There are few things more divisive in the yoga world (outside Bikram, at least) than an Instagram photo of a beautiful person in a perfectly executed forearm balance, very likely clad in an upmarket brand of yoga gear. "That's not yoga!" cry the classicists. "Where is the pranayama? Where is the meditation? Anyway, most people aren't even built for that", whilst others will point out that such pictures inspire people to get to classes so that they too can do that pose, one day. And maybe it will inspire them to go further. Maybe even in that outfit.
I seem to spend a lot of time ruminating on this subject, more than is probably a healthy amount, because in truth, I feel a little torn. On the one hand- full disclosure- I do at times find these pictures irritating. In fact, these days, if I check out someone's Instagram account and it's mostly them in difficult poses in exotic locations, it tends to put me off.
And yet there are many teachers that I admire and respect hugely that do it. Men and women who live authentic lives, who have chosen yoga as a path both on and off the mat, some of whom I am lucky enough to call friends. And when I see them in postures that seem to require a spine that rotates 360 degrees, my normal reaction is less of an eye-roll, more of an 'ooooohhh, that looks amazing'.
So why, exactly, do I find some of these pictures so irksome and some more inspirational? Well, as yoga requires self-study, I will put my hand up here and say that some of this is good ole' fashioned jealousy. If I put a picture of myself doing compass pose on Facebook I would look like a dog trying to remove an unusually large tick. I would only inspire sympathy, not an excited Google search for a person's nearest studio. As a yoga teacher, whenever I see a lithe, beautiful body twisted elegantly into an asymmetrical knot, there's an anxious little person inside me that goes 'who'd want to come to your classes when you can't teach them how to do that?'
But that's not just it. The truth is, there are one or two 'fancy' poses that I could do well enough for a cute sunset shot and a #yogaeverydamnday hashtag. But that's not really what I stand for. My journey as a yogi has always been more about what it gave me off the mat, how it allows me to release long-held trauma and slowly live more in a state of self-acceptance (when I'm not condemning my compass pose, anyway). And that's why I wanted to teach- to be able to introduce this possibility to other people. I'm not sure I would convey the concept of making peace with one's past on Pinterest through the medium of Koundinyasana I.
No. For me, it comes down to authenticity, and what a person is really trying to tell you with an image. You can see, for example, that some yoga practitioners are very anatomical in their approach to asana, and therefore naturally more focused on the physical. For others, a challenging pose may represent something personal to them; an obstacle overcome, a symbol of where they're at in their life right now, a symbol even of something taking place in the world around them. And this tends to come through- you can tell that whatever that person's reason for documenting a feat of physical prowess, it came from a place of integrity.
But I do get the sense that some people's social media feeds are driven by insecurity; a fear that they aren't a 'proper' yogi without an Instagram account full of King Pigeons and Peacocks. As if their worth is derived in part from the abilities of their shoulder girdle. I'm certainly not the only one that wanted to teach to transmit more of the gifts of yoga; it's what most people seem to say when you ask them why they wanted to teach. And everyone has such unique stories, such an individual energy to share with their students and future students. Surely a bendy back isn't the sum total of this.
There's no doubt that social media has been a boon for yoga teachers. And there's no doubt that Improved physical condition is, of course, another of yoga's gifts. But as yoga becomes more disseminated through media images, wouldn't it be great to see something other than a fallen angel pose in an edgy urban building, unless a fallen angel in an urban building was truly the purest expression of what you actually wanted to say (is it. Is it?). I'm not suggesting that we never put up pictures of our physical practice. But I am saying that maybe, just maybe, we have a little bit more to offer the world, that our journey with yoga could sometimes be represented with images that say more than that. As it is, one of the richest forms of spiritual development is being reduced to a shorthand symbol of a body beautiful with their leg behind their head.
We're all so much more than just our hip flexors, people. Maybe next time we want to put up that #yogilife post, we could think for a second about what we'd like to say to a struggling person who has yet to find a yoga class what #yogilife can really offer.
Now, excuse me while I go practice my compass pose.