All gyms and fitness studios in Washington closed in late-March, when Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus took effect. Since then, socially starved Seattleites have migrated online for everything from happy hour to fitness classes.

This shift online has presented local fitness studios with many challenges: what platform to use, how to register members, how to ensure members have the right equipment, how to stay in business. Here’s how some have adapted and shifted gears to continue helping members stay fit and retain their connections to their gym communities in a very chaotic time.

Like many other fitness studio owners, Dora Gyarmati, who has owned Spira Power Yoga for 10 years, moved all her classes to Zoom, a teleconferencing service, and set up online scheduling.

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Gyarmati says she picked Zoom over prerecorded classes because the imperfections of a live class are important. Her classes are only available to members, but she offers free classes for seniors and those who recently lost their jobs.

“Those (prerecorded) videos are so perfect, this is not perfect,” she said, explaining that when teachers teach live from their homes, mistakes and imperfections provide a genuine connection among the people taking the class and allows a glimpse into the personal lives of each student.

“After each session, we show off each other’s kids and dogs, so it becomes this place where people don’t feel as lonely,” Gyarmati said.

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The transition online was trickier for spin studios because their classes require each participant to have a stationary bike. Several, including the StarCycle franchise in West Seattle and The Ride studio in Eastlake, rented out bikes to members to allow them to continue working out at home.

“They were gone within two hours,” said Danielle Ullmann, StarCycle West Seattle’s franchise owner, who now teaches her spin classes on Instagram Live.

Classes from Ullmann’s StarCycle franchise are open to the public, all her music is licensed and the videos stay up for 24 hours. She’s also introduced an online portal featuring prerecorded videos of workouts beyond spin that members can do at home.

The Ride also had no trouble renting out its spin bikes and migrating classes to Zoom. What was tricky, says owner Aina Williams, was trying to find a webcam.

“All the webcams sold out in a day,” Williams joked.

The Ride’s classes are also available to the public but will soon be members-only. Williams still plans to provide one free class a week to the public.

Teaching virtual classes is a lot different from being in a studio. Some instructors have found upsides in moving classes online.

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“I can see who’s tuned in and they’ll comment or give me a thumbs up. … It’s just a real cool energy,” Ullmann said. “What I’m finding is I’m here helping everybody, and they’re helping me.”

For others, it’s been a tougher transition.

Zoom classes haven’t worked out quite as well for Mara Solar of Bohemian Studios, which specializes in barre — a workout regimen that combines ballet, yoga and Pilates.

Home workouts directed by instructors on webcams have become commonplace in the coronavirus era.  (Joseph Liu)
Home workouts directed by instructors on webcams have become commonplace in the coronavirus era. (Joseph Liu)

Barre requires the class and instructor to be in sync with the music and each other, Solar said. Online classes deal with lag time and poor sound quality, making this connection difficult to obtain. And because of music licensing, she is limited to what platforms she can use.

“Our message is so dependent on music. … it really drives the exercises,” she said. “Anything that we post to Facebook or Instagram has to be nonlicensed.”

For Solar, ensuring that everyone’s form is correct, that the class is at the right effort level and that she is not putting anyone at risk of injury is extremely important — and difficult to do via webcam.

“We’re literally talking to a screen,” Solar says. “I know I’m fatiguing so I’m probably not in perfect form either.”

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Williams says she’s had to help some of her spin trainers get comfortable with teaching to a webcam set up in an empty room.

“Talk to the audience like you are talking to yourself,” Williams tells her trainers. “Remember whatever you are going through is related. If you are afraid to do this online class, talk about the fear of doing this online class. Be unbelievably honest.”

She reminds her instructors that they’re not just leading a class, they are providing 40 minutes of therapy, healing and, hopefully, laughter.

“There is so much going on right now. It is time to embrace, in a safe space, what is really happening to them,” Williams says.

Williams thinks the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally altered the way fitness studios do business now and in the future.

“I don’t believe it’s going to ever go back to what it was, with the number of people going into this. … It’s going to be a profound shift,“ Williams said, adding that her online classes reach more people and have connected her with a wider audience than ever before. “I know that I don’t ever plan on taking the ride offline; it will always have an online component the way that we are doing now.”

Aina Williams, owner of The Ride studio in Eastlake, has taken her classes online since the coronavirus pandemic forced fitness studios to shut their doors. (Trista Peck / The Ride)
Aina Williams, owner of The Ride studio in Eastlake, has taken her classes online since the coronavirus pandemic forced fitness studios to shut their doors. (Trista Peck / The Ride)

Yet, even though online classes have helped existing members stay connected, without any new members or drop-ins, the small-business owners who run these local studios face an uncertain future. On top of that, some members are canceling or putting their memberships on hold due to their financial situations.

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Gyarmati has yet to calculate her finances this month, but “I know we are quite a bit down,” she said. She plans to apply for a federal stimulus loan but admits it is a confusing process. Above all, she’s tried to maintain the yoga mindset of staying in the present and being mindful.

“If I think too much into the future, honestly, the anxiety and the helplessness sets in,” she admits. “[The coronavirus] shook us up, but we are a lot more sensitive to each other’s needs now.”

Ullmann opened StarCycle four months ago and she is extremely proud of how strong her community has been. “They are rallying to make sure that our doors can stay open when we get to the other side of this,” she said.

The studio owners all say they’re incredibly grateful for their members’ support during this time. Gyarmati has seen her studio’s following drastically increase on social networks. StarCycle members are keeping their memberships active, even if they don’t have a bike at home, Ullmann said. Williams is still selling punch cards, with clients planning to use them when their doors open again.

They see their studios not only as places people go to stay in shape, but as communities in their own right, and they say stress management, laughter, healing, health and hope are byproducts of every class.

As Solar puts it, her studio “is so much more than a workout. I think what people are missing are not the planks and crunches, it’s the people.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the length of time Dora Gyarmati has owned Spira Power Yoga.

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