By Chelsea Hohn | Photos by Joni Strickfaden
A young, mermaid-esque woman walks into a coffee shop in Ferndale, Michigan. Her blonde dreadlocks intertwine with beads laden throughout, floating around her head like a messy halo. Accessories adorn every limb. Jewelry hangs from her nose in several places, bracelets accentuate her wrists, and elaborate tattoos peek out from her clothes.
To many, Sitara Bird’s uncommon beauty might catch their attention, but to her 34,000 followers on Instagram she’s instantly recognizable. Her frequent posts illustrate a life well lived. Her color-saturated photos, videos of yoga sequences, and still-life photos of healthy and beautifully arranged food provide vignettes of her life to the thousands of people who interact with her on a daily basis. Their essence captures her presence, calm yet powerful.
Her Instagram is a source of inspiration to her followers, who interact with her through the main form of communication on Instagram: comments. Thousands take a moment to write sentiments expressing their appreciation and encouragement.
Similar to her appearance, her Instagram account feels like an extension of herself. She presents something alluring yet seemingly effortless, and has the innate ability to bring out the best in others.
Now 26 years old, Sitara Bird started practicing yoga when she was 19, in Clinton Township, and took her yoga teacher training in 2010. She now teaches yoga in the Detroit Metro Area, especially at the Citizen Yoga studios in Detroit and Royal Oak. When I asked her how yoga found her, she replied, “Everyone always says you find yoga when you're supposed to find yoga, and it found me right when I needed to find it.” I couldn’t help but think her Instagram feed was helping others in search of finding their yoga connection.
Sitara Bird first took a liking to Instagram because she found it was easier to control what she sees on her feed. It occurred to her that this medium was ideal for sharing her story and inspiring others. It was also a match for her interests in yoga and photography. Now she posts about once a day; she has no quota but posts often enough to keep a regular following.
The rise of social media has coincided with a growing subculture of people who go online to have inspiration translate into life away from a screen. Sitara Bird’s elegant tributes to yoga and healthy eating have put her at the forefront of the followers who champion this lifestyle.
It seems her 34,000 followers is evidence she’s doing something right. The conversation she’s generating is at the nexus of yoga teachers, practitioners, clothing brands, and festivals that are integral to the modern yoga community. Yoga brands have begun to work in step with social media stars by creating contests within Instagram. Yoga festivals draw attendees by having similarly well-known names and Instagram personalities teaching at them. And for teachers like Sitara, it’s meant connecting with new students all over the world.
Many of modern yoga’s media stars are women in their 20s and 30s, with a range of yoga experience, but, at its heart, the movement seems to share similar intentions. It’s a positive community, one that for the most part includes members who share encouraging comments and act as catalysts for trying a new yoga pose or getting centered. Hashtags have also made it easy for people to connect around similar ideas, helping to spread inspiration by illustrating variations on a theme.
But to some, taking yoga to social media can seem like a step backward. Taking part in social media often comes from a very ego-ridden place; with users judging themselves and others through the process of likes and views. It’s easy to be deceived by appearances and distracted from real life.
With this in mind, I asked how Sitara Bird could use social media as a tool to spread or gain positivity without getting caught up in praise or rejection. She explained that it’s a challenge, and a building of awareness. “I kind of view my Instagram account as a journal,” she said. “People ask me, ‘How can you post yoga photos and it not come from an egotistical place?’ I know my intention is to share my story, and from the feedback I receive I know that it’s working.”
Using social media as a journal and a place for self expression keeps the intention real for her. Though it is also important to her to remember that social media is not real life.
Putting value on something that isn’t real, such as likes and followers, is a dangerous path that many users of social media go down. Commenting on this, Sitara Bird asked, “If the Internet broke tomorrow, then what would you do, where would you find your happiness?”
But not everyone has the detachment down. Many people use social media as a way to put value on themselves and get sucked into questioning their self-worth. With the positivity emanating from Sitara Bird’s community of followers, their connection is an antidote to this. Sitara Bird keeps the balance by keeping real face time.
“That’s more important and more fruitful and more filling for your soul than posting a picture, and the problem with social media is it creates this broader, more expansive bridge — you don’t see people talking anymore,” she said. “I think keeping real face time is important, and keeping yourself in check.”
Keeping yourself in check can mean questions of authenticity. For Sitara Bird, she tries to keep her page as authentic as possible. Social media is a place that can be easily crafted to convey a certain image, one that often leaves out emotions and experiences like pain, suffering, and loss. She finds there’s often a gap between what people experience everyday and what they choose to share. But she likes to write about her personal experiences, and says that when she is open and expresses her thoughts she gets the most gratitude from followers. It’s what inspires her to keep sharing.
Instagram as a format for connection has a great potential to change lives, if users can also remember to get the face time that is necessary. In the yoga realm on Instagram, this means getting on the mat, and for millions, the formal yoga challenges to do a certain pose or achieve a daily goal, and sharing your progress, have become wildly popular. Joining together to practice can be a wonderful reminder of why yoga appealed to them in the first place as well as a way for people to start a habit they would like to keep.
It’s also a place for businesses and opportunists like Sitara Bird to make connections and further themselves. She uses Instagram in part as a business endeavor and in part as a way to show potential students what her yoga practice is like. Even if it’s been inadvertent, Sitara Bird’s social media presence has become a brand, enabling her to become a participant at festivals, a teacher at large events, and a yoga retreat leader with Citizen Yoga.
The balance between using Instagram as part of her journey as a yogi and using it for business is another challenge she has to manage. Fusing a practice that is focused around letting go of the ego into a medium that celebrates the self is tricky enough. I asked her, “Does adding a layer that is growing a personal brand dilute the original purpose of spreading the gift of yoga?”
“Not necessarily,” she said. Her approach to social media is genuine, and she uses it as a way to spread the gifts she receives from yoga. But it is also how she builds her brand and works as an entrepreneur. She acknowledges how others might see the conflict in that. She also encourages people to evaluate social media’s potential for reinforcing best practices, as the community voices their alarm when authenticity is lacking. Negative feedback can motivate people to change course for the better.
For her next endeavor, Sitara Bird is making videos, available online, so anyone around the world can practice with her. Her vision is to use her success on Instagram to bring people to her website.
It’s a strategy that works. With a captive audience, an account featuring beautiful photos like Sitara Bird’s can grab attention and attract new customers to studios, brands, and events and improve opinions. Like with any other aesthetic-based medium though, the quality and appearance of the photos matter. Attention to detail and an eye for design can go far, as it has for people like her, so if you’re a business owner considering this strategy, get a design-oriented person to lead the job.
So many people take to social media as a means to change their life, looking for a source of inspiration that will catapult them into new habits, but Sitara Bird encourages people to notice the conversation we have with ourselves.
“Notice the conversation you have with yourself in your own head, that’s where it starts,” she said. “You want change — it starts there first, it’s not outside of you, it’s not looking at something through a phone — it starts inside of you.”