Rising in popularity as it becomes ever more performative, yoga’s growth may be linked to the way it quantifies progress towards ‘ideal’ bodies, Shameem Black writes in this piece from Perfection, a new publication from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.
I interlock my fingers up to the webbing. Crown of the head down. Feet walk in.
A violin string squeaks, then screeches. A pause. “I need to tune the bow,” I hear my daughter call. Silence.
I lift up one leg, then the other. A long, straight sound shoots like an arrow from my daughter’s room. Music.
We practice together. Nine minutes. Nine minutes in search of perfection.
Yoga has long offered the promise of perfecting human life. It defeats death, soothes souls, unifies the world. Yoga’s gift (and perhaps its curse) is its uncanny ability to respond to the striving of different times and places. Its focus on ultimate ends has rendered it a powerful tool for diverse cultural and political goals. For devotional groups, yoga has promised union with the divine. For philosophers, yoga has promised true perception of reality. When its birthplace, India, has been politically weak, legendary yogis have shown how India could be strong.
When we contemplate the grandeur of these goals, found in old manuscripts, folk tales and philosophical treatises across India and South Asia, it is no surprise that over the years, yoga has transformed into a popular tool of perfectibility today. In India and well beyond its borders, yoga has come to promise the perfect body.
Once the body of the yogi in India was considered fearsome and superhuman, a body all too familiar with warfare and graveyards. The reformist impulses of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries transformed the practice for new ends. By the early twentieth century, yoga was becoming a path to a muscular, clean-cut body that resonated with ideals of Western bodybuilding and gymnastics. It came to signal a healthy, strong and often anti-colonial body in India.
As the practice has travelled beyond India’s borders, it has become especially appealing to women as a way to cultivate a new, liberated, female form. Yoga has proven especially flexible in promising access to different beauty norms. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, the Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda explained how he successfully taught yoga to a woman who wished to become more attractive to her husband. Yoga, he assured her, could help her gain weight.
Today, of course, yoga is much more likely to promise the opposite. Yoga is widely promoted in India and many other parts of the world as an effective path to the idealised lean body that has become ever more elusive in an era of industrially processed foods and sedentary work.
For many women around the world, yoga has promised access to the insatiable new norms of what a healthy, beautiful, desirable life should look like. At the beginning of the twentieth century, yoga was more likely to be practiced by men. Now it is often the reverse.
For many women around the world, yoga has promised access to the insatiable new norms of what a healthy, beautiful, desirable life should look like.
More and more women have entered the paid workforce, but their responsibilities in households have not necessarily declined. Parenting has become a full-time job at just the moment when many women work full-time outside the home. For example, middle-class women in India bemoan the digital manacles of WhatsApp, which sends them up to 40 messages an hour about their children’s schooling.
Bombarded by unattainable beauty norms, the need to keep fit, professional aspirations to cultivate a career, anxieties about supporting a household and the need to make at least one corner of life look Instagram-worthy – it is no wonder that millions of middle-class women have flocked to a practice that promises to help solve many of these challenges.
Part of yoga’s growing global popularity among both women and men may be linked to the way the practice helps document and quantify progress towards ideal bodies. Men, too, face new and intensified pressures as they become more involved in domestic management, cope with increasingly precarious work conditions, and navigate the challenges of a device-laden world.
In its modern form, the practice provides a way to regulate time and create oases in modern lives that are increasingly irregular and always ‘on’. I count on my 90 minutes at the studio and nine minutes at home to punctuate the chaos of a full life. Yoga can offer the perfection of discipline in an era when so much seems to be beyond our control.
Indeed, white-collar offices around the world have increasingly invited yoga into the rhythm of the workday as a way to help employees deal with excessive stress.
Workplaces often justify sponsoring yoga classes because these sessions promise quantifiable goals, such as increased productivity or reduced health care costs. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has heavily promoted yoga in part because it contributes to what he calls ‘health assurance’ in lieu of (much more expensive) health insurance. For nations and employers, yoga often promises the perfection of economic efficiency.
Yoga has also become a project of measurement in which individuals constantly appraise themselves. One key reason why yoga has abetted personal self-fashioning is the increasing accessibility of the camera. The camera has not only recorded the practice of yoga, but as scholars have shown, it has also changed how yoga is pursued. If, in the early twentieth century, yoga became something that could be photographed, it has by now developed into something often meant to be photographed.
In the digital age, yoga has become a visual shorthand for the dream of a perfect life. On Instagram, you can scroll endlessly through square frames of practitioners recording their moments of ideal practice. ‘Yoga influencers’, as they are known, stage their practices as miniature theatre. Bollywood stars like Shilpa Shetty share images of themselves practicing in a sea of grass behind a bright blue sky.
Western practitioners are often especially enthusiastic documentarians on social media. A luminous sunset glows benevolently on a lithe, thin woman in an arm balance on a beach. An athletic man practices a complex inversion on a park bench beside his bicycle, a sign of his commitment to outdoor adventure.
Many yoga influencers are fond of photographing themselves in what appear to be untouched – yet are also clearly touched-up – natural spaces. These worlds reflect the gaze of the middle class, the segment of society for whom lush grass fields and sea are not places to work. In these photographs, yoga appears to bend the universe to its dream of perfection.
To produce these idealised images, frames exclude. Western social media feeds often repeat body images of astonishing similarity, creating an echo chamber for white, thin, flexible female bodies. In parts of the world where Indians have migrated and often struggled, it can be especially galling for some members of the diaspora to see one of India’s most popular cultural exports represented in this way.
When practices from India are seen as ‘uncool’ – as signs of unwelcome otherness – it is often people of Indian ancestry who pay the price. But when the appeal of such practices spreads, it can seem that the greatest benefits often bypass those communities of Indian origin.
The frames also exclude many of the globally shared challenges that shape today’s world. Perpetually scrolling images of yoga in pristine natural spaces conjure life without the ravages of climate change, environmental pollution, political violence or labour exploitation. These images, seen en masse, can appear wilfully blind.
If measurement, counting and incessant data collection were once the utopian dreams of states, international organisations and scholarly disciplines, today these projects have entered into the heart of middle-class personhood. Fitbits record our steps, apps count our hours of sleep, ‘likes’ record our popularity.
For many people, these projects of quantification are not simply physical. In the eyes of many, scales measure moral worth, apps record success and failure, social media statistics calculate personal and economic value. Numbers are rarely morally neutral.
Yet pushing us to grasp what we cannot ordinarily measure is one of yoga’s historical goals. In different ways, yoga has invited its practitioners to look beyond the visible and quantifiable world to apprehend something bigger and deeper. Today, we might take up some of that promise as part of the practice. We might become curious about what is left out of the frame, what is not counted, what eludes our quantified selves.
In the digital age, yoga has become a visual shorthand for the dream of a perfect life. On Instagram, you can scroll endlessly through square frames of practitioners recording their moments of ideal practice.
Nine more minutes…
Let me retell the story I began with.
“It’s time to practice violin,” I say with false cheer.
A glare shoots out at me from deep in the room. It’s hard to tell from exactly where, because almost every surface is littered with open books, uncapped markers, sparkling glass beads and dirty laundry.
“I don’t want to practice violin.”
“This is what we’ve agreed on. Nine minutes.”
“I need to practice too. I’ll get my mat. You keep me company.”
If truth be told, I don’t want to do nine minutes either. I’m tired. We’re all tired. Last night I did yoga in the serene company of composed adults while my partner coaxed children into bed with clean teeth and appropriate nightwear. Tonight it’s my turn.
In another room my son is wailing at the indignity of being asked to put on pyjamas.
But somehow we find the mat and the bow.
And, as we count down the nine minutes and measure our way towards the time when we can stop, something shifts. Something unquantifiable, unmeasurable, uncountable. My daughter’s voice lifts. A flickering of freedom passes through my limbs as barely – just for an instant – I move away from the security of the wall.
The violin squawks. My feet tumble down. Nine minutes are not yet up.
“Let’s trade,” my daughter says with excitement. “I’ll teach you bow hold and then I’ll do a handstand.”
My son comes in. He’s not crying anymore. He puts his hands on the floor and walks his feet up the wall.
Where should I stop this story? Where should I set the frame? I can challenge the seeming perfection of the moment and take you to a time when tears and anger came back. Or I can cut just at the moment when, for a minute, we all did find balance.
Is it possible to see both at the same time? Yoga helps to make a countable and measurable self, yet it also invites us to think beyond quantification and control. If we can do both at once, perhaps, in the end, this is what will lead us toward the perfect pose.
This is a piece from Perfection, a collection of expert essays in the latest edition of Paradigm_Shift from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific. This edition focuses on diverse ideas of perfection that shape lives in Asia and the Pacific. You can read the essays for free here.