Hybrid yoga classes outlast covid limits

Instructor Sarah Rehman leads an aerial yoga session at the Flying Buddha Studio in Gaithersburg, Md. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph.
Instructor Sarah Rehman leads an aerial yoga session at the Flying Buddha Studio in Gaithersburg, Md. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph.

When yoga teacher Sarah Rehman guided her students through Squishy Tushy positions in a recent class, her lesson reached more than the five students lying on mats at her Flying Buddha Studio in Gaithersburg, Md. -- two more watched through a video stream broadcast by her computer set up near the back of the studio.

It's all part of Rehman's new normal. After being limited to virtual teaching for much of the pandemic, Rehman has seen students return to in-person classes since 2022 -- but she believes there's still an opportunity to get more hesitant students to return.

Though the world is emerging from pandemic-era restrictions, the rate of yoga studios reopening in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area has slowed. Some studios permanently closed their doors, such as YogaWorks, which filed for bankruptcy in October 2020 and closed all of its locations. But others, in a bid to stay afloat and bring in both new and returning students, have permanently adopted the hybrid model of teaching to both in-person and virtual students.

"It keeps everyone bonded and wanting to come back," Rehman said.

Jessie Kates planned to celebrate the first anniversary of her studio, Shift Yoga Studio, in Fulton, Md., in 2020, before then-Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan mandated businesses to close over pandemic concerns.

But Kates already had experience using Zoom from taking online courses offered through the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. Recalling that experience, she pivoted her studio's curriculum to Zoom early in the pandemic, before it became the go-to app for video conferences.

Some students could not adjust to virtual classes and left altogether in a "mass exodus," Kates said. But those who remained when mandates lifted grew accustomed to the online option.

"We lost so many people unwilling to pivot," Kates said. "But eventually, people said, 'We can't live without this. Please keep it.' Everybody changed through the forced experience of what covid asked of us."

Kates' studio is back to in-person classes but still offers the virtual option as part of her "forever plan."

The pandemic almost forced Susan Bowen to close her Thrive Yoga studio in Rockville, Md. "It was quite heartbreaking because we had the best year we ever had in 2019 from a student count and from a revenue perspective," she said.

Bowen's business survived, but traditional yoga studios face new competition.

More people, she said, now want outdoor activities after being inside so much during the pandemic. "People got in the habit of doing their exercise more outside and getting out of their houses on a regular basis," she said.

Despite a few yoga studios closing, fitness studios as a whole in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have rebounded since the pandemic began. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for the third quarter of 2022 showed 957 fitness studios in the region, up more than 7% from 890 in the first quarter of 2020.

In addition, there are also more options now for people who still want to exercise inside. The rise of online yoga courses, video conference programs, mobile yoga apps such as Glo and influencers created new avenues for audiences, and studio owners acknowledge that these options may appeal to those unable to pay for in-person classes.

"Why would they pay $15, $20 online when they can do it for free?" Bowen said. "If people lost their job because of the pandemic, they would do that."

Virtual studios made it harder for small studios to compete, Kates said.

"The barrier to entry of starting a business was gone," she said. "Anybody can hit the right algorithm, from a social media perspective. You saw a lot of people try to start up their own thing and be their own entity."

Kates said she sees things trending upward now, after a 2022 that she described as the equivalent of "a held breath" during which yoga professionals and students wondered about the industry's outlook.

The pandemic forced yoga and the wellness industry to rethink its "archaic business model," Kates said.

"No one's ever shifted it," she said. "The big thing that will come now is that the industry is open to evolving."

The rise of yoga instructors on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok allows teachers to reach a wider audience, which would have happened eventually even without pandemic lockdowns, said Toni Carey, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit association Yoga Alliance.

"Instead of thinking about the studio around the corner, people think about the 50 yoga teachers who no longer have to be tethered to a studio and can function as an entrepreneur," Carey said. "It provides more opportunity for the community because meeting people where they are is very important."

Digital marketer and yoga teacher Ali Shuster agrees.

"For other studios, it's another stream of revenue since they can serve an online audience," said Shuster, an influencer whose Instagram account has over 40,000 followers. "Every studio won't implement it, but it will be something that's more commonly offered."

Even with the closures that some studios faced, Carey said she remained optimistic about the industry making a comeback and being better prepared now that virtual classes are an established fixture.

"I don't think that anyone is ignoring that a lot of studios closed and the number of teachers aren't the same as they were pre-pandemic," Carey said. "We'll continue to see the hybrid option since the pandemic has dynamically changed how we live."

Shuster, who also teaches at the Sol Yoga studio in Frederick, Md., doesn't see online classes as direct competition to traditional instruction. She said she believes that lessons streamed over the internet can appeal to people worldwide who crave interaction but may not be able to practice in person with an instructor.

But physical studios still appeal to yoga aficionados, Shuster said.

"When you're an influencer, people are drawn to the personality and coming to practice with you, but in a physical yoga space, people are coming to practice yoga," she said.

The pandemic accelerated the trend of virtual yoga classes. Since 2016, the gap between those who prefer taking yoga at home versus in studio has widened.

In 2022, 75% of yoga teachers surveyed taught more online classes because of the pandemic and to meet the shift in mind-set from students, said Chris Norris, a marketing strategy and innovation director at Yoga Alliance.

"People practicing at home is both a challenge and opportunity for studio owners," Norris said. "It allows them to create a hybrid model where they have bricks-and-mortar or an online option."

The advantage of virtual class is the ease of joining and participating, particularly for those who already have full plates, Shuster said.

"If you're a busy mom, you don't have those extra 15 minutes to drive to the studio and back, but you do have one hour that you can spend on a virtual class just by opening Zoom," Shuster said.

On the other hand, some students said they gain a sense of community and connection from in-person classes, Rehman said.

"When you come to the studio, you can let go of the rest of your day and be present in this space," Rehman said. "You have less distractions at the studio."

Norris said the increase in demand for online options contributed to a decrease in some studios' reopening because owners found success with virtual classes throughout the pandemic.

"There will now always be teachers and studio owners ready to meet that demand online," Norris said.

Tim Taylor, a Frederick resident and two-year student of Shuster's, believes online options are here to stay, but he prefers yoga in person and is seeing more people joining him in physical classes.

"Early in the pandemic, we maybe saw five or six people virtually," Taylor, 61, said. "Right now, I see double or triple that in the studio."

Bowen said she feels optimistic about the industry's growth as long as there are no future shutdowns or variants that can't be controlled. Bowen also said she believes that more people will seek yoga and wellness to navigate the country's ongoing mental health crisis.

"People are going to look for ways that they can get healthier mentally," Bowen said. "And yoga happens to do that."

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