Yoga, Technology, and the Pandemic
What Covid highlighted for today’s yogis
America’s gift to the ancient Indian art of yoga is accessibility. The transformation from esoteric discipline to easy-entrance hobby commercialized quickly, creating an industry out of an esoteric discipline. Many elements of yoga were lost in translation from ancient to modern, India to global, from a path of knowledge to business model.
Scaling for accessibility without the Indian values respecting cultural traditions created a yoga-business model in which teachers were certified at a rate that made them disposable; studio staff were often un- and under-paid; classes were priced to reflect an ephemeral rather than educational experience; students were treated as always-right customers of yoga. The shallow, philosophy-light, pop-psychology heavy presentation of yoga became so ubiquitous that after just a few years of classes, many enthusiasts felt they were experts.
With scaling came standardization. For ease of consumption, class formats became as familiar as Starbucks orders: most studios featured packed days of Level 1, 2, 3; Vinyasa, Power, Flow classes. The more traditional lineages of Ashtanga and Iyengar became less popular while novelty and bootcamp “yoga” classes were replacing Bikram as the gateway yoga-drug for fitness junkies. Most people dabbled around the middle ground of gyms and studios, until the ground fell out below us.
The closing of gyms and studios was a deeply felt loss in the yoga community, united by love for peaceful movement and connecting with inner-life in the context of social-life. The mental and physical health benefits of yoga seemed lost, accessibility denied just when it was most needed — but just for a moment, until studios and teachers went live streaming and youtube empire building, marketing on social media and taking the yoga business fully virtual. We have even more distance between teachers and students, ancient and modern, path of knowledge and quick workout.
For the first time, yoga is feeding rather than alleviating our cultural dependence on screens. With longer workdays of telecommuting, what we need is less screen time, and more real time with ourselves and the people we do see.
Imagine a tech-free yoga practice. You unroll your mat, or not — perhaps you are just on your living room rug or outside on the grass. You don’t wait for anyone to tell you what to do, where to stand, when you can move or when you can breathe. There is no clock ticking at you, no touchscreen to fiddle with, just the sound of your own natural breath, the feel of your own body moving, and space-time to clear your mind. This is a freedom, a sensory-cleaning experience of independence and inner exploration. The closure of studios and tentative plans of classes reopening with rules for masks is an opportunity to return to the roots of yoga, before studios marketed and commercialized the ancient art.
Practicing alone requires knowledge. You’ll need to have a teacher who teaches practical knowledge that you can translate out of class and into your life. You’ll need the inner motivation to move your own body, with purposeful sequencing you trust. In return, you’ll receive the results of a true practice of yoga: not just a quick escape from your modern life, but the yoga as a deep healing, the antidote to modern life.
The human body evolved under more challenging circumstances than most of us can imagine: land to work and defend, dangerous animals on the prowl, food obtained by hours of manual labor rather than our current contact free delivery services conveniently charged to your credit card. What has evolved over the past several thousand years is not the human body but the human culture. Our anatomy is geared towards hard work, but our minds are not: we created easier and easier living conditions without the foresight to think of the ailments caused by too much physical confinement to comfort.
Our sedentary lives create the space for the mind to live its own life, alternately busy, stressed, bored, in a health continuum that we culturally consider separate from the health of the body. But is it? Stress underlies all disease, and there is nothing more stressful than part of you running a completely different programming than the other. The body ages prematurely, sitting in aches and pains while the mind spins itself into intangible successes, failures, distractions, and desires.
We feel the lack of inner unity in different ways, and attempt to bridge the gap accordingly. Devotion to work, family, nation, religion, justice: these are all ways we look for fulfillment but often create conflict among different groups of humans. We are increasingly connected as members of a world dominant species and increasingly disconnected as individual members of homo sapiens.
In the wake of panic and protests, the call for peace, love, self-care, resilience, and breath work makes Now the time to add depth to the accessibiility of yoga, online and in our own real lives. Increasing the internet literature on yoga philosophy, culture, and methods — information usually presented in teacher trainings — should be as freely given as Youtube fitness flows. We need to engage the intellect to have a truly meaningful grasp of yogic techniques. We need the trust in teachers, respect for knowledge, and daily devotion to our own solo practices that was natural in ancient Indian seekers but is increasingly rare in our instant-gratification modern society.
Deepening our yoga practices now, in solitude and in home, will alleviate the difficulties each of us faces. Training the mind to sustain attention to the breath and body creates an inner connection that ripples into every interaction we engage in, a practice effect that grows stronger and wiser with time and experience. The body, taught to move with natural grace and power, will have greater resilience and reserves of sustained energy to support the still moments we need for work. The breath will become strong, clear, and balanced, with or without mask.