Teaching Yoga Online — Does It Still Work?

Mark Whitwell
6 min readSep 24, 2020

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Insights from the past four months of teaching online, helping people establish a home Yoga practice during lockdown.

IT’S WORTH INVESTING IN SOME TINFOIL AND A CARDBOARD BOX IF YOU PLAN TO TEACH YOGA ONLINE

In this time of our physical isolation from each other, we have no choice but to reach out and teach online. We have no choice but to teach or, a better word, share our Yoga. Paradoxically, Yoga has always been a personal practice that you do in the sanctuary of your own home and in the temple of your heart which is the whole body. This time of extreme difficulty is the time to establish a home Yoga practice, personally and then in the public.

To my surprise, a small silver lining of these pandemics is that I am able to teach Yoga to many more people online than I ever could have met with in person. As we connect around the world, there’s no limits to class size, or barriers on the basis of geography or people’s income.

I recently taught a mother of two who was in lockdown in a large city. At first she had felt like her own home had become a prison. She began her daily Yoga practice purely on the basis of prerecorded materials in the online immersion we urgently put out. A couple of months later, she arranged for a meeting on Zoom. I was deeply touched when she reported that her practice had transformed her home into a sanctuary. She said she felt comfortable in her own body and breath, and that this now flowed into a sense of relationship and peace in her home and with her family, despite the ongoing difficulties of lockdown.

I have been surprised by how much feeling is possible online — I’d say 95 percent, maybe sometimes more. Sometimes before doing a Zoom call I feel like staying lying down, but as soon as I connect with the people in front of me, it is energising and interesting.

The Principles of Personal Practice

If you are privileged to have a Yoga that gives you a depth of intimacy with your experience and others, then you have for some unknown reason been selected as one of the ones to share that practice. Your job is not to provide an entertaining or pacifying experience for your students, or to control people into a certain state or mood, but to give people the breath technology that teaches them how to engage the intelligence and beauty of their own natural state.

Just like a music teacher, we arrange for a lesson with our students and then ask them to go home and practice. We teach people how to play their own music, rather than getting them hooked on going to our concerts every night of the week. The lockdown and the virus have shown all of us the importance of being able to make music ourselves.

To do this, we are primarily teaching the principles of personal practice and adapting Yoga to each person’s body type, age, health, and cultural background. Give a practice to your student and let them know that it is something very special to have a personal practice that is right for them — inculcate the feeling that it is a treasure.

What makes a practice right for a student? The specific asana is the least of it. The length of the breath, the retentions, use of mantra or other sound, the length of practice, the balance of langhana and brahmana, the appropriate inversion, the location, the use of other cultural practices such as japa, prayer, chanting, singing, or yantra. Visualisation, what you hold in your heart, what your yoga is in relationship with.

As a teacher, it is okay to use a computer and a camera, do not hesitate thinking that you must have the top-of-the-line equipment. After taking your student through a practice, you can draw it up on paper, take a photo and email it to them. As much as possible, know yourself to be in the same room together — the room of Mother Earth.

Am I Qualified to Teach?

Many people have said to me that “there is already so much Yoga out there, why would anybody want anything from me?” Whilst there is a lot of what is called Yoga out there, how much of it involves the breath technology that will actually give people a liberating experience?

We have all felt a valid distaste for the public spectacle of the Yoga fitness industry swarming into the online space during these past months. It is easy to react against this and not go online at all. But where do we think that this cycle of real human need being met with shoddy goods will actually end if we are not present to share authentic practice?

If you have a good teacher, if you do your own Yoga, and you care about others, then you are qualified to teach. If you feel afraid, then feel the fear and do it anyway. I was struck recently when I heard Bruce Springsteen say that in his entire career he never once went on stage without feeling nervous. Fear is good because it gives you the energy to step up and do a good job. It lets you know that the meeting is important and that if you don’t do it, nobody else will.

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Finally, when you are teaching, you are not practicing. Your practice is something inward, private, and personal and it would be impossible to experience this whilst relating outwards with a group of people. Our practice informs our teaching from an inner well.

I suggest that we learn to teach with as little demonstration as possible. The norms of demonstration are what led Ram Dass to say to me that he had never been impressed by Yoga because all his teachers had been show-offs. Even if it is not intended as showing off, demonstrations always carry the risk of setting yourself up as an ideal model to be duplicated by the student. Our minds are already saturated with this habit of comparison and attempt to duplicate ideals, and so we must work actively against this. Some students will be used to watching a teacher to know what to do, but will soon adapt to your voice instructions, and their attention will be freed up for a more internal experience (pratyahara).

In my experience, it’s best to observe students rather than demonstrate so you can see what they are doing and give verbal cues in response to that. We become better and better at describing asana with our voice, always teaching the basic principles.

Not being able to hear people’s breath is absolutely a challenge. Remind them regularly of the importance of the smooth, receptive ujjayi inhale, especially in any asana that is physically challenging, such as shoulderstand. Help people tune into their own breath and self-regulate, listening for their own smooth and full inhale as the sign that they are safely within their own limits. The breath is the guru. In this way you empower people with self-knowledge, svadhyaya.

Yoga has always been a personal practice in the sanctuary of your own home, in the heart’s temple — the whole body. Our sincere offering to the world in its extreme current situation is that the most practical thing we can do is to turn to our wisdom traditions, to be intimate with our Earth and with each other. Release what is old and receive what is new. Empty what is full and fill what is empty. Inhale and exhale with the whole body. Let’s all do this now.

Mark Whitwell

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Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.