Saturday, December 3, 2011

On Light, Photography, Yoga and the Body

Sometimes, life's quandaries seem so devastatingly simple: we need to love and be loved in order to thrive, but the world is commonly callous, and cruel. We're hurt by others, and we hurt ourselves because it's so hard to learn better. We're angry at ourselves and others for our human shortcomings. We're fearful of more pain. It seems like too much of a risk to stay open to love. Yet if we don't, we wither and what's precious within us dims into darkness. It's a life's work to create the courage to love ourselves and this fucked up world. Yet no matter how bad it gets, there's always that flicker of spirit to be breathed back into life.

The candle in the darkness image is sooo cliched, right? But that's why I love blogging - a quick internet search, and voila - I found an image that I truly like. It's from the blog, Maggie's Photography, in the post titled, "Weekly Photo Challenge: Light."

Which feels like another small serendipity, as this random image search just brought together the key themes of this day: the week, photography, challenge, light . . .

Concretely, our power went out for the entire evening earlier this week. We hauled out every flashlight and candle we had to get by until bedtime. Most of the flashlights were broken. So we relied on the candles.

They cast off a surprising amount of light. And they captivated us, one by one. I found myself transfixed by the row of flames on my dresser, which arrested me and made me feel how deeply different it was to live in synch with the dark, with only these small flames for illumination. Later, my son, who was doing his homework by candlelight, remarked that he had just realized how much he likes candles. Coming from a kid who's passionate about xBox, skateboarding, urban culture, and electronics, this was notable . . .

But I think we all recognized that unexpectedly finding the house lit up by candles and blowing them out early to go to sleep in the dark . . . and really noticing the darkness of the dark - felt quietly wonderful.

Then there was the question of photography. I stirred up a bit of a ruckus with the lead photo I chose for my latest Yoga Modern post on "women in yoga." It's of a very thin, very young looking woman posing (incongruously) in a lush bed of brightly colored hair scrunchies - you know, those hairband-covered-with-fabric things that were popular at some point in the not too dimly distant past. (You'll have to click through to check it out - I'm not reposting it here. Instead, that's Susan Sontag, above. But more on that later.)

Anyway, so the model in this photo has multiple rings of these scrunchies on her ankles and hair too. Other than that, she's wearing only a skimpy black leotard. She's staring into the camera, looking a little come hither, and a little - whatever. She seems casually but defiantly comfortable with the playful absurdity of the shot. But because she seems so young, and unapologetically sexual, there's also something discomforting about it - it just doesn't seem quite right.

Or so I thought. A surprising (to me) number of people who commented on the post were simply offended by it instead. I hadn't anticipated the intensity of this reaction - the photo was not central to the content, really. But it was meant to reignite some of the same conflicting emotions that images of women in yoga can stir up more generally (at least when they start to be critically interrogated. Many people get really uncomfortable with that, and remarkably quickly.) I wanted to capture some of these warring emotions in one image, rather than juxtapose a "good" photo against a "bad" one (which is what one reader urged me to do instead).

But my intended strategy backfired a bit, as it became a distraction from my written content. But then again, maybe that was the lesson to be learned here: that the ideas I laid out in words couldn't necessarily compete (or hold a candle to, ha ha) the emotions ignited by a provocative image.

It's yet another testimony to the power of the photographic image. Which can be so potent, it's hard to step out of the emotional force field it generates.

So I started thinking about photography, and the ubiquity of these images in our culture today. I wanted to read the words of someone who had thought into this phenomenon long and well, which of course brought to mind Susan Sontag (pictured above). I realized then that we don't own a copy of On Photography, which seemed like enough of a lamentable lack in the holdings of our home library to justify spending $10 to order a copy - so I did.

I also became curious to revisit what Mark Singleton had written about the importance of photography in the creation of modern yoga. I didn't have time to reread the chapter that deals with this (8). But I did skim through to find this quote, which I like very much - there's a lot packed in here, and I think it's charming in its off-handed brilliance (like Mark himself, who I loved being able to meet this summer in Toronto . . . ):
Today, the yoga body has become the centerpiece of a transnational tableau of personalized well-being and quotidian redemption, relentlessly embellished on the pages of glossy publications like Yoga Journal. The locus of yoga is no longer at the center of an invisible ground of being, hidden from the gaze of all but the elite initiate or the mystic; instead, the lucent skin of the yoga model becomes the ubiquitous signifier of spiritual possibility, the specular projection screen of characteristically modern and democratic religious aspirations. In the yoga body - sold back to a million consumer-practitioners as an irresistible commodity of the holistic, perfectible self - surface and anatomical structure promise ineffable depth and the dream of incarnate transcendence.
Well . . . unpack that, and it's sort of like - ok, ouch (at least, perhaps, for us more committed yoga practitioners). But of course, he's right - at least socially and culturally. But being the sort of scholarly work that this is, it does leave out that back door of redemption that doesn't change over time - yeah, breathing some life back into that almost suffocated, but never extinguished inner light.

I also thought about how damn hard it is to find photographs of contemporary yoga that really capture the spirit of what - in any meaningful sense - it's really about. It's easier with meditation - perhaps because there's no impetus toward drawing our desiring gaze to the body, which is so inevitably commodified today. Instead, the photographer's focus is where it should be: on capturing the outer manifestation of that inner light.


  1. I am pleased you thought my photo worthy of your post. I am glad you left me a note and I could follow to your blog.
    I am new to yoga, just taking part in a weekly hour at the Gym.

  2. am finally getting to your looks-super-interesting post ;-) and am gonna work my way through it more later today!

    the arts (in general) and photography, with its easy reach, all integrating with yoga et al

    maybe the question will finally come down to, what parts arent' integrating, in our consciousness at least, since they probably do anyways

    be back for more later after classes and chores ;-)

  3. "...thought about how damn hard it is to find photographs of contemporary yoga that really capture the spirit of what - in any meaningful sense - it's really about. It's easier with meditation..." Really? Is meditation something - er - different to yoga then? The Hatha Yoga Pradapika which sets out to encapsulate much of the physical practice only has one chapter on the ubiquitous and contempraneous asanas. This should make it clear enough even to those only interested in the facts that date back to about the 15th century that exercise without meditation is not yoga - in fact it's not even sport which at least requires quite high levels of concentration! This is totally non-controversial opinion outside the retail, fitness and wellness sectors. WARNING: Parts of this article appear to be infected with "Singleton-itis" - symptoms include: chronic lack of methodological context; unhealthy, lopsidedness towards scholastic objectivism; Cherry Picked historical artifacts; willful abatement of other traditional and significant narratives such as Jainism, Buddhism. The solution? Scan your website for this virulent and highly damaging virus - it is also know as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy (worm).

  4. YM: We've been through this before, and you know that we'll continue to disagree on the value of Mark's work. But thanks for reading (and commenting).

  5. "One picture is worth a thousand words"; in this case it seems one picture has overwritten a thousand words. It does show the power of visual images. Best.

  6. ok, finally got to read the whole thing, yay! not that it's too long etc, just me ;-)

    and so many varied things came to mind as i enjoyably worked my way through the article, i couldn't think of a theme thing to start off with! other than saying there's so many things...

    so, off the top of my head:

    images of candles, yes ;-)

    i could smell my memory-chosen fragrance, recalled my old catholic ritual childhood days, letting wax melt onto my hand (harmlessly) as proof of my devotion; had a rapid recall of a vt pbs program recently, showing how electricity finally came to the rural areas here (50s, 60s?), and the women wept at having light, didn't mention the men, but they should've too (if they didn't) -

    how it's not about not having candles or not having electricity, or having either, that makes sense, but being able to have both and being aware of being able to use both - sheila and i have a fake firelog heater (electric) with ingeneously created flame-light, attached to a dimmer switch! in our 60s, we think this is nice ;-)

    about the image of the girl with multi-color hair things all about her - hmm, can't recall why i didn't leave a comment ;-) and only surprised you (carol) were surprised at the intensity of the response to that image (alone) ; then thought of how my tweenie granddaughters not only wouldn't think of the girl in the image as "young" but would've ooohed and ahhhed at both her outfit/makeup and colors used while wishing they could grow up just a little faster, just like her ;-) provacative, yes, but in a blatantly playful role-teasing kind of way, i thought

    photograhically though, the part that did shock me, and probably convinced me not to comment, was the perfectly placed leotard strip between her legs; my opinion is it's too neatly positioned and color-juxtaposed, to be only a natural shot, which shouldn't be suprising, given the colors and arrangement of the image as a whole, but it seemed, i guess sorta unnecessary; i didn't feel the image, to be effective, needed that degree of attention calling - if i'm too off-base here, then label me another victim of the power of the photograph...

    so, candles and yoga-meaningful photos, both in apparently short supply in our lives

    throw in some yoga-origins usual-stuff into it (and it's no secret i value evaluating things, including yoga and my childhood religious experiences, from where i am "today") and i feel i got my thought-provoking fix of the month, usually at the hands(writing) of carol ;-)

    but the effort, i understand myself, at connecting things that may or not be all that connected, is tough - i recently posted one of my articles on a social media site, about how i created the photos (see, still on thread ;-) for an article on gratitude, and was accused by a commenter of blogspamming, because i linked to another article from the article i was in - did he/she miss the connection? not read much of the article? or am i missing something else entirely?

    i don't know, but glad to have the opportunities, in our fractured imperfect world, to even be able to think and speak of all this, read of all this, and want to improve on all this...


  7. Thanks, Adan; and yes, agree with you completely about that image - it was precisely that part of it that put it over the edge - yet in other ways the model was not the typical commercialized body (too thin, not so nicely made up) - at any rate, yes, it was deliberately provocative. But in this day and age, when there are so many more aggressively sexual images everywhere, that lack nuance and interest of any kind - yeah, I was surprised by the response.

    I think that it had to do with the fact that I was linking it to a critical take on women and yoga, of course. It wasn't the image as a stand-alone thing, but the context I put it in. Added too much of an emotional charge to an already controversial critique, I think - at least for some.

    Re the candles, yes, so grateful to have electricity - but also realized that I don't avail myself of the beauty of candlelight nearly enough. Electronic stimulation starts to seem like a necessity rather than an option until I turn off the light and go to sleep - what would happen if I took out a bit of time to be in the dark with a candle? It would be a good thing, I think.

    Thanks for reading!

  8. carol, yes, our youngest daughter loves candles, everywhere! and it's always a treat to visit in an evening w/her; our oldest girl has 3 young girls and candles are "yet" too good an idea ;-)

  9. A photograph is in the eyes of the photographer. Then it is in the eyes of the viewer. A photograph will be interpreted according to individual impressions, memories, experiences.

    A photograph, like a song, like a story, like a painting may offend, please or confuse but that is a risk we take when we make a public presentation.

    When asked to post profile pictures at yoga studios I do not pose because I don't think that represents yoga or me. But that's my personal opinion. However if you want to see a picture of people doing yoga, modeling yoga clothes, hanging out in a yoga scene, so what? It's fine.

    Your thoughts on candlelight and photography strike me as two separate things. Candlelight is the light of personal practice. The photograph is the abstraction that comes from others judgement.

    Now, I have to wonder, what would yoga look like in a world without mirrors! Because much that we represent to others whether in real time or photography is a celebration of our individuality or perhaps group identity; our ego which is not a bad thing, just the way we are.

    Softened and intimate in the temporary and flickering light of a candle we may reveal something altogether different.

  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on how imagery dominates yoga culture and can come to drown out the complexities of yoga. I think that if you were to ask the average Canadian: when I say yoga, what image comes to mind? It would probably be exactly what Singleton has described.

    I wonder if the power of the photograph is also amplified by the nature of the internet medium? A little glowing screen is generally not amenable to long articles and lots of text and I don't think people read as carefully online as they do with paper, although there may be generational differences.

  11. Yes, interesting question. How does the internet change the image? Definitely allows certain things to spread faster. But others seem even more lost in a vast swamp.

    I think that it's only a minority that's ever read long and carefully, in all honesty. And my guess is that more and more of us will eventually shift over to iPads etc. The technology is now so good, print seems more and more unnecessary and wasteful. If lovely in its own way. I'm sure there will always be a place for print medium, but it's going to have to offer something special that makes it a valuable alternative. I've read publishers are already moving in that direction with fancy book covers, etc. But I'm sure that it will get more creative than that, provided the intrastructure stays viable (something I don't feel I can necessarily take for granted anymore).