Building community in yoga classes can be challenging enough in person, with many students squeezing their practice into whatever sliver of their busy life they can. And now that many classes meet solely online, it can feel downright impossible. Especially when a teacher finds themself teaching to a sea of black squares.
Despite what those turned-off video cameras imply, people are craving connection. And not only is it possible to create it in a livestream class, but the opportunity may be even riper than when we meet in the studio.
One thing I always prided myself on is not just being a good yoga teacher, but also a good host. Cultivating connection among students is as important to me as cultivating the connection between breath and body. I want my classroom—whether brick and mortar or virtual—to feel warm and inviting.
While it is true that not every student is in class to make new friends, I have found that even the most introverted student can feed off practicing with other people. As one of my long-time students and teacher trainee Stacey Jones eloquently explained, “It’s like going to the movie theater alone. You’re not just there to watch the movie; you’re there to be with other people, to show up in the world, whether you interact or not.” Collective experiences can be powerful and healing.
However, many of the ways we teachers encourage connection in person does not necessarily translate on screen. For example, I love to invite students to listen to one another’s breath, but with most online platforms that’s not possible. This has required me and other instructors to get creative.
Dani Ibarra has been teaching beginners in Southern California for almost 20 years. She agrees that building community is one of the more important aspects of our work and has had the privilege of laying that foundation early in students’ practices, as she is often their first teacher.
Ibarra admits that when the pandemic first hit, she was nervous about how her usual methods would work online, but as most communities were under stay-at-home ordinances at the time, she actually found that livestream classes were the one place students could still connect with one another. “Every week we kept showing up for each other, and our online community of old and new friends quickly began to grow,” Ibarra said. “It touches my heart to watch the outpouring of love, support, and care they give to each other.”
Though it requires some commitment on the part of teachers, and a willingness on the part of students, building community in virtual classes is not only possible but surprisingly fruitful.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Do what you would do in the studio: Ibarra encourages teachers to treat their online classes as they would their in-studio ones. This includes arriving a little early and staying a little later. She says that this extra time is not only an opportunity for students to talk to the teacher, but also one another. She has noticed that many stay online just to hear one another’s questions. Because she teaches both beginner’s yoga and therapeutics, Ibarra also always asks if anyone is new and if anyone has any injuries. She finds that this creates a more personalized environment and inspires conversation among students.
2. Have everyone face the camera for Om: While people may not be able to hear one another chanting, they can see it, and I believe they can also feel it! Right before we do our opening Oms, I invite students to look at the screen for a moment before closing their eyes. This reminds them that they are not alone. I also explain that Om is a pranava, an omnipresent universal sound that is always present around us, and that by chanting it we are reminded that we are together, no matter where we are in the world.
3. Ask people to share where they are from: It never ceases to amaze me that people join class from such a wide variety of locations. I have had people on multiple continents practicing at the same time. You have to admit, that is very cool! I like to ask students where they are from, and as the chat fills with their responses, I sometimes even point out students who happen to be in the same place—especially if it is somewhere far away from where I am. I find that this reminds people that not only are they not alone, but that they are not as far from others as they may feel.
4. Leave the chat function on for questions and side conversations: One of the best resources for connection in livestream classes may be the chat function on Zoom. This is especially helpful in larger classes where it can get a bit disorganized with everyone trying to speak at once. I have seen old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years reconnect and send messages of love. I have seen new friends form as people ask each other questions about their in-home décor and four-legged companions. It is a great forum for students to ask teachers questions too and, as Ibarra noted, it inspires other students to stick around to hear the answer.
5. Reconnect (or introduce) people who used to practice in person together: Joan Hyman has been leading teacher trainings, workshops, and retreats around the world for over a decade. As a result, she actually found building community in her livestream classes fairly effortless since the students attending have been from those past events. After class, Hyman likes to “open up the Zoom room” and watch people who knew each other from past retreats and trainings reconnect. In my classes, I also try to point out people who used to take the same in-person class regularly but may not have ever met one another.
6. Before or after class, note commonalities among students: In both everyday life and yoga class, I love linking people together who I think may have shared interests. I did this in the studio by literally pointing people out and saying, “So-and-so also has a German Shepherd!” or “So-and-so is also from Canada originally.” I have found this actually translates really well on screen and if you can tell that people seem amenable to it—for example if they light up and a conversation sparks.
7. Regularly remind students that though we may be physically far apart, we are still together: The most effective way to build community may also be the most subtle. It is less about literally connecting people and more about our actions and words. For example, addressing the group as one by calling everyone “family” or “team.” Or reminding students in flow sequences, like the sun salutations, that we are moving as one, though they may not be in the same room. It is looking around your “Zoom room” to check on everyone in your class. Students may be in downward facing dog at the time and unable to see you looking, but hearing a cue specifically designed for them or even a broader “Nice choice, so-and-so” can help people feel like you are with them and they are with you.
Blessing in Disguise
Nothing will replace the feeling of moving as one with a large group of people, or hugging friends, both old and new. But the fact that we are not constrained by physical limitations in livestream classes means we are now exposed to students from all over the world, people we probably would not have met otherwise. Hyman says she believes that this is the “next chapter for all of us: connecting to community online from the convenience of our homes.” In some ways, it feels even more powerful knowing that someone is doing yoga with you in an entirely different country at the exact same time. Talk about spreading love around the world!