More people are turning to the practice of yoga via the internet as state and local officials stress social distancing, close parking lots to beaches, shut down sports in parks and shutter indoor places to exercise.
The closures came ahead of a surge in coronavirus cases anticipated to hit Massachusetts some time between April 10 and 20.
Justine Wiltshire Cohen, director of Down Under School of Yoga with locations in Brookline, Cambridge, and Newton, teaches seven different styles of yoga at her school, where students learn to connect movement to breath, leaving them physically strong, but mentally quiet.
“So the breadth of our offerings, which has been actually our sort of hallmark,” Wiltshire Cohen said, “also posed this extraordinary challenge for how you would go virtual.”
Oddly enough, the coronavirus pandemic set a new path for people to explore an ancient tradition, regardless of the style of yoga a practitioner may enjoy.
The school’s 60 teachers had only three days to go from in-studio teaching to streaming some 240 virtual classes a week for thousands of students via Zoom.
“And of course, the irony here is up until this point, yoga is really an antidote to screens, right. Down Under has a really strict policy about no cell phones in class,” Wiltshire Cohen said.
She said the response from students has been overwhelmingly positive and the transition to streaming classes online has been seamless.
The popularity of yoga began long before the Covid-19 pandemic, but more people turning to relax and meditate most likely isn’t a coincidence.
A 2016 report in Harvard Health Publishing showed 37 million Americans practice yoga, an increase of almost 50 percent since 2012, and one out of four people believe “yoga is good for you.”
Several studies back up the belief that yoga can help manage health conditions that put people at higher risk of COVID-19 by improving cardiovascular fitness and flexibility and reducing stress, anxiety and pain.
But teaching and practicing virtual yoga during the pandemic hasn’t come without a few technical glitches. In some classes, the video or audio dropped out, leading the teacher to start over again.
The virtual transition brought a new learning curve for everyone from newcomers to experienced yogis. Once the classes got off the ground, practitioners took a collective breath as they started streaming yoga in their living rooms.
According to Wiltshire Cohen, her teachers had some fear and awkwardness about teaching a class without using their hands to adjust students' bodies and having only verbal cues and some demonstrating to lead them through postures.
Natasha Rizopoulos, a Down Under teacher of an alignment-based Vinyasa yoga, gave precise instructions. It has been easy to follow her voice. Since going virtual, Rizopoulos’ classes have had as many as 104 students at a time, some from as far away as Japan.
“And what's so exciting is that people are able to take my classes that aren't always able to,” Rizopoulos said, “whether it's because the timing of my classes hasn't worked for their schedule or because of geographic” distances.
Down Under Yoga uses a virtual platform with a pay window, so that instructors can maintain an income.
Patricia Walden, one of the school’s most treasured teachers, studied under the late BKS Iyengar In the 1970s, when he was the world’s foremost yoga teacher.
Walden’s classes have also attracted nearly 100 participants. She has embraced virtual yoga, saying the benefits of relaxation and mindfulness are present for all who attend.
“You're not alone, you might be alone in your living room, but you know that your part of a class,” Walden said. “You might not know who's in it, but there's a comfort in that.”
In the suburbs of Boston, Firefly Yoga Studios of Foxboro and Westwood has also switched to a virtual program.
The studio offers the classes free on Facebook, but also has a paywall through Mindbody, an appointment software program, so that instructors can still get paid.
Charlotte Falkner of Mansfield said that when COVID-19 disrupted her weekly studio classes, she immediately enrolled in streaming classes
“Being able to take the classes at home and it's all streaming live,” Falkner said. “So, you're right in there with the teachers for things. And you're able to keep a part of normal in your life.”
Practicing yoga virtually in the time of coronavirus has given some people back a little bit of normalcy.