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Pumping Iron, Practicing Yoga

As the demand for yoga in health clubs skyrockets, gyms across the country are offering innovative classes and more of them. We sent Managing Editor Nora Isaacs to find out if gym yogis are getting their money's worth.

By Nora Isaacs

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.'"

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I would like to know why it is ironic for a gym that is famous for people lifting weights to have yoga classes. The two activities are not mutually exclusive and can benefit each other greatly.

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