Fitness eclipses traditional practice in many classes

It sounds like a yoga class. "And, forward fold. Lift the arms to the sky. Take three breaths. ... Lift, bend, and extend. Now downward dog."

Except a disco beat is playing.

It looks like a yoga class. Thirty students move in slow motion as they kneel on foam mats in a dimly lit ballroom.

Except they are each squeezing a grapefruit-size blue rubber ball between their thighs.

What we have here is not yoga but YogaButt. And it's just one of many yoga classes with a twist at the recent DCAC 2004 International Fitness and Personal Trainer Conference in Reston, Va., where 1,200 fitness instructors and exercise enthusiasts have gathered to flex their ideas as much as their muscles.

Inside another ballroom, more than 100 students lie on yoga mats, legs propped on 29-inch silver exercise balls. This is Louisville instructor Lauren Eirk's Yoga-Pilates-Resist-a-Ball session.

There's also YogaBar for weightlifters; Water Art Yo-Tai Pilates, combining submerged yoga with tai chi and Pilates; Hot Yoga, done in a 105-degree room; and Body Bar Buddha Bar, described as body sculpting meets Cirque du Soleil.

Ripped biceps and steely abs are almost passe at this body- conscious convention. The buzz is about the growing array of yoga- inspired workouts that are reincarnating the ancient Hindu discipline into the rage of the fitness world.

What used to be the domain of the granola-and-Birkenstock fringe has turned into a hyper-commercialized industry for the masses. The lotus position has given way to an explosion of fusion classes that hyphenate yoga with every imaginable exercise and body part.

The rolled-up mat of the old days has morphed into a multibillion- dollar market of clothing lines, books, videos, music, lessons, props, and accessories. It's yogis gone wild at the gym.

Traditional yoga just never went mainstream, says Beth Shaw, inventor of YogaButt -- and YogaAbs, YogaBack, YogaStrength, pre- and postnatal yoga, yoga for seniors, and yoga for kids.

"It's off-putting to a lot of people; it's strange, it's weird, a lot of people can't grasp it. And, quite frankly, not too many people want to sit around on a floor and meditate and do one pose and then rest for five minutes and then do another pose. That's why we've invented things that are fun."

Down the hallway, Lawrence Biscontini leads 75 students in his Yo- Chi Glow session in a dark ballroom. They wear glowing wrist bands so yoga positions blend with sweeping tai chi movements to become a sinuous light show.

"The blend justifies the means," says Biscontini, fitness director at the Golden Door spa in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who also is introducing Yo-Cycle, Yog-Opera, and Yo-Step at the conference. "I call it cafeteria fitness."

"As little as three years ago, yoga was a very small part of the group exercise market," says Suzanne Olson, a Philadelphia fitness trainer whose company, DCAC, has produced the fitness conference in Reston for 13 years.

"Now, all the clubs have mind-body programs, and they're much larger than other types of group exercise programs like step aerobics or kick-boxing. Now there's a yoga-Pilates studio opening up on every corner."

On a recent Friday morning, a dozen women moved fluidly through a series of positions in Margie Weiss' Body Flow class at the Ballston Gold's Gym in Arlington, Va. Their average age is about 35.

Borrowing from yoga, tai chi, and Pilates and done to easy- listening pop, Body Flow workouts promise to increase strength, endurance, and flexibility while reducing stress.

"This Body Flow thing is awesome. You just kind of relax and do your thing," says Weiss, 55, mother of Olympic figure skater Michael Weiss and a fitness trainer for 30 years.

Christina Moore works out at this gym five days a week, doing step aerobic classes and Body Flow.

"I'm a gym rat, but when you get to my age, you find that doing all that stepping and stuff, you really get kind of sore," says Moore, 54.

People like Moore are the reason yoga is going mainstream, experts say. It's the baby boomers returning to the gym for easier, gentler, low-impact exercise and the hope of staying forever young.

"You have someone turning 50 every eight seconds!" says YogaFit's Beth Shaw, who "at not even 40 yet" has stopped running and doing step aerobics. "I don't do things that are going to pound me. Why? Because I'm interested in longevity and maintaining my joints and staying youthful and supple."

Is fitness yoga just yoga lite?

Yoga is a philosophy of life, not just a sweaty workout, some traditional yoga practitioners say.

Para Darin Somma, who teaches a traditional Vinyasa yoga, is concerned about the "shallowness" of commercialized yoga. He has seen yoga magazines with articles about yoga and sex, yoga and washboard stomachs, yoga and Madonna, he laments.

"They had nothing about the deeper study of yoga."

That deeper study is "self-realization," says Dayna Macy, communications director at Yoga Journal, suggesting six-pack abs probably don't qualify as spiritual.

Traditional yoga emphasizes relaxation and restoration of the spirit, says Bob Patrick, president of the Mid-Atlantic Yoga Association: "This requires that the practice include elements of stillness, easy, relaxed breathing, and attention to what the body is actually doing. ... This would be difficult to achieve in a program that is exclusively a workout."

Another concern is whether fitness instructors-turned-yoga teachers are qualified.

"Are they educated in the yoga tradition, or are they just educated in fitness and trying to make yoga fit into their fitness world?" asks Hansa Knox, president of Yoga Alliance, an organization whose mission is to make yoga teaching a certified profession.

Yoga Alliance doesn't certify YogaFit's weekend-trained instructors who study 18 hours, but it does YogaFit's 200-hour- trained instructors.

At the fitness conference, Richmond, Va., yoga teacher Ram Bhagat teaches a class called Soul Yoga "to remind people to connect with the essence of yoga -- to unite the mind, body, spirit, and soul."

Without that, "people are just getting an appetizer," he says.

Lauren Eirk, the Yoga-Pilates-Resist-a-Ball instructor at the conference, says she has practiced traditional Ashtanga yoga for years, but today: "If I go into a class and say, 'Ardha baddha padma pascimottanasana,' they're going to go, 'What?'"

And YogaFit's Shaw, also trained in traditional yoga, has little patience for criticism of the fusion workouts.

"Yes, they sneer, they scorn, they snort," she says. "To be honest with you, some of the most rigid people I've seen in my life are yoga people."

Spirituality is an individual thing, she says.

"To me, one of the most spiritual of experiences is just to be in a state of calm and clarity of the mind. The oneness of spirituality is what we're all looking for, and that we can get through this practice. So is it spiritual? Yes."

In other words, YogaButt, designed to improve the most unenlightened of derrieres, may not be quite what the yoga masters of old India had in mind, but who's to say self-realization can't start with a firm behind?

More Americans give it a try

"Fitness" and "yoga" were rarely mentioned in the same breath in 1893, when Calcutta-born yoga scholar Swami Vivekananda addressed a world religions conference in Chicago and yoga gained its first following in America.

Yoga never grew in popularity until the Vietnam War era, when the counterculture of the Sixties embraced Eastern influences. Suddenly, yin-and-yang symbols were everywhere, and yoga was cool among the rebellious.

But yoga couldn't keep pace with the Fitness Revolution, says Harvey Lauer, president of American Sports Data, a New York research firm.

By the new millennium, a "new, kinder, and gentler world of physical fitness" was emphasizing stretching, flexibility, balance, and relaxation, says Lauer. Mind-body practices such as tai chi, Pilates, and yoga fit the bill.

By last summer, 15 million Americans were practicing yoga, 28.5 percent more than the year before, according to a Harris poll conducted for Yoga Journal.

In 1998, Lauer says, the number was just 5.7 million.

Last year, 2.2 million Americans were practicing yoga at commercial health clubs, up from 400,000 in 1998, says Bill Howland, director of public relations and research at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade group in Boston. Eighty percent of clubs offer yoga classes -- twice that of six years ago.

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