A few weeks ago I happened to catch a Facebook Live, when Katherine Moore (for whom I previously taught) was updating her yoga community. Katherine, also known as Kitty, said that her studio (The Hidden Yoga Studio in Niwot, Colorado) was doing just fine, financially speaking. She was thrilled that students had actually been showing up more consistently online than they had in person pre-pandemic. I was heartened and amazed on both accounts, which had me wondering how other non-corporate studios were doing. That led me to conduct a very unscientific survey by reaching out to friends around the country who own studios to see how they were faring and how they envision the future of yoga.
As you might expect, their different experiences and outlooks depend on many factors. These include whether they have a big-city overhead—like HaChi Yu, who owns LaLaLå! Jivamukti Yoga in downtown Los Angeles—or have a very rent-forgiving church as landlord, like Ashtanga Yoga Nashville’s Cory Bryant.
Some teachers weren’t comfortable on camera and had decided not to teach remotely, while others went off to do their own online thing. Some just didn’t have the bandwidth to both teach and, say, homeschool their kids. But all the studio owners I reached out to have aimed to keep as many teachers on staff as possible—albeit with reduced class schedules—and to keep them paid. And everyone’s first priority has been to serve their community. The other three big takeaways were that 1) students have been showing up in droves for meditation; 2) teaching online is here to stay; and 3) the satsang, meaning the greater community of truth-seekers (though the term is also used to refer to in-person gatherings) is truly global, and no longer defined by geography (if ever it was).
Going With the Flow
Giving back is what had originally inspired former business people Wendy and Andrew Klein to open Nandi Yoga in the San Francisco Bay Area. So when the coronavirus struck, they were ahead of the curve in being able to put financial concerns aside and their community first. They decided to stream classes free because, as Wendy said, “However much pain we were feeling, there were going to be a massive number of people losing their jobs, highly stressed, and in need of yoga.” They wanted to free up resources so that anyone who had the means to pay for classes could instead give to food banks and help others in need.
Jeffrey Cohen and his wife, Andrea Boyd-Cohen, are the primary teachers at Satsang Yoga in Charleston, South Carolina. Their landlord reduced their rent, so even with their diminished class schedule they weren’t worried about their diminished income. They decided to offer their Zoom classes “on a donation basis, because we felt the need to make classes as accessible as possible,” Jeffrey said.
Not everyone has been able to offer free classes, but everyone was pretty quick to jump on the Zoom (or Twitch or YouTube) bandwagon. And so, it seems, were students. Rima Rabbath, who teaches internationally and whose Souk Studio (New York City) opening has been pushed back until January 2021, downloaded the Zoom app on March 14 at 8 p.m. and taught her first Zoom class the next day—which was so full, I couldn’t get in! “My only aspiration was for our community to experience some sense of continuity, especially after the closing of the Jivamukti Yoga location in NYC [in December], which left many feeling groundless,” she said.
Many studios experienced an initial surge of attendance, which seems to have tapered off, probably because of Zoom fever. As Kitty Moore pointed out: “The people who are not on Zoom all day [for work or school] are showing up more than those who are, because those guys need a nature break and go outside rather than back on the computer. Many students are sheltering alone, and these classes are their only facetime with the outside world.” Swan Michelle, who owns Swan River Yoga in New Orleans, said: “Because we were so fast to adapt, our classes were very large right away. Many of them were far bigger than they ever were before for about three weeks. Now they have leveled out and are just slightly at average or just below average.”
It’s Not Just About the Numbers…Except When It Is
While online class sizes may have fluctuated, what has only increased is the figurative space of the studios, with walls no longer a limiting factor. Nandi Yoga hosts teachers with an international reach, and “We now have students from five continents, including former students who have moved away,” Wendy Klein said. Because New Orleans is a tourist city, “Many students started popping up from all over the country and world,” Swan Michelle said. “It has brought great hope to us to expand our [community].”
With his rent-forgiving church landlord, and thinking online teaching would be short-term, Cory Bryant lowered the price of a drop-in class to $5 (he’s since raised it to $8). He then discovered that “Many past students from all over the world started showing up.” He also realized that he could tap into the “long” list of teachers he hopes to someday bring to Nashville and invite them to teach online, thus enriching his offerings sooner rather than later.
“One really beautiful thing has been the expansion of our sacred space to those who are far away,” said Jessica Patterson, who owns Root: Center for Yoga and Sacred Studies in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “I have seen students ‘in class’ now who live across the country or even out of the country. I have seen students I haven’t seen in 10 plus years.” She also has students who are “twin sisters (one in Colorado and one in Pennsylvania) or families where the parents are in Colorado and their kids are in New York City practicing together through our classes.”
The world is being brought closer, in more ways than just practicing asana online, and it is meditating en masse. Clearly, people need it. “I believe there’s been a huge shift in consciousness,” said Jeffrey Cohen of Satsang Yoga. “It feels different.” In morning satsangs, which include a spiritual teaching, meditation, and these days, just being social, “People show up who have never meditated daily,” he said. “I get letters every day saying how important it’s been for them, how amazing it’s been for them, how things have changed, because of an hour of satsang.” Kitty pointed out that “People are hungry for connection and they need help calming their minds and their nervous systems.”
The world is being brought closer, in more ways than just practicing asana online, and it is meditating en masse. Clearly, people need it.
It may seem anathema to meditate in front of a computer screen, which is probably why Anna Ferguson, who owns World Peace Yoga in Cincinnati, Ohio, was “surprised to see how people are enjoying meditation online.” And at Root, they “are the most well attended classes,” Jessica said. “What folks seem to hunger for more right now is a way to tap in. So the classes that facilitate more of the actual experience of equanimity, connection, intimacy with life...those are the classes for which more people are showing up.”Same at Swan River Yoga, where satsangs and meditations “are the most attended of all of our offerings,” Swan Michelle said.
The $64,000 Question: What Does the Future Hold?
For Jen-Mitsuke Peters of Jungle Physician Yoga, who teaches Trauma Informed Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (TIAVY) in Denver, Colorado, the future looks pretty much like the present—the new present. She has discovered that “Online I am better able to maintain a healing space, and people share concisely and deeply what they are truly working on in life.” Many of her students with trauma “are enjoying their practices and even their classes with me far more than showing up to other classes in normal studios,” she said. “They are safe at home and don’t have to worry about being hurt or harassed by adjustments and are happier trying what works for them without a teacher dogmatically pointing out all of the things they are doing ‘wrong.’ Many students even without trauma history are making breakthroughs because they are finally trying things they were dissuaded from or embarrassed to do in group settings.”
Brick-and-mortar studios have closed, and more will certainly close, but yoga will survive. What struck me about my conversations with these studio owners was how unattached they all are to what they had built with so much love and dedication, and how unfearful they are about the future—how they are walking their talk, and living their yoga off the mat.
HaChi Yu has no idea if her shala in downtown Los Angeles will reopen. “As caretakers of Mother Earth and visitors in this lifetime, we hope that having the opportunity to be alive for this time teaches us that we are part of an interconnected universe that is constantly shifting and healing itself,” she observed. “Things will be changed, there is no going back to normal.” Meanwhile, she has launched Jivamukti Union, an online teaching platform connecting Jivamukti teachers around the world.
“The well-being of our community—students, teachers, trainees, mentees, clients, etc.—comes first,” Jessica said. “Rather than seek to recreate the old ways and reconstruct the old paradigms, I am getting really interested in what this time is revealing to us about what matters most and how to align with those insights going forward.
Claire Hartley, who, along with Daniel Stewart, owns Rising Lotus Yoga in Sherman Oaks, California, is working hard to hold on to her studio. But, she said, “I also need more guidance on how I can keep my students safe before we open up our doors. Ahimsa [non-harming] is the basis of our yoga practice, and that has to be part of inviting students back into the space. I’m not interested in opening for a couple of weeks and then everything getting shut down once again because we get a second wave.”
“We will absolutely be able to open our studio,” Swan Michelle said. “It is a very large space. There will be no problem practicing social distancing within it. We plan to stick this out and never give up. We plan to open in person on the day our state allows us.” Anna Ferguson said World Peace Yoga’s space is also large enough to reopen responsibly and now has.
“Nothing compares to the feeling and experience of an in-person class,” Rima Rabbath said. “We are social creatures and we flourish from practicing in the same room together. I have to believe that this is possible.” But meanwhile, many lessons have been learned: “We have come to know that community really matters, how having a regular practice to provide some structure during uncertainty matters. In times like these, we have realized the truth of our global interdependence and fragility. In times like these, we have been compelled to embrace impermanence. In times like these, we have been urged to recognize how the ups and downs are what make our life a dynamic process.”
Nobody knows what the future holds. I never thought I’d be Zooming classes, but I am. It’s been a blessing to steep in the embodied wisdom of Natalie Ullman, my mentor from my Jivamukti apprenticeship days, who lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area, and virtually in my living room on Mondays. And spending (early!) Saturday mornings with my Ashtanga teacher, Ty Landrum, who is usually trotting around the globe, but has been sheltering with his family in Virginia. It’s been a reminder that like individual aspen trees we are all part of the same organism, the same community. A reminder that even apart, we are together. That we are the satsang, and the satsang is us.