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What are we actually doing on social media? (part 2)

I've had more time to consider what I'm doing on instagram as a yoga teacher, and have enjoyed some productive conversations (both on and off-line) with friends and colleagues who I respect.

One thought-provoking chat happened when I was talking to a yoga student about a week before I decided I needed a break from the whole circus. I say this all the time, but I have the best students in the world, and I often feel like I learn more from them than they do from me. We were talking about instagram's strengths and potential pitfalls. After I shared my frustrations, this student paused and said something like, "But you're the real deal. Why do you even need to engage with this?"

First off, I am truly flattered when anyone considers me to be the 'real deal' in a city with some top notch yoga teachers. But secondly, this comment reinforced for me that the thoughtful, engaged, independently-minded students who I am lucky enough to teach clearly recognise how much the instagram yoga game is a farce and an elaborately constructed web of smoke and mirrors. If my aim is to attract inquisitive students, and if I'm already managing to connect with a lot of these great people in my classes, then why even bother playing the online game? But the conversation also gave me real cause for concern. If my students are attracted to my classes at least in part because they believe I am a 'real deal' teacher, am I sending them mixed messages when I post inane pictures on instagram of myself inverting on beaches, just to drudge up a few extra likes and followers?

I'm not at all naive as to why yoga teachers feel compelled to perpetually create content for instagram. For a yoga teacher living in any city where there is considerable competition for jobs, it comes down, at least in part, to fear. We are afraid of being overlooked or forgotten. So we have resorted to basically shouting really loudly for attention, in hopes that more people will come to our classes, or, even better, someone who has power will throw us a bone and offer us a job somewhere high profile and desirable and we will have "made it." These thinly veiled attempts to assert our popularity and importance are often presented like this: an unnecessary instagram post telling the world how many people are on the waitlist for our retreat, which sold out before we even had a chance to advertise it, or a picture of a full yoga studio with a caption about how #blessed we are and thanking students for coming to "packed" classes. As long as studios continue to consider social media influence when they hire a teacher (which they do), teachers will continue to feel pressured to 'perform' online for likes and followers (which they do). There is something very broken with a system that equates online popularity with being a good yoga teacher, especially when everyone knows that most of the thousands of followers a yoga teacher might have on instagram will never step foot into a studio class with that teacher (and many of those followers are bots!).

Even as I might harbour concern that studios owners might consider my instagram influence when deciding whether to hire me to teach at their studio, I am even more concerned about yoga teachers feeling the need to accumulate "more more more" online: more likes, more followers, more freebies thrown at them by companies who want them to advertise their products to online followers. This behaviour is completely in opposition to one of the most basic foundations of yoga and the fifth of Patanjali's yamas (moral guidances): aparigraha (non-greed or non-hoarding). We are literally resorting to hoarding external markers of our popularity, in the form of clicks, comments, and followers. It's cheapening and it compromises any integrity we claim to hold. About a year ago, a juice cleanse company contacted me about a "partnership": they would send me their juice cleanse (for free! what a deal!), and I would say nice things about it on my instagram account. Aside from the fact that I have been very outspoken about my feelings about cleanses and detoxes in the past, demonstrating that someone at this company had not done their homework at all, I have no interest in turning my instagram account into an online commercial break. I responded to this "offer" with my very honest opinion of juice cleanses and never heard from them again.

Moreover, by constantly producing more online content for instagram, much of which is substance-less at best, teachers are fostering a never-ended stream of noise and clutter for their students. We come up with many great excuses for constantly publishing pictures and videos of ourselves in ridiculous yoga postures: inspiration; practice diary; artistry.; sharing of our own "journeys." In my opinion, these are intoxicating stories we tell ourselves, and our followers, to hide the truth: we have become self-obsessed and we are allowing our egos to get completely out of control. We like looking at pictures of ourselves in these postures, and we especially like it when people respond positively to these images. And all of this behaviour goes completely against the main aim of yoga as laid out in the second of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Yoga chitta vritti nirodaha: Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind chatter. Apparently, Patanjali overlooked the important caveat to this sutra: in 2017, yoga teachers are allowed to foster mind chatter if we are doing it on instagram for the sake of our own egos and our own popularity.

One final piece of the instagram game that makes me uneasy is the pressure to share (or over-share) our personal lives, often by making them appear more sparkly than they actually are. I hear from friends who have spoken to social media consultants who tell them it is advisable to share personal details of your life online; apparently pictures of your night out with your girlfriends or you much needed holiday with your partner "perform very well" on instagram.

My own experiences echo this professional advice. I typically keep my (smart, funny, supportive, patient) husband off my instagram account. This is very much intentional. I don't need or want to share every detail of my life for online praise to validate its worth. The few times I have posted a picture of us together on my account, for instance on holiday somewhere, it has been wildly popular on my account, but I have been left feeling uncomfortable with having given people a window into a part of my personal life. I have also observed that people seem to love it when yoga teachers share their latest emotional breakdown in "raw" and "vulnerable" ways. If that works for you, great, but I'm not very interested in engaging with that. Despite my loud American voice and my genuine desire to connect with my students both on- and off-line, there are things that I like to keep private.

So then I'm left with this: is there any way for me to use instagram in any engaging manner, while retaining my integrity? I'm not sure. I'm also not sure I am brave enough to completely walk away as I recognise the value of social media for sharing events, workshops, teacher trainings, etc. However, it feels pretty un-fun to use instagram exclusively to advertise for my own events. So after all this navel-gazing, I'm still out here in the wilderness trying to figure out what approach is best. Anyone have a great pearl of wisdom to guide me towards a decision that allows me to sleep at night?

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