Does Instagram yoga pose exhibitionism inspire or intimidate?

Yoga culture expert Stefanie Syman, author of "The Subtle Body," weighs in on what the new Instagram phenomenon of yoga feats means.
instagram yoga
(Photo: Instagram/masumi_g)

Instagram is a place where your life (and lunch) effortlessly takes on a new level of cool. It’s also become a platform for a new brand of yogi exhibitionism, where users place their bodies into absolutely insane poses (while wearing cute outfits) that look even more mind-blowing once a filter is applied.

These yoga pose performers aren’t pros, but they’ve garnered followings that number in the tens—and sometimes hundreds—of thousands.

So do these demonstrations of strength and flexibility inspire? And what does it mean for yoga when representations of extremes abound?

We asked yoga culture expert Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body, to weigh in on this cultural phenomenon.

Are platforms like Instagram giving rise to a totally new form of yogi exhibitionism? Or did yogis always like to show off? It’s a shift, but it’s not totally new. Historically, when Hatha yoga first arrived in the U.S., it was partly through yogis at circuses. It’s very hard to document that, but there were definitely yogis that were displayed in a circus setting and treated as attractions. A titillating display of yoga poses was always part of how people learned about Hatha yoga.

Interesting. So do you think photos like these will inspire people to take up yoga? Absolutely. The effect it can have on the observer is an “Oh my god, I want to learn how to do that!” The performance of poses is the best advertising. We tend to be ambivalent about the spiritual aspects at first. Watching people is incredibly powerful.

That makes sense, but could it also be a disservice to yoga in that it reinforces the notion that “this is what yoga looks like”? So people who are overweight, or big dudes, or disabled, etc., may be intimidated by yoga and miss the many non-physical benefits it confers? I don’t really worry about yoga. Yoga’s been around for a long time, and Hatha yoga, it just has this side to it, the trickster side that seems material and performative and not about moving the energy through the subtle body—and that’s okay. If someone is going be turned off by it because they stumbled upon it on Instagram, that’s probably not someone who was going to be doing it anytime soon, anyway. —Lisa Elaine Held

Are you a poster or a viewer of yoga poses on Instagram? Tell us your thoughts about it in the Comments, below?

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