Pumping Iron, Practicing Yoga


By Nora Isaacs   |  

I arrive at Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, carrying not my gym bag but my yoga mat. Black-and-white photographs of former Mr. and Ms. Olympias line the walls, and I’ve never seen so many workout machines in one place. I follow the rubber-floored maze of rooms through a thicket of exercise bikes, Stairmasters, and elliptical trainers; areas crammed with exercise balls; and aisles of brawny gym rats grunting, counting, and sweating. Finally, I see two glass doors–the yoga studio.

But this isn’t your typical yoga studio. Instead of having polished wood floors and serene music, it’s a modest-size, high-ceilinged room with three white walls and a mirrored one. The dozen or so students who wander in all wear various kinds of workout clothes: fashionable exercise pants, tank tops, and sweatshirts to stay warm against the cold air blowing through the vents. I am instructed by the teacher, a gentle former actor named Michael Angelo Stuno, to take one of the thick foam mats stacked in the corner (no one else brought their own) and begin some forward bends to warm up, while the faint smell of sweat rising from the mat floats into my nose as I wait for my first health club yoga experience to begin.

The irony is not lost on me that Gold’s Gym, perhaps the quintessential symbol of ripped bodies and competition, offers regular yoga classes. But this contradiction is just another example of the pervasiveness of the discipline in mainstream health club culture. Three-quarters of U.S. fitness centers now offer yoga, according to Bill Howland, director of research at the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) a nonprofit trade group in Boston that follows health and fitness trends. Over the past five years, consumer demand for yoga in health clubs has increased dramatically–from 400,000 club participants in 1997 to 1.2 million in 2001.

Ten years ago, people hit the gym to attain the ideal body, Howland says. His research today shows a shift: Members now express a keen interest in holistic health, including stress reduction and reaping the emotional benefits of exercise.

"Any fitness center that is not offering yoga on their schedule is losing out," says Carol Espel, general manager at Equinox Fitness, which has 17 locations in New York, California, Connecticut, and the Chicago area.

Hitting the Club Scene

With millions of members on their rosters, health clubs have become a one-stop workout shop. Those who don’t have the time, interest, or finances to visit a yoga studio–or who find them intimidating–love gym yoga for its comfort, convenience, and familiarity. On the flip side, die-hard studiogoers believe that the essence of the practice is lost in the competitive and distracting environment of the gym, and they cherish the single-minded focus on yoga in a studio. I have found that the quality of teaching and the overall atmosphere of health club yoga varies as greatly as the personalities of the students in each class. It seems that personal preference, rather than a hard and fast rule, applies when it comes to deciding whether to practice at the studio or the gym. After chatting with dozens of yoga students and teachers, and visiting fitness centers across the country, I’ve put together an unscientific look at the wonderful and not-so-great aspects of health club yoga.

First Impression. If you take an informal poll of gym yogis, you’ll find that the No. 1 reason they choose to practice in a health club is that it just feels more comfortable. "I didn’t feel intimidated to take my first yoga classes at the gym," says San Francisco Bay Area resident Katie Popp. "I think I would have been a bit more hesitant to go to a yoga studio right away, not knowing what to expect." Many beginning yoga students like Popp have been gym members their whole adult lives; they feel comfortable in the surroundings and know what to expect–whereas a yoga studio, with its unfamiliar sounds and smells, has the potential to keep some away. Other beginners simply find it easier letting the yoga come to them, rather than taking the initiative to search out a studio. "People get turned on to yoga in health clubs, and if they’re looking to deepen their practice, they’ll go to the yoga studio. It’s definitely a way in," says New York teacher Beryl Bender Birch, author of Power Yoga (Fireside, 1995) and Beyond Power Yoga (Fireside, 2000).

There is, however, the problem of students being too comfortable, which can hinder the growth of their practice. "Student levels at gyms can kind of keep you in a perpetual beginner class, [because] they have to teach to the lowest common denominator," says San Francisco business manager Nikki Granner. The solution, she believes, is to find a gym with enough classes for all levels and with qualified teachers who can handle teaching different levels all at once. This is getting easier as yoga classes begin to dominate gym schedules–more advanced practitioners can choose the most appropriate level for them and allow their practice to deepen.

Double Your Pleasure. Rather than shelling out for a gym membership and a pass for a yoga studio, gym yogis pay only a single fee, while enjoying the convenience of having everything under one roof. "One good thing about gym yoga is that you pay a flat fee to use the gym, so if one instructor turns out to be a dud, you can go to another without losing any money," says Popp. In San Francisco, monthly gym dues run anywhere from $59 at the YMCA to $138 at the swankier Bay Club. A single studio yoga class is about $15, which means that four classes a week for a month could cost $240, whereas gymgoers pay a single price and have access to amenities like a pool, showers, saunas, and massages in addition to yoga and other exercise classes.

Gold’s Gym patron Bruce Collins’s regular routine includes swimming laps in the pool, taking an hour-long yoga class, and then hitting the weight room. His gym yoga classes have also taught him some easy stretches to incorporate into lulls in his workout routine. "This way, you’re not just sitting there like a dork between sets; you’re doing something," Collins says. Robert Rigamonti, yoga instructor at 24 Hour Fitness in Santa Monica, sometimes even incorporates workout equipment into his teaching methods, like having students explore Downward-Facing Dog by having them hang from their hips on a back-extension bench.

For baby boomers, this diverse range of activities is especially attractive. According to Howland, gym members are older than they used to be: More than half are over the age of 35, and the fastest-growing group is 55 and older. These folks are eager for some diversity in their routines–and some relief on their stressed joints. "I’m 46, and I’m just starting to feel it big-time," says Espel. "People are looking for alternatives. They don’t want to do high-impact aerobics, and when they do yoga, they get so hooked on the mental and physiological benefits." For mature members, whose bodies generally can’t take the pounding of aerobics or running, yoga is the ideal solution.

Sound Effects. Perhaps the loudest complaint about yoga for the masses is the abundance of outside noise. The din from televisions or stereos, whirring Stairmasters, and clanking weight machines can be an uncontrollable distraction–and a seemingly inevitable one at places like Crunch in West Hollywood, which has only one yoga studio. When I took classes there, people often came late and left early, letting in the steady buzz of the workout world. Thumping bass poured through the opened studio door as a late student arrived, and the air conditioner continuously blasted freezing cold air. The teacher inexplicably wore clogs during the whole class. One student told me about a fellow classmate who had answered her cell phone during yoga class and replied, "Oh, nothing. What are you doing"?

"I longed to practice yoga in a serene and tranquil atmosphere," says Kris Van Deusen, who lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, speaking of her experience about the gym scene. "Instead, there was this pervasive, high-energy, frenetic feeling in the room, the leftover vibes from all the aerobics and kickboxing classes it was host to in its real life. It was as if the room itself could never truly calm down." Then there’s the often less-than-inspiring yoga room decor. "The places they stick you in are often covered with mirrors and fluorescent lights; they are not spaces that had yoga in mind when they were built," says San Luis Obispo Yoga Centre owner Peter Sterios, who teaches many large workshops at gyms.

Loss of Heart. For many yogis, this adds up to an environment that bypasses the spiritual heart of yoga and makes it just another "group ex" cardio class (health club-speak for "group exercise," an umbrella term that includes everything from kickboxing to Tae Bo). And since health club yoga can’t change where it’s practiced, it falls upon the teacher to pull the session away from the surrounding activities. "Yet there seems to be a lot of confusion amongst gym yoga teachers about what yoga is," explains Sterios. "In many gyms, there is a fitness-based philosophy, rather than a spiritual-based philosophy." Rigamonti says this lack of direction leads students to have a hard time separating the two mentalities. "In gyms, people are always pushing themselves further," he says.

"You have to teach them that you can get deeper and fully inhabit a pose, even though it may not feel euphoric or like a breakthrough," Sterios adds. He stresses to his students that although strength is important, full range of motion and joint stability are also key. "I tell them, ‘If you need strength, go upstairs and work with the barbells.’"

Finding an Opening. Because of the increased demand for classes, gym yogis often find themselves crammed into an "open class." Open classes incorporate all levels and can be an invitation to injury if beginners try to practice at a level they aren’t ready for just to keep up. "I am not a believer in the open class. I think that the risk of injury is too great," says Beryl Bender Birch. "People wander in and see others standing on their heads, and even though a teacher may try to give separate directions for different levels, there is a higher risk of someone getting injured."

Birch hopes that in the future, health clubs introduce mandatory intro yoga classes, where students can learn basic alignment and breathing along with procedures like taking off their sneakers and staying for Savasana in its entirety, to prepare them for an open class.

Come Together. Many people congregate at their local yoga studios to become part of a community, adding another rich dimension to their practice. "A yoga center almost has a community feeling inherent in its being," says Bay Area yoga teacher Amy Cooper, who has taught at both gyms and studios. "It is a place to come together and congregate. But the nature of a health club is to just pass through. It tends to be disjointed." At yoga studios, students can also get to know their teachers, who in turn get to know the students’ strengths and weaknesses, and can help their practice unfold. "From a teacher’s point of view, it can be hard to teach in such a transient place [as a health club]," says Cooper. "It can also be hard for students, because they often get inconsistent teaching."

Teachers Wanted. Experienced yogis often sniff out inexperienced teachers from the first few Down Dogs, but it’s not so easy for beginners. If they have no point of comparison, they could get poor instruction and risk injury. Some say novice teachers are on the rise: The consumer-driven nature of health club yoga brings with it a concern about having enough instructors, and, according to Birch, there is a sense of urgency to press underqualified teachers into service to meet demand. Indeed, it is not uncommon for gym management to recruit Spinning, step, aerobics, or Pilates instructors to become yoga teachers and then send them for a weekend certification, or for these group-ex teachers to attend a handful of yoga classes and then begin to teach.

The problem is that there is no national certification for yoga teachers; each health club has its own method of selecting instructors, and sometimes those doing the selection have no yoga background. The 24 Hour Fitness in Kansas City, Missouri, requires primary certification from an organization such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), or the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) but no specific yoga certification. According to that club’s group-ex supervisor, Erik Reynolds, potential teachers must fill out an application and then teach a class that he observes to "ensure use of safe and effective techniques."

At the Equinox in Scarsdale, New York, Espel says, prospective teachers don’t necessarily need a fitness-department certification, but they must present proof of certification in yoga to show that they’ve completed training in, say, Bikram or Ashtanga as well as CPR.

At the West Hollywood Crunch, potential teachers must fill out an application, pass an interview, and audition by teaching a yoga class that includes other gym instructors, who attend anonymously. "I look for teachers who have attended an extensive teacher’s training," says Crunch regional fitness director Kendell Hogan. "I’m not talking a weekend, but about three months."

With so much variance–and given the fact that gyms tend to pay less than studios–the quality of the yoga teaching can be inconsistent.

That doesn’t mean that clubs never have teachers equal to, or in some cases superior to, those at yoga studios. "I’ve been lucky to live in yoga-rich cities like Boston and San Francisco, where the teaching talent runs deep, so you can get good teachers in health clubs," says Nikki Granner.

The Future Has Arrived

Don’t expect the increase in the number of health club yoga classes to slow down anytime soon. The yoga offerings at Minnesota-based Life Time Fitness, for example, spiked 300 percent from 2000 to 2003–"a direct result of our members’ interest and demand," says spokesman Jason Thunstrom.

This surge in consumer demand has prompted some health clubs to develop secondary studios that are segregated, soundproofed, and designed specifically for yoga. When an 11,000-square-foot space became available adjacent to San Francisco’s Bay Club, it opened a Mind & Body Center connected to the rest of the club by a staircase; the facility houses three dedicated yoga rooms and one for Pilates, complete with picture windows, exposed brick walls, and stacks upon stacks of clean mats and bolsters.

At the Equinox in Darien, Connecticut, a newly built yoga room is stocked with plenty of props and has a cherry-wood floor, a fabric-clad ceiling, and paneled (rather than mirrored) walls. Crunch has two dedicated yoga studios in New York and one in San Francisco, as well as another in the works in Chicago.

"Contemporary health club design facilities, from a functionality standpoint, have become very sophisticated," says the IHRSA’s Bill Howland. "Remember, in the same way that yoga people don’t want to hear racquetball and weights, the guys in the weight room don’t want to hear yoga music."

Whether in a studio or a gym, perhaps the true practice is getting onto the mat and finding the yoga in any environment. I’ve been to well-known yoga studios that left me cold amidst the cliquishness and commercialism, and others where the adjustments changed my practice. I’ve been to gym yoga classes where two students next to me talked about their workout during the standing poses, and others in which a highly skilled instructor led me into the most solid Headstand I’ve ever done. Getting to know what you want out of your practice is the first step. If you find yourself in a class that doesn’t meet your expectations, try turning it into a practice in which you look at your resistance, competitiveness, and ability to fully accept the present moment.

"There is no perfect," explains Birch. "Either you have to look at all environments as equally sacred and perfect, as the universe does, or you always realize that there is some little irritant lurking in the corner. Even if you find a perfect cave in the Himalayas, you may find a bear."

Nora Isaacs, Yoga Journal‘s managing editor, is a member of the YMCA.