Sweatin’ to the Livestream: Houston gyms, studios turn to digital exercise offerings

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Lucia Harmeling sat cross-legged in front of a laptop, waving excitedly at the screen as more students (and one excited dog, Maya) joined the class.

“Hello!”

“Oh, hi Maya!”

The yoga teacher’s mat was positioned in front of a blue swirl mural on the wall of Atrium Yoga Studio on Westheimer. The studio began offering yoga classes twice daily via internet livestream on Monday. Students are asked to register online at least an hour in advance for a virtual session. Fifteen minutes before class starts, an email goes out with a link to join the class via Zoom, a virtual conferencing service.

A Spotify music playlist called “S&S + spice” was provided for students to play in their homes during the 60-minute practice. Harmeling recommended streaming the class on a separate device than the Spotify playlist, which contained therapeutic melodies combined with softer covers of pop songs like “Take My Breath Away.”

The class started with a movement to wipe all off all the negative energy from the arms, legs, stomach and neck. Then, the flow began.

“When we get overwhelmed, it’s so nice to look at one thing,” Harmeling said from downward-facing dog. “The ability to stay soft even when the world is shaky.”

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Since the coronavirus outbreak became a reality in Houston, several local and franchised gyms have closed their doors in an abundance of caution. But the owners know that people need exercise to stay in physical and mental shape.

So, they’ve turned to technology. And with the exception a few digital hiccups, it’s working.

Through a livestream video, students are able to watch their teachers do movements in real time, call out the next steps and give real words of encouragement.

On March 13, owners Jen Yuhan and Madonna McManus decided to close the studio doors to in-person classes. They felt it was their responsibility as community leaders to set an example and encourage social distancing.

They closed the following day.

Exercise classes thrive on community. It’s that hour a day away from the stress of the real world. How does that work online?

Starting last week, McManus noticed students coming in with sad, stressed looks on their faces and knew it was partly their responsibility to keep their students going in the midst of coronavirus panic.

We see companionship here in this space, so we wanted to livestream so we can still see faces. You can see one another, your teacher and talk to one another the way you would in a normal yoga class,” McManus said. “We try to give people a sense of community as best we can in a virtual sense.”

At Dance House Fitness on Richmond Avenue, Jenny Sanchez has been offering at least one livestream class a day. Her first class had 60 people join in via Zoom; the next day had 90 people, joining from Texas, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Florida and France.

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Sanchez said word-of-mouth from current clients have been the reason behind the packed classes. Social media followers from other cities now have the opportunity to participate in the virtual classes, which range from dance cardio to choreography.

“It’s so inspiring. This time more than ever, people need movement and stress relief and the ability to sweat it out,” Sanchez said. “Being able to offer that to people in quarantine, and those working from home, so people can have a normal schedule and keep on track with their routines.”

It’s unclear how long coronavirus-induced quarantines and social distancing will be the new normal. But Sanchez is ready to help her members with their physical, mental and spiritual goals.

“Everyone in the fitness community is coming together to provide what we do best: making people feel good, strong, empowered,” she said. “For us to continue that, we feel proud. Let’s get through this quickly and get back to working out in the studio.”

DEFINE Body and Mind in Bellaire is offering free livestream workouts to its clients and non-members. Founder Henry Richardson said self-care is as important as social distancing to ensure health and wellbeing.

On HoustonChronicle.com: How to keep your mental health in check during the coronavirus pandemic

“The No. 1 contributing factor to our well-being is our biology. How we sleep, what we eat, and the exercise we do ( and don’t do) all influence our bodies and our brains response to our present moment,” Richardson said in a news release. “Find connections that bring positivity — take a deep breath, stretch, have dinner with a friend via speakerphone, etc. As we create social distance with others, how we fill that space is going to influence our physical, mental, and emotional well-being for the coming months.”

Another free option is exercise classes at Discovery Green via Facebook Live. Many classes will be rescheduled and reprogrammed for a digital format. Yogi John Tran has led a free session at the Houston park since 2008; his Tuesday virtual class was viewed 10,000 times on Facebook.

Toward the end of Harmeling’s practice at Atrium Yoga, she encouraged her students to close their eyes and feel the earth beneath their feet. She told them to feel the energy of everyone here — “here” being this communal space on a digital conference call.

“Feel and know you are never alone,” Harmeling said. “Feel connected to the Earth; we are all connected. We are all breathing for each other.”

julie.garcia@chron.com

Twitter.com/reporterjulie

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