Part 1: An exercise in flexibility
(Part 1 in a series)
In this series of articles and videos, I share insights from my interviews with over 20 wellness professionals, mostly in the Chicago area. Since so many of the wellness practitioners, studio owners, and consumers are friends, colleagues and clients, I wanted to share their stories about how deeply this is impacting their business, their health, their ideas of wellness offerings, and their thoughts on the sustainability of the wellness industry in the midst of this pandemic and, equally important, into the future.
Is Wellness Sustainable?
Wellness professionals around the world are asking the question, “Is wellness sustainable?” with much valid concern and mostly optimism. Globally a strong industry, an estimated $4.5 trillion was spent on wellness services, products, and lifestyle in 2019 as measured and reported by the Global Wellness Institute.
The week of March 16, 2020 Chicago-area estheticians, massage therapists, hair stylists, group fitness and yoga teachers, personal trainers, reflexologists, acupuncturists, mental health providers, medical and complementary health doctors, even sound and dance therapists, and any other hands-on or face-to-face wellness service providers, ceased traditional in-person delivery because of the uniquely “high touch” nature of this industry and the danger of transmitting the highly contagious deadly COVID-19 virus.
An Exercise in Flexibility
While this closure is economically destructive, devastating and discouraging for this passionate and purpose-driven group of fitness teachers, healers and wellness providers, they have proven to be determined, creative, positive and flexible in a variety of vital ways.
Physical exercise is a common form of coping with stress and maintaining health for many people. Fred DeVito, co-founder of exhale™ fitness studio and spa, explains that fitness instructors served as a type of front line mental health worker in a “normal” economy.
“We’ve always been first responders out there (as fitness teachers). And now (our students) need it more than ever because they are not just physically falling out of shape from their schedules and routines being uprooted, but now also the emotional, the anxiety and other mental health (needs), and trying to get people to emotionally stay balanced through movement. So now we’re in this situation where we get people moving and breathing like moving meditation types of things that can help them shift (their minds).”
Erin Murphy, owner of Black Cat Yoga in Libertyville, IL., and Highland Park, IL said the shelter-in-place local order resulting in the closures of businesses like hers is disastrous for yoga teachers. She has about 20 teachers on staff, most of whom teach as their only source of income. “Luckily we were able to pivot somewhat quickly. It was crazy. Within the span of a day our entire business model changed (from in-person classes to online).”
Wellness professionals scrambled to learn to use technology to offer what they could digitally: live-streaming and on-demand classes and one-on-one sessions. Some charged a lower price for the online experience. Many initially offered services by donation, as they viewed these online options as experimental and an interim solution for an uncertain length of time. On March 24, a Bloomberg article headline stated, “Almost overnight, the $100B fitness industry goes virtual.”
In a webinar on the State of the Wellness Industry on April 22, Dr. Amaya Weddle, Ph.D., Vice President of Research and Product Marketing at MindBody, a management platform for the fitness industry, stated the profound observation of this unprecedented situation: “The Wellness industry transformed overnight. We are all blown away by the new landscape.”
Wellness Pros: Powered by determination, pumped with passion and together through technology
The first week closures looked inevitable, fitness teachers and trainers got savvy with technology. Social media, typically used to connect socially, became the mode to reach, teach and motivate an anxious and eager global audience sheltering in place, holding their breath. Thousands who proclaim that working out at a gym or attending a group class, is like “their church,” were wondering how long and how low to lay.
Group fitness teachers and trainers got creative with their at-home studio setups: clearing out dining rooms, moving furniture and family members, using selfie sticks held up in a decorative vase and other makeshift props for a do-it-yourself production studio. They shared playlist links with students in order to skirt social media’s copyright rules while ensuring participants could have the same soundtracks at their home “studio” to sustain momentum and positive vibes.
Fitness enthusiasts welcomed the thousands of classes offered by charismatic and passionate teachers, most of whom are 1099 independent contractors, classified as the “gig economy.”
Fearful of getting sick, let alone a little slack in the muscles from missing their regular workouts, consumers were willing to plank and push up, down dog and lift cans of food or other heavy household items in their living rooms and basements, or even in the walkway between the couch and the staircase. And for some, kids and pets crawled over and around them while they Zumba-ed and hammered their HIIT workouts.
It was a true exercise in focus for everyone. Tuning out the distractions of home life and tuning in to their familiar workouts or mindful movement practices helped many stay calm in the midst of chaos. Teachers channeled enthusiasm and motivation, despite their own economic uncertainty, to keep going not only through the class but also through the emotions that were heavy in the air.
Two Chicago-area teachers interviewed reported deep emotional responses to seeing people from around the world accessing their online classes:
Lauri Stern of Highland Park, IL, a yoga and fitness teacher at Black Cat Yoga in Highland Park and Reach Yoga Studio in Glencoe, said she was “a little teary at the end because (my daughter) was practicing with me where she is in New York. It’s so nice to see her…and I got messages from people saying, I’m really stuck in my house, can you offer your class again (because I missed it). I want to help people to keep moving in the ways they can. And so I feel good about that. I could teach people in California on Facebook or Instagram. Maybe I’ll get a whole new way that I can continue delivering what I’m doing? And figure out perhaps how to get paid. I don’t know. But I’m just grateful that I’m able to reach out to friends far and wide. I had a few people from my high school watching me this morning.
Jenny Kaufman, Manager of yogaview/Wilmette: “What I didn’t expect to learn as quickly as we did is that the Zoom classes do have a beauty about them that people are still connecting and together as opposed to something on their own. Because you could watch a YouTube video, but you can pause it, go check your email then go back to class. I feel like people are really holding themselves accountable and they’re still in class. And that has a value. We all need that connection while enjoying watching that. And for me, Sunday, I had a hundred people sign on. And the beauty of that and seeing where people were all from, I was like, oh, my God. My friends in Colorado, my brother in Indiana and Svetlana in Germany and that just like, makes you weep.
Rick Stollmeyer, founder and CEO of MindBody software, the most widely used platform for fitness studio and salon management, said that the COVID-induced shelter-in-place restrictions accelerated the already trending virtual classes streamed live and on-demand. Plans for MindBody’s video platform launch had already been in place for late summer of 2020.
Next in Series “The Digital Shift: Working out at home and other “innovations” Release date June 5, 2020
Lourdes Paredes is the founder of illumine. Lourdes is a leader, a creator and a pioneer in the Chicago wellness community. She has taught yoga since 1999. She is the founder of illumine Chicago, a wellness media platform. She has always looked beyond the yoga mat to help people live their best lives. Lourdes bridges conscious lifestyle & practice. She believes that the most illuminated life is one lived intentionally, and that we all have the power and responsibility to impact the world with our light. Her passion for teaching yoga as an authentic way of life fuels the growth of Illumine.