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Yoga in Transition

<b><i>As yoga continues to boom in popularity, clubs are redefining it and are offering more diverse classes, despite criticisms of over-commercialization.</b></i>

Yoga has a reputation for evoking peace, harmony and serenity in people around the world. Ironically, when it comes to defining what yoga is today, peace, harmony and serenity are hard to come by in the fitness and yoga world.

Although relatively new to the Western world, yoga isn't a new form of exercise. The practice of yoga is more than 5,000 years old. However, during the last 10 years, health clubs and yoga studios across the country have been redefining yoga. By removing yoga's traditional Indian philosophy, many health clubs are focusing on the physical aspects of yoga. Other health clubs are making their classes more universal to all beliefs, and some instructors are infusing their yoga classes with spirituality from different religions, such as Christianity.

This move from traditional yoga classes to more inclusive classes opens the yoga world to a broader audience, says Shirley Archer, IDEA mind/body exercise spokesperson.

“I think yoga can reach people at many levels of interest and need,” Archer says. “Some people seek yoga practice for the mental benefits, to clear their mind and achieve deeper levels of relaxation. Others practice it to enhance their own mind-body connection. Some simply enjoy the physical conditioning benefits in a more gentle environment.”

According to a poll by Yoga Magazine, 10 percent of North Americans practice yoga, making yoga a $4 billion-a-year industry producing not only classes and studios but also a gamut of yoga-related products such as brightly colored sticky mats, designer yoga capris and numerous yoga DVDs and TV shows.

Health clubs are getting in on the trend, too. According to the IDEA Health and Fitness Association's annual Fitness Programs and Equipment Survey, 56 percent of the 225 IDEA members surveyed said they offer yoga at their facilities. In 1996, only 31 percent of the individuals surveyed offered yoga.

Health clubs are slowly overtaking yoga studios in popularity for places to take yoga classes, says Beth Shaw, president and founder of YogaFit, a yoga certification organization.

“The real growth is occurring in fitness clubs, and a lot of yoga studios are closing,” Shaw says. “In a gym, people are really there to get a workout and don't necessarily want to take it to the next level of yoga, spiritually. [Clubs] need to play to our customers and give them what they want.”

Because of this, some facilities are focusing purely on the physical benefits of yoga, making yoga classes similar to other group exercise classes with choreographed routines and standard warm-ups and cool-downs, Shaw says. Hybrid classes, which combine yoga with strength training or other exercise modalities, are where the industry is going, she says.

However, not everyone in the yoga community agrees with this focus on the physical and de-emphasis on spirituality. Many yogis are concerned with modern yoga's de-emphasis on the spiritual world and increased attention on the material world.

Turning yoga into a commodity is harmful, says Georg Feuerstein, author of more than 30 books, including “The Yoga Tradition” and “Green Yoga.”

“It is also harming people for the simple reason that contemporary [nontraditional] yoga does not challenge them in their over-consuming lifestyle, which is absolutely essential,” Feuerstein says. “The great sages of the past attained enlightenment without colored mats and special pants.”

Yoga Blend

Despite the criticism of the commercialization and de-spiritualization of yoga, many fitness centers are creating classes and environments that welcome people of all exercise levels, faiths and backgrounds. Although these classes may not be considered traditional by some, they are opening the practice to new markets and members.

The Flatiron Athletic Club (FAC) in Boulder, CO, offers yoga formats such as anusara, flow vinyasa, hatha, iyengar, kripalu, wake-up ashtanga and intro to yoga.

“We offer a full spectrum of yoga styles and intensity levels to accommodate the wider spectrum of experience in our members, from beginners to members who have practiced yoga for more than 20 years,” says Carmen Baehr, yoga instructor and co-director of yoga at FAC. “To serve our members is our first and foremost concern and to do so in an inclusive and uplifting manner, regardless of weight, fitness level or cultural and religious background.”

FAC's yoga instructors use all-inclusive language in their teaching to maintain the spirituality and philosophy of yoga, and to make it accessible to all. Instead of saying “God,” instructors say, “creative self,” “universal nature,” “the universe,” “peace” and “compassion,” Baehr explains.

“As a rule, the language is not limited by religion, but it is the finger pointing to explain something more inclusive than our perceived limited or small self,” she says. “If people feel better about themselves, we are doing our job.”

Strike a Pose

Many instructors are also blending Eastern yoga traditions with Western beliefs and incorporating their own religious beliefs into yoga.

In 2001, Susan Bordenkircher melded her Christian faith with yoga, creating a Christian yoga class.

“I thought to myself, ‘Why is it that Christians are afraid of yoga?’” she says. “Because we feel that, as Christians, we have to practice it as part of an Eastern philosophy or we shouldn't do it. As I saw it, it didn't have to be practiced that way.”

Bordenkircher later met with her pastor at the Jubilee Shores United Methodist Church in Fairhope, AL, who agreed. The church offered free classes and soon had a Christian yoga following.

“People all over the country and world were doing [a form of Christian yoga], but we just didn't know it,” she says. “As we began classes, people began to get it.”

Six years later, Bordenkircher released a book and a video series that shares her routine of hatha yoga stretches and poses with Christian meditations. She now teaches at the Bounds Family YMCA in Daphne, AL, the Moorer YMCA in Mobile, AL, and the Jubilee Shores United Methodist Church. As many as 70 people attend one of her classes at the church. Her other classes average between 20 and 30 participants.

Yoga stands on its own from any religion, says Rodney Yee, a well-known yoga instructor who has appeared in more than 30 yoga videos and DVDs and has authored numerous mind/body books.

“Yoga enables religious followers to adhere to religious principles more honestly and authentically,” he says. “Yoga is a tool to help you abide by your intention.”

Not everyone agrees. In early September, officials at two churches in England banned a group from conducting yoga classes because they said that the practice was “un-Christian,” according to London media reports.

Feuerstein says Christian yoga should be called Christian mysticism. However, he likes how Christian yoga practitioners are at least “preserving traditional yoga's spiritual slant.” The focus on only the physical part of yoga troubles him, he says.

“I think that people who want to teach only the postures should advertise their teaching as ‘posture practice’ rather than ‘yoga,’” Feuerstein says. “In my opinion, all genuine yoga includes an element that could be called spiritual or sacred.”

However, defining what is spiritual and what is not is a bit tricky, Yee says.

“There's something in doing the physical poses that is spiritual in and of itself,” he says.

Yoga for Sale

With yoga's increasing popularity, commercialization is a natural by-product, Bordenkircher says. However, she stresses that her Christian yoga classes are not-for-profit and that her instructors do not ask for donations.

Most experts agree that yoga will only become more popular, and it's a trend that's here to stay.

“Right now, yoga has invaded the fitness industry,” says Yee, who expects yoga to expand into more corporations and hospitals. “But yoga provides way beyond what most people utilize it for. It has so much more growth possibilities.”

IDEA's Archer expects specialization yoga classes to boom in popularity and says clubs should consider adding kid yoga, teen yoga, older adult yoga and yoga for athletes to their mind/body programming.

“Many kids, teens and young adults are enjoying yoga today, and among college students, it is one of the more popular physical activities,” she says. “All of these people will continue to practice as they age.”

Twice a week, FAC offers gentle yoga classes to encourage members who are reluctant to try yoga. The class draws young and old members, injured athletes and others who have chronic illnesses such as Parkinson's disease. Skilled teachers, who can address the needs of both skilled and unskilled members, are paramount to any yoga schedules' success, Baehr says.

With the advent of new types of yoga classes has come new yoga certifications that focus specifically on yoga for seniors, prenatal members and the core. Advanced certifications and continued education help keep yoga legitimate, Shaw says.

In addition to ensuring they are properly certified, instructors should also be in yoga for the right reasons, Yee says.

“I have made a living off of [yoga], and this is yoga in the 21st century, so that's fine,” Yee says. “But if you're only doing it for commercial reasons, then it's a personal problem.”

The over-commercialization of yoga does have its benefits though, Baehr says.

“If people feel better about themselves in a pretty yoga shirt, well that's just another entrance into yoga,” she says. “You don't need to look a certain way to do good yoga.”

People should remember that yoga is an art form, and that it will evolve and change with time, Yee says.

“Different types of yoga are not inherently bad,” he says. “If they're used to divide or set up separate camps, then it kind of defeats the purpose of yoga.”

For a list of mind/body manufacturers, go to:

Yoga and Pilates Rights

The copyrighting, patenting and trademarking of yoga and other mind/body programming, such as Pilates, has created controversy.

In late May, media in India and London reported that applications had been filed in the United States to patent yoga moves. However, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) was not able to identify any U.S. patent that was directed to a yoga position, although more than 700,000 patent applications are pending.

Bikram Choudhury, creator of Bikram Yoga, has been granted many copyrights, including a copyright of 26 poses and two breathing exercises. He has been the focal point of most of the criticism.

Some in the industry see the copyright attempt as a means to make money, says Rodney Yee, a well-known yoga instructor who has appeared in more than 30 yoga videos and DVDs.

“I haven't talked to [Choudhury], and maybe he believes this is the one and only sequence,” Yee says, “but my experience is that there are a lot of sequences for everyday [yoga], and to say there's one sequence that is the magic formula is just ridiculous.”

John Marcoux, Bikram Yoga's general counsel, cites confusion of the terms “patent” and “copyright” for the uproar.

According to the USPTO, a patent is the grant of a property right to the inventor. Inventors don't have to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import their invention, but they have the right to exclude others from doing so. A copyright is a form of protection provided to authors of “original works of authorship.” For example, a description of a machine could be copyrighted, but it would only prevent others from copying the description, not from writing a description of their own or from making and using the machine. In the case of yoga, Choudhury didn't claim the invention of the pose, but instead the authorship of a series of poses, Marcoux says.

Pilates also has come under scrutiny. In October 2000, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Pilates, like yoga and karate, is an exercise method and not a trademark. The decision affected thousands of Pilates instructors who had been prevented from using the word “Pilates.”

According to trademark law, when a trademark becomes generic, it is not entitled to trademark protection. “Generic” means that the name no longer indicates a brand but is synonymous with the thing, such as aspirin, which was once a trademark for a brand of acetylsalicylic acid but later became generic through widespread consumer and trade use.

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