When did Zoom go so… Zen? The virtual wellness classes helping us feel less stressed

If you want to stack stones or watch a sleepy sheep being stroked, there’s an online therapy session to cater to your needs. Lucy Holden checks out some of the quirky classes aimed at helping us feel less stressed.

zoom goes zen
Getty Images/istockphoto

On Zoom, I’m being laughed at by a psychic who has asked his guides about my spirit animal and discovered I’m a truffle pig. I’m not sure whether the fact he looks vaguely like Orlando Bloom makes it better or worse. When he stops laughing, he’s extremely apologetic. ‘They’re very rare – I’ve never seen a pig before,’ he says, as though being a rare breed improves the fact that my spirit rolls around in its own muck.

‘I breathe serenity,’ I tell myself, remembering that I bathed that morning in sound, not Radox – just one of the five activities I experienced over the course of a week to find out whether wellness works as effectively on screen as it does in person.

The epiphany that my spirit is a swine isn’t a joke, despite the psychic’s laughter. In fact, it is the result of a virtual class – the logical next step for the £2.8 trillion wellness industry, considering that so much of our lives has moved online during the pandemic. By 2022, it’s estimated, each of us will spend almost £500 a year on various incarnations of wellness – and there are many to choose from. Where once you might have tried a local pilates class, now you might be more tempted to opt for yoga with pygmy goats or to ‘bathe in a forest’ – and if it wasn’t weird enough that a year ago you could try these sessions in real life, it’s even weirder that you can now experience them all while sitting in your own living room, via your laptop.

Lucy Holden
Lucy taps into the wellness world with her dog Alfie. Image: Westley Hargrave

With 43 per cent of us feeling that our mental health has worsened in the pandemic (according to the most recent YouGov poll), finding new ways to relax has naturally become a focus for many. Most of the activities and therapies on offer now weren’t available online a year ago (why would they have been?), but thousands of experiences across the world have been imaginatively adapted to take place on screen. From rock balancing to sound bathing, it’s all there.

Plus, we can’t say we don’t have the time any more, and a lot of us will throw money at anything that will make the world sparkle again. So I put down my gin and tonic and begin my virtual wellness journey…

Calm your nerves with snoozy sheep

£13, airbnb.co.uk

First, I head to Scotland (virtually) to find out how it all works via an Airbnb Experience ‒ bookable events that you sign up to in the same way you would a weekend away on the website ‒ with healthcare worker Beccy Routledge. She runs a Guided Meditation With Sleepy Sheep session with five rescued Herdwick sheep from a barn with Highland views. Pre-Covid, guests would have eaten high tea with the sheep, but in the face of travel bans, the experience has been reshaped and now a group of six of us watch via Zoom as Beccy films herself stroking Hamish, Lochie, Dougal, Fergus and Harrison. I can’t help but grin as the sheep nudge each other out of the way for attention.

‘The mechanical reaction of a smile releases endorphins which boost the immune system,’ she explains, as the boys come right up into the camera. ‘You might have noticed in lockdown a stress reaction that will have made your breathing shallower, your shoulders ache, your heart beat faster. Maybe your skin or digestion isn’t as good as it usually is. But recognising stress and breathing through the adrenaline rush can help calm you if something goes wrong.’

sheep zoom
Yes, we really are all grinning at a sheep on a computer screen in the name of relaxing…

After years of hosting similar events, Beccy has seen how people arrive ‘jangly’ and are then relaxed by the animals. ‘Sheep are very intuitive, so they mirror our mood. They stay back until you’re calm, then they want to be near you, and in turn they make you more relaxed,’ she explains.

‘But I didn’t realise how uplifting they were on camera until lockdown when a lot of very anxious people signed up. For those in small apartments or deprived of green space, seeing nature is hugely beneficial. Although I felt quite helpless at first, moving our business online has enabled us to reach people.’

But how effectively does this experience work when viewed on a screen? First, we watch Beccy serve the sheep their breakfast of grains, which ‘looks like granola and cornflakes’. Raymond – who’s joined from Hong Kong – was given a virtual ticket as a 43rd birthday present by his friend Robert, who’s joining in from his home in Australia. I’m sure they’ve never had a celebration quite as wild as this.

We’re asked to touch something soft in order not to miss the tactile element of stroking the sheep, and then Beccy’s daughter Rivkah, a yoga instructor who specialises in meditation, joins us to lead a short session. She tells us to imagine we’re in the barn, feeling the straw, hearing and smelling the surroundings, and says we can come back to this image in our minds any time we want. I’ve got my eyes shut, but knowing the sheep are there is gratifying.

Master your fear of failure… with rocks

£19, airbnb.co.uk

Leaving Scotland, I travel online to San Francisco, where Travis Ruskus is teaching The Zen Art of Rock Balancing. ‘I used to have to tell people a couple of times what I did before they realised they’d heard correctly,’ he admits during another Zoom session. His background is a carefully curated scene of immaculate rocks and shining crystals. I start to hope I’ve cleaned the last of the woodlice off the stones I’ve foraged from my parents’ front garden.

‘Rock balancing is an ancient art – but still a lot of people haven’t heard of it,’ Travis explains. ‘The balance is a metaphor for life, because often we feel caught up in the hamster wheel. But doing something tactile is good for busy people who don’t stop, or are frozen into corporate ways of thinking. It’s very telling how people approach it because we’re taught we should do things well the first time and fear failure. Some people are too anxious to even pick up the rocks. But balancing them is good practice in letting go of fear and also in knowing limits and not trying to keep going until the crash.’

Rock balancer Travis Ruskus
Rock balancer Travis Ruskus builds his way to happiness

It’s so different from anything I’ve done before that I find myself really enjoying it, and the wobble of stones as I build a precarious grey tower reminds me of Jenga. When I look up, Travis has created a white crystal seesaw on two leaning rocks. It’s more aesthetically pleasing than mine, to say the least. ‘Instead of rocks, someone once brought rotten apples to the session to balance,’ he says, trying to make me feel better.

‘There are just two rules with rock balancing,’ he adds. ‘First, make sure you’re not disturbing wildlife.’ I decide not to mention the family of woodlice I disrupted in the garden. ‘And second, knock it down after. People sometimes leave their rock creations in the wild so others can appreciate them, but toppling them is good practice in destroying the ego and in releasing things, not holding on to everything.’

Discover hope in a pack of cards

£75, wellnessfoundry.co.uk

Later in the week I try a tarot reading session with Fiongal Greenlaw, the psychic who could double as an Orlando Bloom lookalike. I sit down, ready to find out what my future has in store for me once I move back out of my parents’ house after Covid. Since lockdown, his London-based company The Wellness Foundry has been flooded with people wanting reassurance online.

‘People have had to spend more time on their own, reflecting, looking for answers and something deeper, more spiritual,’ he says. ‘The future isn’t set so we advise you to take what’s useful and let the rest go,’ he adds, explaining that the ‘guides’ (spirits) don’t often see specifics.

Again, our meeting takes place on Zoom. As well as informing me that my spirit animal is a truffle pig, he also invokes the guides in a tarot reading. First, I’m instructed to shut my bedroom door so my energy isn’t interrupted by ‘other’ energy (my parents are out, but the spirits don’t know this yet), then he shuffles the tarot cards. When I say ‘stop’, he draws two of them. ‘The Wheel of Fortune and Eight of Wands – the two fastest cards in the pack,’ he explains. Then he sees my future in a stone house covered in moss; two golden labradors; an affiliation with the University of Sussex; visions of a husband driving me somewhere while I pore over papers; writing a deep family history which may be turned into something on BBC Four. Non-specific doesn’t seem to have been a problem.

My sense that my increasingly samey days in our shrunken new world were turning lockdown into one huge Groundhog Day were certainly being squashed, and it felt invigorating to be having so many new dalliances with other worlds.

Sound bathe yourself to a restful sleep

From £7 a month, openfit.com

When I sign up for a remote session of sound bathing I appreciate the virtual aspect of this class most keenly. I’ve only ever tried it in person once ‒ where I lay on the floor of a Shoreditch warehouse with my eyes shut while two hippies tiptoed between bodies banging gongs. Essentially, sound bathing involves the use of instruments to create vibrations that help balance the brain, aiding sleep, stress, anxiety and focus.

I don headphones (as recommended) and observe class leader Scarlett de la Torre on my screen. With lots of jewellery and raven hair, sitting cross-legged among some massive pots, she looks like a glamorous fortune teller. While the platform offers live sessions, there are also hundreds of health and fitness videos waiting to go when you are, so I choose a prerecorded sound-bathing video before bedtime to see if Scarlett can lull me.

After a brief, very American introduction which encourages me to ‘breathe serenity’, Scarlett twirls a mallet around a singing bowl with a giant pestle and mortar. A buzzing, orchestral sound fills my ears, with occasional owl-like noises, before she begins banging the gong. It has a trance-like effect on me and I’m glad I don’t have to ruin my relaxed state by catching the train home with drunks as I had done in Shoreditch. Her sonic arsenal also includes harp, didgeridoo, glass xylophone and what looks like a wind chime. In short, it’s something hipsters would pay good money to hear in concert in Berlin. Am I sleepier, I wonder? I’m certainly dazed.

Give your skin a lift with a DIY massage

From £10 a class, beata.website

The one thing that’s fundamentally missing from virtual wellness, I’ve realised, is touch. But there’s even an answer to that online in the form of self-touch (which sounds more risqué than it is). Beata Aleksandrowicz, a specialist in facial massage, is teaching the techniques we need to become masseurs in our own homes. Her Zoom face workouts occur on Thursdays, and there’s a slower Sunday session with a meditative start.

Beata Aleksandrowicz
‘Lift, lift, for apple cheeks!’ Beata Aleksandrowicz demonstrates her facial massage technique

My mum and I try both, gathering bottles of oils and turning the front room into a spa where we sit on the sofa in dressing gowns in front of a roaring fire. Following Beata live, we stroke our faces as if they are a ‘luxury cat’ and scoop our cheeks ‘like ice cream’, while opposite us my dad tries to read the paper. The increased bloodflow to the skin makes it feel like you have a heated face mask on, and it’s more rejuvenating than you’d expect self-massage to be (hence Beata has regulars all around the world).

‘Lift, lift, for apple cheeks!’ she says, showing off her own. These are the apples we want, I think, remembering the rotten ones discouraged by Travis. It’s all about the opportunities we give ourselves, I realise, like a newly religious convert.

So should you Zoom into virtual wellness?

I’m surprised to find myself a convert to this weird but wonderful world. I was cynical at first, but the fact I didn’t have to travel to sessions (which might have put me off in real life) has helped. I would definitely go back to Beata for a facial massage – her class was my pick of the lot.

After every live experience I felt that same buzz you get after socialising and meeting new people face to face, even though the sessions were on my screen. Sally Sullivan, a psychotherapist specialising in addiction, agrees. She believes new experiences (even on a computer) have the effect of making us feel less hemmed-in at home. ‘Coping methods for stress often include alcohol, drugs or watching endless box sets, but those things only calm us in the short term and ultimately arouse more stress,’ she explains.

‘What we have to do is build a better foundation for coping with anxiety and regulating our emotions via relaxation techniques. When people are stressed, cortisol rushes through the body and breathing becomes shallow – that’s when you think you want a gin and tonic. In reality, what we need to do is sit down and breathe to regulate and calm the nervous system. Experiences that rely on the senses can take us out of ourselves enough to do that.’

What I wasn’t expecting is that I also felt I’d travelled simply by ‘leaving’ home for an hour at a time via my screen. There’s such power in seeking new experiences – they really do make you feel more alive. @lucyroseannie