Photo: Elad Itzkin

Digitalization of just about any aspect of our lives, has been happening slowly but surely ever since the invention of tele- and radio-communication, audio and video recorders, computers and Internet, cell-phones and finally – smartphones – that incorporate all of these technologies at an affordable cost. With just a click away, we can record audio-visual information with text, sharing it privately, in small, interest-based groups, or with a world at large via social media. On top of it, thanks to internet and bluetooth, we can communicate not only with people, but also with smart technology, we trade with each other and offer services that can be performed and delivered by means of as little as having a computer with an access to WIFI. The covid pandemic was not the cause of digitalisation of almost every aspect of our lives, it was just something that helped to intensify and speed up the process.

Digitalization of yoga has been happening progressively for at least 30 years, starting with the usage of yoga DVDs and then picking up exponentially with the growth in offers on YouTube & TV and yoga-dedicated websites and profiles on IG and FB. At first, at least when it comes to yoga content created for Internet, a lot of it was available free of charge and shared with other yoga aficionados by means of key words and hashtags. These days, the overproduction of content continuously puts pressures on engineers to create more and more sophisticated algorithms to filter what is relevant to an individual and most popular in the rest of the community., while costs wary, depending on the producer’s agenda.

A few years back, I remember very well conversations with fellow yoga teachers who were mistrustful of any scenario where a physical yoga teacher was not present in the same room as the practitioner, as well as all the judgement and concern expressed in regard to “commercialisation” of yoga and too much emphasis on the visual aspect of the asana online.

Times have changed!

And as it always happens, necessity is the mother of invention: since the World Health Organisation declared a global corona virus pandemic back in March 2020, within just a couple of weeks – almost every yoga studio and yoga teacher I knew started to offer yoga classes on Zoom. Speaking to yoga video platform managers, it seems that quite logically they are benefiting from the pandemic, finally showing profits after years of bootstrapping their business and barely covering the costs of productions and tech services around their digital yoga offers. Some yoga happenings are going online as well – just like in the case of my very own – Berlin Yoga Conference July 9-11 2021 becoming a Digital Edition. While some events offer their program on Zoom or go as far as creating a continuous flow of yoga classes on a weekly basis becoming a sort of yoga channel in their own right, other events have cancelled their physical components without going online in any way. It seems that for some event organisers it is not fitting either due to their convictions (a more traditional approach to social gatherings), or a lack of motivation to learn a new way to produce events with the help of digital technology.

It may very well be that other event organisers do not believe their efforts in producing a digital event will be appreciated by their community. After all, it takes a lot of energy, time, and money to produce digital events, with the same, if not higher, marketing costs, and there are a few psychological barriers to cross before one can have a truly successful digital gathering.

Photo: Elad Itzkin

My analysis of different digital yoga options:

  1. YouTube Videos: whoever produces yoga videos for YouTube tries to accomplish either one or both of these two goals. One is to generate enough views to start selling ads on their channel, and two – to grow their community and therefore a base of possible clients for other offering they sell: yoga workshops, teacher trainings, retreats, yoga pants or accessories. Nothing is completely free, as it takes time, energy and resources to make something out of nothing. YouTube yoga videos are usually short, with a yoga beginner in mind, offering little truly valuable content.
  2. IG posts, IGTV, and stories (could be applied to FB as well, since they are one and the same): when yogis are posting on this channel they usually divide into 3 groups. One group of yogis are “yoga enthusiasts”, that is, people who practice yoga as their favourite hobby and who are genuinely interested in spreading its message while sharing about their practice alongside simple tips and techniques to achieve, usually, physical yoga posture (asana) goals. The second group are so-called “yoga influencers”, yogis who have started as the first group but through acquiring substantial following got into a position where yoga brands started approaching them for product placements and sponsored posts. The final group are “yoga instructors” who, like in the case of YouTube producers trying to achieve a second goal, are trying to grow their communities with hope to sell their offers which include more valuable content, require more effort, or depth of teaching. In all cases, the content produced for IG is usually very short (shorter than for YouTube), offering simple tools to achieve physical yoga goals in a fun and engaging way. Depth of knowledge may be behind some of it, but it does not show in the content simply because of the nature of the format and what the algorithms came to value as “popular” content.
  3. On demand yoga video platforms: there are a lot of yoga platforms these days, but they can be grouped into categories depending on who owns them and what purpose their serve. One type of category would be platforms and apps that are startups offering popular digital content or service. These platforms are usually run by business entrepreneurs who saw a market opportunity, supported by tech investors and big money. Their content varies from very bad, to acceptable, and some of them offer great content because they are able to pay good fees to experts in the field (to my mind comes a platform like “Masterclass” offering yoga classes with Donna Farhi, one of the most celebrate yoga teachers and authors in the world). Another category is that of yoga media platforms/blogs becoming on-demand yoga video platforms to cash out on their large communities of yoga-interested readers (ex: DoYouYoga). A third category are those that are actually owned by yoga teachers who organised people in their network to create some digital yoga content as a way to make extra money in a very competitive mature market (Kino MacGregor’s OmStart is a great example here). Still, there is that special category of yoga brands who use yoga video content as a way to advertise their yoga products and nurture their yoga influencers to ensure their loyalty (think of Alo moves). The quality behind such offers depends on budgets behind productions and what kind of teachers are asked to contribute their expertise. What unites all of their content is the idea that it is pre-recorded and made for mass market, lacking that real-time connection, community aspect, and depth of topics explored.
  4. Zoom classes: since the pandemic, just about every single yoga instructor started to offer online yoga lessons via Zoom. It took some time to adjust to this new way of teaching, and many instructors invested considerable efforts in perfecting their audio/video quality as well as teaching methodology over time. The amazing thing about Zoom yoga classes is that a yoga practitioner can now practice yoga with a teacher anywhere in the world, turning it into a truly global affair. Zoom classes are usually practice routines meant to motivate yoga practitioners to keep up the practice, with occasional special classes and workshops being offered, depending on the teacher’s and their community needs and demands. The quality behind such offers depends on the experience and knowledge of the teacher, their willingness to invest in good technology, their ability to have a “presence” if only via a screen, as well as their ability to teach and adjust their students with words, instead of physical adjustments.

Berlin Yoga Conference July 9-11 2021 Digital Edition

What makes Berlin Yoga Conference this year different and unique from other yoga offers online is on the one hand the focus on in-depth content with true experts in the field offering workshops that they usually offer during physical gatherings, not mere yoga flow classes meant to supervise a practitioner’s efforts in physical exercise for that day/week. Workshops are combinations of exercises, explanations, Q&As, with back and forth communication and engagement from the attendees being key to this format of imparting knowledge. Workshops are not meant to motivate or inspire one to practice, although that might very well happen. Rather, they are meant to provide tools that a practitioner could integrate into their practice and their teachings, as in the case of yoga teachers.

Another aspect that makes Berlin Yoga Conference unique is my team’s dedication to high quality technology and my concern with the issue of engagement between attendees. It took me almost a month to research and get in touch with various platform providers so that I could pick that best option that could provide a truly virtual experience of a social yoga gathering. Now me and my team are working on preparing the Conference to go digital in one month from today. Not only is the Berlin Yoga Conference going to be happening in real-time, not recorded, therefore special by means of being a limited offer, it is hosted on a platform that offers chats, networking (one-on-one and in small groups), as well as special environments (after the live-video), where up to 30 attendees can see and interact with each other simultaneously via video, audio, and chat.

The platform hosting the event is called Balloon and it is a solution for digital conferences, which makes it a special and professional-looking environment, where an exchange of information, as well as social interaction, is enabled by special features and virtual spaces.

Finally, the digital edition of the Berlin Yoga Conference July 9-11 also has a component of an expo, where yoga brands can present themselves to the community by means of audio, video, and photo material, chat with attendees and satisfy their interest in their  products/services in real-time, as if it was in real life.

It is my privilege to present Berlin Yoga Conference July 9-11 at half price of the physical event, even though the costs of producing it are quite high, since one needs to literally “rent” a virtual space and pay for the services provided, not to forget the actual yoga experts who will be teaching and sharing their expertise with the attendees.

I am very grateful to have a special couple who is supporting me in the production of this digital event (Olga and Roman Shibaev), for all of the conference attendees who are participating, as well as these special brands who have sponsored this edition (Carry Bottles, Rollga, KCA-LAB, and Manolaya).

The Bottom Line & Conclusion

The digitalisation of yoga may not have been a smooth process, but it was definitely enabled and made more acceptable since the corona pandemic prevented social gatherings from happening.

On the one hand, we can argue that practicing yoga online will never substitute the “real thing” – and this is true. On the other hand, there have been many positive developments that I feel is important to mention:

  • Yoga teachers and yoga event organisers are able to continue their work, even though the transition to digitalisation has not been easy. That means, the digital environment enabled yoga services to be exchanged and the individuals providing them could keep up their good work, without the necessity to switch professions, although many professionals in the industry have changed their directions and had to re-invent themselves in the process
  • Yoga practitioners are able to keep up their practice, gaining the necessary motivation and inspiration to unroll their yoga mats despite how difficult it may have been with the community aspect kind of lost in some ways. Especially in these turbulent and challenging times, we should not underestimated the impact this access to yoga, albeit digital, might have played in keeping us sane, healthy, and optimistic about the future.
  • People who have not practiced previously due to whatever reasons and inhibitions, being cost, self-image, or lack of access to yoga teachers in their vicinity, are now offered yoga digitally from the comfort of their homes, at lowers costs, and in a very private environment where they are not touched or looked at by others.

As a final note, I wanted to add something from my private thoughts on the issue.

A few years back I was socked, saddened, and disappointed to learn about the power abuse and scandals in various yoga communities. Thanks to the works of someone like Matthew Remski and investigative journalism, it was established that just about ANY yoga tradition you could name had some kind of an issue be it financial, health-related, or sexual misconduct. The word “cult” came up on several occasions, as well as names such as Osho, Swami this or that, Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Bikram, etc etc. It turned out that patriarchy, authoritarianism, and hustling were just as common in yoga communities like in other spiritual communities (think all the different Christianity branches and crimes committed “in the name of god”). As a result, trauma-sensitive and trauma-aware yoga branches spread out across the world, with an understanding that it is not always the case that a teacher should be a strong authoritative figure who is physically adjusting his students. To prevent power abuse and sexual misconduct, it seems that physically separating a yoga teacher and their students may sometimes be a good idea.

What I also came to appreciate is this shift from a traditionally authoritative (usually male) teacher and his vision for how a practitioner should practice AND live her life, to a more female energy inspired figure of a nurturing yoga instructor who offers and not commands, guides and not demands, lead by words and sets an example, who does not make use of physical power and physical adjustments, that may make some practitioners feel like they did something wrong, or that they were not making intuitively good decisions for their own bodies (and their minds). In a digital yoga environment, it seems that specifically female yoga teachers are doing well. And I believe it is not only because they have a pretty face!

What I only hope for is that instead of going from one extreme (authoritative, dominating guru-like figure) to another extreme (clueless teachers who did not have enough knowledge, experience, or self-practice to be in the position to “teach” others), we settle somewhere in-between and find a balance between the desire to find our own truth on our own terms and the understanding that some help and assistance along the way is required, in the presence of a knowledgable and empathetic yoga teacher. For this reason, participating in yoga conferences, such as the Berlin Yoga Conference July 9-11 2021, albeit online, is an experience not to be missed!

Photo: Elad Itzkin