Searching for Community & Connection in Online Yoga

online yoga young woman lying on floor on mat while using laptop at home
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Sara and I always say that one of the healthiest times in our lives was when we were in graduate school on a steady exercise routine together. We did yoga, kickboxing videos, chatty elliptical sessions, and lifted weights in the musty university gym alongside students from our classes. We actually started running, which is something I never thought I could successfully do (and which I still do to this day — albeit only occasionally). Since we moved to different cities to begin our post-graduate school lives, working out just hasn’t been the same. It’s not that we never exercise when we don’t live in the same place. But we always get the most physical and emotional benefits when we don’t have to go it alone. 

After finishing grad school and moving back to my home state, I joined the gym near my house, where I went to group exercise classes to fill the Sara-shaped hole in my workout. However, it just wasn’t the same. There’s a big difference between casual aerobics class acquaintances and the intimate comfort that comes when your best friend is sweating through her jumping jacks and burpees right next to you. At the same time, I was finding myself less able to afford a gym membership and looking for an alternative. I began to utilize the growing number of free and subscription online yoga teachers, accessed largely through YouTube. 

At the time I was mostly looking to save money, but there was something else, too: I wanted an option that gave me a semblance of not just community, but companionship. While I knew that a virtual instructor wasn’t replacing the deep connection of face-to-face workouts, it somehow felt like I had a virtual friend, similar to the one-on-one connection that made exercising with Sara so much fun. This kind of social motivator is probably what makes Peloton bikes, the more recent (and super creepy) exercise mirror, or (even more frightening) exercise drones appealing: in addition to the accountability of a financial commitment, it feels like there’s something more intimate in your presence keeping you on track.

It’s important to feel like you’re a part of something, and that there is someone (or something) supporting you through your challenges. Today, while I could choose to do yoga on my own or plan a workout based on easily searchable plans, I just don’t get the same amount of exercise joy as when I follow along to one of my favorite YouTube instructors. 

These days, when many of us live in different places from our loved ones, a lot of people have learned how to go it alone — whether “it” be grocery shopping, taking care of kids, or working out. Even if you live in the same city as your BFF or, like me, within walking distance to your sister’s house, late capitalism means that it can be almost impossible for individual schedules to line up. (In fact, the only other time my friends and I worked out together were in my M.A. program and in undergrad, when my respective best buddies and I shared nearly the exact same schedule.) In this realm, some were probably able to use the social shifts around Covid to their advantage, scheduling walks with friends instead of going to an indoor gym. But many others likely struggled with losing a sense of community from seeing their group exercise acquaintances on a regular basis.

Many people wonder exactly how Covid will affect us culturally in the long term; friends and colleagues have speculated that while virtual instruction will continue to grow, we also might return to a more material mode of living to combat the push to digitize and zoom every which way. I think that’s true — although I also think that in a world where many of us don’t get to see our families or friends as often as we’d like, having online communities is important — and are likely here to stay. (Otherwise we wouldn’t be so invested in Dismantle!) In that way, an upside to the Covid era is how it accelerated the development of online infrastructure. 

Ultimately, I think nothing is better than the intimate comfort of working out with a friend or close family member. That’s why Sara and I have continued to do it together over the last several years, whether it’s zoom yoga, going on walk ‘n talks, or just sharing exercise routines and ideas during our phone chats. It’s also why we expanded our virtual workouts to a friends and family yoga class on the last Sunday of each month, during which we chit chat for a bit and enjoy the comfort of doing yoga in a loving, non-judgemental space. Ultimately, this is how we decided on our next Patreon goal at Dismantle: when we reach our next fundraising level, we will expand this monthly friend and family yoga class to all Patreon members. While at first it might seem off-track to integrate an exercise class into our offerings, a deeper look highlights that this is just the kind of community we’re hoping to build: one that is built on friendship and connection, and highlights the politics of intimacy and everyday life. 

Still, on those days when I don’t have Sara on a video call (which is more often than not, considering that even without kids or traditional jobs, our schedules don’t align like they did in the old days), I go to YouTube and appreciate the incredible number of classes taught by instructors with whom I feel I could easily spend a happy hour. So below, I have shared a list of some of my favorite YouTube yoga instructors, along with a few playlists that showcase these people who offer yoga in a supportive, loving way to the world. Because yoga in Western contexts is often fraught with racism and Orientalism, I’ve put some emphasis on women of color and teachers who seem to be relatively aware of this context and their place in a web of power — or whose approach models what we’d like to see in an antiracist, inclusive yoga or exercise program. Enjoy!

Our Favorite Teachers and Why

Ariana Elizabeth: I just recently discovered Ariana Elizabeth in my continual search for women of color yoga teachers, specifically BIPOC teachers who often get hidden from internet searches (case in point: I’m always on the lookout for new teachers and she just popped up in a specific search, likely because she has done the hard work of growing her reach and making it to the point where she shows up in my very directed search results). Her classes are excellent, and her soothing voice and high-quality video and sound production make doing classes with her both a rejuvenating and calming experience. I love doing her short morning flows these days and love her meditative approach that helps me focus on the important stuff: staying calm, remembering my tiny place in the universe on a daily basis, remembering the importance of having an attitude of kindness and love, etc. 

Xuan Lan: I discovered Xuan Lan a few years ago when searching for spanish-language yoga classes to practice my listening skills as a spanish learner. Based out of Barcelona, she has a soothing voice and her flows are always unique, relaxing, and challenging without being overwhelming.

Melissa West: Melissa West is a serene and charming soul who has been teaching on YouTube for ten years. She is dedicated to a relaxed, “real yoga for real people” style of yoga. Much of her library is filled with yin and restorative classes, meditations (“yoga nidra”) and reflective series that have been incredibly impactful for me and many others (like the one on perfectionism that can be sampled here). Further, she’s a fellow cultural studies Ph.D., having earned her doctorate years ago before deciding that her best path was to leave academia and begin a career in internet-based adult education (sound familiar?). 

Yoga with Kassandra: Kassandra has been around for years and it’s clear why: she has an easy, kind presence and combines flowing, simple classes with yin-style yoga. 

Edyn Loves Life: Edyn’s sweet voice and joyful energy is infectious, and she offers a refreshing and thoughtful celebration of body diversity. Her channel isn’t just about yoga, but about health, fitness, and nutrition information as well as self-care tips. The yoga classes that are available are well-rounded, unique, and relaxing while still providing a good challenge.

Yoga in Melbourne: Another well-rounded teacher with gentle flows and a soothing voice. Her videos are excellent and always sound peaceful.

Lesley Fightmaster: Sadly, Lesley Fightmaster passed away last year, but her life continues to be celebrated on her YouTube channel. Her yoga style and fun, don’t-give-a-care attitude always get me energized, especially in the morning. RIP Lesley!

Yoga with Adriene: We can’t forget the queen of online yoga! Especially because she and her dog, Benji, are so precious. Plus, she just started building a library of spanish-language classes through a translation program. 

Heart Alchemy Yoga: Michelle Goldstein’s gentle valley girl presence makes me nostalgic for L.A. Plus she has just the right rhythm and timing and I always feel great mentally and physically after her classes. 

Sample these teachers’s classes (and a few more!) on the following playlists:

Morning Yoga Favorites

After Work Relaxation Yoga

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Elise Chatelain is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. After several years of university teaching in sociology and women’s studies, Elise left academia to pursue new avenues for creative education and outreach. She now works as an academic coach and private tutor in addition to her work at Dismantle.