Yoga classes bend but don’t break during pandemic: NH studio owners see shift in business model with lasting impact

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Image/New Hampshire Power Yoga on Facebook

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Even before Gov. Chris Sununu announced his stay-at-home order and the closure of non-essential businesses last month, husband and wife Bob and Mary Howard decided to move classes at their Nashua-based New Hampshire Power Yoga online, to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

“We quickly decided to shut the physical studio on March 15 after the 6 p.m. class. It was preemptive of the state-at-home order,” Mary Howard said. 

Within two days they ran their first virtual yoga class, which they say will remain part of the studio after the pandemic crisis passes. 

“The community has really embraced it and they have been grateful that we have been able to keep them on their mats,” she said. “It’s been going phenomenal. … We are doing two to three classes a day.” 

Members, such as one who is a single dad, really appreciate the flexibility it gives them. 

Whether it’s his weekend with his children or not, he can make it to class, Mary Howard said. 

“The 6 a.m. classes are much more popular now. We had 19 this morning,” she said on Thursday. “People can roll out of bed and onto their yoga mat.”

The virtual classes are also drawing in former students and teachers who have moved out of the area and even out of state, she said, and even the adult children of some of the current yoga teachers are tuning in for classes from out of state as a way of connecting as a family during the pandemic. 

The feedback from studio members about the virtual classes has been so positive the couple said they plan to continue with virtual classes even after the COVID-19 outbreak is no longer a danger and are gearing up to release their first on-demand class for members.

Because of the meditative and healing aspects of yoga, the Howards offer reduced rates for veterans and free membership to clients of the Manchester-based Hope for NH Recovery, which serves those struggling with addiction.

The Howards were introduced to Hope for NH Recovery by one of their students-turned-teachers, Gen Mackenzie of Bedford.

Mackenzie began volunteering with Hope for NH Recovery because someone she loves was struggling with addiction. This person has since gone into recovery, but she continues her volunteer work with the Hope for NH Recovery as a yoga teacher.

“It’s her passion,” Mary Howard said. 

The Howards believe yoga practice can be a healing tool for people in recovery.  

“It’s a meditative thing,” Bob Howard said, adding that regular practice can be transformative. 

“Even as you get older you can change your body and change your mind. … You find a lot of people who are recovering from addiction, it gives them something very empowering. It’s a very empowering practice.”

“I started with Hope actually when they were a smaller place in downtown Manchester,” Mackenzie said. “I started teaching yoga for them.”

Mackenzie has also run several fundraisers for the recovery organization through the yoga studio.

“They’ve been awesome,” Makenzie said of the Howards. “I would always reach out to Mary and Bob, and they would comp my students.”

These are people that because of their current circumstances don’t have an income, but need an outlet that yoga can provide. “When people need help there’s just no question, she’s like, ‘Sure,’” Mackenzie said of Mary Howard. 

The studio has about 325 members right now, but paid membership is down because of the pandemic, the Howards said. 

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Students zoom into Lois Kerwin’s afternoon class at New Hampshire Power Yoga. Credit: Jessica Arnold / Arnold Imaging LLC

“We’ve got 60 people right now on reduced or free membership, because of a lot of these people, this was their self-care,” Mary Howard said. And when someone has tried to cancel their membership she has stopped them and told them that if it is for financial reasons not to worry.

Many people have lost their income because of this crisis, they have been laid off or had to leave work for health risk reasons, she said. 

“It’s so important to keep up with your self-care practices and they can come on and do it online. I definitely don’t want to see people stopping just because they can’t pay,” Mary Howard said.

The couple also points to a recent Harvard study that is encouraging people to practice yoga and its breathing techniques as a way of dealing with the COVID crisis.

Their studio is not the only one to go virtual, they said.

“There is a pretty strong community across the country where yoga studios have switched to these livestreams,” Mary Howard said. “At the same time, it’s a little bit of a way to connect locally.”

There is a little time before and after each virtual class for members to say hello and connect. 

“It did take a little while for the teachers to get comfortable,” with teaching virtually, Mary Howard said. 

The Howards said they have been able to keep all the teachers who have wanted to continue teaching currently on the payroll. They currently have 17 classes a week taught by seven teachers.

“We had a couple that had to leave for other reasons,” Mary Howard said, adding, “Anyone that wants to be on the payroll is still on the payroll.”

COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere right now, so the Howards are not sure when the studio will reopen to the public. 

“I had the virus. I had it for four weeks and I’m healthy, no pre-existing conditions and it kicked my butt so I don’t want to risk it for anyone,” Mary Howard said, but even when the studio opens, “We will definitely keep this as part of our offerings.”

The pandemic is changing their business model in a positive way, they said. There will always be those people who want the in-studio experience, but as the state-of-art stationary Peloton bike livestream classes and other on-demand classes has shown, the fitness class business model is changing, Bob Howard said. “People are going to have to reinvent themselves.”

When the studio reopens, they plan to continue livestreaming some of the classes.

 “We won’t livestream every class, but we will try to do it once a day,” Mary Howard said.

And they plan to continue to offer on-demand classes. 

However, when they do reopen the studio to the public, they know many members will be grateful. 

“We are a heated studio,” Mary Howard said. “About 85 to 95 percent of our classes are heated, so people do miss that and they do miss hugging people, you know, all the fun things.”

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Meghan Pierce

Meghan Pierce is founder and editor of Monadnock Beat.