Sarah Rehman had everything planned. With the momentum going into the grand opening of her Gaithersburg, Md., wellness studio, March 2020 was the beginning of a new chapter.

Two weeks later, the covid-19 pandemic forced Rehman to shut down the business, Flying Buddha Studios. Rehman, like many business owners, had to get creative and start an online presence to continue her variety of yoga and wellness classes.

“It was a goal of mine to have an online presence but I didn’t think it would happen so early in the year,” Rehman said. “We had to quickly pivot and start live-streaming classes. Virtual classes have become a part of the present and we will continue to have more offerings available.”

What happened to Flying Buddha Studios is a familiar tale for businesses and wellness studios, particularly hit hard by the pandemic. According to the Labor Department figures, in the DMV, fitness studios employed 17,185 people in March of 2020. Just one month later, 75 percent of those jobs vanished, with just 4,438 remaining.

However, by September, employment had recovered more than 13,000 jobs — about a third below the previous year’s level. Rehman, who has invested in professional audio and video equipment to provide instruction and clear presentation, will continue to have virtual courses as part of Flying Buddha’s program.

Starting in March 2020, 15 fitness centers reopened. This number continued to increase, jumping to 50 reopenings in May, and spiked in June, with 101 sites, according to statistics provided by Yelp.

From there, reopenings of fitness centers in the DMV began a slow decline, with 38 sites reopening in July, 20 in August, and just one reopening in September. Since then, the number of reopenings has not reached higher than six, with just three sites reopening in May of this year.

According to one Yelp spokesperson, to obtain this data, Yelp counted U.S. businesses that were temporarily closed and reopened through May 31, 2021. Each reopened business is counted at most once, on the date of its most recent reopening.

Despite the recent emergence of the more-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, as well as Montgomery County reimposing its indoor mask mandate, Rehman has not noticed a drop-off in attendance. During one recent class she taught, four of the 12 students chose to wear masks.

“There’s definitely been conversations about the new variant and some students have gone back to wearing masks,” Rehman said. “I’ve also had conversations with a couple of the teachers who decided to wear a mask again to feel more comfortable.”

From Flying Buddha’s beginning in the refashioned basement of her Potomac home in 2017, Rehman and her husband created a space to practice aerial yoga, which few studios offered at the time.

Rehman’s business soon grew and she opened her current Gaithersburg location where, in addition to online classes, Flying Buddha still offers an array of lessons in yoga, aerial arts, aerial lyra and pole fitness.

“You need space so if your studio regularly has traditional mat classes you can fit more bodies in a mat class than in an aerial class,” Rehman explained. “It’s costly to properly rig a commercial ceiling for an aerial practice.”

For Rehman, balancing her family life with running the studio brought challenges during the pandemic. She tried to be with her three children when not taking work calls at home, but also had to make sure the studio continued operating.

“Family comes first to me and I love what I do so no complaints about doing what I do for work,” Rehman said. “But when you own a business, it can take a lot of time, and at the end of the day it falls on me to make sure everything is organized and taken care of, so I think it’s a constant juggling act figuring out that balance.”

Rehman said it’s easy to find herself working all the time, so she chooses to not work certain days so she can focus her energy on her family. With Flying Buddha having front desk services again, she finds it easier to shut off completely for a day.

“There’s nothing comfortable about being taken away from your routine,” Rehman said. “I was working so much and my daughter was so young, and I was stepping into a new role. There’s just so much change and it’s not on your terms. Going into my basement and teaching virtually was just a sliver of normalcy in my day.”

In addition to juggling her family responsibilities, Rehman also had to face difficult choices at work. Like all business owners, Rehman says she feels a sense of responsibility for her employees.

During the initial phase of the shutdown, she had to decide which teachers to keep on staff. Most instructors taught classes part-time while working at other jobs, and a handful taught classes full-time. Rehman considers teachers full-time if they dedicate the majority of their time teaching and it is their main source of income, while part-time instructors who have other jobs only teach a few classes a week.

“There’s those of us who decide to teach full-time and teach a handful or more classes, teaching workshops, or training,” Rehman said, “and fill up our schedules to support ourselves through this line of work by doing all things centered around teaching and coaching or performing.”

One part-time instructor, Rachel Scheck, teaches a few classes a week and still takes care of her three children. When her oldest went to college, she added another class and picked up private students. Even with the additional classes at Flying Buddha and other studios, Scheck found time for herself, but knew when to take a step back.

“During the pandemic, I only taught on Zoom,” Scheck said. “I zoomed for three studios as well as my own virtual studio. I was teaching six to seven days a week, and it became too much for me, so I cut my schedule back. Now I usually teach classes five days a week, sometimes six days.”

Through assistance from several Paycheck Protection Program loans and the Reopen Montgomery Grant Program, Rehman covered her reopening expenses. Compared to the rest of Maryland, Montgomery County moved much slower in its approach to reopening, Rehman said.

When the studio partially reopened in late June 2020, it offered a scaled-back schedule open to only existing students. That changed in September, when the studio fully reopened and returned to its original schedule.

Having taught for 11 years, Rehman said instructing full-time differs from teaching a few courses on the side, such as having to teach additional classes on top of an already-packed schedule.

“Mostly it’s the challenge of maintaining a work-life balance,” Rehman said, regarding her July schedule. “Right now with kids’ camp and needing to sub a couple classes for another teacher for the next couple weeks, I will teach and work every day but will make sure to take a couple days off after I get through the next couple weeks.”

Many fitness businesses struggled to keep customers engaged during the pandemic. Rehman worked to do that by keeping in touch with instructors and students who found a refuge in Flying Buddha and other studios that remained open. She believes as long as people are safe and receive quality instruction, the wellness community can remain strong.

“I feel for people and the hard decisions they have to make with closing a space or whatever they have to do,” Rehman said. “I definitely am saddened by how many small businesses have been affected, especially in our wellness-yoga-aerial community.”

Petra Smeltzer, a student since November 2019, appreciates that Flying Buddha remains in business. Though the studio had no choice, the initial closure disappointed her. She attended the studio’s Zoom classes and continued to do so when the studio reopened. She continues to admire Flying Buddha’s members for coming together to support the studio.

When Smeltzer tested positive for covid in October, she immediately informed Rehman who, in turn, alerted teachers and students to test themselves. Smeltzer said no students or staff who had been around her tested positive and she credits Rehman’s commitment to keeping everyone safe.

“Because Sarah is mindful of maintaining a healthy environment, she sensibly put everyone on high alert,” Smeltzer said. “I never doubted the health and safety protocols that Flying Buddha had in place. Because you are in your hammock, because air flow and ventilation is so good at Flying Buddha, and because we kept our masks on, I always felt protected.”

Another student, Belinda Arndt, said students grew closer over Zoom. During last summer, Rehman provided hours of yoga to help everyone cope with the pandemic.

“Over the years, Sarah built a community, really more like a family,” Arndt said. “She and the rest of the teachers were here for us and as students we were there for them. I can’t speak on behalf of other students, but they really have changed my life for the better.”

While teaching smaller classes, Rehman created another revenue stream by launching a self-care store within a store, Higher Vibes Self-Care Shop. The inspiration came from her returning students, who wanted Flying Buddha to succeed. In addition, the challenges the pandemic brought helped Rehman better organize her business.

Rehman said the pandemic made it easier for students to understand the importance of having their own equipment. She also said it’s more hygienic, so the studio started selling hammock kits that include a bag, climbing-grade carabiners and a hammock.

“The business became more efficient by training teachers to do front desk duties and to create more signage and become more organized so that information is readily available for students and teachers to be directed through the studio,” Rehman said. “For example, if someone is renting a hammock the student or the teacher can do the rental through their phone.”

Rehman feels optimistic because yoga and different art forms such as lyra — sometimes seen as niche — are opening to a wider audience, students taking on challenges and skills they previously thought impossible to tackle. Rehman said one 75-year-old student, a psychologist, grew to love pole fitness and aerial yoga courses.

“I love that people are feeling empowered and they’re doing things that they didn’t think they’d be able to do,” Rehman remarked. “We always say yoga’s universal, yoga’s for everyone, but we’re really showing that all these different modalities of movement are for everyone. To me, that’s very encouraging and exciting.”

Rehman said the pandemic in some ways helped motivate her. While the idea of teaching through Zoom and live streams initially seemed daunting, Rehman grew accustomed to the shift online. The adjustments allow her to figure out how to best serve her studio’s virtual community and manage in-studio students.

“I am not tech savvy and originally the idea of teaching live stream through Zoom was intimidating, but like any new thing it takes being uncomfortable to grow and become comfortable again,” Rehman said.

Rehman said virtual classes filled a need for the fitness community during a difficult time, including a slice of normalcy she needed.

“It gave me an opportunity to teach and that is what keeps my mind and body healthy,” Rehman said. “The great thing about Flying Buddha is that I have an incredible team. … I have learned over the years to embrace everyone’s talents because together we are closer to our ideal.”

Rehman said some pandemic changes, such as hammock rentals, will remain. In addition, the studio’s teaching staff is now more versatile, as members are better trained for desk duties and student check-in. Now the studio’s staff can handle multiple jobs and has grown closer as a team.

Rehman said the pandemic has shown people what they can’t control. She stressed the importance of the yoga community leading by example, making healthy choices, and serving others.

“We continue to breathe, continue to be kind, continue to share this knowledge and information that has been shared with us and raise the energy of the community,” Rehman said. “It’s like a pendulum. You can only go so far with isolation and people feeling disconnected before they get hungry for genuine connection.”