Lisa Thomure came to Pilates the way many people do. Her orthopedic surgeon recommended it as a path to recovery.
"I was a soccer player my whole life and had a bunch of injuries," she said. "Pilates is a great way to get back into movement — controlled, intentional, slow movement."
Now Thomure runs her own Pilates studio called Core MVMT in San Francisco and is struggling to stay open with the strict limits still placed on group fitness activities.
"I don't have a viable business plan right now," she said. "I'm not meeting the minimum amount of the money I need to make. I'm pretty much out here running a fitness charity, where I'm offering fitness classes for people because I know it really, really benefits them."
Core MVMT is just one of several independent studios that are advocating for the city government to place Pilates and yoga studios in a different category than other group fitness classes such as SoulCycle spinning or Zumba fitness dance, which are still prohibited indoors.
Many local studio owners are unsure if this applies to them, so they're following the rules in place for regular gyms, which is a 10 percent capacity limit. Another general request from the industry is that the city provide clearer rules for the different types of fitness studios.
Their argument is two-fold: First, they say Pilates and yoga are not nearly as intensive as many group fitness classes, and so do not produce the same amount of aerosols from heavy breathing. Second, they believe their services offer a singular health benefit that justifies separating them from regular gyms.
With many industries unsurprisingly pushing for greater allowances when it comes to reopening, independent studio owners are struggling to communicate what makes their industry unique and essential in terms of public health.
"I strongly feel that Pilates and in-person yoga or small group yoga needs to be shunted outside of the gym group and into the therapeutic group," said Ray Salahuddin, owner of The Pilates School in San Francisco. "We're more similar to a physical therapist and acupuncturist and chiropractor, where the person is not dying sweating or expending a lot of aerosol droplets."
Salahuddin said business is currently down 65 percent. But unlike Thomure, Salahuddin has a background in teaching remotely and has since moved 90 percent of her business online.
This approach has distinct disadvantages though, especially when it comes to teaching Pilates.
"It's difficult to give someone feedback in an online class with 20 people, and no one knows that your right hip is off," she said. "You don't know that your right hip is off."
The need for this kind of intervention from a trained instructor has only gotten more important as home exercise machines, such as the Peloton exercise bikes, have gotten more popular. In many cases, she added, people are overtraining one part of their body while undertraining another, setting themselves up for serious health problems in the future.
So much of Pilates is focused on form and learning how to safely exercise, which introduces another limitation in the COVID era: the ability to be hands-on with students.
Obviously intensive hands-on teaching is a no-go during the pandemic, but both Salahuddin and Thomure stressed the level of training that instructors receive, which they believe city officials should consider when deciding how exactly to regulate the industry.
"It's kind of like we got a master's degree in Pilates," said Salahuddin, who said she studied for multiple years to get certified as an instructor. "There's a neglect that the city is making toward the expertise, the certification, and the experience of Pilates trainers and yoga trainers."
The San Francisco Independent Fitness Studio Coalition, which has advocated on behalf of small fitness studios such as Core MVMT and The Pilates School, said Pilates and yoga instructors should have a similar status to physical therapists, who have been considered essential workers from the beginning of the pandemic.
"We believe it is a mistake for any state or city government to lump all fitness into one bucket when considering COVID reopening policies," said Dave Karraker, who heads the coalition. "Neighborhood fitness studios with one-to-one or one-to-few business models can follow the same COVID safety protocols as physical therapists, which are considered an essential business and have been open since March."