Why I am a convert to online yoga…..
Back in March it became apparent that the way the practice of yoga was to be experienced would need to change for some people. Yoga has been practised for around 5000 years. Therefore it is likely that the practice itself and the way it has been taught have changed many times in its history. The way some of us had become used to experiencing the practice of yoga was in group settings being led through an asana sequence with philosophical teachings as an adjunct. The classes would often take place in a designated space, increasingly a ‘yoga studio’. In the days when I started practicing yoga, yoga studios were few and far between. During the 20 years of my practice they had become common. Now it looks like that might change.
When Europe was about to lock down for the first time I was due to go to Amsterdam to take a weekend workshop with one of my teachers. I was determined I would go. The workshop was cancelled. Europe closed its borders and I stayed in Switzerland.
When I first started practicing yoga, in 2001, I would go to class once a week. From the very first class I knew I wanted to learn more, so I greedily read as many books as I could, explored the philosophy, the physical practices and the esoteric elements like mantra and mythology. During this study I learned that yoga was an internal as well as an external practice and that the work on the inside could only be done by me. It was not a necessity to attend a group class to do the introspection and reflection that were required to internalise the practice. A teacher was useful and regular contact with that teacher was very useful but the collective experience of practising in a group was not essential, personal practice was essential though. Everything I read said the key to yoga was practice.
I began to develop a personal practice of asana, chanting and meditation. My first asana sequence was the kneeling sun salutation my initial yoga teacher taught (she described it as being taught by Krishnamachrya for women so they could practice in their saris), my second was the sun salutation from the Sivananda school which I taught myself out of the wonderful book Yoga Mind and Body (for those of you from the UK of a similar age to me it’s the one with the blue leotard). Perhaps I was lucky that I discovered yoga just before its explosion of popularity, so for me I learned to be self-reliant, independent in my studies.
The tradition of yoga is that the teachings were offered from an experienced practitioner to a student, not learned from a book, because the effect of being near an experienced practitioner can be powerful. Therefore I continued to study with a selection of teachers as well. The only way to access these teachers was through group classes. I was often the student who would wait at the end of class with questions. This experience of being able to ask questions of an experienced practitioner is essential in the learning of yoga, precisely because it is an internal and external practice. The practice is a journey, the books, the ancient teachings are the compass, the teacher is the map. You know where you want to go, you know which direction to move in but often times it is useful to have the overview offered by someone who knows the landscape.
My explorations in yoga were wonderful; I tried lots of different styles of asana practice and visited lots of different well respected teachers, attending many workshops and trainings. My personal studies continued as I observed many of the teachers who I was exposed to focused on asana and I was curious about the philosophy at a deeper level, not at an academic level but as a lived experience. All of the trainings I attended were in person and often involved long journeys to be present with the teacher.
I am a firm believer in the presence of a teacher, the physical energy that you feel from them radiates to you. You can feel their experience and the veracity of the teachings. I yearn to sit at the feet of my teachers again.
But I can’t. My teachers are in India and America and the United Kingdom. I am in Switzerland. In previous years physical distance was alleviated by regular trips to Mysore to connect with my philosophy and Sanskrit teacher, and my American teachers would often make tours of Europe so I could be with them then. However this year is different. This year there will be no travel. Enter the internet.
My Sanskrit teacher has been teaching online classes for years, she’s in her 60s and is used to having international students, she was the first teacher to encourage me online to meet with her. Philosophy and Sanskrit online I could understand but asana? I believed that asana could only be taught safely in person. I had personally practised asana using CDs (and in the old days even cassettes), recordings of classes and yoga DVDs. However I was very unsure about online yoga as a teaching tool. As a yoga teacher I feel a large responsibility for the safety of my students. I am concerned that their alignment is not injurious. I was not convinced that teaching online could provide me the same security, that I could observe and adjust as required.
One of the things that practising with my teachers through online interactive platforms has taught me is that it is possible to give alignment guidance and to correct errors with verbal cues to individuals. The greatest thing it has taught me though is that it is also possible to feel connected to and seen by people thousands of miles away.
As we move into the winter months and we face uncertainty about how the year will end and the next begin I urge us all to continue with our practice of yoga. To have the luxury of accessing my teachers online feels incredible. To connect with the wisdom and experience of Eddie Stern twice or three times a week instead of twice or three times year is a gift. To have an hour every week with Dr M A Jayashree, and to get to study exactly what I need to with her is an honour.
During the first lockdown Jivamukti Yoga Bern shifted its classes on to Facebook live. I am very proud for that time. We offered all of our classes free of charge and we maintained a regular presence in the online space. Personally it was difficult to ‘teach’ to my mobile phone without being able to see or communicate with the students directly about their practice. Now we are making hard choices again about what is the best way to continue to serve our community.
My experience as a practitioner using online resources persuaded me this was a viable option to maintain community and to continue to offer classes. No, it is not the same as a class in person. The personal classes are now very different to how they were nine months ago too. A lot of things are different. Yoga isn’t.
The practice of yoga continues to be and I hope will always be a journey into the unknown knowns, the journey into our Selves away from ourselves. I can offer my assistance to you in this journey much better when I can see your face, even if it is through a screen across the mystery of cyberspace. I can answer your questions and see your body move through its asana practice. I really hope you take the plunge into the ocean of the unknown and practise with us online. The experience will be different from how it was. The only constant is change as Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher tells us, how we adapt to that change and how we respond to any situation is up to us. In the Bhagavad Gita we are reminded of the constant turning upside down of the world “jagad viparivartate” (chapter 9 10th shloka) and as one of my teacher’s teachers Sri Brahmananada Sarasvati used to say
“You don’t need to practise every day. But when you need your practice, you hope you have been practising everyday.”
Hari Om Tat Sat.