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Gym membership and yoga

If you’ve been practicing and teaching yoga for awhile, chances are good that you’ve been going to a studio. Most teacher trainings take place in a studio wholly dedicated to yoga, and advanced practitioners usually seek instruction among other like-minded yogis. And yet most Americans will get their first taste of yoga at the YMCA or their neighborhood gym. As the demand for yoga classes grows, so does the demand for teachers, and you may find yourself considering employment outside of a yoga studio.

“The health and wellness industry is incorporating a holistic approach to fitness,” says Julie Logue, health and wellness director at the Dane County YMCA in Madison, Wisconsin. “It’s not just about the body anymore, and to stay competitive in the market, gym owners must consider ways to include mind/body programming for their members.”

You can use your position as an instructor to teach not only asana but everything a yoga practice has to offer—even if you’re teaching in a gym setting. Show students the benefits beyond the physical, and demonstrate to owners the importance of having well-trained teachers on their staff. Your classes will develop a devoted following among members and become a source of pride (and revenue) for the gym.

An Entry Point for Yoga

When developing a yoga program for a gym population, you become a kind of yoga ambassador, says Barrett Lauck, a Boston-area teacher. “Recognize that you are going to be someone’s first instructor,” she says. “Gyms are an entry point for many people. Studios can be intimidating and/or cost-prohibitive, and a gym is more accessible.”

Because you are introducing yoga to people who may have no idea what a practice is like, let alone the difference between Trikonasana and Tadasana, be clear in explaining concepts and always demonstrate safe ways of practicing. A yoga class is different than Pilates or aerobics, so explaining basic etiquette (taking off shoes, coming on time, staying through Savasana) and what to expect (different kinds of breathing, length of poses, using props) will help make new students more comfortable.

However, when teaching at a gym, teachers should make sure that,, they don’t downgrade their expectations of themselves or the practice, says Jason Crandell, teacher and yoga director of the Mind and Body Center at the San Francisco Bay Club. “We have to treat that space and those students as we treat any space and any students. By doing that over time, you’ll attract students who resonate with that—and those who don’t will go elsewhere, if what they really want is a group exercise class.”

The Upside of Gym Classes

People are often more willing to try new classes at a gym because they’re offered a variety of options with their membership. They’re already in the building, so they can just drop in. This means you may get a wider variety of students and have larger classes than at a studio. Your students also have access to such amenities as locker rooms, child care, lounges, or even a cafe, which may contribute to their consistency in coming to class.

Because gyms serve so many kinds of people, you can design classes or workshops for special populations who wouldn’t normally consider yoga (athletes, seniors, kids). Your expertise might be useful to other teachers at the facility; for example, you could teach a session for triathlon training or for a corporate retreat.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of teaching yoga at a gym is the financial security it offers. “It’s nice that a yoga instructors’ portfolios have some hourly wages and not be based 100 percent on commissions.” Crandell says. “Teaching outside of a gym allows one to generate more revenue, but it’s also subject to greater vacillation. At a gym, you take money out of the equation and just show up and teach to the people in front of you without getting distracted by the compensation, because it’s done, it’s a nonissue.”

Lauck adds, “You usually get paid a flat rate for your time, no matter how many students. This can be helpful if you’re trying to make a budget and want to have a little assurance as to what you’ll make for at least some of your classes.”

Creating an Environment for Yoga

You’ll have to deal with the challenge of gym culture diplomatically. You may share your space with other fitness classes that don’t have the same goals as yours. “Gyms typically don’t put as much effort into making the studio yoga-serene,” Lauck says. Often, the gym room is multipurpose (you might have people come in during class to get free weights, for example), or it might not be the best temperature for yoga. There might be noise or distracting sights.

If you can’t find a quiet space in the facility, think about ways to make your room more peaceful. Turning off some of the lights, having the students face away from other activities, closing doors, even setting up a portable screen can help students turn their attention inward and reduce outside distraction. See if equipment can be moved outside, or at least closer to the door, so people won’t be tempted to come through the room while you’re teaching. Always keep your sense of humor; nothing disrupts a class more quickly than a frustrated instructor who makes an angry comment.

Your attitude will go a long way toward setting a yogic tone in the classroom, no matter what’s happening nearby. Establish the ground rules of the class early on so students know what to expect, and they can help new members figure out what’s going on. Be gentle but firm about proper etiquette; if people are used to a boisterous step class, the serene tone of a yoga class could be a bit unnerving.

Nonetheless, your students are there because they’re interested in the benefits yoga has to offer. The atmosphere of the class will be just as important to them as the asana. They’ll sense your dedication and commitment, and this will attract the students who really want this kind of practice.

On the other hand, “if what people really want is a spinning class, I’m going to direct them to that.,” Crandell says. “You can’t make a yoga class a spinning class.”

Making the Gym Work for You

Be sensitive to needs of your students and your teaching technique, but also be respectful of this busy environment. Figure out who can help you get the props you need, advertise your classes, relocate to a more peaceful space, or even just adjust the temperature.

The gym administration wants you to teach its members yoga. You can help make it a successful endeavor. There are several basic steps to take so your gym practice will thrive:

Make your teaching space yoga-friendly. Figure out what needs to change to make your room more inviting. If other teachers use the space, brainstorm with them—especially if they too teach mind-body classes, such as Pilates. Find out how to adjust the lights. See if the sound system can be fine-tuned to play more quietly, with less bass. Come up with a plan and then suggest it to the fitness director; if you work with the administration, they may give you what you ask for.

Take advantage of the gym’s resources. If you use props, you can try incorporating some gym equipment into your class. Do chest openers or backbends with stability balls. Use foam rollers under the heels in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) to stretch calf muscles further. Try doing yoga in the swimming pool. Be imaginative; by using more of the gym’s resources, you give your classes higher visibility, which will attract more students.

Take advantage of access to nonyogis. Yoga classes at a gym are very inclusive and give lots of different people exposure to the practice. See who comes to your classes and listen to why they’re coming. Is it for stretching, stress relief, rehabilitation? You may be able to design classes that address those needs specifically, in addition to your regular classes. Fitness directors are always looking for new ways to keep members motivated, so they’ll welcome a class for an underserved population.

Be true to your practice. People come to your class because they want to learn yoga. Avoid gimmicky hybrids that reduce yoga to a mere “workout”. “The way a well-trained instructor tailors his or her class should be based less on the gym’s sensibility and more on the students’ needs,” Logue says. “Popular blends may not meet these needs and may in fact diminish the overall yoga experience,”,

Moving out of a yoga studio into a more public space does require some adaptation. It may take extra time and patience to educate your students and the gym administration about yoga—but you’ll also have the honor of introducing the practice to a whole new population. “It’s important that, as yoga teachers, we don’t buy into the whole gym yoga thing. It’s important that we teach the essence of yoga as we understand it to the people that are in front of us. That really should not be different regardless of where one goes.”

Brenda K. Plakans teaches yoga at the Stateline Family YMCA in Beloit, Wisconsin. She writes the yoga blog Grounding Thru the Sit Bones http://groundingthruthesitbones.blogspot.com.

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