Oh how 21st century yoga has evolved from the earliest recorded yogic drawings and The Vedas texts over 3000 years ago. Originally a philosophy and way of life, which of course involved some physical ‘asana’ practise (yoga as it’s known today) to prepare the body for meditation, it now beholds an entire new meaning, with the rise of the Insta-yogis. Rather than being a practise to still the mind, the trend as it’s seen now (often in the form of crazy unattainable poses)—as a result of the social media platform— has become a potential detriment to both our bodies and the true meaning of yoga and its teachings.
A new study from Central Queensland University is now reporting there has been a crazy 80 per cent increase in yoga injuries in Victoria alone over the last seven years, with speculation Instagram is to blame. While the study wasn’t able to identify a single cause alone, they were able to determine that there hasn’t been a substantial increase in yoga participation rates that could account for the dramatic injury increase, speculating social media thus is likely behind it. Lead researcher Dr Betul Sekendiz believes, while people may be aware of technique, they are pushing themselves too early, “especially if they look to the influencers on social media.” “There is a high focus on pictures to attract likes, so people may be pushing themselves without enough preparation or warm up to get into the poses just for the sake of a picture.”
In addition Dr Sekendiz believes the increase in neck, head and shoulder injuries could be a result of headstand, stating: “I think on social media, the most frequent pose we see females performing is headstand.” Outside upper body strain, there was also a noticeable increase in knee injuries, shoulder dislocations and injuries to lower back and spine. As a yoga teacher, I too have noticed the increasing interest in headstands (or Sirsasana in Sanskrit) and social media perception. Whenever I tell someone I do yoga without fault the most common response I get is – ‘can you do a headstand?’ When I then respond saying: “No I can’t…I haven’t really spent much time practising it,” the most common response I then get is: ‘but you’re a yoga teacher, shouldn’t you be able to?’ And herein lies the problem. While Instagram has provided us with an endless stream of fitness and yoga inspiration, what it fails to do is show you the true ‘unfiltered,’ ‘behind-the-scenes,’ ‘raw,’ ‘uncut’ and ‘in progress’ moments. The study, which reviewed over 118 recorded cases of yoga injuries, not only found 10 per cent were serious enough to require hospitalisation, but that they mostly involved young women aged between 20 and 39.
Which, reading between the lines, accounts for a big portion of millennial women growing up with Instagram as a large part of their every day. So what does this mean? Should we swerve away from yoga or Instagram? Not at all, but we do need to get serious about our relationship to both. According to Dr Sekendiz, it all comes back to taking it seriously.“ I am not saying we should stop doing yoga, but we do need to look into what’s going wrong…i.e. perhaps we are not doing enough preparatory work?” This is something that Sydney based yoga teacher Bevan Pfeiffer believes strongly to be the case. “I would say that social media is definitely an aspect influencing people trying advanced postures that they aren’t ready for. A lot of people don’t realise that the advanced poses in yoga take months sometimes years to obtain and even then when it is obtained it takes even longer to refine so that you are using your body in the right way so you don’t get injured,” says Pfeiffer.
He also believes it’s not only the rushing to blame but that it takes serious dedication and a sense of humbleness. “In my own practice I follow a form of yoga called Ashtanga where the teacher doesn’t allow you to take on another pose until they think you are ready, which means I can work on some poses for up to 4-6 months (around five times a week) under the supervision of my teacher, which requires both patience and letting go of my ego and staying humble.” Another aspect Sydney based yoga teacher Jacqui Minell believes could be to blame is the increasing popularity of yoga in the wellness space and as a result the studios are trying to keep up, while leaving the students behind. “I definitely believe there is increasing pressure from studios and owners on teachers to offer ‘the best’ which can often lead to teachers feeling they need to show and offer very advanced shapes that some bodies aren’t ready for,” says Minell. Which of course, is where the yoga instructor’s accountability and ability to educate their students on the true yogic nature and philosophy also comes in. “Yoga isn’t a circus, it’s about understanding your mind and body,” explains Pfeiffer.
“As a teacher I don’t teach advanced poses when there is a room full of students there is too much risk. Instead I work on the prep poses so they can build strength and flexibility. I’m not afraid to pull a student back when they are not ready or see them doing something dangerous, but I do think it’s something a lot of teachers need to practise gaining more courage in— learning how to say no to a student. It’s a yoga school at the end of the day, yes it is a business but they are not clients they are students and you are a teacher, so they shouldn’t be afraid to teach.” Outside of the physical prep work, Minell believes we also need to get out of the head and the constant ‘rushing’ mode in order to practise with more ease and strength and swerve risk. “We live in the ‘instant’ world where we don’t want to wait patiently to evolve— we want to be able to do what everyone else is doing right now! Of course trying to improve in yoga isn’t a bad thing. In fact if you have at any point injured yourself you’re likely to gain a deeper insight into body and have awareness of how to move properly, so that’s one aspect that could be gained,” says Minell. “However I would say a large part of the problem is that everyone is focusing on the ‘asana’ (physical postures) and not the first two limbs of yoga – the yamas (moral vows) and niyamas (which includes contentment).” And really, outside the polished Insta-pose, isn’t contentment what we’re truly all looking for?