Monday, July 25, 2016

Where the Ethics of Yoga & Social Media Collide

by Riley Bright, CSOY Alumni and Community Outreach Coordinator and CU Anschutz Medical Campus

Ethics or moral philosophy is the branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct … As a branch of philosophy, ethics investigates the questions "What is the best way for people to live?" and "What actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances?" In practice, ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality, by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.
As a recent 300-hour Advanced Yoga Teacher Training graduate, I found myself drawing correlations between the work I do from 9-5 (ethics and humanities in health care) and the work I do on my mat and in the yoga community. In yoga, our ethical and moral guidelines exist within the Yamas and Niyamas or the first and second limbs of the eight-limbed path.

YAMAS (moral restraints):
·       Ahmisa – non-harming
·       Asteya – non-stealing
·       Satya – truthfulness
·       Aparigraha – non-possessiveness/non-attachment
·       Bramcharya – moderation
NIYAMAS (moral observances):
·       Saucha – Purity and cleanliness
·       Santosha – Contentment
·       Tapas – Discipline
·       Svadhyaya – Self study
·       Ishvara Pranidhana – acceptance and devotion to a higher power

The Yamas and Niyamas in their most pure and simple form, as listed above, sound pretty spectacular and easy to follow. As in all ethical and philosophical explorations, it is crucial to understand the cultural stories at play during any given time to better understand the societal or even an individual’s interpretation of a ‘code of ethics.’ For someone on the outside of the yoga community, I wonder what the impression of our ‘communal ethics’ are today?
My intention is not to throw anything or anyone under the bus, but rather to spark a conversation and create an opportunity for anyone who reads this to think about their personal interpretation of things that ‘guide them’ through life. All of the observations and claims I make here are based purely on my own observations and my own stories.

I am not the first to claim this, and I won’t be the last, so I think it’s fair to say the majority of our culture today exists at our fingertips. Free mass communication? Social Media. Need an outlet to share your opinions? Social Media. Looking for an idol? Social Media. Feeling like a loner and need to be social? Social Media.

Whether or not we like it, this is reality. As we pray to the alter of the keyboard daily, I wonder if the things we look at [on social media] have now become the lens with which we interpret “what is the best way for people to live.”1 The problem with this is, very few people whom we see as idyllic representations for who we want to be and how we want to live post anything about their own true humanity on Social Media. I would even go so far as to say that we have created a utopian, pleasant-ville-esque world in which we all virtually live. The problem with this is that we are all humans and not one human being on this planet is perfect. Not one. What happens then, when the sociocultural picture we have in our head doesn’t match the one that is playing out in our day-to-day lives? We can’t nail that handstand for the Instagram pic, we can’t make food that is photo worthy, we can’t buy the house we want to, we don’t get our dream job, we aren’t in a seemingly perfect relationship, our abs aren’t defined, instead of going for a 9 hour run every weekend we sleep in…the horror.
This discordant dialogue within ourselves creates shame, frustration, feelings of inadequacy, and overall lack of enthusiasm about ourselves. But wait! We post memes about self-acceptance and motivational quotes! That should balance it out, right? Wrong. These actually tend to amplify those feelings of shame and inadequacy. With all this internal confusion, the innate clarity the majority of us have to decipher what is right and what is wrong becomes hazy. If what looks right on social media are the things listed above, then reaching those goals must be right no matter the cost. We are physically hurting ourselves in asana classes (what about non-harming?); we have teachers abusing their power with students (what about discipline?); we have people *cleansing* to the point of anorexia to ‘look like a yogi’ (what about contentment?); we have people practicing poor business ethics under the guise of ‘yoga’ (what about non-stealing?); people are maxing out credit cards to buy the *right* yoga clothing (what about moderation?); people are painting an unattainable picture of themselves on social media (what about truthfulness?); there are people whose day is dependent on the number of likes they get on a picture (what about non-attachment?);  and on and on. We have started to portray ourselves as an industry of hypocrisy.
Like I mentioned earlier, my intention with this piece is not to call anyone out, but rather to call everyone in and to ask the tough questions. Is this the image we want to portray of yoga? Are we respecting the tradition and the lineage holders who came before us? Are we actually serving others? I’m not sure what the solution to all of this is, and I am positive it won’t change overnight. I know that for me, personally, it is a daily practice not in asana, but in self-study and critically questioning my own intentions and my own moral compass that has been the most challenging and beneficial yoga practice of all.
My advice would be to find the people in your life who crave those uncomfortable conversations and are as quick to give you love and support as they are to question your intentions to your face – this helps build truthful conviction in a safe environment. Don’t be afraid to be wrong and please, please don’t be afraid to take responsibility for your actions. This is how we learn and grow, and this is the most beautiful representation of humanity and reality.

I had planned to end my blog here, but was intrigued by a question from the lovely Caitlin Rose Kenney; If technology is here to stay, how do we ethically navigate using social media as yoga teachers and practitioners? I love this question, because it popped my proverbial bubble and made me come back down to earth. I wholeheartedly believe that conversation and questions are crucial, but the greatest assets for steering a community towards ethical behavior are practical steps and ideas. What I know for sure, is that there are people who exist on social media who I respect and believe navigate this space well. It doesn’t have to do with how much or how often they post, but rather the content they post - most of it practical and related to their teaching schedules and social issues they are passionate about.

Here’s where it gets tricky. With the convoluted algorithms that social media platforms use today to ‘promote’ certain posts over others, I am left seriously wondering whether or not any of it can be seen as congruent with the yamas and niyamas. In order to be seen on social media, one must be provocative and there is a constant need to “one-up” everything else out there. This again begs the question, how does this affect our ability to stay humble and content? Caitlin is right in that we are stuck with technology whether we like it or not (I like it for a number of reasons btw), and there are a number of ways in which social media has galvanized individuals in support of disenfranchised groups. Rather than trying to answer the question about how to ethically navigate this tricky space, I want to pose the question to any of you who might be reading this in hopes that you may have some personal experience or practical guidance on this issue:

In an industry whose roots were undeniably part of an aesthetic movement (and I can say this with confidence now that I have read Yoga Body by Mark Singleton); and in today’s world where social media platforms ‘promote’ things and people that are provocative and aesthetically pleasing; how do we keep the integrity of all the parts of this practice, and minimize the influence that social media has on our behavior without completely dismissing it?

Like I mentioned earlier, there are a number of teachers out there who navigate this space well, and I believe it is because they are firm in their own understanding of themselves and their intentions. Once again, I will promote self-study above all else and offer the advice to question your intentions often, but only to then move from a place of conviction rather than become mired in self doubt.

Riley’s teaching philosophy is informed by her life’s work outside of yoga, which is steeped in public health. She believes yoga provides the opportunity for practitioners to find acceptance and appreciation for their whole selves rather than just the bits and pieces society deems desirable. By using our physical bodies to burn through stress, anxiety, fear, and the host of other afflictions we experience today; we are able to to find clarity, even if just momentarily, to see what may be the root cause for these afflictions. 

Riley started practicing yoga asana 8 years ago, but it wasn’t until she moved to Boston, MA in 2010 that she really started to see the power yoga had to offer. Riley moved back to Colorado in 2014 and completed a 200 hour yoga teacher at Corepower yoga in Boulder. She started teaching shortly thereafter, and quickly realized how much more there was to learn. Riley started to research local workshops, and after attending Gina Caputo’s “Evolution of Modern Yoga” lecture, Riley was hooked. She completed her 300 hour advanced yoga teacher training with Gina at the Colorado School of yoga in May of 2016. Riley intends to bring that same enthusiasm and focus she has had throughout her yoga ­journey thus far to every class she teaches; and it is her sincerest hope to illuminate the potential this practice has to offer with all of her students.