By Janet Stone
Feeling whole in a world driven by brand and image
How many “likes” does it take to make a yoga teacher?
It’s awe-inspiring to witness and even take part in the current culture of social media with its ability to draw attention and admiration and create longing in the hearts and minds of so many.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong or bad or should stop. Or that it’s great, and more, please. This is just the start of a conversation, an observation of what we’re all agreeing to when we decide that “likes” equal value.
It’s a little ironic, the “likes” thing. Yoga defines itself as a place between the fluctuation of likes (raga) and dislikes (dvesha), yet we’re bombarded with tuning in to or helping cocreate a culture that accords value based on a thumbs-up cartoon. “Acceptance” is based on affirming little symbols on all the various market channels of media that are supposed to be social but have become a direct link to self-worth or lack of self-worth.
I know some wildly potent teachers who are nowhere near this medium of social media, and therefore, people don’t know about them, don’t know where to find them, don’t have access to them. These teachers, wearing average clothing (no special bling or mala) show up again and again and offer their teachings, the dharma, through direct contact. No photos of them in skimpy bathing suits, posing in Natarajasana at sunset. Just plain and simple teachings. No filters, Photoshop, apps, personal photographer, media consultant. Their message does not come dressed up with a persona or a brand, so they have no “likes.” Does this make them less valued teachers? The answer is twofold: yes, sadly, in the market of yoga; no, delightedly, when what we’re basing value on is a deeply potent voice.
Still, for new and established teachers alike, there’s endless pressure to “brand.” So, if yoga at its root is union, what are we doing with this never-ending need to differentiate? Who are we selling? What are we burning into our skin in order to become a more valuable asset? Do we need more workshops on “the business of yoga” that promise headshots, a Twitter account, an Instagram account, etc.—essentially, a yoga image/brand to head out the door with to sell yourself and your teachings? Maybe.
However, we may want to remember that we are temporary and that these are not “your” teachings; these are the teachings. They’ve been handed down orally and practiced with no promise from the ancestors of paying your bills from this endeavor. Now we walk out of a workshop with our own personal image to package and sell. To be sure, the student of yoga who decides to become a businessperson of yoga has a lot riding on it: their wellbeing, food, rents, bills, ego. Like, how can one justify giving up a dependable job and choosing this? You’ve got to at least try to make a living. You must do what you must do, with a myriad of justifications for doing it.
Is there a way . . . to stay deeply mindful of what we’re buying and what we’re selling and also who owns whom? Do the “likes” own you?
Yet, as you go along and get more hungry, the savings dwindle and/or the other yogi in the training begins to do really well. Desperation sets in, leading to saying yes to things that you really know in your heart are a no. It leads to looking over your shoulder at your companions on the path and wondering, “How are they doing, and how am I doing in comparison?” It leads to checking social media upon waking and just before going to bed. Suddenly, you don’t remember those practice tips in any of the texts, but comparative living becomes the norm.
This is a new era, for sure, and I’m a part of it. For nearly fourteen years, as I transitioned from my work in the film industry, I tried to integrate and honor the yoga I had encountered in India in humble meditation centers where everyone was average-looking—and so human. The radiance of these people came not from an Instagram filter but from tejas, a luminosity born from plain old simple practice. For many years of my teaching life, I didn’t rely on it as a place for income; it was pure, inexplicable passion to be in the teachings. So I showed up. I offered things that didn’t shine, that reflected where I was in my own studentship. Back then, even websites for a yoga teacher were relatively unheard of.
Many years later, my life circumstances changed, and I had to take care of some pretty real-life householder needs, and people had flashy websites and kept telling me I needed one. And a business card. And a head shot. A head shot? Did I not remove myself from the film industry because I was tired of selling images? Nope, it raced in at light speed, and now, as I look out, I see an image of yoga, or something that uses its postures and words, all too often in the service of selling something or someone someplace. Is there a way, amidst this system that we all take part in, to stay deeply mindful of what we’re buying and what we’re selling and also who owns whom? Do the “likes” own you?
So, yes, I “like” your image; it is beautiful and reminds me of the great beauty expressed in this world and what it can look like when someone gives their body to the physical rigors of practice. But does it also show us, without accolades of any kind, what it is to be quiet, still, and assured that the teachings are enough? Would I like to see what you are looking out at, who’s taking your photo? What it looks like when your joints are sore, your breath is shallow, you can’t find a parking spot, you’re not posed in an otherworldly place?
I don’t know. Mostly, I want to know: What would allow us all to feel more whole, not more separated?
Now, “like” this article, dammit!
Janet Stone practices and teaches yoga in San Francisco and around the world. Through her teaching, writing, training, and online offerings, she shares the message of yoga as a lifelong practice of healing, kindness, community, and waking up to the profound gift of this life.
Photo: Robert Sturman Photography