Opening my Instagram account, I scroll through picture after glossy picture of lycra-clad lunges, impossible inversions and brilliant back-bends, taken on some sun-drenched Californian beach or an extraordinarily idyllic mountain-top. Social media has been accused of providing us with an 'echo chamber' where we only encounter people like us, or in the case of consumption-centric Instagram, people who like things like us. My yoga-filled feed is a good example of this - a product of being unable to resist staring open-mouthed at these perfectly aligned, beautifully formed bodies, as they demonstrate one of my favourite hobbies far better than I can.
Being exposed to these kind of posts is of course self-selected. As a newly-qualified yoga teacher, I have surrounded my online presence with other yogis and readily consume their content. Sometimes I even produce my own in an effort to join the club, be affirmed by others and 'liked' for the shapes I can produce with my body. Yet increasingly, I wonder how helpful it really is to participate in this kind of behaviour. I'm becoming anxious about the tendency of the booming yoga industry towards focussing on an idealised body image and an unrealistic and rigid idea of what yoga poses should look like.
Furthermore, my personal experience of struggling with eating disorders and body image issues leads me to worry about these kinds of presentations of yoga possibly reinforcing behaviours that are ultimately unhealthy. On this basis, amongst other reasons, it seems that there's not much yoga to be found in static, constructed images that are removed from a dynamic, fluid and individual practice which has non-harm at its heart.
The historical roots of yoga tell us that it isn't just a physical practice, that the postural work (or 'asana') is only one part of a bigger journey of spiritual development. But taking the Western craze for physical yoga alone, I still struggle to see what static pictures of poses has to do with yoga as I understand it. Yoga is about movement and about breath, and these things are never static. An image or even a video of a 'downward facing dog' can never reflect the actual practice of doing downward facing dog, just as any phenomenal presentation of an object is not the same as the 'thing-in-itself'.
As yoga is a practice, it is something that we subjectively experience. When we observe another's yoga practice, we might see movement and shape, but we do not have full access to their experience of the union of breath, body and mind. Yoga after all derives from the Sanskrit 'to join', and any image of someone doing yoga will always fall short of conveying their experience of this.
Like all projections of an idealised body type, the exacting physical standards exhibited by the most popular online yogis can also encourage comparisons with ourselves that might fuel feelings of inadequacy and lower our self-esteem. At worst, for people with body image sensitivities and disordered eating like myself, this can even feed into behaviours aimed at controlling weight and shape. The pressure is felt all the more keenly if you are a yoga teacher, with the need to market yourself in an increasingly saturated market. In a society where success is too often predicted by how you look, the way I present myself physically will inevitably play some role in attracting students, alongside the skills I have as an instructor.
In light of this, I am all the more determined to cultivate an ethos of self-acceptance in my classes. I hope to help people reject comparisons with ideals, and dispel any myths around yoga practitioners and teachers as being special, other-worldy, or privy to insights on enlightenment. We are just humans, and yoga - whilst at best being a practice that can enhance our holistic wellbeing - is just another human activity, not one to be fetishised or with a monopoly on spiritual virtue.
For me, I hope to avoid taking inspirational messages from Instagram as motivation to pursue the experiences of others and failing to respect my own enquiry as equally valid. Rather than holding the flawless forms and deep expressions of complex poses as a standard I should try and emulate, I seek instead to respect where I am in my own practice, and accept what my body can or cannot do. In reality, there is no 'one' way a pose is supposed to look, just as no two bodies are the same. Setting high standards in these areas runs the risk of people pushing themselves contrary to their own nature into poses that can cause injury and long-term damage to the joints, possible against a backdrop of rigid thinking and even feelings of failure. This is not representative of compassion and non-harming.
One of my biggest lessons in becoming a yoga teacher was learning that pushing myself to injury and using yoga as another means of beating myself up (instead of anorexia or bulimia) was not yoga at all. There's nothing yogic about this kind of practice, or the kind of images and messages that promote it. Yet it is all too easy to fall into competitiveness with ourselves and others, into a culture focussed on comparison, outcomes and achievement. But yoga is a practice, not something we can achieve, and there is no set destination. The yoga is in the process, not in how you can produce a pose for a fleeting snapshot - however many likes you might get.