Your free workouts have a cost
Since going into quarantine, I've seen two of my budgets skyrocket: my coffee spending, and the money I put into fitness. With studios in my neighborhood and across the country closed due to coronavirus restrictions, I didn't exactly see that second one coming (admittedly, I could have predicted the caffeine spike). Yet now that I don't go anywhere, I've had far more time and energy to work out — and with all of my regular studios having moved to virtual sessions, I'm burning through my class cards so fast that I'm on the verge of investing in multiple memberships, just to save money.
Of course, what would really be the frugal choice would be for me to not attend my virtual classes at all. Not to drop fitness entirely — working out is, with no exaggeration, all that is keeping me sane at this point — but to switch to the plentiful, easily-accessed free workout videos that are offered online. Since the outbreak, many major studios and gyms, including Barry's Bootcamp, Orangetheory, CorePower Yoga, Rumble boxing, Blink Fitness, Planet Fitness, and more, have started offering free daily workout routines on their websites and social media. You could, with not very much trouble, stitch together an entire week of free workouts that would have cost hundreds of dollars before the outbreak.
But the real question is: Should you?
The fitness industry right now is hemorrhaging money. Last summer, months before anyone had ever heard the word "COVID-19," experts were already warning that despite "a record 71.5 million consumers" who attended health clubs in 2018, the fitness industry could be devastated by a recession. "Consumers are going to be dropping [boutique fitness] from their budget," Kristen Geil, the editor-in-chief of aSweatLife, told NBC News, explaining that such costs are "the easiest thing to cut." And, well, the rest is history. As coronavirus broke out, it left in its wake hundreds of empty gyms and studios; the subscription fitness app ClassPass reports that 90 percent of its 30,000 gym, studio, and wellness partners worldwide have "indefinitely closed their physical locations." For some, it's even more dire: In April, YogaWorks announced it'd be permanently closing its last four New York City locations due to the blow dealt by the pandemic. Gold's Gym, meanwhile, has filed for bankruptcy.
Small, independent studios have had to swiftly adapt in order to stay afloat. Blue Lotus Yoga and Barre Studio in Annapolis, Maryland, might be taken as a model for how to successfully transition; the studio closed its doors on March 16 and now streams between 15 and 20 live virtual classes a week in addition to offering an impressive library of yoga and barre videos that you can purchase for $8 each. "It was a complete overhaul of our business model," Blue Lotus co-founder Duffy Perkins told The Week. "Within days, within 48 hours we moved my entire business online."
Yoga is a particularly tricky space for the debate about free classes, in part because many operators consider it a spiritual practice in addition to being a fitness business. Ingrained in yoga are philosophies like seva, which promotes the generous and selfless teaching of yoga, as well as the concept of "karma yoga," when teachers, for any number of reasons, donate their services for free. Many socially-conscious studios, aware of the criticisms of yoga in the United States as being too exclusive, have long sought to make classes accessible for people who don't fit the stereotypical yogi image (thin, white, in possession of a Peloton or Equinox membership) by offering donation-based or free community classes.
Advocates, though, have sought to highlight the potential for the exploitation of yoga instructors in the studio space, where there can also be an expectation that teachers offer classes, or out-of-classroom assistance, for no pay. "[I]f anyone asks you to teach yoga for free, the answer is: No," writes New York-based instructor Tara Purswani in a Medium post that predated the pandemic, titled "Teaching Yoga Is a Real Job and You Should Be Paid for It."
"My concern with yoga teachers going drastically underpaid is that it keeps our industry and it's teachings small," wrote Francesca Cervero, a private yoga instructor, in a somewhat controversial post that also predates the outbreak. Importantly, she adds that "arbitrarily reducing the price of yoga classes can drive down the value people place on yoga instruction."
The belief that yoga teachers are performing a valuable service is part of why Perkins and her team decided against offering free classes at Blue Lotus. "The motto we have stuck to throughout this is that once you know your worth, you will stop discounting your time," Perkins said. She and her partner, Julie Nogueira, try to impress that message on their students in their teacher training courses, and it is also what has propelled them away from posting their workouts for free on Facebook or Instagram during the pandemic. "The problem with the free classes is, that basically undercuts your entire business model," Perkins explained. "Once you train your clients to think that everything is free, then it's hard to get them back to paying for anything."
And yet, many studios have made the decision to not charge for their classes. Yoga Home, in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, is airing free classes "as an offering of community care as we move through these challenging times together," according to their website. Small World Yoga, in Nashville, likewise explains that its Zoom classes are free because "we are committed to our mission [to connect people and create community by increasing access to yoga] even during this pandemic." Or as Rachel Goodale, the owner of Long Island's Stroller Strong Mamas, told Northforker: "The money is not what's important to me at the moment. I just want everyone to feel like we're not in complete isolation and that we can still kind of come together. Everyone has been so supportive of my classes, so this is my way of giving back."
Free classes aren't entirely without potential business upsides, either. Perkins, for example, told me that she doesn't see the wildly popular and free "Yoga with Adriene" YouTube videos as being competition for her own library of yoga videos. After all, "Yoga with Adriene" existed long before the pandemic, and has likely brought many newcomers to yoga, including, perhaps, any number of future Blue Lotus members. Similarly, prior to the outbreak I'd been eyeing 305 Fitness' dance workout classes, but a crippling terror of breaching a new studio (much less dancing in front of strangers with my two left feet) kept me from showing up. After having popped into a handful of 305's free YouTube workouts, I've become hooked and will almost certainly visit one of their New York studios once they reopen.
Still other studios have sought to navigate the new terrain with a sort of middle ground, offering free or steeply discounted classes to essential workers, or to people who've lost their jobs. Shaktibarre, in New York, for example, already had a radical sliding-scale membership plan prior to the pandemic, and now offers an even more steeply discounted option for those unemployed due to COVID-19.
Ultimately, the circumstances behind every practitioner — and studio — are different. Free classes might be what are available to you right now, or perhaps shelling out $8 to tap into your local studio's live streams, even when tempting no-cost options abound, is reasonably within your means. "Everybody is doing things differently," Perkins said. "We're all trying to figure this out. There's no right or wrong."
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