Kurmasana. Tortoise pose. It’s a lovely forward bend to relax into. It lets you bend your knees. It’s not about being perfect, but about easing into who you are. It lets you get comfortable and breathe slowly. Just like a tortoise who breathes slowly and lives long.
Just a little over 3 months ago, my aunt who lives in Switzerland asked me to teach her some pranayama over a video call, so that she could then teach some of her family there and boost their immunity against Covid 19. This was before the lockdown in India and even before the government had asked us to start taking precautions and not gather in larger groups and so on.
I am a yoga teacher, practicing and teaching in the Sivananda tradition. I have been teaching yoga for many years at one of the Sivananda Yoga Centre, Gurgaon centres until the lockdown put a stop to this. At the time the request from my aunt came in, a thing such as regularly teaching yoga online or over a video call had never occurred to me. I know a lot of teachers made yoga videos and posted them on the internet. But this had never appealed to me. I was very happy to be with a group of people, preferably small and teach a practice that I knew so well and loved dearly. But in person of course, not remotely.
And yet, I wanted to help her and so, on a video call, I showed her how to do kapalabhati and anulom vilom, two breathing practices that are very good for the respiratory system and boost immunity and health. But I felt so ineffective and challenged teaching like this. I could not be sure that she had got it and would do it correctly later on. It felt unsatisfactory. The day after the call when I was teaching my regular class at the centre, I mentioned to the students how lucky we were that we could meet like this in a special space for our practice. How it was so difficult for so many others like my aunt who did not have any access to a yoga centre.
Just a few days later, the centres closed down because of a directive by the government and we began to teach two free classes everyday on the centre’s youtube channel. I was present as a student in the very first class that streamed out live in March and the same week I taught my first online live class.
It felt like a demotion from university to kindergarten. I was so much at sea. The whole class seemed to depend more on the position of my body and face rather than my instructions to my reluctant student for that class, my husband. I had to maintain a good yogic spinal twist whenever I spoke so that my audio level would be okay. If I turned towards my student to instruct, the audio dropped dramatically. So I sat in a huddle, as close to my phone as possible, and looking at the screen more than at him. I tried to think that I am teaching many people out there, beyond the screen, but I could not see them and the one person I could see and directly teach, I was turning away from. Quite a yogic conundrum!
The area we were using for this class was my yoga room. I like to call it that but it is just a space that connects two bedrooms and the living area. A couple of years ago I had painted one wall. A female figure doing the tree pose and a tree growing out of her hands and spreading on the wall.
So I wanted this arty (read amateur) backdrop in my class frame. In order to achieve this, I had to position an old, half-cracked barstool inside the doorway of the opposite bedroom, add a stack of books and then place my phone precariously close to the edge (otherwise the book underneath could be seen). After all this, it still looked tilted because the bar stool was a retro art deco, trying-very-hard-to-be-modern type of bar stool and the surface of the seat tilted down and back. So after much adjusting and propping up of more books, cushions and whatnot, the frame was set.
I remember being so tense and anxious before teaching that class. What sense does it make to teach a relaxing, calming practice when you are tied up in knots of tension yourself? I tried to breathe deeply and remember that I have been teaching for nine years. Yet, the anxiety was not over my ability to teach, but more to do with the medium, the worry that the electricity would go, the wifi would crash and I would lose the connection. It was also to do with teaching Puneet, who has only rarely practiced yoga with me, and not in a very long time.
But in the end it all worked out. It did feel weird no doubt, like I said, to have my attention on the screen more than on the student. I had to look at it not just for my audio to be strong but so that I could read the comments that alerted me to any changes in audio and so on. When I finished that class, I just sat there on the floor for a long time, finally feeling all the tension leave me and relief flooding me instead and also that lovely feeling of joy that comes after sharing the yoga practice once more.
A few days later, I taught one more class, and the following week a couple more, continuing to teach during this whole period in our lives. Each class helped me to relax a bit more, not just about the logistics of teaching online, but also my own worries about the pandemic and being caught in this surreal and war-like situation.
I realised that no matter how difficult it was to teach during the lockdown, it was one of the best things to do for myself and others. I began to feel how much of a blessing it was to be able to contribute something small during a time of great anxiety, pain and suffering for people everywhere.
Taking turns to teach along with my yoga centre colleagues, the twice daily, free online classes were doing well and reaching a worldwide audience. People were writing in, saying how much it helped them to practice yoga, that it helped them to relax and destress and cope so much better with life post Covid-19.
Thinking back to that initial video call from my aunt, I now know that it’s great that this pandemic has come at a time when we have technology that can help us to connect with each other and share yoga effectively while staying safely at home.