Ten years ago I shivered as I climbed into a giant birdcage, wrists bound. Crouching inside as I peered out for the camera’s glare, I marveled at the sense of familiarity. Imprisonment, enslavement; these were familiar friends, in body and soul. Relief briefly surged; in acknowledging my soul’s pain, the physical bonds afforded momentary release. For years I continued to engage my body in battle. Glancing in the mirror one day at the gym, I witnessed both physical beauty and hopeless emptiness staring back. Disciplining and perfecting my body had failed to free my soul. Yet this is the premise of a controversial new coffee-table book project, Fifty Shades of Yoga, which depicts shots of an unnamed, scantily clad, statuesque blonde executing yoga poses while tied in various rope configurations.
A play on the pop culture semi-pornographic novel 50 Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades of Yoga has generated significant controversy in the blogosphere. The project is as intriguing as it is incendiary, dredging up a multitude of modern yoga’s paradoxes. Famed Japanese bondage photographer Nobuyoshi Araki has stated “I free … souls by tying up … bodies.” In parallel, Fifty Shades commented on her Facebook page, “I am aware of being in a beautiful prison, from which I can only escape through yoga.” She also stated, “Yoga is not a path of freedom. Yoga is a path of exquisite bondage.” While seemingly paradoxical, these statements make sense when unpacked.
Fifty Shades’ images are sexual, titillating, gorgeous; beautiful, yes, but is it her body that’s the prison? Or is the prison better conceptualized as the sociocultural construction of beauty and desire, internalized and expressed through the body and mind?
Themes of bodies as prisons, ornaments, or husks are common historically and cross-culturally. Today, many women continue to discipline, cut, mold, and torment their bodies in innumerable ways to conform to personal and social expectations. As bodies age many experience a sense of dismay and betrayal, while physical attractiveness and perceived acceptability by the broader culture impact many factors, from health to economic opportunities.
Fifty Shades, in conceptualizing the body as a beautiful prison, fails to acknowledge the broader source of this imprisonment. In a sexualized photo with lingerie and heels, the caption reads, “I will not adjust myself to the world. I am adjusted to myself.” And yet Fifty Shades appears fundamentally adjusted to the world rather than “herself.” Images depict her attired in bunny ears and lingerie, while arranged in postures designed to stimulate and arouse.
To sum, Fifty Shades’ conceptualization of embodiment and yoga as prison derive from the interface between social and personal samskara (entrenched patterns of behaving, thinking, and feeling). While physical bondage may transitorily release the soul’s pain and easily be confused with liberation, it is contingent upon externalities and rapidly fades. This is qualitatively distinct from the more enduring bliss (ananda) of union with the divine, and knowledge of one’s divinity, cornerstones of yoga philosophy.
This is Part One of a three-part series. In Part Two, we discuss the role of mind-body dualism and cultural samskara that interact with modern yoga to unwittingly perpetuate maladaptive cultural patterns rather than awaken us to our true nature.
What do you think about the combination of bondage and yoga?