Philosophy, Yoga

Frank Answers About Zoom Yoga During COVID-19

Question: Hi there, Being home all the time, I have not been going to the gym and I have gained weight. I already have a problem with that because I am a 3x cancer survivor and my metabolism isn’t the greatest anymore but I know it has to work some. Being alone makes it hard to be responsible for making myself work out. I did yoga one summer a few years ago and loved it but that class ended. Do you have online classes I can do from my home?   I appreciate any advice and information you give me. 

Frank answers: I’m not a yoga teacher, so I have no classes to offer. But I practice yoga regularly during COVID-19 via Zoom. Many yoga studios began offering all-virtual classes last March and April and it has proven very successful. I attend three Zoom yoga classes each week, as well as a Zoom exercise class once a week. In my experience, even though we’re not meeting in the flesh, those who attend the class regularly get to know one another in our zoom boxes and form little online communities. I will tell you about my yoga practice in more detail, but first let me encourage you and my other readers to use precisely this time of pandemic to get into yoga for the right reasons.

Western Carolina University Zoom yoga class

Yoga is a fitness routine for many people. A well rounded practice uses just about every muscle in the body. It provides an opportunity to work on breath control (pranayama), balance, flexibility, and strength. But the main thing yoga offers is the unity of mind and body. Yoga is not just about the body; it is also about the mind. The root of the word yoga, yug, means “to link together.” It’s the same root as the English “yoke.” Yoga links together mind and body.

Navasana (“boat pose”) provides balance, flexibility, abdominal strength — and don’t forget to breathe (even counts of inhales and exhales). This boat needs wind power to stay afloat.

Why did the ancient yogis develop ways of linking mind and body? Because they were looking for ways to address the universal issue of suffering. This was a major area of philosophic and religious reflection in India. The Buddha had discerned that “all is anguish, all is ephemeral.” Our minds are disturbed by the threat of the novel coronavirus, especially as we see how easily it spreads and see the rising global and local death toll. Our minds are disturbed about this mortal threat.

One of the classic yoga texts, the Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms attributed to the sage Patanjali (dated to the early centuries of the common era), states in Book II: 15, “To the discerning person, all actions result in only pain” (Translation by Mukunda Stiles, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali {San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2002}, p. 20). Perhaps our actions are disappointing, our desires unfulfilled, and our thoughts about it vascillate. This leads to anguish or suffering. Isvara Krishna, the author of the most ancient Samkhya treatise, Samkhya Karika (same time period as Yoga Sutras), states that there are three kinds of suffering from which we desire to escape: heavenly suffering (provoked by the gods), earthly suffering (caused by nature), and inner suffering (caused by our own mental vascillations).

We are experiencing all three of these forms of suffering during this coronavirus pandemic. The virus itself is natural, passed from animals to humans (earthly suffering). Because it can be deadly or at least debilitating we fear it and take precautions to avoid infection (inner suffering). What is often left unspoken, but not unthought, is whether this is an expression of divine wrath (heavenly or divine suffering). (Theologically wrath is the withholding of grace.) How does yoga help us deal with these forms of anguish or suffering? Patanjali states in Yoga Sutra I:2, “Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vascillating waves of perception.” Yoga citta vrtti nirodhah (“Yoga ceases the vascillations of the mind”) is probably the main Sanskrit sentence most yoga teachers know.

This is the classic definition of yoga. In the most practical sense, putting the body into the postures (asanas) of yoga focuses attention on what the body is doing and in that moment we cease to think about the vascillations of the mind that cause suffering. We are really leaving worldly cares behind as we come to the mat in yoga practice. Yoga provides a resource by which we gain liberation from suffering. A trick is to hold a pose for a lengthy time until it begins to produce suffering and then use the breath to relax more deeply into the pose. Of course, at that moment you are focused on the breath and not the pose that is causing the discomfort and pain.

High lunge. This guy is probably lowering and raising his back leg.

This is obviously not knowledge one gains from one yoga class experience. It’s far deeper and involves more categories than I have summoned here. It definitely is not knowledge one picks up without the guidance of a guru or teacher. Mircea Eliade, the great pioneer in the comparative study of religion in the early 20th century and the first Westerner to write an academic study of yoga, emphasized the need for a guru because he regarded yoga as an initiation process that puts to death in us worldly suffering and frees us for eternity. It is only by transcending the world that we gain a perspective on the causes of suffering. Eliade wrote in Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), pp. 106–07,

The symbolism of initiatory death is clearly discernible in the various psychophysiological techniques peculiar to Yoga. If we watch a yogi while he is practicing Yoga, we get the impression that he is trying in every way to do exactly the opposite of what is done ‘in the world,’ that is, what men do as men, prisoners of their own ignorance. We see that, instead of constantly moving, the yogi immobilizes himself in an absolutely static posture, a posture which is called asana and which makes him like a stone or a plant. To the agitated and unrhythmical breathing of the man who lives in the world, he opposes pranayama, rhythmical reduction of the tempo of respiration, and dreams of finally achieving complete suspension of breath. To the chaotic flux of psychomental life, he replies by fixing his thought on a single point (eksgrata). In short, he does the opposite of what life obliges man to do—and he does this in order to free himself from the multifarious conditionings that constitute the whole of profane existence, and to make his way to an unconditioned plane, a plane of absolute freedom.”

A Hindu yogi naga sadhu (naked holy man) in tree pose with an eagle in the branches

The ancient yogis literally renounced worldly responsibilities, shed their clothing and went off to live in caves in the forests and mountains. We find ourselves becoming worldly renouncers also as we sequester in our homes, go out into society only to replenish essential supplies like food, and there maintain social distancing while wearing masks. In person yoga studios have been slow to reopen because of the government guidelines. In some places they have now closed again. But teachers are offering online classes, mostly using the Zoom technology. We open our lap tops and tablets and join online virtual classes in our own homes.

Zoom rooms, as they’re called, are where I practice yoga during COVID-19 in my own home. I participate in classes with two different teachers with whom I have worked for years: Nick Beem at Grateful Yoga in Evanston and Lance Hoagland with Windy City Naked Yoga. Both teachers offer classes that would appeal to men.

Nick is into evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and cosmology and physics (he has a science background) and relates the insights of these sciences to the practice of yoga, also with references to ancient yoga texts. As is typical of most yoga studios, most of Nick’s students are women. But I think men would appreciate his appeal to the mind as well as the body and his integration of modern science with classical yoga. Nick has us hold poses and use the breath as the source of energy.

Lance offers all-men’s classes (clothing optional) and is very good at addressing male issues, such as our reputed lack of physical flexibility and penchant for being competitive. (Yoga is not a competitive sport.) Lance also offers a free meditation class on Saturdays at 9 am that is attended by 12-15 men that focuses on stilling and focusing the mind. Surveys show that meditation and mindfulness also appeal to men.

(I mention what might appeal to men not because I think women shouldn’t practice yoga, but because of the difficulty of getting men on the mat. Even as I googled “Zoom yoga” images I found few with male participants or male teachers.)

For classes with Nick check out https://www.gratefulyoga.com/

Nick Beem teaching a yoga class via Zoom back in early April.

For classes with Lance check out https://www.meetup.com/Windy-City-Naked-Yoga/

Lance teaching on Zoom during his first week of Zoom yoga.

I don’t know where you live, but the great advantage of Zoom is that it doesn’t matter. You can zoom from anywhere on the worldwide web. In Lance’s Saturday morning half-hour meditation (free) and 75-minute men’s yoga class (both on Zoom) we have participants from different states as well as Germany and South Africa. Conversely, you could look for yoga experiences in other parts of the world that would provide an opportunity for virtual travel while we avoid actual travel because of the global pandemic. Here’s a yoga studio I learned about in London that offers yoga classes for men with all-male teachers on the staff, including men’s naked yoga. https://www.brewerstreetyoga.com/

Matthew Gough is a yoga teacher in London who is teaching online at Brewer Street Yoga.

You could check out yoga studios in the area where you live and see if they offer virtual classes in anticipation of attending classes there in-person once COVID-19 is under control. You could also find a yoga teacher anywhere in the world who looks interesting and check out his or her studio website to see if he or she offers virtual classes and how to sign up for them. This is yoga on the world-wide web and credit cards are accepted almost everywhere.

All Hatha-based yoga classes follow a similar sequence. They move from opening stretches and warm-up poses (called vinyasa because they are a repetitive flow), to standing poses, climaxing in what Lance calls the apex pose (the toughest one of the practice, for which he prepares the body in the previous poses), and cool-down stretches on the floor before the final resting or corpse pose (savasana). There will usually be a brief concluding guided meditation time. For a fuller description of this sequence see Frank Answers About Autumn Themes: Fitness, Food, Yoga, and Death—Reflections During COVID-19.

Yoga classes should include at least a brief time for meditation since the purpose of yoga practice is to bring body and mind together. The original purpose of asana was a “seat” in which one could be at rest during meditation.

Ideally you should have a sticky mat, which can be purchased at almost any big box store. A couple of yoga blocks and a yoga strap would also be helpful. Gym shorts, running shorts, or sweat pants work well for men . If you feel you must wear a shirt (I prefer not to — I find being shirtless freeing and energizing), make it tight-fitting. Yoga is performed barefoot. Your expenses will be minimal.

The unfortunate downside of virtual yoga classes and even in person in studio classes during this COVID-time is that the teacher can’t physically help move your body into poses. Yoga is all about the body and just like my first piano teacher used to place my fingers in a correct posture on the keyboard, so yoga teachers can move bodies into a better position in a pose with a light touch. Nobody is getting touched or doing any touching right now, which is creating a human deficiency. Yet even in virtual yoga you can learn more about your body in relation to your mind and how they affect and effect each other.

Frank

This is what we miss in virtual yoga.

Leave a Reply