Pumping Iron, Practicing YogaI 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.