Keeping healthy: tai chi classes in a pandemic
Name: Bar Stead
What is the name of the project/ activity? Qigong and tai chi classes
Where did the idea come from?
I had been learning tai chi for many years and 11 years ago I decided I wanted to share my love and enthusiasm for the activity by setting up classes. My initial aim was to help improve the health of people that may not like more “traditional” gym or sports clubs.
I now run 3 sessions a week, all include Qigong and the short form of tai chi, and after two of the sessions there were optional classes to learn the long form, sword form and more recently the fan form.
Two of the classes were held at a local community centre and the other at a church hall. Two are morning sessions and one is an evening sessions; most people attended one session and a couple of people went to more than one session.
When I set out I focused on teaching the moves and slowly appreciated that people liked the social aspects of being at a class, and that this was also good for their health and well-being. I introduced a tea break after the main sessions and encouraged people to stay and chat to each other, this worked better at the day sessions than the evening session.
I have been keen to try and get tai chi into the open air and last year I ran a number of sessions in local parks which were very well attended, and I had planned to deliver some more this year through the Friends of group, but that obviously didn’t happen.
Was it developed as a new initiative/ project/ group? Or was it an existing organisation/ group changing what it did?
The latter. As news of the pandemic started to filter through I moved one of the day time sessions to a local park for two weeks before the lock down came and then I couldn’t run any actual classes as the centre and church hall had to suddenly shut.
What did you hope to achieve? What was your initial aim?
I wanted to try and offer people who came to my class the opportunity to keep up their practice and to keep on learning through on line classes. I was (and am) a firm believer that during a national health crisis that tai chi would be good for practitioners’ health – both physical and mental.
I am very lucky to have my own practice space and with the appropriate placement of a web camera to a PC I was able to take our classes on-line very easily. For an exercise like tai chi it is important that students can see the whole body of the teacher and follow all the movements of the teacher. My personal exercise space allowed me to do this without any clutter in the picture. It is often easier for students to follow the moves of the teacher facing the same way. This means that I would be facing away from the computer while talking to explain movements so it was also important to have a wireless headset microphone with echo cancellation so that students could hear me as clearly as possible, and so that I could hear students questions easily and so that I could move around without being restricted. The best video performance would have been obtained using a streaming service and recorded videos, but I wanted to keep true to the atmosphere of the previous classes so I opted for a conferencing service so that students could chat together before class and that they were able to ask questions live during class. Initially I tried Skype, and then Zoom and quickly settled on WebEx, primarily because it was free and offered unlimited time to start with. Some people struggled to get WebEx to work for them and so for a while I ran some sessions with some people on Skype and others on WebEx. I run my classes with music and wanted to have this as part of the offer, it took a while to work out a technical solution which involved a mixing desk app on my computer which would stream my instructions and the music to the WebEx platform.
Initially I suggested donations, and suggested that people could pay the same as they pay for a class, and everyone was very happy to do that.
I kept in touch with people through email, some people explained why they could not join the classes on line and others I have not had much contact with until I was able to run real classes again.
Outcomes and Reflections
Did you get the take up you expected?
Take up of the online classes was reasonable but probably not the people that I expected to join. Obviously an online class can never be the same as a real life class and some people simply did not want to try online. For some the “IT challenge” was quite daunting, but the initial teething problems only lasted a couple of classes before people got used to what to do and online “etiquette”. I have been surprised by the number of older people that have accepted online classes compared to the number of younger people that have not.
Did you make any changes as time went on and the virus became less acute for some people?
In response to some comments that people couldn’t tell which leg I was moving I started to use red scarves on my right leg and hand so it was easier for people to follow; some people were using phones and notebooks as well as laptops and a few people used a main screen.
I started by carrying on where the real classes had left off, but soon found that they all became similar; as several people were now attending two or more of the sessions I was concerned about people becoming bored and so I changed each session to a different form of tai chi, so the evening session became the long form, one day time session was the short form, followed by the fan form, and the other day session finally developed into a new compact form. I devised this as it was clear that people didn’t have much room at home and it was getting difficult to follow through the moves.
As the rules around the restriction of exercise classes were lifted, I moved 2 of my classes to local parks. Most people appreciated the move and some of the students that did not go online returned to these classes. I realised that some people are still not happy or confident to return to real classes and so for them I maintained an online class with a modified set of movements so that people practicing in smaller or confined areas can more easily follow along. Then the second set of restrictions came in, and I had to move the bigger day class back on line, and the numbers dropped dramatically. The smaller evening class I managed to keep going in a local park. People would stay much longer afterwards to chat and catch up.
Based on your experience, what do you think that communities can do best on their own?
When there is a will to do something from enough people, they will make it happen. People who had met through the classes tended to keep in touch outside of the sessions and during the pandemic to offer help and support, especially to those who were shielding.
Based on your experience, was there any help that would have made your work easier?
It was difficult to understand the precise nature of the second set of restrictions and what was allowed or not as the government guidelines made no mention of outdoor activities. I used the team GB site and various others to try and inform my decisions.
As it is very easy to run outdoor classes socially distanced at 2 metres it seemed strange that we were so restricted in what we could do.
If we are restricted to the 2 metre rule then even when venues open it will not be viable to run sessions as only a few people would be able to fit into the indoor spaces. It looks like the sessions will need to be on line during the winter.
Based on your experience, were there actions you wanted external agencies to take?
Councils and park departments should make it easier for outdoor exercise classes to take place; here they charge a £50 initial admin fee even if I run free sessions. I know that there is a huge demand for outdoor tai chi and it would be good to do more.
What are your overall reflections on the project?
Although I run all the classes to be friendly places and people will chat a before and after sessions, I noticed that as the on-line sessions went on longer so people starting logging in later and there was less chat amongst people. WebEx also changed the length of time of the sessions so people had to log out and back in again between the different parts of the session and this meant there was less time to chat, as I had decided to keep to the original class times.
I plan to continue to develop and promote the new compact form as this would be suitable for new people to join the class. Looking back I wish I had worked out the compact form a bit earlier. The existing classes worked because most people knew the basic moves but it would be hard for a beginner to make a lot of sense of it. As soon as we were back outside I started to get new people wanting to join the class. Half of my new members come through word of mouth and others from finding me on the web as their nearest teacher.
I belong to the Tai Chi Union of GB and during the pandemic it didn’t offer much advice , once the first lockdown ended it issued its magazine and there were some articles about people taking their classes on line; I didn’t find many new ideas that would be suitable for my situation so I will continue to adapt the system I developed during the first lock down, and hope that we can soon be back outside.