Monkfluencers: how #monklife became a social media sensation

Watered-down versions of "prayer", "meditation", and "inner peace" are turning monastic influencers into some of social media's biggest stars. 

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“Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks”, “learn to love yourself”, and “my failures do not define me” are just some of Shayamal’s most recent Instagram captions. Shayamal, who describes himself as a psychologist, bio-hacker and influencer, has more than 76,000 followers on the platform. His profile appears at first glance to be typical of the wellness accounts found everywhere on Instagram, packed with motivational quotes, videos of Shayamal speaking to camera, and yoga and “healing” pictures.

But there’s one thing that makes Shayamal's account special. Shayamal belongs to a small but growing sect of influencers who use watered-down religious rites as a hook for their self-help brands. Shayamal is a monk.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Shayamal (@shayamal) on

Monk-themed influencers, or monkfluencers, are a subset of social media star that’s growing in size and popularity. They combine trends that are already hugely popular, including wellbeing, an obsession with productivity, meditation, mindfulness, and the Western interest in “Eastern” healing practices (see: yoga, turmeric lattes) into a single enviable lifestyle.

Searches for posts with the hashtags #monklife and #monklifestyle on Instagram yield over 20,000 results in all. The hashtag #monk has been used nearly 800,000 times. And while accounts such as Shayamal’s may not be at the level of social media’s most popular personalities, others have accrued hundreds of thousands of followers. A few have made it into the millions.

Of these, the most prominent monkfluencer is Jay Shetty, a former monk whose stated aim is to “make wisdom go viral”. Shetty’s Facebook page is one of the most popular on the platform, racking up over 24 million followers. His videos have been watched more than a billion times. His other channels, YouTube and Instagram, have an impressive 2.5 million and 3.9 million followers respectively, and in 2018, he had the single most-watched Facebook video of the entire year with over 363 million views.

Shetty’s social media accounts give little clue as to what influence his monastic past might have had on his current brand. He’s stylish, handsome, and his content is glossy; like Shamayal, his various social media accounts look more similar to those of a motivational lifestyle blogger than a spiritual preacher. His Instagram is littered with photographs at glamorous events, selfies with actresses and celebrities, and pictures with big-name tech people, such as investor Gary Vaynerchuk and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. While Shetty has based his fame on his monastic background, his content has little to do with being a monk at all. Monastic principles are co-opted, where suitable, and watered down for an audience of billions.

Steven Lawson is another monkfluencer whose links to monkhood feel even more tenuous. A white American man who has never himself been a monk (nor does he claim even to have spent time with monks), Lawson is the founder of the Monk Manual, a bullet-journal-style guided planner that claims to help people structure their days so they can focus in on life’s most important aspects. The Monk Manual is built to be filled out with specific elements, such as “I felt best when” and “I felt unrest when”, every day for 90 days. It asks users to spend time writing down personal goals, professional goals, and what “insights” they gained into their habits.

“For over 2,000 years, men and women have set out for the hills, fields and mountains to become Monks - searching for happiness, freedom, peace, joy, balance, fulfilment, confidence, stability, passion and God,” the Monk Manual website reads. “Who says the rest of us can’t experience the same things? Drawing from the wisdom of monastic life, modern psychology and best practices in personal productivity, the Monk Manual provides a daily system that will help you find clarity, purpose, wisdom, and peace in the moments that make up your life.”

Monk Manual - Kickstarter Introduction from Monk Manual on Vimeo.

While Shetty's brand is self-help in a robe, Lawson’s monkfluencing leans in to the productivity trend. “Productivity isn’t about a race to the bottom of a never-ending to-do list,” Lawson says in the introductory video on the Monk Manual website. “Productivity is about doing the most important things well. Monks have known this secret for thousands of years.”

The Monk Manual may seem half-baked and useless, but an anonymous source in the publishing world tells me it’s “quietly selling a bunch of copies”. The Monk Manual’s popularity is apparently only just beginning.

Monkfluencing isn’t confined to big names such as Shetty and Lawson. It is widespread, down to the micro-influencer level. The YouTube channel Indian Monk, which posts very specifically monk-related messages and prayers, has 286,000 subscribers, while smaller accounts such as @TheBuffMonk (a fitness account “on a mission to build a warrior’s body and a monk’s mind”) and @VubonMoitree (a practicing Buddhist who posts pictures in monk robes and in temples) has just over a thousand followers.

Companies, too, have picked up on the trend. Ecological-themed tourist agency Hippie In Hills tags many of its Instagram posts with #monk to draw people into its spiritually-focused tours of Nepal, India, and Bhutan. The agency offers watered-down monk experiences of meditation, yoga, and “treks” across the Himalayas.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Hippie in Hills™ (@hippie_in_hills) on

Monkfluencing is still be in its early days, but it looks likely that it will continue to grow. In an interview in March with Christian mindfulness blogger Rich Lewis, Lawson said that alongside the Monk Manual, he intends to create “resources to help port over the monastic ideal of community to family life” alongside other products that will expose still more people to his monkesque teachings. Social media accounts linked to monkhood, however tenuously, continue to get pickup and are even beginning to get coverage on mainstream news channels and websites all over the world.

While the often lazy way in which monastic principles are co-opted by these accounts may feel obvious to many of us, these influencers are getting big numbers. For those already in the habit, the monkfluencer trend is becoming more than a matter of faith.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.