‘YOGA PORN’: DARING OR DECEIVING?
‘Social media has turned Yoga into a circus‘
(Rob Schutze, quoted in Pushpa Magazine n. 3)
“Well, at least there are no naked pictures of my body all over Instagram!”,
my colleague Rebecca said to me recently in a bit of friendly office banter. I was stunned. Were my Instagram shots of me topless doing yoga in a summer holiday destination having that effect upon people? Something must have planted the notion in her mind. For me, it was all about ‘keeping up appearances’, because in the quest to build your own brand, a regular presence on social media these days is seen as a must.
In the age of wellness, the proliferation of pictures of yoga asana on social media has become mainstream. I stress only ‘asana’, since posture is a relatively small part of the traditional practice of what is known as ‘Yoga’.
Last time I checked, the hashtag ‘yoga’ had been mentioned close to 40 million times on Instagram. Wow. That’s a lot, even when compared to, say, common hashtags such as ‘cars’, which feature over 26 million times.
In the context of yoga being a multi-billion dollar industry, the prominence of yoga on social media is not surprising. In the West today, yoga has become a fashion statement. Some of the leading studios around the world have their own mysterious special status, hosting leading international yoga teachers, with the legions of fans that go with it: The similarities between the hyper-popularity of the clubbing scene and the yoga industry today are actually quite striking.
In addition, we know that some studios use Instagram (and the number of followers a person has) as a means of filtering out prospective teachers…
We then have to ask ourselves – are the expressions of yoga postures on social media really a desirable thing?
First, if we look at the individual photos of yoga poses on social media, the actual expression is no different to any other sharing of ideas, photos or experiences. If there is an element of attention-seeking intention behind the posting of content on social media, then such expression is just another form of that. Whether that be food, landscapes, cars or whatever, the object of the expression is an appeal to others. “Look at me” one could say. Yes, there is a sharing aspect, but at the heart of any artistic expression is always a desire to be seen or heard. The core ‘like’ function on all the leading social media platforms is merely a function of that.
Indeed, every artist likes to be seen or heard. Bloggers like their works to be read, shared and discussed. Attracting attention, it could be said, is merely a subset of what us social species do.
Ah ha, say the purists: yoga is not about going outwards – it is about cultivating an attitude that looks inwards at our deepest selves, and ultimately realising a state that is self-less and free of ego. As the great, late, B.K.S. Iyengar said in his seminal masterpiece “Light on Life”:
“The conundrum of body is the starting point in yoga from which to unravel the mystery of human existence”
In this regard, the posting of yoga poses on social media seems the complete antithesis of that.
Well, if you took that as your foundation, you’d agree hands down. However, if you take another perspective, then you can see the conundrum from a entirely different perspective.
I ask the practitioners of yoga out there:
When you practice, in your studios or your homes, do you think about every posture and how that would appear on social media? Do you think about attracting attention to your posture? Or, are you more concerned about your own practice, your alignment, your breathing, your awareness….
On the other hand, if you take a photo shoot, or produce shots that are designed for the camera, is your attention naturally outwards? Of course it is, but so is any model or subject for the camera: the audience itself is the focus and the stylisation of the body for the purposes of the photo shoot is a natural consequence of this.
In this respect, taking photos of people doing yoga is like no other – the object is the same, the subject matter is entirely different.
To confuse the practice of yoga with what is seen on social media completely misses the point. Social media serves a purpose, which in today’s age, is an increasingly important one. My yoga teacher in Notting Hill is one of the best and most experienced teachers in London, yet has no social media presence. Every week I listen to him promoting his unfilled retreats. The experience of taking a class with him is second to none, yet the marketing of his product falls short of raising awareness for what he offers amongst a wider audience.
“I sold out my first yoga retreat in five days and all I did was put up one Instagram post,”
Imagine if my teacher took a different approach to marketing the fruits of his labour: He’d make more money, make a difference to more people’s lives and overall feel more satisfied. The power of social media to share information, reach wider audiences and help drive businesses today is not questionable. Why then criticise those who wish to make a living out of their passion and who use such tools to their advantage?
What I do acknowledge as problematic though, is the use of social media to filter prospective teachers. We know of studios in London who do precisely that. This basis is false and misleading, since it is possible to manipulate and boost your own popularity by merely paying for it. In this regard, such number of followers, per se, is meaningless; substituting quality and experience with social media popularity is misguided and on another level, dangerous.
In my own case, I am building my own “brand”, whose values are aligned with changing the perspective of those who work in financial services and providing a source of inspiration for those struggling to cope or survive in the hectic corporate world; in this context, are a few topless photos of me on holiday in the sun doing yoga really that grotesque?
ps – let us not forget: Participation in social media is entirely voluntary. Liberty in that regard to choose what you want to see, and what you don’t want to see, is its most powerful freedom of all….