Practising yoga teaches us to be adaptable, flexible and calm, says yoga instructor Evelyn Loh, 32. And these are the very qualities needed in order to navigate through the pandemic successfully, she adds.
With the lifting of the second movement control order (MCO) on March 4, Loh says that the studio has been allowed to reopen, and they’ll be running group and private sessions in-studio.
However, there are still students who aren’t ready to come back yet, she says.
“For these ones, there’s a 'hybrid' live stream via Zoom when an in-studio class is in session, as well as purely online Zoom classes,” says Loh.
“Our returning students will of course need to follow the SOPs set by the government so that everyone can practise yoga safely and comfortably together,” she says.
While pre-pandemic classes can take up to 15 students, they are limited to seven per class during the conditional MCO.
“I was taking a big risk because unlike other teachers who have been teaching in Malaysia for awhile, I had no existing students and didn’t know anyone in KL except my immediate family at that time,” she says.
Although challenging initially, things started to pick up for Loh after several months and her studio grew. But at the eighth month, the first MCO was announced.
“It was the worst time for the pandemic to happen because business was just picking up, so I was really bummed out. We decided to pivot to online classes,” she shares.
At this time, a lot of studios, including Loh’s, ran free classes online to help lift people’s spirits during the pandemic. But they didn’t realise its severity or how long it would drag on for. After the MCO was extended for the sixth week, they had to start charging a minimal fee (RM20-RM25 per class) in order to survive.
A constant two-edged sword
Loh feels that the pandemic has been a constant two-edged sword for her and many others in the industry.
“It hasn’t been an easy time for us but we’ve tried to see things positively and make the best of the situation,” she says.
“On one hand, it’s a relief when the studio reopened during the recovery MCO last year and people could return to classes to practise yoga.
“But, on the other hand, we were worried because we didn’t want to be stigmatised should there be any Covid-positive cases, especially since Mont Kiara is a high-density area,” she says.
“When the second MCO was announced, we were more familiar with what to do and better prepared for online classes. But then, yoga is based on community and relies a lot on group dynamics, so when students have to social distance or to do it remotely in their own homes, they may not ‘feel the energy’,” she adds.
Loh says that many students come to the studio as a “refuge from their busy home and children”.
“It’s not easy to practise yoga at home, especially with the door swinging open and kids yelling, ‘Mum!’ every few minutes,“ she says, adding that children and pets make a cute cameo on their screens all the time.
But she is quick to mention that while it may be entertaining for the teachers, it seldom is for the mothers who are trying to focus.
The response to online classes has been good with many signing up when the MCOs hit. But with the many extensions, there’s often a drop in class attendance as students get demotivated, says Loh.
“Fortunately, our students are a resilient lot, and they do return when they realise they’ve to focus on their health and wellness, and even more so during the pandemic,” she says.
Challenges of the pandemic
Loh says that there are many challenges in teaching yoga during the pandemic, the first being not able to touch the students.
“Making corrections to a student’s poses or movements is a huge part of teaching yoga. It’s necessary to align the students because they’re not always aware of what needs to be moved, and that can only be done physically,” says Loh.
Hence, they’ve had to rely solely on voice commands.
“It’s already a challenge to use voice commands in-studio because some students may not be aware of what they mean, what more online,” she says.
Secondly, when teaching online, teachers are looking at students from a 2-D point-of-view and sometimes, can’t even see the whole body.
“We may just see half the body because the students’ space doesn’t allow for a full view,” she says.
So, it often depends on the teacher.
“If you’re taking yoga for the first time during the pandemic, choose a teacher who is experienced, with a good command of instruction. If you choose a new teacher, they may not be able to explain as well how to get to the proper alignment," she advises.
Thirdly, it’s important to do it at your own pace and with proper training.
Loh cites the example of someone who started doing yoga during the MCO by watching a video and was seriously injured when attempting all the fancy advanced postures without proper training.
A close community
While virtual classes may be accessible from anywhere in the country or world, most of Loh’s students who attend the online classes are from the neighbourhood.
“Most are existing students who attended our pre-pandemic in-studio classes, but we do get new students once in a while,” she says.
“That’s because we humans are social creatures who require that sense of community. We want to be with someone who recognises us as a person - I can see my students, I know who they are and about their life, because these are real people whom I’ve met in real life,” she explains.
“But if you’re taking a class with a teacher halfway across the globe, it may be nice, especially if it’s a well-known teacher, but they don’t know you personally,” she adds.
The students are mainly women, including mothers, office workers and housewives, ranging from the ages of 20 to 55.
“Yoga has evolved into a mainly female-dominated group activity today although it originally started out as a male-dominated sport when men would go to the forest or cave alone to meditate and do yoga,” says Loh.
She first tried yoga when she followed her aunt to a yoga class at a gym in KL.
“I thought yoga was for elderly people, and since I’m young, I was going to run and lift weights. But I was surprised at how challenging it was. It’s a full body workout with controlled strength and minimal equipment, using only your own body weight as a tool,” she reveals.
But Loh’s interest in yoga only developed when she returned to Canada and found a spiritually-grounded studio in Calgary. After eight years, she decided to become an instructor and went for teacher training in Thailand and India.
Loh, who has hosted meditation and yoga retreats in Thailand and Bali, hopes to host them in Langkawi once the state borders reopen and the pandemic situation is under control.
“It’s a more holistic experience and very different from attending a class. Students don’t feel so rushed and have more time to explore their meditative, mindful side when they aren't in their usually stressful environment,” she says.
Besides group and private yoga classes, Loh also conducts art therapy classes called “paint and sip night” at her studio. She is also an avid artist who produces paintings through yoga art therapy, using just her body as the brush.