does social media use help or hinder yoga practice?

Posted on May 26th, 2016 by

patanjali_yoga_sutras_2

being a yoga practitioner and a social media user is a situation that I have found challenging to reconcile. I have felt social media engage my mind in a way that is seriously at odds with the teachings of classical yoga. yet at the same time, I can justify my use of social media as being integral to my yoga practice.

reconciliation depends on two choices; 1) the extent to which I choose to consider the teachings of classical yoga to form part of ‘my yoga’ and 2) how I choose to interpret those teachings. These choices are possible on the grounds that yoga is not dogmatic but rather a living breathing experiential philosophy and the teachings are intended to be relevant when applied to one’s life and circumstance.

the influence of yogic scriptures has been persistent over centuries of yoga practice. Guidance from ancient scripture continue to form the philosophical bedrock for much of the contemporary classical yoga that we see manifest today.

undeniably, Patanjali’s yoga sutras are one of, if not the most seminal scriptures on classical yoga. Sutra means thread of wisdom in Sanskrit and there 196 of them. The sutras revolve around the nature of the mind and could be considered to be one of the earliest writings on human psychology. Indeed, the goal and thus meaning of yoga is succinctly defined as the ability to overcome the fluctuations of the mind” sutra 1.2

chapter 2 of the sutras ‘guidelines on practice’ (sadhana pada) is a practical and progressive framework to attain self-realization. The framework is known as the 8 ‘limbs’ of yoga (ashtanga yoga)

Patanjali’s 8- limbs 

8-limbs-of-yoga1-1) social restraints (yama)

2) personal restraints (niyama)

3) posture (asana)

4) breath/energy control (pranayama)

5) sensory withdrawal (pratyahara)

6) concentration (dharana)

7) meditation (dhyana)  and 8) ecstasy (samadhi) sutra 2.29

8-limbs can be considered to provide an ethical and moral compass for yoga practitioners. Over generations of yoga practice, they have been interpreted and referenced across cultural settings.

within our culture, social media is growing in prominence and there are implications on how interacting on it encourages us to engage our minds. Therefore reflecting upon how the 8-limbs could be interpreted within todays’ digital culture could provide important insights for developing yoga practice and ‘overcoming the fluctuations of the mind’.

when applied to the context of social media, I see an opportunity to consider the following aspects of the 8-limbs; 3 of the social restraints, 1 of the personal restraints, posture, sensory withdrawal, concentration and meditation.

1st limb- yamas – social restraints

the yamas outline the necessary social restraints required for a yoga practitioner to observe in order for them to develop the fertile grounds in which to overcome the mind.

“self-restraint in actions includes non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence/sexual restraint and non-accumulation” sutra 2.30

3 out of 5 of the yamas relevant to the context of social media are truth (satya), sexual restraint (brahmacārya) and non-accumulation (aparigraha)

satya – truth

is a social media profile an authentic truth?

there appears to be much ‘artistic license’ permissible within social media. We can be selective in our self-representation. We have the option to select, filter, edit or omit the images that we upload. Our ‘friends’ become our audience and we can offer a version of our ‘self’ that could reflect our best version rather than our daily reality.

therefore it is questionable as to whether our social profile adheres to the teaching of satya (truth).

however, if you reconsider social media as an artistic expression of self rather than claiming it to be the true self, we get closer to adhering to satya. This is because all art is a form of expression of our life-force and so your profile becomes your means of opening up and experiencing the creative potentiality that is yoga.

brahmacharya – continence

sexy yoga

could half-naked, suggestive images of people depicting a yoga postures be considered as a lack of observance of Brahmacharya? I think that there are two ways to explore this. The first would be from the perspective of the individual. It is the prerogative of the individual to ascertain their underlying intention behind the images that they offer. If they know that their intention is to evoke arousal and attract attention based on their sexual prowess then it is possible for them to question their adherence to brahmacharya. The second perspective is from the societal and cultural setting and what is deemed as sexually evocative. The appropriateness of the same image may be considered differently in different cultural settings.

I once put a photo on facebook of me in hanumansana (the splits) as I felt it was an accomplished posture, which reflected technical skill. My boyfriend on the other hand, felt that the image could be deemed sexually provocative. We discussed the appropriateness of the image for a while. What was interesting for my yoga practice is that the situation raised debate within my relationship and provided me with the opportunity to deeply reflect upon my values and intentions. It also allowed me to consider my responsibility in how yoga is depicted within social media.

aparigrahah – non-accumulation

how many followers are enough followers?

not a yogi

it is certainly possible to extend the interpretation of aparigrahah to the accumulation of social media followers and likes. Success within social media and thus very real economic success, becomes measured in terms of popularity as gauged by followers and ‘likes’. Engaging on social media becomes an endless cycle of pouring out content and chasing social endorsements. There is never a finish line because one can never have enough content or validation from others. To me, this is totally contrary to the notion of aparigrah.

A yoga practitioner I know aims for 10,000 followers on Instagram. some have 1 million. I set myself a goal of 1,000 but I soon found interacting with the platform to accumulate followers evoked such an un-peaceful state of mind for me. staring at my phone couldn’t be any farther away from overcoming the chatter of the mind. From that point on, I made the conscious decision to no longer interact in social media in that way. In this way, social media provides the opportunity to observe our own state of mind and if we find ourselves to be agitated, we the can simply dis-engage.

2nd limb – niyama (personal restraint)

Patanjali’s second limb concerns personal restraints (niyamas). Contentment (santosa) is one of these:

“the virtue of contentment and acceptance of others as they are leads to the state of inner joy and the craving for pleasant external sources ceases” sutra 2.42

there are many recent studies into the relationship between social media use and mental wellbeing and findings are mixed. Some research finds a connection between increased social media use and deteriorated mental health (Rosen et al 2003) whereas other research finds that positive emotions can be spread within social media on a global scale (Fowler 2014).

the lack of conclusive research findings suggests that the individual’s state of mental wellbeing precedes the influence of social media. Therefore cultivating santosa (contentment) in our daily lives can allow us to remain content when using social media.

3rd limb – asana (posture)

“the posture should be steady and comfortable” verse 2.46

although it is not possible to definitively conclude that social media has driven the arguable increased emphasis in asana within contemporary yoga, it is possible to see how there could be some connection.

6 styles 250 by 250

it is easier to capture a photo of an asana than it is to capture a photo of a breathing exercise or meditation and so asana dominates as the depiction of yoga, which creates a natural skew towards it. A diverse repertoire of yoga postures are presented which goes well beyond the sutra’s recommendation of the posture being steady and comfortable! I’m not sure if this is a bad thing, diversity of expression of form is to my mind, beautiful and should be celebrated, however I do see risks around the importance of asana becoming exaggerated in relation to the other aspects of yoga practice. I wonder whether the persistent portrayal of yoga as asana keeps practitioners fixated at the 3rd Limb causing them to become too preoccupied with the mastery of asana at the expense of their exploration of the other limbs which could stagnate their progression toward stilling the fluctuations of the mind.

another consideration is that social media naturally provides a framework for comparison of asana practice. Yet comparison is totally nonsensical within the 8-limbs framework because a practitioner’s asana practice is so unique to their stage of life and evolution. 

5th limb – pratayhara (sensory withdrawal)

through controlling your attention and energy and directing it inwardly, emotions are not pulled around by the senses and the mind becomes fit for concentration. (verses 2.51-2.55)

Patanjali details how we should overcome the mind’s turbulent influence drawing our senses away from the stimulations of the external world and drawing them to retreat within the internal world of our being. 

my undividied attention

I can see how this is totally at odds with the way in which social media is set up to engage the user. We are bombarded with an overload of information and encouraged to continuously interact with it. I have certainly experienced times where I’ve let myself become lost and swept away in newsfeeds, finding myself sat in a stupor looking at information that I have no real interest in. This has left me feeling deflated, numb and then annoyed at myself for wasting time. So now I have measures in place to avoid me from falling into that trap. I set myself limits for use and make sure that I spend some time everyday in ‘sensory withdrawal’, away from all technology and every evening when I put my baby to bed I use that time in the dark silence to connect with him and to myself.

6th limb -dharana (concentration)

“one-pointedness is steadfastness of the mind” sutra 3.1

attention span of a gold fish

dharana is the ability to focus our attention and concentrate on a single point. The way in which social media platforms are designed naturally provide us with an abundance of information that requires our focus only for short bursts. Our powers of attention are dwindling in line with the rise of social media activity. A study conducted by Microsoft(2015) found that the human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds average in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015.

7th limb – dhyana (meditation)

“an unbroken continuation of that mental ability (concentration) is meditation. sutra 3.2

meditation 250 by 250

the notion of an uninterrupted stream of consciousness directed at a single point is called ekagrata in sanskrit.  The ability to manage the mind in this way is esteemed highly within the yoga sutras yet the way in which information is presented in short bursts in newsfeeds creates distractions and undermines our ability or volition to stay focused on one thing for a sustained duration. Right now, I have about 12 tabs open for links I’ve opened that have caught my interest but I haven’t gotten around to reading yet!

conclusion – does social media help or hinder yoga practice?

based on an interpretation of Patanjali’s yoga sutras within the context of social media, it becomes easy to see how the use of social media could be considered at odds with the path of yoga. There are risks around truthful self-representation, sexualisation and fixation on accumulation of followers. There are questions around the ability to cultivate contentment, attention, focus and concentration amidst the information overload in social media. There is also a potential influence in the importance in which the physical postures form part of a person’s yoga practice. 

however, it is possible to reconcile the use of social media as a yoga practitioner in two ways; the first is if we consider our social media profile to be a form of art rather than being a ‘truth’ because all expression of art is an expression of our life-force that unifies us with the goal of yoga.

the second way to reconcile the use of social media as a yoga practitioner is on the grounds of practicing the “yoga of engagement”.  Dropping in, rather than dropping out. Rather than deleting our account and renouncing our social media life, participating in social media allows us to embrace the opportunity to apply the teachings of classical yoga as presented by the 8-limbs and challenges our ability to overcome the fluctuations of our minds.