Considering virtual yoga
What is gained and what is lost?
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I moved my Thursday 9:30a class back to the studio last week, after a 1.5 month pause for the Delta wave. A couple students joined me in person, and a few more on Zoom. It was lovely to be together with others again, though disorienting to jump back and forth between a 2D and 3D audience. Over the past 18 months I developed a different way of addressing a Zoom audience which got triggered by the glowing Zoom grid, even as I reactivated my older teaching reflexes for live groups. I could feel the two repertoires competing for control and it left me feeling rather flustered and sweaty. I know I'll adapt with time.
(If you're doing hybrid teaching of any kind, I'd love to hear how it's going for you and whether you've come up with any tricks for making it feel more coherent.)
After class, the students reflected that one reason they like attending class at the studio is that it's devoid of visual distractions. When you're practicing on Zoom, surrounded by the debris of your life, it's easy to get pulled into rumination. It got me thinking:
What is gained and what is traded away when yoga happens on Zoom vs. a live class?
As the pandemic slowly and unevenly wanes, many humans are facing some version of this question right now. What is the value of live presence with others? When do the benefits outweigh the costs? (For the sake of this essay, let’s consider a time (maybe now, maybe much later) when Covid is no longer a factor the decision.
Students have expressed surprise at how much they like Zoom yoga, particularly its efficiency. No commute, no parking, much easier to fit into a busy day. I can't deny the practicality of virtual gathering for me as well, yet I also feel something is being lost. I'm writing this piece to help myself think through what's at stake here.
I start by reminding myself that practicing by yourself has been the norm for most yogis over the millenia. Evidence suggests that group yoga classes - where many students take instruction at the same time from a single teacher - are largely a modern innovation, arising from a savvy synthesis of traditional Hatha yoga and European group exercise paradigms in the early 1900s.1
The classical texts of yoga, as well as biographies of the Indian teachers who founded modern yoga, describe yoga as a solo quest. What’s more, the ultimate goal of yoga is sometimes expressed as kaivalya which means "solitude", "detachment" or "isolation".2 Techniques are learned from a teacher when they determine the student is ready, then the student spends lots of time alone, practicing those techniques till they achieve the desired effect. Group instruction doesn't make a lot of sense when each student needs a different lesson.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (written in the 1400s) makes some practical suggestions:
The Yogî should practice Haṭha Yoga in a small room, situated in a solitary place, being 4 cubits square, and free from stones, fire, water, disturbances of all kinds, and in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.
Since the primary subject of yoga practice is ourselves3, then it make some sense that we would seek to practice in an environment that supports this inward focus.
But is that place our homes? Many of us don't have enough space to dedicate one room solely to yoga, so we end up practicing in the midst of our lives. Spouses, pets, untidied items, unread books all beckon our attention outwards. Emails and texts are just an app-switch away.
Yoga studios are generally minimalist affairs, devoid of material reminders of our personal human drama (as long as we remember to silence our phones and take off our smartwatches, seriously folks). Yoga studios do tend to be full of other humans, however. We are social mammals, and our nervous system is very sensitive to "who are these people and what are they doing!?"
This capacity for attunement is double-edged. If we feel safe in the group, there can be beneficial co-regulation that helps us stay calm and steady while we explore our tight and tender spots. Synchronized movement enacts a sense of belonging, a vital antidote to the alienation of these postmodern times, and perhaps leads to lasting friendship.
On the other hand, being seen by others can trigger primal concerns about fitting in and being accepted. We may worry that we're not wearing the right clothes or doing the poses correctly. On Zoom, we can just turn off our cameras and "mute" those self-conscious thoughts. Heck, we can even mute the teacher for a while and just do our own thing.
So there's pros and cons for each format. What to make of this?
The enactive view of cognition, discussed in my first newsletter, suggests that the "meaning" of an experience cannot be cleanly separated from the body and world in which that experience arises. This implies that a yoga practice done alone on Zoom is necessarily different than the same sequence executed in person with a group. It is cooked from different ingredients, so the nutritional effect changes. If we understand these effects more clearly, perhaps we can make the choice of practice environment (our "situational posture") as intentional as the way we choose our physical movements.
Commitment as an active ingredient
I notice that most of my Zoom students want to attend synchronously with my teaching, even though I can send a recording to view when convenient. Part of this may be the desire to connect with fellow students beforehand, but the awkwardness of the Zoom panopticon makes this difficult.
Instead, I suspect that commiting to be somewhere at a given time is a key ingredient for many students. Because no experience stands separate from its context, the efforts we make to do something influence our sense of its value. For example, I tend to savor a landscape I've reached after a strenuous hike much more than one I just pulled over to see.
I've signed up for countless free webinars and watched almost none of them. The minimal effort of submitting my email does not enact much value. When I do practice with a video, even on a paid subscription service4, I subconsciously know I can stop the video at any time and come back to it (or not), and often that's exactly what I do.
(The same is true for free newsletters like this one. Perhaps even now you're wondering how much longer this piece will last. Maybe better to just stop now and find a more important email to read?)
If showing up for a live Zoom class (vs. just watching a video) imbues the practice with more value, going to the trouble of moving your body through spacetime to get to a studio will surely empower the experience even further. There's also way more novel sensory input that affirms "this is something different and important," which potentially activates more neuroplasticity and gives our practice more impact.
A buffet of options for the discerning yogi
I assume that our studio will continue to offer both live and virtual classes from here on out. Ideally, I hope this allows students to vary their “yoga diet” more incrementally according to their current needs. New students need more detailed alignment instruction, which just works better in person. They may also benefit from the stronger impact of a studio class to help shift their momentum towards regular practice.
Once a student is familiar with the basics and establishes yoga as a weekly habit, the benefits of Zoom yoga may start to outweigh the limitations. Occasional in-person classes, workshops or private instruction can then provide targeted enrichment as needed. Or perhaps for some, the “active ingredients” of yoga may dwell more in the experience of community or respite from home/work/screens, rather than the details of the practice, and studio classes will remain the best option.
Well, that’s as far as my thinking has taken me. Please reply and let me know your own thoughts on virtual vs. studio practice, whether as a student or teacher. I'll share some reader responses in my next post. Thanks for reading.
Resources from my classes this week
We are considering the “mind in life” perspective of philosopher and cognitive scientist Evan Thompson, who views our current experience of mind as complete continuous with the earliest forms of life. We looked at some videos of single cells exhibiting behavior that looks very much like intention, desire and aversion. Take a look at this video of a human immune cell and a bacteria. Isn’t it most economical to say the neutrophil “wants” to catch the bacteria, which just a strongly strives to escape? The division of the world into “good”, “bad” and irrelevant begins with single-celled life.
During the asana practice, we explored how all our experiences carry a felt tone (valence is the fancy word) of positive, negative or neutral. How we can skillfully work with our mind’s fundamental reactivity is a recurrent theme in yoga, and one we’ll explore for the next weeks in my classes.
Mondays 10-11:30a on Zoom - lecture and practice
Thursdays 9:30-110:45a in studio/Zoom - mostly practice
Saturdays 12-1:30p in studio/Zoom - lecture and practice
As a reminder, if you can’t make my live class times on Zoom, you can always register and request a link.
Earth Study Class Collection
I have selected the 11 best classes I taught this summer, all devoted to a detailed study of the marvelous human body. This collection covers all the major anatomical features of the body that are relevant to yoga. These classes will teach you all kinds of stuff you never knew about your body, both intellectually and experientially. It’s equivalent to what you might learn at a yoga teacher training, but designed for students rather than teachers.
I would like to gauge interest to see if anyone is interested in purchasing access to this collection for $88. (By the way, Sustaining Members of Grateful Yoga have access to all these classes included as part of their membership).
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested and we can arrange payment.
Whether prioritizing personal transformation is healthy or ethical in this age of hyper-individuality fueled by consumer capitalism is a subject for another essay...
Yoga International is my favorite.