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Finding your Om Online: How to Start A Virtual Yoga Practice

by Catherine Morris | June 19, 2020

Attending a yoga class used to mean fighting for space in crowded studios, unrolling your mat and twisting yourself into intimate poses amid a room full of sweaty strangers. Then came online yoga platforms. With experienced instructors now available at the click of a mouse, all you need to nail Crow Pose is a comfortable space and an internet connection.

The Rise of Virtual Yoga

Yoga is a $9 billion industry in the United States alone, according to market analysts Statista who predict that that $9 billion will be $11 billion this year. As yoga's popularity soars, a corresponding increase in internet usage is driving this 5,000 year old practice into the online space, where it's reaching a diverse audience, from stay-at-home parents to tech-savvy teenagers. Part of the appeal is the freedom and flexibility, according to yoga therapist Jeffrey Sargent who offers one-on-one online coaching sessions. Sargent says digital instruction can help put wary beginners at ease:

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“Some people are very self-conscious and don't want to go into a room full of people they don't know. Online classes can be an easy in––so they don't feel like they are being judged. You don't have to get dressed up. You can do your practice and then get on with your day. Learning online brings this beautiful practice into your home.”

Thanks to the growing market, yoga devotees are becoming spoiled for choice. Whether getting your asana on in a Zoom class, loading up a single session YouTube video, or plugging into an online studio via Instagram, anyone can join a class suited to their level of familiarity, and schedule. “People are busy. Online yoga eliminates a lot of the stress about showing up at a certain time and place,” says Sargent.

Preparing for Your First Practice

There's a few things to consider before diving into your first digital downward dog. For beginners, the first step is often simply finding a suitable space. According to Sargent, anywhere in your home can double as an impromptu yoga studio. The space he has created in his home has a “little altar” decorated with meaningful memorabilia and plenty of plants. He suggests picking a place that's comfortable, and preferably somewhere you won't be disturbed. Pets, roommates, kids and partners should be banished as you take the time for self-care.

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Some yoga sessions incorporate tools such as yoga blocks and bolsters. It’s great if you have them, but don't worry if you don't because these items are easily improvised: grab a heavy book when you need a block, or use your sofa cushions as a bolster. “Think about what you have in your house that you can use,” says Sargent. “You have a chair that you can use in some poses, you can get some pillows or fold up a blanket. There are even some practices you can do from your bed.”

For Sargent, cultivating the right space isn't just for one session, but a way of carving out a long-term sanctuary. “You create whatever environment you want, and then you have that resource for life. It is there for you when you need it.”

Finding the Right Instructor

Now that you've prepared your home studio, it's time to find the right teacher. Online yoga teachers are a diverse bunch, and sifting through practitioners to find someone who fits your needs and goals can be daunting. Look for experience and expertise, says Sargent who holds a Master of Science degree in Yoga Therapy and has racked up more than 500 hours of training. He also advises checking whether the teacher is registered with the Yoga Alliance – the industry's largest professional trade association which certifies and trains practitioners. As with any fitness program, it's important to practice yoga safely. Sargent highlights the importance of finding accredited and experienced instructors who are trained to help you avoid injury.

What to Expect From an Online Yoga Session

Your first virtual vinyasa can be a profound experience, according to Sargent who has been practicing for almost a decade:

“When you step on your mat for the first time you bring all your issues to it. [...] You will see the difference and you will feel something right away when you start moving and breathing with your body. Movement is medicine.”

Despite yoga edging its way into mainstream fitness circles, misconceptions about the practice remain. Sargent says a lot of his first-time clients are only interested in the physical gains but the ancient art has so much more to offer. With its emphasis on breathing and meditation, yoga is a workout for the brain as much as the body. It’s obvious from speaking with Sargent that he is a passionate advocate for the whole-person effects of yoga:

“Most people go to the mat for purely physical benefits at the beginning. They think yoga is just about flexibility and stretching. You might start there but then you connect to a deeper level. Look at it as a whole practice so there is much more than movement on your mat.” […] Part of focussing on mental wellbeing is shedding the pressure around performance. Come to the mat with a clear idea of why you're there but don't set yourself targets, [...] Be open and come into it with as few expectations as possible. Do not come into it thinking you have to achieve something. You're not there to achieve, you're there to feel better.”

Cultivating a Regular Practice

Sargent urges beginner yogis to commit to a regular practice in order to fully experience the benefits, believing fully that yoga is a practice that should be integrated into your life.

According to studies, Sargent isn’t wrong.

A 2015 study found that regular yoga practice could help reduce inflammatory markers – potentially making the body more resistant to disease, and strengthening the immune system. By lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, yoga can relieve tension and help treat anxiety, insomnia, and depression. It's also shown promise in treating the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

A Yoga Therapist with the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington and a veteran himself, Sargent has seen firsthand the life-changing impact of yoga on military officers dealing with trauma.  As online yoga grows he would like to see it being used to treat healthcare workers, police officers, firefighters and others on the frontline.

Digital yoga has the power to create a community all of its own. Taking your practice online isn't just a way of getting fit at home, it also connects you with fellow enthusiasts through forums, discussion boards, and social media. Sargent believes this aspect of virtual practice gives it an edge over real world sessions, saying:

People come into a studio and they don't really talk. They come in, get on the mat, and leave once it's over. A lot of studios lack that community aspect. Online gives us more ability to connect. We can now tap into the power of the digital world we have at our fingertips. As technology changes the online yoga community will probably get even better.

Virtual yoga can be intimidating for newcomers, but with so many options online there’s never been a better time to start. Finding the right teacher and class can help you develop a lifelong practice that you can take with you offline for real-world physical, and mental benefits.

You can connect with Jeffrey Sargent and other experienced yoga therapists on Which Doctor? Many of our experienced yogis offer free sessions and discounted classes. For more information head over to our free clinic or sign up on our membership page. Namaste!

Catherine Morris

Writer

Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.