It worked. I never once thought it wouldn’t, but I was surprised how seamless the transition was.
But maybe this is me hedging on hindsight.
There was the initial “oh, shit” moment. But there was never a question in my mind on what needed to be done.
So I set off to make it happen. I fiddled with Acuity, set up my classes in Zoom, then realized Acuity had a Zoom integration at which point I needed to delete all the work I had just done and set it up all over again. It was like a 21st century mind test a la Mr Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” training exercise. Don’t forget to breathe.
I wrote copy, embedded an online scheduler on my website, figured out how to accept donations through an online payment processor, and started posting on social media to let my students know that class was still on despite stay-at-home orders and the uncertainty of a global pandemic. I chose to do all of this before the studios I worked at communicated what was going on. I took things into my own hands and continued to teach even though I wasn’t getting paid. It just felt like the right thing to do.
For me, more than anything, I needed to stick with my daily schedule. The familiar routine kept me sane. I showed up and held space like I do every week at 9:30 am on Monday mornings, 6:00 pm on Tuesday evenings, and 7:15 pm on Thursday evenings, and I did it for me just as much as for my students. For an hour, I pretended that nothing was wrong and disappeared into the magical presence that teaching a yoga class creates, even though I sat in front of a computer screen and not in the front of a room full of human beings breathing on their mats.
That was how I managed at first. I never paused. I just kept going.
The first transition—from instructor to teacher
The first couple of weeks were exhausting. It turns out, even though you can teach yoga classes online, the actual teaching part takes a lot more out of you when you’re teaching to a small green dot on your computer screen.
After about two weeks, I stopped doing the practice with my students and sat in a chair in front of the screen instead. It was too hard on my body and I don’t practice with students in the physical classroom anyway. Doing the practice while teaching felt like a cop-out for me. I was scared to teach my students through a computer screen because I didn’t want to deal with the inherent challenges. I didn’t want to have to tell people how to set up their computers, tablets, and phones so that I could best see their whole body and better guide them through the practice. And I didn’t know what I would say to them if I couldn’t truly see them. How do you know if someone is breathing fully into a pose when you can only see half their body in a 6X6 inch square on a computer screen? How do you cue to a person’s in-the-moment experience when you can’t see the nuances of their facial expressions and body movements as they transition from one pose to the next? I felt like a brand new teacher all over again.
When I faced my fears, pulled out the chair, and taught the little I could see, I was better able to hold and contain the space and teach a class for the benefit of my students rather than for my own ego.
Turns out, teaching my students worked out way better for everyone.
Coming together in one space again
After about a month, I fell into a stride. Teaching online yoga was the new normal. And to be honest, I didn’t mind it all that much. No more commute! I didn’t really think about what felt missing until the end of Teacher Training rolled around.
When COVID happened, I was in the middle of leading a 200-hour Teacher Training. Like all my weekly classes, we transitioned online. We kept the same times, the same structure, and presented the rest of the training through Zoom. And it worked! I was surprised how seamless the transition went, but I do think it had something to do with the rapport that was built between the trainees and the teachers in-person before the pandemic started. Plus, the group was small—four trainees to three teachers. But we didn’t want the trainees to have to teach their final community class online, nor did we want to do a teacher training graduation ceremony online. We started together, seated in a semicircle, able to look into each others’ eyes in a room in January and we wanted to end together in the same way.
We ended up postponing the graduation class and ceremony until the last weekend in May, enforced strict social distancing guidelines, and set up a “studio” in a local park so that we could end the program as we began—together in the same space. So that we could look into each others’ eyes.
As we got over the initial elation of seeing real human beings that weren’t our families or closest friends in-person for the first time in months; as we joked about air hugs and fumbled over when, where, and whether or not we should wear our masks, we organically constructed the “walls” of our studio for that afternoon based on the layout of shady versus sunny spots and the positioning of trees.
I sat on my mat with my grading rubric, basking in the warmth of the sun to write feedback for each student who was about to teach. That’s when the entire past three months came crashing down on me.
Two of the five feedback categories I was about to assess felt forced: classroom management and student connection.
The students were required to sit or stand at a designated spot in between two trees and not leave that space in order to meet social distancing guidelines. They couldn’t walk around the “room.” There was no music. No lights. Just periodic trains rumbling by, helicopters zooming low, and loud music playing from across the street where the first weekend of large-scale social justice protests were happening in Columbus, Ohio following the death of George Floyd.
This was a 200-hour teacher training graduate. We never got the chance to talk about classroom management in the studio before the pandemic struck, and now they were being asked to hold space in un-contained space with myriad uncontrollable variables. In my hard-ass way, I thought it was the perfect application of yoga—a real opportunity to call upon your capacity to focus. At the same time, I recognized how hard this is for any teacher, regardless of how long you’ve been teaching. I’d been asking myself similar questions about how best to hold displaced space for months.
So how do you make a space become something it’s not functionally designed to be? How do you manage a space with infinite distractions and no walls? How do you do that when you’re in your own space and everyone else is in their own space, and you have no control over their cats and dogs and spouses and children?
And how do you connect with your students when they are spread out six feet apart and you don’t feel like shouting? How do you have one-on-one personal conversations? Online, how do you create time to connect with students who sign on 30 seconds before class starts and then click off right after Namaste? What do you say to everyone? There is no natural buffer of time when students have to pick up their mat, put away their props, collect their belongings, and say goodbye. They’re already home, already ready to move on to the next to-do.
We’ve entered a new era of teaching in which we must find new ways to foster connection and create space intentionally.
I hardly consider myself an expert on creating space or fostering connection. In fact, I feel like these were already some of my weaknesses as a teacher before the pandemic rendered my basement my new yoga studio and my internet connection my most important asset.
I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, I still make mistakes, and I will continue to make mistakes as I try my best to show up as my best Self for my students. And yet, in a strange, borderline annoying way, this is all perfect just as it is—an explicit invitation to walk the talk and model the practice as it is meant to be engaged in daily life.
Here are some strategies that have worked for me as I explore how best to manage space and create connection in these isolating times.
You can’t manage someone else’s space, but you can manage your own. Find a space to teach that you can keep clean and tidy. Make sure it’s well-lit. Make sure you have good sound. And stick to the same space for every class.
We take for granted the energetic quality of a physical space until we no longer have the luxury of basking in that energy on a daily basis. If you’ve ever walked back into a yoga studio after being away for a while, you know that feeling you get the moment the incense tickles your nose, the music hits your ears, the sight of familiar faces lights up your eyes.
When we can’t provide the consistency of a physical space for our students in person, we can at the very least provide a virtual consistency. When your student logs in to class week-in and week-out and they see you in the same space, it will help orient themselves to the task at hand. This is the teacher, this is the practice space, I’m here to practice.
Keep it simple. Keep it clean. Keep it light. Let the actual space represent the energy you wish to cultivate. You’ll find that your students will seek to create similar spaces over time on their own accord and their own practice spaces will become the energy you feed off of as you teach.
I got to know my students in a different way these past few months. I got to see their artwork. Their kitchens. Childhood bedrooms. Dining room tables.
One time one of my students, a paramedic, joined class from the station. His co-workers would walk across the screen from time to time trying to awkwardly balance in tree pose before breaking out in laughter and walking away.
Practicing yoga at home or at work provides a lens into more intimacy than you would otherwise see at a yoga studio. It’s easy to hide in the yoga studio. No one needs to know anything about you or where you’re from or what you’re dealing with. But at home, at work, it’s different. And as the teacher, when a student shows up with her cats, dogs, and kids running all over her living room, this is the piece of information you can use as a jumping-off point to start a conversation and build a relationship. These are the moments when you get to offer compassion and empathy, encouragement and support. This is when you get to help your students best understand how to truly bring yoga into their daily life, in their home, amidst the chaos that may be their reality.
The other beauty of online yoga is that your student base isn’t restricted to the 10 square miles around your physical space. In my classes I often had students from multiple states. I was able to create connection and build relationship between all of these students as we commiserated about the weather where we were and talked about how our neck of the woods was handling the crisis of the day.
It feels good to be united, even when apart. As the teacher, invite dialogue and conversation before and after class in ways that help your students connect with one another.
A hybrid future
And then there is the big elephant in the room. Online yoga works… for some. There are so many others who don’t have access to a solid internet connection, phone, computer, Zoom account, or the space and quiet to practice yoga online. When you go to yoga to submerge yourself in the peace that is four walls somewhere other than home, it’s beyond challenging to repurpose the very place that stresses you out into your own practice oasis.
We can continue to practice and teach yoga online, and we will continue to practice and teach yoga in person. But the last year has really given us the opportunity as teachers to ask hard questions of ourselves about some bigger foundational tenets underlying our teaching.
How are you managing your space? How are you connecting with your students? What is it that we as yoga teachers really do? It is arguably these very intangible aspects of the teachings—how we relate, connect, communicate, and hold space—that determine whether a student comes back to your class.
Do you see your students? Do you hear them? Can you do that well, or at all, behind a screen?
There are no right or wrong answers. But we do have the responsibility as teachers to continuously explore how we can best engage in this world at the front of the “classroom” given the situation of the moment, the wisdom of the practice, the gifts we have been given, and the technologies available to us (analog or digital) in order to hold space for intentional experience and inquiry within ourselves and for others.