student learning online mysore ashtanga yoga

Can you learn Ashtanga Yoga Online?

With lockdown looming, I remember that last week in the London studio where I had taught for over ten years. As most of the shops and facilities were shutting around us,  a few of us continued to come into class, not wishing yet to give into the inevitable. Moreover, the complete unknown we faced. For, when the day came to close completely I assumed that was it for my teaching for an indefinite period.  

Needs must : a baptism of fire

Coming home to the flat I shared with my wife I remember clearly. I was at an utter loss to know what to do. I had woken up at 3am every day for as long as I remember to practice before teaching at 6am. The lifestyle I followed was suddenly cast to the wind as well as my purpose and, not to mention, income. I never gave a second thought to the idea of teaching online. Ashtanga yoga, we all knew, prided itself on being a kind of non-frills, no-extra chat kind of practice. Rather, hands-on-adjustements were its method. So, now I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t teach.

Therefore, I resisted the suggestion (more like instruction!) from my wife to get online. At the very least to keep the group connected after being cut off so abruptly. Mysore style yoga had always been taught in person as a physical style of instruction. But, that doesn’t mean that things cannot change and evolve. For, I have found that the online method of teaching to actually work even better than the in person.

Online teaching surprisingly to us all, does work  

Which, indeed, is why I enjoy teaching it so much, because do, really see the results. In fact, I enjoy online ashtanga classes teaching  more than I did in-person classes because I see better results. It is actually more effective. I must admit being shocked myself. Why were the students I had taught for years now progressing their practices much better now I was behind a computer screen? It made no sense at first. We were always instructed in Mysore that a book or video cannot be a substitute for a real-life teacher. But, this is not the case. Instead, the physical presence of a real life teacher and real life class, can actually often distract, confuse, and generally get in the way of the individuals’ own learning process.

Here’s why I think so in three points:
  • The student is no longer influenced by the competitive and comparative element that arise in a live class surrounded by other students.
  • The student must take responsibility so much more for their own practice as they can no longer rely so much on a group energy. This challenges the individual and builds strength, focus and commitment.
  • The student is so much freer from the inherent colouring and bias of their teacher as to how they feel to practice.
The influence of the collective energy

Group energy is always seen as a good thing, giving us a kind of free motivation. I think it must be remembered that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This energy, confused with our own can push us further than we would more naturally feel to go. This is a common recipe for disaster in terms of injury. Especially when we also compare ourselves with others in order to measure our sense of progress.

Secondly, it always seemed a little weird that we were doing this rather intense and  intimate and deep work in a group surrounded by many other people. In fact, we were going through these profoundly opening postures in a room full of complete strangers. Either there is a propensity for manipulation – for we need a sense of protecting ourselves in daily life. Or there is this conflict between our inevitable wish to protect ourselves in fairly unknown surroundings and the opposing demands of the practice.

Not to mention how the work is undone when you walk out after such an experience into what is probably a crowded city street and have to fight the traffic, noise and people just to get to work.

The spotlight is now really on us

In a studio along with teacher and students, we can almost get swept up and simply go with the flow. This is not the same at home. It may be hard at first, but the rising to the challenge of self-motivation brings forth a kind of strength and dedication we probably weren’t aware of inside of us. We now have to carry our own practice, which, we actually find we can do pretty well. In fact, better usually in the quiet and less distracted space of our own home. (making sure we remove those things at home, phones, etc, that might distract us first!).

Personal autonomy and finding a practice that is right for you

Ironically, it is the indirectness of the experience is what actually works so well. Each individual has now few outside influences on their own practice. They are now infinitely freer to actually feel their own bodies in practice and find out what works for them. There is no one making them push harder than they need to, nor pushing them into strong adjustments. Equally, there is no pressure of a teacher standing over them and telling them exactly what they ought to do.

Instead, I offer suggestions and then the student feels no onus, no obligation, to do as I say. In other words, they are finally able to listen more carefully to the demands of their own body. They can balance the possible options from someone with (hopefully) a slightly wider perspective through a deeper history of practice. No one knows ones own body better than oneself. This truth can be honoured now the teacher is not physically in the room exerting their own bias and stamp on someone else’s practice and body.

Online Ashtanga community is a thing

Of course, it can be reasonably argued that without human contact, that something is missing. It would be inhuman for me to say that I don’t also miss at times the direct warmth and contact of in-person classes and relationships. On the other hand, my group has grown now to include students from all around the world,  most of them I haven’t actually met. To which, strange as it may sound, I do feel in all honesty a deep connection. Perhaps, in a way, it is clearer and  easier to connect on a deeper-level where emotions felt in close proximity (often simply ego based), can actually confuse and get in the way of a higher sense of ourselves.

Addressing the still sceptical

All this said, there will always be those that resist online ashtanga. These are probably their criticisms:

  • you need a teacher in person to instruct you properly
  •  the level of energy and motivation isn’t there online
Its safer this way

However, speaking to the first point, I would equally add that some of the greatest damage to the reputation of ashtanga has been done from teachers being rather too much on-hand. As we’ve already said, in the severity of their adjustments leading to countless injuries, as well as the more recent abuses come to light of students by their trusted teachers. To which end, we are all unquestionably safer online and learning from home!

Furthermore, in my mind, the physical adjustment in my mind has had its day. As we become increasingly aware of hypermobility, we realise the dangers of adjusting students, who may be able to perform and be adjusted deeperinto postures they will later go on to suffer the consequences. Yet, we as teachers aren’t in the position to know; we just can’t tell the future. We are asana teachers, not prophets. A lot more could be said about adjustments, you can read further in this blog post.

Watching through a screen adds a further clarity in instruction not lessens it

Clearer more objective instruction can be provided by watching a teacher online, albeit from a distance through a screen. For, the very fact that some space and distance can allow for more objectivity and reflection on the students’ part. Indeed, this is even more the case with the online ashtanga videos format; for we can stop and start them whenever we need. Come back to them later when we have had the time to assimilate the last instructions properly. So, this is huge benefit of the online approach that allows us to learn at our own pace.

Real motivation can only come from us and this is the very aim of yoga

We may let the detractors have one final say as to their mention that we lack motivation when on our own in front of our screen. Well, this is certainly a challenge, but, it is also the challenge of yoga. For the very aim of the practice is inbuilding our self-resilience, autonomy, willpower. Our courage to think and be ourselves. I have to say I have seen this as a massive step forward in so many students who wouldn’t have otherwise needed to step up to the plate of facing the gauntlet that yoga lays down. One that has, with in studio classes over-babying students, up until now been side-stepped.

But, having an enthusiastic guide helps too!

Having said all this, I am still there as a teacher. The motivation of having someone to be held accountable to online is no different to that of in-person. In fact, personally, I find myself actually more enthusiastic and motivational when all I have to use now is my voice and my skills of description. I have also stepped up to the challenge! Equally, just as in in person, I am there every day without exception and always on hand. Now, all you have to do is try it! You can see the Keen on Yoga online Ashtanga schedule here.