Every business coach tells us that social media is the key to reaching new clients/students. But they don’t talk about the damaging influence of social media on Yoga.  

Regular posts, video posts, stories, quality photos etc, we are told are the key to success, but what actually is success? What does this ‘success’ mean, and how do we justify spending so much of our working day on this trend which takes time away from our practice, teaching, creating, and just enjoying being present for others and ourselves?

Over the years I have noticed how social media has influenced so many aspects of our life, and at the heart is the concept of fear or desire. Fear that we are missing out, or not good enough, and desire to live a life that is portrayed in the posts, which has negative effects on our mental health.

So how is this affecting the world of Yoga and Health?

This subject has been the subject of recent research featured in David Keils Yoga Anatomy which looks at how Instagram has influenced how yoga is being perceived. The results make an interesting read.

Practitioners begin a yoga practice for many reasons. Common reasons to start include various health and wellness interests. People begin a yoga practice to increase flexibility, increase strength, manage stress, or reduce physical discomforts like low back pain.

However, traditional yogic texts, like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, emphasize the purpose of yoga as developing more contemplative states of consciousness. What several previous research studies have noted is that while practitioners may start yoga for a particular reason, their reasons for continuing often become more spiritually-based over time.

One aspect that I cover deeply in my Yoga Teacher Training is the harmony of the mind body and spirit. Yoga is not asana, it is a practice that takes you deeper into yourself. To connect with the parts of you that our modern busy stressful life ignores. We take time to come back to ourselves and learn to teach from that perspective.

Yoga is a popular topic for social media posts. And social media is now a common way for people to communicate with their social networks. Each type of social media has a particular structure that informs how information is shared. Instagram, the social media platform examined in the study we summarize in this article, emphasizes visual content. So, the authors of this study wondered how the nature of Instagram influences what practitioners share about yoga.

Using the computer software, Netlytic, the researchers downloaded all Instagram posts with #yoga every hour for nine days. They downloaded a total of 35,000 posts. They then used the software to scrub through the posts and eliminate duplicates, for a final total of 22,328 posts. The researchers then analyzed the posts for the most common words used. Finally, they evaluated the most common words used in posts for larger themes they could be grouped under. They grouped the words into four categories: good feelings, bad feelings, appearance, and words referring to one of the eight limbs of yoga.

The research team randomly selected a subsample of 100 posts for further analysis. The person or people in those images were evaluated for body mass index using the Body Mass Index for Obesity (BMI-O) scale. Additionally, the image in the post was coded for the following categories:

  • Gender
  • Number of people in the image
  • Amount of clothing
  • Whether the post showed an advanced yoga posture
  • Whether the image showed a meditation posture
  • Whether the setting of the image was indoors or outdoors
  • Whether a spiritual symbol was present in the image
  • The apparent motivation for the post (e.g. promotion, inspiration, instruction, or spiritual)

Results

The most common word in over 22,000 Instagram posts (besides #yoga) was #fitness. More generally, 51% of words in the posts described good feelings such as peaceful. Nearly half (49%) of words in the posts described physical appearance. A very small percentage of words in the posts described negative feelings (4%; e.g. sore, tired). The smallest percentage described words related to the eight limbs of yoga (3%; e.g. pranayama, pratyahara).

In the smaller subset of images coded to answer more detailed questions, results included the following:

  • 89% of people in the images were women
  • 70% of people in the images were wearing minimal clothing
  • 49% of images showed someone in an advanced yoga pose
  • 68% of people in the images were underweight
  • 94% were not in a meditation posture
  • 57% of images were pictured inside / 41% were set outside
  • 95% had no spiritual symbols present in the image

Based on the interpretation of the research team, the motivation for the posts was:

  • Not inspiration for 92% of posts
  • Not instruction for 98% of posts
  • Not promotion for 83% of posts
  • Not spiritual for 97% of posts

So, if the apparent motivation for the majority of yoga-related posts on Instagram wasn’t inspiration, instruction, promotion for a business, or spiritual, what was the motivation? Based on the content and presentation of images posted, as well as the fact that 49% of words used in the posts were about physical appearance, the primary motivation seemed to be drawing attention to the appearance of the practitioner who was posting photos of themselves.

Why is this relevant to yoga practitioners?

Social media is a major part of speaking to our community these days. What we post says something. That’s true whether we share a post in words or whether we post an image. As practitioners and teachers, if we want people to consider that yoga has the potential to support personal development and point us toward deeper states of consciousness, then we need to speak about that. And we need to share those experiences in a much greater proportion to the number of people showing off their arm balance in a bikini, to counteract the Damaging Influence of Social Media on Yoga

That a very high percentage of images on Instagram with #yoga pictured someone underweight and in minimal clothing is perhaps not surprising. But it is still disturbing. A yoga practice has the potential to contribute to a healthy relationship with our body. However, few people will hear that message if the images associated with yoga primarily show people glamorizing being underweight and are generally objectifying.

Conclusion

This study shows clearly that it’s past time for yoga practitioners to really consider how the images they post affect the message they convey about yoga. We do ourselves and potential new yoga practitioners a disservice when we spread a message through imagery that yoga is about appearance, rather than a personal and spiritual journey.
Although I have recently greatly reduced my online social media presence, and in fact deleted my Facebook account, including my business pages, I do think that for yoga teachers social media is a good way of reaching new students or clients, as long as we offer quality content and not create posts that portray yoga as a fitness trend without unattainable postures. We must be responsible and motivational, help our students to feel good about their personal practice, and help them reach the heart of their yoga practice with self-care and joy. Yoga heals, and our students deserve the opportunity to experience all aspects of the sacred practice.
Blog based on an article by David Keils Yoga Anatomy