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Teaching Yoga

Are Virtual Classes Virtually the Same as In-Person?

Thought leaders in the yoga industry discuss the benefits and drawbacks of streaming yoga classes. Plus, find helpful tips for giving a great one.

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In response to the brave new world wrought by Covid-19, the yoga community has moved further online. Studios have gone digital, individual teachers have taken it upon themselves to create new platforms, and dual-streaming services have cropped up all over the Internet. Virtual yoga has changed the way we think about the practice, and is likely here to stay after the pandemic subsides. What does that mean for our community? Is practicing online the same as in-person? We sat down (virtually) with two yoga teachers—Danni Pomplun and Myra Lewin— about teaching during a pandemic and the future of online classes and community. 

Danni Pomplun is a master yogi who specializes in breaking down the elements of a vinyasa practice in an accessible, fun, and light-hearted way. He teaches online both for studios and via his own platform, and has been a mainstay on the yoga festival circuit for years. He currently sits on the Yoga Unify Governing Council for Consequential Ethics

Myra Lewin is an Ayurvedic Practitioner, Ayurveda Yoga Therapist, and a master yogini who has amassed more than 50,000 hours of Yoga teaching experience spanning 30 years of practice. She is also the author of two books, and is a Yoga Unify Founding Circle Member

Danni Pomplun (DP): I was first exposed to yoga via CorePower, the Starbucks of yoga. It was athletic, it was cool, it was hip, it was sexy. But like when you go to Starbucks, once you have a taste for coffee, you go find the boutique coffee shop in your neighborhood. I’m a huge advocate of moving forward in the path. I think about it as my Starbucks approach. Some people want to go up to the mountain this way, and then some people want to just go straight up this way. I’m a big fan of whatever way is going to get you there. I’m thankful for COVID in some ways. Virtual yoga and virtual teaching is a tool that gives me the chance to study with so many people that I haven’t had the time, the energy, or the resources to learn from. 

Myra Lewin (ML): I’ve used the video one-on-one with students for a long, long time, but I don’t teach large group classes virtually anymore. I honestly just didn’t enjoy it as much because I really liked to go deeper with people, and be able to give them individual attention. That’s one of the big things that makes the difference. And there is that safety factor, especially if somebody can just jump into any class, and start trying to do things at home. For most people it’s going to be okay, but for some people it’s not.

DP: I respect that, though I do teach large group classes. When I run my own personal classes—not through a studio or anything—about 99.9% of people keep their video screens turned on on Zoom or another online meeting service. When I teach through a studio, it’s about 30% or 40% who have their screens on. Even still, some of my classes online have 70 to 80 people, and I don’t get to see half of them. The discernment is on the student to decide whether they want to really listen. If they want to participate in yoga online, it’s an active invitation for them to participate in their lives.

Is it safe to practice or lead classes virtually? 

ML: If you’re in asana, you’re unable to make physical adjustments and corrections. It’s invaluable for the person to feel that change from going from incorrect to correct in their body. So, you know, you miss those things. 

DP: Absolutely. “Connection Through Contact” is one of my biggest workshops. I’m all about teaching with the hands without actually having to do any manipulation, just giving people talking points with their body—like, “find this and explore that.” I often just place two fingers on a student and ask them to move slightly into that space. I can’t do that on the screen. It’s forced me to become a stronger and better teacher; to have really clear communication with my words through a screen. 

ML: That’s a great point. Still, I believe that it’s working with the breath that is going to help students’ ability to feel into their body. You can do that online or in person, but I think that the more that we offer instruction that helps people to stay out of their head, and come into the body and into the feeling. 

DP: I teach online the same way I teach in-person. Like, here’s Jennifer, and she’s doing something that I want someone to see. So I’ll say yogis, “Everyone, come down, Jennifer, you stay up. I’m going to highlight your screen. Do you all see how she’s doing X, Y, and Z?”  Other times I’ll have my camera set far from my mat, and I’ll be like, “Okay, everyone, I’m going to move my camera close to a body part and be like, do you understand what I mean?” 

What about energetic exchange?

ML: The presence is there and an energy exchange takes place—and the transmission can happen on video to some extent—but it’s been my experience that it’s not the same. It can be great, but it’s not the same. For example, teaching pranayama or asana in particular, you know, those kinds of things are very different in person. I think as long as we recognize that there is this difference, there is value. 

DP: I agree, in that I firmly believe that yoga is the transmission of education from person to person. And I think that the in-person experience is there’s something to be said when you’re in presence. There is an actual conversation that a physical human body will have to another physical human body without you even speaking words. 

ML: In the beginning, you may come to get the energy of the group. As your practice develops, you get into your own energy. People become quite attached to the large group environment and convince themselves they can’t practice without a class and teacher. Of course as humans we can become attached to anything. But the point of yoga is the connection to our inner world and purusha, or Source, or God. In-person classes make it more likely to take the next step and realize the personal nature of yoga and how it then supports us in the rest of life. 

DP: I feel that that sense of community is translatable in a virtual setting, at least to some extent, but I don’t know whether it has the same depth. I guess we don’t know until we have both, right? 

ML: There’s definitely a much deeper interest in self-care right now. We can relate how yoga practice supports your immunity—and, of course, because more people have the time to practice now. I also have a lot of students that tune in from more remote areas. The increase in virtual yoga offerings has made it more available to them. 

DP: Yes! I’ve seen that. I have a lovely community that has received me well in Detroit and London, who I used to only see once a year, and now it’s a weekly thing. It’s pretty amazing. There are some times when I’m teaching that I’ll forget I’m in my house and that I’m not there with everybody. It’s about the collective really dialing in, when we’re all fully present. 

The so-called “studio model,” in which the vast majority of people practice in studios for group classes, is a shift from the roots of the practice, in which yogis studied one-on-one with their teachers. What do you envision as the future of commercial studios?

ML: Virtual has become a great tool, but we need not use it as a substitute for live connection. Not just with yoga classes, but in life, too. When I started teaching yoga, more students practiced one-on-one with their teachers than in commercial studios. I don’t think the studio model will come roaring back—but I do think it will come back a bit. I don’t think it will be exactly the same as before; commercialism of yoga has been a great intro for people to be introduced to the practice, but it’s not a healthy thing, and I haven’t seen it be healthy for teachers. 

DP: Because many studios have to rely on selling expensive teacher training programs to keep the doors open—and/or pay their teachers abysmal rates for a single class—the studio model had become, “Hey, let’s have a conversation with a student who looks a little interested. Let’s sell them on teacher training. Let’s sell them an experience of transformation. Let’s make this about self-care, self-help, and tell them they’ll be a yoga teacher and it’ll be glamorous.” And that is a load, and I hope that changes. I hope when we go back to the studio, it’s an actual activation space. I hope that when we go back to the studio, we teach people yoga. We don’t just sell them on physical activity, but how are we going to teach people to be better humans? Not for anybody else, but for themselves—how are we going to teach them to liberate themselves?

ML: I’ve always taught from my home, which I think is the best way, so I’m not really that familiar with the studio model. Other than I’ve seen how out of balance a lot of teachers who’ve participated in it have become. 

DP:  At the end of the day, it’s about being of service—whether you’re teaching online or in a studio. That’s really what our role is. 

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Conversation facilitated and conversation by Lisette Cheresson.