Inside the shimmering, idealistic other-world of Instagram, yoga is omnipresent. The #yoga hashtag is currently attached to nearly 50 million posts, while those with associated phrases such as #asana, #yogalife and #yogisofinstagram also run well into the millions.
This is, in many ways, a wonderful thing. Full of advice, inspiration and enthusiasm, the world of Instagram yoga is often a heartening and encouraging space. But while the sheer popularity of these posts points to yoga’s wide appeal, in the image-led arena of social media we have to tread carefully, lest we inadvertently create an atmosphere of exclusion and elitism.
An article in Bustle magazine highlighted how our depictions of yoga can make it feel unfriendly or simply unattainable for some onlookers. We have developed a dominating perception of what a “yoga girl” looks like – youthful, pretty, lithe, and more often than not, white and blonde – which can make people feel as if yoga isn’t for them before they’ve even tried it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being any of the things listed above; it’s simply that this idea is far from representative of the whole population – 50% of which is male, for one thing.
The nature of Instagram is that the most well-staged, perfectly posed and appealing images are going to perform better. This comes down to a mix of human nature and our cultural conditioning – we prefer brightly lit, aesthetically perfect photos, especially if their protagonists convey youth, vitality and glowing good health. We are drawn to physical perfection, beautifully captured images set in stunning locations or amazing home studios, and we are naturally fascinated by the people who have honed their craft – and become, for want of a better way to put it, the most impressively bendy.
This is hard to avoid and it isn’t inherently bad. These Instagram stars provide inspiration, offer guidance and stoke sheer admiration, producing content that people really enjoy. Like many who’ve become passionate about yoga, they’ve often also had to manage personal challenges, and have found relief in the practice. A case in point is Jesse Golden, (linked to above and cited as “the bendiest girl on Instagram”) who lives with rheumatoid arthritis.
However, a mixture of the algorithms which rule social media platforms and our own preferences can create a uniformity of images and experiences, in which people who don’t quite fit the pre-approved “yoga-mould” can easily get lost. While it’s amazing to see the dedication involved in the astonishing flexibility that some achieve, it can make it appear that yoga is an expression of physical prowess, not a personal practice that benefits people no matter their “skill” level.
This may well discourage people in their own practice if they struggle to touch their toes, let alone bend into Handstand Scorpion with ease, and could put many off from trying in the first place. Some people may use yoga to become more flexible, but we’re in danger of conveying that this is the be-all and end-all of the practice, a belief that is very far from the truth.
It’s important, among all this athletic achievement and lean good health, to remember that yoga is both a non-judgemental and non-competitive practice. It’s perfectly understandable that people may have goals to achieve certain poses, and become generally more interested in their health due to the influence of yoga.
But in yoga the focus is internal, and the benefits go far beyond increased strength and flexibility. Everyone’s body is unique to them, and so is everyone’s practice – there should be no implied pressure to look a certain way, or to achieve certain poses in order to get the most out of yoga.
The yoga community has a responsibility not to fuel insecurities, obsession with health and appearance, or feelings of inadequacy in people. Social media presents an alternative reality of our lives, where only the photos that are the most perfectly vibrant make it through, while the difficult, mundane and everyday gets left out. This is no one’s fault, but it can add to the general wallpaper of aspiration which surrounds our lives, making our own appearance, choices and experiences seem somehow lacking.
As the saying goes, “every body is a yoga body” – whether that body is differently-abled, older, non-binary, curvier, skinnier, or subject to ill health. Yoga and yoga therapy can help people manage and recover from many different issues, including anxiety, addiction, and hypertension. At the present time, however, the notion of trying yoga may not even enter the mind a 58 year-old man who has been informed he is pre-diabetic – even though it could drastically improve his wellbeing. We also need to tackle the damaging assumption from yoga’s detractors that yoga is somehow smug and self-indulgent, the preserve of the privileged.
It would be a real shame if some people felt excluded from this practice due to its online image. Yoga isn’t exclusively something for people who have time, money, youth and good health on their side, and it definitely isn’t a requirement to look constantly serene and beautiful mid-pose. This ancient technique, which combines the calming effects of mindfulness with all the advantages of a strength-building physical practice, is open to all – and it’s up to the yoga community to spread the message.