As the model-turned-yogi contorts her lithe body into various poses, Midtown workers in suits and skirts curiously rubberneck to watch her twist and turn. “Today will be my David Blaine moment in New York,” says Stiles with a self-deprecating laugh. Stiles’ limber loop through the Big Apple may be a savvy marketing ploy, but it spotlights a growing phenomenon — the yoga showoff who’s more circus sideshow than beacon of motivation.
Yogis practice in the windows of Lululemon athletic-wear stores, their picture-perfect inversions literally on display. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen frequently uploads yoga selfies: In one display, she and baby daughter Vivian do pigeon pose together; in another, she inserts herself into a picture-postcard view of the Arizona desert. Lea Michele has posted photos of herself atop a picnic table mid-balance pose. Miranda Kerr flexes her muscles — and vanity — with snaps of her doing a backbend on the beach. And there’s a shot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley standing on her head.
It’s all part of the trend in celebrity yoga-bitionism — more self-promotion than self-reflection — and it’s riling up yoga traditionalists everywhere. “In a sense, it mocks what yoga is,” says Jennilyn Carson, who runs the New York-based blog Yoga-Dork, a site that fuses the worlds of yoga and pop culture. Perhaps the flashiest yogi of them all is Hilaria Baldwin, the comely young wife of hot-tempered actor Alec Baldwin. As a part of her “365 Days of Yoga Craziness” campaign, she posts outlandish photos of herself contorting in public spaces — whether it’s a warrior 3 on a plane or a deaf man’s pose (bottom in the air) in a nail-salon chair in NYC — to her 37,000 followers on Instagram.
Carson says there is a growing number of practitioners who feel that the self-indulgent nature of yoga selfies and performance posing is the complete antithesis of what yoga is meant to be — contemplative and personal.
“The discussion has been evolving over time since Instagram began. There’s a sentiment [among the yoga community] that they’re doing a disservice to yoga by putting these pictures out there. It’s showy and basically everything that the practice is not supposed to be about — ‘Look at me and these awesome poses I can do!’ ”
That hasn’t stopped fitness magazines from espousing the inspirational benefits of taking yoga selfies — and instructing would-be yoga stars on how to get the perfect angle. “
Yoga celebrity is a thing that is happening and trending,” adds Carson, who says the social-media aspect has blurred the lines of the ancient practice’s true identity. “Is yoga art or is it pop culture or a practice that we can share with others? But it’s really our own personal practice that we don’t need to exploit through selfies.”
Kay Kay Clivio, the lead teacher trainer at NYC’s Pure Yoga, says Baldwin twisting herself into a pretzel in a pedicure chair for all to see is far from inspiring. “To me, that’s more of a publicity stunt,” says Clivio. “Yoga is a practice of body meets grace. And being humble. And I don’t know how humble or graceful that is. I don’t know what her intention is. Is it teaching people how to manage their stress or uplift themselves — or is it just wanting people to follow her and have the most followers?”
Even worse, warns Clivio, is that Baldwin’s extreme poses — many of them done in high heels — could lead to injuries. “I worry about people getting hurt because they think, ‘I want to get into that pose.’ She is a former professional dancer. And you get the average joe who might have a back or hip problem.” Then there’s the question of whether yoga showoffs help motivate others — or simply perpetuate the idea that a daily practice of vinyasas is only for those blessed with a “Yoga Journal”-worthy body.
Numerous Facebook campaigns to post real yoga bodies have sprung up in a backlash to the yoga-showoff movement, including Roseanne Harvey’s “awkward selfie” project. “I did this project to subvert the selfie,” says Montreal-based Harvey, whose popular blog is called “It’s All Yoga, Baby.” In it, Harvey, 38, mocks the perfection of yoga selfies, opting instead to share unflattering snaps, like her lumpy bottom and a closeup of her arm.
Still, the devoted yogi concedes that the showy poses tend to get more likes. “It’s a little contradictory to the original intention of the practice. I personally don’t [post them, but] people do like them — as opposed to images of people sitting quietly in meditation. It’s not as sexy or glamorous.” Meanwhile, self-proclaimed yoga rebel Stiles says there’s plenty of room for all kinds of yogis and schools of thought — and that technology has offered up opportunities for her to develop a program that offers an alternative to the typical fitness fare. During her practice in a glass box Wednesday, New Yorkers were encouraged to snap their own yoga selfies to win a trip to one of her retreats with the hotel chain. “When YouTube started, I made videos,” says Stiles, the owner of Manhattan studio Strala. “ ‘Yoga for Hangovers,’ ‘Yoga for Jocks,’ ‘Yoga if You Are Still On the Couch but Want to Get Off.’ The purists were like, ‘What are you doing? This is criminal!’ And I just kept going with it. It got really popular, and more people came to the studio.
“I just want to promote yoga in a fun way, and not the way it’s been promoted for the last 50 years in America, which [is] so rigid."