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On International Yoga Day 2021, 5 practitioners tell us how COVID-19 crisis has shaped their approach, philosophy

·13-min read

On the occasion of International Yoga Day, five yoga practitioners spoke with Firstpost about what the past year has been like for their yoga practice: the personal insights they gained, the new approaches they sought and found, and the ways in which they connected with students. How did they adapt their practice to the challenges of the COVID era? And what have been the learnings that they will be carrying forward in their practice even in the post-pandemic world?

LAMYA ARSIWALA, MUMBAI, says €"

For me the last year has been magical in terms of not only my asana practice but also in terms of my evolutionary process, my spiritual path. Largely because there was a lot more time, with a lot less distraction, to focus on things that really matter. And while it came with a lot of challenges, it really was that inward journey [that made a difference].

I realised how much of my energy and times was going into things that I didn't need, pre-pandemic. And that goes into my practice as well€¦ Pre-pandemic, I was teaching a lot more asanas and I felt like a lot of my time in practice was to teach. Whereas now, I had a lot more time for self-practice, and to be honest I've gone back to basics. And I've taken my students back to basics. Because when life is so fast-paced, everybody is interested in achieving more and trying to do more; [but] the direction I'm guiding my students in has been about slowing down and getting more inward. A lot of my students who previously could not meditate have found the ability to fall in love with the practice of meditation, as a result of this journey inward. When you hit a huge block and you can't just go out and ignore it or brush it under the carpet, you have to deal with it. And that's what last year has offered a lot of us. It's been challenging , but also expansive in a spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical manner.

One thing I have to admit is that to teach asanas online has been challenging and all my yoga teacher friends agree as well, because you don't get to actually physically adjust someone in a pose, or break it down for that individual person. When I practise with people in a class, if I saw there was a student who was struggling to do something I would actually go and do my demo next to them, next to their mat, so that they could follow along with me. Here, it is more verbal. Sometimes there's too much chatting in the class, which I could do without! But yes, I've actually seen a rise in the number of students [although] more in the self-help/meditation space, since I'm also a coach and healer.

Lamya Arsiwala teaches dynamic vinyasa flow yoga and soft hatha yoga, and is co-owner of Mumbai' The Yoga House. Photo by Pete Longworth
Lamya Arsiwala teaches dynamic vinyasa flow yoga and soft hatha yoga, and is co-owner of Mumbai' The Yoga House. Photo by Pete Longworth

Lamya Arsiwala teaches dynamic vinyasa flow yoga and soft hatha yoga, and is co-owner of Mumbai' The Yoga House. Photo by Pete Longworth

In terms of yoga, more people are looking for private training, which I gear away from, just due to time constraints. If I see people privately it's largely for healing and life-coaching sessions, not necessarily for yoga. However, all my classes €" I teach group classes regularly €" have a kundalini kriya or kundalini meditation, which I was making my students do even pre-pandemic. However, I think there's a greater interest to understand what the technique is and then practise it yourself in comparison to earlier where you would just do it because it was being done in class.

Prior to the pandemic, I felt like all the classes I taught were led by a certain kind of achievement. There were lots of themed workshops and handstand practices and backbends. [Now], all the practices €¦ were largely to self-nurture, to self-connect, to replenish the body.

I think people were definitely looking to be more loving with their body and support their body, more than just making the body do stuff from a high-performance perspective.

I definitely miss in-person classes for yoga asanas, but I think for meditation and for any kind of spiritual studies you want to do, an online class works just fine. And in fact with the ability to have people come in from different cities and different areas, especially because I do regular meditation sessions, I have students from different parts of the world, different parts of the country, some tuning in from New York, from Canada, which you could never achieve in an in-person class or a studio. But in terms of asana classes, I truly believe that nothing matches having your teacher in front of you and practising with them.

I feel like Zoom rooms have lent themselves to connect with people from everywhere but having your teacher in front of you has got its own magic. And I think both aspects have their purpose. I've learnt that being able to connect with people over a computer has not in any way diminished how potent the work can be. However, I still feel like every now and then it's always nice to have your entire community meet in person, and be able to give people hugs and connect in that in-person, human, physical manner.

Follow Lamya on Instagram, and The Yoga House here.

VARUNA SHUNGLU, KOLKATA, says €"

A year before the pandemic hit, we had been working on an online wellness platform. [So] it was a smooth transition workwise for us. Before we knew it, our team of teachers had grown 3X, we were teaching people in across five continents and found that we were traversing personal spaces within the home without being physically present. As teachers and individuals we have become more sensitive to the needs of people and it isn't 'one size fits all' anymore. It never was, but now people are talking about their issues more openly, which allows us to help them better through yoga and therapy-led holistic practice. People have been wonderfully receptive, reaching out on social media platforms and via WhatsApp and text, that makes you feel the world is better for technology. As individuals we have learned to give more, take time out for ourselves no matter what our work schedule has been like and extend the same care we do to others, to ourselves.

People have taken up self-care more seriously €" what you eat, how well you sleep and a daily movement practice has been an intrinsic addition to people's lives. It wasn't as if people weren't aware of this but COVID has been a huge motivator.

The number of students we work with definitely went up and with so many people reaching out we also decided to create a niche platform for pregnant mothers and the wellbeing of children called 'Eudaimom' (which means a mother who is in Eudaimonia, or her highest self). We have mindfulness and yoga sessions for prenatal and post-partum women, and self-care is now extending to all demographics and level of practioners, even beginners. We have worked with a few batches of young mothers who have faced all odds to deliver their babies during this extremely challenging time and are now recovering well.

Wellness entrepreneur Varuna Shunglu
Wellness entrepreneur Varuna Shunglu

Wellness entrepreneur Varuna Shunglu

Becoming hands-on with different digital platforms like Zoom, Teams, Hangouts, Skype...we were flexible and open to teaching and adapting to the comfort level of the practioner. During Amphan and the days that followed, due to poor connectivity, we even taught on WhatsApp video because students couldn't log on to Zoom or other platforms. The learning has been immense€¦ I work with Sri Sri Academy School and their counseling team to work with children who have needed help and guidance during this time. The impact of staying home/ indoors has affected even the littlest member in the family. It has been an honour to be able to contribute to the school whose mission is holistic learning and does everything within their power to support its students. This included telephonic conversations during school allotted timings.

Two of my yoga studios had to close down during the pandemic. Online teaching is wonderful because we can reach out to more students, geography no bar. I have personally become more comfortable getting in front of the camera and working with angles and the technique of it all. However, there are times when we miss the simple joys of in-studio sessions where you are able to check basic alignment better and correct poses by walking around and getting a 360 degree view.

What I have learned is that as a species we need to slow down and look inward. The time we have had for ourselves and our families has been incomparable. I would definitely continue to take time out to teach online even which continuing to study and teaching in-person at some point. It saves you the exhaustion that comes with travel, allows you to accomplish much more in a day and a hybrid model of online and occasionally in-person [teaching] would work beautifully to create a good work-life balance.

Follow Varuna on Instagram.

***

BLESSY CHETTIAR, MUMBAI, says €"

The past year has been quite insightful in terms of my personal practice. Personally, I'd always been driven to practise and improve but found the paucity of time a hindrance because there was just so much else too €" commute to office, social events, weekends packed with home-related stuff. Since April 2020, I learned it was just a matter of prioritising and began accepting that I was making excuses just like so many of us. With little to no social commitments, I found myself giving more time to my yoga practice, developing a new confidence to try more advanced postures and even adding some dynamic functional training to build strength.

In terms of teaching, thanks to the online medium, there were suddenly no limitations for taking on more students (except a whole deal of planning to match timezones). I was hesitant in the beginning as I thought you cannot learn yoga remotely and it took me some time to wrap my head around it. As a student, my teacher's class moved online and I realised it's possible and prepared accordingly to be a better teacher online [myself].

From the most basic €" i.e. just learning where to keep the camera and how high to mount it so students could understand the best possible to practising every move myself before taking it to an online class €" it's been quite an experience. I also found not everyone really wants to do contortions with their body. For some it's the basic need to sit or stand without pain, and that really made me go back to the basics with a vengeance. Some of my students just want to relax, and I see why. It's really a lot to take in these days in terms of pandemic-related tiredness.

Previously, weight loss was the number one reason for adding yoga to their health journey, but not anymore. Students now understand the deeper mental and spiritual benefits of having a disciplined yoga practice.

None of my in-person students before the pandemic were vocal about what exactly they wanted out of their yoga practice. Respecting and adapting to individual needs is where I made real connections.

Continuous feedback from my students helped me understand that our bodies had gone into a mode of reaction, just ready to fight because of the real (or perceived) threats to health and general wellbeing. I adapted my personal practice and teaching to include more breath awareness, restorative poses, and respiratory system strengthening practices. I believe in giving my students the agency to be confident that they can manage these threats better if they are prepared for it.

I would like to encourage prospective practitioners to take some time, think about and talk to your teacher about what it is you're looking to get out of your yoga practice. Setting an intention as simple as "I just want to relax" or "I'm looking to get some pain relief" or "I just want to experience the power of my breath" can help you become more focused and turn your attention inward. That's what makes all the difference.

Watch on Firstpost: Asanas that help you start and end your day right.

***

LACHMI DEB ROY, DELHI, says €"

I have been practicing yoga for the past 11 years now. I love doing yoga in a group €" not a big group, but with few likeminded people. Being a working mother, I feel that yoga time is my 'me' time. But with COVID and social distancing that couldn't be done for the last one year-plus. So now, three days a week, our friends get together over a Zoom call and do a few asanas for a good 45 minutes. We have a fixed time in the morning. By doing this we feel connected. Since I have been doing intense yoga, I also teach a few of my friends who want to learn a few asanas targeting a particular area of the body. I share the pictures of the asanas and mention the benefits of each. I sometimes put up some of the images on social media €" Instagram and Facebook €" and I mention the benefits too. I am a member of various yoga groups on social media where I keep learning new asanas from others too.

There are days when you feel low€¦ but yoga is a practice that is not only great for your flexibility, but also good for mental strength. And most importantly, you don't need to spend on anything €" no fancy sports shoes or gear, weights etc. All you need is a mat and 'YOU'. The pandemic has made me realise that it is a useless expenditure to spend on a gym or studio membership when I know that I can practice yoga at home and also teach my friends, and I don't charge anything. It is just coming together and sharing what I have learnt over the years.

***

GOPIKA CHAUDHARY, PUNE, says €"

I started my professional yoga journey in January 2021, so I would say I have been able to connect with my students virtually only. With the comfort of home and blessing of technology, it has been great so far connecting with and teaching students all over the world. This post-pandemic situation has made my reach global.

I have only seen a rise in the number of students every month, either due to word of mouth or social media posts. With the emphasis on physical and mental health, and the fear of COVID, people now choose to learn and practice yoga. My practice gained a better curve due to more time availability.

Building stamina and muscle strength through yoga was my goal before starting to teach students. Self-practice is more important before teaching a class.

Follow Gopika's practice on Instagram.

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