InstaYoga: Yoga in the Time of Instagram

When I first set foot on a yoga mat, there was no such thing as Instagram.

I’m not sure whether Facebook existed, but if it did it was still an obscure network for university students.

At that time, yoga wasn’t cool. It wasn’t something people got into because they wanted people to know that they practiced yoga. If anything, it was still seen as a bit weird, a fringe practice for hippies and oddballs.

Now, of course, the situation’s pretty different. Instagram is bulging at the seams with hot young things showing off their handstands, Cosmopolitan is constantly trumpeting a new yoga workout, and rigorous scientific studies have determined that you’re never more than ten feet from a Lululemon store.

Being a bit of a hipster, as well as a yogi ("I was practicing this asana before it was cool"), I’m still figuring out how to feel about this sudden influx of breathless enthusiasm for yoga practice.

On one hand, I reckon that more people practicing yoga, like more people reading books or planting trees, can only be a positive development. On the other (leaving aside my burning desire to be special and interesting), it seems to me that both practice and practitioners are exposed to an entirely new set of pressures as the yoga world becomes increasingly glossy and asana-focused.

Several years ago, I read an article outlining the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In short: extrinsic motivation is doing things because we’ll be externally rewarded in some way (money, status, approval); intrinsic motivation is doing things because we like doing them.

I sometimes wonder whether, as the yoga juggernaut gains ever more momentum, it becomes more and more tempting to practice yoga purely for the extrinsic kicks: the "yoga butt," the "yoga selfie," the "yoga lifestyle." 

There’s a fine line, I think. I enjoy being able to perform challenging asanas, and I’m flattered when someone comes up to me after a class and says something starry-eyed. I’m not an Instagram user, possibly because my phone is too crappy to allow me to download the app, but I’m not averse to the odd photoshoot, and I like the fact that my body has become stronger, more flexible, and – presumably – more attractive through regular practice.

That said, none of that is what gets me on the mat when there’s no-one watching and I’m feeling a strong compulsion to surf the Internet relentlessly in pursuit of ever-more-obscure sporting news.

After nearly 13 years, my daily asana practice continues to be as profound and vitalizing as ever. Day after day, I have the enthralling experience of learning something new about my body and mind; meeting, and sometimes releasing, the forces and tensions that animate me. Engaging with my limitations, and going just that bit further than I think I can.

I’m keenly aware of the irony of a practice that has traditionally been a vehicle for self-observation, even deep introspection, becoming an arena for self-validation.

And yet …

And yet, I continue to be optimistic. Yoga is the strongest practice I’ve ever encountered. I’ve spewed the dragons of my soul onto the yoga mat and witnessed them until they’ve transformed.

Maybe, like a global community of precocious, insecure teenagers, this is, like, just something we need to go through right now. Maybe, collectively, we need to hold our yearning to be seen and held and appreciated, to be perceived as good and right and virtuous, up to the light and watch it burn.

Maybe, in time, that need will diminish in ferocity, and we’ll be able to ease off on the yoga selfies and move on to the next challenge.

If not, I guess there’s always Snapchat.


Rob dragonfly (8 of 16)

YogaLiterate is a writing and editing service aimed specifically at yoga practitioners and teachers, founded by Robert Wolf Petersen. You can also find articles, stories, and tips for yogis and writers on the YogaLiterate blog, along with with opportunities for mentorship, workshops, retreats, and courses.

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