While we have done all that we can to make the most of practicing yoga amidst a global pandemic, as these months roll on I think I am not alone when I share that I am growing weary of Zoom. As teachers we remain committed to you and to our classes; but we miss you. And for me at least, Zoom is just not cutting it.

 

Initially I was floored by the opportunity to shift focus, and eager for the opportunity to think fresh about holistic services because, you see, I’ve been feeling bitter about certain aspects of the yoga and wellness industry for a number of years. 

 

In the beginning, pivoting to virtual platforms piqued my entrepreneurial spirit. I could see all the ways in which yoga and wellness would be readily available from now on and forever to those who may have felt a barrier to entry before. Constraints to accessing self-care are many and include everything from simple scheduling or location restrictions to more complex social, cultural, and/or financial barriers. I felt eager to ride the wave of innovation and collaboration that could be unleashed by this mandatory disruption of the status quo. I felt hopeful about Luma’s prospects to broaden our audience, and optimistic about the tide of opportunities that would further the accessibility and democratization of these tools that contribute to our wellbeing. And good things are happening. 

 

But it is not making me happy. And I don’t think you’re happy either.

 

As much as I love these opportunities, there is something that happens in the practice room that I can’t quite seem to replicate online. In person I didn’t mind teaching the fitness aspects of yoga which translate so easily to video, whether live or pre-recorded. I enjoy clever and creative functional movement sequences that help students improve their physical health. I love the science of the body, and the concepts behind how tissues adapt and why to adapt them. I love helping others develop strength, flexibility and motor control. I love speaking to what is going on with the nervous system, and the emotions. I believe these things contribute to a more comfortable and fulfilled life. Though this side of yoga does translate well to virtual platforms, it is not why I love teaching yoga, and something is missing. 

 

I know many of you don’t share my sentiments. And that’s OK! Students are grateful for the opportunity to practice with teachers from the comfort of their own home. Also, some teachers are thrilled to be driving less, requiring less childcare in order to teach, and consolidating classes for efficiency. These are all good things.

 

But for those of you for whom Zoom is not working. Perhaps I can shed some additional light as to WHY.

 

I have suspected for some time, and even said as much here and there, that what we are really up to in the yoga room goes way beyond the physical benefits of yoga, and even beyond the way in which yoga helps us to manage stress. We have been taught that yoga at its heart is a spiritual practice with philosophical roots that may help us become more enlightened humans. But that is not the aspect of yoga missing from yoga classes that I wish to discuss. The way in which I have come to believe yoga and other embodied practices serve us is through a completely different mechanism. One that you might not have considered before. 

 

In the old days we were taught that the practice of postural yoga prepares one for breathwork and meditation. But studios and teachers rarely offered opportunities for that subsequent deep dive promised to us beyond postural practice. Truth is it didn’t sell tickets. But why? 

 

Outside of a more formal sangha, monastery, or teacher training, the democratization of yoga —the movement(s) that served to bring yoga to more and more people—  was enabled by a sharing of yoga practices in the absence of spiritual ascension as a primary aspiration. In the absence of a guru, modern yoga teachers and modern yoga centers offered yoga practices that have been stripped of the limitations, restrictions, and guidelines (as well as the gravitas) of a formal dogma. When ‘this is a cell phone free zone’ is the most explicitly stated value to which students must adhere within a yoga space, the yoga that happens there has clearly been cleaned, sterilized and repackaged for mass consumption. 

 

As a student of yoga I comfort myself by viewing modern postural practice as a system of embodied experimentation and somatic innovation with the potential to lead us into heightened states of awareness. The aim is greater self-knowledge and an elevated sensitivity to others and to our environment. Surely that is useful. But postural yoga, as it rests in the zeitgeist, with its promise to help us with everything from the alleviation of back pain to existential angst, now exists as a product that has been branded, commodified, and scaled.

 

Furthermore, (and here I reveal my bitterness) I have come to see the promise of postural yoga to provide some kind of metaphysical benefit sourced from ancient wisdom as a ruse. Many will argue with me here, but I no longer believe the postures are magical, or even important. I no longer see the sequences (at least as they’ve come down to us) as keys to unlocking latent energy within us, special tools that unveil hidden wisdom and enhance enlightened perception. Rather, we apply that intention to a practice, any practice, and generate that experience from within.

 

Humans are wired to make meaning out of things. Life is complex at best, and frightening at worst, but either way we need it to mean something.  On our yoga mat we climb inside our skin and poke around at what is going on inside of us. We find a new discomfort here, and examine a new sensation there. We ride the rise of emotion, the sweep of illumination, and tap into the seemingly eternal vibration of our life force…that curious thing that animates us.

 

Each yoga class has an arc. We arrive and settle, we have a little conversation with our bodies and with ourselves that climaxes in some kind challenge —often physical but sometimes intellectual, structural, visceral or having to do with mental focus. We are led towards a resolution that includes a period of restful stretching with reflection that culminates in a short nap. Our classes could be seen as an approximation of the natural rhythm of a single day, condensed into the time we’re willing to devote:  We rise. We tend to the body. We notice the state of things both within us and outside of us.  We develop a plan.  We take action. Some things happen. And ultimately we return to the body to take care of it’s basic needs. In the absence of Netflix we will naturally reflect (meaning), rest (restoration), and sleep (regeneration). 

 

As we travel through the arc of the experience of a class we become transported and also transformed. We are held by the structure offered to us, by the physical space in which we practice, and by time. 

 

What we have failed to notice is that we are also held by the presence of the others in the room with us. Not only our teacher, but our peers. 

 

Whether like-minded or not, in that space we become accountable to others, and in turn, they are accountable to us. The expectation is that everyone has come together at that time and in that place to receive something. To be something. To feel something. 

 

Classical yoga teaches that after the mastery of physical practice we ‘graduate’ into isolation. We will develop the capacity to sit for long periods of time in meditation. We will sit in stillness, absent from community, action, and even reflection. With this ability we can be freed from ties that bind us to our attachments and our aversions. In that state of singularity, we will ascend, but we will ascend alone.

 

I have a problem with this. 

 

What is universal and largely undervalued in the modern yoga room, and what is for the most part unspoken as a value by yoga teachers, is that people strongly desire a place where they can move and breathe with others

 

Whether in a yoga class, at a nightclub, or around a tribal campfire, moving and breathing together, in unison, especially when music is involved, provide us some of our most profound moments of elation along with a heightened sense of connection. Whether under the auspices of religious ceremony, or during the celebration of a romantic union, so long as our social inhibitions or lack of experience aren’t in the way, humans find tremendous joy and healing in moving and breathing together.

 

Perhaps you are familiar with the hormone oxytocin. Sometimes referred to as ‘the bliss hormone’ oxytocin is associated with the chemistry of connection and love. It is released during orgasm and plays a role in maternal-infant bonding. We release oxytocin when we’re in deep conversation, especially when we are doing the listening.  Chocolate is famously known for inspiring the release of this delightful chemical into our bloodstream. A breastfeeding woman can feel the effects of oxytocin some minutes after she begins to feed her baby. If the conditions are right both mother and infant will drift into a calm, drowsy, relaxed state not unlike one we might enjoy after a few sips of wine and a delicious meal. 

 

It turns out one of the ways to inspire peak levels of oxytocin is to move and breathe together in groups. Think gospel choirs and Broadway finales. In fact, oxytocin levels are highest when we move and breathe together in groups while wearing similar clothing. Hello Lululemon. 

 

Beyond our desire to become more able bodied, our practice connects us to the ways in which we engage with the world and with each other through our bodies. Yoga practice offers us opportunities to better understand and resolve the internal sensations, both pleasant and unpleasant, that motivate our actions, and our reactions. All of this remains available during COVID and while classes are virtual. Through the magic of Zoom we can continue to connect to our strength, our flexibility, and our breath, but we must mourn what we have lost. Our togetherness.

 

COVID has cast us (those of us who found refuge in group yoga) out. We have been cut loose. Set adrift. We have lost communication with the mothership. This is not a problem everyone. We can adapt. We can move on. After all, there are other ways to get the oxytocin flowing. 

 

For some however, yoga is communion. Whether we were aware of it or not, we came to celebrate with our peers. The practice may remain intact, but we have lost our touchstone, and the blessing that initially drew us has evaporated leaving only a shell of its former self. If you are at all like me you are missing something very dear to you —something that perhaps you hadn’t noticed was so important to you until now. Each other.