By Guy Djandji

Social distancing due to the pandemic has brought new challenges to the physical activity programs offered to patients. One question remains: how to adapt services which are, by definition, personalized and dependent on the dynamic created by the close physical presence of instructors and participants?

Led by Anouline Sintharaphone, Coordinator of Hope & Cope’s Exercise and Rehabilitation Program, new approaches have been developed to teach and provide support to the vast community of exercise enthusiasts who depend on Hope & Cope for their well-being.

The exercise program comprises of 15-20 volunteers serving a large number of patients, with one-to-two classes per day, offered four days a week. These include group Yoga, Qi-gong, Integral Tai Chi, Zen Toning and personalized physical exercise prescriptions for the Wellness Centre gym or at home.

When the pandemic hit, facilitators had to adapt quickly to new teaching methods and communication tools to try to recreate the energy, flow and class dynamics found at the Wellness Centre. “We had to find new ways to ensure proper posturing, to correct the flow of movements. It takes us more time; we talk much more to compensate for lack of actual presence, to encourage and stimulate more. We find that fatigue is common and that is normal considering the new environment,” confides Anouline.

Ruth Wani has been a volunteer yoga instructor with Hope & Cope for the past 10 yearsRuth Wani has been a volunteer yoga instructor with Hope & Cope for the past 10 years. Since last October, her on-line classes have been attended by an average of 8-20 people. Most turn off their cameras and microphones, adding another degree of difficulty. Ruth had to drastically change her teaching methods but first she had to adapt to the technological constraints. She considered the image she projects on-screen and the environment in which she teaches – her living-room. She adjusted camera angles, décor and lighting so as not to be distracting. Yoga movements had to be revised. “No more lying down positions because they do not fit the screen, only seating and standing postures. It is a raw version of yoga designed to meet on-line challenges.”

Ruth confides that she is not “technology savvy” and still misses the energy of group sessions. “We are not teaching math; we are teaching movement, posture, breathing, which is easier to do face-to-face.” However, she surmounted these difficulties because she appreciates the importance of her contribution to the well-being of the participants.

The greatest challenge facing instructors is to ensure that participants are engaged and well-positioned while doing their exercises and to correct them at a distance. Says Anouline, “We have to understand participants’ situation, their limited space, lack of equipment and isolation. So, as instructors, we have to reduce that stress, talk more, stimulate and certainly demonstrate more patience.” To break the isolation caused by the pandemic, facilitators are encouraged to build chit-chat time into their sessions and to actively listen to the group in order to stimulate energy and cohesiveness.

While a small number of participants have dropped out because they lack computers or have no interest in on-line activities, most find this new approach beneficial: no more travel time, traffic, parking hassles or weather issues! Anouline and Ruth agree that even after the pandemic, on-line classes will remain popular with a large segment of participants.

Clearly, what stands out is the passion that Anouline, Ruth and the team of instructors demonstrate for their work as well as their commitment to providing superlative service to patients. The numbers bear this out, as statistics show high attendance, even in the face of seemingly unsurmountable challenges.