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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

I own a yoga studio.

This is my usual answer to the cliché (and somewhat archaic) question of, “What do you do?”

I’ve never minded the query up to now. In truth, it would usually make me light up with pride and joy like a child being asked their favourite ice cream flavour.

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But that was before COVID-19.

Now, the answer is accompanied by internal angst, compounded by some anti-yogi feelings and an expanded answer once the sympathetic look from the person asking the question becomes obvious: “I know. I’m screwed.”

The obvious disdain shown wouldn’t seem that surprising if you take into account that a few years back I wrote a book entitled, I Hate Yoga, but that was tongue-in-cheek and was written with the purpose of getting people to love yoga.

I didn’t think I was manifesting the potential demise of my business with a cheeky title (and I still don’t) – it was simply an attempt to counter all the sanguine proclamations that come out of the mouths of folks who regularly practice yoga. I thought it was funny.

Nothing funny about it now; although, there is potential for an even more apt, updated title: Covid Hates Yoga.

And it really does.

Yoga studios are closing permanently all over the world. Most have been pivoting like other businesses to move online but no one can argue that the heart-led essence of true yoga and many of its benefits come from community and connection, not bandwidth and bright lighting; and in addition to feeling soulless, most online offerings are not very profitable, which is why yoga studios are being shuttered like windows before a hurricane.

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There’s no use in sugar-coating the harshness of our current reality and the cruel irony of the fact that yoga studios – which have helped thousands maintain and enhance their well-being over the years – are being forced to close for the safety and health of their communities.

It can be tough to wrap one’s head around such a cold paradox.

But here we are.

To further the conflict, yogis are traditionally bound to practice Ahimsa, the Sanskrit term meaning “do no harm to others.”

When my yoga studio was permitted to reopen in August and September last year, albeit at 20 per cent capacity with a minimum of six feet between mats, I struggled with the morality of it all. What if someone still got sick despite all the precautions we put in place?

I hoped that an upgraded ventilation system combined with an energy recovery ventilator, HEPA filters and strict cleaning protocols would prevent infection, but how could I be sure it would be enough?

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I couldn’t. All we could do is follow guidelines, mitigate as much risk as possible and allow the chips to fall where they may. Despite the uncertainty of COVID, classes were full because our clients wanted their hot yoga and Pilates. They were suffering without it. I have the e-mails to prove it – the pleas from our community to do everything to stay open were substantial.

The extra efforts paid off, though odds were certainly better during the summer lull than they would be in the middle of the darker days we’re currently experiencing. Playing cards with COVID now would likely be a guarantee that even yoga would leave Vegas a loser.

Fortunately, while we were open, no one got sick… except me. Not with COVID-19, but with stress-related health issues that continue today. The virus might argue that it got me indirectly, along with thousands of others who suffer from mental-health issues, anxiety, depression and a host of other ailments upon which COVID could arguably hang its hat.

Trying to achieve the balance of keeping a business above water while the coronavirus shark lurks below is not conducive to one’s well-being.

The ongoing argument of “lives versus livelihood” takes on new complexities when it comes to the fitness industry. How can you help someone feel their best while potentially exposing them to the worst – a virus that throws its nose up at good intentions just before it travels up yours. No matter how many guidelines I exceeded, safety in this pandemic is elusive; even the health care officials teetered on their recommendations.

Yoga is supposed to provide enlightenment through meditation, asanas and deep breathing, so I keep searching within, and during my practice, I call out for insights, but my inner guru won’t pick up the phone. COVID changed the number. It hates yoga.

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Maybe my yoga business can survive until the vaccines do their magic and safety is no longer a burdensome issue. Maybe it can’t.

None of this feels like just a matter of a business surviving or failing. There are a few shots of existentialism mixed into this tale.

I know. I can feel eyes rolling. “Existentialism? Oh, do illuminate us with the deepness of it all, Shiva.”

But it’s true. Existentialists believe that society should not restrict an individual’s life or actions because any such limitations inhibit free will and the natural progression of that person’s potential.

In the current COVID reality, one might argue that existentialism loses its validity. COVID hates existentialism – it doles out punishment to its proponents and their seemingly self-righteous idealism. COVID doesn’t care. It wins again.

This fight ain’t over, though. In spite of all the political bungling and mixed messaging from various governments and health authorities, I know we’ll get through this, and I truly hope there are lessons that will be learned when we do, but what do I know?

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I’m not a prophet, an epidemiologist, a politician or a philosopher.

I own a yoga studio.

Paul McQuillan lives in Toronto.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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