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Getty/Elena Valeeva

From medical appointments to yoga classes, the world has gone virtual—and it’s working. Brandi-Ann Uyemura digs into the future of care.

We're all on screens these days. Seeing a doctor, acupuncturist, or yoga teacher through a digital connection is the new kind-of-normal—whether or not we’re on board with the change.

Julia Metraux is an editorial fellow for The Mighty, an online community for people dealing with chronic health challenges and disabilities. Many in the community have been skeptical of receiving care online, which Metraux gets. “When you’ve been taking care of your own health for so long in a certain way ... it’s hard with the sudden change. I can see why people are reluctant to grasp it.”

“It’s very new to me,” she says. “I never really thought about it as a possibility before coronavirus.” Metraux was pleasantly surprised she could still talk to her doctor digitally, go over symptoms, and get blood work done at a lab. Basically, it was like any appointment minus the inconvenience to get there. “It’s a lot less time overall,” she says. Virtual sessions also save Metraux the hourlong commute that was a nightmare on days when her chronic pain was at its worst.

Some practitioners are overcoming an initial reluctance. Licensed acupuncturist and certified health coach Andrea Henkels explains, “The most surprising thing to me at the beginning was that it works. I understand why it’s so hard for people to believe.”

Even without needles, she is able to heal someone emotionally, spiritually, and physically. She attributes this to online sessions having greater presence and focus. “My attention is on them 100 percent the whole time, whereas when I’m doing acupuncture in person, I’m running around. It’s a different connection.” An additional plus is that the patients are in their home. Some of her patients want to have a session right before bed, and virtual sessions give Henkels the ability to do that. “They have the best sleep,” she says.

Dr. Samantha Brody, a licensed naturopathic physician, says it’s an easy opt-in. “I would tell people just try and then you know. But if you avoid doing it and avoid healthcare because you feel uncomfortable with the idea of it, you might be undermining yourself.” She emphasizes that during this time of COVID-19, it’s safer to do virtual rather than in-person visits. “And there are other benefits too,” she adds. “You don’t have to drive anywhere. It’s less stressful for many people because they are on their home turf. It’s more convenient. When they have access to telemedicine, people are more likely to get healthcare—period.

‘GRATEFUL FOR THE TECHNOLOGY’

Yoga teacher, activist, and author Seane Corn says, “As a student right now, I’m enjoying it so much more than I can even begin to express. I feel a connection with the teachers. I work hard as if they’re in the room because I know they can see me. I enjoy being in my space. I love the fact that when it’s done, I’m home. … I was really craving the community that this has provided.”

Corn says, as a teacher, she prefers an in-person classroom because “teaching on camera without feedback is a little difficult. I find the technology draining—physically and energetically. The electromagnetic wavelength is real and fatiguing.”

Online, she says, emotions that can be released in a session are “a little bit more challenging to navigate. And that’s the same with alignment. Teachers out there have to work that much harder to finesse their cueing in such a way that the student can do poses without having to look at the camera every 90 seconds. That takes a really skilled teacher.”

Even with the added challenges, the benefits far outweigh any negatives, Corn says. “I love that I can reach my students from all over the world and make it accessible. It’s such a gift, especially for these times. I’m grateful for the technology, and I will adapt to it.”

VIRTUAL RETREAT

The idea of a virtual session at a retreat center seems counterintuitive since guests typically travel to the retreat to escape. But when Ratna Ling in Cazadero, California, announced an online, free, hourlong retreat, about 100 people registered. Gloria Baraquio, who is the director of programs, says, “That was shocking to us.”

During a virtual sound bath, Baraquio says, “every single person had a transformative experience.” The event itself aroused unexpected emotion. Some, she says, “were shocked that they cried. They don’t realize that they’re so lonely because they’re not talking about spiritual ideals or speaking from their heart or talking about things that matter, not just venting. People are saying, ‘I had so much resistance. I hate Zoom. I didn’t want to see other people, but I didn’t know I needed other people. It was so healing.’”

Ratna Ling’s co-director, Rosalyn White, offers private meditations digitally and says, “I was surprised how connected we were able to be even though we weren’t in the same room. It spoke to me about human nature and how connected we can feel. In some ways, it can teach us something.”

Remote retreats also lessen the gap between people who can afford the events, including the travel, and those who can’t. Instead of a once-in-alifetime splurge, a retreat can become part of a weekly routine. That’s huge.

There are drawbacks, of course. Baraquio says, “For me, and for others, there is a real thing called Zoom fatigue. There are glitches, and sometimes we get kicked off. It happens enough to disrupt the flow that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Also, chanting online—even if you have a good microphone—is not the same. The sound has to travel a different way.” And, she says, an important missing factor when you’re online is “the general energetic warmth of being near a body of someone you care about or to be in their presence not just over the screen. There’s also the aspect of safety, which, in online yoga, means you’re unable to do more complex and advanced postures because teachers can’t be nearby to check form.”

For a nonprofit without the latest technological equipment to move online, the staff at Ratna Ling has had to adapt quickly. But the whole process has been life-changing, with lessons they will bring to future classes and events. “I think we will continue to offer online essentially to spread the teaching and readdress how we make it more financially accessible,” says Baraquio. “Now that we know how important this is, we can work on creating sustainable programs. The essence of what we have here is the teaching, and we can make this broader to people.”

‘FULLY PRESENT’

Dr. Rachel Eva Dew co-founded Modi Health Technologies, a virtual health and wellness company connecting patients to practitioners. An important consideration for practitioners, says Dew, is to make sure, “any telemedicine or telehealth session is on a HIPAA-compliant secured platform with back-end technology that guarantees the security and privacy of the patient.”

Yet, even with all of these challenges, what Dew deems “telewellness”—taking care of your whole self virtually—is becoming a regular part of self-care. “I think anything new takes time to adjust to, but once someone tries it and sees the benefit of not having to go into an office and their wait time is shorter, they’ll prefer virtual care.”

“It requires both parties to be fully present, and I think it elevates the quality of care significantly,” says Dew. “I think telemedicine is beginning to put the empowerment back into the hands of the patient.”