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Yoga in the Age of Coronavirus — The Bardo of Becoming

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Teachings on the bardo from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition are usually understood to refer to the space between incarnations, in between death and birth, where the mind is untethered from its previous associations with body, identity and ego. In this space, the mind goes wild and the emotions run vast cycles between extremes and peace is hard to find. But, hidden in this teaching is the hope for renewal, rebirth and regeneration as well guidance for staying the course through mental, emotional and other difficulty. 

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes in this book, In Love with the World, “I am in the bardo of becoming right now, between the death of the old me and the birth of whatever comes next. Becoming and becoming, always in the bardo of the unknown, the uncertain, the transient.” Perhaps we are all in a bardo state right now?

For the last 20 years I’ve been a yoga teacher and, while I certainly have been what some would say on the leading edge of taking yoga online, I have spent the majority of my time teaching directly to students in person. Never did I imagine a world where the majority of teaching would happen virtually, in the online space. But here we are. So, what does yoga look like in the age of the coronavirus? And what does identity mean when we are stripped of all that we normally associate with ourselves? 

To be clear, COVID-19 has disrupted so many aspects of life that it’s hard not to crumble under the sheer uncertainly of it all. But, before I continue, no disturbance of normal life compares in any way to those individuals whose lives are at stake here. The real cost of these challenging times is felt in the staggering loss of life. Current statistics show that one person dies of coronavirus related sickness every eight minutes in NYC—and we are not even at the peak of the virus according to epidemiologists and experts. There are those whose lives are on the line at the frontlines of effort to overcome the outbreak—doctors, nurses and other health care workers. And those whose jobs have been deemed essential—people working in grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, restaurants that still do take-out and delivery, police officers, military personnel and numerous other people who literally risk their lives so that some semblance of society remains while we shelter in place. So, let us just pause and reflect upon the enormity of the situation, give thanks to those on the front lines and send our prayers of healing to all those whom are sick, exposed to the virus or testing positive right now. Let us remember that it is a privilege to practice yoga, to have the tool of yoga, and to have the mental, emotional and economical space to even ponder the state of yoga amidst this world-changing crisis. 

Yoga teachers, even myself, have a life and livelihood that is dependent on themselves showing up and teaching. We are in many ways part of the newly forming gig economy. Every yoga teacher is in business for themselves, with varying degrees of success and business organization and acumen. Even yoga studios, which are registered as small businesses, are mom-and-pop shops that run best when the owners are physically present and teaching many of the classes. Few yoga studios are venture capital backed or run as large scale corporations. Miami Life Center, which my husband and I own, is not. Neither yoga teachers nor yoga studios often have months of savings tucked neatly away to weather the economic storm of a pandemic. We’re happy each month when we can pay the rent. I’m not saying this to complain or to throw a pity-party. It’s the state of affairs that many yoga teachers face today. Like other gig economy workers, health insurance benefits are not tied to their place of employment and when they don’t show up they don’t get paid. 

I asked my community how they were feeling and coping with things amidst this crisis and I got a range of responses. Some people are in their fourth or fifth weeks of lockdown. Others are just beginning. Some, in places like Italy, are not even allowed to go outside for a walk around the block.  

Everyone uniformly says how grateful they are to have the yoga practice as a safe space to find relief and peace and a break from the anxiety. There is a sense of hope, even though things are difficult. One person quoted Victor Frankl—“what is to give light must endure burning”. And perhaps we are, in a sense, burning right now, if burning can be taken to mean going through a process of transformation. There is no doubt that what we are all experiencing during this time will have a lasting impact on our lives and our concepts of the world. 

Some people say that they’re actually practicing more and that yoga is saving them from all the craziness. Others, recognizing their privilege acknowledge that they’re sheltering in relative luxury with a garden, sea view, good amounts tucked away in savings accounts, and jobs that can be transferred to remote access. A few others said that they have always wanted to develop a home practice but never actually managed to unroll their mats at home until now. Time and space is a privilege if you have the money to afford yourself quarantine without a job. Almost every yoga student misses their teacher and their local yoga center. The lucky few say their practice is even more consistent now, without any need to rush and lots of time. 

The doctors, nurses, health care workers and other essential workers on the front lines live in an alternate reality. They say they feel fear every day, faced with devastating realities of overburdened health care systems and hospitals pushed to the brink. They’re scared of getting infected and passing the virus on to others. But they, too, find great refuge in the practice and are turning to online classes as a lifeline for mental health.

Yoga teachers, however, sit in a the same boat as all the other gig economy workers. Anxiety is running high. Grief is real too. The struggle is real for those who have lost their jobs and are on unemployment, with limited benefits. Celebrating health and finding small moments of gratitude is a daily practice supported by free yoga and meditation online. The newly jobless cannot afford even the low price of premium online yoga channels or Zoom classes offered by yoga teachers whose classes they once attended. Some are worried about what we’re going to look like on the other side of all this. There’s hope that what we go through will spark a period of growth and resiliency but also a trepidation that the world may never be the same again and not necessarily in a good way. Financial worries abound and multiply. 

Almost every yoga teacher that I speak with sits with a pressing sense of uncertainty as many studios and teachers try to migrate their in-person teaching online. In that respect, I am personally thankful and grateful to the work I’ve put into online teaching over the past few years. As my workshops, classes, trainings and other events were cancelled I had the tools to offer live classes via my youtube channel and connect with my online community via omstars.com. Many other teachers and studios were starting from scratch, piecing together an ad-hoc system of online classes via Zoom, Vimeo or something else. At Miami Life Center, we now have a full schedule of Zoom classes where our staff sits in front of their computer and guides our students through the practice.

New yoga teachers have it even worse. They say that their classes were all cut and they don’t have the following to reach out and have people join. Some are just stricken with grief, anxiety and worry and it’s showing up as health issues, skin rashes. Established yoga centers are not immune. A five-studio 25 year old yoga center that I taught workshops at in Vancouver closed because they were unable to pay their rent or get relief from their landlord. We at MLC have asked our landlord for a reprieve from rent in April and we hope to work it out. We have also applied for support from the government and we hope that comes through. 

Yoga teachers say that they feel like they’ve lost their passion/fire for the practice. Home practice is unmotivating and the lack of connection to the students feels disempowering. I was feeling that lackluster motivation the other day when I put a video on to encourage myself to complete the Ashtanga series. It was then that I got an idea to ask my teacher R. Sharath Jois to host a Zoom class. And, to my great surprise, he said yes! We now have 1000 people signed up to practice Guided Full Primary Series this Saturday in a first-time ever livestream from Mysore, India. 

But there are also high notes and the class with SharathJi is certainly one for me! My husband says that he feels like it’s actually really possible to teach well over Zoom, with heightened focus on technique. Some have taken the time to expand their practice to include more study of chanting, sutra, scripture, meditation and other more subtle realms. People listen really well. People are really grateful just to be able to meet and practice. I’m studying the Sutras again with a renewed sense of interest in books three and four. Channeling healing, some say they are able to keep fear at bay with the tools of practice. What it all seems is to be a big moment of learning.

What’s so real amidst all is that the world is changing. The truth of change, impermanence, is never more poignantly felt than right now. We are all in the bardo of becoming. We sit in a space stripped of our egos, without our identities. It’s easy to fight in this space, with frayed nerves and fearful thoughts. But it’s our spiritual practice that has prepared us for this exact moment—to be here, when things fall apart, and sit with all the uncertainty, with an equanimous mind, an open heart and a faithful spirit. 

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche explains that the bardo of becoming is about when we find ourselves in between one state of mind and another, in frightening and unfamiliar mental landscapes, when the rupture throws us totally off our feet. The difficulty of the bardo of becoming is that you have not quite left the old and you have certainly not yet arrived at the new. He states, “And I am in the bardo becoming, trying to let go of my old life and not yet born into the new one.”