Flourishing Online: What makes a successful pandemic yoga class?

Definitely having an established student base has been a bonus for me, but also consistency, showing up day in, day out, and being open with students about how I am feeling and coping in order to start conversations.” Ruthie Thomas (yoga teacher)

Unless you’ve been living on Mars for the past ten months, you won’t need any introduction to the Covid-19 pandemic, and if you’re a yoga teacher you’ll be acutely aware of how absolutely the coming of Covid has transformed the ways in which we offer yoga. What’s struck me in mentoring yoga teachers through this period, is what a different experience we’re all having of translating our work online. While some teachers are flourishing in the virtual space, others are struggling to generate any online participation at all. As I’ve listened to individual teachers’ stories, I’ve been contemplating what some of the factors might be that make an online yoga class successful. Of course, yoga teachers and yoga student cohorts are all very different, and it’s impossible to be systematic where so much variation is at play, but there do seem to be some common themes when it comes to creating an online class offering that feels juicy and and inviting to potential students.

Community
For me, and for many of the teachers I talked to in researching this article, far and away the biggest factor in motivating existing students to join virtual classes has been pre-existing yoga relationships. In this sense, the pandemic has clearly favoured established teachers who create and run their own classes over those who mostly work for studios and gyms. It was resoundingly clear from my conversations that independent teachers who have been proactive for many years in creating and fostering community among their students generally have very good retention of students online.

Community in the context of this article means that students care about one another, they notice when someone is missing from class and ask about them, they support each other through difficult life events, celebrate birthdays, go out together for coffee and make real friendships. As an outgrowth of regular embodied practice where authenticity is valued, yoga community is a space where it’s safe for people to be real and to have real feelings – the kind of space that has never been more necessary than during the pandemic. More on this below.

A feature of most successful community-based online classes is time given before or after practice for sharing in words. Yoga teacher Collette Crook says:

We created a community at the outset. The Zoom call would be open beforehand for people to have a cuppa and chat with their friends before I joined to teach. Then they could also remain afterwards.

Yoga teacher Tabitha Dootson adds:

It has been very important to have time before class to socialise. From helping cut fringes to sharing recipes, the pre-class Zoom time has been as supportive as the yoga.

At the end of most of my classes, we hold a virtual circle, in which everyone has time to speak about how they’re doing and how the practice has been for them. I cap classes at 14 to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be seen and heard. When we first moved online, one student commented that he actually felt more connected to the other participants in the virtual class, because he got to hear from everyone – and sharings after practice tend to be especially genuine and heart-felt.

Commitment
As a Mysore teacher, I’m fortunate in that I’m working with possibly the most committed yoga tribe on the planet. Believe me, it takes a lot more than a pandemic to stop ashtangis practising! Students’ commitment to practice, was another factor that many teachers named as being key to sustaining yoga classes online. Yoga teacher Sunnah Rose says, ‘I have some amazing regular students that just want to continue to have yoga in their life.’ Yoga teacher / therapist Liz Brown Siggers adds:

I’m fortunate that the majority of my students are very commited yog(in)is; yoga is an important part of their life. They want to continue to develop their practice and find it a useful tool to cope during these difficult times.

Like community, commitment is a slow build, the product of many years of dedicated teaching, often to few people and for little money or kudos. Teachers with committed students are usually also notable for commitment to the laboratory of their own practice. These are teachers who are able to teach as an outgrowth of their own experiential learning, offering well rounded classes, from a solid knowledge base, focused on actual yoga rather than fitness or striking attitudes in designer leggings.

Consistency
When the pandemic hit, what my students really appreciated was that I was still there, and yoga was still there, and their practice comrades were still there, at the same time, on the same day, week after week, even when life as we knew it seemed to be crumbling around our ears. For me as a teacher, this kind of reliability felt like an outgrowth of love – of the practice and of the practising community – and of belief in yoga as a tool of embodiment that can enable us to live in a more conscious and compassionate way.

Adaptability
While consistency is important, there’s a balance to be struck between maintaining familiarity and adapting to changing needs. Yoga teacher Julie Elder says:

What worked for me prior to lockdown just wasn’t happening with Zoom – particularly daytime classes, when a lot of people are having to home school. I found that making classes earlier (about 7am) suited a lot more people. I’ve also added a 30-minute lunchtime chair yoga and other shorter classes, as well as meditation classes, which are gaining interest.

What works for you is going to depend on your demographic. Ask your students what they’d like and when they’d like it. While many teachers have shortened class times, mine are still mostly 90 minutes. Not everyone is able to take this long out of their day for yoga, but my students have appreciated having time to go deep and really immerse themselves in practice.

A safe space to feel
Aspirational straplines like ‘feel fabulous fast’ tend not to play well in pandemic yoga. Many people are not feeling fabulous, and their chief goal is to manage the challenges of isolation (or forced co-habitation), home schooling, unemployment, long Covid, and so on … with their mental health reasonably intact. Being frank about our own emotional challenges, while holding appropriate professional boundaries, can open up the space for students to acknowledge their own feelings, and can make it OK for them not to be coping superbly with all the difficulties pandemic life is throwing at them. This is what yoga can uniquely offer that the plethora of online fitness opportunities cannot, and is a reason that many people come to a live yoga class, rather than (or as well as) sticking with Youtube HIIT.

Low production values
I’m not filming for Yogaglo or aiming to dominate the global yoga market, and my classes are definitely on the hand-knitted end of the spectrum. My typical class features pets, small children and partners entering stage left to make a cup of tea or spot a headstand, and low production values feel to me more in keeping with this vibe. Students who are less confident with online communications often feel more comfortable in this kind of setting and more willing to give it a go. If you’re able to stream from a spacious studio, I envy you, but if you can’t, bear in mind that your students will mostly be practising in their kitchen or or a corner of their bedroom, and a teacher doing likewise may be better able to create relationships that feel real and based on parity.

I teach with a rather old Macbook Air, which gets moved between a chair and a tripod, and I use the internal mike and speakers. A few teachers I talked to had invested in better cameras, sound equipment and monitors and were offering a much slicker production – and if that fits with your teaching ethos, go for it – but this was clearly not essential or even important in creating flourishing classes.

A word on music
If you share music from your laptop or phone via the regular sound share option on Zoom, it’s going to sound pretty awful. You also don’t have control over sound levels, so there’s no guarantee that you’ll be audible over the music. Possible solutions are to teach without music – I know it sounds radical but some teachers have been doing it for several decades! We live in a very noisy world, and a break from the onslaught of sound can be welcome. Another alternative that works for some teachers is to prepare a playlist on Mixcloud or Spotify for students to use if they want it. I’m also a conscious dance teacher so I have DJ software (Traktor) that enables me to share music via Zoom and have pretty good sound quality. This is designed for professional DJs, so it’s expensive and is not an install and go affair, and I recommend this route only if you really want to take your music use to the next level.

Be yourself
You don’t need to be Adriene or Kino in order to teach worthwhile and well attended online yoga classes. Your students really want to see you and hear your voice, particularly when so much around them is different and uncertain. Yoga teacher Charlie Merton says:

Do you, rather than imitating others you perceive to be successful. I’ve noticed teachers trying to up their game, which is fair enough, but in doing so they are sacrificing who they are – creating a persona for Insta rather than being honest and genuine in their approach.

Teachers with a strong grounding in their own authenticity are more likely to have something of worth to offer their students, and students – especially the serious, long-term ones – will recognise this and gravitate towards it. 

Don’t compete with the corporates
If you want a successful class, offer your students what they can’t get on commercial platforms: real beating hearts and in-the-moment presence. While we may not be able to put on a polished production in a large and pristine space, as independent yoga teachers we have much to offer our students that is not available from Youtube, corporate gym classes or huge Facebook streamings. An independent teacher can:

• Offer teaching geared to who’s in the Zoom room.
• Give individual feedback.
• Welcome everyone by name.
• Know each student’s history and practice.

All of these things contribute to making your yoga class more valuable to your students than the many free offerings available out there. 

Reconnect with students past
One of the unexpected boons of the pandemic for many teachers has been the return to online classes of students who have moved out of the local area. It has been truly delightful for our practice community to welcome some very much missed practitioners back into the online shala. Teachers with a national (or international) profile, those who travel to teach workshops and those who teach retreats have a particularly rich source of former students who can now attend classes from anywhere in the world. If you have students who have moved away or who you taught on a retreat, it’s worth dropping them a friendly line, reminding them that you still exist and sending them your schedule.

Freebies
In the world of pandemic yoga it can be extra challenging to expand your student base. A free event can help to generate new interest, while also giving back to your regular students and re-engaging regulars who have lapsed. Yoga teacher Julie Dodd says:

With my young son around I don’t have much time to promote my classes at the moment, but I tried something recently that worked and didn’t take long. I set up a free taster class via Eventbrite. If the event is free, there’s no booking charge. I’m certainly going to try it again in the future.

During the pandemic I have exchanged free workshops with colleagues in various places in the world, and during the first weekend back after Christmas, I offered a day of free yoga classes, which was hugely popular and has led to a few newcomers booking for paid classes. An event like this also gives regular students a hook to hang an invitation on for friends or family who have expressed an interest in yoga but not yet made the leap. You could also invite a physiotherapist or osteopath to talk about injury prevention, in exchange for publicity and some yoga classes, or invite a yoga teacher or therapist with an interesting specialism.

If you offer something free, make sure you follow up with paid opportunities to engage, and ensure that the relationship between free and for-a-fee events works for you. If the balance between energy out and energy back in is out of kilter, you’re likely to end up feeling resentful.

Stay in touch
While it’s not a good idea to deluge your students with emails (unless you want to shorten your subscription list!), it is helpful to remind your students regularly that you are there for them. Send them the schedule, including clear details of where and how to book. I’ve found that with all the stresses of the pandemic it’s particularly easy for students to fall off the yoga wagon, and they often appreciate a nudge to bring them back on board.

Concessions
Most of my classes have a scale of fees: regular income, low income, and financial hardship (which is free). Personally, I like to maintain some structure around booking and paying. I feel that it’s a part of the mutual commitment made by both teacher and student to the class. Other teachers are working on a donation basis during the pandemic, taking payment through Paypal or similar, and sending out Zoom links to their entire student list. How you do this is up to you, and will also reflect how dependent you are on your yoga work for income. Whichever system you use, make sure the agreement with your students is clear, just as you would for in-person classes. I think it’s a good idea to have a fee policy. Mine is here.

Help with tech
Many successful online teachers, especially those with older student cohorts, have been proactive in helping students to get online – walking them slowly through the process of booking, joining a Zoom meeting, muting and unmuting, toggling between views and so on. It can be helpful to explain to your students that it doesn’t matter if they lose their sound or appear upside down, that this is just a simple gathering for some yoga, not a BBC production. If you have a lot of nervous students, you could hold a free meeting simply for talking through Zoom and experimenting with all the different menus and buttons.

Seamless booking
A booking system with Zoom integration makes it simple for students to book and means that they can do it instantaneously. It also means that you won’t be chasing up payments or wondering how many people are actually coming to the class. I use Smoothbook, which is very cheap, and enables me to have tiered rates, including a free one, and to offer a variety of packages and memberships. However, there are lots of options, so have a look around.

Big up the advantages of online
While in-person yoga classes are never going to be obsolete, there are definitely some advantages to the online version. A Zoom class can potentially include students who are unable to access ‘real’ classes because they’re ill or disabled, don’t have transport or can’t afford childcare. Yoga teacher Fiona Agombar says:

I have a lot of people who have health conditions, and I realise that being online offers inclusion to those who would otherwise be too ill to come in real life. Some even practise from their beds.

As a student, I have really appreciated having the capacity to control my practice environment and to have more options about the way in which I participate. As yoga teacher / therapist Judy Sampath says:

You can set the temperature to suit you. You won’t be disturbing anyone if you move around to get props or use your furniture in new and creative ways. You can make as much noise as you like and give expression to what you’re feeling. You can leave the class how you wish: stay as you are, switch off quietly, unmute and have a chat, or write in the chat box if you need support.

While I miss the real physical contact of the Mysore room, my restorative and gentle yin class is infinitely better online. Students can wear pyjamas, make use of their own special props, wrap themselves up in their favourite cosy blanket and drift off to sleep at the end if they like – no need to snap back to attention in order to confront London street life and negotiate the bus home.

* * *

Online teaching isn’t right for everyone. Some teachers have decided that they simply don’t like it and don’t want to get used to it – and some students feel the same. If you don’t own your own student list or haven’t been teaching long enough to build your list up, it’s going to be challenging (though not impossible) to create viable classes online. If you’re a new teacher training graduate, you may be better served by attending classes, observing different teachers at work and developing your own practice until the traditional means of getting first teaching gigs (assisting established teachers and covering classes) come on stream again.

Covid-19 has caused a revolution in the yoga world, and one sure thing is that it will never be the same again. While there will always be a need for real-life classes, with their in-person teaching, 360-degree vision, potential for touch, and congregation of living, breathing bodies, the online version has also gained permanent devotees. For the teacher, there are fewer overheads, no need to scour the local area for an appropriate space, and from an environmental point of view the reduction in travel is a bonus. From now on in, there are going to be a lot more options for teaching and practising yoga.

Jess Glenny is a YRT Elder and C-IAYT yoga therapist, and is is the author of The Yoga Teacher Mentor: A Reflective Guide to Holding Spaces, Maintaining Boundaries, and Creating Inclusive Classes. You can find out more about her work at www.embodyyogadance.co.uk.

Image: Adrien Tutin