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Bring weights, water bottle—and laptop

 Virtual fitness during COVID and beyond  

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Ari Craven prepares to teach a WERQ class.

When the pandemic hit, group fitness instructor Paula Kooperman's first thought was, "How can I keep my community together?"

Over 38 years of teaching at a variety of health clubs, Kooperman met people in the Chicagoland area and beyond who she knew would be looking for something to take their minds off the growing uncertainty. As an experiment, she organized a workout class on Facebook Live that was attended by 35 people.

Over the following weeks, attendance doubled, then increased to more than 100 people-and Kooperman had another idea. She hired several other instructors and turned her online fitness business into a series of daily classes "like a virtual health club," she said.

In the first week, over 140 people signed up for a membership to PSK4LIFE, and hundreds more have joined since then. PSK4LIFE's tagline- "fitness that fits in your life"-reflects Kooperman's strategy about online classes. Participants have the option to attend 20-25 live classes of various durations each week as well as access a video library with hundreds of past classes.

"People are so appreciative," Kooperman said. "It's truly an escape for people. In my classes, I promise to make you smile and sweat!"

Staying happy and upbeat is also an integral part for Ari Craven's WERQ classes. When he teaches classes for the Chicago-founded dance fitness program focusing on pop and hip-hop music, "we build a lovely little community" with people from around the country, he said.

WERQ classes adapted well to Zoom thanks to the nonverbal cues Craven uses to guide participants in lead-follow dance moves. "When you're dancing over Zoom and there's loud music streaming, it can be harder to be able to scream at everyone to do something," joked Craven, who has enjoyed teaching classes with his roommate.

Even though it can feel harder to interact with people like Craven does in the two studios where he taught pre-pandemic, "It's definitely more accessible, in the sake of its low barrier of entry. All you need is to move your couch over and make some space and log on at the right time."

Craven teaches twice a week, and his classes are often joined by people around the country. "Someone can be dancing in New York, Chicago, and the middle of Ohio, and we're all connected in that one moment, all doing the same thing," he enthused. He builds on these connections in after-class activities like commentary, chitchat, and a "yearbook photo" at the end of each class.

Communication is also crucial for Deb Wineman, a yoga instructor of 15 years who uses yoga to teach and embrace Jewish principles. One example of this combination she uses every day is saying the Modeh Ani prayer about gratitude while doing sun salutation poses that help her start the day with a grateful mindset.

Wineman teaches classes with Orot Center for New Jewish Learning that focus on "cultivating the qualities of the holiday rather than the poses," she said. For Passover, she taught about feeling freedom in the body, and for certain Torah portions and teachings, specific poses help participants tap into deeper meaning.

During the pandemic, Wineman has been teaching virtually with Orot as well as Yoga View and North Shore Yoga studios and Am Shalom in Glencoe. Describing the classes as "a lifeline for so many of us, keeping us connected," Wineman has enjoyed that people from different states attend, including some who were not interested in trying yoga in a studio.

In addition, she finds that it's easier to model the poses for participants and get a sense of the skill levels of her students over Zoom. "Ironically, even though you're looking through the screen, you can really connect and see people in a different way," she said.

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