It may be cliché at this point, but the past year has been unprecedented for everyone—the yoga community included. From a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic to civil uprisings sparked by the murder of Black individuals at the hands of police, and other atrocities seen around the world, it’s likely that these events and their fallout will have a lasting impact on the way yogis connect, teach, and run their businesses.
But even as the world seemed despairing at times, more people than ever turned to their practice to seek both solace from their suffering and guidance on how to move forward with intention. And that leaves many in the yoga community feeling optimistic for the future.
We asked leaders to reflect on what they’ve witnessed, and where they think yoga is headed now. Here are three ways they feel that the past year has changed yoga for the better:
Accessibility is now a priority
“During COVID, we actually ended up doing what disability activists have been asking for forever,” says Jivana Heyman, founder and director of Accessible Yoga. “We are prioritizing accessibility now, because we have to.”
The accessibility of online classes and trainings is multifaceted. Not only can you now practice in the comfort of your own home, and on your own schedule with more diverse teachers, you can also avoid the high cost of travel associated with in-person workshops and certificate programs. Plus, a lot of what keeps people out of studios is the intimidation factor, explains Heyman. “Yoga spaces can often feel exclusive and unwelcoming,” he says. “Starting online is so much better.”
Heyman hopes we continue to see more robust online offerings, and predicts that trainings—even future in-person ones—will continue to incorporate the skills teachers need to keep students engaged and safe from afar.
Mindfulness is the new norm
For many, the past year has been one to reflect, rethink, and start to rebuild. “We’re not embracing going back to ‘normal,’” says Jana Long, executive director of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance. “We’re looking forward, and it makes us question how we’re offering yoga: Do we need another model? How do we share yoga?”
Long and others lament that yoga has become almost unbearably commodified and commercialized, and is primarily about a physical practice. “COVID helped us see all of this more clearly because many of those structures have been torn down,” Long says. “We don’t want everything we do to be transactional. Money is great, but we cannot make that a driving force. The moment you put that first, it changes everything. What you’re doing doesn’t come from your heart anymore.”
Long and the board of directors at the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance are slowing down, too, and taking a look at what their organization can offer the greater good, while not forgetting the yamas, niyamas, and yogic principles.
Christa Kuberry, vice president of standards at the Yoga Alliance, says that while there is no tally yet of how many teaching jobs were lost to COVID-19, she knows it’s been significant. But she too is seeing a shift to a more mindful approach to the business and practice of yoga. While there may be fewer brick-and-mortar outposts in operation, she’s seen a bump in Yoga Alliance online teaching seminars and discussion, as well as yoga moving toward specialization and in the direction of service. “The practice has become less about the physical and more about things like ahimsa, or nonviolence,” says Kuberry. “It has changed to something more self-reflective and meditative. People are wanting to practically use yoga for health and wellness, and they’re asking how they can serve their communities.”
Community is key
Over the last year, membership at the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance increased dramatically, according to Long. “I think the touchpoint last year was when George Floyd was murdered,” she says. “COVID forced us to be inside and watch. Collectively we witnessed a public lynching.” It was after that horrific event that Long said people started to reach out to the organization like never before. “A lot of it came out of an awakening; people really wanting to do something and find something to connect to and support.”
Yoga Alliance’s Kuberry has noticed a trend toward what she calls “diversity with unity.” People are finding their niche online, whether that’s in a neurodiverse class or a training for social justice and yoga, and more people are practicing overall. “People just want to be in community and breathe together,” she says. She sees community groups gather on Yoga Alliance’s digital platforms to question what the practice is and should be, and offers up the apt metaphor of yoga as a rhizome—an ever-growing horizontal stem that spurs roots and shoots at unpredictable intervals and depths.
The Black Yoga Teachers Alliance offers a Yoga as a Peace Practice curriculum that Long says can offer what folks are looking for now: practices to heal hearts and communities and yogic wisdom to take off the mat and into daily life.
In terms of gathering in person once again, some yoga classes and travel are up and running, but there remains uncertainty about when and if retreat centers like the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health return with the same vigor. Omega Institute spokesperson Chrissa Santoro confirms that 2020 was a challenging year for this iconic gathering place in upstate New York. “Due to the pandemic, we had to cut our budget and staff in half, and pause on several projects,” she says. “Fortunately, we’re going to reopen for a shorter program this year with limited capacity—from July 23 through October.” Kripalu staff declined to say what their short- or long-term plans are for re-opening.
But until there’s a return to in-person classes, seminars, and retreats, yogis from around the world can continue to build and gather in online communities, which have blossomed in these pandemic times and are likely to remain—proving that you don’t need to be face-to-face in order to make a real connection.
See also: A Death Doula’s Take on the Pandemic