Let me start by saying that I LOVE Instagram.

No. wait. I find Instagram a potential dangerous minefield.

No. wait. Can I phone a friend on this one?

There are so many different thoughts that are running through my head abut the yoga culture we are creating on Instagram. I say ‘we’ because I am included in this sect as I also post and share bits of my practice on this visual media platform – and that’s part of the epic Instagram conundrum that’s been going around inside my mind.

On Wednesday I posted the following picture on Instagram with the following caption:
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THERE. I SAID IT. 😳😳 Instagram yoga has created a very blurry line between “yoga to support the body” and “yoga to exploit the body”. I see SO many yogis on Instagram putting their bodies in the most extreme of postures and positions and whilst I trust that they are fully aware of their own bodies, strengths, weaknesses and capabilities it’s still making me feel rather anxious! 😳
As an example, i randomly came across a feed yesterday (note: I originally tagged this yogi, but then later removed the tag) and whilst I think this person is a beautiful soul and absolutely gorgeous (😍) 97 out of 100 photos show very intense spinal extension with deep hinging in the lumbar spine. Whilst these shots do look beautiful, it did really unnerve me (which led me to an hours Internet research on yoga and injury). #dontgothere😳
I’m really curious as to what everyone thinks about this. (I actually have a whole blog post in my head on Instagram and yoga, but that’s for another time!) Has yoga become a way for us to exploit the body for ‘aesthetics’? Has this been driven by the@Instagram platform? Perhaps my aversion to deep spinal extension is due to my own ego, or the fact that my lower back is my personal weak spot- which immediately puts in my mind the sound of cartilage grating on cartilage every time I see deep backbends. đŸ˜±(but I also feel the same way about intense over-splitting and insane hip rotations)
Hannah if you read this – hello beautiful lady!! – I’d love to know what other things you do to maintain the longevity of your spine? Or if you have any other friends or yogis who also love deep spinal extension? What practices do you follow? I’m genuinely curious as to how you warm up, what you do and how you maintain the health of your spine without pain or injury? I’d love for you to share! 💕😍 #yogaforlife#yogachallenge #backbends #ukyogis#spinal #myyogalife

I’d like to fully unpack this picture and this post as it may have been misconstrued as a cultural nuance (as has been suggested in some of the comments). When I say, “freaks me out” I mean “Whoa, that causes me great anxiety and distress and upsets me”. Just as spiders and frogs  “freak me out”. And just as, (if you were someone who was neater than I am) – empty coffee cups left lying on your desk might “freak you out”. It has nothing to do with me thinking anyone is a freak. This has absolutely NOTHING to do with body shaming and I was genuinely surprised that some people read it as that. For those people who did read it as that and took great offence to it, I have apologised (8 times).

However I stand VERY firmly behind the argument that I am putting forward and make absolutely NO apologies for bringing these issues out into conversation.

I tagged someone in the caption of my picture as one example of the point I am making. This was not about calling anyone out specifically, it was one example of an issue which is WIDESPREAD on Instagram. If I am honest, had I known the girl I tagged was only 15 years old, I may not have actually tagged her. But, if I’m even MORE honest, I would say that this is EXACTLY the audience who needs to be made more aware of the things I’m proposing. (I have since been told that this 15 year old has also completed her yoga teacher training, so she “knows exactly the safety and risk behind what she is doing“.)

My entire intention of posting this was to open up authentic, honest and mature conversation and dialogue about a topic that I feel is extremely important and not spoken about enough, if ever, on Instagram. It came from a place of deep care and concern for the many (young) girls I see on Instagram repetitively putting their bodies into extreme postures. Are we creating a culture where is it ok to put our bodies into situations where we may be causing permanent (long term) damage for the sake of a few likes? Has Instagram-yoga moved from a practice that supports the body to a practice that exploits the body?

Instagram is a subliminal form of operant conditioning. Behaviours are driven by positive reinforcers, which in this case are likes and follows. (As an aside note: scrolling through some of these accounts, it’s almost eerie to see that the “deeper the backbend” the “more the likes” and based on the operant conditioning model (thanks, Skinner), I CANNOT stress enough how alarming this is for the young women who are posting them.)

For the most part, I received many comments from people who were genuinely interested in the conversation and the debate and it has been fascinating, interesting and thought provoking to read their stories and views. I have read comments from hypermobile women who have experienced torn hamstrings and other injuries from not knowing they were pushing too far (note: this isn’t a case of ‘not listening to the body’, this is a fact of hypermobility). I have read comments from women who now have hip and back pain due to participating in sports requiring intense spinal flexion in their younger years with little or no understanding of body biomechanics. I’ve read comments from yogis who in their early days tried to emulate those things they have seen on instagram, I’ve read comments from people on instragram who feel they aren’t good enough when they see/compare themselves to these types of poses on Instagram. I have read from physiotherapists who have concerns about degeneration of the spine and spondylosis and from Doctors who are also questioning the things they are seeing on this platform. I’ve read comments from yogis who have been pushed to the point of major injury from yoga teachers for the purpose of trying to achieve something ‘instagrammable’ and I’ve read comments from yogis who feel reassured by reading this type of post. I’ve read comments from yogis who have done research and analysis on Doctors reports with the rising cases of yogis and yoga teachers with hip replacements and spinal surgeries.

I also then received some comments from the girl’s sister in defence of her practice. Please note: in no part of my post was I judging her practice, I was simply asking in a very public forum (since instagram is the very public forum in which the images are shared) for some practical tools, exercises both pre- and post-practice that she utilises to maintain the integrity of her spine for longevity – so that we can properly empower other woman and young girls who may be viewing these posts. (Note: it is not necessarily about the person who is practicing these poses – if she believes she knows and fully understands the long term potential risks of this practice – then that is fine. It is to open up the dialogue for those other young girls who may be blindly following and attempting). I also then received a comment from an instagram-popular girl telling me my post (or bringing a 15 year old into it) was DISGUSTING and a LOW BLOW. (As an aside many people messaged me to tell me, “don’t worry about that comment!” Trust me – it does not affect me at all.) But it was very surprising to me as this comment came from a yoga teacher, who I would have presumed would be very pro having open and honest dialogue about the precautions, modifications, risks and associated exercises that would need to be done to counteract this type of practice.

If my post was construed as attacking or judgemental, then I do understand the need for these yogis to want to defend their friend/sister. But then, my even bigger questions is: What are they saying to this 15 year old? “Ignore her, don’t listen to her – just keep doing what you are doing, it’s great!”? I honestly wonder.

Yes, I don’t know this yogi’s personal practice, and yes I know that Instagram only shows a tiny SNIPPET of the whole story and that is exactly the point I’m trying to make. Without knowing a person’s personal practice we only see the tiny snippet of what is available: and let me be clear, I’m not starting this conversation for myself (or even necessarily for the girl in question). I know my own body. I am starting this conversation for young girls who will try and blindly emulate things they see on Instagram. Let’s talk about the precautions taken, the work, the risks, the other things that need to go along with this intense type of yoga practice that is all over Instagram. I am not here to make judgement on anyone’s practice. What you choose to practice is entirely up to you, but the thing I want to put forward is let’s start questioning the reason WHY we are in the poses we are in.

For example, (and I am using spinal extension as the example because it’s an easy one to demonstrate the point), the average range of movement of the spine in the plane of extension is 35 degrees in the lumbar spine, 25 degrees in the thoracic spine and 75 degrees in the cervical spine. (Sited from Yoga Anatomy, Kaminoff & Matthews 2012):
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(YES I KNOW the spine has three natural curves in it – I drew it with a straight line to make my life easier). Now, given that we spend most of our day with the spine in flexion – sitting over a computer, working, at a desk, looking at our cell phones etc – I think heart openers (aside from the energetic practice of connecting to anahata) are great to counteract this environmental flexion to bring the spine back into it’s natural range of functional movement. My question is: What is the PURPOSE of continuously bringing the spine into almost 180 degree hyperextension as we see so often on Instagram?  Looking at the thoracic and lumbar spine alone – that is more than 100 degrees (roughly) past the average range of functional extension. If that is in your practice, well done on the work that you must have put into getting there – but I do really want to know what is the purpose of being in this position?

And YES, I fully know and COMPLETELY agree that every body is different and no two bodies move in the same way – some people have more range than others, I AM IN TOTAL AGREEMENT WITH YOU ON THAT. (Wow it is exhausting having to clarify every sentence). Some people have hyper mobility which is another thing altogether. Whatever your range of movement, intense repetitive postures/movements will affect your body no matter how it moves or the range in which it feels safe for you to do so. So again, I ask – What is the PURPOSE of bringing your spine into hyperextension well passed the range of functional movement?

I am not asking this in a facetious or sarcastic way. For people who practice this on a daily basis, I GENUINELY want to know what the purpose of this is. I have tried to google it and I cannot find a thing. Why do you do it? Is it because “it looks good” or “it will be a great instagram pic” or “because you can” or because of “the physical challenge”? And if it is because of the physical challenge, what biomechanical knowledge or information do you have in order to know you are doing this 100% safely and without permanent (potentially life-altering) impact in the long term. I really want to know, as maybe I am missing something. (Really).

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In all seriousness, I genuinely do wish to hear from yoga practitioners who have these very advanced backbends in their practice and if anyone would like to help me out with why they practice those postures? I do KNOW that all yoga asana is relative: The yoga that I practice may seem very advanced to some people and the yoga that other people practice may seem advanced to me – so if this question comes across as ironic then I also apologise.

I think though for me, the concept of the physical yoga practice has shifted a lot. When I first began my yoga journey, I also had every intention to grab my ankles with my hands, to get as far into the backbend as I possibly could, to find oversplit in my legs, to do a headstand with no hands, to go further, further further further. (THANKS LARGELY TO INSTAGRAM). But I’m at a point now where I am questioning things. Just because something was once taught to some person 5000 years ago – should we be doing it today? And if that is all that this blog post does for you – brings questioning, present awareness into your practice then that is great! For me, personally I have a body type that I know if I practiced I would definitely be able to get to deep spinal extensions like those I have been using as an example, but my point is, I don’t see the biomechanical functional purpose of it. For me, it does not support the health and wellness of my spine/body to push that far. If you feel that it does support the health and wellness of your spine in the long term, then by all means, go ahead – It’s your body, not mine. (Thank goodness).

All I’m asking for you is to question the physical practice. And know exactly the reason why you are doing what you are doing and the potential long lasting effects it may have down the line. There are very interesting articles and interviews on yoga teachers in later years arriving with injuries because they DID NOT QUESTION THE PRACTICE.

We have also come to take the catch all, “It’s fine, when I practice, I listen to my body” to be the same as “the place where my body repeatedly let’s me go today has no bearing on what it will present 10 years from now.” Read that again: do not get those confused.

The broader problem I see with instagram yoga is that it creates an environment where we are continuously aiming to go further, get deeper, bend more. So whilst it is WONDERFUL to have physical goals – (I share comparison pics all the time!) to look back and see your own progress is really amazing BUT are we placing a very linear trajectory on a practice that is fundamentally about present embodiment?

Did I just get too deep there? Here, have a rainbow:

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Maybe I am just getting older. I am 31. I feel like I am on that very fine cusp of being young, but also at the same time being old. And if I am projecting my own “I’m getting older” issues onto everyone – well so be it then. I’m part way through a course from a Master of Science, Biomechanicist on the biomechanics within the yoga practice and it is very interesting. I do lots of reading and research into the body. I ask questions all the time and I encourage you to do the same. You only have one body and you have to look after it.

Instagram is a slippery slope because on the one hand it is a very inspiring platform and I use it (probably daily) to share bits and pieces of my practice – so it does feel part ironical to be so “hating” on a platform that I use myself, I totally get the irony in that. When I do share on instagram, I try and share the more real bits of my practice – the drills, the work, the falls, the failing. For me, yoga is about learning to live more presently, learning to live and create a more abundant, fulfilled and happy life. It is about being inspired to be a better person, it is about feeling inspired to bring that inspiration to others. I want to bring that inspiration back to my experience of instagram – and me sharing a picture of my foot up my left nostril, swung half way around my head doesn’t really cut it. I’m committing in November to have a month of #inspiredNovember – about creativity, about movement, about connecting to others, about nurturing, about coming back to the reason I practice and about self love. If you feel you’ve lost the instagram sparkle – come join me 🙂

What are your views on this platform? Is it inciting practice that is potentially dangerous? Is it changing the way in which yoga is viewed in the broader landscape? Is popularity on instagram becoming confused with integrity/qualification as a teacher? Are we encouraging people to push beyond what they are ready for? Are we compromising alignment for depth in order to get the better picture? Is it our responsibility (those who are social media sharers) to do as much as we can to prevent others from harming themselves? Should we just share blindly? Are we starting to classify those with more flexibility or hypermobility (or followers?!) as better teachers? Does yoga instagram culture fuel the concept of yoga as practice which needs results? What should we be sharing instead? How can we change this?

I welcome all your varying views, comments, opinions, analysis and debate about the instagram culture, provided they are mature, thoughtful and contribute to constructive debate. Leave a comment below or on my instagram account. It was really wonderful to read and engage with so many of you on that last post I shared. Let’s keep questioning and let’s keep the dialogue on safe practice and self love open.

with love