“Oh, you’re Zoom yoga-ing us from Germany now? They like their sausages there…”
…my 78-year-old mother — who sounds a bit like the Queen online — mused to my Hatha yoga class in general, before the time had come to mute everyone.
“Make sure you go and get yourself a nice, big German sausage.”
I had to start the class late because everyone was too busy sniggering, including the teacher. Especially because my mother — judging by the bemused expression on her face — completely missed the sexual innuendo.
It was like an episode of South Park, except for the part where everyone is actually a grown-up.
Of course, it’s not really that funny.
Except it is when you’ve been cooped up in your house / flat-share / parents’ place / Airbnb for months on end, fed on a pitiless diet of Covid-Boris-vaccine-recession-Brexit-unemployment from every electronic device, without being able to see or touch the people you love, except whoever you may be in lockdown with, to whom you’ve completely run out of things to say.
My gaggle of Irish barristers and lawyers, Chinese medicine practitioner, TV producer and other regulars are now distraught if my mother misses one of my weekly classes and are convinced she ought to have her own YouTube channel. A little dusting of Mrs Nicholson every weekend really lifts spirits. My mother, in turn, feels buoyed by their interest in her, by their wanting to know her, to listen to her, these women a couple of generations apart in another country.
And that’s what has been so magical about teaching online yoga since Covid-19 first swiped our worlds back and forth and up-side-down almost a year ago now.
Community. Something that has been steadily eroded for decades. The hardening of the confines of the nuclear family, the ‘norm’ of those families then splintering as soon as children are old enough to ‘leave the nest;’ the storing of our elderly and their wit and wisdom in nursing homes, local authority community support budgets nibbled away by successive governments; the 24-hour-isation of work, crossing all personal and social boundaries; and the rising cult of the individual — the fetishism of ‘me’ vomit-emoji’d all over social media — have all undermined the importance of basic human connection. Even if it’s just to collectively, in real time, together, giggle at a gag that wasn’t meant to be a gag and isn’t even that funny.
From where I’m sitting/downward dogging, it seems community is coming back with a vengeance and springing up in the most surprising places via whatever fresh crop of apps and platforms have landed in the last week. (I’m currently trying not to fall down too many Clubhouse holes — anyone else?)
I moved my yoga teaching online within a week of London going into lockdown. I started by offering free classes to the other people in the Covid-19 neighbourhood volunteers WhatsApp groups I’d joined. These connected people living within a few streets of each other in East London, where I live, to share updates from the local police and council about latest guidelines, pleas from the local food bank for more supplies and gave us the means to respond to vulnerable people needing shopping done or prescriptions collected. I slightly know the people who live in the five other flats in my apartment block, and some of the other regulars and teachers at the yoga studio I used to go to and would say ‘hi’ to the twin Sikh guys who run the local newsagent, but that was about it. I commuted to work in Central London, most of my friends lived in other parts of London and my parents live in Southwest London, so I spent my time underground, in tunnels, in between places, missing thousands upon thousands of other people. Now, I was meeting the faces and stories that lived behind the front doors of the buildings either side of my own, instead of passing them at the Tube station, or standing behind them in the queue at the supermarket, eyes glassily reflecting the scrolls of our smartphones, neither of us having any idea that we live a few doorways away from one another.
Soon, I put posts about my classes on Instagram and Facebook, free throughout the first lockdown, and more people joined. Every week, there they were, beaming into my living room — young, old, somewhere in the middle; parents, grandparents, non-parents, singletons, couples; professionals, self-employed, out of work; yoga pros, yoga novices — a demographic that would have been very unlikely to find themselves next to each other on a mat in a yoga studio or gym, tending to attract, as they do, a representative cross-section of the people who live around them, to whom their marketing speaks most directly, and who can afford to accommodate the drop-in or membership fee in their household budget, rather than anyone who happens to have a smartphone and a free hour.
As lockdown lifted and people were allowed back to work, I started charging for my classes. It is only £10 per person as a drop-in, and yet quite a few people dropped away. A small, quiet, sad comment on the toll Covid has taken on people’s livelihoods. But a core cast of regulars stayed with me and has continued to grow, even as I left the UK and travelled for a while, eventually settling in Germany a few weeks ago when the latest lockdown hit, since my own flat is rented. From here, I’m watching, waiting and teaching. My mother, my professional dancer, my Pilates instructor and my Irish legal team have been joined by a serene, sunrise-loving French teacher from the north of France, a Cleopatra-like business development queen from South Africa and some frankly fabulous Germans, along with a special ops officer working for London’s Met Police, a TV executive, occasionally her dog, her sister, a CEO and a bright and beautiful pixel patchwork of others.
During our time together, we’ve introduced new pets, new partners and celebrated new jobs. Discussed medical problems and caring for elderly parents. We’ve swapped useful tools for managing mental health. We’ve taken turns being in low spirits, everyone rallying around to raise a smile and, just by being there, making us feel seen and heard and important — connected — even if some us are several hundred miles apart. All we need now is a new baby — I expect someone’s working on it.
Alongside my regular classes, I started teaching a free online class for a charity that works with the refugee and asylum seeker community close to where I live in the UK. I am trained in trauma-sensitive yoga, which adapts the practice so that it is more accessible to people living with the physiological and psychological impacts of trauma — and who may not speak much English, let alone Sanskrit. (This impact report on the work of the UK-based charity Ourmala, which provides free trauma-sensitive yoga classes to refugees and asylum seekers and increasingly other vulnerable communities, such as survivors of the Grenfell Fire - and with which I undertook my training - details its benefits). I had approached this other, much smaller charity about teaching a class at their Sunday social centre at the beginning of last year, but lockdown thwarted our plans. But then they got back in touch with me to ask if I would run a weekly class online for their members.
And so here I am, in the middle of the German countryside, teaching yoga and breathwork to women — and occasionally men — hailing from African and Middle Eastern countries, who find themselves in lockdown in East London. They don’t have yoga mats or blocks or straps, they’ve never set foot inside a yoga studio, they are definitely not familiar with Warrior II. Plenty still leave their cameras off to practice, but that’s fine by me. Simply joining is a huge step. It started with two people and is slowly growing as word spreads. I’m not sure what the ‘word’ is, but presumably something about a welcoming space, and good things felt afterwards by bodies and minds. I get messages asking if daughters and mums and friends can also come to class. And by the power of WhatsApp and Zoom links, I can have them set up to join within seconds. Is this satellite cast of people attached to the charity? Are they meant to be there? I don’t know. I don’t check and I really don’t care. The fact is they would not otherwise be doing yoga. They would not otherwise be taking some time to sit quietly, to focus on their breath, and to gently stretch and strengthen their bodies. They would not otherwise be seeing (some of) each other’s faces and hearing each other’s voices, nor mine, nor telling me that the classes are really helping the stiffness in their necks, their achy muscles or slightly too-fat tummies, nor that they pray for me, nor sending me little messages to wish me Happy Christmas or Happy New Year or happy new month or happy Sunday. I would not otherwise have had access to this microcosm of sweet people who live in my city, but seemingly a world away.
There can be quite a bit of snobbery in some sections of the yoga community about teaching yoga online. It’s dangerous, it’s not authentic, you can’t teach real yoga. Certainly, there are constraints, and there are a number of postures I would not teach online for safety reasons, as they can so easily result in injuries without proper in-person guidance. But in my experience, the benefits vastly outweigh any drawbacks. Aside from improved physical and mental outcomes experienced by my students, online classes have smashed so many barriers to entry for so many people — geographical, financial and psychological — that I hope they are here to stay, as seems to be the case.
Because I can’t wait to find out who else I’m going to meet — and introduce to others (including my accidental comedian mother) — through my Zoom-screen. I’m excited to be a part of these little communities, which link into other new online communities, which radiate out to still others, sections of which will in some glorious way transfer to real life, one day soon.
And this may just have a lasting impact on how we inhabit our corners of the world — whether and how we choose to connect with those around us, and how we take care of each other — from now on.