It was six years ago, on June 21, 2015, when the world observed the first International Yoga Day. That was a different time, sans the havoc caused by the Covid pandemic. Amidst the first waves of corona virus last year, people could not congregate and do yoga together. Social distancing was the final word. That’s how 2020 saw the first-ever online celebration of International Yoga Day.
This pushed yoga schools in India to take the leap into the online world as well. The yoga community possibly was one of the last ones to adopt the internet as a viable medium for teaching and learning asanas, something which traditionally and strictly has always been practised in a physical environment only.
Three world-renowned yoga institutes – Ananda Yoga School of India, The Yoga Institute Mumbai and Iyengar Yogashraya – discuss the landmark change of bringing the age-old practice of yoga onto TV, laptop and phone screens of numerous yoga enthusiasts across and beyond India.
Yoga is self-care “I think the pandemic brought with it a general fear and therefore more attention to health and immunity. People turned towards personal wellbeing as a result,” says Latha E. Gupta, Director – Ananda Yoga School of India, an international chain of yoga centres across Europe, America and India. She adds, “One big advantage with yoga is that it’s a very portable practice and you don’t need tools and equipment for it.” And as we were locked inside the house, yoga at home, in front of the screens, became more popular and accessible.
Kalpa Vakilwala, who has been teaching yoga at Iyengar Yogashraya (Mumbai branch) for 17 years agrees. She feels that due to Covid-19 students have become increasingly responsible and serious about their health and incorporating yoga in their daily routine. “People are now more aware of the fact that practising yoga asanas has great long-term effects on your immune system. One hour of yoga is a must for everyone.” Harvard Medical School, last year, revealed that yoga brings you to your optimum best in terms of health and wellbeing. Titled Coping with coronavirus anxiety, the report recommended yoga, meditation and controlled breathing as tried and tested ways to destress.
“In traditional yoga, there are two types of courses, theoretical and physical asanas,” informs Sudalai Mani, an instructor at the 100-year old Yoga Institute of Mumbai, dubbed as the oldest centre of yoga in the world. “Pre-Covid, we ran limited batches due to the limitation of space and other facilities. But after switching to online mode since 2020, we have multiple batches with double the number of students in every class. The best thing is that all of our classes are fully packed.”
For the social media savvy Most of us often find ourselves glued to our Instagram and YouTube screens. Leveraging this habit in favour of general wellbeing, these Yoga schools regularly host free-of-cost live sessions. During the peak of the pandemic last year, Ananda Yoga School did 30-min sessions every morning for 11 days on Facebook. It was then uploaded on their YouTube channel for people to tune in and learn whenever they like.
The Yoga Institute Mumbai conducts weekly live sessions on social media too. Open to everyone across age groups, these are either 60-min asana or meditation classes. Their popular ‘full-moon meditation’ session that they do every month has been converted online too, because of the feedback and requests from the students.
Online yoga doubles up demand A majority of these Yoga schools are conducting their regular classes via Zoom. The general consensus is that the number of students signing up for online courses has shot up to an all-new high. On an average, every class has between 40-60 students. At Iyengar Yogashraya, students of all ages have been taking online yoga classes, from 8 years old to 80 years old and even 90 years old in some cases.
“Our senior most students in 70s and 80s have already learnt the basics of yoga asanas, but they still want to continue to practice. Hence, they too have become tech-savvy by logging online, asking questions in the chat boxes and using microphones,” says Vakilwala who started her yoga journey in 1999.
The overall student strength has increased at The Yoga Institute Mumbai too. Instructor Mani says, “Earlier for our offline advanced courses, we only took 40 students, but now we’re taking in 70 to 80 students.” However, the personal attention on-screen is not as high as in-person classes. “We devised a way to tackle this. Now, we have multiple teachers in one class. One teaches, the second demonstrates and the third teacher observes the postures and alignments.”
The same is the case at Ananda Yoga School where three teachers regulate one class of up to 40 students. At Ananda, Gupta has observed growing participation from younger people and corporate employees in the online batches. “It could be because they lead a very sedentary lifestyle. So anything to do with wellbeing, movement and health attracts their attention and makes them more mindful about it.”
These yoga schools have regularly been receiving admission enquiries from the farthest of towns and cities in India. In fact, enthusiasts from around continents of Africa, America, Australia and Europe are participating online as well. For Iyengar Yogashraya, Vakilwala says that students from places as far as Chennai, Hyderabad, Sikandrabad, Ranchi, Aurangabad, Latur, Jodhpur and Asansol tune in for classes. “I had never imagined people would be so willing to learn yoga from Iyengar. They were really happy and grateful to join our institution.”
Two sides of the coin – advantages and challenges The offline to online transition has witnessed more advantages than setbacks. The most crucial difference it made for yoga learners is that the distance barrier vanished almost immediately. Gupta of Ananda Yoga School feels that the shift to the virtual platform has been seamless. “People from small towns where we don’t have a presence offline are now able to easily access our courses on the internet.”
Because of this, it has become extremely easy to incorporate yoga in one’s lifestyle as there is no need to travel long distance. “You just have to switch on your device, practice, log off and return to doing other activities. Learning online has the same results and the quality impact on one’s health as we had offline” says Mani.
He points out that a lot of international students in the pre-Covid times would have to return to their home countries after finishing the course and there was no medium to continue the practice with the institute in-person. But since the lockdown, The Yoga Institute Mumbai has introduced an advanced regular class, three days a week, for overseas students who have finished their course from the school but want to stay connected with their teachers and keep practicing.
Gupta, who has spent over 25 years in the corporate industry as a board member of a German company in India, already knew the ABCs of technology well. “Personally, offline to online wasn’t a very big switch for me.” Ananda Yoga School uses an app called Kajabi, which is an online learning platform that allows them to store recordings of the online sessions for 30-45 days. Students can refer to these after classes and revise yoga classes at their own pace. While distributing hard copy manuals and notes isn’t possible, Kajabi acts like an on-the-go library.
One disadvantage for the yoga institutes is that they cannot guide their students physically, which often is the finishing touch to perfect the postures and alignments. Gupta says that we live in a distracted world today. “I feel people struggle to watch their screens for long hours. Sometimes I have to remind students to keep their screens on or put more effort to participate via the chat window.” As a yoga teacher, there is a lot of effort that goes into engaging students alongside educating them. “As much as we’re able to reach a large number of learners online, the in-person classroom has a more attentive presence and a collective positive energy centred in the room. That kind of ambience makes a huge difference.”
Yoga but with caution Yoga is a focus and detail-oriented exercise. Beginners, especially, are oriented in advance to not try or experiment with complicated movements or any asana that has not been taught in the online session. Each institute teaches asanas according to the physical calibre of the learner and often, there are different target groups who wish to achieve different fitness results.
While The Yoga Institute Mumbai is teaching all the asanas and techniques online, Ananda Yoga School has omitted a few forms of asanas from its online curriculum. Gupta says, “Shirshasana (headstand), Pinch Mayurasana and Chakrasana are some asanas we have dropped. Teaching these advanced poses to the beginners through an online mode is risky, especially with issues of blurred cameras time and again.”
Instructor Mani says, “We clearly instruct students in the beginning of the online class. We give them guidelines that mention the asanas and pranayamas to not practise on their own, outside class hours.” There are many variations in Pranayama. More advanced forms like Kapalbhati and Nadi Shodhana should be done in the observation of a teacher because it’s important to know the learner’s state of mind, body and how effectively they can regulate their breathing.
Gupta and Mani also add that beginners should approach the art of Surya Namaskar very carefully. First timers shouldn’t do the entire cycle of 108 namaskars, as it can be quite harmful. Even ten rounds of Surya Namaskar can be detrimental to new learners.
Because all the communication is happening via the screen or phone calls, the instructors keep repeating the contraindications that need to be kept in mind. People with hyper tension, cardiac issues, bone weakness, calcium deficiency, retina issues and pregnant women should not exert a lot of pressure, especially during online classes. They should practice the movement carefully and not overdo it.
Future – online, offline or hybrid? Locked inside the four walls of home, frustration levels built up drastically in the past one year. People needed an escape and they got one through yoga, albeit on screen. Gupta adds, “I see the acceptance of virtual yoga as a movement towards self-care.” Yoga is headed towards a hybrid future. The advent of online courses has turned this ancient practice into an in-demand hobby that can be accessed anytime, anywhere, remotely.
The online evolution has also turned yoga into a promising career prospect for millennials. Mani says, “Many freelance yoga instructors I know have been doing great during this online phase of yoga. Their business has exponentially grown and they don’t need extra rental space. One device and internet connection is all you need to get things started.” Although people have accepted and adapted to the pandemic-led changes, the Yoga institutes hope to resume in-person learnings soon when circumstances get better, while still sticking to online routines.