Instagram, Yoga-lebrities and the pressure to perform

This is a topic I've been thinking about for a while, I actually started writing this a few months ago when i broke my foot.  In case you didn't know, yoga has a huge presence on Instagram.  #yoga has 25 million posts.  The millions of people sharing their practice range from videos in someone's cluttered living room to one-armed handstands on a beachfront deck. I have mixed feelings about it.  I see the pros and cons.  So let's jump right in.

Pros:

1. It can be inspiring. I've definitely gotten some #inspo from yogis on Instagram.  Funky variations of poses, good ways to modify/build up to advanced poses, and seeing someone's progress are all positive experiences for me. 

2. It can connect people.  I have not experienced this first hand but I've witnessed yogis on instagram in what seems like genuine camaraderie.  "Yoga challenges" (one pose everyday for a certain period of time led by one or more people) and #stopanddropyoga are getting people who would otherwise be strangers to interact.  Two thumbs up.

3. It's free marketing (though I wouldn't say its easy) and can help build a more lucrative yoga career.  Fun fact: most of us yoga teachers are not raking in the dough.  However, through regular posting on Instagram with a litany of hashtags, plenty of people have become 'yoga-lebrties', headlining yoga festivals and leading sold-out retreats and trainings all over the world.

Cons.

1. It can be the opposite of inspiring.  Most people don't live in a place that has an epic backdrop for yoga photos. And despite what Instagram is communicating, most people practicing yoga can not hold a handstand or pull their foot over their head. Yoga on Instagram is ripe for comparison, and "comparison is the thief of joy". And like all social media, it can feed insecurity and narcissism. 

2. It places focus on the postures. The purpose of yoga is not to touch your feet to your head.  The physical practice is a tool for self-exploration.  Yes, the poses are fun and I'm constantly challenging myself, refining and yes, I am practicing handstand, but the real work of the physical practice is something you can't really see in a photo.

3. It's making possibly unqualified people yoga-lebrites.  I say possibly because I really don't know.  There is a woman on instagram who has a huge following, currently 1.1 million followers.  She started out simply documenting her practice.  She had a regular office job.  She has a VERY advanced practice. Since gaining her following on Instagram she completed a teacher training (a year or two ago) quit her job and now teaches full time.  She's a regular contributor and presenter for Yoga Journal and leads workshops, trainings, and retreats. Is she qualified to teach a yoga workshop to a room of 200+ people with only a year of teaching under her belt?  I can't image having to teach a room of a few hundred people in my first year of teaching! Talk about pressure.

She would not have the following she does (and therefore, the success as a teacher) were it not for her extremely advanced practice. Which brings me to my last point.

4. Success is based on what you can do. Followers, likes and respect are based on what you can do.  No longer are (some) practitioners seeking the guidance of seasoned teachers rather they look to people who can do crazy shit. I'm sure plenty of those people who can do crazy shit are GREAT teachers, but...

Its really this last bit that gives me pause.  Whenever I have the chance to take a class with a teacher who's been teaching for 20+ years it usually is an amazing experience.  Seasoned teachers are 100% themselves, so comfortable leading a class, wise to reading the needs of the students, even in large numbers.  It usually leaves me feeling grounded, with plenty of new stuff to chomp on and digest.  This kind of seasoning is only one that can come from time.  From hours and hours of teaching real people.  

I'll admit I am mildly annoyed with skipping ahead of line.  Some of these teachers haven't "done the time" to get where they are in their career, they simply did the time documenting their insanely advanced yoga poses.  And, as I said, I bet plenty of these people are great teachers, but it just doesn't seem deep enough... it lacks substance. Some bodies are more flexible, some bodies can handstand more easily. The thin, attractive, sexy, flexible, hand-standing bodies get the most followers leading to greater "success," while regular-old yoga teachers with 2nd and 3rd jobs, muffin tops, and still-using-the-wall-handstands think "if only I could...".

 

Christina Sell wrote a great blog on the pressure to perform (go read everything she's written), for teachers and students.  She writes, 

"I have a good friend who is a lovely asana practitioner, a sincere student of consciousness and the inner life and a fantastic vinyasa teacher. And she can’t balance in handstand. And it really bothers her. While she is one of the most intelligent and creative vinyasa teachers I know, she can not claim the “feather in the cap” of balancing in handstand. In the culture in which she largely participates, that particular trick seems to carry a lot of weight and functions as a kind of hallmark of competency, often with it a perceived edge in the marketplace.

One day she and I were talking about her frustration with not being able to balance and how much pressure she felt to be able to do it. I was shocked. She can dogreat arm balances, amazing hip opening postures and lovely back bends. As a teacher she has a devoted following. She really helps people. A lot of them. For years.  I told her, “Who cares about handstand? It is just one pose of many.” She is pretty self-critical, like so many of my amazingly inspiring women friends and so, whileI hate to admit it, Iwrote off her worryas another oneof her self-critical judgements.

I failed to recognize something very important about perspectives in yoga during our conversation all those years ago. From my vantage point of being able to balance in handstand in the middle of the room, there is no pressure to do it at all.  Handstand is one of many poses. No big deal. But from the vantage point of not being able to balance in handstand, in a culture that prizes and rewards the ability to do so, even a very experienced and accomplished yogi can feel tremendous pressure to do the pose and feel diminished when they are not able.

As a teacher, I can tell everyone that balancing in handstand doesn’t matter at all. I can evenin my heart-of- hearts know that handstand is not an indicator of anything other than handstand itself. Handstand means nothing about sincerity, self-worth, capacity to love and serve others, etc. However,   if I am relentlessly posting pictures of myself hand-standing on beaches, picnic tables, shopping carts and mountaintops and spending 15 minutes of every 75 minute class teaching people how to do handstand and arriving in class 20 minutes early to handstand unobtrusively in front of everyone as they walk in then my actions are not in alignment with my words. In fact, my actions—not my words— become my message and determine the background culture of my classroom."

If you've attended my classes you know that often I will build up to a peak pose, but just as often I won't.  This is intentional.  I do not want to lead people to think that they have to "get somewhere" every time they come to class.  I don't want people to feel like they're doing poses just to get to the next.  Each pose is its own moment and offers its own lessons and benefits.  My hope is that my intention creates a classroom culture that values a holistic, balanced physical practice.  And I try really hard to communicate this in the content I post on social media. 

But social media is a monster snowball that no one can stop. You either stay on or jump off.

I jumped.

I only follow a few yogis on instagram, 5 to be exact (not including my yoga friends who I actually know in real life), I'm not even close to impressed by shirtless one-leg crow to handstand.  I unfollow anything that makes the cynic in me rear its ugly head.  Its not you, its me.  Or maybe it IS you, and its me.  The few I follow have never invoked my epic eye roll. 

I know not everyone feels the way I do, however I think its an important topic for teachers and students to roll over in their minds. How are we assessing 'value'?  How are we measuring 'success'? What kind of culture are you and I creating with what we post and engage with?  And how can we stay true, wise and deep in this strange new world of social media?

 

PS the photo used is me falling out of forearm balance ;)