Lack of hands-on guidance in fitness classes may lead to bad form, instructors say

Kahvontay Willis-Slaughter is standing in front of the couch in his living room. He kicks his right leg high and drops it to the floor.

"Pick it up, pull it in, release!" he instructs to about nine students watching him over Zoom during his virtual class.

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Then the dancer with City Dance Corps in Toronto contracts his torso as though punched in the gut, before unfurling his spine so that his head reaches back while his arms extend forward.

His class watches attentively, even though the music is muffled and Willis-Slaughter moves so exuberantly that he doesn’t always manage to keep his full body in the frame.

Unlike in a normal class, he can’t tell if everyone is following along. "Kinda, sorta?" he asks, then starts the music again.

Yoga, Pilates and dance are taught in studios where teachers offer individual, often hands-on correction by nudging arms and hips into place. Adjustment helps students with alignment and technique, say instructors trying to re-create virtually what they used to do in person.

Gyms and fitness studios have been in parts of Canada for much of the past year. In-person classes that have resumed in regions where permitted are operating at reduced capacity, but some students still prefer to receive instruction online to reduce Covid-19 risks. As a result, teachers and students are practising in living rooms, basements and hallways connected through their smartphones and computers.

Pre-pandemic, Ilana Rogol-Dixon would dart around her Calgary studio to make sure none of her Pilates students was holding a position incorrectly. Touch was how she bonded with students and reminded them of what to do.

"I can just walk up to them and poke them in the rib," she says. She would tell them that she is an "extremely tactile" teacher before starting class.

It’s hard to give that level of attention online. Students are now two-dimensional figures on her screen. And the more students there are, the smaller they appear.

Her regular students are familiar with the exercises and can follow verbal cues. And she knows their weaknesses.

"Ideally, you know their bodies well enough that you know in which ways they're going to cheat," says Rogol-Dixon.

She tries hard to coach them as she normally would so they don’t get injured.

Movements that look simple can lead to injury if not done carefully. A rollover is a classic Pilates exercise that moves between lying flat on the floor to folded in half with legs extended overhead and toes touching the floor, like a piece of paper curled over on itself.

"It's quite easy to think, 'Oh yeah, you just fling your body over’"' says Rogol-Dixon. "But actually to protect your cervical spine, the amount of abdominal control that you need is quite a lot."

Some instructors are avoiding new movements in the online world.

Tiana Blunt teaches children jazz and acrobatics at Calgary’s Ultimate Dance Company. If they learn incorrectly, it’s hard to change that muscle memory.

"If you start doing something wrong and you keep doing it wrong over and over again, it's 10 times harder to break that habit than it is to learn a new habit," she points out.

Willis-Slaughter figures he can always fix those problems when his classes finally return to the studio. He tries to describe how movements should feel. Imagine you’re crushing something slowly and painfully, he suggests, as his students lower from the balls of their feet to the floor.

The hardest part, which he misses the most, is teaching students how to impart movement with individual expression.

"I can teach them movement all day and I can teach them technique all day," Willis-Slaughter says. "But there's no feeling within what they're doing."

Beyond physical contact, that artistic dimension is tough for him to capture when classes are remote and no one is in a studio.

Rogol-Dixon, who is back in the studio occasionally with distancing and masks as per Alberta's guidelines, also struggles with how robotic movement can become when taught online.

"There are people who view it as exercise," she explains. "And then there are people who view it as more therapeutic." She counts herself among the latter.

Ellie McMillan, a yoga teacher in Aylmer, Que., also emphasizes the healing aspect of her classes. Fixing alignment is how she makes her students feel seen and cared for.

To do so online, she asks her students to set up their mat and camera so that she can see their entire bodies. Even then, they’re on Zoom, not in a studio together. McMillan points out that many people were online all day for work too, so it can hard to make it feel different.

"We've had to become creative with how we add the experience of the yoga back in," she says.

She tries to create an atmosphere with music, lighting and mood and encourages students to do the same.

For some, it’s been too difficult to get into a yoga mindset at home. Often, it’s the same people who struggled to make time for in-person classes and were "rushing to go relax for an hour," McMillan says.

But there are some benefits to online instruction — studios can be intimidating, and freeing yoga, dance and Pilates from that space has encouraged others.

Willis-Slaughter knows that "people, especially as they get older, when they go to take a class and whether it's the first time or the billionth time or they're jumping back into it, I feel a lot of the time they get so nervous." They compare themselves to others who can jump bigger, spin faster and kick higher, he says.

Even online, some of his students leave their cameras off and he respects that choice. When some have finally turned them on, he’s thrilled what they’ve learned.

Because for Willis-Slaughter, what matters during the pandemic is "putting your best foot forward and finding your way."

—Bryony Lau is a freelance writer based in Calgary and a global journalism fellow at the University of Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April, 5, 2021.

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