Fusing Yoga and Pilates Is Popular, But Is It Safe?

Fanning Fusion: Pilates fusion classes are all the rage, but are they safe?

Sometime around the turn of the last century, the 5,000-year-old Eastern practice of yoga was just washing ashore in America. It was soon followed in the middle of the Roaring 1920s with Pilates after Joseph Pilates introduced his revolutionary workout to people such as Martha Graham, George Blanchine and their dancers.

Today, both of the so-called mind/body workouts are wildly popular with everyone from Hollywood stars and professional athletes, to working class stiffs and the aging Baby Boomers. In fact, the two have been fused together and with other disciplines to form new, hybrid workouts — Yogalates, PiYo, Poolates and others.

“It just seems like the nature of evolution,” says Beth Shaw, founder and president of California-based YogaFit Training Systems. “If you are going to get more people in the mix, you have to appeal to them in a way that is out of the box. We are seeing more classes being taught with more body and mind emphasis.”

However, not everyone is a fan of fusion. Some are concerned about muddling once pure forms of mind/body exercise; others are concerned about safety.

Kevin Bowen, owner of Pilates Miami and co-founder and president of the Pilates Method Alliance (a non-profit Pilates education organization), is cynical when it comes to fusing Pilates with other workout forms. He says the list of fusion classes has continued to grow to the point of being ridiculous.

“I think it's all part of a marketing ploy,” he says. “Isn't that the American way?” Club owners think members will lose interest in Pilates if they don't fuse it or they decide to combine the best of both worlds by fusing two mind/body practices, he says.

Elizabeth Larkam, director of Pilates and Beyond at Western Athletic Clubs (WAC), says that instructors with enough training and education can keep members interested in Pilates and yoga without resorting to fusion.

“Yoga is not lacking for depth; it is the instructor [who is lacking],” she says. “And the same can be true for Pilates.”

If members are clamoring for something different, then it might be time for an infusion of new instructor education or time to raise the requirements for Pilates and yoga instructors, Larkam says, adding that an instructor who is not able to rise to the level required by members or is limited in his or her approach can give programs a bad reputation.

WAC is committed to bringing studio-like yoga and Pilates programming into its clubs, which makes recruitment, economic and service sense, says Larkam.

“Given that commitment, we tend to steer clear of yoga/Pilates fusion activities,” she says. “We do that based on the recognition that although the disciplines are very complimentary, they still have distinct benefits, which can be diluted if the emphasis is on fusion rather than having yoga be yoga and Pilates be Pilates.”

Fusing the two programs can be difficult considering it is important not to lose the fundamental differences of both practices, says Larkam. Pilates involves a lot of floor work and emphasizes core control, developing deep abdominals and muscles around the spine. Pilates requires less weight bearing while yoga has more full weight bearing and focuses on strengthening and balance benefits that happen when standing.

Safety First

Form is foremost in Pilates, requiring an instructor's feedback to work through the moves and offer modifications where necessary to avoid injury, Bowen says. Without it or without proper instruction, members can get hurt.

“You can very easily have an injury, and that is seriously on the rise and not just in Pilates but also in yoga and personal training,” Bowen says. “There is a trend to up the ante, not just for Pilates but with yoga teachers and personal trainers.”

Shaw agrees that as with Pilates, the number one concern in yoga is safety. Get into the wrong level class, the wrong type of yoga, or have a bad instructor and members could be headed for an injury, she says.

“You get cowboy yoga instructors training in schools where the emphasis is not on safety but on being more of a drill sergeant,” says Shaw, who has trained roughly 50,000 yoga instructors. “Injuries happen when proper warm up and proper alternatives are not given. It's also the mindset of the instructor. Do they want to take care of the people and give them a positive experience?”

Howard Vanes is trained in traditional yoga, and takes a more middle of the road stance on fusion.

“I think it's hard to say what is good or bad,” says Vanes, a yoga teacher and consultant for corporate and health club stress-management training. “Any time you homogenize a practice you are definitely changing it. The question is, what do you end up with? It's a new form. Is this new form servicing the students taking it? Is it helping? This is how evolution works. You have to take each new form by itself.”

But Vanes is quick to add that with fusion yoga you lose the essence of yoga. What you get is not yoga but a new, diluted form.

“It doesn't bother me as long as they don't call it yoga,” he says. “I personally am not attached to keeping whatever we do in the yoga world just yoga. I can't see any reason not to let it happen. But we have to be clear about what we're teaching.”

Shaw, who is trained in traditional yoga, is quite accepting of the new fusion classes that are cropping up. She says blending yoga with other disciplines makes sense, especially for clubs fighting to keep member interest and solid retention numbers.

Kimberlee Jensen, creator of Punk Rock Yoga and Flow Yoga, objects to the notion that what she teaches isn't yoga. Her classes focus on the main yoga principles of a balance of strength and flexibility.

“We are absolutely doing 100 percent yoga,” Jensen says. “What we're not doing is telling people they have to buy all this stuff and that they have to be flexible and strong to do yoga.”

As for other yoga instructors demeaning her programs, it simply doesn't matter to her.

“If someone calls it a gimmick, that's up to them and that's fine,” she says. “If it helps people who otherwise don't do something, then fine, it works.”

It's About Time and Spirit

Yoga, at its essences, is a spiritual practice, says Vanes.

“Yoga helps balance the body and mind,” Vanes says. “It has a positive effect on all the systems of the body. It's no wonder that people come out of yoga class feeling good on a physical level. Yoga helps bring us into the moment and connects the body and mind, and it's non-competitive. It's not about winning or losing.”

Part of what yoga is about — building physical strength and flexibility — makes it a neat fit inside a health club. More importantly, club owners don't have to invest a lot of money to buy fancy equipment or dedicate a lot of floor space to it. Plus, yoga works well for overweight and obese clients.

“We realize people who are heavy can't get into the more complex poses,” Shaw says. “I like to help people get over the hump. Yoga gives you the discipline, and by moving, you get in tune with your body. It is probably one of the best, if not the best way to inspire and help transform heavy people.”

With so many different forms of yoga, clubs must make sure they match members with the right form of yoga. Reaching the spiritual level is up to the individual.

“You show up in the physical aspect and you can't help but bump into the spiritual aspect,” Vanes says. “I think there are many people starting to dive deeper into the spiritual.”

Regardless of what people are searching for, the fact is that contemplative mind/body methods such as Pilates and yoga have been fused because people simply don't have the time to do both, proponents of fusion say. So clubs and instructors have blended them to get the best of both.

“I love both forms of mind/body exercise and they both go so beautifully together,” says Chris Freytag, an ACE-certified trainer, a YogaFit and STOTT Pilates-certified trainer and author of Move to Lose. “There are so many people who say, ‘Which one should I do?’ Combining them puts it all together in one hour.”

Riding a Wave of Popularity

In the past five years, American devotees of Pilates have risen from 1.7 million in 2000 to more than 10 million today. According to recent research, 16.5 million Americans (or 7.5 percent) practice yoga — an increase of 5.6 percent from last year and up 43 percent from 2002. Of those not currently practicing yoga, about 25 million people said they intended to try yoga within the next 12 months. In terms of spending power, an estimated $2.95 billion a year is spent on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations and media such as DVDs, videos, books and magazines, according to the second annual survey, Yoga in America, released by the magazine Yoga Journal.

“The fact that Americans spend nearly $3 billion a year on yoga and yoga-related items shows the financial vibrancy of the market,” John Abbott, president and CEO of Yoga Journal, said. “That the number of yoga practitioners has grown so strongly in the last 10 years shows that yoga is not a passing fad but a genuine cultural phenomenon and an integral part of the wellness trend in this country.”

“I think it's easier for people to stick with Pilates and yoga,” says Chris Freytag, an ACE-certified trainer, a YogaFit and STOTT Pilates-certified trainer and author of Move to Lose. “They are low impact, and if you are overweight, you don't have to be fearful about giving up the class because you can't keep up. There is a sense of feeling a part of a yoga or Pilates class, more so then a cardiovascular class where you may not be able to keep up.”

Move Out Pilates and Yoga?

Fusion fitness, a melding of different programs into hybrid workouts, is a hot trend in clubs today. But the real question is, what's next?

Obviously, no one knows that answer, but Pilates expert Elizabeth Larkam says the future could be Gyrokinesis and Feldenkrais Awareness of Movement classes.

“Gyrokinesis is an exceedingly creative form that is rooted in yoga but has a dance-like flow that is accessible to anyone who can sit on a bench,” says Larkam, director of Pilates and Beyond at the Western Athletic Clubs (WAC). “The breathing, taken from yoga, and the movements of the spine, hip and shoulder joints bring about — very gently — a feeling of well being and an increase in mobility.”

Those are benefits of great interest to Baby Boomers and people experiencing job or life stress.

Also of interest to aging Baby Boomers is Feldenkrais Awareness of Movement classes, which have been around for decades and have yet to get any serious traction in club settings despite the fact that Larkam and other mind/body experts have expected it to take off for years.

“The reason these classes might pick up some traction now is that as we get older, our club members have more patience and more interest in movement subtleties that result in increased well being,” she says. A Feldenkrais class at WAC's Bay Club Marin started out slowly but has picked up growth steadily, she says.

Nearly 1,000 Awareness of Movement lessons exist — some involving jumping over chairs, doing backflips and standing on the head. However, the type of classes that are taught in a club setting tend to be on the gentle, less athletic side because the people coming to those classes are fairly limited in the types of movements that are comfortable for them, says Larkam.

“Just as yoga and Pilates have so many classes, one ought not to dismiss Feldenkrais because it's for the old and infirm,” says Larkam. “The founder was a judo master.”

In addition, Larkam cautions against dismissing Pilates and yoga for the next new technique.

“Yoga and Pilates (Pilates in particular) are not just trend exercise techniques that will be gone by 2006,” she says. “So it makes economic sense in terms of member retention for clubs to invest in quality programming, equipment and instructor training.”

Larkam says that the evolution of Pilates continues and is picking up speed.

“We will continue to see different applications of Pilates headed to niche Pilates applications,” she says. The evolution could include Pilates workshops for cyclists, skiers, expectant mothers and seniors. She also sees similar trends in the evolution of yoga as in yoga for triathletes.

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