From Child’s Pose in Church Basements to Handstands on Instagram: How Social Media and an Exploding Industry Have Changed My Experience as a Yogi

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The first yoga class I ever attended was at a community farm, in a small room with a linoleum floor that they used mostly for kids’ education classes, and the second class I attended was in a huge, lofty, multipurpose room at a Unitarian Church. Soon after those initial yoga experiences, I was lured in to the two chains of hot power yoga studios that were all the rage in the Boston area at the time. Throwing down chaturanga after chaturanga and grunting my way into big backbends I wasn’t ready for, in a 95 plus degree room with upwards of 40 other yogis was quite a shock to my system, after only having experienced hatha yoga in intimate settings. But my 23 year old body could handle it, and I loved the euphoric rush that accompanied the practice. So, it served me for a while, and it felt authentic to me in my early days as a yogi.

Fast forward a few years to when I had just started teaching yoga, and studios were starting to spring up like Starbucks. While there wasn’t quite one on every block, my options for taking classes outside of my home base studio where I did my training were plentiful, and my options for places to teach were starting to expand. My relationship with yoga had changed significantly from those first few classes on the farm and at the church; and with the onslaught of new studios popping up in almost every urban and suburban neighborhood, as well as the rise of social media, it would only continue to change.

I didn’t have a Facebook account for the first several months of my teaching career–I’m a late adopter to all things technology. I just jumped on board the Snapchat train this year, and you still won’t catch me giving commands to “Alexa” on one of those Amazon Echoes–and in many ways, I was happier without it, both as a practitioner and a teacher. And also as a human being in general. I was less distracted, more focused, and less competitive with others and with myself. When I finally caved to the pressures of social media, I found it, like many people, to be a double-edged sword. I could connect with a broad network of yoga teachers and students and feel like part of a bigger community. I could reach out to other teachers and ask them questions or just see when they were teaching special classes, workshops, or trainings. I could forge more personal connections with my students, which felt great, strengthened my teaching, and led to some great friendships over the years. The benefits of using social media as a yoga teacher were many, but I also let the drawbacks and pitfalls make a not-so-positive impact on me.

For a while, I became bogged down by feelings of jealousy and inadequacy when I compared myself to other teachers. I got sucked in by the gossip machine that social media often generates (yes, there can be just as much gossip and drama at yoga studios as there can at any other workplace), and I felt mentally and emotionally unhealthy as a yogi. Thankfully, I’ve gotten to a place where I can enjoy the benefits of social media without going too far down that spiral of envy, criticism, and negativity. Much like a practice of asana or meditation, it took a fair amount of self-reflection and discipline to get to where I am in terms of my relationship with social media as a yogi and as a person, and it’s still very much a work in progress. This almost constant state of interconnectedness and being plugged in to the thoughts, joys, hardships, political views, selfies, and rants of fellow teachers and students has radically changed my experience as a yogi. But rather than fighting it or abandoning it altogether, I’ve decided to go mindfully with the current; because, love it or hate it, social media is here to stay.

In addition to the rise of social media, I’ve witnessed the rise of “yoga as group fitness” and the “corporatization” of yoga over the years- another far cry from my early days of yoga at the farm. Like social media, this was something I allowed to get under my skin, and it’s something that doesn’t bother me nearly as much anymore. Yoga is a business, just like anything else that involves the exchange of money. There will always be studios that compensate teachers fairly and generously for the work they do, just like there will always be studios that take advantage of their teaching staff with unfair pay, cutting classes, micromanagement, and even instituting things like “mandatory” unpaid staff meetings. I’ve been around long enough to have seen a slew of injustices in the world of yoga teaching, and at this point I just say “no thank you” to studios that start teachers at $30 per class, or that pay $5 per student, or that find other means to make teaching a more laborious, stressful, and less rewarding experience. I’m grateful to have found a few studios who treat me well, pay me generously, and value my contributions to the community, and that’s what matters.

I also say “no thank you” to studios that seem to place an emphasis on “yoga as group fitness.” I practice yoga mostly for its healing, grounding, and meditative benefits, and while I love to strengthen my core and pop up into the occasional crow or forearm balance, I don’t practice or teach with things like “fitness” or, god forbid, “cardio” in mind. While I personally cringe at “yoga” class descriptions that include the use of weights or “cardio” work and at studios that seem to value the “harder, faster, more” philosophy of vinyasa yoga, I say, ”to each their own.” If you like flowing through sun salutations with weights, adding burpees to your sequences, and cramming in as many poses as possible to a 60 minute class, then rock on with your bad self. I’ve just decided that those types of classes and studios are not for me. Yoga means something different to each one of the millions of people around the world who practice it, and now that it has largely moved away from being taught in intimate settings like church basements and has exploded into a multimillion dollar industry, it’s up to us to be smart consumers, practitioners, and teachers, and connect with yoga in a way that feels real to us.

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