Technology

Zoom is 2020’s hottest yoga studio

Yoga looks different this week. Studios are empty, music is off, and instructors are often demonstrating forms with a couch on one side of them, a TV on another, and a laptop pointed at them from across the room.

As more of the US goes under quarantine to limit the spread of COVID-19, yoga studios and instructors have moved online to connect with clients and stay afloat. Yoga instructors say it’s a nice reprieve for students, giving them a chance to de-stress and maintain a degree of normalcy. But it’s also a critical offering for studios, many of which would otherwise see their income drop to zero, and for instructors, who are typically contractors and are therefore at risk of being overlooked by unemployment protections.

“We’ve just lost all of our income,” said Katie Baki, a yoga instructor who works around Los Angeles. “So being able to supplement that by doing donation-based classes, it’s not only maintaining routine for my students who I love and care for, but it’s also giving me additional income when I just lost everything.”

The classes, like those offered by Baki, are frequently held over Zoom. Baki quickly began offering donation-based yoga classes last week after the studios she works at shut down and shelter-in-place requirements in California made it impossible for her to see her private clients. She’d had some experience with Zoom before — at an old marketing job — and she liked that it let her record the sessions for later and see students who turn on their webcams.

The app lets studios and instructors re-create some semblance of a normal yoga class. The instructor is front and center, taking up the big box on the video chat screen, and students can all see each other in the little boxes that seem to rotate at random at the top of the app. Some instructors, like Baki, have been emailing Spotify playlists out to students so they can stay in sync with her and attempt to re-create the mood that would be set in an actual studio. For props, instructors have been recommending makeshift options that can be found around students’ homes, like a rolled-up towel in place of a bolster, stacked books for blocks, or an old T-shirt as a strap.

It’s not the same as an in-person class, but some instructors have said that, at times, it feels more intimate: cats and dogs wander in and out of the frame, children dart through, and students show up in their pajamas.

“For me, the interaction with the families and the kids has meant a lot,” said Katie Stoeckeler, an instructor and the owner of New York studio Peace in Piermont, which specializes in children’s classes. “The families seeing other families, the kids running around and just being silly. It’s like, okay, we’re not alone in this. I’m losing my mind at home too like they’re losing it. We’re not alone.”

Because the classes are remote, instructors’ ability to interact with their classes is limited. Several teachers said that, rather than giving notes on form or cracking jokes like they usually do, they’re focusing more on guiding people through the routine and helping people stay calm at a hectic time. “I want it to be an opportunity to de-stress and feel good about yourself,” Stoeckeler said.

Stoeckeler keeps her phone beside her so that students can text her with questions since she doesn’t want to be darting back and forth between her mat and computer. At Namaste Yoga + Wellness in Oakland, California, some of the studio’s instructors have been giving students a chance to ask questions between poses or after class. Others simply ask students to email them later. “I’m letting the instructors decide what they’re most comfortable with,” said Emily Roth, Namaste’s program director. “Let them do what they need to do to teach the best they can.”

The instructors and studios that have jumped online say they haven’t had a problem finding an audience. In addition to her regulars, Baki said she’s seen people from Europe finding and joining her classes. She’s also been happy to see old students of hers from other states joining in. Namaste has been able to support up to 10 classes a day, and Stoeckeler has moved nearly her studio’s entire class schedule online. Much of the word of mouth that’s helping to spread these classes beyond existing students has come from Instagram as participants post stories of themselves working out and tag their instructors and studios.

It also helps to have an audience ready to move online. Sky Ting, a studio with three locations in New York, had already been in the process of creating online classes when the pandemic hit. Its subscription service launched in November for $20 per month and saw a spike in customers around the holidays as students left the city to visit family, said founders Krissy Jones and Chloe Kernaghan. Sky Ting still wasn’t set up for live-streaming, though, so the studio’s IT person ran to Best Buy and bought a webcam before just about everything in the city was shut down.

For the past week, the two founders have been streaming a class every day from a studio down the block from their apartment building. Rather than using Zoom, which has a limit on how many participants can be on a call, Sky Ting has been using Vimeo to live-stream classes. It means the instructors can’t see their students at all, but it allows the studio’s stream to reach a far larger number of people. In one case, Kernaghan said around 2,000 people tuned in. (Though students can’t see each other over Vimeo, Jones said some students set up Zoom calls with friends to hang out during class.)

“Right now, I think it’s more important to honestly just move your body and to feel like you’re part of something,” Kernaghan said. Jones said the feedback has been “super positive” and led to “the most amount of direct messages we’ve ever gotten in our lives.”

These small studios have competition as they try to move online. Companies that specialize in on-demand fitness videos, like Glo, are often cheaper and have more existing content. Other companies, like CorePower Yoga and Tonal, have even made their pre-recorded yoga videos free for a period of time to draw in new viewers. While viewers won’t know the instructors and can’t get feedback, the videos are usually a lot more polished because they’re prerecorded (and were created before the pandemic made filming anything an immense challenge).

But even though live online classes can be similarly lacking in interaction at times, instructors say they’re still worth tuning in to watch. You get to see other people participating, you may be able to stick with an instructor you know, and instructors need the financial support in a way that large companies don’t.

“My students are saying you can feel the energy,” Baki said. “I had a girl be like, ‘Man, that energy in class was so good.’ And I was like, ‘How do you know that? You’re not even seeing people.’ So they’re feeling it. They’re really feeling it.”