When Marlon Brando mumbled his lines for the close-ups in On the Waterfront, he didn’t project them as a stage actor would. The world witnessed instead the power of his understanding of a fundamental change in a medium of communication. Brando knew that a movie camera filming him from just a few inches away, and then projecting that onto a large screen, gave the audience access to the subtlety of his facial expressions and the nuance of his soft-spoken words.
Brando became a film star partly because he understood the difference between stage and movie acting, and he knew how to use that difference to his advantage. Stage actors must project their voice and exaggerate their movements in order for theater-goers to hear and see them from some distance away. This type of acting looks somewhat ridiculous up close. It took time for many stage actors to understand the difference between best practices for stage and for screen, and many of them could not adapt.
Bridging the Gap Through Novel Communication Skills
Teaching yoga online versus teaching in a studio is in many ways analogous to the differences that Brando was able to exploit. Humans are attracted to human connection. In a yoga studio there are many other practitioners to watch as well as the teacher, a variety of tactile sensations, sounds, and smells, and possibly even live music.
Alone at home, about all you take in from an online class is the clear sound of the instructor’s voice and their face on the screen. If a yoga video is shot professionally, from a number of angles, it is possible to film the postural forms as well as close-ups of the teacher’s facial expressions. On a platform like Zoom, however, these post-production effects are not possible. The teacher’s face and voice are front and center: all live, a high-wire act without either a net or the support of an editing crew.
The total number of recorded yoga classes available at this time on YouTube alone is 254 million. Categorizing and ranking the quality of them is an impossible task. This makes a pre-recorded class (particularly by a non-celebrity teacher who a student doesn't already know in real life) feel less valuable than a live broadcast by a teacher who is greeting and observing friends and former students in real time, welcoming participants by name, responding to the ability of students, and perhaps even giving verbal postural cues based on observation. Being able to reach out and through the screen to make a personal connection is the key value absent in pre-recorded offerings.
These novel communication skills take practice—not only in the presentation of an engaging online class that takes into account the sensory limitations for both teacher and student, but also in the behind-the-scenes work involving technical set-up, microphone use, internet reliability, lighting, and time management.
This is largely uncharted territory for most teachers, and can be particularly stormy seas for some older teachers unfamiliar with teaching online—incredibly unfortunate, because teachers with years of experience have so much to offer, yet may be hesitant to dive into the technological complexities of internet broadcasting. Even if they do dip their toes in, they may feel uncomfortable in an environment very different from what they are used to.
As yoga studios begin to reopen, strict protocols concerning physical distancing are being implemented. Masks may be required, touch may be absent, props and even mats may not be available. We modern humans often lack the innate connection that our ancestors enjoyed and that the yoga studio in some strange way simulated.
When I began to practice many years ago, the sense of intimacy, the sound of another’s breath, and the physical alchemy and community that a yoga studio fostered were attractive to me. Will studio practice in the time of the coronavirus still motivate attendance, and will the necessary reduction in the number of students per class allow studios to survive? These questions will be answered through the experimentation of forward-thinking studio owners. It does seem that we have entered a new normal, a sea change in the presentation of yoga, and it isn’t yet clear where the tides will take us.
Stretching Forward into the Future of Yoga
When I get the chance, I still love to go see a play (or, rather, I used to when you could still do that sort of thing). The sets, the costumes, the drama of the house lights dimming, and the sense of being part of a tradition of oration and performance are all so exciting. The actors preserving and honing a set of skills born of the desire to communicate something of deep value to a live audience is dharmic—it helps hold us together, both individually and collectively.
In sharing narratives that open our minds and expand our emotions, a great actor—whether onstage or onscreen—can offer us something unique. Through the sharing of practices curated and offered with skill, yoga teachers can do the same. The principles onscreen are the same as in a yoga pose: Create a firm foundation from which to stretch out and then explore the form you are entering. In other words, we teachers need to learn how this new (for many of us) form of distance communication works, and how it works best; we need to engage with it with curiosity and a sense of play—the way we engage with poses we instruct.
Mastery is accomplished over time, through dedicated practice. This was the observation on the practice of meditation that the sage Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra, shared roughly two thousand years ago, long before complicated postures or screen-acting methods were invented. Times have changed, but our desire to connect, educate, and serve has not.
May we stretch forward into the future of yoga, well anchored to adapt, so that the value of these practices can be transmitted through whatever medium may be at our disposal.