Finding Yoga in the Age of COVID

Gabe Zaldivar

I’m lying on the ground looking up at the sky. I’m not supposed to move. An ant, possibly clairvoyant to my disposition, begins to crawl up my arm. I’m now looking up at my awning. Is that termite damage? I need to fix that. Stop thinking. I don’t move. I accept the way things are and for the first time in weeks I relax.

This is yoga. It’s the disconcertingly named dead corpse pose, named because you are supposed to exert as much effort as a dead corpse. But through death, there is life, or something like that.

What I did discover is that just lying there, looking up at the sky, I felt rejuvenated in a way that only really happens after a long walk when you’ve been shut in the house for a couple of days.

The frenetic pace of life was paused, if only for a moment. My first ever yoga class was a personal success.

And coming from a guy who has had four knee surgeries and is roughly 40 pounds overweight, (OK, 60) I’m here to tell you that you can do it. You should do it. You need to do it.

Ancient Yoga Journey is a budding yoga studio that is ditching the constraints of a brick-and-mortar studio for the liberty of online classes, revolutionizing the practice of yoga by putting accessibility front and center.

All of the anxiety built up over several months of uncertainty can take its toll. The stress from work is now stress at home. COVID and racial tensions have coalesced into what seems like an insurmountable level of how can I possibly keep doing this without screaming.

AYJ founder Francesca Asumah, now 67, discovered hot yoga when she was 48, proving that it’s never too late to find your passion in life.

And it’s in yoga that Asumah is again transitioning, adapting to a quickly changing world. Adamant that the benefits of yoga could only be attained in the sweltering heat of a studio, it took a pandemic for Asumah to happen upon a profound realization.

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Francesca Asumah Photo Credit: Francesca Asumah

Yoga is best practiced anywhere, at any time and by anyone. It’s a realization that others echo as I slowly delve into a world I was naïve to just a few weeks prior.

Whether you have no clue what yoga is or have been practicing for years, there is no better time than right this very second, amid uncertainty and social turmoil, to get on the mat.

“Imagine if everyone in the whole world loved themselves; the whole world would be loved,” Asumah wonders. And it’s a challenge so many are willing to try.

And it’s with that sentiment that I stare up at the sky, attempting to adapt to a world that increasingly confounds.

I take one big breath before getting back up. Perhaps there is something to this yoga. It’s at least worth investigating further.

Yoga for Athletes

John Salley is a four-time NBA champion, winning twice with the Bad Boy Pistons, again with the Chicago Bulls in 1996 and then with the Lakers in 2000.

It was that year with Los Angeles that he remembers other members of the team embracing the power of yoga. Although, it didn’t start with Phil Jackson spoon-feeding them the benefits of the practice. The first time the team went through the motions.

“And the second time we had a really cute yoga instructor,” Salley recalled. “And nobody missed Wednesday yoga. Nobody missed it; nobody bitched about it.”

The benefits of a team coming together to embrace an art that limbers the body was undeniable.

“And the only injury we had is when Kobe twisted his ankle in the championship,” Salley said. “And we still got him better and we still won. That's how in tune we were to our bodies and what we were doing.”

Gage Brymer takes yoga out on the road as he deals with the rigors of the ATP Tour. The tennis player understands not only the versatility of the art but the power it has to center an athlete.

“I'm able to clear my mind and really think through, you know, whether I'm having personal things that I'm trying to work through or if it's something in my game that I feel like, hey, I want to take time to clear my mind and visualize,” Brymer said. “Visualize what's going on the court or my strategies or a stroke.”

Yoga is that singular activity that ages like wine. Flexibility and the ability to harness mindfulness gets more attainable as you continue. When it comes down to why any athlete would do it, it’s simple.

“So, as you get older with yoga, you get better at it somehow,” Ancient Yoga Journey instructor Shaniece Hairston, said. “I would also say, well, first, real men do yoga and two I would just say that you need the mobility.”

You begin to increase balance and core strength, stretch out the body, become leaner, walk taller. The benefits can be immediate.

Yogi Roth has served as a college football analyst for such networks as ESPN, Fox and currently the Pac-12 Network. He’s also been a quarterback coach at USC under Pete Carroll and the host of the “Elite 11” quarterback competition.

It’s there that he’s seen a tremendous acceptance from younger athletes.

“Over the course of the last decade or so, we've really exposed the top high school quarterbacks in the country to yoga every year at the finals,” he said. “We take the top 20 guys and most have never done it, but they walk out of there and they're blown away.”

Roth’s own football playing days took a major turn when he suffered a horrible injury.

“My career ended when I had broken my neck and I had to have surgery. And I remember the doctor saying, I'll never run again, I'll never surf again. I broke it from football, and I was like, OK, I don't agree with that,” Roth recalled.

“So, I do yoga. And then I found hot yoga. And as a competitor, I fell in love with it because you’re face to face and dripping sweat like you were when you were an athlete. I ran a marathon eight months later. I surf three or four days a week. Yoga is as much physical as mental.”

Throughout his career, seeing young quarterbacks come up through the ranks, Roth has seen a realization that this practice can indeed be a gateway to a more profound, longer career.

“I mean, I remember watching Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, all the top guys go through it for the first time and they were like, ‘Damn, this is really hard.’”

Yes, introducing yoga to athletes is a great way to expose them to another avenue for success. But it’s also a way to educate them on self-reflection.

Roth explains it’s a way, “to get them to know their body, to get them to know, what a yoga teacher would (call) their temple, and I think every athlete understands that their body is not only their temple, but it's also their bank account, much like their mind is.”

Salley might share that sentiment. When asked about the younger guys seeing yoga as a real way to stave off injury and lengthen their careers, “I think these guys are realizing, you know, there's something to it.”

And at the very least, you found life’s greatest diet. While I’m gaining weight by the hour, Salley tells me, “I'm the same weight I was in 1989.”

Meanwhile, many of us are not the same weight we were at the start of this article.

Stepping Out of the Hot Room

Earlier this year, like so many across the country, Asumah found herself without a studio, COVID restrictions mandating that gyms close.

Sennett Devermont is co-founder of AYJ but is also known by his social media handle, Mr. Checkpoint, an ongoing stream of videos that aim to bring knowledge to communities while demanding accountability from police officials around the nation.

He teamed up with Asumah with a common goal, to bring yoga to the masses and do so in a way that made sense in a year that has been no less than remarkable.

“One thing that Francesca says that's profound to me is it's not who is the strongest that survives, it's those who adapt,” Devermont said.

2020 has rearranged all of our lives. How we teach our children to the very manner we purchase food has been altered. Even master instructors have to adapt when a global pandemic shuts down the previously ubiquitous yoga studios that pepper Southern California.

“And suddenly, for the first time in 20 years, I didn't know what to do,” Asumah said. She was among those adamant that the only way to practice yoga was in a studio, the sizzle of a hot room squeezing anxiety from muscles and tightness from joints.

But there’s a liberty to home yoga that you can’t glean from driving to a studio. It’s not always easy. It takes remarkable dedication to employ a home practice, but the rewards are infinite.

In the case of Ancient Yoga Journey, top yogis from around the world are available to students who very literally come from all over. Stepping into a class means sharing a virtual mat with others in countries like Spain and Brazil.

You miss out on the camaraderie of a room, the ability to check your footing by turning your head and peeking in either direction.

But you gain the freedom of practicing anytime, losing the one last excuse you held most dear. “And I think this is the next evolution of our yoga,” Asumah said.

Robin Downes is a renowned yogi, someone who has taught the likes of Russell Simmons, Vanessa Williams, Brandy and, of course, John Salley.

The two worked on the DVD “Yoga Flava” back in early 2000s, mixing the practice with the dulcet tones of smooth R&B.

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Robin Downes with former NBA player John SalleyPhoto Credit: Robin Downes

Even back then, yoga was being touted as something you could do just about anywhere. 

Diving into yoga after losing her mom to cancer, Downes immersed herself in her passion and dedicated herself to bringing yoga to as many people as possible long before the advent of Zoom meetings.

“I've taught yoga in so many different places,” Downes said. “And even with ‘Yoga Flava,’ I tried to make it accessible anywhere, anytime, up in the club, you know, a hundred different places.”

Downes is now hard at work preparing her documentary that celebrates 25 years of Yoga Flava and her journey along the way.

When I thought of yogis I always envisioned these eternally calm beings. But in speaking with a number of them, you’re immediately walloped in the face with an undeniable passion, hitting you with the urgency of someone who found the secret elixir and wants to share.

Kari Jaffe is a wave of enthusiasm, eagerly touting the benefits of yoga. And while she can’t wait to get back to the studio, her website and virtual series also touts the “power of om” at home.

And it’s a lot of things. It’s a welcome environment. It’s knowing you are virus-free in your own home. But it’s also knowing that you can do as you please.

“It's suddenly you want to drift into meditation, you're there in your space or on your bedroom floor. It's really an opportunity to make it yours,” Jaffe said.

Yoga in the Age of COVID

There was a time early on in the pandemic when my wife and I looked at our two boys, then at each other and wondered how we were going to do this. As it turns out, we just did. We just are.

But that doesn’t mean it’s been smooth or easy. Stress mounts like layers of dirty laundry that go unattended.

“I think it's important to tap into yourself because there's so many other things going on outside that the yoga kind of brings you back to you,” Hairston said.

There’s never a bad time to start living healthy and picking up a new passion such as yoga, but there is a perfect time.

Being isolated from so many friends and family can be depressing. Bringing work to your living room can be stressful. Not knowing what wonderfully bad news tomorrow can bring can be demoralizing.

You're upset, your body holds the tension and it holds it forever,” Asumah explains. “As you can see, as people get older, they all take the same shape.”

That’s why we all at least feel like we are trudging up the street with masks on with the gait of Igor from “Young Frankenstein.”

“Right now for me under this stay at home, maybe finances aren't exactly what they used to be or schedules or even the loss of a friendship or a relationship because of what's been going on, that's pretty tangible,” Jaffe concedes.

Yoga is that versatile outlet made for these strange times: “Having some of these practices at my fingertips (I’m) blessed knowing that there's no right way, some days it is the movement some days It is a meditation.”

Yoga for Everyone 

Here in Venice, Calif. I’d often see people walk from their parked cars to studios, mats tucked under their arms. They were rushing to something that wasn’t for me. Yoga seemed like such an inaccessible practice that I could never perform.

But I was instructed very early on by Asumah; you don’t perform yoga, you practice it. And it’s in that way that you realize that anyone can do yoga, at their own pace, at their own ability.

Downes, an infectious burst of energy packed into a sage yogi, tells me straight off as we speak on the phone, “I'm so excited that my main client is my eighty-seven year old father.”

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Robin Downes joined by her father. Photo Credit: Robin Downes

Ancient Yoga Journey, Kari Jaffe, Shaniece Hairston, even Yogi Roth who suffered a broken neck, I was told time and again. Yoga is for everyone.

From amputees to people who proclaim they aren’t flexible, the art is in the very magic of the practice. You get flexible by doing, not the other way around.

“26 plus two is the only yoga you will find where there's people in their 80s, late 70s and have been doing it for 40 years,” Asumah said.

There’s a freedom to yoga at this moment in time. Taking a couple of hours out of your day to get to a studio is now whittled down to simply turning on the laptop.

“And I think with the help of Ancient Yoga Journey it has been more accessible for people because you don't have to get in your car sit in traffic trying to find a parking spot in order to go to the studio,” Hairston said.

To someone like Downes, yoga doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Describing its benefits might take some time, but describing the act itself takes a couple of breaths: “It's extraordinarily easy. If you can breathe, you can practice yoga.”

Jaffe echoes the sentiment, “If you have a body and you can breathe, you can do it. It doesn't have to look a certain way. It's not going to look like anyone else's. And kind of learning to let go of that is part of the practice. Yoga is for everyone. Everyone.”

When you believe so passionately about the solution to so many problems the next step is getting others to take that leap of faith.

“I have a belief that this yoga is universal, that it's made for any time period anywhere in the world for anyone,” Devermont said.

He and Asumah are attempting to create that space, working to create an online contingent of teachers that would make it possible to have a class every hour on the hour, giving struggling people the option to hop on and get back to self.

And they are doing everything they can to get as many people to the mat, rolling out unlimited classes at $10 a month.

I ask Francesca on one of our more recent calls. How she would explain yoga to someone like me, someone who had never before taken a class and saw it as some mystic practice that was just out of reach of comprehension.

“I would say that if somebody offered you a potion and you had to take that potion three or four times a week and that potion changed the way you age, would you take it?”

That’s the challenge before me.

Jaffe tells me, “What you do on your mat is a direct mirror to what you do and how you move through the world.”

My first time ever on the mat I was anxious, uncertain, unbalanced. It was completely counter to those who moved with grace and confidence on theirs.

Yogis from every part of the world are here during a most astounding time to welcome you to the mat and get you to a better place. 

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