Mona Oommen, who struggles with a chronic back problem, has been taking Pilates mat classes at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Hyde Park for eight years.
"I kind of rely on that, because it's part of my physical therapy regimen," she explained, comparing her long Thursday class to vaccination: "It sees me through for the next week. And then when I feel like I'm starting to get all decrepit again, then it's Thursday again."
But Oommen watched the coronavirus spread around the world since January, and Chaturanga, 1525 E. 55th St., physically closed on Saturday, March 14. Owner Marylee Bussard had cancelled all her one-on-one appointments on the day before. But Oommen took heart at the fact that Chaturanga was practicing ways to teach customers at distance right before the studio physically closed.
Online classes began on March 16, and they are available online, for free, at chaturanga-fitness.mn.co.
"Financially it's scary, but it's a mortal threat. So my brain just goes into a different mode of 'this is people's lives," Bussard said. "Whatever is financial can be repaired later. I'm not going to risk putting my customers' health in danger."
Customers pleaded over the weekend that the studio remain open, but Bussard felt validated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker's subsequent close-businesses and stay-at-home orders.
Chaturanga is continuing to pay its 25 teachers through the closure; Bussard gave them the option of continuing to teach their classes online.
"We've got close to 350 people right now who've joined the new online platform, which we've integrated with Zoom," Bussard said, though she added, "It's still just a fraction of our business that we're able to really replicate online at this time." Chaturanga is currently offering 31 classes a week — yoga, Pilates, "Active Aging" with dance and strengthening, Zumba and tai chi — down from 55 group fitness classes before the shutdown.
"Nonetheless, it's something that everybody can use," Bussard said. While the classes now available online cost $10-20 in person, Chaturanga is offering them for free now, though donations are welcome. With more donations — Chaturanga had more than $6,000 just the day after the appeal went out on March 23 — Bussard said the studio can offer more classes. Some of the teachers who were initially reticent about teaching online have begun doing so.
While Pilates, of which Chaturanga offered more classes than any other regimen, requires some equipment that customers may not have in their homes, the studio is now teaching an online course with items common in homes. "Turns out you can get a pretty good workout with a chair," Bussard said.
But why not charge money for classes?
"I really tried to think about what a good model would be," Bussard replied. "I wanted to keep it seamless and easy and accessible. Putting up too many barriers didn't seem like a good idea."
Secondly, Bussard cited the relationship Chaturanga has with its customers and her trust that they would be there for each other in the present times.
More philosophically, Bussard said she was motivated by the idea of a gift economy — Chaturanga has utilized sliding-scale payments and donation-based services — that parties would give to each other without the expectation of receiving anything back immediately: "In this time, if there ever was a time, to test that, now would be that time."
"When you have an exchange that's based on relationships and a trust that there will be reciprocity, it's a different kind of feeling than just a transactional relationship," she said. "I can charge a high price tag for a service or a low price tag for a service, but if it's given freely with a trust that it's going to be returned in some way that may be monetary or not, it really feels good.
"That's how this whole thing started out of necessity, because we were responding to a real crisis. In the first week, the feeling and energy that all the teachers had and I had, giving these classes and spending a lot of time connecting with our customers, something about it felt really wholesome. And I just wondered: Could this be how we do things?"
Bussard said Chaturanga's free experiment will last through the end of April, and she hopes that people will contribute enough to continue it.
"You can find a lot of fitness classes on YouTube, but it's very different when you're going into the class that you've been attending for years with your friends and your neighbors, and you still get a chance to work with that teacher and chat with everybody," she said. "That's what, to me, has really felt hopeful about this, is that you can still create the space for human connection, even though it's digital."
She questioned how big the classes can get while still preserving customers' social time before and after they start. If teachers tell her their classes have gotten too big and that they lack the time to connect with regulars, then Chaturanga will begin password-protecting certain classes. But they will still be available for people to view them and follow along at a later time. All the live-streamed classes have been recorded and are available on demand.
A Chaturanga book club, reading "A Liberated Mind" by Steven C. Hayes, who developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, will begin meeting on Sunday.
A March 25 Active Aging class began with a lively discussion about the logistics of pajama-wearing during the epidemic and the best ways to get a good signal. Customers welcomed each other as they came online.
Belts and towels could replace fitness bands, teacher Alisa Calzoni said, "Or you could just do it without." Even with less resistance, the muscles still move.
"It's something to look forward to at a specific time, as opposed to the work that comes later," said Darlene McCampbell. Bonnie Fields said the classes have taught her to use Zoom with friends to have a cocktail hour.
Calzoni muted the audience and started the music, which hiccuped a few times before working, and started doing aerobics. And the class, visible in the little windows above her, started following along.
Oommen struggled at first with the technology but soon figured it out. Physically, the classes are similar now to what they were before the outbreak, but something has been lost in her physical distance from other customers and teachers who cannot easily make corrections to or modify her practice.
But it's still a good workout, and she is getting what she needs out of them. And she loves virtually seeing and chatting with other customers before class starts.
"All this anxiety and tension have been building up at home, just reading the news and so on, and I don't think I quite realized just how much of a community this was until I logged in and saw all these familiar faces," Oommen said. "It was like a weight had been taken off of my shoulders."
In a subsequent email, Bussard noted that Joseph Pilates, invented the practice while he was interned during World War I — and the 1918 Spanish Flu.
“As legend has it, in Joe's ward at the camp, he led the other prisoners through a daily exercise regimen that included calisthenics and exercises that would later become known as Pilates,” she wrote. “It has long been told that not a single person in his section of the camp succumbed to the flu that was ravaging the rest of the camp.
“In a similar way, we are ‘interned’ in our homes right now,” she continued. “My deepest hope and prayer is that, although many of our students are in a ‘vulnerable’ age group, not a single Chaturanga student will succumb to COVID-19. Movement helps the immune system stay strong, and it lifts the spirits. ‘Spontaneous zest and vigor’ was what Joseph Pilates described as a goal of his exercise program. I hope that people who come to our online classes can find that here.”