Social Media Yoga Challenges: Inspirational or Inauthentic?

Social media yoga challenges are all the rage these days, especially on Instagram. The premise is simple: for a set number of days, the host posts a photo or video of each day’s pose and uses a designated hashtag, and everyone following along at home performs the pose and posts photo or video evidence of their participation, also using the hashtag. Challenges like these exist for other kinds of exercise, too — pull-up challenges, ab + booty challenges, squat challenges, you name it — but among yoga practitioners in particular, they’ve taken on a life of their own.

It was with this inspiration that Strong is Our Sexy developed and deployed the #HolidayHarmonyYoga Challenge, 31 days of poses focused on a variety of features, like strength,  back flexibility, and balance. We’re here to motivate and support women who are striving towards health and wellness, and where those women are, we want to be, too.

But the very idea of social-media-fueled yoga challenges raises some interesting questions, and has given rise to some debate among yoga practitioners about the intentions and effects of yoga challenges. If we’re going to participate in the trend, we’re going to do it consciously.

The Core Question: What is Yoga? 

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The debate around yoga challenges is based on differing interpretations of what yoga is. People come to yoga from all walks of life for their own reasons: to gain strength and flexibility, to recover from an injury, as a mind-body meditation, or simply to relieve stress and promote relaxation. These are only some of the common reasons; there’s plenty of overlap between them, and sometimes a journey starts on one plane and takes the practitioner somewhere else entirely.

For those who are chiefly interested in the physical practice of yoga, and the benefits that come with it, yoga challenges have their appeal. These yogis are motivated by performing the postures to the best of their ability, and by seeing others (friends and strangers) in their poses as well. When they talk about mastering a pose, they are usually referring to technical prowess — the most advanced variation of the pose, the fullest extension, the perfect alignment. This interpretation of yoga could be considered externally focused.

For those who come to yoga for the mind-body-soul connection or as a meditative practice, yoga challenges can encourage them to keep up a regular practice. These yogis are motivated to practice by the magic that happens on the mat, something that’s a lot more difficult to capture on camera than the depth of a backbend. You don’t master the pose, the pose masters you. This is an internal interpretation of yoga, one that focuses on the mental and emotional journey and less on the physical.

Overlapping with this second group are those who have gone on further to study and adopt the traditional discipline of yoga, of which the asanas – poses – are only one branch; the remaining branches deal with other areas of life, like eating cleanly and practicing non-violence. This is not just an internal interpretation, but a deeply personal and often spiritual one. In India, birthplace of what we call yoga, the term typically applies to this interpretation; people there don’t “do yoga” the way it’s thought of in the West.

What yoga is, is none of these things, and at the same time, all of them. It is a physical practice, whether you are balancing on your hands or just sitting and breathing through your nose. It is a mental practice that takes discipline, focus, and humility. It is an emotional practice that links the mind, body, and soul together. It is an ancient and storied tradition, a way of life that can be carried off the mat. It is a multi-faceted prism that takes one essential truth and projects it in many directions.

What a Picture Reveals – and What It Doesn’t

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These different interpretations matter because when we talk about yoga, we think we’re all talking about the same thing, but we’re actually not. Three individual people performing the same yoga pose will experience it differently — a physical challenge that tests their athletic abilities, a mental-emotional challenge that tests their focus and resolve, or a spiritual challenge that they offer as tribute to something greater than themselves. Because social media yoga challenges rely so heavily on pictures, it’s the first group that flocks to them most readily, and the last group that raises an eyebrow or even recoils from them.

Many experienced yogis have written articles like this one expressing concern or wariness of this socially-consumable flavor of yoga, one that they feel has become too commercialized, sexualized, and idealized, and thus too distant from authentic yoga. There are those who worry that the fashionable photo-friendly yoga body — one of lean physique, skintight clothes, and super-advanced postures — is increasingly the only one being seen, and might discourage beginners or those with less-lean bodies from beginning their yoga journeys.

On the other side, there are those who derive motivation, encouragement, and inspiration from sharing the visible part of their yoga journeys online, and who defend the practice (see: 10 Reasons I Do Instagram Yoga Challenges). Whether or not they’re aware of it, they embrace another part of the traditional yoga path: sangha, or community. So yoga challenges are not just about pushing themselves physically, but staying connected to other yogis around the world. If cute leggings and beautiful backdrops are involved, hey, so be it.

You can’t judge a yogi by their cover – or by their hashtags.

The trouble with getting bent out of shape about yoga challenges is that a photo can only show so much. As an observer, you can’t look a woman in Tree Pose and know what she’s thinking or feeling. You can’t see her in Wheel Pose and automatically understand all the effort and disciplined practice it took for her to get there. You can’t know whether she’s sufficiently connected to her breath as she gets into her full splits. You don’t know what came before or after that snapshot was taken, how much or how little thought was put into her outfit and surroundings, why she cropped or filtered it the way she did. You can’t draw conclusions about her ethics, her values, or her lifestyle.

No matter how much or how little yoga experience an observer may have, there are parts of each yogi’s practice that will always be just out of frame. No matter how many photos she shares or followers she gains, some parts will always belong just to her. The transformative magic of yoga still happens on the mat. Just like the poses are only a small piece of traditional yoga, a photo of a yoga pose is just the tip of the iceberg that is that yogi. There’s no way of knowing at first glance how deep her practice goes.

So the core question becomes…What is YOUR yoga?

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Whether or not you “believe in” social media yoga challenges or participate in them yourself, if you practice yoga in any of its interpretations, you can do it with consciousness by asking yourself a few questions. Why do you do yoga? What draws you to it? What is your relationship to your practice, to your mat, to your breath? What motivates you to maintain your practice?

There are no right or wrong answers. Where you are is where you are.

Namaste.

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