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How COVID Created Community Across Time Zones and Generations

I’m close to my parents, but in the “before times,” I probably talked with them twice a week. Over the last 14 months, however, what started as an online experiment with my niece and nephew in May 2020 became a 5-days-a-week yoga class with my parents, two aunties, my husband’s best friend, and my sister’s mother-in-law. That made seven of us, in three different time zones, fully connected when social isolation seemed to characterize the era. In total, it has added up to more than 250 yoga sessions on Zoom. We’ve celebrated holidays, birthdays and other joys—and we’ve held space for each other through more painful anniversaries, medical diagnoses, and treatments.

The Balm of Community

Black Americans of my parents’ generation bring a humor and wisdom with them almost everywhere they go, and that has been a natural part of our group yoga practice from the moment we sign on right through Savasana. I remember us falling off our blocks and cushions laughing about how Black yogis should intentionally “mess up” Gorilla Pose lest the white yogis start to think this pose comes naturally to us. Silly moments like this have been a balm for my soul, but the more serious moments have been just as important.

I took comfort in this group in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. One of our elders was the classmate of Floyd’s aunt, a fact that gave an even more personal cast to a national atrocity. And when the National Guard took over Sunset and Vine and my Hollywood side street became a staging ground for the LAPD’s response to the protests and my neighborhood began to feel like occupied territory, I was grateful for the virtual presence of our group.

The Teacher Emerges

I had been bearing witness to the magic and thrill of making space for moving meditation, so when the opportunity to enroll in a training presented itself about four months into the group’s time together, I thought, “I can do this.” I wanted to be able to draw on more than just years of practice; my little yoga community deserved so much more. For them, I wanted to be someone who not only knew how to practice, but also knew how to teach the practice.

It was important to me to study under a teacher whose work was deeply-rooted in ancient yogic texts and who centered Black feminism in their teaching. The training was probably the most intense and rewarding learning experience I had embarked on since my master’s degree program 25 years prior, and my little crew was right there to support and cheer me on through every test and practicum over the 200-hour program. It’s because of them and the space we built and the joy we cultivated that I have been able to bring yoga out of the margins of my life and place it squarely into the main narrative.

Occasions and Celebrations

My husband occasionally pops his head in front of my laptop camera to say hi to the crew, but for the most part he’s hard at work in our garage-studio office during my yoga classes. At yoga-time on the day of our 16th wedding anniversary, however, my mom summoned him to the screen. With foam core board, color printouts, and her signature calligraphy, she had created a full display of multiple ancient concepts tied to yoga and meditation and—ever mindful of my husband’s culture—Hawaiian-language anniversary greetings. She gave us a commitment mantra for us to recite to each other. It ended up being an impromptu, mid-pandemic renewal of our vows, with the other yogis celebrating with us.

My birthday—just about 5 months into our time together—is another occasion that stands out. The yoga crew had a few surprises for me that day, starting when my mom shared her screen and up popped a “personalized” birthday song from none other than Dolly Parton. Then came the gift from my dad; he led the group in our daily practice of breath awareness and asana! I’ve always known him to be a serious student of whatever he chooses to take on. I wasn’t prepared for how he had so completely taken in every aspect of our practice and effortlessly delivered a class like only my dad could.

Another heart-swell came when I found out that my mother had also adapted some of our meditations to lead her Links sisters in prayer. I’ve helped my parents here and there over the years; but to take on a consistent and enduring role of guide in relationship to them—and then to have it made so lovingly clear that they are eager and open students—was the best present I could have received.

A Commitment to Practice

I’ll never forget the space we held four days before last year’s presidential election. There’s a part of Metta meditation in which loving-kindness is consciously cultivated for and sent to someone with whom being in relationship is challenging. It’s especially meant for those whom we downright dislike or whose very being in this world causes harm. Somehow, never mentioning a name, we dug deep collectively and mustered a measure of loving-kindness for a certain former president. I think we all ascended to a higher level of meditative practice that day. A week or so later, we were able to celebrate what we hoped was the beginning of our country’s emergence from four years of collective despair, widespread harm, and global embarrassment.

We have all become so inspired by and accountable to each other. This past June, my dad sent articles and videos to my friend in Hawai’i, inspiring her to develop the first elementary school, Hawaiian-language Juneteenth curriculum. In July, an auntie coordinated a meeting of our group so the practice could continue even on one of the very few days I had to cancel.

A Time of Transition

Recently, we all celebrated in real time as we watched one of my aunties reap the full benefits of vaccination and hug her just-home-from-college grandchild for the first time in more than a year. This was such a beautiful sign that we were moving toward the light at the end of a dark and seemingly endless tunnel. It was also a bittersweet awakening for me.

It seems increasingly unlikely that our crew will keep our sessions going at such a high frequency. If the obligations outside of our homes go back to even half of what they were pre-pandemic, I don’t think we’ll continue to be available across all the time zones from Hawaii to California to Virginia and North Carolina. Still, my hope is that we’ll continue, if only to gather virtually once a month.

It feels odd knowing that a time of such intense anxiety and loss was the catalyst for a virtual gathering that deepened my understanding of and love for not only yoga but also for my parents, aunties, and friends as well. I don’t often use the word blessing, but I’m not sure how else to describe the opportunity to give to those who have given me so much. Through their gifts—yoga-themed mugs, fruit baskets, gift cards—my family of yogis has never let me forget how much they appreciate our crew. But the joy and pleasure are all mine. So much bonding and love came out of such an unexpected place, and I will be forever in awe and forever grateful.

• • •

KJ Ward is an independent communications and organizational-development consultant and yoga teacher. He is also the creator of GLASS Reflects and a proud member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners of the board of directors of Gender Spectrum. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and their dog, Rufus.

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