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Going Viral on Instagram Taught Me to Change My Assumptions About Yoga Influencers

I learned that there’s more than one way to make yoga accessible.

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Over the last few years, I’ve gotten really frustrated with the way yoga is portrayed on social media. I was getting sick and tired of seeing young, thin, white contortionists demonstrating elaborate postures. They seemed to me to be misrepresenting what can be a truly accessible and transformative indigenous practice from South Asia. I would even block people who shared pictures of themselves in skimpy clothes doing twisty yoga poses on the beach.

But then my 16-year-old daughter started sharing her excitement about Instagram reels. She showed me popular yoga videos, and we talked about making some together. It was a way for her to get involved with my work, so I jumped at the opportunity to create something with her.

At first, we created some basic tutorials on ways to make yoga accessible. Then I started asking other accessible yoga teachers to “remix” my chair yoga poses, recording their video reels alongside mine. It was a fun new way to practice with other teachers I know.

Still, the platform seemed to me to be mostly about voyeurism, until my friend Deanna Michalopoulos challenged me to find ways to use it to engage and inspire people. It occurred to me that I could use reels by yoga teachers who do complicated poses and remix them to demonstrate accessible chair versions of those shapes.

Using Social Media for Good

I reached out to my friend Kino MacGregor, who is known for her intense Ashtanga yoga practice, and asked if I could use one of her reels of her yoga posts, and her immediate reply was, “Of course!”

In her reel, she’s sitting on the sand in a bright red bikini, smiling and waving as the wind blows her hair. She moves into a few variations of Baddha Konasana, Bound Angle Pose, and ends by putting one leg behind her head in Compass Pose.

How could I make that accessible? Choosing the simplest approach I could think of, I filmed myself sitting on a chair, leaning over one bent leg, and then doing a side bend. With my daughter’s help, I edited the reels so my timing and positioning mirrored Kino’s. Almost as soon as I posted it, lots of positive feedback began flooding in. Comments like:

“This is so good, best post I’ve seen in a while.”

“Pure gold.”

“Love the options! So, so, so many people say that they can’t do yoga because of a lack of flexibility. It’s pretty infuriating, actually, because it’s simply not true and they count themselves out automatically.”

I could feel how useful this was to so many people.

I began to explore the “popular” yoga world on Instagram. My daughter guided me to reels with dizzyingly complex poses, high production values, and literally millions of views. As I slowly opened the door to a virtual yoga world I had previously shut out, I ended up learning more than I expected.

Social media reveals a false divide in yoga

Each time I wanted to do a remix, I first reached out to the practitioner to ask if I could use their reel. Their replies were so friendly and they often expressed sincere interest in my work. Almost everyone I reached out to had such a positive reaction to me wanting to demonstrate a more accessible form of their yoga practice. In fact, the almost universal response was that they are dedicated to making their own teaching accessible.

To be honest, that surprised me. In my opinion, their presentation on social media would have had the opposite effect. It really made me wonder: Does sharing a physically complex practice on social media inspire people to practice yoga, or does it discourage the millions of people who don’t have thin, flexible, young bodies?

It reminds me of watching the Olympics on television. I sit in awe of those inspiring athletes who have dedicated their lives to their sport. Their skills often seem superhuman, and I’m always impressed. But that rarely translates into me wanting to try practicing any of those sports myself. Let’s just say, I haven’t taken up ski jumping or slalom. And that’s my concern when it comes to yoga. We scroll through these images on social media in awe and appreciation, but I can’t say that it translates into changed lives.

At the same time, what I learned through making these reels is that I was being judgmental and making assumptions. I started to see that I had preconceived ideas about these Instagram yoga teachers. This experience has offered me a chance to reach out and connect with teachers whose work seemed really inaccessible, and to build connections across these false boundaries that I had created in my mind. After initial contact, we usually end up following each other and supporting each other’s work, which has been very healing for me. In fact, that’s the side of this experience that has been most powerful.

Yoga is an internal practice. You can’t see that on social media

I was pleased to find that many of these yoga teachers also called themselves contortionists— often what they are demonstrating really is contortionism and not yoga. I really appreciated their honesty about that. Yoga is a universal practice both for flexible people and for those of us who aren’t able to put our foot behind our head. We just have to be clear about what we’re calling this practice.

Yoga is an internal spiritual practice focused on calming the mind and connecting with the truth within our heart. Asana, the physical poses, are a useful technique for working with…the mind. Contrary to public understanding, even physical yoga poses are not so much about bending the body as they are about quieting the mind.

Since yoga is about what’s happening mentally, how can you tell if someone is doing yoga? The fact is, you can’t. Someone could be sitting back in a chair or lying in bed and still be doing yoga. Or they could be twisted up like a pretzel in a complex pose and not be doing yoga. Yoga happens when the mind is engaged or focused in some conscious way. It can be focused on the breath, a mantra, or a sensation—in a complex pose or an accessible one.

In fact, I don’t know what’s happening in the minds of these practitioners any more than they know what’s happening in mine. I may not be able to tell if they’re practicing yoga or, say, thinking about how angry they are at the photographer for making them do the same pose over and over, but I can know in my heart that we are intimately connected. That’s my yoga practice.

Social media can connect us

As some of my remixes became popular and stacked up tens of thousands of views, each like and share fed the small, hungry part of my ego that was desperate to be loved and to be seen. Sure, I started with an unselfish goal—to share a positive message of accessibility and equity—but I’m still human. The acknowledgement felt good. It quickly became a kind of addiction—a way of feeding my soul from the outside. I had to step back on occasion and stop myself from checking my phone to see how many views the reels had received.

Patanjali identified this kind of attachment as one of the main obstacles to our spiritual realization. In Satchidananda’s translation of sutra 2.7, he explains, “Attachment is that which follows identification with pleasurable experiences.” The problem with attachment is that it misleads us to believe that happiness comes from outside, rather than from within. The fact is, the love and attention that comes from outside can never really quench our thirst.

Yoga’s main message is to stop the external pursuit of fulfillment and to turn within to connect with our own brilliant divinity. But it’s extremely challenging in a world that is constantly pulling at us to perform and to produce. It’s like capitalism is the ego’s perfect muse.

During this process, I started to see the way social media works. It feels like one big shared mind. There are parts of it that feel completely out of control and dangerous. There are parts that are focused on healing and connection. It’s up to me to decide which parts I want to nurture and grow. I can get caught up in selfishness and desire, or I can connect with others in a meaningful way. It’s the latter form of practice that I hope to share.

Watch Jivana Heyman and Kino McGregor collaborate live on Instagram to show you how to find your own version of flexibility.  

 


About our contributor

Jivana Heyman (he/him), C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the author of Accessible Yoga: Poses & Practices for Every Body, and Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage & Compassion. Jivana is the founder and director of the Accessible Yoga Association, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. He’s also the co-founder of the Accessible Yoga School, an online portal focusing on equity and accessibility, where he leads the Accessible Yoga Training. More info at jivanaheyman.com