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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

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."

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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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