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Published on: Feb. 8, 2021, 12:51 a.m.
Yoga goes online
  • Prasad: “True to our passion and dedication”

By Sekhar Seshan. Consulting Editor, Business India

The online practice and actual on-ground exercises are ‘not that different’, says Meera Kohli. This, says the Mumbai-based tax consultant, could be because she had earlier practised at the Sivananda Yoga Centre Gurgaon (SYCG) with largely the same set of teachers. ”So, the expectations and the level of practice are understood better. Also, Sivananda has a clear line of communication, while holding the online sessions,” she explains. “The usual class has a yogi spotlighted, while the teacher instructs, which makes the whole experience real and replicates the classroom sessions. The classroom set-up also motivates me to remain disciplined and ensure that I devote the needed time for the practice.”

Arun Pandala, who co-founded SYCG and is its acharya and director, recalls that the centre shut its doors to the public immediately after a ‘sombre’ meeting of the 16 people who comprised its staff, 10 days before India went into complete lockdown for the first time. “It was heartbreak at one level, and a time of panic and terrible uncertainty around us on the other,” he says.

Four days later, however, SYCG morphed into a new online avatar, offering yoga unlimited by time or space. ‘Adapt, adjust, accommodate. Be good, do good, be kind, be compassionate’. In the 11 months – seemingly a lifetime – since we went online, we have just that,” points out Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, after whom its programme is named.

The results have been not just surprising but beyond any expectation. Starting with a free YouTube channel service that offered two classes a day, it moved in July to paid Zoom offerings. These were two-way, supervised classes inviting people to practise asanas, which would improve their immunity, build inner resilience and give some peace and balance in a chaotic and uncertain time. These courses were priced at just one-fifth of the onsite classes, R1,500 against the normal Rs7,000 for a 10-class weight-loss programme, considering the fact that people were facing a sudden threat to their incomes and that this kind of offering was the need of the hour.

People came. They practised, they got great results. They came again for the next course or offering. They brought friends, family and colleagues. “Suddenly, we went from being in Gurugram, a tiny and virtually unknown spot under the sun, to being unlimited by geography and, well, virtually known!” Pandala says. “Soon, we had a thriving community of intrepid online yoga practitioners spread around the world.”

More than 30,000 new people have visited SYCG’s classes since then – perhaps more than it would have achieved in three years of running classes in its seven physical locations. These students are from all over India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Singapore, Argentina, Sao Paulo, the east and west coasts of the US, Toronto, Sweden, Norway, London, Madrid, Sydney and Tokyo – and, he says, ‘every other city and country in between’. “One of our senior teachers even conducted a class in Whitehorse, the remotest corner of north western Canada!” he exclaims.

Tammy Gamble, who is based in eastern Canada, finds that the time difference is sometimes a challenge. “However, SYCG offers courses to accommodate their North American students,” says Gamble, a grandmother, who has retired from a career of 30-plus years as a senior regional manager, trainer and business coach with a major Canadian financial institution and now lives with her husband Bill in their lakefront home.

Finding ‘a healthier me’

Having practised other yoga disciplines over the past few years, attending retreats and classes to find ‘a healthier me’, she discovered the Sivananda style on a visit to Mexico last February and was inspired to learn more about it. Back home, she searched for classes within a 100-km radius, but found nothing. She also ordered several books online and tried to follow these and some online Sivananda classes.

“And then, Eureka! I found SYCG,” Gamble says. She started by following it on YouTube and was surprised when she got a reply to a question she had asked in the comment session. “I meant something to someone!” she realised. She signed up for a weight-loss course. “The time zone difference caused a bit of stress, though not enough to deter me,” she says. “I learned so much: Arun and his team coached me to improve my practice.” She signed up for the beginners’ course in back pain, arm strength, leg strength and pranayama via the Zoom online classes. It soon became a family affair, with her husband taking up yoga too. “We practise in separate rooms,” she adds.

Avinash Bagla, a Kolkata-based steel manufacturer, who started practising yoga in 2017 because of a bad back pain since 2011, finds the online experience ‘great’ after having used videos on YouTube. Kalyanmoy Chatterjee, who lives in Gurugram and runs a start-up OTT platform called My CinemaHall after retiring as country manager of a global market research company after 30 years, and Ajaya Varma Raja in Thiruvanthapuram, who is also a retired person, have similar positive stories of the online classes, though they admit that it is a bit tough without a physical trainer.

SYCG, which has been in operation for 17 years, had reached over 50,000 people in yoga classes, courses, special programmes, teachers’ courses and seminars. “We were the early adopters of a new era,” Pandala says. “It was a sharp, clean and complete cut from the old way, and it looks like remaining like this for a long time to come. What an extraordinary online world of yoga, unprecedented and unexpected!”

While student numbers have gone up, incomes are, understandably, much lower. The daily open class on YouTube is still offered without charge, something which he says the centre would not and could not have done if it were running physical classes. The fee is still much less than what it was for the onsite classes – a flat Rs1,500 a month, against Rs2,500-3,600, depending on the location. “Adjusted for lower expenses of rentals and similar costs that go with onsite classes, the fee is still 30 per cent of our earlier slabs,” he points out. “The per-class, per-offering, income for us, therefore, is way below the onsite world. Let us say that if we were having an income of Rs100 per day from a student, net of expenses, it is now R30 per head.” This is sustainable, he explains, because student numbers have gone up substantially – but conducting the classes demands more dedication, constant alertness and longer attention spans. “In all, it is much harder work, for much less financial return.”

More bonding and intimacy

The plus side is that SYCG has organised more classes and more courses in 10 months than it could have done over two years. Accessibility and convenience have made it easier to connect with yoga. There is more bonding and intimacy, considering that the atmosphere is more informal – people are participating from their own homes, from their bedrooms or drawing rooms. Even their families are often visible – which has also triggered participation from family members, so the yoga community has grown organically. The wins, he asserts, are more than the losses: “definitely, resoundingly so!”

“We continue to do what we are good at – which is to offer yoga classes, to a certain international standard, in the same consistent way that we have always done,” adds SYCG co-founder Deeksha Jain Prasad, who is also a co-director and acharya. “Circumstances – in fact, the whole world – have changed around us, but we have kept doing the same thing, over and over again. We remain true to our passion and dedication to spreading an authentic tradition of yoga, even in this ultramodern format!”

Pandala is, however, positive that the centre will go back to onsite classes: “We will, when we feel safer.” After debating the responsibility of having people inside the premises like before, the staff has decided to do it, but practising yoga with suitable distancing, wearing masks, after carrying out necessary sanitisation protocols. This is targeted for 15 March, exactly a year after the centres shut down; and from SYCG’s anniversary, 1 April, they intend to go back to a more normal routine of daily open classes and courses.

The online classes will not, however, shut down. “The demand from people all over has been overwhelming,” he says. “For those who cannot be in Gurgaon for the classes, or for those who still feel that security is an issue even if they are in Gurgaon, and for all the people out there, we will continue our online classes in exactly the same way as we have done all these months.”

Despite the positive aspects of the online classes, however, those who can would prefer to go back on campus when the situation allows it. As Kohli puts it, the physical classes will always be “more desirable for merely the human element”. 

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