Are the contemplative aspects of yoga making it to Instagram?
Research Study At A Glance
The Research Question Asked
How is Yoga presented on Instagram?
Type of Study
Using Netlytic software researchers surveyed more than 22,000 Instagram posts with #yoga for the most common words used in posts about yoga. Then, in a random subsample of 100 posts, researchers coded images to describe in greater detail the perceived motivation for the post.
- The most common word used on Instagram posts tagged with #yoga was #fitness.
- The majority of images were of women (89%), who were underweight (68%), wearing minimal clothing (70%), and were not motivated by an intention to inspire, instruct, promote a business, or share a spiritual message.
Yoga posts on Instagram were overwhelmingly about the appearance of the person posting. Almost no posts on Instagram shared something about the contemplative or spiritual aspects of yoga.
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Practitioners begin a yoga practice for many reasons. Common reasons to start include various health and wellness interests. People begin a yoga practice to increase flexibility, increase strength, manage stress, or reduce physical discomforts like low back pain.
However, traditional yogic texts, like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, emphasize the purpose of yoga as developing more contemplative states of consciousness. What several previous research studies have noted is that while practitioners may start yoga for a particular reason, their reasons for continuing often become more spiritually-based over time. The research team on the study we summarize here was curious whether yoga practitioners were sharing information with their social networks about the more spiritually-based reasons for maintaining a yoga practice.
Yoga is a popular topic for social media posts. And social media is now a common way for people to communicate with their social networks. Each type of social media has a particular structure that informs how information is shared. Instagram, the social media platform examined in the study we summarize in this article, emphasizes visual content. So, the authors of this study wondered how the nature of Instagram influences what practitioners share about yoga.
How is Yoga presented on Instagram?
Using the computer software, Netlytic, the researchers downloaded all Instagram posts with #yoga every hour for nine days. They downloaded a total of 35,000 posts. They then used the software to scrub through the posts and eliminate duplicates, for a final total of 22,328 posts. The researchers then analyzed the posts for the most common words used. Finally, they evaluated the most common words used in posts for larger themes they could be grouped under. They grouped the words into four categories: good feelings, bad feelings, appearance, and words referring to one of the eight limbs of yoga.
The research team randomly selected a subsample of 100 posts for further analysis. The person or people in those images were evaluated for body mass index using the Body Mass Index for Obesity (BMI-O) scale. Additionally, the image in the post was coded for the following categories:
- Number of people in the image
- Amount of clothing
- Whether the post showed an advanced yoga posture
- Whether the image showed a meditation posture
- Whether the setting of the image was indoors or outdoors
- Whether a spiritual symbol was present in the image
- The apparent motivation for the post (e.g. promotion, inspiration, instruction, or spiritual)
The most common word in over 22,000 Instagram posts (besides #yoga) was #fitness. More generally, 51% of words in the posts described good feelings such as peaceful. Nearly half (49%) of words in the posts described physical appearance. A very small percentage of words in the posts described negative feelings (4%; e.g. sore, tired). The smallest percentage described words related to the eight limbs of yoga (3%; e.g. pranayama, pratyahara).
In the smaller subset of images coded to answer more detailed questions, results included the following:
- 89% of people in the images were women
- 70% of people in the images were wearing minimal clothing
- 49% of images showed someone in an advanced yoga pose
- 68% of people in the images were underweight
- 94% were not in a meditation posture
- 57% of images were pictured inside / 41% were set outside
- 95% had no spiritual symbols present in the image
Based on the interpretation of the research team, the motivation for the posts was:
- Not inspiration for 92% of posts
- Not instruction for 98% of posts
- Not promotion for 83% of posts
- Not spiritual for 97% of posts
So, if the apparent motivation for the majority of yoga-related posts on Instagram wasn’t inspiration, instruction, promotion for a business, or spiritual, what was the motivation? Based on the content and presentation of images posted, as well as the fact that 49% of words used in the posts were about physical appearance, the primary motivation seemed to be drawing attention to the appearance of the practitioner who was posting photos of themselves.
Why is this relevant to yoga practitioners?
Social media is a major part of speaking to our community these days. What we post says something. That’s true whether we share a post in words or whether we post an image. As practitioners and teachers, if we want people to consider that yoga has the potential to support personal development and point us toward deeper states of consciousness, then we need to speak about that. And we need to share those experiences in a much greater proportion to the number of people showing off their arm balance in a bikini.
That a very high percentage of images on Instagram with #yoga pictured someone underweight and in minimal clothing is perhaps not surprising. But it is still disturbing. A yoga practice has the potential to contribute to a healthy relationship with our body. However, few people will hear that message if the images associated with yoga primarily show people glamorizing being underweight and are generally objectifying.