Yoga Pose
Online workouts may be more than a coronavirus coping mechanism. (Photo: Courtesy, Getty/G)

The Bizarre Intimacy of Group Fitness on Zoom

During the pandemic, everything happens on video chat—including exercising with strangers from the comfort of your home

Yoga Pose
Courtesy, Getty/G(Photo)

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In trying times, you might expect to hear from your friends, your family, and your neighbors. But I can also guarantee that you’ve heard from every single fitness studio that has ever begged for, borrowed, or stolen your email address.

Gyms and fitness studios have been classified by many states as nonessential and therefore shuttered to protect both workers and clients from exposure to the novel coronavirus. It’s a necessary move for our collective health but a terrifying time for small business owners and instructors who rely on in-person classes for income. Thankfully, every one of those endorphin-filled trainers has channeled their energy into a new virtual workout class.

As fitness professionals were the first to realize, we now have an opportunity slash mandate to reconfigure the way we work out. It’s an upset that some have already predicted will permanently change the fitness industry. No one can say when we’ll be able to get back to the climbing gym or, just as crucially, if we’ll even want to be near one another when all this ends. That means that online workouts may be more than a coronavirus coping mechanism. We may have just been pushed into the future of exercise. 

In the past two weeks, I’ve gotten email and push notifications from the biggies: Barry’s Bootcamp, Peloton, and SoulCycle. I’ve received email invites to an online pole-dancing class called Tone and Twerk (don’t worry: no at-home pole needed) and to a Zoom yoga class at a studio I visited once—six years ago—in Sydney. Zoom allows the trainer to video-chat with many students at once, which makes for the closest approximation of sweaty group camaraderie that’s possible from our individually quarantined households. The mutual video chat allows a trainer to offer feedback on form, as long as you position your camera properly. But it also means that a studio’s worth of strangers can see your home, your pet, and the leggings you haven’t been able to wash because there’s no washing machine in your building and you’re terrified to go to a laundromat. At least, those were my concerns.

An abundance of new workout classes are taking place on Instagram Live, YouTube, and subscription-only platforms like ClassPass. Those options are more anonymous: the YouTuber does not watch you back (thank God.) But if you want to truly step into our new reality, I’m going to say the same thing that your boss, your kid’s teacher, and your book club have all told you: you have to download Zoom. The coronavirus catchphrase “alone together” is especially true on Zoom, where fitness classes still offer a level of intimacy, even a forced intimacy, although participants and the instructor are miles apart. It took countless emails from studios, and one from my editor, but I decided to give these newfangled classes a try. Plus, peer pressure has always been what motivates me to get through a full workout.

But if you want to truly step into our new reality, I’m going to say the same thing that your boss, your kid’s teacher, and your book club have all told you: you have to download Zoom.

To get a taste of our upended fitness industry, I experimented with four different group Zoom classes. I started with an evening class at my home yoga studio, Jewel City, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which is currently eight blocks and one pandemic away. I rolled out my mat in the sparse corner of the living room that I’ve never quite figured out how to decorate. It usually holds only an infinity-shaped cat scratcher. (Which would tell the instructor and any spying fellow yogis plenty about my personality.) This week it was functioning as a storage space for bags of nonperishable groceries that I’ve left untouched in case the coronavirus is clinging to their surfaces. In between that mix of normalcy and devastation is my brand-new home gym: one yoga mat and a rolled-up shirt I’ve been using as a towel. 

With my laptop on an end table at the top of my mat, I could see my fellow yogis only as long as I was sitting up and staring directly at the screen. As someone whose journalistic role model has always been Harriet the Spy, my natural instinct was to sit and stare—to take in the dogs walking across mats, and babies crying in the background, and stray roommates tiptoeing around to access the kitchen. Half as an act of mindfulness and half because I didn’t want to look like a creep, I laid down on my mat and listened instead. 

I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the sounds of yoga. The noises I now heard in my living room were the same ones I’ve internalized over years of practice—awkward hellos between people who know each other only by sight, deep breaths as your neighbors stretch out for the first time that day, other people rolling out their mats and accidentally knocking over a water bottle in the process, that weirdly airy tone of voice that instructors use even when making a joke. Eventually, everyone in the class muted their audio so that only the teacher could be heard, and we moved through a light series of not very challenging poses. 

Each time I’ve returned to exercise after a period of neglect, I find solace in the fact that my body still knows how to move. I hadn’t done yoga since the previous lifetime known as early March, but the fact that I still knew how to sink into chair pose or space out my hands in downward dog was a welcome reminder of my pre-pandemic life. I didn’t exactly forget that I was on my living-room floor, but I at least felt happier to be there. 

For my second Zoom workout, I decided to skip the slow stretching and tender breathing exercises and burn some calories instead. I chose a 4 P.M. class at Heatwise, another Brooklyn yoga studio, this one with a reputation for speedy and sweaty vinyasa flows. But at 3:50 P.M., I was still making my way home from a tense trip to the pharmacist. Being late to a workout class is one of my top-five least favorite feelings—although I’ll admit it’s recently been beat out by waiting in a long line at a drugstore during a pandemic. Until I signed in at 4:15, it didn’t even cross my mind that silently entering a video chat is far less disruptive than sneaking into an ongoing workout session. I almost wish I hadn’t discovered how easy it is to be virtually late; even if I do get some side eye, there’s no way to tell which dirty look is aimed at whom. 

This time the Zoom chat showed about two dozen students, only ten of which had enabled their cameras. The screen opened onto a Brady Bunch–style grid displaying torsos and thighs where stepchildren should be. By now the class was in midflow, cycling quickly from chair pose to forward fold to a jump-back chaturanga to a warrior pose and around again. Having missed the warm-up, I would typically take a few moments to stretch on my own before jumping into the class choreography. Even with instructors’ constant reminders to “do what feels good,” it can be awkward to deviate when everyone around you is in the same shape. After years of psyching myself up, I’d learned how to be comfortable in child’s pose when everyone else is a triangle. But without rows of people surrounding me in real life, I lost my nerve. On Zoom, each of us is the star of our own Brady box, and I couldn’t pretend that no one could see me. With no warm-up and already feeling behind, I spent most of class in lackluster attempts at poses while trying to ignore the dirty laundry that had piled up around me. By the time the class landed in the final resting pose, my camera was off, and I was answering email. At least I learned a unique lesson for our time: a trip to the pharmacy will almost certainly ruin an afternoon. 

The screen opened onto a Brady Bunch–style grid displaying torsos and thighs where stepchildren should be.

On another weekday afternoon, I tried a barre class from a studio that I always forget I hate until I’m standing on my mat with my feet in first position. Derived from ballet classes, barre workouts are centered around the “tuck,” a combination of a pelvis tilt, an ab crunch, and a glute tightening that I find impossible to perfect. It turns out, movements that are boring and finicky in person are also boring and finicky virtually. This time, three-fourths of my fellow amateur ballerinas had their cameras turned on and framed on their hips to allow for form cues from the instructor. After the third shout-out of “Leah, hold your tuck!” I rolled off my mat for a breather, peeping classmates be damned. I used the brief break to take my temperature for the 30th time that day. I checked back in just in time for the more accessible ab series of bicycle crunches and leg lifts. I’m still sore today, and my temperature is 98.6.

Finally, I tested out a new-to-me Pilates class taught by instructor Nicole Kontolefa. Without her room full of reformers, Kontolefa had shifted to no-equipment Pilates, and a handful of faithful clients had followed her onto the mat. The group all seemed to know each other; when I logged on, they were chatting away. Emboldened by my week of Zoom training, I introduced myself to everyone—something I would never do in an in-real-life gym. I met a dog, a baby, and a few husbands before we got down to a series of low-impact core movements. The warm energy continued throughout the class, and I embraced the spirit by positioning my laptop camera tight on my lower body for personalized form corrections.
I’m not yet comfortable letting strangers stare at my dusty yoga mat and small pile of pasta boxes. Each time I step into my sorry excuse for a home gym, I’m reminded that exercise is the one activity that pre-COVID me never did from home. (As for the excessive baking, video chatting, and working in sweatpants, I’ve been doing all that for years.) Still, I have faith that this—all of this—will get easier. Or it won’t. But it’ll be necessary either way. I’ve signed up for more Zoom workouts next week. Awkward chatter and getting called out on your bad tuck are the point of group fitness. So, it turns out, are the strangers.

Lead Photo: Courtesy, Getty/G