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The Ethical Yogi: Teaching in the time of COVID-19

Jude Mills
Apr 2, 2020 4:57:55 PM

It is interesting, writing this, that my first “Ethical Yogi” article was about touch. We are so far now from being able to touch our students in real space that a whole new and complex set of practical, technical and ethical issues have become much more apparent.

Someone put a message out into a yoga teaching Facebook space the other day – “Is there anyone who isn’t doing yoga classes on Zoom?” It was meant to be funny, but it was also a genuine question. It was, perhaps unintentionally, a glaring  and uncomfortable commentary on the sudden and overwhelming glut of online yoga classes, on Facebook, YouTube and Zoom, as yoga teachers everywhere responded to the overnight loss of job and livelihood.  It seemed like the obvious  - temporary - response. Just until we can get back into the studio. 

As the Covid19 situation continues, and we are realising that this isn’t necessarily going to be any different any time soon,  that we’re not getting back into the studio next week. That there might not even be a studio at the end of lock down, I have an intensifying gut level discomfort. I have a weight in the pit of my stomach, similar to the one I have always had about the Yoga Industrial Complex, but with edges.  Matthew Remski’s recent article is well worth a read for some insightful comments on the short and longer term considerations for yoga teachers turning to online teaching. 

“[…] I believe it’s naïve to think about this condition as temporary, and about the online space as a “holding tank” for a brick-and-mortar business that will just pick up where it left off.”

 There are wider  implications and questions about the sustainability of yoga teaching within any business model that are inevitably going to come into sharper focus as this situation progresses. I don’t necessarily have answers  but I do have some questions for reflections, which I have encased in the principles of Ahimsa, Aparigraha and Ishvara Pranidhana. Triggering as these questions might be, I encourage sitting with them in the spirit of the discernment that is Yoga. 


1. Ahimsa (or, is this a safe container?)

It goes without saying that the online space is not the same as being in the actual physical space with our students. As brilliant as apps like Zoom are  (I am a big fan) they cannot  necessarily replicate the physical presence of teacher and student and the necessary intimacy  and trust of the relationship. My feeling - and experience - is that it can work very well in a one to one situation, where we know the student or client very well and we can really focus in on what they are doing and get feedback. It can also – potentially – work well with a small group of students that we know well and who we can see and hear. 

However,  some folks are taking to online options like Facebook Live and YouTube and in these media , the teacher cannot see who is following, and there is no  immediate feedback from the students – verbally, visually or energetically. Whilst it is possible to see people on products like Zoom, they can accommodate such large numbers that it isn’t possible to track who is even there, never mind what they are doing, or  - perhaps more importantly - how they are feeling. People can join and choose to have their video feed off.  For me, in a live teaching situation, this would be like teaching a class where some of the students were listening to me from outside the door. 

My question is…is this a safe container for the practice and teaching of yoga? The invitation of Ahimsa is to feel into non-harming relationships with ourselves, our students, our wider communities and, ultimately, the planet that we live on. 

The Yoga insurers have some specific answers around what they will cover and what they won’t which is perhaps a clear view from a practical health and safety perspective. On the whole, they will cover one to one and small classes in a medium where the teacher can see  and receive feedback from the students, and where they either know the students beforehand or be able to ask the necessary health and medical questions up front of everyone participating. Some will cover pre-recorded video classes on YouTube where the audience is limited to those who are known students. Please do check with your insurance provider for their specific terms.

In ‘normal’ times, let alone the anxiety inducing time of a global pandemic, yoga is where people come to heal and they bring with them their traumas. In a setting where we know our students and they know us and we can create a safe space for the yoga to do its stuff, then the ability to be online and be present to our students is a real gift. Outside of this container, it may not hold someone in the way that they need to be held.  


2. Aparigraha  (or, what is our motivation?)

  “Apparently now, we all need new yoga clothes to wear when practising from home!” 

This recent comment from a friend was simultaneously hilarious (to those of us who have been wearing nothing but pyjamas for days on end) and  a deeply uncomfortable acknowledgment of a more deeply uncomfortable reality about this ‘industry’. A global crisis  has most of us shut into our homes, and is bringing a lot of our ordinary behaviours into a more survival-oriented perspective. And all of this is bringing market-oriented values more starkly into view. Did we ever need the yoga clothes? 

In the past two weeks, my social media feeds and e-mail inbox have seen a flurry of advertising from yoga and embodiment world. Many teachers have taken their teaching online, and many new offerings have appeared online. Some teachers have ramped up their teaching schedules,  offering three, four, five online classes every day. Individual teachers and schools are offering courses – free and paid - to help the less technical able yoga teachers get online. There is an almost overwhelming number of offers of help and support.    Some of it is wonderful and timely and needed,  and some of it is perhaps not so altruistically motivated. 

My question is – what is the motivation for your offering? Feel into it. The invitation of Aparigraha  is  to reflect on what we are seeking or grasping after, which is often from a place fear of lack or loss of control. Is this where you want your offering to come from?

There are some providers out there who have quickly - and I’m going to say cynically  - harnessed the power of  their skill and an online captive market.  In the midst of what is a radical global change, many of us may be feeling desperate to hang on to any semblance of the old normal. There is potential there for  the personal and commercial exploitation of vulnerability that really needs to be held in our awareness.  

And – I’m going to say it - if the desire to potentially profit out of this situation is there, stop it! Really. Stop it right now.

3. Ishvara Pranidhana  (or, whose need are we meeting?)

My third question for reflection has some overlap with the discuss of Aparigraha but more deeply explores the issues around the need or desire to help.  Many of us in this business are drawn to it, not just out of empathy and compassion, but because of our own need for healing. We might acknowledge this in the archetype of ‘The Wounded Healer.’  Our wounds can be a significant strength in helping others and so it isn’t  essentially a bad thing if it is held in awareness. I include it here because  our motivations  can easily fall into shadow when we are ourselves in a state of fear or trauma activation. Additionally, our students, who may be in a state of fear or trauma, are vulnerable, and the person in the position of power in a relationship is the one who is offering the help. We must hold this very carefully. 

The wounded Healer is one aspect of the Healer Archetype. One of twelve archetypes suggested by Carl Jung as descriptors of the mythical and universal characteristics that reside in the collective unconscious, that we all embody to some degree or another.  It is not the only way to examine these issues, but it is a useful model.

The Healer archetype, with the strengths of humility and intuition, has a desire to change lives. In shadow however, this can manifest as martyrdom, manipulation and even abuse of power. Some of us may embody the ‘Hero’ archetype, a symbol which has been put to great use by the media in manipulating our emotional reaction to this crisis. (As an NHS frontline worker, I am not down with the Hero thing at all!)  With the strengths of courage and tenacity, the Hero’s motivation is  to improve the world, or people’s lives. The shadow side is that the Hero often ends up trying to ‘rescue’ people, and feel unable to stop. They need to be needed.  The ‘Caregiver’ archetype may also surface. With the strengths of generosity and compassion, the Caregiver simply wants to help others, but in shadow, they risk being taken advantage of and of helping people inappropriately, i.e. whether they want it or not!  Ultimately,  they all risk burnout. 

My question is - In your online offering, whose need are you meeting? How are you holding an awareness of not slipping into shadow? The invitation of  Ishvara Pranidhana is to hold - at the centre of our practice and our teaching - the surrender to  that which is greater than ourselves. And that ultimately means surrendering any desire to be in control. 

All of this invites us to  be honest about what we are actually doing  in our online offerings, and why. Perhaps reflecting on whether it is our job to be helping at all. Set within this is a deeper reflection also in holding our own - and others’  - boundaries with awareness and compassion. In times of crisis, and in new, constantly changing situations, there is potential for the  boundaries to be very blurry indeed.  

There is also risk of reaching into spaces and adopting roles that are outside our scope of practice. This is not an uncommon issue in the yoga teaching world. The desire to help is strong, and it can easily take us into places that we are not qualified or equipped to hold. Accepting  the limits of our reach, our influence and our expertise  might feel frustrating when it feels like ‘doing something’ is all that we can offer. In this situation, knowing that there are other skilled professionals out there doing their thing, and that it is not our job to make it all better,  can be a helpful and reassuring addition to our own reflective practice.  


In all of this my final question is how can you practice being compassionately present  to yourself, your motivations, needs, shadows and fears in all of this? Perhaps the answer lies in turning to the strength of your own practice before reaching out into the online space.  


With love, Jude

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