Simon Borg-Olivier

Gymnastics, contortion and social media are changing yoga – and not in a good way

You wouldn’t know it to look at Instagram, but yoga is an ancient art designed to prepare the body for meditation. Yet these days many people associate the practice with extreme flexibility and the perfect handstand. In the age of social media, the lines between yoga, gymnastics and contortion have definitely blurred. So what has happened along the way?

Australian Simon Borg-Olivier, who will visit Lifestyle Yoga Dubai from March 27 to April 1, is a decades-long practitioner and lifelong student.

He has studied under some of the yoga greats, including Ashtanga Vinyasa creator Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. He also believes that modern yoga has lost its way, becoming separated from both its essence and original philosophy.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, people perceived yoga to be boring, as meditation,” he says. “I wanted to show people it could be a bit exciting, but in retrospective it went a bit out of control. I knew at the time that asana was a small part of it but I thought I could at least attract people.”

Borg-Olivier is partner in Yoga Synergy, a yoga school in Sydney that has been running since 1984. His spinal flow, inspired by Asian martial arts and his background as a physiotherapist, is designed to be a pain-free way for people to move while gaining all the benefits of the yogic tradition. 

“We’ve swung from one way to the other,” he explains. “People do want fitness and long-term health, but what’s being taught now is short-term gains with long-term potential damage to the nervous, reproductive and immune systems.”

Much of the yoga being taught now, what Borg-Olivier calls “the aerobics of the 2000s,” is having a negative impact on the musculoskeletal system. And Iyengar, with his obsessive attention to alignment, and Jois, who encouraged practicing all of yoga’s eight limbs, would likely not approve.

“There are so many people teaching nonsense yoga,” says Borg-Olivier. “It’s taken the place of aerobics. If you practice in a way that causes pain, injury and stress, you’ve missed the point of yoga completely.”

The packed classes of today are a world away from the way Borg-Olivier learned, during a time when teacher-student relationships were sacred and maintained for years.

“The teacher-student relationship was lost years ago,” he says. “You can’t have it in a group class. How can a teacher have a one-on-one relationship in a class of 50-plus?”

One of the biggest flaws in the system are the plethora of too-short teacher trainings that enable the newest of practitioners to be qualified in a sacred art.

“You can’t learn to teach in 200 hours, you can’t even learn yoga in 200 hours,” he says. “It’s an insult to real yoga teachers to give them a certificate and say, ‘Here you go, you can teach along with everyone else.’ We’ve got to know what yoga is. Most people don’t know. It takes decades to even get a hint of what it is but people are trying to do this with just a brief amount of experience.”

The massive emphasis on promotion through social media also doesn’t help — “It’s not about knowledge.” He continues: “It doesn’t matter if the posture isn’t fantastic, provided the picture is nice.”

Cristian Brezeanu Dubai
Cristian Brezeanu, Olympic gymnast

Cristian Brezeanu, a multi-medal-winning Olympic gymnast who competed for Romania and South Africa and is based in Dubai at Fly High Fitness DXB, agrees that social media has been a powerful force – and not always for good.

“In this age of Instagram and social media, people are looking for quick, shortcuts to fame, fortune and publicity,” he says. “There are yoga teachers out there trying to attract followers, publicity and in order to do that, there is this reaching for more and more visually impressive skills. Whether these skills are gymnastics or extreme flexibility, borderline contortion, they tend to focus on the physical aspect because they think it’s a quick and easy way to attract attention.”

Many people are moving into yoga from dance or gymnastic backgrounds, easily adapting to the flexibility and contortion aspects, he says.

“The other yoga teachers have begun to almost compete with this, as if bending into a pretzel or doing a perfect handstand makes you a good yoga teacher,” he says. “It’s become a game of ego.”

Along the way people have become confused about what it means to be a good teacher, or even a “good yogi,” which is another matter altogether, he says.

“Those skills have nothing to do with how they live their life or their ability to safely teach others — how to achieve such skills,” he says.

All this showing off on social media – which for a lot of people has become a primary source of information  – creates a misguided perspective for those who want to practice. There is a big responsibility on teachers to convey the right message, at a time when many of the misconceptions are being conveyed by the teachers themselves, he says.

“You’re so bombarded with this information, there is to some extent a sense of confusion about what yoga is,” says Brezeanu. “It’s very intimidating for many people. For the people spending time in studios, working with good teachers, they’re the ones who realize how much more to it there is.”

Melissa Ghattas yoga Dubai
Melissa Ghattas teaches at Zen Yoga. Photo: Katie Vickers

Melissa Ghattas, who has 500 hours of training and teaches at Zen Yoga in Dubai, has experienced the influx of teachers from the worlds of yoga and dance. That is mixing up the yoga world in other ways, too.

“You have these pretty, aesthetically gorgeous girls who can do these amazing things with their bodies, and we have created this culture that is no different to what we spoke about in the ’80s with skinny or airbrushed models, as if this is the role model for young girls,” she says. “Yoga is supposed to be a holistic approach to life.”

Instead, an ancient healing system that is supposed to be good on a physical as well as mental and emotional level is doing the opposite, by emphasizing handstands and contortion.

“Not only do such extreme postures have nothing to do with yoga,” says Ghattas, “the average person can’t do these things with their bodies.”

It is this deeper level of yoga that Ghattas strives to teach and embody. It’s also what helped her get over bulimia, during 15-year journey that took her down many avenues in her quest for healing.

“Yoga was the only thing that actually penetrated a deeper level of my consciousness, to have this healthy relationship with food,” she says. “This is what yoga is about. It helped me discover self-love and self-acceptance. I’m not an ex-gymnast or dancer, so for me it’s been about the journey and the realities that your body doesn’t necessarily move that way.”

• Simon Borg-Olivier is coming to Lifestyle Yoga Dubai March 27-April 1.

Featured photo by Alessandro Sigismondi.

36 thoughts on “Gymnastics, contortion and social media are changing yoga – and not in a good way

  1. What a great article! I completely agree. So many people think you must be able to do extreme positions or be very flexible to practice which yoga is not about. Very well written.

  2. Thank you again Simon B Oliver.
    I was told that the tongue is connected to the heart,
    and it reminded me that sometimes we have to speak these truths, and you’ve done it very well.

    Thank you for inspiring those that are on the road of truth and thank you for sticking up for yoga!

  3. This was one of the most acurate articles about yoga I have read lately. I really appreciate Simon Borg, he is an inspiration for me and he has helped me a lot during my yoga journey. What is written above is actually what I think. Many people from rhythmic gymnastics and other disciplines are turning in yoga instructors and only focusing on the body and fashion, while leaving behind the really significant aspects of yoga. I started practicing yoga 14 years ago when I had to stop Basketball because of a lower back injury and, as I was strugling to recover my lower back pain, I realized several years later that yoga is not about the body, but about our minds. Thank you very much for this article. Dimitrios Dibelo Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Instructor 500hr YTT by Yoga alliance.

    1. Hey Dimitrious, I felt exactly the same way when I read it! I’ve done yoga for 18 years now, and Mel’s piece put into words the feelings I’ve been having in classes lately. Thanks so much for your comments. Best, Ann Marie (livehealthy editor)

  4. The only problem with this article is that it wasn’t written 10 or even 20 years ago, when the trend to make yoga popular, cute and appealing to our senses was just beginning, back when, perhaps, something could’ve been done to stop it.

    There is no yoga anymore, only “yoga-based exercise.” It was stripped down to the physical so Westerners would try it, because we desperately needed it. Sadly, Westerners today still need yoga, and think they’re getting yoga, but are only ending up worse off than before. Best to give up on trying to bring yoga back to its roots at this point. Too much money, too much power, too much hierarchy, and too much patriarchy is involved.

    1. Hey Keri, thanks so much for your comment. Too bad we weren’t around then! We will be bringing you more stories about how to get back to yoga basics in the coming months, finding more real yoga in the UAE. Best, Ann Marie (editor)

    2. I can understand your disappointment, but real yoga exists, but you have to restart and find an inspiring teacher wich his motivation isn’t fame and money. There are plenty of good teachers out there and still are giving their knowledge and share the aspects of yoga. Hope to see you one day on the mat 🙏

  5. Really amazing. M. Borg-Olivier is himself a yoga shame, showing of all time, without knowing anything about philosophy. And saying this, he uses a tremendous photo of himself. It would be fun if it was not so sad.

  6. Loved your article but if you are going to cover, the “real essence” of Yoga versus what it has become in the Western world, it is a pity that you confuse Yoga with its most “physical” aspect in an article that criticizes just that.

    The article starts with this inaccurate statement “You wouldn’t know it to look at Instagram, but yoga is an ancient art designed to prepare the body for meditation.”

    Yoga is not designed to prepare the body for meditation… Asanas are. And they are only one of the eight limbs (as prescribed by Pantajali) of Yoga.

    Namaste 🙂

  7. I learn hathaYoga in my 20,s now 64 yrs and basicly developed my own practice maintaining the origanl teaching . I developed the essence of my character into the posture, meet others practitioner who never interested in learning the awesome power of personal Yoga

  8. Thanks for this article it raises some very valid points. Shame it leads with a photo of yet another yogi doing a ridiculous pose though. You are doing exactly the thing that the article is saying is negative. I’d love to see healthy yoga poses that most people can do!

  9. Couldn’t agree more. A great piece by Melanie, thank you for formulating my thoughts into written context.
    I sometimes despair at the yoga poses I see on Instagram and have to remind myself that it is not a true reflection of a good teacher.

  10. Brilliant I couldn’t agree more. Every day Instagram has yoga followers posting up doing head and handstands? Do they not do normal Yoga. Yoga is not a competition but a way of life 💕 x

  11. I love the post but I wonder… Simon himself posts some of the craziest asanas on Facebook… Why would he do that if he disagrees with it?

    1. I am wondering if maybe the point has been lost in this thread. I am learning to surf and three summers in, I can stand up but it’s mostly white water surfing and I stay safe on a foamy. I look out the back at the serious surfers and know that it’s a possibility. I’m not ready right now and I have no pressing goals particularly apart from enjoying my time out there in the ocean. Maybe one day I’ll feel ready to go out there and catch an unbroken wave. But I don’t care if it happens or not. I’m just enjoying surfing – another form of yoga – at the place where I’m at. No hurry and no biggie if I never get out there – so be it. I’ve known Simon for years. He is real, kind and genuine. A humble and gentle man and wonderful teacher and friend. He is passionate about yoga and has worked through to heal himself from and manage many physical issues and chronic conditions. A few years ago for example, he broke the same arm twice in different places in a short amount of time. A year later, he had built up the strength to handstand again and execute poses such as the one in the image. Sure, he was younger once and had an ego like we all do and now he has lived through different experiences and has evolved. Too many teacher training has diluted the whole subject and diminished those who really had to put the work in. But with regards to the fancy pose in the image, I choose to see these things as possibilities, not necessities. And that’s what life is full of.

  12. For ever grateful to this man, the one and only Guru for me because he clears the way (light) for you to find your own Kaivalya with no words! . I can’t wait to practice again with him and with you all in Dubai soon!
    I translated this into ITALIAN on my website http://www.yogaxrunners.com and Facebook page Yoga da Tite .

  13. So great to read this and much mirrors my own thoughts on ‘yoga’ in our Western society. It’s wonderful that yoga is now out there but it has become trendy and often seen and practiced as a form of fitnes. Considering one of the aspects of yoga is to let go of the ego. Yoga seems to be more ego driven as you eluded too in your article. I also think that whether you study a 200 or 500 hour TT I think it’s where you start from and if you have regular yoga practice with a good qualified teacher. I know ‘good’ is hard to define but trying to keep it simple. 😁 We are are always learning and just like our teaching and practice we are always evolving. Loved reading your article. Thank you Keri. 🙏

  14. What a beautiful post. It is always such a humbling experience reading what Simon has to say. His teachings and courses are at the heart of yoga (true yoga).

    I am going to be sharing this wonderful post.

    Enjoy your time with him when he arrives!

  15. I really enjoyed the article and see it as very relevant for the times. Yoga has become a fad in many ways to make it popular- adding wine, or beer, or a DJ to bring people in. One thing that was interesting to me was the choice of photos, especially the first two. Considering the article and its subject, would it have made more sense or would it make more sense in the future to have photos that aren’t people doing really athletic, almost impossible things, with an air of Instagram and airbrushing….maybe something a little more grounded and real?

    1. Hi Laura! Good point. We are just a startup and without access to photographers we must rely on handouts from the people we interview – and we all like to pick our best angles! Definitely something to bear in mind in editing future articles. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Best, Ann Marie (editor, livehealthy.ae)

  16. I refer to myself as an “old” yoga teacher due to the fact that I began
    teaching before yoga was “a thing”. That said, the recent gain in popularity can help many people and that is why most of us have chosen to teach.
    Thank goodness for the training programs that teach more than asana! Yoga’s depth is so very vast and rich and it is sad to see that overshadowed by trends.
    Thank you for your article. Well said.

  17. The content of the article is true, yet you used images featuring contortionist gymnastics, the very thing the article speaks against.

  18. This article is ridiculous. There is literally no authentic yoga tradition that is accessible to anyone today. A hundred years ago, Krishnamacharya had to go to Nepal to find a guru he considered authentic. Whatever he learned there, he mixed it with Western exercise and random stuff he made up, unless you think “Yoga Kurunta,” the secret manuscript the teachings supposedly came from, is an actual thing (some gurus say it was eaten by ants, and that’s why no one can check it out from the library; I say, yeah right). So people think they’re smart for turning their noses up at power yoga and listening to gurus who are literally just pulling “tradition” out of their butts. I appreciate the sincere search for truth, but seriously, you’re more likely to get to something helpful to you by taking the best aspects of modern yoga, and cobbling them together with the help of an amazing thing called your own brain power, as you are constantly begging at the feet of Indian gurus to give you something authentic, when they have nothing to give that you can’t get out of some powe yoga DVD. Think I’m exaggerating? I do realize there was at one time a hatha yoga tradition, but it’s dead, and no traces survive in a form accessible to any of us. I assume serious yogis have read the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. So if authenticity is something we can access, where are the gurus teaching those practices, which basically amount to doing some basic asanas, smearing yourself in cow dung and having tantric sex? Iyengar struck those passages out of the version he approved, while other gurus tried to claim the detailed physical sex practices were metaphorical, you weren’t really supposed to slice your tongue in two, and so on. So maybe I’m ranting now, but I’m saying this as someone who’s been to India, studied with famous teachers, and read all the classic texts: there is NOTHING at the bottom of this thing. No one is smart for hurling themselves down that bottomless hole and thinking there’s something at the bottom. Oh, and Ayurveda is mostly made-up crap, too. Sorry, gotta tell it like it is!

  19. Yes, but if you do your homework you will know that some of yoga came from Danish Gymnastics and Contortionists not to mention the British army training manual. As far as Social media goes. well, I guess we all have to do yoga in bikinis now and that DOES NOT WORK for me. Thanks for posting.

  20. Thank you so much for the article.
    It is how i feel many times when i look all yogis in social media.
    At the end we all try to do what it seems “impossible “ for the body but with practice we discover that real life is what really matters and not how deep you could go into a pose.
    That is what we try to share to all new people who join our retreats in Malaga!

  21. “Much of the yoga being taught now, what Borg-Olivier calls “the aerobics of the 2000s,” is having a negative impact on the musculoskeletal system” Is he preaching that from the height of his featured flying peacock pose?
    ‘Cause from what I hear he is himself in agonising pain due to, possibly, too many side crows, but it doesn’t look to me like he’s stopping. Not hypocritical at all, mr B-O…
    I’ve frankly had enough of these blanket statements: “Yoga” – whatever that may mean, is changing, just like everything. Humans are changing. (To a terrible lifestyle too, I must say, that doesn’t serve our genetics at all.) What “aerobics” and what “negative impact” on the musculoskeletal, first of all? I know one thing that has a “negative impact” on the musculoskeletal system, also known as the locomotor system – **not locomoting it** ! Aerobic? Well, what else is yoga gonna be? Anaerobic? It’s not sprinting or weight lifting!
    During his time “teacher-student relationships were sacred“? You mean, Iyengar whacking people in the head with the stick? Both him and P Jois were teaching groups, not one-on-ones (see P Jois going to YogaWorks where Maty Ezrati and 80 students were waiting for him 30 or so years ago).
    “Melissa Ghattas […] “You have these pretty, aesthetically gorgeous girls who can do these amazing things with their bodies,” – you mean, like you, Melissa? Should we also talk about how yoga is not fancy pants that release microfibres into the ocean, like what you’re wearing, but no one wants to consider that ‘cause they’d have to give up the big fad of the moment – the activewear fashion?

    And the title! Conflating social media with contortion (a circus performance art) and gymnastics (a different movement discipline) as causes for the “bad” alterations to yoga. Has this article been proofed at all? Or is this just another buzzwordy sham meant to actually sell Simon B-O’s worshop at Lifestyle Yoga Dubai? (I’m not saying there’s not some truth to it, but the whole comes as a ridiculous, over-pretentious mumbo jumbo.) If the author – or anyone – has a problem with yoga, and they want to go holier-than-thou on its contemporary declensions and teach that, maybe they should start with the yamas and nyamas – applying them first themselves.

    1. Hey Rua! Thanks for your comments. We’ve had a tremendous amount of feedback on this article, which went viral worldwide and clearly struck a nerve – perhaps because there are so many people doing yoga and so many who are passionate about the practice and how it is changing and evolving. There’s room for all viewpoints here at Livehealthy.ae. We will be covering more yoga stories as we move forward. So do let us know what you’d like addressed. Best, Ann Marie (livehealthy.ae’s editor)

  22. Borg may be a great teacher, but there is no need to judge other teachers or teachings. He minimizes himself by doing that. You may know a big bunch of information, sutras, and all the sacred words. But when you use them to separate, it shows there is no wisdom behind them. Only the enormous need to justify your little self, your hurt self.

    You hace the priviledge of the written word. Use it to love not to hate. Evel though light and darkness are part of this world, do try to be love. That will make you happy. Hate will only bring you a lot of likes, but no smile al the end of the day.

    Work to unite not to separate. Be a lover not a hater.

  23. Hi Melanie ! Love this article! We have our website in Chinese sharing Yoga inspirations too! Would love to share some key ideas from Simon Borg-Olivier to our Chinese readers too! If you dont mind, I will send you the link once we done the sharing + backlink to this posts too !! It’s really important to spread such good thoughts!

  24. I totally agree with Simon and have been actively involved with helping people with yoga injuries and warning others about the dangers of becoming hyper-mobile doing yoga. The numbers of FAI (femoral acetabular impingements) in the hip joint and hip replacements in yogis is increasing at a high rate that coincides with the rise in the popularity of yoga.
    Over 20 years ago I created a safe system of yoga and neuromuscular re-patterning called YogAlign after getting injured trying to contort my body in an Ashtanga yoga class. Now i teach posture alignment over pose alignment. Here is a link to an article I wrote back in 2013 warning people about the liabilities of flexibility. https://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/07/when-flexibility-becomes-a-liability-michaelle-edwards/

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