During the week of March 9, the chatter before my tai chi classes was all about the coronavirus and Governor Cuomo’s newly declared state of emergency. One week later, my tai chi world came to a dead stop. Over the next four days, every tai chi class was suspended, and our Asian Arts Group tai chi center was temporarily closed. Suddenly, the tai chi classes that structure my time were…gone. And with some shock, I realized that when the news people talked about the “vulnerable elderly population,” they meant me. We were asked to practice social distancing, which, for me, meant staying at home as much as possible. As the pandemic developed, it became clear that this isolation was going to last longer than any of us had hoped.
As students contacted me to ask how we could continue our tai chi, Zoom became how we could practice together. FYI for the non-geeks among us, Zoom is an application that makes it possible for groups of people to meet online and to see and hear each other. It’s like the set of Hollywood Squares with all the players visible in little cubicles and everyone able to hear everyone else.
The process of using Zoom was surprisingly easy. A little more than a week after everything shut down, we began to offer virtual classes via Zoom. My students and I spent one Zoom meeting just figuring out how to get us all connected and able to see and hear each other. None of us is an IT specialist, but we were able to work it out despite all of us using different devices, including multiple brands of cell phones and laptops. Then, with a deep breath and more than a little trepidation, we began Zoom Tai Chi. Now, two months later, we are still Zooming our tai chi classes and may be for some unknown time.
What has it been like teaching via Zoom? On the plus side, it has enabled us to be together (at least virtually) and to practice the forms we know. Where once we began instruction promptly, now I find that the first ten minutes of classes includes checking in with each other about how everyone is doing and feeling and reacting to this extraordinary time. That social contact is essential and a big part of the value of our classes. Students say they appreciate practicing forms they have learned, and the repetitions vital to improving their tai chi. And as always, it is a joy for all of us to practice tai chi together.
So far, my experience is that the virtual classes are not as productive for learning new postures. Progress is slower, and it is more difficult to know how students are progressing. I can’t feel through the screen when they are confused or nervous about a posture, and that makes it harder to judge when we can move forward. The images of students on my screen are often not great, for a variety of reasons, and that also makes deciding how they are doing more difficult. I see students improving their knowledge of the sequence of postures in forms, but Zoom seems less well suited to help them refine their postures and movements.
We have made some progress in coping with the limitations of Zoom. Figuring out how to use my large screen television as a monitor (by connecting my laptop with my tv via HDMI cable) has made it possible to see better what students are doing. Still, some students’ setups don’t let me see their feet, or they disappear altogether once they step left or right. Sometimes the lighting leaves me with only a student’s silhouette. It helps to remind myself that I had taught lots of classes where I couldn’t see what students were doing when I turned my back. Of course, I ask them to play the form while I just watch. I have become more comfortable asking folks to adjust their webcam so I can see what they are doing. Even so, the two-dimensional images of students on a screen are inherently less helpful to me as an instructor than live classes with three-dimensional students.
One important caveat – my Zoom classes are all made up of long-term students in well established, relatively small classes. I don’t know what it would be like to use Zoom with a new class with no experience with tai chi. I don’t know, for example, how it would affect retention.
What is clear is that for now, virtual classes are unquestionably preferable to no tai chi classes. That is true for me as an instructor and as a student. Some instructors are exploring platforms other than Zoom, and I would love to hear about those experiences. Like any tool, practice will improve our skills using it, and we will be better at teaching in a virtual setting. And, I believe that virtual classes will help us get through this challenging time together.