Is yoga authentic in the age of Instagram and spiritual materialism?
Spiritual materialism is a term coined by Buddhist meditation master, Chögyam Trungpa. It refers to the mistakes spiritual seekers make on their path to spirituality, turning their pursuit into one driven by ego and self-fulfillment.
Almost two years ago, before I joined my first yoga class, I searched Instagram hashtags with the word “yoga.”
What came up in the search confirmed some of my earlier perceptions about yoga.
Some of these false perceptions I and many others have had include:
Yoga is only for flexible people.
Yoga is only for skinny people.
Yoga is only for women.
Yoga is not for men.
Yoga is only for young people.
Yoga is only for people who are peaceful.
And the list goes on.
One of the common stereotypes that we see on Instagram and on the glossy covers of yoga magazines is the idea that yoga is exclusively for white women with size zero waists, impeccable, glowing skin—the kind you would see on packages of Korean skin care products—and enough flexibility to perform impossible yoga poses.
To any person on the outside, these “yoginis” all look perfect in their beautifully shot Instagram photos, wearing $200 yoga pants and quoting Buddha in the caption. Each one seemed like they had their entire life put together, and yoga was just the cherry on top.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a hardcore advocate for self-care and sharing stories about what makes our lives unique.
But how many of these plastic-perfect images that we see on social media are authentic, raw, and embody our reality? How many of us live the glamour of these social media celebrities who can afford certain luxuries? Like constantly paying for professional photo shoots, being endorsed by big corporations, or having the time to develop and post daily content on Instagram?
People live for the instant gratification high of “I want it, therefore I can have it now” that we see portrayed on Instagram. But the truth is, most of us don’t live in the reality that these images of yogis/yoginis, captured by expensive DSLR cameras, misrepresent as authentic yoga.
How much of their yoga is authentic according to the ancient scriptures? My humble guess would be not that much.
As a person who started yoga at the age 27, I can say that yoga is a difficult path and one that requires not just practice, but also a great amount of patience, discipline, and inner work.
To me, yoga didn’t always feel great, the way it is pictured on social media.
If anything, because yoga is a path that is meant to crush your ego by exposing your parts that are vulnerable and shielded, it will sometimes leave you feeling shattered and scared.
These pillars or limbs are every yogi’s bible on how to practice yoga authentically. The asanas or yoga postures represent only one aspect of the eight pillars of yoga.
According to yoga, having a hot body should never be an expectation, despite the fact that it’s often a byproduct of our practice. As the body will only distract the mind from the true purpose of yoga, our intention should be on dissolving the ego by believing in our vast connectivity to all sentient beings and in our ability to live in harmony with nature.
So, the physical aspects of yoga that we continue to see shown online does not give yoga justice for what it truly is. It misses so much of the beautiful philosophy that Patanjali and other great yogis have put together.
Yoga is not a religion, but a concept for right livelihood. But applying its original principles can be challenging in this day and age of materialism and fake Instagram, especially for yoga teachers themselves.
A couple of months ago, I told a friend how overwhelmed I was feeling by all the Instagram pages that promoted a lot of what yoga isn’t. I told her I was feeling lost in my own path. I wasn’t sure what to take as truth, which teacher training to take, and how I could measure my growth—when I kept seeing all the posts online that made me feel far from perfect.
I have been teaching yoga for almost a year now, and I’m still trying to find my authentic voice when it comes to teaching. Although it’s been a rewarding experience, I find myself allowing fear to take the lead on the way I teach and how much information I choose to share with my students.
In a way, this is due to my own ego that seeks to become a better (or even perfect) teacher, and it’s also because of Instagram subconsciously drilling comparisons into my head, whether or not I am aware of it. In return, I aspire to achieve unrealistic goals within very short periods.
This becomes dangerous when we, as yoga teachers and students, compare ourselves to others without honoring our own path. So instead of focusing on what makes our spiritual pursuit special, we become obsessed by the illusion that yoga is all about the aesthetic of the poses according to what we see online, with little focus on the philosophies that nurture our soul.
Thanks to Instagram, most yoga practitioners no longer have the patience, dedication, or discipline to honor their own bodies. Instead, they want to lift into a handstand within a couple of weeks of starting their practice. And in their pursuit of instant gratification, they become susceptible to injuries and an over-inflated ego.
The more I meditate on my own fears when it comes to teaching, the more I realize that just like everybody else, they are driven by ego and comparisons.
In being aware of my own shortcomings and accepting the fact that I am where I am in my journey, I found myself able to connect deeper with my students and to inspire them to practice from a space of compassion rather than aggression and high expectations.
Instead of stressing on how to perfect their poses, I helped open their eyes to the purpose of their practice and how they can extend it beyond the corners of their mat.
Fear still consumes me while teaching, especially on days when I feel low but still have to stand in front of a full class. But instead of fighting these emotions, I’ve started to acknowledge them and to teach from a space of vulnerability. To share what I know of the path and to admit when I don’t hold all the answers.
I believe many teachers lack the courage to do the same, which in a way, is understandable. Yoga teachers or not, we’re all conscious of appearing vulnerable, especially when there’s so much expectation placed on us, and especially when we measure our success by what we see on picture-perfect Instagram posts.
But we must always come back to our honest intention, to why we chose to teach in the first place. And that must never be driven by ego or wanting to compete with others.
One of the beautiful lessons that I was introduced to in yoga came from the Bhagavad Gita:
“Yoga is a journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”
As yoga teachers, we use our voices to advocate self-compassion, patience, humility, and non-harming toward others and ourselves. But do we actually embody these same principles in our lives? When we are consumed by hard emotions like anger, fear, and competition, do we remember to count our breaths and to hold ourselves with compassion?
Beyond the perfect Instagram image of yogis in Alo or lululemon pants, these are the true challenges of the yoga path that any seeker, student, or teacher will face.
And I get it if some of us prefer to look cute in our little yoga pants. But what is the true message that we are trying to sell behind our posts? Is it that yoga can only be practiced when we’re wearing a cool brand? Is it that to succeed in the yoga business today, we must be endorsed by a big name? Are we just in it for the aesthetic beauty?
The answers to all these questions remain vague to me. In fact, I’ve heard many people say how embarrassed they are to join a yoga class because they don’t fit nicely into their own yoga pants.
The very word yoga, which originates from “yuj” in Sanskrit, means union. But by continuing to sell an inauthentic portrayal of yoga on Instagram, are we really contributing to its higher purpose of bringing people together? Aren’t we instead confirming the embedded stereotypes that yoga is exclusive to skinny, flexible, and gorgeous women who fit the parameters of society’s beauty ideals?
Yoga isn’t about what we wear when we practice or how we carry ourselves.
Instead, it is a constant and honest spiritual pursuit of bettering ourselves and understanding who we are so that we can exist more harmoniously with others. It offers a way to navigate through this ever-cluttered world with more ease, clarity, and freedom of the mind, body, and spirit.
The breathing exercises we learn in meditation, the hard poses we hold, and the challenging transitions in between are all part of a system that is built to humble us in our human limitations, while breaking our tendency to identify with everything that is external. It is meant to teach us how to use a voice of compassion and wisdom when we fail in our own pursuit, and to accept the nature of our vulnerable humanity.
I’m sure that most of us have the best intentions when it comes to sharing what we know about yoga online. But the idea that it has fallen into the trap of spiritual materialism and become another quick fix to numb the pain of our modern world is a sad reality.
Maybe the next time we feel inspired to share a certain message about yoga, we can first breathe, take a few steps back, and ask ourselves three very important questions:
What is our intention?
Is it authentic and according to whom?
And how may it be of benefit to others?
May we always find the way back to our authentic voice.