoria, she noticed a student—who is a longtime teacher herself—aiming her cell-phone camera. “Did you ask if you could take pictures?” Chris said. Startled, the student mumbled that she’d asked during a past workshop. “But did you ask this time?” Chris persisted. “What are you doing with the photos? Will they end up on Facebook?” With an embarrassed smile, the student shook her head and put her phone away. (I later thanked Chris.)
  • When I attended HS Arun‘s San Francisco workshop in 2013, his elaborate prop set-ups and lengthy demos made for irresistible photo-ops. At least half, possibly three-fourths, of the participants (including myself) whipped out their cell phones or iPads and fired away. Arun is a showman and didn’t mind at all. He jokingly commented that we looked like a bunch of paparazzi!
  • At Firooza Razvi‘s 2016 workshop in San Francisco, only a few people occasionally photographed her demos. Once, noticing someone capturing her pose, she commented, “I’m not even in the pose yet. That picture shows nothing.” She blends bluntness and graceful composure to great effect. She then refined her pose more and more until she reached its final incarnation. (I don’t know if the student caught it.)
  • This past summer Lois Steinberg offered a mini “class before class” each day during her San Francisco workshop. Many of us took pics to record the lessons. I opted for photography to jog my memory later; I wanted my mind to be clear for the actual workshop, which immediately followed. If ever I want to post the pics, I would request permission from Lois and any student included.

No photos unless requested

As a teacher, I would never photograph my students without their consent. If I take photos for my benefit, I would get their signed permission. If I take informal pics of students to enhance learning, I’d use their own cameras. (If students don’t understand what their bodies are doing (or don’t believe what I tell them), photos can be convincing and worthy of a thousand words.) Likewise I don’t allow students to take pictures in my classes. Who knows where the photos will end up?

What are your thoughts on cameras in class?

Images: Laurent de Brunhoff collection, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

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25 thoughts on “Yoga is not a photo-op

  1. Luci, I started practicing yoga almost 40 years ago, and I loved being in classes that didn’t include going around for introductions. You got to just be there. If someone had been taking pictures, I’m not sure I would have kept going back. The peacefulness of having that 1-1/2 hrs to myself kept bringing me back.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, Jill. Somehow, with cell phones and the Internet, we don’t value direct experience as much. Is an experience more real if it’s photographed and posted on Facebook or Instagram? I hope that our paths cross again.

      Meanwhile I wish that more of my readers would share their thoughts. Surely my post must either resonate or not. Maybe I should switch to food or fashion, both which generate lots of opinions!

  2. I can’t imagine being photographed in a class and definitely not without my knowledge. That’s something I value deeply as a student at the Institute. I do take pics while at home, mostly to see what I can’t see while in the pose. Another thing I value is the lack of any music whether in class or at home. Please do continue to share your thoughts, I really look forward to your posts. There are far too few Iyengar yoga blogs as it is. 😊

    1. I appreciate your encouragement. I try to apply karma yoga (do my duty without hoping for reward) to blogging. Regardless of any comments or likes, I have done my practice as a writer; I have exercised my mind and refined my thinking. But it can be disappointing to receive no feedback (when others simply change their Facebook profile pic and receive hundreds of responses!). Many thanks!

  3. Luci, like you, I don’t like having random photographs taken of me in yoga classes. It’s usually happens at workshops and, more often than not, permission is not asked. I find it really disruptive to my experience because there’s an external distraction that’s introduced and you don’t know if there’s any quality control.

    At the IYAC/ACYI AGM in Kelowna, we did have image consent forms and I know any photographs taken will only be posted if permission was given. However, having a photographer taking pictures during classes felt intrusive. I know that is not the intention and it probably doesn’t bother others, but it makes me think twice about attending events.

    Best,
    Jane

    1. We’re on the same page, Jane. Could conference attendees opt out (and not give consent)? If so, I wonder if they would have been relegated to the back row or something (“separate but equal” is segregation). I, too, would be inclined to forgo conferences and workshops that require image consent.

      Isn’t our paid participation enough? Must we also agree to being photographed?

      1. We were able to opt out and I did, but there was still the distraction of the photographer. I would prefer having limited sessions when photographs are taken if it’s absolutely necessary.

  4. Hi Luci, please keep blogging, as the person mentioned above, it’s always nice to hear the experiences of other Iyengar yogis and I enjoy reading your posts. I shall endeavour in future to comment as often as possible and would encourage fellow readers to do so too if they can. As regards photography, I am in two minds. I find photos online such as Ann West on Pinterest to be immensely useful but within a class or workshop I can see how it could be distracting or intrusive. I think the answer is to make it clear that photos may be taken and to seek consent and then to keep it as inconspicuous as possible and to the absolute minimum.

    Keep on blogging, you are not a voice in the wilderness !

    1. Many thanks for commenting and for pointing me to Ann West on Pinterest. Yes, if people voluntarily consent to being photographed, no problem. Voluntary consent can be a slippery slope, however, if people feel pressured to “go along” with the majority.

      I appreciate your support. That said, I must emphasize to everyone that I seek all opinions, not only positive ones. I earlier commented, “Surely my post must either resonate or not,” and I must emphasize the “or not”!

  5. Thank you for your article. I really do not care if someone is taking a picture of me in a yoga pose. I guess I am probably not even aware that someone is even taking a picture of me since my attention is going within. I understand your concern but I feel it is a bit strict and unflexbile. Sthira/ shuka…. Everyone has their opinion and heartfelt concern which is understandable. I feel there are things more important in yoga and in life than trying to police actions outside of our control. Thank you for your blog.

    1. At one of my teaching venues, the studio is enclosed by a glass wall through which others in the building can see. I can’t control these random observers; most just walk by, but maybe a few have taken pics. I don’t waste time trying to control their behavior.

      But I still believe that teachers themselves must control their own behavior and that of their students. To me, this means no photography intended for the teacher’s purpose without explicit consent. Is this rigid? To me, it is respectful social behavior.

      1. Likewise, I respect your opinion. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Hearing other opinions nudges me to think and rethink about my beliefs and to understand others’. We need not agree on everything to have a good discussion:-)

  6. Dear Luci,

    I, too, always open your blog email when it comes in. You provoke thought and sometimes I think about your articles for days.

    As a remote yoga teacher trainee, the world of videoing and photographing has played a role in my learning. I video myself teaching my students so my teacher trainer can see what I am doing. I photograph myself so I can see what I am doing, as I do not have classes to attend, except when I attend my Teacher Trainee sessions.

    I have been surprised at how my pose looks in a photo, vs where I thought I was. In my short experience as a teacher-trainee, it also takes a long time to develop an eye that can SEE what is happening when you look at a a student, or a photo.

    Mainly, experiencing the asana is what gives us the most information over time. I think about Guru-ji and how he learned. I am so thankful for the books and descriptions and I look at them, over and over and over.

    Ultimately I really do not like to video myself or my students. It is uncomfortable and counter to the yogic purpose. However, they support the need for this process due to where we live and are so encouraging about learning together.

    Last, my students understand how the photo materials are being used and have benefited from personal feedback from my teacher trainer! I would never abuse this delicate acceptance by using these materials for any other purpose.

    1. Thanks for sharing an case of appropriate use of photos/videos in yoga. Here, your students are voluntarily participating, which differs from other cases. Also, your objective (to bring Iyengar yoga to a remote community) serves more than yourself.

      I agree that photos/videos are uniquely revealing;-)

  7. Thank you for this post. You expressed exactly how I feel after having a similar experience in a yoga class and in a restaurant. So many people are accustomed to taking photos of just about every life experience that they aren’t even aware that there are others who would prefer not to be photographed at all. Thank you for shining light on this subject. Maybe this should be a new direction for current etiquette.

  8. Luci – I look forward to your blog posts and am amazed at the time teachers take to clearly express their ongoing thoughts, reflections and opinions in the sphere of yoga practice. So don’t stop at all. When I want to comment I feel I can’t articulate enough and it pales to the content and experience that you bring forth so refrain myself from doing it. Photos doing class time is very distracting and should be focused towards learning. There should be other opportunities provided that help us to video or photo that we can refer to and consent should be taken to share. Many many thanks to iyengar teacher community for the dedication and the respect they have for the tradition and the responsibility they have taken to carry forward the teachings. Namaste.

  9. This is a refreshing perspective in the age of Instagram yoga. During my chat with my lead assessor after November’s assessment, she described a time where Guruji spoke heavily about pratyahara and its effects. She said that one time Guruji was lying on a back bender bench so quietly and still, she did not see him there and almost sat on him. This highlights that this is an internal practice and that the only one who should really “see” our practice is ourselves. Above all I have been meditating on this concept in my practicing and teaching in the past month. I am trying to get more quiet inside. Thank you Luci!

  10. Thank you for making me aware of this. I have been doing this with no intention of exploiting anyone, but I now see how it could and why it shouldn’t be done for so many reasons.

  11. Agree; I’m always horrified when I see other teachers posts pics of their students in savasana particularly. It strikes me as so invasive and exploitative. Sometimes I notice the scene of my students lying there and wish I had a picture–I never take it. They are at peace, and it’s my privilege to be there with them. I do offer a free class once a year or so to have photographed for my own marketing–I explain that this class will be photographed. Once a student didn’t like one photo of herself. I never used that one.

  12. I recently tried an arial yoga class for the first time. Someone from the studio wanted to take photos to publicize the class, because it’s new and they need additional students. But before he took even one shot, he explained what he wanted photos for and asked the class. Each of us had the chance to answer individually about whether or not that was okay for us. I said it was okay, but I absolutely appreciated the opportunity to agree or not.

    I recently completed a yoga teacher training, and though I didn’t take photos of any demos, I do think it could be helpful. However, I wouldn’t do it without explicit permission and explaining my purpose in taking photos. Yoga is a deeply personal experience, for me and many other practitioners, and it’s different than saying “cheese” when gathered with your friends over a birthday cake. The way we LOOK when we do yoga is the smallest part of the experience anyway; and too much photo-taking can take us away from that.

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