Fate of Yoga Teachers Held in the Balance
I could never have imagined a day when all the yoga centers would be closed. How could that possibly happen? A global pandemic that requires social distancing to stem the tide of contagion, that’s how. In the course of only a few weeks, the entire world has been turned upside down and the already shaky ground on which Yogaland was built is at serious risk of complete collapse.
As the quarantines are extended, the odds of yoga centers making it through this ordeal become more slim. The stop-gap scramble to offer online classes may appease an immediate need but, without foresight and discernment, will likely further devalue yoga teachers and squander a chance to forge something better of this horrible mess.
Ironically, Facebook seems a little less shitty since the virus has seized the world's attention.
I have to admit that seeing all the free live classes being posted online by so many dear people, who love yoga and genuinely want to be of help to others, is beautiful and warms my heart. It sure beats the knee-jerk takedowns that were previously pervading my feeds. I have been brought to tears by more than one endearing offering. With all the bad rap that yoga teachers often get, it’s been encouraging to see so much sweet and tender sharing.
At the same time, there is also an amount of gross and tone-deaf maneuvering happening. Of course, we all have to try and make some quick and difficult business decisions right now but it's probably best to avoid the late-stage capitalistic tendency to disguise up-selling or offering discounts as actually helping people. And while giving away free online classes may be an immediate way to try and be of service, if we are not careful then it is also likely to establish some unhealthy precedents.
In observing all the free classes being posted online since the “stay-at-home” orders went out, I see sincere teachers falling victim to the insidious self-sabotage of social media.
I started live-streaming classes several years ago. At first, I did a one-way stream where people could see me but I could not see them. Over time, it became clear that not only was this not sustainable for me physically but also had little to do with teaching so much as performing. Eventually, I switched to a two-way video call and that was much better. Online classes can easily become just another exhibitionist display. Now, I do not need to be demonstrating and can pay attention to the people taking class.
Also, prior to the current crisis, the yoga world was failing miserably to resolve its personal and political issues on social media because the platforms are constructed to elicit impulsive reactions. Now that we are confined to our homes and seeking connection, the mirage of togetherness that our Facebook feeds sometimes exude is grossly insufficient. Liking or commenting on a social media post is not a real connection. If the purpose of yoga is to teach sustained attention, we cannot do that on a platform that is specifically designed to capitalize on people's inability to stay focussed.
When coupled with humanity and fairness, technology can be used to connect and support us.
By necessity, teachers are discovering that it is possible to have real yoga practice and connection with people online. The Zoom meetings that everyone has been doing have been vital and important. It is truly amazing how powerful a simple and consistent ritual of breathing and moving can be in the midst of unprecedented uncertainty. While there is certainly a class dimension on display as we get a glimpse into people's living rooms, the outpouring of offerings is genuinely helping people get through their confinement.
How we might continue to support studios and teachers financially during this shutdown is where things are getting sticky. Studios are desperately setting up online classes through their existing registration systems with the hope that students will not cancel their memberships. Teachers, hungry to maintain connection, are rushing to Facebook Live with zeal. Free, or by donation, may feel good but only works for those who don’t need the money from their teaching to get by. Centers paying teachers less for doing online classes from home, with technology that we all have access to, reveals long-standing disparities in the studio business model.
What we make of this harrowing situation matters.
Things are not going to be the same as they were. A lot of centers are not going to survive and a lot of teachers will move on to other pursuits. Even before the virus saddled us, the yoga industry had become oversaturated and was experiencing a downturn. With so many people not working, future behavior of the yoga-going public is an open question. One thing that the shutdown has made entirely clear is that the relationships between teachers and students are what everything else is built on.
Valuing the work of helpful teachers means making sure that our dollars end up in their pockets. Online portals that provide a one-stop shop for all the teachers you love at one low price may be convenient but they undermine yoga by exploiting the work of teachers, giving them only pennies of your dollar while the person with the business savvy who set up the website takes the lion’s share. So, if there is a teacher that you feel warrants support, the best thing you could do is set up a small monthly recurring payment. And teachers, if you don’t get access to the email addresses of the students who practice with you online then you are getting screwed.
This moment of reset is an opportunity to reevaluate our commercial patterns so they better reflect the relationships that foster yoga. Making direct connections, both personally and professionally, is one way we might re-establish the work of teaching yoga as more than just a superficial trifle.