Does Playboy Yoga Fuel Stereotypes?

A recent blog posted the nude Sara Underwood yoga video published by
Playboy in 2009, reigniting controversy as to the broader role of nudity and
sexuality in yoga.  Clichés of beautiful, bendy,
hyper-sexed “yoga goddesses” are memorialized on Playboy’s yoga
website
, in a paean to the homogenous images of “yoginis” that
litter pop culture. Such depictions engender fears that female yoga
practitioners will be reduced to sexual objects, reinforcing stereotypes.
Nonetheless, to the ire of feminists, Playboy has been featuring strong women,
including Olympic athletes, for decades. But is something lost in translation?

Human experience, and
especially yoga, is profoundly subjective, comprised of the rich, embodied
inner life of the practitioner. Any individual immersed in this richness will
naturally attract the other’s gaze. Of course in yoga, there is also the allure
of spandex, low-cut tops, and compromising poses (assuming one is clothed).

And
yet, the observer can never fully appreciate the inner world of the observed.
The practitioner becomes an object for the viewer’s consumption; a blank slate
upon which all desires project. As such, reactions to Underwood’s video are a
cultural Rorschach, saying little of her and belying rather the voyeur’s lusts
and cogitations. This blank slate unwittingly reinforces the fallacy that all
women who do yoga do so for the pleasure of the observer, rather than for their
own reasons.

The
consequence? Websites that post fetish photos—some taken
without the subject’s knowledge—of girls in yoga pants. Viral
youtube videos
poking fun of yoga culture, reinforcing stereotypes
of sexy female practitioners and the horny, inappropriate men who attend yoga
classes to ogle and hit on them.

Of
course, there is something intrinsically sensual (as divine) in the practice of
yoga. Some
tantric paths of yoga
employ ritual sexual practices to access this,
while others transmute sexual energy internally toward the same aim. Many
tantric and Hindu depictions of the goddess feature partial nudity, and are
incredibly diverse. By turns terrifying and glorious, they portray the full
spectrum of womanhood: sensual, motherly,
compassionate, angry,
wise.
These rarely raise objections; their sacredness goes unquestioned. 

Such
portrayals differ markedly from the homogenous, stereotypical media portrayals
of 21st century “yoginis,” including Underwood’s playboy video. The
latter seem more reflective of cultural platitudes than the fierce, raw, messy
subjectivity of woman, yoga practitioner or not.

Problematic,
then, is the larger cultural tendency to objectify women to the exclusion of
their subjectivity. This is even more egregious when it occurs through the
depiction of yoga, which for many women represents a safe haven, a place to
experience deep nurturance, comfort, and solace; to be ourselves, stripped of
pretense, unspooling our layers, naked but for us and the divine. When made
aware of an external gaze, this reverie may be altered.

So
too, when sexualized representations of “yoga” clutter the culturescape,
subjectivity is lost to the external viewer. The sacred spaces where people
gather to take yoga may feel less safe or facilitate less depth in practice, as
appearances and poses take primacy over the inner world.

What
do you think about the tendency for part of mainstream culture to sexualize
yoga?

Comments 1

  1. This is very well written about a subject that is troublesome to a lot of women. Obviously the female body is beautiful and doesn’t need to be hidden, but I too feel that something is lost and minimized when yoga is portrayed in this way, trivializing women and dismissing the depth of our yogic experience.,, becoming more about ego than truth, something that yoga does not represent for me.

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