With an uncertain future ahead, fitness studios are going virtual to keep hope alive

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Now Yoga, a New York City-based yoga studio, offers online classes via Zoom after closing their physical location in response to the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - I opened the link to the Zoom meeting at precisely 10 a.m., and familiar names and faces began to pop up on my computer screen as others joined in. Immediately, there were some minor technical issues to figure out. One woman wanted to know how to make the presenter’s video larger than the videos of the participants. When someone attempted to help her, he accidentally shared his own computer screen, including a view of his inbox, with the entire group. After a few jokes and a couple of minutes, all of these issues were sorted out, and we were ready to begin.

The scene that I’m describing has long been a common one for workplace conference calls and virtual trainings, but in this particular instance, we weren’t linking up to discuss sales strategies or to brainstorm new pitches. In fact, for many of the participants, the Zoom meeting represented a reprieve from their workday. Dressed in athletic wear and seated on yoga mats, we were about to embark on a 60-minute vinyasa yoga journey, led by Renata Di Biase, owner of Now Yoga in New York City.

“Thank you for bearing with us as we deal with all of these technological issues,” said Di Biase. She then asked if anyone had any further questions before we got started, a slight departure from the usual invitation for students to tell the instructor about injuries or whatever else might be going on in their bodies that day.

A yoga class at home never feels quite like a yoga class in a studio. I’ve had a subscription to Glo, an online yoga and meditation studio, for several years, but despite the convenience of being able to practice anytime and anywhere, I only use the service when absolutely nothing else will fit into my schedule. I’m too easily distracted by my laptop mere inches away from my mat, and it’s too tempting to skip the poses that I don’t enjoy, because no one would ever know that I was doing my dishes instead of a revolved half-moon.

But on March 16, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that all gyms in New York had to close their doors indefinitely by 8 p.m. in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and I was left with no choice but to take my practice online.

At Now Yoga, a shift to digital was never part of the plan.

“We opened Now Yoga’s studio at Astor Place with the desire to carve out a real, physical space for our yoga community. Whenever anyone suggested producing digital content in the past in order to broaden our reach, I avoided considering it, resting on the excuse that we could never adequately reproduce the personal in-studio experience digitally,” said Di Biase. “I assumed we wouldn’t achieve the same quality or intimacy.”

Despite her reservations about digital content, Di Biase responded to the recent measures in New York like many other studio owners — by offering the Now Yoga community a consistent schedule of live, virtual classes.

“I still believe that in-person is best, but this process of reimagining our business model out of necessity forced me into producing online classes with happy results. It’s turned out to be a surprisingly rich and wonderful experience,” said Di Biase. And though the intimacy of a studio practice may not be perfectly replicated on Zoom, Di Biase has found that there's a unique personal tone to the classes created by the sight of students practicing in their living rooms and bedrooms.

All of Now Yoga’s online classes are donation-based right now. “It feels right to continue offering all online classes for no fee or by donation during this uncertain time. We’ve made it possible for you to donate per class, or to give a weekly sum if you plan on practicing regularly,” the studio communicated to its members via email.

Goodtimes Yoga, a studio located in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, has also moved into the digital space and is currently utilizing two different streaming platforms: Zoom for members-only content and Instagram Live for donation-based classes that are available to anyone with an Instagram account. The latter helps to make fitness accessible to all during these difficult times, while the former offers greater accountability for those who might be prone to distractions.

During a Zoom class, participants have the option to share their webcam, and the lack of anonymity can encourage students to behave in the same way that they would in a studio setting, fully tuning into their practice instead of giving into the temptation to browse social media during a long hold in pigeon or to skip all of the ab exercises.

“It is so easy to get distracted at home. You can start texting or wandering around the room instead of sticking with the whole class. It takes a lot of willpower to get yourself on the mat and then commit to the whole thing,” said Goodtimes owner Karina Kay.

Kay, who had never considered online content before the shutdown, has further incentivized Goodtimes members to keep up with their practice by turning the Zoom classes into a 15-day challenge. Each day of the challenge is tied to a different yoga pose, ranging from headstand to full splits. If anyone who isn’t currently a member or pass holder wants to participate in the challenge, $50 will give them complete access to the Zoom classes, with all proceeds going to the yoga teachers and staff. For the Instagram Live classes, Venmo donations help to support the teachers.

As much as the online offerings are benefiting the students who can no longer practice in a physical studio space, they’re also crucial in providing the studios with the funding needed to eventually reopen their doors and in allowing yoga teachers to continue to make a living.

In response to the threat that the shutdowns pose to the fitness industry, fitness booking app ClassPass recently started a petition urging governments to step up and support businesses in the health and wellness space. The petition calls for several different policies to be put in place, including rent relief for business owners and financial assistance for the workforce.

Several funds have been set up in the past few weeks to further help fitness studios survive the shutdowns. There’s ClassPass’ Partner Relief Fund, which allows users to donate to their favorite studios through the ClassPass app; ClassPass will then match the total amount of contributions up to $1 million. The lululemon Ambassador Relief Fund is a $2 million global grant program to support lululemon ambassador studio owners. Practice with Dana, a fat and queer-owned pay-what-you-can online yoga platform, is currently redistributing 100% of member fees to people with marginalized identities who have been financially affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Reclamation Ventures is offering $2,500 grants to 200 U.S. based entrepreneurs and instructors. And the list goes on.

ClassPass is also allowing members to sign up for live classes through their platform and giving 100% of the livestream class proceeds to the studios. Not all studios are satisfied with ClassPass' efforts, however. One owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, is disappointed that privacy laws currently keep ClassPass from being able to sync with the commonly used booking software Mindbody.

"It’s extra work for studios to manage their online classes in two places at once now," said the owner. "It would be nice if they could petition about that, since it’s costing studios more in manual labor. Plus, in some cases where teachers don’t get a flat rate, we would have to calculate payroll by hand, as ClassPass has no payroll reporting features."

Aside from receiving support from ClassPass and gathering donations for their virtual classes, studios are encouraging their members to keep their memberships active if they’re financially able to do so.

“If you have a membership, keep it, so there's cash flow for the studios,” said Keela Williams, owner of New Love City in Brooklyn. “If not, donate to the studios or buy classes for later. Support your local studio so that they can reopen the doors for you when it's time.”

Williams has also taken her studio from its physical location to the virtual world via Instagram Live, where New Love City hosts one or two vinyasa classes each day, as well as a morning meditation. The instructors at New Love City are shooting other classes, tutorials, and mediations to be hosted on Vimeo On Demand. In addition, there’s an option for online corporate group classes to help companies stay connected while working from home.

Shaktibarre, a women-owned fitness studio that describes itself as “The Yoga-Barre Empowerment Hub,” was already planning on partnering with Vimeo prior to the coronavirus outbreak. But upon temporarily closing their Williamsburg and Harlem studio spaces earlier this month, Shaktibarre launched a beta test of classes via Zoom.

“We had to think on our feet quickly,” said co-founder Corinne Wainer. “Luckily, our whole team helped out, and students have been virtually attending each day and loving it.”

The virtual classes available from Shaktibarre range from barre to HIIT to Kundalini yoga, and each one is approximately one hour long. Yoga may be one of the easiest workouts to replicate from home, requiring minimal props; it can even be done without a mat. For additional props, including those usually required by barre classes, Wainer encourages students to tap into their creativity: “Consider swapping props with household items. Soup cans become weights, a non-slip carpet becomes your mat, a chair or counter equals a barre, and a towel is your yoga blanket. And with one pillow, you can do tons of supported abdominal work.”

The task of transforming classes that typically require a good deal of equipment from in-person experiences to online workouts that can be done from home has forced studios to get innovative.

Shadowbox, a boxing studio with locations in New York City and Chicago, has their instructors leading classes via Instagram Live using common household items like water bottles, cans, and backpacks.

“Here’s a piece of unofficial equipment that I recommend for everybody,” said Shadowbox instructor Jon Hurtado in Wednesday's live class. “You can use your book bags like a sandbag weight for more weight in squats. I’d stuff your book bags with textbooks, bottles of water, whatever you want. I’ve got gallons of orange juice in here.” He also encouraged participants in apartments to be mindful of their neighbors by substituting moves like jump squats with slower weighted exercises.

For some studios, their typical classes are near-impossible for someone to replicate at home. Aqua Studio in Tribeca, for example, is known for their aqua cycling classes; the spin bikes are in a pool, and the water acts as resistance. But trying to aqua cycle at home by placing your bike in the bathtub might not be the best idea, so Aqua Studio’s live classes instead focus on exercises that can be completed from wherever you are.

Aqua Studio is using Zoom to livestream a variety of classes like “Mind Body Reset,” which includes the writing of affirmations post-stretching to help calm the mind, and “Energy Boost Cardio,” which promises “non-stop low-impact exercises to improve cardio and wellness.” The classes are free of charge, but the studio is asking for Venmo donations to support the operational cost of holding classes and to sustain the teachers.

“We are working really hard to offer you some online classes and online personal training. This is our only hope for collecting a bit of revenue to keep us afloat,” said Aqua Studio in an email to members. “We honestly don't know yet how we will be able to stay in business if this situation lasts beyond May 1. Our only hope is that the government passes a bill on rent relief.”

Another studio experience that might not translate quite so easily to the home is hot yoga; even if you’re able to crank up the thermostat, it may not feel the same as an infrared heat system does. But hot yoga teachers are leading extra-sweaty flows to help build the heat. Y7, the hot yoga studio known for hip-hop beats and candlelit rooms, has taken their classes to Instagram live. Modo Yoga, which made headlines in September of last year when Meghan Markle attended one of the studio’s classes, is gearing up for digital classes starting March 27. And Heatwise, a Brooklyn-based hot yoga studio, has launched Heatwise Digital, which consists of livestream classes on Zoom, digital private lessons, and upcoming content on Vimeo.

Heatwise owner Samantha Scupp had considered building digital content long before it became a necessity, and she aims to continue with it even after the studio reopens its doors. “We will definitely continue to offer this once we reopen. We plan to film our content with much higher production values; currently, our instructors are filming from home via their devices,” Scupp said.

For Di Biase, her earlier hesitations about digital content have been quashed as the value of the studio’s online offerings quickly became apparent. She feels grateful for the possibilities of a connection made possible through technology, especially during a time where it would otherwise be far too easy to feel alone. “The virtual studio has turned out to be a uniquely adequate substitution for the brick-and-mortar and one that I think we might just hold on to, even after we return to our beloved home at Astor Place,” Di Biase said.

“Our community has been able to reconnect after so many days of being quarantined in relative isolation. [Virtual classes have] even allowed us to reunite with old friends who we haven’t practiced with in years simply because life, time, and distance moved us apart. The experience has been joyous, intimate, and real. I realize that our present circumstances largely account for the zeitgeist, but the power of connecting so many people from all over the world in the practice of yoga will always, I think, feel profound and potent,” she added.

Editor's Note: The author of this article is a part-time yoga instructor in New York City and has worked at a few of the studios mentioned.