Article by Jennipher Shaver
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 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.”
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.
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