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State of play: Summer 2020

This week I was invited onto Francesca Cervero’s podcast. She’s doing a series of ‘where are we now?’ episodes with a good number of thinkers, trainers, and senior yoga teachers. It was a good chance to reflect, not only with Francesca, but with my co-invitee, Matthew Remski, on the effects of COVID on the yoga teaching landscape – practically, emotionally, and of course, financially.

To answer those questions as effectively as I could, I put a call out on social media for yoga teachers to get in touch, and many of you did. I think this generous sharing of information can only be to the benefit of us all, so thank you.

I’ll be sharing the podcast on my social accounts when it comes out, of course, but in the meantime, check out the other episodes, and I thought I’d put some of my own headlines down for you here.

This is an incomplete and evolving picture of where we stand right now – according to a large handful of teachers from the UK, the US, Canada, elsewhere in Europe, South America, and beyond.

Firstly, there has been a massive loss in yoga teaching incomes – between 50 and 80%, but that loss, like many other factors, is unevenly spread. Anyone with real estate rent to cover is hurting very badly. Many have already closed. Those whose studios are in their gardens or who rent spaces ad-hoc of course have fewer overheads to cover. Large studios and chains are in real trouble, and they’re passing that trouble downwards. Teachers there are competing for places in ways that for some feel very toxic. Many large studios are not nice places to teach right now.

For those whose work depends on institutional access – in schools, care homes and so on – the picture is much more mixed. Some places have fought to keep sessions going, or resume as fast as possible. Others have made the decision to close their professional bubbles to as few outside staff as possible.

Of course, most yoga teachers have to some extent moved their work online, and while it’s been awesome to see how fast people have adapted, most say teaching online is second best to being in person. Many have needed to reduce their teaching hours to cope with some form of burn out or extra tiredness, and some can’t or don’t feel comfortable working online at all. There are some growing concerns about teaching safely online. Mostly this concerns unusual or accidental events – what can teachers do if a student faints or fails to wake up from yoga nidra.

In fact, a number of teachers I know are being more cautious than ever about leading students into trance practices online, given the inherently dissociative tendencies of teaching through a screen.

Some in person classes and more one-to-ones are happening now, especially outside, but being able to do this depends on multiple factors – not least the increasingly uncertain weather here in the Northern Hemisphere. Here in the UK, we’re hampered most by the rapid changes in official guidance, and the often contradictory advice given to different spaces and contexts that a teacher might be in. Gyms have different protocols to village halls. Teachers are having to guess whether their classes are closer to high impact or low impact exercise. The guidance can change each week, and of course as many teachers are working in a diversity of spaces, keeping up with what needs to be done where is difficult. There are some who are back teaching socially distanced group classes indoors however.

A bigger concern for me is that as the administration and preparation for yoga teaching becomes harder to manage, and even less reward for doing so, some talented and experienced teachers will simply decide to do something easier instead.

There are some independent studios and charities who have asked themselves if it’s all worth it and made the hard decision to close.

On the other hand, teachers are coping, day by day, as best they can, and they are reaching out for the help that they need. Most people told me that they are taking advantage of the new opportunities and time to practice and take courses with trainers and teachers that they wouldn’t usually get to learn from. The quality on offer is variable, but overall there are a great number of fantastic shorter courses, lectures and webinars on offer.

Of course, this is also reflective of the fact that almost no-one is travelling to teach or run workshops in person. I for one have seen about 15 months of events cancelled or postponed. It’s been scary and worrying but also a push to develop online content that might otherwise have taken years. There are many senior teachers and researchers doing the same. It might be a while before those traveling teacher circuits return, and in the meantime, trainers like myself are developing our own (virtual) spaces to teach in, and coming into studio-specific spaces to guest teach on short development courses and teacher trainings. It feels a lot more grounded, oddly, than driving or flying in to teach a polished workshop in multiple locations one after another.

Not all teacher trainings are value for money online, however. Some are already very pragmatic, modular in form and reasonable in cost, and they aren’t pretending that there’s endless work out there for general yoga classes if you just market yourself well. They were good value before the pandemic and they’ll continue to evolve and respond to student needs and a changing world.

On the other hand, any course that only talks about the current situation in terms of how to present well on a Zoom call is doing students a disservice. The world is indeed changing, and none of us really know where we’ll be in a year’s time.

There’s a feeling that despite all the development of online teaching, maybe now isn’t the time to over-speculate. Most of all, there’s a sense of community contraction – of wanting to work with those you really trust, and care for those students you most connect with. I think in a post-COVID world there’ll be a lot less automatic hugging of everyone we meet in a yoga space too.

Finally, many, many teachers I know are walking and swimming more, and spending a lot less time in practices that are introspective, even a lot less time on the mat. I speculate that teaching via Zoom intensifies the already strong tendency in our practices to the interoceptive and the performative. Together, these can become a feedback loop that exhausts and that feeds our most charismatic urges. I can’t quite articulate why yet, but I think the urge to walk and swim is an urge back to what we might call a growing proprioceptive turn – our need to examine how we make contact, how we meet the world, and practice being in relationship together. I think that might be the subject of my next webinar in fact! And I already have plans in place, as soon as it is safe, to get in a room with one or two trusted, talented friends, and explore this myself some more.

In the meantime, and in the hope that these fragments of speculation are helpful, please, stay well, and remember to take it gently. I have a feeling that your communities will need you more than ever in the years ahead. We just might need to get even more creative about how we meet that need.

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