Yoga’s Evolution in the Era of Covid-19
It’s been 6 plus months since Covid-19 visited our shores and decided to stay, upending life as we know it in the United States. As a nation, in response we dutifully hunkered down by donning masks and limiting activities outside of our homes in order to contain the spread. However, as the cracks in the economy began to appear, the internet became more of a lifeline with Zoom and other applications being the connector; a way to continue our relationships with our families, friends and the companies we do business with.
While Zoom, social media, video, text messaging and online ordering has been a lifeline for businesses in some areas of our economy, in other areas, it’s a Band Aid that can have a very short shelf life. Nowhere is this more evident than in the yoga community.
The history of yoga begins in India and dates back centuries, its spiritual and physical traditions rooted in human to human interaction and oral teachings. When yoga spread to the West, those traditions continued through to the present day. In the wake of the pandemic, however, they are now under siege and is affecting this community in a variety of ways.
The Owner’s Perspective
For Maryam Ovissi, owner of Beloved Yoga in Reston, VA, the initial response was to comply with the guidance issued by public officials. Citing safety concerns, she announced her decision to close the studio to students indefinitely and implemented a schedule of live online and pre-recorded classes using Zoom. While it has been warmly received by her community, a couple of months without human to human connection proved to be too much. Maryam decided to explore reopening the studio, and after receiving guidance on how to operate safely, she recently started in-studio classes with measures in place to insure everyone’s safety. The class sizes are limited, allowing for 15 feet of space around each participant, more than the 10 feet suggested. In addition, she redirected the foot traffic in and out of the studio to eliminate the chance of students congregating and posted advisories in front of the studio and on the floors.
“There was a studio owner nearby who recently closed her doors and went completely online,” Maryam said during our conversation. “That owner told me that she made more money with online classes than she did in her studio. Plus, she didn’t have to worry about paying rent and utilities on the space. I just couldn’t do that. As studio owners, we are looking at the “cost” of keeping our spaces open when we have limited the potential of revenue, for public safety. Nothing about this feels sustainable. My staff and I are riding this wave so that we can be back in person. The human connection is too important to me, and essential for a healthy progressive society.”
The Teacher’s Perspective
Newly minted yoga teachers are also experiencing the pandemic in ways they never imagined when they started on their journeys. In a private WhatsApp chat, recent graduates of Beloved’s 200 Hour Teacher Training Program were discussing the challenges of teaching yoga online. Caitlin Vives, who said she was struggling, reached out to see if anyone else felt the same way. “I’m grateful to be able to teach, of course, but I just don’t feel I can offer the same depth, quality, safety, accessibility, and empowerment in an online class as I can in person,” she wrote. The consensus in the discussion that ensued was total agreement. Kate Finkelstein offered, “Online is no substitute. But since there’s no alternative, we adjust so we can find a way to sustain ourselves in this moment.” Kelly Little is more optimistic. “When you’re Zooming, the magic isn’t lost, it’s just not as loud,” she said.
Chris Lettiere, a member of that cohort and IT professional, runs six large data centers in the Northern Virginia region. Being both IT and Yogi, Chris has a unique perspective and sees it from all sides. “Technology tools can be incredible resources for connection — social media, messaging, video chats, etc. These tools have supported us through our coronavirus pivot, allowing us to connect in new and unexplored ways. I see them as that and only that — a pivot,” he said.
“Speaking my truth, there is no substitute for physical presence. FaceTiming my parents daily who live in New Jersey when I cannot travel there is a great means of remaining connected in between visits. I find it much more enjoyable when I am with them, my fiancé, my sister, my nephew in person. The same goes for guiding yoga practices. Zoom has been an incredible tool in a pinch, perhaps even extending my voice in carrying the yoga teaching to people I may not normally have access to. For me, I resonate more powerfully in-studio. The practitioners can feel the resonance of my harmonium. We can remove our masks and make eye contact, acknowledging each other in the beginning of class. I can feel the vibration of their “Om.” I can see your placement and adjust my cues. I can read the room and shift my class in subtle ways that make the class accessible to all — something that isn’t available on Zoom.”
The Student’s Perspective
As an IT professional, I too see this issue from varying perspectives. Before the pandemic, I practiced solely in the studio because of the human connection. Carrying on the traditions started centuries ago became really important to me. In addition, the group energy in studio classes carried me through some of the darkest times of my life, the memories of which sustains me to this day. A bedroom in my home that serves as my personal studio was barely used before the pandemic struck. Now when I take an online class, the first thing I notice is that feeling that something is missing, but at least my yoga studio is getting a little love.
While I was working on this article, an email from the library I frequent arrived in my inbox. It was an announcement that they are now offering free yoga classes online. As I read it, I was astonished by the depth and breadth of their offerings, and a little saddened because before the pandemic they offered free live yoga classes in all of their branches. The free live classes have now become another casualty of Covid-19.