“Okay. So, the ‘Breath of Joy’ is a practice we would do at the beginning of every Hatha class, which involves a very heavy open mouth exhalation. It’s a three-part inhale through the nose with corresponding arm movements.”
Mimi Thomas, a Phoenix-based yoga teacher, is sitting on a patio in a maroon floral beach cover-up. She stands to demonstrate.
“Inhale one, arms out in front of you,” she says. “Inhale two, arms come out wide. Inhale three, filling your lungs all the way to the top, arms up, biceps by the ears. And as you exhale, open your mouth and go, ‘Haaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh.’” As she exhales, she swings her upper body forward and down, her curly blonde hair tumbling over her head to brush the ground.
“Now imagine 50 people in a room doing that during a fucking pandemic,” she says.
Thomas, 26, observed this scene in a Scottsdale yoga studio in early June, as Arizona was making headlines as the country’s latest COVID-19 hotspot. The first week of June, the state saw a 54 percent increase in new cases over the previous week, with ICU beds surpassing 80 percent capacity.
Thomas — who is, full disclosure, my fiancé’s sister, whom I saw on a family visit to Virginia in early July — taught online classes throughout the first months of the pandemic. Three or four nights a week, I would log onto Zoom from my apartment in Brooklyn to follow her through an hour of “Energized Vinyasa” or “Slow Flow.” In the void of normalcy that was quarantine, those hours on the mat were bright spots on the horizon of each day. And when things finally started re-opening in Phoenix mid-May, she agreed to teach some in-studio classes in the non-heated room at Hot Yoga University (HYU).
“The non-heated room was very small. Like, when we re-opened I would have one person in my class, maybe two,” Thomas says. “And HYU had made an announcement that they were following CDC guidelines — everyone six feet apart, masks inside, sanitized, touchless check-in, etc. But then you go in and there are 48 people in the hot room, not six feet apart, breathing all over each other. I was standing by the front desk when a lady walked out and said, ‘You guys are not following CDC guidelines. I want my money back. You’re blatantly putting people at risk.’”
HYU’s owner, Karin Fellman, was teaching the class the student walked out of, and later had a conversation with Thomas about the mask-wearing policy. “She made this comment about how she refuses to support any business that requires you to wear a mask inside,” Thomas says. “So that’s when my eyes were kind of opened.”
Soon after, Thomas told Fellman she didn’t feel comfortable teaching classes at HYU anymore, and parted ways with the studio. In the following weeks she began to hear — through other HYU teachers — that numerous teachers and students had tested positive. The studio continued operating on a regular class schedule until June 28, when an email was sent out with the subject line: “In Response to COVID-19.”
I went to a class at HYU a few years ago on a trip to Phoenix, so was on the studio’s mailing list and received the email. “Like most businesses in Scottsdale,” it read, “we have had some people come forward and inform us they have tested positive. The most recent person received their test result today. The last day they were at the studio was June 16th.” The email went on to say the studio would be closing down to disinfect and would reopen July 5.
But on June 29, the day after HYU sent out their email, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order mandating that the state’s gyms, bars, theaters, waterparks and inner-tubing businesses close for 30 days (on July 23 he extended the order indefinitely). On July 1, HYU announced that in light of the second shut-down order, the studio would be closing permanently.
“The fatigue… simply became too great”
I reached out to HYU’s owner, Fellman, to get her account of what had happened in the weeks between re-opening in May and closing down at the end of June. She maintains that the studio followed all CDC guidelines throughout the period of re-opening. “I do remember one student who left because she felt it was too crowded,” Fellman told me in an email. “I spoke to her before class explaining that the squares on the floor where yogis put their mats down were 6 feet apart following the CDC guidelines and if they were (husband/wife etc.) they could practice closer together. I think that was what she saw near her and was uncomfortable.”
Fellman says that the ultimate decision to shut down was because, “At a certain point, it became obvious we could not guarantee students would not be exposed to someone if they attended class,” she said. “We could not control where people had been before class, or where they worked. Many of our students and teachers worked with the public and exposure was inevitable. At the time we closed we had three confirmed cases and after closing we had members of our community reach out with additional positive tests results, reaffirming our decision to close. The mental, emotional, and spiritual fatigue with providing a safe environment and at the same time trying to ease those who were fearful, simply became too great.”
Of course, these difficult calculations are not unique to HYU. And although some yoga studios in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area have taken the threat of COVID-19 very seriously and continued operating virtually throughout the pandemic, a number also resumed normal class schedules as quickly as possible and even defied executive orders to shut back down. These decisions aren’t just happening in Phoenix; in hard-hit communities across the country, some studios are opting to offer in-studio classes while others are remaining virtual.
A document recently prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force lists 18 states as being in the “red zone” (10 percent or higher positive test rate) for COVID-19 cases. The experts who prepared the report recommended that those states close down bars and gyms immediately, require masks be worn at all times and limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer. The report also offers data on the three counties in each state with the highest number of cases. We looked at those three counties in all 18 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah — and found multiple yoga studios offering in-studio classes in 48 of 54 counties. The exceptions were in North Carolina and Southern California, where gyms have been ordered to close (though multiple studios in Orange County still appear to still be offering in-studio classes) and the county of Elko, Nevada, which seems to have only one yoga studio.
To be fair, these studios are mostly small, independent businesses doing everything they can to survive, and their state governments are permitting them to stay open. The majority claim to be following CDC guidelines with limited class sizes and social distancing, along with virtual or livestream options. But in most counties, for every studio offering indoor classes, there is one or more that have opted to stay entirely virtual — or to offer only outdoor classes. This suggests that a significant portion of the yoga community believes the right thing is to stop offering in-studio classes regardless of whether they are legally permitted. There are obvious exposure risks in the physical practice of yoga — a form of exercise that involves heavy breathwork — so for studio owners hoping for their business interests and core yogic values to align, this virus presents an ethically murky dilemma.
Throughout the pandemic, as the U.S. outbreak became the largest in the world, there have been conversations about the downsides of America’s robust strain of individualism. The necessity of considering what’s best for the larger collective, as opposed to yourself and your bottom line, has been a tough pill for many Americans to swallow. But it’s particularly interesting to observe this playing out in the yoga universe, rooted as it is in Eastern philosophy, with its emphasis on mindfulness and the collective good. Every person I spoke to for this story mentioned yoga’s guiding principle of “ahimsa” — meaning “nonviolence,” or “do no harm.”
So, what are the motivating factors and viewpoints of studio owners who are dead-set on opening? Are there any circumstances under which it could be truly safe to practice inside while this virus is still a threat? And if yoga is a business like anything else, what does its future look like in a country that is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic normalcy anytime soon? Will it look like these studios, resisting change and hoping for the best, or will it look like those who lean into the unknown and seek out opportunities to innovate?
“We’ve been forced to pull our in-studio offering”
Back in Phoenix, following Governor Ducey’s June 29 executive order for gyms to shut down, HYU decided to close for good. But meanwhile, other studios in the area were telling students that they were planning to stay open, because they considered themselves exempt from the “gym” category.
Radi8 Hot Yoga, for example, posted an Instagram update on June 30 saying that it was staying open despite the executive order, with the following justification: “After further review of the Governor’s mandate, it is our interpretation that we do not fall under ‘Gyms’ as we are a boutique studio with set class times allowing for full social distancing and space between each student. We will continue our elevated cleaning procedures, touchless check in, socially distanced mat markers, deep clean between each class, and require all students to wear masks on the way in and out of the studio.” Per its website, it appears to have offered a full schedule of in-studio classes through July 15 (Radi8 did not respond to our requests for comment).
Yoga 6, a California-based franchise with two locations in Arizona, also stayed open in defiance of the executive order until July 7, when the Scottsdale location received a visit from law enforcement. “We have some disappointing news to share,” it wrote on the studio’s local Instagram account later that day. “Unfortunately, due to the recent local ordinance, we have been forced to pull our in-studio offering for the time being. While we don’t agree with the decision to lump us into the same category as ‘gyms’ (given we are smaller and no one moves stations or shares equipment, have special UVC germicidal lights, and enhanced cleaning standards), we will respect the order while we petition to be allowed to safely reopen.”
On July 13, Yoga 6 and its parent company Xponential Fitness — which also includes Club Pilates, Pure Barre, AKT and CycleBar — sued the Arizona governor for requiring its various brand locations in the state to close for 30 days. On July 14, an Arizona judge ruled against the company. Kate Kwon, the VP of communications at Xponential, told Entrepreneur that the lawsuit was filed because it believed there wasn’t sufficient evidence showing that gyms contributed to the spread of the virus. “We reopened with extensive health and safety procedures in place and as you mentioned, felt the executive order was arbitrary in nature including gyms and fitness centers,” Kwon said in an email. “No data was referenced to show gyms and fitness centers were contributing to the spread of COVID19 so we simply wanted to understand how they got to the conclusion to include all fitness.”
Is it ever safe to practice yoga inside?
Ingrid Yang is a hospital physician based in San Diego who has been working on the frontlines of the pandemic. She has also been a yoga teacher for over 20 years and is the author of two books, Hatha Yoga Asanas (2012) and Adaptive Yoga (forthcoming in November 2020). As a former studio owner herself, Yang is sympathetic to studios trying to navigate the pandemic. But she also says that from a medical perspective, doing yoga classes indoors — even with mats placed six feet or more apart — is an undeniable risk.
“It is hard to maintain strict distancing and mask adherence, even for the most educated of us, and it is simply impossible to ensure that you are creating an environment that is transmission-free,” Yang says. “If I still owned my yoga center, I would have a hard time justifying opening. People in America are welcome to make their own decisions and take on their own risk, but maybe they aren’t asking themselves the right questions: Do you have to go to that yoga class? Will your life end if you don’t go to that yoga class? Well, yours might not, but someone else’s might.”
In enclosed spaces, even if all social distancing precautions are taken, the most dangerous factor is likely to be aerosolized transmission. Recent research suggests that tiny virus particles can hang in the air for a significant period of time, particularly in enclosed spaces.
“In yoga, the technique ‘ujjayi’ breathing is utilized, which is used to both elongate and deepen the breath,” Yang says. “So maybe you’re six feet apart, but if you’re next to someone who is asymptomatic, and they’re inevitably breathing more heavily — because their heart rate is up and they are requiring more oxygen to their muscles — they will be taking in bigger, deeper breaths that may create more aerosolized droplets. And you’re taking in longer, more elongated breaths with more volume of air, so you’re more at risk for taking in their droplets.”
Yang does think the use of UVC lights — which Yoga 6 purports to use — in yoga studios is an interesting innovation, and promising research has been done around UV radiation’s ability to kill the virus under specific conditions. But there are simply still so many unknowns that it’s impossible to guarantee a safe experience. “Based on the research we have, the SARS‑CoV can be inactivated by UV radiation at 254 nm (UVC or 200–280 nm), with partial viral inactivation at one minute and increasing efficacy up to six minutes,” Yang says. “But research and our discoveries are changing all the time. There’s still so much we don’t know … so the continued unknown risks may not be worth the benefit for many yogis.”
The majority of studios I’ve come across during research have been asking yogis to wear masks to and from their mats, but not while they’re actually practicing. Yang acknowledges the difficulties that studios face in asking customers to wear masks throughout the class. “When you’re a business owner, the customer’s always right. Most customers say, ‘I don’t want to wear a mask while I’m exercising or practicing yoga because it’s uncomfortable.’ You can’t control someone who just takes off their mask in Shavasana to get a deep breath in.”
Kim, a Phoenix-based yoga teacher who asked to be identified by her first name, says it’s definitely been uncomfortable interacting with students who don’t want to wear masks. “It’s just been really hard to maneuver, because people would show up for classes and there will be a sign that says, ‘You have to wear a mask.’ But they come in without one like, ‘What?’ You feel like a jerk saying, ‘Sorry you need to go out and put a face covering and then you’re free to come back in.’ I had a student who left and didn’t come back. I was like, ‘Okay, well, that’s your call.’ It’s just changing everything.”
Doubt, denial and God-complexes
What Kim has found more unsettling than awkward interactions with students, however, are the underlying reasons for some students’ and studios’ resistance to COVID-19 safety precautions. “There are conspiracy theories that have been growing within the yoga community,” she says. “Like, some students and teachers think that the pandemic is a hoax — a political angle to try to get people to vote a certain way. They think that wearing a mask kind of puts you in a certain group, like you’re a Democrat, or you’re a Republican or liberal or whatever. My personal opinion is that it’s a coping mechanism, like, ‘Oh, this isn’t really happening.’ It’s a form of denial, because they would have to stop doing what they want to do. But I’m willing to bet that every studio has had cases or teachers that have come down sick. I mean, it’s like wildfire here.”
A somewhat blatant example of this was on July 4, when Radi8 and Yoga 6, two Phoenix studios that were open despite the executive order to close, posted their in-studio class schedules to their Instagram pages along with the same quote: “May we think of freedom as not the right to do what we please, but the opportunity to do what is right.”
For her part, Thomas thinks that there are some teachers who suffer from misguided feelings of invincibility, which can feed into attitudes of denial. “I totally get that survival mode is kicking in for these studio owners,” she says. “But there is almost like a God complex that a lot of popular yoga teachers get, knowing that if they stay open, their students will come. Maybe it’s denial, but teachers have a real responsibility to educate themselves and their students.”
Leah Bosworth is the owner of Ironwood Yoga Studios in Phoenix, where Thomas teaches now. Ironwood has stayed fully virtual since the pandemic began, but Bosworth says she is aware of some local studios that buy into these conspiracy-type perspectives. She thinks much of it comes from a place of fear and difficulty imagining another way of doing things.
“I think people are attached to the idea that they started with, and understandably so,” she says. “I’ve heard from a few studio owner friends that ‘this just wasn’t what I signed up for.’ And rent is a huge thing. I have heard many upsetting stories about landlords who are not forgiving at all. Taking a brick and mortar studio online with all of your teachers is quite complex… To make [a virtual model] viable long-term it is truly like starting another business. I think for a lot of studio owners the idea of starting over is just too much, so the only path they see forward is in-person or bust.”
Finding clarity, accepting reality and embracing change
For Bosworth, the decision to keep building and perfecting her studio’s virtual offering boiled down to the fact that when she looked reality square in the face, it was the only way forward that was clear.
“I kind of figured out really quickly that nobody really knows what’s going on,” she says. “So I had to do what I thought was right in my gut. We closed down in March and immediately, two days later, shifted to doing whatever we could online, which was Facebook Live at the time. But it took us about 20 days of nonstop scrambling to get it together. Figuring out how to do a platform and delivery and all of that stuff is an enormous undertaking.”
But Bosworth says part of the reason she was probably more open to shifting entirely online was that before she started Ironwood, she had done a lot of research into starting an online health and wellness brand. So she saw the “possibilities and creativity” of a virtual studio.
“As I was doing my research and working with my web designer, this little voice in my head kept saying, ‘Online is the future for yoga studios and gyms,’” she says. “Because nothing [about the pandemic] has actually changed. People are just opening because the economy is going to collapse if we don’t. But from a business perspective, I can’t grow my studio if there are only eight people in the room. From a safety perspective, it’s going to put my community at risk. And from a yoga perspective, I wanted to keep that clarity for everyone when everything else was uncertain. I didn’t want to go back and forth. I wanted to practice ‘ahimsa,’ not causing harm to the community. So I just thought, let’s commit to this.”
The commitment has paid off. Ironwood’s virtual attendance has stayed steady since March, and even grown some recently. “I’ve got my pricing options in place, and now I’m shifting into marketing,” she says. “I just invested in a bunch of video equipment. I’m trying to uplevel everything so we can compete with what’s out there. Quality has always been really important to me, and how you deliver makes a big difference in engagement for people.”
Yang says that because this virus isn’t going away anytime soon, this perspective is likely to be the long-term winning approach. “Yoga centers have become innovative with providing online yoga classes,” she says. “That’s the best and most important way that studios can stay connected and continue to generate income. Now is the time for every yoga studio owner to become a true entrepreneur and to utilize the power of social media to maintain their revenue streams and their connection to their student base.”
Bosworth says that, of course, she is not blind to what is lost by not practicing in-person with her students. A big part of the yoga experience has traditionally been about holding space in a room with others. But ultimately, she thinks that the way yogis conceptualize community right now has to be bigger than the community of one yoga class.
“What I’ve been saying to our students and teachers — and basically to myself — is that we just have to put aside our preferences right now,” she says. “No, it’s not ideal for me to teach to a camera in an empty room. But it’s not really about us right now. It’s about the community taking care of each other in this time and being open to doing something differently. People build communities online all the time, and at the end of the day it’s about, did you practice yoga today? I’ve certainly thought of giving up, but ultimately, I’m sort of excited by this opportunity to transcend this disaster. I guess I like a good challenge. I’m weird like that.”