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Stretched by pandemic, Cambodian yoga studios move classes online

In March, Lun Piseth's yoga studio started limiting the number of people in a class to five, keeping yoga mats farther apart and cleaning everything with an alcohol solution.

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By the end of the month, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Cambodia had risen from one to more than 100.

Then, in the first week of April, the government ordered all gyms and fitness centres in the country closed.

Nataraj Yoga studio had no choice but to roll up its mats and shut its doors, says Piseth, the studio's director.

But yoga classes in the capital, Phnom Penh, have carried on, with several studios, including Nataraj, moving classes online.

Cambodian yoga teachers say they're staying in business - although income has declined - by broadcasting classes via smartphones on Skype, Zoom and Facebook.

But not being in the studio comes with challenges, including how to advise on proper posture without being able to physically adjust students' bodies.

"I cannot have full access to my students. Because from the camera, we only see one angle," Piseth tells dpa, explaining that teachers need to ensure people are aligning their bodies correctly to avoid injuries. "We don't have the same energy [online as compared to] working with the same people in the classroom," he adds.

Like in much of the world, gyms, schools, cinemas and more in Cambodia have been closed for weeks in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19. Reported infections in the South-East Asian nation have stood at 122 since April 12, with nearly all patients having recovered and no coronavirus-related deaths confirmed.

But Health Ministry and World Health Organization representatives have warned citizens not to become complacent about preventative health measures, as widespread local transmission of the virus is still possible. Public health experts have also warned of possible unreported cases.

Piseth says about half of Nataraj's 11 teachers are now using Skype, while others have stopped teaching since the studio closed.

They are still offering a few classes every day of the week, but the studio and teachers are earning less money than before, since fewer people - about six on average - are joining each online session, and teachers are paid based on the number of yogis per class, according to Piseth.

"Everyone cannot make a living from teaching yoga these days," he says. "For the studio, we try our best just for now, just for surviving."

While Cambodia has no lockdown orders or movement restrictions, Piseth says online classes were a good choice for people in other countries who are stuck indoors, and for anyone in Cambodia practising social distancing or missing the studio's sense of community. "This will be the best option for them to keep their health" and maintain their physical and mental well-being, he says.

In addition to Skype classes, Krama Yoga, the nonprofit organization that runs Nataraj, is developing an online platform that will offer several types of yoga classes a day to subscribers for a monthly fee, says the group's founder, Isabelle Skaburskis. "This is because yoga teaching is the sole source of income to dozens of our staff, who are facing dire circumstances should their income dry up," she says.

With no social safety net in Cambodia, a lower-middle income country with an average monthly household income of 500 dollars in 2017, money earned from teaching yoga allows staff to support themselves and their families, Skaburskis adds.

En Dara, another teacher who owns Karuna Yoga studio, says she too has moved classes online after closing Karuna in mid-February, but she's losing money and no longer able to employ most of her teachers.

"Right now, they don't have income because they say at home and are not working," she says.

Using a tripod-mounted iPhone to film herself so students watching via Zoom can mimic her poses, Dara says she has no microphone and needs to speak more loudly than she normally would. She also misses being able to adjust students' bodies by hand and ensuring they don't hurt themselves, especially when doing handstands or headstands.

Everyone is very stressed due to the pandemic, but yoga can help people stay calm, according to Dara. "Some of my students cannot sleep at night because the pandemic is always on their minds," she says.

"After the pandemic, I hope yoga can help to heal their body and mind."

Asked whether Nataraj is likely to continue online classes if the pandemic subsides, Piseth says the studio will more than likely return to in-person sessions. "Our experience with yoga is more like a place, like a community," he says.