“Yoga is Relationship.” —T.K.V. Desikachar
A yoga practice teaches us to observe the internal flux of the body. Photography teaches us to observe the external flux of the world around us. Doing both at the same time can either create a bewildering competition between two divergent perspectives or an acute sense of union between internal and external worlds.
This summer, I shot photography for Hanuman Festival, one of the nation’s fastest growing yoga events. Rather than act as a traditional festival photographer, tip-toeing the perimeter of the tent while capturing freeze-frames of the class, they asked me to try a new approach and take photographs from within the class, on my mat, while simultaneously twisting, inverting, and sweating with all the other yogis in the room.
At first it was disorienting. While trying to engage in my own practice, I would look up to see the teacher giving a beautiful adjustment to a student behind me, or I’d catch the live kirtan musician framed between the outstretched arms of someone’s Tadasana, all while my camera lay untouched beside my mat. At other times I found myself attached to my camera, waiting for a good moment to snap a poster-worthy picture while the rest of the class connected to their breath through mindful vinyasa. In Ani Difranco’s song “As Is,” Ani says “When I look down I miss all the good stuff/when I look up I just trip over things.” This is exactly how I felt.
Finally, I wondered if maybe all I needed to do was redirect my drishti, or focus, as we are so often told to do in balancing postures. Drishti not only refers to focus, but also means intelligence. By taking photos from the mat, I had the opportunity to develop an awareness of the teacher’s style and the class’s energy level, and shoot more intelligently than I could on the sideline. As soon as I realized this unique opportunity, my experience changed.
I began to tune in to the energy of the teacher and observe the flow of the class. In this way I could anticipate what was coming and react mindfully by quickly and quietly picking up my camera for a good photo opportunity, or joining the rest of the group during grounding, meditative pauses. My bindu—Sanskrit for “seed” or “point” and referring to the place where all energies are focused—eventually stopped shifting back and forth from my first-person practitioner-self to my third-person photographer-observer. Rather it began to encompass both, as I experienced myself as a part of the larger whole of the class. Through this exercise, I discovered the “union” that is the namesake of the word yoga, uniting my individual experience to the collective experience of the class.
Back in my home studio, although I’m no longer carrying two cameras and a media badge into my yoga classes, I do carry the lessons I learned as an on-mat photographer by drawing upon the collective energy of the group to enhance and inspire my own movements.
3 Ways to Shift Your Perspective
1. Practice Listening. Tune into the steady Ujjayi breath of your neighbor or notice the harmonic quality of a shared om. When your own practice feels stale or lethargic, allow the sounds of the community around you to rejuvenate your body.
2. Choose Inspiration over Comparison. After photographing other yogis on the mat, instead of being jealous of a neighbor’s Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (a pose that may not be in store for me this lifetime), I am newly awed at the beauty of the human body. By observing a neighbor in a more advanced posture, we can develop a clearer vision of how to achieve that shape in our own bodies.
3. Focus on Transitions. “Think of your practice not as a series of disjointed poses, but rather one pose,” advises renowned yoga teacher Seane Corne. “Move through them with your breath to encounter passion, love and forgiveness.”