Taking Yoga Off-Screen

What might our days look like if written as a practice?

2020 eh? What a year!

So much has had to change and so fast. It seems that more and more of our lives are being spent in front of a screen of some sort, whether that be doing the weekly grocery shop online, seeing family and friends via FaceTime or talking to staff in the local school separated by masks and a sheet of plastic.
And our yoga too. Whether you are teaching or practicing, suddenly it was all about Zoom, and for many it still is. Studios are struggling to keep afloat with the on off on off lockdowns and new safety measures, and students are less able to attend, with health issues, financial challenges, work and family pressures all vying for time.

Some people are really enjoying attending classes online. A quick straw-poll I conducted found that many students are finding it convenient to be able to do a practice in their own home either taking a pre-recorded class as and when suits them, or needing the discipline of attending a live online class to get them onto the mat in the first place. In the name of research I attended an online class myself, not yoga, but another physical modality which was being offered by a popular London yoga studio. I tried to attend with an open mind. The sound quality was not good, and the teacher was doing a great job, but nonetheless attending to students online and in person simultaneously meant that attention of both the teacher and the students was divided.

The Value of Self Practice
As with many yoga practitioners in the tradition of Desikachar and Krishnamacharya, I have a regular self practice which has been ongoing now for many years. It has seen me through thick and thin, and it seemed to come into its own during this pandemic. No classes? No problem! I’m not a great student for other teachers now anyway as my practice has become so breath focused that having someone telling me when to do things and what to think about feels very distracting. My breath provides the path and my task is to notice when my awareness has wandered from it.

I felt so grateful to be practicing in this way that I began to wonder why others aren’t more drawn to it. Why is it that the traditional one to one method of teaching and learning, from which we benefit so much, is not more popular?
What prompted me to write this piece was a conversation with my mentor about just that. I had been wondering about ways we can share the teaching model of this tradition more widely. It looks as though student numbers are going to be restricted and variable for some time, so how best to encourage people to move to a personal home practice with monthly one to one ‘check-in’s’ with your teacher online?

Taking practice off of the screen

By using the model of one to one teaching and mentorship that we currently have in this tradition I think we have a chance to encourage people to move their practice away from the screens. The time we spend online is reducing our attention spans and its interesting to me that many of those who I spoke to about practicing online said that they liked it because they could do it at home which was more convenient, but when I spoke about a self practice they felt they did not have the self discipline to do it. So how can we help to develop this in people? Perhaps we need to hold our students to account. Ask that they feed back to us about how a particular aspect of their practice has been. Use the same techniques Desikachar did to get people to lie in relaxation when they may well feel pulled to get up and get on – ‘I’d like you to lie down here and take twelve slow breaths in and out each day and notice what happens. I’ll be asking you to share your experience when I see you again in three weeks’ etc.

Why Encourage More Time Offline?

Your screen wants your time. Have you ever had a quick glance at your phone to check the weather forecast and found yourself, thirty minutes later reading an article you didn’t intend to and still having not checked the weather? Are you even supposed to be reading this now? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – their algorithms have been designed so that they learn what keeps you online, what keeps you looking at the screen, and then they give you more of that and they are not doing it to improve your wellbeing. Social media is not benevolent. They are doing it so that you will see more adverts, because that’s the name of the game, selling you stuff. You are not the customer, you are the ‘user’. You, or more accurately your attention, is what is for sale here and the customer is the advertising companies. Once we’re hooked, the real commodity they sell is their ability to influence and manipulate us.

These glowing screens full of promise have lured us in like sirens calling us onto the rocks. We are poorly equipped, as a species, to resist the supercomputers and their algorithms. They know us better than we know ourselves.

So how can we learn to move away? How can we strengthen ourselves? What chance do we stand?

1.35 viṣayavatī vā pravṛttirutpannā manasaḥ sthitinibandhinī
“The role of senses, such as sight and hearing, in providing information to the mind is significant. These senses are the doors of perception and we are often their slaves. But can we not examine what is even more powerful in us than our senses? Can we not make them sharper and at our disposal?”
From “Reflections on Yogasūtra-s of Patanjali” by TKV Desikachar

Puruṣa – we have soul. We have consciousness! This is our one advantage, as I see it. By coming to see and hear more clearly, by strengthening that link between puruṣa and prakṛti we can begin to see where we are caught and to free ourselves. There is hope.

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