Purusha, Prakriti, and the Yoga Selfie

This article was previously published in OM Yoga Magazine

It does not matter if you take yoga selfies or not. It doesn’t bother me if somebody thinks one of my yoga selfies is self-indulgent or inspirational. I am much more interested in what it all means. There is no point taking a stand about something without first attempting to better understand that thing. For example, how can we understand a yoga selfie in the context of contemporary yoga? What does it mean? How does it relate to the bigger picture of yoga today?


Rather than wondering if yoga selfies are good or bad, we should spend our time trying to figure why people post them and what they mean for yoga today. In order to do that I am going to have back up a little:

Yoga is considered a “common tradition” with one of the oldest philosophical systems of India, Samkhya. Samkhya means “counting” and attempts to take an inventory of the known universe – ultimately enumerating twenty-five basic principles upon which our world is built. Two of these are purusha (self) and prakrti (nature). These are often imagined as masculine and feminine, spirit and matter, or big self and small self.

This dualistic view is summed up nicely in one of the first lines of the Yoga Sutras. The 2nd sutra famously states that yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind. The next accompanying sutra continues that

tadah drastuh svarupe avastanam

then the seer abides in its’ own essence

In this instance the word drastuh (seer) refers to purusha. The sutras go on to state that when the seer is not abiding in its’ self, it identifies with the fluctuating thoughts, memories, dreams, and sleep that characterize prakritic existence. This sums up the essential dualism imagined by the Yoga Sutras. You are either identified with the seer (which means you are not the actor in your life story, you are the audience) or with the seen (in which case you are in the drivers’ seat of your life.)

The thinking is actually fairly simple. Life is constantly changing. Some of those changes are good, but some of them cause suffering. To get away from suffering, get away from all the things that change. Then you see the suffering rather than being the suffering.

The problem with this vision of yoga is that when you get away from the things that bring suffering, you are also getting away from the things that bring fun, excitement, adventure and affection. This is what David McAmmond calls an “up and out” ideology. It is leaving the world. It is an ascent into a lofty, resplendent aloneness (what is called kaivalya in the sutras.)

Although we pay significant lip service to the wisdom and authority of the yoga sutras, the majority of our yoga practice and experience does not align with the “up and out” ideology contained within its pages. We practice yoga to enjoy being in our bodies, not to become disembodied. We practice so that we can better manage emotional turbulence, not to disengage entirely from the fluctuating nature of the thinking, feeling mind.

The yoga selfie is a great example of yoga from the perspective of the seen, rather than of the seer. Rather than abiding in the essence of the seer (drastuh or purusha) we might choose to abide in the essence of the seen. We can choose to consciously embody the ever-shifting field of energy and light that is our prakriti.

That doesn’t mean that the seen is not also the seer – it just means one of the ways in which you might enjoy the experience of life is to be seen. Like a kid on a diving board getting ready for an epic cannon-ball, we call out to our friends to “look at me” before taking the leap.

padma mayurasana_Fotor

This does not have to be an exercise in self-indulgence. It can simply be a way of enjoying yourself and creating enjoyment for others. Being the seen, performing for the small screen of Facebook and Instagram, has the capacity to amaze, inspire, and captivate. That might not be what Patanjali had in mind…but he never had an IPhone.

If we desire dissolution into pure subjectivity and the stillness of ever-present awareness, then yoga selfies are probably not for us. But they pose no threat to the authenticity and integrity of yoga traditions, so we can just relax and continue our yogic disappearing act. Even the authenticity and integrity of yoga is just a thought that will ultimately dissolve into meditative awareness anyway.

But if you want to dance into the pulsating field that is our psycho-physical self, then there is great value is allowing yourself to be seen. It may be that there is a part of yourself that yearns to be seen, a part of you that has been standing on the diving board waiting for someone to watch you splash into life.

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