Friday Discussion: Guy Donahue on Yoga Selfies

This is from his Facebook Post:

Yoga Selfie

For many years I have been railing against the yoga selfie culture. Although there may be some legitimate argument that photographic images of yoga postures can have an artistic or educational purpose, the intention is much more often driven by a desire to show off or for the purpose of advertising yoga instruction – this has greatly contributed to the commonly held misconception that the word yoga=asana.

What do yoga selfies have to do with yoga? Pretty much nothing whatsoever.

In a small attempt to counteract this trend I have decided to start posting yoga-Selfies (Selfie with a capital S). Yoga Selfies are an attempt to characterize the “true” Self as it is accessed though yoga practice rather than the narcissistic ego represented by the common use of the expression.

The dubious privilege of being on Facebook is the automatic generation of an Instagram account. I now propose to start posting weekly slokas from the Patanjali Yoga Sutra here:


The word yoga is synonymous with the word samadhi and is used mainly in two ways: either as union or as concentration.

Yoga as union means: union of the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness or union of the individual soul with the universal soul or god.

When concentration is the intended meaning of the word – as in the yoga of Patanjali and the eight steps of Ashtanga Yoga – concentration or samadhi means complete absorption of the mind on a single object or principle to the exclusion of all other thoughts, sensations or impressions – a one-pointedness of mind focussed on an object.

In this context, the word yoga is used in two further related ways – on the one hand there is a state beyond concentration, beyond one-pointedness of mind, in which the mind becomes empty of content – this is the higher level of yoga known as asamprajnata samadhi, and then there is also a method, or practice (sadhana) that precedes the state of concentration, a method that leads to yoga – the word yoga is also used in this context.

The most common method that leads to this second definition of yoga (concentration) is Ashtanga Yoga – not the Pattabhi Jois asana system, but the eight step path of yoga described by Patanjali.

Asana practice is one of eight steps that leads towards yoga, but by itself an asana or an asana practice is just a small movement in that direction and cannot, by itself, isolated from the other 7 steps of ashtanga, be considered actual yoga.

A “yoga selfie” is still more removed from actual yoga since it does not in any way even represent the practice or demonstration of a real yoga asana – but is nothing but posing for the camera with extraverted awareness as opposed to inward absorption.

Although photographs of yoga postures can be helpful as a teaching tool, they are most often have the opposite effect – they show what yoga is not and cultivate a wrong understanding of the practice, goal and meaning of yoga.

More often than not, yoga selfies are simply attempts to impress others, sometimes for no other purpose and sometimes as an advertisement for expert yoga asana instruction.

What is the difference between a contortionist and a yoga practitioner demonstrating a pose? Practically nothing. Although asana practitioners will argue that their intentions are different, they will struggle hard to explain how or why.


Although yoga is defined as concentration, this definition does not explain what happens as the result of concentration, or what the purpose of concentration might be.

In the third sutra of the Samadhi Pada, Patanjali explains that when concentration is achieved, the “Seer” is established in its own essence, while, in the fourth sutra, he explains that at other times the Seer is merged with experience.

The Seer is the Self, consciousness or true identity. The target of yoga is to know the Self. In normal experience, the Self is experienced as merged with the mind and what is contained in the mind, while in the state of samadhi, the Self is experienced as separate from the mind. While merged with mind in normal experience, identity is also thus merged with mind – the result is ego and loss of true awareness of Self or identity.

Why should we be interested in knowing the Self?

According to Patanjali, all our suffering derives from not understanding our true nature. From ignorance about our true identity, four further layers of misery are derived: ego, attachment, aversion and the fear of death.

According to yoga, the nature of the Self is immortal, it experiences no suffering or karma, undergoes no changes, is the epitome of pure consciousness and is of the nature of bliss, while the embodied mind goes through suffering, sickness and death and experiences anxiety, fear, ego, desire, anger etc..

Identifying oneself with the deathless spirit, rather than the fickle mind and pains and infirmity of the body is liberation itself. Through this realization a being can reside in bliss, deep wisdom and immortality.

Why is knowing the Self not the stated purpose of yoga practice?

Today few people experience this exalted state. While in ancient times the experience of samadhi was commonly experienced, because of our unhealthy lifestyles and habits, samadhi is no longer commonly found. We no longer know about samadhi nor how to achieve it and so it has been mostly ignored as the goal of yoga practice, while “perfection” of the body, being a modern obsession, has been put forward as the ideal of yoga.

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