Yoga, A Pandemic, And Virtual Learning
Practising the Kakasana. (Photograph: Swanand Kelkar)  

Yoga, A Pandemic, And Virtual Learning

BloombergQuintOpinion

After a particularly draining hangover one morning, my wife and I had the talk that most couples in their thirties have. We concurred that we were no longer young and could not go on eating out of cardboard boxes and spending weekends sprawled on the sofa, watching Friends re-runs. We solemnly promised each other that we would improve our lifestyle choices.

I got a gym membership. She hired a yoga trainer. Both of us followed Rujuta Diwekar on Twitter. Despite being a card-carrying member of ‘not-a-morning-person’ club, my wife opted for a 6 am slot with her trainer. Like ‘enhancing stake-holder value’, the phrase ‘improving lifestyle choice’ fills you with temporary but unbounded confidence of achieving things that you haven’t even come close to in your corporate and personal lives, and as expected, things regressed. Rajeshji used to dutifully ring our doorbell three days a week at 6 am and as if on cue, my wife would go deeper into shavasana. Groggily, I used to open the door and over time I, instead of her, became the yoga student.

Rajeshji was a very accommodating man. He used to sit on the living room couch, open the newspaper and count from one to ten, without once looking at the student. You could do whatever asana you wanted in those ten counts with whatever intensity that suited you. He never ever got off the couch to trouble you with corrections or new asanas. We slipped into a nice equilibrium. In my head, I used to tick off workout as done and am sure, he used to tick off another class. One Sunday morning though, he let slip that his celebrity client, Diaji, had done a hundred sun salutations. That stirred the competitive spirit in me and I dumped our gentle progression of asanas that day for vigorous sun salutations. Around the tenth round, I heard a distinct cracking sound in my back and I was bed-ridden for the subsequent two weeks. Thus ended my first dalliance with yoga.

That was almost a decade ago. I reunited with the practice this year when I signed on for the month-long residential Yoga Teacher Training Course at the Sivananda Ashram in Madurai. This was serious stuff. From the philosophical underpinnings of Yoga, classes on the meaning of the Bhagavad Gita to over four hours of daily asana practice under the watchful eye of our Hatha Yoga teacher. We were a group of over sixty people from different countries and different age-groups and yet we bonded quickly. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say it was one of the most productive months of my life.

My favorite moments there were not about feats achieved on the mat but moments of camaraderie with my batch-mates. Watching the sunrise together, having tea every day in a thatched verandah, and slipping chikki into each other’s hands during Bhagavad Gita class. We had gotten so used to the tranquil presence, measured words, and soothing voice of our teacher that we wondered if we could, in some way, carry back her Zen with us. I did not intend to teach yoga but few of my batch-mates did and I let everyone know that I would be quite keen to take classes from them in Mumbai or whenever I visited the cities they were teaching in. I felt confident that with a global network of teachers similarly schooled as me, nothing would obstruct the regularity of my Yoga practice now.

 Practicing the Chakrasana. (Photograph: Swanand Kelkar)
Practicing the Chakrasana. (Photograph: Swanand Kelkar)

And then lockdown happened. When it comes to learning, I have been a purist. I like to be in the physical presence of the teacher which is why I haven’t really taken to online learning all these years, despite the fact that a rich repository of content is available there. I believed that our Vedic forefathers were onto something when they called a large part of their teachings Upanishads which literally meant (learning by) sitting close (to the teacher). I was skeptical of taking a Yoga class online having just relished a month of intense offline experience. I was afraid that it would end up being Rajeshji Part Deux but a bigger fear of losing the hard-won toe-touch got to me. In April, I signed on for an online course being offered by the Ashram. It’s not to easy get to used to, starting with how should your mat be aligned vis-a-vis the camera. It must be even more difficult for instructors who have spent years teaching actual classes to adapt to this new online reality, within a matter of weeks.

Perhaps because I was familiar with the basic class structure, I was pleasantly surprised by the online experience. Apart from the obvious benefit of being time-efficient, I realised that it is the right blend of instruction and self-discovery. I could make alterations to some of the asana poses to suit my body yet be sure that I would be told, if I was doing something absolutely wrong or unsafe. Learning variations takes the monotony away from daily practice and the thrill of being able to do something new motivates you to take your practice further. I could take a small break, if required, without feeling guilty and more importantly, I did not have to worry whether my pigeon was as good as Devika’s on the adjoining mat. The key obviously is how skillful your teacher is and how well she has adapted to the online medium of instruction. Also, I am not sure whether online instruction is best suited for something that you are looking to learn from scratch but when it comes to furthering a skill that you are familiar with, I think it is as good if not better than a physical class. As students and teachers increasingly embrace this new medium, the word Upanishad may get a new meaning.

Swanand Kelkar works in the asset management industry and is currently on a one-year sabbatical.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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