ZOOM-ing along: teaching in the time of corona.

Most of the participants appear before the individual talks. From the Friends of Ashtanga Instagram Page.

As covid19 cases rise here in Cairo and elsewhere, we are reminded of the fragility of life. While we aren’t experiencing any closures here in Egypt (and, hopefully, will continue to be open!), I thought this would be a good time to share my presentation for the Friends Of Ashtanga online conference that happened back in September about what I learned from teaching online.

For the teachers, students, and programs who have had to go back online or have stayed online this entire time, hats off to you. I know many students have decided to go at it alone or have parked their practice in the meantime. I just want to say that there are so may benefits to live instruction, even if its happening through a screen. AND If you can continue to come to class, no matter what format, do so, because your presence right now can really help keep a program alive.

When we paused live sessions here in Cairo mid-March, and moved classes online, I would never have imagined that I’d still be teaching on ZOOM in September. Six months—a crazy amount of time for life to be stalled so.  The pandemic may have thrown us off our course, but it unified us also. Being globally connected has never been more apparent as we watched the news report of the spread of this novel coronavirus, first in China, and then in Europe, and then: the world. Over these months, we have connected over our worry, our suffering, our hopes, also. And we have connected by overcoming the obstacles that threaten to disconnect us.

When the WHO declared that covid19 was a pandemic, many mysore programs around the world, including my own, announced that they were migrating sessions online. In a matter of days, my Instagram feed was full of Zoom screenshots of students practicing, each in their individual 2-dimensional boxes—it was bizarre and unsettling how we all jumped online so quickly.

It seemed counter-culture, yoga online. We all love the potency of a room in flow, the steam rising off of moving bodies, that meditative hum of the collective breath. What is ashtanga if not a live, tactile, sensory experience, with students thriving from hands-on assistance?

Yoga, the Great Unifier

Now, in hindsight, I look at the movement online as a great example of yoga, we bent and adapted, we regained our balance and steadiness, we took a deep breath and just got on with it, one day at a time with as little drama as possible.

We went online because we needed the practice and we needed each other. Those early days of the pandemic were both surreal and extraordinary. I Facetime-d with my parents and sisters in the US and in Asia with uncharacteristic regularity. I took led class on Zoom with Sharathji in India through Miami Life Center. I chanted to Ganesha with Eddie Stern on Instagram Stories. I took part in a small online festival celebrating Yoga in Africa. And then, there’s today, Friends of Ashtanga—each of these are beautiful stories of connection. 

The mainstay over these six months, however, was—and, is—mornings with my students. Our small community gathered to breathe through uncertainty and change, we stuck together to maintain some sort of normal. As a new mom, these mornings were a healthy anchor for life at home with a newborn.

Virtual Mysore

We discovered together that the mysore format translates surprisingly well online. As individual practitioners, we are used to independently exploring asana, which we already know by heart. Our understanding of drishti and concentration, helps us move our attention inwards, thus keeping us from getting distracted, whether it’s from the glitches from the device or the disembodied voice dispensing instructions to a virtual class room.

Benefitting Students

Being online, allowed students to safely move their practices into their personal spaces, into their actual lives while continuing to feel supported by a teacher. Prior to covid19, only a few students in Cairo could manage a home practice. The tendency was that if they didn’t make it to class, they didn’t manage to practice. These online offerings, I believe, are home practices with training wheels, easing students into comfortably practicing on their own.

It’s also been a great opportunity to practice with softness, kindness, and mindfulness. There has been little rushing, little of that frenetic energy that comes with the desire to catch up with everyone else. Somehow, we all understand, no one is going anywhere, we are just here to practice.

Teacher Online

I believe more than ever in the potency of this practice, that the experience is transcendent. Teaching online really works. Take away the expectation that practicing with a teacher comes with a good press, twist or tug, what we have online is actually closer to how practicing with Sharathji in India is really like, where adjustments are sparse, but the presence of a teacher is plenty.

Even without the assists, students have moved along beautifully. I have witnessed students become stronger during this time, more flexible, more light. Which makes sense because progress is always a side effect of consistent practice

It’s been liberating doing away with the expectation that it’s my “job” to take students physically deeper. We all know that digging deep is the responsibility of each practitioner. Studying online reinforces that our practice is a personal journey, and that there is a healthy amount of space between teacher and student.

The conversation is also different online. Take away that reliance on the language of touch, words have weight and people listen more. And while I’m not suggesting that verbal assists should replace physical adjustments, I think these days have demonstrated that we can communicate the practice in plain and clear ways. (And while there is a beauty of the to allowing the experience unfold through the body, touch and adjustments can be imprecise and inappropriate, relying a lot on inference.)   

Mostly, I found as a teacher that my big contribution is simply being there, opening the space, keeping it going, observing, calling out what I see, which is easier when everyone’s practice is tidily laid out in front of you. Being seen has been so important.

In Conclusion

In a way, none of these experiences that I am sharing are out of the ordinary, yoga has always been a great unifier, ashtanga communities have always provided practitioners an outlet to work through their tensions and anxieties, the ashtanga practice has always been a place to find softness and support, and the teaching has always been more energetic than physical. However, personally, prior to coronavirus, it was hard to see these things.

I still miss–and look forward to–in-person teaching in that breathing heaving room–among many, many, MANY other things. But I don’t necessarily want things to go back to EXACTLY how they were. I believe that these times have taught us to think outside the box (yes, inside the box too!), they have challenged us to be flexible and innovative while reminding us that essence of practice exists in whatever space it is allowed to flourish.

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