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).
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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 seems more reflective of cultural platitudes than the fierce, raw, messy subjectivity of women, 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?