There was a time when a bee hovering in the garden caused panic (and often a tragic end for the bee). Now, they get the red carpet treatment. We plan our gardens to their taste and practically jump for joy when we see one, willing the little creature to stay and hoping they’ll bring all their friends to live here too.
If the last 15 months have told us anything, it’s how we humans can change our minds and our behaviour far more easily than we might have imagined. And we deserve full credit for how we’ve stepped up to the plate. Because this time around, there was no kindly figure in the shape of a lovable David Attenborough to help us with the stuff we’ve had to radically rethink. Instead, we had scary scientists in white coats, medics in hazmat suits, politicians trying to put a spin on some very grim things and gloomy civil servants delivering messages of doom.
If you have a regular yoga practice, you’ll have had a head start when it comes to coping with all of this change and uncertainty. Yoga teaches us that instead of throwing our toys out of the pram and demanding that things be different, accepting how they are can lead to a happier, more peaceful life. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras* tells us that resisting or denying reality causes suffering. Lifting the veil of avidya through practice helps us act from a place of clarity and understand that change is part of life.
Just how much we’ve changed was brought home to me recently when I started to notice a question I’d been asked all year had been turned on its head. When we were in total lockdown, I’d be asked now and again when I would be starting to teach in person again. It’s not like I had the magic answer any more than the next person, but it was an understandable quest for certainty at a time of sky-rocketing anxiety levels. I think people wanted to be able to say to themselves, “Ok, my yoga class is gone for now, but it will be back in 3 months. I can be certain about something in my life.” (God knows I wanted that certainty myself.)
As we approach the time (we hope) when we can teach in person again, it’s fascinating to see how the question has changed. Instead of “When will you be teaching in person again?” I’m now asked: “When you go back to teaching in person, will you continue to teach online?”.
That’s not a request I saw coming, even up to a couple of months ago. When classes first went online last year, some embraced the idea with a kind of “better than nothing” mindset, and others couldn’t entertain the idea of practising in front of a screen. But I think most viewed online classes as an emergency measure to be abandoned as soon as life went back to normal (hah!).
Now, it’s pretty clear that some have adapted so well to the new way of doing things that they don’t want to go back to how things were, at least not all of the time. It’s not so bad, after all, being able to stumble out of bed, roll out the mat, pay less for your class, avoid the commute and parking fees, and even catch up with a recording if you miss the live stream.
The state we find ourselves in has led to more unexpected bonuses. We’ve suddenly become a nation of outdoor diners, happy to wrap up warm and sit outside if it means we get to meet up with friends over a meal that we didn’t have to cook ourselves. If other countries are anything to go by, this is another feature of life that might stay with us beyond the pandemic. Working from home, at least some of the time, looks set to stay too. (Though let’s hope that there’s no gender divide here when it comes to working parents. It will only be progress if as many fathers as mothers get to choose the remote-working option).
Like many teachers, I’ve reconnected with former students who have moved away and met new ones who live far from my location. Some have developed the confidence to practise at home, alone, where they might have resisted before. Even if it’s in front of a screen, having to roll out the mat at home can take the fear out of self-practice (which is where the real benefits of yoga lie).
Yoga is a never-ending study for aficionados. This last year, I’ve been able to study with teachers I’d generally have to travel to see, all now available to me at the click of a “join meeting”. Before, I’d have to take time away from home, cancel my classes here and pay for flights and accommodation elsewhere. Getting to practise with overseas teachers could be an expensive, complicated business. Don’t get me wrong; I look forward to real-life retreats and trainings as much as the next yoga lover. But I know I’ll also continue, at least in part, with the online study habit now that I’ve started.
It’s early days, and it’s clear that the yoga landscape is in the midst of significant change and flux, started before the pandemic and accelerated by its arrival. Yoga’s inexorable rise in popularity has sometimes led to a conveyer belt approach at studios, with underpaid, often inexperienced teachers and widespread confusion about what the practice is actually about. Now, many studios have closed, and more will likely follow. Studios that survive will have class sizes reduced for social distancing and, most likely, fewer in-person classes on the timetable. Students will have to adapt, too, bringing their own mats and props to class and probably paying more per in-person class. Proof of vaccination or antigen testing may be required. Adjustments (or “assists”) might be off the table, at least temporarily. While many yoga styles involve no adjustment and thrive, adjustment is an integral part of the Mysore-style Ashtanga experience. But hands-on adjustments were something of a controversial topic in the last few years. The Ashtanga community was still reeling from the Pattabhi Jois revelations when the pandemic shut down classes everywhere. Whether to adjust, how to adjust, how to be sure of consent to adjustment were all up for discussion. Some studios were using consent cards. Others were carrying on regardless, arguing that if someone attended a Mysore-style class, then they’d be expecting adjustment as part of the package. Now, there’s the added “getting up close and personal in the midst of a pandemic” factor to be reckoned with.
Still, the controversy has brought about some much-needed discussion and change. It opened up a healthy debate about the dangers of an over-zealous approach to adjustment and/or a pushy approach to the asana practice. Some Ashtanga teachers, like Adam Keen of the Keen on Yoga* podcast, have abandoned adjusting altogether and prefer to teach through verbal cues only. But I’m with Gregor Maehle, renowned Ashtanga teacher and author, who speaks beautifully** about the value of teaching through touch and is anxious that “adjustment is not a lost art within the Mysore setting”. I know what beautiful, mindful adjustments from some exceptional teachers have done for my practice over the years. I will continue to practise in Mysore spaces where I know I’ll enjoy thoughtful and skilled adjustment. In my Mysore-style classes, I’ll offer adjustment as always while respecting those who’d prefer to pass. And, of course, anything we plan to do depends on what kind of regulations will be in place.
This sudden shock to the system brought about by the pandemic could turn out to be just what yoga needed. There’s talk of yoga “going back to the church halls”. And that may be no bad thing. Smaller classes, whether in church halls, smaller studios or outdoor spaces, could lead to a better experience for everyone. The student/teacher relationship, often lost in a setting where you could show up for class not quite sure who might teach you, may start to be valued again.
Teachers everywhere are adapting and trying to decide what to do next. One thing is sure, though, yoga will survive, as it has for millennia. Good teachers will want to keep teaching because, for them, it’s a labour of love. Where and how they’ll teach is more debatable. A hybrid of online and in-person classes seems to be how things will go for the foreseeable future. And I think (and hope) that mindful adjustment will still be a part of the Mysore-style space.
But you know, don’t hold me to any of it. Because if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that I, like the rest of the universe, can change the way I think about things.
*The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by Edwin F. Bryant
**The Keen on Yoga Podcast
***Gregor Maehle interview with Peg Mulqueen on Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast, episode 42