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From Vision to Virtual Learning: How YSS founder Hayley Winter brought yoga online

It’s fair to say that yoga has become a global phenomenon thanks to the Internet. From Yoga blogs to Superstar Instagrammers, popular teachers like Adrienne on Youtube, open classes on Yoga Glo, Doyouryoga, Movement For Modern Life, there are now more opportunities to practice and connect with yoga teachers all over the world than ever before.

Online learning has also become hugely popular thanks to the expansion of digital technology and faster broadband. You can now take courses and classes in practically any subject without leaving your front room. With University tuition fees at all-time highs both in the USA and UK, this means that for many, chances to improve their employment prospects by gaining additional qualifications have increased.

Here at The Institute of Yoga Sports Science® (YSS), we’ve been leading the digital education revolution since 2009 delivering world-class training in our Yoga Sports Coaching™ method.

In this blog, founder Hayley Winter explains how her vision came to life, and how YSS are still leaders in the field in online yoga education.

Hayley Winter delivering the early inception of sport-specific yoga at Ipswich Town F.C, UK. 2001

How it all began

Since 2000 I had been working on a hypothesis that yoga could improve athletic performance. I set about trying to prove it, first of all, working with the English Institute of Sport and later with the English Football Association, British Olympic Performance Directors and athletes from many sporting disciplines.

I developed a sport-specific yoga methodology which I delivered and tested with every athlete I worked with. It was becoming evident through the demand of this addition to strength and conditioning training that I needed to share it with other yoga and health and fitness professionals in order to deliver the benefits.

My background at the time was in higher education syllabus development, so I was able to design a Course that would train others to deliver sport-specific yoga enabling them to work as Yoga Sports Coaches™.

Crash course in survival

In 2008 my world changed. The first live Yoga Sports Science® (YSS) Course started with students from around the UK. Applications were coming in from people inquiring about joining the next course. Students were being enrolled, and preparation for the following courses was being made. I felt that the hard work and risks I had taken in creating YSS had paid off. Dreams can come true!

But, towards the end of 2008, the harsh effects of the Global crash were being felt. I was receiving calls from students saying they could no longer do the training. They couldn’t afford accommodation and travel. Husbands and wives were losing their jobs and cuts had to be made despite the fact that gaining new skills could mean gaining new employment opportunities.

Going 100% online

In the face of these changes, I had to adapt fast. I had to decide whether I was going to postpone delivering the courses until the economy stabilized or find another alternative. The news was bleak and the forecasts for an upturn in the economy were cautious with a slow recovery predicted for both the UK and USA.

I went back to my students and asked them if I could find a solution to help solve their problem, would they still be interested - it was a resounding yes!

My biggest challenge was to figure out how I was going to deliver a high-quality training course and provide students with a valuable experience and an authentic yoga education. After much research and deliberation, the only opportunity that was looking like a feasible option was to digitize my live course syllabus and consider teaching the course 100% online. It sounded like a mad and impossible idea.

At that time, my neighbor and friend was a highly respected Shiatsu master, Clifford Andrews. He was in great demand and would travel around the world teaching. He had started to explore ways to make his teaching time more efficient and give his students added value by exploring an online component to his live courses. He was using it as a resource for student forums and course hand-outs.

Stretching the possibilities of a virtual yoga space

Online learning is not new. One of the reasons the internet was invented was to bring university computers together in ‘intranets’ and enable students to access course materials more easily. In 2002 MIT were one of the first Universities to offer access online to their courses under the ‘Creative Commons’ licence. A move which established the use of MOOCS (Massive Open Online Course) enabling students all over the world to fit in study around their home lives.

In 2009, the technology was far more sophisticated, enabling whole degrees to be taught online, but it was still mainly colleges and universities who were delivering this way.

Clifford and I discussed the pros and cons of the virtual environment. My biggest concerns were how to deliver and teach yoga online. I didn’t have a frame of reference, and I couldn’t ask other yoga teachers how they were doing it because nobody was. I figured that maybe the reason for this was it just wasn’t possible.

I spent time discussing the feasibility of online yoga with my long-time yoga teacher, Mikki Marks, who had also been my yoga teacher during my British Wheel of Yoga teacher training. We discussed how yoga had always evolved over its 5,000-year history and adapted to the changing times. It seemed to me that the evolution of yoga into a virtual space could be a stretch too far.

Some of my concerns were the following:

  • The physical proximity of the yoga teacher to the student is a powerful experience. How could this be replicated online?

  • There is an intimacy to the learning experience between students, peers, and teacher. What role does that dynamic play in enhancing a students learning experience?

  • How would the pedagogy of yoga learning be affected by an online yoga education?

  • How would students assimilation of knowledge and teaching practices be assessed?

  • How could I be sure that sports-specific yoga protocols were being implemented into an athletic environment in a way that was appropriate for the athlete and empowered the student? More functional and less Sanskrit.

  • Would teaching yoga online mean losing its essence?

There were evidently valid reasons why back in 2009 teaching yoga online might have been a bad idea. If someone had told me that Google Hangouts and smartphone video and audio capabilities would make communicating and file sharing easier, then I might have waited, but I had a group of students that were willing to not only embrace pioneering sports-specific yoga but to also embrace learning yoga online.

Strength and authenticity

There were definite limitations to an online yoga education, but what I needed to do was focus on its strengths and overcome the obstacles. I applied my experience of yoga into every nuance of the online process with the aim of creating a supportive and effective online yoga space that students were excited to engage with. My mantra was to help students authentically experience the benefits of yoga and apply it to athletes in a way that would help them easily experience the benefits in their strength and conditioning training.

There is something to be said about taking the resourcefulness of yoga off the mat and applying it into everyday life as a working practice. I began applying my years of yoga teaching with my technical skills. I had a degree in graphic design and animation. After I graduated I worked as a technical engineer. I was able to apply those skills with my higher education background and my Yoga Sports Science knowledge and experience.

I recruited the support of friends and colleagues who were keen to explore this new medium with me, plus enlisting admin support to help students have their questions answered quickly alleviating any anxiety about their online studies. The mantra of the YSS team was, ‘there’s no such thing as a silly question!’ Students were encouraged to engage with the team as many times as they needed. Giving students the personal touch and contact was the essential component to their online experience.

Endless hours, (in fact 10,000 of them) were applied to the process and production of the first Yoga Sports Coach™ online Course. I put myself in the student's shoes and considered what I would want and need in order to have a robust education, with an engaging and supportive environment. I wanted the Course to be inclusive and offer a space for all types of learners.

A key concern was how to assess student competency and assimilation of knowledge. I discussed the issue with my friend and colleague, Dr Maggie Bunting, senior lecturer in Medical Education at the University of East Anglia, UK. We developed a data gathering tool based on the symptom cards doctors would use to assess their patients.

I recruited another friend and colleague, Tim Newenham, ex-Performance Director for British Olympic Shooting, former GB Javelin Coach and ex-athlete, for his input on how to refine the tool in an athletic environment. This tool became the YSS research method (the YSS Log Book), enabling students to easily gather and record data whilst working with their athlete in the field. Students would submit their YSS Log Books as part of their Case Study, along with video testimonials from the athlete and their coach. This process become an assessment method for the academic faculty to evaluate the students’ teaching practice as well as efficacy of their sport-specific yoga intervention into an athletic environment.

Teaching videos were filmed with additional lecture points overlaid showing graphics with lines of force for alignment to enhance the student’s learning experience. Extensive handouts were produced, every resource possible was provided to excite and support the student’s learning. Technical support was provided for students anxious about their tech skills.

We used Moodle as the online platform, Citrix webinar software was used for the group sessions with students and tutor. Skype was used for 1-2-1 individual tutorials, Course assignments were uploaded to Moodle, but videos of students working with their athletes were transferred onto DVD’s, as well as the student's Case Study YSS Log Books and reports were put in the post.

With support of Dr Chris Lowthorpe, who was way ahead of his time in understanding the importance of social media for professional communication, we established a series of protocols and training for students to engage with social media in a safe and innovate way.

Where we are today?

It’s been quite a journey! With academic staff and students based in 14 countries around the world, we are now a truly global organization with the world’s largest research database on the efficacy of yoga in sport. Sometimes keeping up with time zones can be a challenge, but technology has opened up the world and opportunities for me, the YSS academic team and the YSS graduates.

The early concerns have been turned into strengths with a continued appreciation for the opportunity to include students with diverse backgrounds from all around the world, from remote mountain tops to inner cities; students with full-time jobs that want to deepen their personal practice and their professional opportunities.

Each student that studied with us helped to shape the Course for the next cohort. Students were encouraged to provide feedback, making recommendations on what worked, what didn’t and what they would like to see implemented.

Since 2009 every student has contributed to the evolution of the Yoga Sports Coaching™ online Course, helping to make it a student-friendly, resource-rich, easy to navigate and highly dynamic learning environment.

  • The physical proximity of the yoga teacher to the student is achieved through 1-2-1 tutorial support via Zoom or Skype. Students can demonstrate techniques, discuss ideas in depth and have the tutor’s undivided attention in their tutorials throughout their studies.

  • The intimacy to the learning experience between students, peers, and teacher is achieved with group sessions in Zoom, or Google Hangouts, where lively debate and in-depth discussions on the Course syllabus are explore. Students actively engage with each other in a private Facebook group, with interaction from the tutors. Students have study buddies and engage in Problem Based Learning, where problems are identified and students collaborate to support and solve problems together.

  • The pedagogy of yoga learning is achieved through applying the theoretical components of Yoga Sports Science online and applying the teaching practices to athletes and the general public, achieved through a comprehensive assessment and evaluation process.

  • Ensuring competency and credentialing that the sports-specific yoga protocols are implemented into an athletic environment appropriately for the athlete and learning outcomes achieved by the student through the demonstration of knowledge, skills and abilities and evidenced in their Course assignments and YSS Log Books.

  • Maintaining the integrity of yoga in an online environment has also become one of our strengths. We reflect on what yoga means to us as practitioners, teachers and Yoga Sports Coaches. We help educate athletes and coaches to an injury prevention strategy through sport-specific yoga. We are inclusive, compassionate, patient, nurturing and cultivate inquiry. We unite the authentic origins of yoga with modern science… bringing traditional practices together with contemporary thoughts and attitudes.

From being on the outside to being a field-leader

Ten years ago there was no-one in the online yoga world to turn to for support. Pioneering something can sometimes mean isolation, ridicule and absence to proof of concept. Today it is my great privilege to be supporting the British Wheel of Yoga in the UK and the Yoga Alliance in the U.S in their efforts to explore the relevancy and quality controls needed in delivering an online yoga education.

YSS has recently been approved by the British Wheel of Yoga to deliver a Yoga for Athletes Module to its members, combining the blended learning of both online and Live training.

Last year I was involved with Yoga Alliance Standards Review Project and part of a Working Group that explored the appropriate role of online education in yoga. It is an extremely valuable endeavor and one which Yoga Alliance members are encouraged to feed in to to help shape the ever evolving nature of yoga into the future.

I would like to thank the friends, colleagues and family members that supported me and watched me battle with what seemed like an insurmountable task. I would like to acknowledge and thank all the Yoga Sports Coaches™ who were the risk takers, the early pioneers and the game changers that embraced the new medium, embodied the knowledge and changed the lives and performance of athletes in the world of sport.

Want to be a pioneer and a game changer? Do you want to turn your passion of yoga and sport into a career? Join us for our next Yoga Sports Coach™ online training which starts this November and look out for the next Yoga for Athletes Foundation course which will be delivered live in New York at the Institute of Yoga Sports Science in January 2019.


The 8 YA Standards Review Groups and topics:

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