Has Yoga Become Just Another Insta-Wank?

Has Yoga Become Just Another Insta-Wank?

It was an odd sight. The taut-cheeked woman of 60-something, clad in gaudy yoga wear with a doll-like bouffant hairdo, sat upright and cross-legged in front of Ganesh, beaming for the iPhone in front of her. While Ganesh, the multi-armed Hindu elephant god, emerged impressively out of the stone carving behind her, the spotless, preened silver yogi looked like she’d walked out of an Estee Lauder display. Nevertheless, while dozens of slender new-age avatars found their mats on the floor, her companion got the shot, which sent her into a flurry of clapping before she got down to captioning her Insta-shot.

This was what I saw of Ubud’s yoga scene during my recent visit there.

It’s difficult to disentangle Instagram from mainstream perceptions and discussion of yoga. Indeed, this wouldn’t be the first time you’ve read about the frustrations around yoga’s increasing commercialisation and glamourisation. Instagram has been instrumental in the volume of yoga wear brands, drink bottles, mats and stylised retreats now available, as well as the understanding of what makes a good yogi: insane flexibility and perfect skin. It seems the $50 billion-dollar app has struck a lucrative flag in the ancient practice, sending entrepreneurs and ‘influencers’ scrambling after its potential for profit. If you aren’t familiar with yoga’s image phenomenon, Elle Magazine’s Best Yogis on Instagram provides a pretty good snapshot of the trend. When the lines between yoga and fashion are blurred, there’s little wonder why so much cynicism surrounds yoga and its purpose.

But allow me to diverge back to aforementioned yoga studio in Ubud – one of the best known in the region – where I watched as the nexus between yoga and image became devoid of ego. No, really. Surrounded by gaggles of beautiful yogis photographing each other in the studio, in the rain and with Ganesh, I sat on my mat behind a man checking his notifications and waited patiently behind a constellation of screens. When the instructor entered soon after, however, their luminescence soon dulled to black.

Bronzed, dreadlocked, with a cat-like gait and strapping frame, our South American acro-yoga instructor took immediate hold of the room and initiated a gratitude circle. So far, so #yoga. Then we began the infamous eye contact exercise, which, despite throwing most of us into fits of nervous giggles, chipped away at the reserve between us strangers, who hailed from Europe, South America, Asia and Australia.

But it was when we started holding hands, balancing ourselves in absurd positions and getting acquainted with each other’s thighs and under-boobs that image stopped being a thing. I mean: worrying about how complementary one’s yoga tights are while suspended off a stranger’s upper back, hands curled around their chest, is secondary to the exhaustion, awareness and joy that it generates. This was intense work that demanded centralised focus, something our instructor kept reiterating. “You take your mind off the pose and you put your partner in danger,” he called over the room in his delightful accent.

As the class went on, I’m learn that letting your mind mosey to the outskirts of your (warning: yoga word) intention leads to its very dissolution. While an unfocused mind mightn’t necessarily lead to danger or dropping someone face-first, it can cause a loss of integrity, of opportunity. In other words, when we’re not present or conscious in the activity, lesson or experience right now, we miss out.

That, in all facets of my life, is something I hope to amend through yoga. Like most practitioners, I’m trying to learn how to live now, intently. I’m sure that, with patience, even mundane things like catching the bus to university can grow more meaningful when you lock the touchscreen for a stop or two.

But here I am sounding like I’m good at this ‘being present’ thing. I’m not yet.

Countless times I’ve driven along the Pacific Highway in NSW while talking on the phone (hands-free) or visualising my next meal, and I’ve missed hours worth of botanical detail sweeping beyond the road. How many sunsets have dissolved into twilight behind my phone screen; how many birdsongs muted by my headphones on a morning walk? And if only I could go back, stop filming and listen more attentively to every heart-wrenching crescendo of my grandmother’s piano playing, before Alzheimer’s makes off with the last of her once-hardwired musical memory.

Coming back to the yoga class in Ubud, I watched what could be called present-ness take place. By the end of it no one was grabbing their phones for photo proof or #inspo or alignment correction. Instead, the beginners were high-fiving; the more experienced yogis trying new things and laughing at their slip-ups. A Kiwi girl, who’d been timid at first, pulled a backflip. Smiles abounded, iPhone-less. Everyone seemed carefree and jubilant in just practicing yoga.

I’m not to preach or boast about how mindful I’ve become, this is merely something positive I plucked out of a sub-culture and practice so often saturated with image-bullshit and cynicism. I was cynical, but now I’d even recommend an acro-yoga class, in which trust, having fun and sharing present-ness with strangers is requisite.

Just leave your iPhone at home.

Cover by Lena Bell

Lizzy is a freelance writer on a year-long trip from Bali to Iran. As a graduate of journalism and Spanish, she’s interested in language and culture, and dreams of being a foreign correspondent.