"If I never stepped on a yoga mat before, I might, like some people, also believe you have to have supernatural strength as well as flexibility of a contortionist to practice yoga". This is an opening line for a new column I recently wrote for Buro 247. In the column titled "yoga is for everyone”, I only touched the subject of Instagram yoga, it's influence and what social media in general is turning this ancient practice into today, but I feel there’s much more to be said. Thus, this post.
Not many years ago, when I would mention yoga to someone who doesn't practice, they would say - Yoga is boring, or yoga is slow for me, I need something dynamic. Today I hear them say - Yoga? That’s too hard for me. I’m not flexible enough. I’m not strong enough, I’m not disciplined enough. What’s next? I’m not pretty enough?
With all of these impossible asana photos hashtag-ed #yoga on profiles followed by hundreds of thousands I can't help but wonder: who and what do they serve? These highly edited photos of perfect bodies wearing super expensive yoga outfits or often wearing next to nothing, in impossible asanas, on an exotic location day after day, featuring lives few can have, remind me of fashion magazine editorials with impossible lifestyle and beauty standards to which not even the model herself / himself can live up to. Because it's unreal, stylised, photoshoped with one intention behind - to create a desire and ultimately, to sell a product.
The text under these posts is often aspiring to inspire saying something along the lines of: ‘You think I was this strong? Think again! I was weak until I spent countless hours doing my handstand, working with best of the best gymnastics trainers, putting my blood, sweat and tears into it and look at my one arm handstand now!’ Some people will ind this inspiring, to some this sends a message: I’m not disciplined enough. Honestly, I always think the time and discipline invested could have been put into better use. Like the study of yoga texts, or volunteering, or a walk in the woods connecting to the nature. All would be more in the spirit of yoga. Yogis are not gymnasts and we don't compete so how perfect is your handstand doesn't really matter at all. In fact, it only creates those close to impossible goals. Because, most people have jobs, families, lives and not much space for gymnastic training. But I have to say I do understand. Perfect handstands sell more workshops or products etc. Cause and effect.
I also have an Instagram profile. I sometimes put advanced asana photos up there, so I am not excluding myself totally here. Sometimes I do handstands and post photos of them but, honestly, I generally suck at handstands. Can’t hold them for long. Why? I never invested the time.Not because I lack discipline, but there was always something else I felt my time was better invested in. Like writing, studying, meditation, having coffee with friends... Sometimes I advertise my workshops, trainings and yoga retreats. But I know (and those of you who know me know it too) that whatever I share, is honest, real, no BS involved, and there’s no misinformation (I’ll come back to this one). Yoga, as a spiritual practice has been my spiritual journey for the past 20 years. I feel there is much I can say about the subject. And honestly, I can’t really be called a great influencer with my following. But, if I had hundreds of thousands of people I can reach via social networks I hope I would be using this outreach to serve yoga and yogis, and not for self-glorification and making $.
Going back to misinformation. I overheard two of my teacher trainees talk yesterday about ‘great tips and tricks you can find on Instagram’. Yes, there are some gems you need to dig out under a pile of, excuse my language but - crap. If you want to dig through crap, you know how to dig, and how to recognise a gem from crap, dig in. But, if you can’t it’s better you take advice from qualified teacher, as it should be, than browse Instagram for alignment tips on how to’s and do’s and don’ts of a yoga teacher fresh out of 200 hour TTC or, even worse, a ‘self- taught yogi’ (yoga cannot be self-taught). This is like seeking advice on how to write a book from someone who has just learned how to read and write. And I thought 'I learned yoga on youtube' was bad.
So, what happened and how did yoga get mixed up in all of this?! When did it become all twisted, misinterpreted and reduced to a mere pose and/or a product?
The ability of Western world or so-called modern society to take something beautiful, real, ancient, true and diminish it, turn it into a product is pretty impressive. Yoga is a spiritual discipline which should ultimately lead to awakening, not used as a tool for marketing or Ego boost. But, just like sex, spirituality sells too. Create desire, sell a product.
When will we ever learn? Yoga, spirituality, freedom, authenticity … beautiful words and concepts turned into phrases overused and emptied of their meaning, stripped down to servitude of individuals seeking self-gratification. Instead of awakening we are putting ourselves into deeper sleep, one which is even more dangerous than the one before because now we believe we are awake. We are spiritual. Handstands are spiritual because of a great discipline put into them - hence tapas - hence yoga. (I personally am not convinced.) I'm not saying never do a handstand, just stop obsessing about it. It's actually not important. Won't change the world or make anyone a better person.
Five thousand years of history, remarkable insights which make your head spin, revelations so deep, so profound, scriptures so beautiful, practices so helpful (especially in this fast paced day and age) - almost forgotten. It is sad how little or close to non the yoga tradition is shared and taught. It’s even more sad how little yoga teachers know about it. The eight limbs of yoga reduced to asana series (Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and the Ashtanga yoga of Patanjali are NOT the same thing). Tantra, one of the most beautiful, insightful schools of thought emerged from India reduced to mere sexuality. Nothing is sacred today and even the most sacred of scriptures are misinterpreted to serve a purpose - create a more appealing product.
The subject of Instagram yoga keeps coming back in my conversations with friends, colleagues and students and my opinion is usually that people are smart enough to distinguish true from fake, real from unreal, right from wrong. I always think that Truth will, eventually, reveal itself. But, then something pops up on my IG or FB feed and I realise - no, it will not. It has gone too far. The world we live in is built on fake-ism, unreal-ism and wrong-ism somebody actually supports / believes in. If that wasn’t the case, there would be no Kardashians and alike.
I just wish Kardashians of the world would stay out of yoga.
The problem is, Instagram is just a showcase of the perception of what yoga is and of what yoga teachers teach today. Not the yoga teachers of another era (one before social networks) I am beyond grateful to have been able to study from, but young generations of teachers armed with those incredible bodies, military discipline and a deep understanding of anatomy and biomechanics, but with little knowledge and understanding of history, tradition, philosophy - the real juice of yoga which is beyond asana. I hope this changes, but I’m not counting on common sense of human race, or awakening, I’m just hoping everybody will eventually get bored of handstands, hollowbacks and body obsession generally and move onto something else.
And for all of you yoginas and yogis who have already figured all of this out let me just say – thank you! Because you are the ones keeping the yoga tradition (in the West) from sliding into oblivion and buried under expensive leggings, handstands and contortion sequences.