I recently read a thread in a Facebook discussion group insinuating that yoga teachers who post photos of themselves in difficult poses online weren’t examples of good yoga teachers or examples of good role models. And another colleague recently posted that they were taking a break from posting yoga selfies because they just didn’t feel authentic. It seems photos of yogis in poses can be misconstrued as “yoga posing.”
From the inception of the first book on Hatha yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, yogis have been demonstrating poses and other “special powers” in public in order to drive an interest in yoga practice and studies. It is well known that as recent as the 1930’s and 1940’s the great guru, Sri T. Krishnamacharya gained many of his students through public demonstrations, including Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the guru of Ashtanga Yoga. In Ashtanga Yoga there are six sequences, each building in difficulty. During a conference I had the honor of attending with Jois at his shala in Mysore, India, a student asked if advanced postures were necessary to be considered an advanced yogi. He responded, “First series is for everyone, second is for teachers only, and anything more is for demonstration only.” Clearly, he supported demonstration, and millions of people can thank the power of yoga demonstration for introducing them to, or heightening their interest in the practice.
Of course, with the advent of the Internet and social media yoga demonstration is now being delivered through a much more readily available means, affecting a greater number of people. And it’s not only modern day yogis who are using this method. You’ll find many videos and photos of more traditional gurus and yoga teachers online as well.
So I ask, what’s the harm? I have personally always found it inspiring when a yoga teacher or student demonstrates an advanced yoga posture, and a beautiful example of what could be possible with consistent, safe practice under the watchful eye of a teacher. And, while I didn’t understand this in the beginning, I now realize that these advanced postures are not necessary to be a good yoga practitioner. Some people in the discussion group expressed fear that those with no yoga experience may attempt these difficult postures upon simply seeing a photo and injure themselves. While this could happen, I don’t feel it’s a strong argument to edit the posting of yoga poses to simple or foundational postures. Once, my seven-year-old swallowed a fishing weight we found on the beach trying to reenact a trick he saw in a magic show where the magician made a playing card come out of his mouth. But I’m not going to stop taking him to magic shows, or demand that magicians stop doing tricks that others may try to copy. Frankly, anyone could get injured performing a simple yoga pose or mimicking a stunt or trying any number of other physical activities they see anywhere.
I haven’t taken a poll but I’m sure if I did I’d find that a vast majority of people are actually drawn to yoga through online photos and videos. To me, this is a wonderful thing because I believe the more people who practice yoga the better, even if they do begin with a more physically focused interest. My yoga journey started as a purely physical one 16 years ago when I was really inspired by a strong practitioner who lifted their body off the ground with ease. But as my experience deepened, I became interested in the broader philosophy, namely the study of the eight limbs including the Yamas, which are ethical codes of standard for how we treat others. I’m constantly trying to invite these into my life and I know many other practitioners are doing the same, making the world a more gentle, loving, connected place.
For those who are concerned that the individuals in these photos are not setting a good example, my question is how do you know? I think that if you did some research on many of the popular online yoga teachers today you’ll find that they are very dedicated individuals not only to Yoga but to mindfulness, clean eating, developing a positive self-image through self-love and acceptance, and Karma Yoga through philanthropy for others and our environment. I’d be happy for either of my children to find a role model with those attributes.
There was a time in my life when I wasted energy on judging the actions of others. But yoga practice is helping me turn the lens on myself and become more aware of how I am conducting myself in the world. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-violence or non-harming) through thought, word and deed, and from experience I am acutely aware of how harmful negative thoughts and especially words can be, how redirecting negative energy into positive energy is profoundly healing, and how these yogic practices help me break down the barriers between myself and others to experience the ultimate Yoga (Union).
So the next time I see a photo of fellow practitioner demonstrating a pose in a yoga selfie, rather than judge, I’ll delight in the fact that more people are diving into this life-changing, healing, connecting practice. And if you are the yoga practitioner judging others, fostering or perpetuating negativity, rumor, or gossip, I ask you who’s the “poser?”
Post away my brothers and sisters! In fact, I’m going to post a yoga pose selfie right now.