A reflective view of Yoga & the fitness industry | Sean Newton
Ten years ago I sat in a reasonably full, seminar theatre at the Loughborough Fit Pro Convention awaiting with eagerness the presentation on how ‘stretching was….dangerous’ I hadn’t experienced much Yoga back then and like many in the fitness industry thought it to be gentle prolonged stretching to help with flexibility.
Research and evidence presented over the course of 90 minutes had merit when placed in a proper context. Yet, the young academic had chosen to be controversial with his approach and remained steadfast to his study findings much to the vocal frustrations of the Yogi’s sat at the front.
Unfortunately Yoga, (for the purpose of this essay Hatha Yoga) has been and often still is, branded and packaged by the western media and the fitness industry.
In recent history, the media’s fascination with Yoga has become heightened when notable personalities take an interest. Two examples are as follows;
The most conscientiously spiritual was George Harrison who learned from a number of well-known gurus, most famously, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, from whom he and the Fab Four learned Transcendental Meditation in 1967. That meeting of celebrity and guru triggered a media frenzy that put words like mantra, guru and ashram into the vocabulary and ushered meditation—and, as a by-product, the full repertoire of yogic practices—into the mainstream. (Goldberg, 2011)
In the 90s, the famous pop music artist, Madonna began practicing Ashtanga after the birth of her daughter in 1996. Here’s what she had to say;
“Yoga is a metaphor for life. You have to take it really slowly. You can’t rush. You can’t skip to the next position. You find yourself in very humiliating situations, but you can’t judge yourself. You just have to breathe, and let go. It is a workout for your mind, your body and your soul.” (Madonna & Wade 2013)
Unlike the mystical transcendental experiences of The Beatles, the media and the fitness world were able to roll with the physicality of this dynamic form of Yoga, (a style not new but original and) much more newsworthy perhaps in an era of muscle action heroes and step aerobics.
Ironically, the term ‘Power Yoga’ embodied the essence of the style and its new high-profile’ flag bearer’. It was also the title of book published a year earlier by Beryl Bender Birch who, at the time, was cited in her profile as being, ‘one of the few qualified teachers of the Astanga yoga method..And best known for bringing yoga into mainstream American society and traditional athletic community (Birch,1995).
Two differing images of Yoga in popular western culture as viewed by the media. Relevant because I aim to set the scene and add background to how I perceive the union of Yoga & the Fitness Industry has developed and arrived at where we are today. I’ve also tried to include research and information from a variety of sources to increase objectivity, however, my experience and observations from within the fitness industry places me in a unique or balanced position to commentate. It’s from here that I will continue and develop my perspective & hopes for simple Yoga practice respected by the fitness world.
Looking Fit, Fit looking | Research
The Fitness Industry is driven by the aesthetic, followed by general health and sport. I’ve suggested the aesthetic or appearance over general health based on the thousands of anecdotal requests for help looking good while I’ve worked as a Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer and Group Exercise provider
Interestingly the ageing process changes One’s perspective of physical fitness and attitude to health. I have witnessed this with clients and participants over the years.
In our culture the motivation to participate in exercise can be measured through stages of life. I’ve shown a rough guide below
From 20-30 years the focus is generally exercising to enhance appearance
– (this coincides with the search for a mate perhaps).
Then from say 40s to 50s the focus on looking good is still present but in amongst, maintaining fitness and increasing energy.
50s onwards adds increased vitality, injury prevention & maintaining fitness
It’s also the case that the more esoteric, deeper and philosophical elements of Yoga strike a chord with those more experienced in life looking for an alternative to (or to supplement) the two dimensional exercise goal of better appearance. Sure, the older population are perhaps less obsessed with the pursuits of those much younger and certainly make up the bulk of attendance at Yoga classes. This was quite apparent at a recent visit to a local health club where I found myself to be the youngest of 24 participants by several decades.
The class I attended was during the middle of the day thus ideally placed for those who are retired. Rarely, if at all would Yoga be placed on a fitness venues timetable at peak time after work – not that it’s impossible (and may yet be essential in the future) but the age range of attendees at those peak times span the first and second age ranges mentioned earlier. Plus, and perhaps quite pivotal, the influencing scientific body producing guidelines for the fitness industry have always specified other forms of exercise.. and not Yoga, until now!
Western fitness provision in recent times
UK fitness & exercise has been and still is based on the scientific conclusions and recommendations of the American college of sports medicine, (ACSM), the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world.
The official fitness message for a sedentary nation has been 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, daily. This has been echoed by our very own medics.¹
Usually brisk walking is given as a basic example but the encouragement to get out of breath and increase the heart rate (for a healthy heart) became the commandment, so to speak. For those not motivated to exercise alone, or not wanting to take on the added skill and psyche of competitive sport, the choice of a gym or health club was generally accepted as the main option.
This fundamental message of moderate intensity exercise for improving Aerobic /Cardiovascular health helped fuel the early aerobics boom and has certainly influenced the design of health clubs with row upon row of ‘cardiovascular’ machines.
The muscle building weights areas of previous generations became more generic and turned into open plan resistance machine areas with the emphasis on ‘toning up’
Group exercise-to-music classes became the mass fitness alternative.
These ‘classes’ adhered to the ACSM guidelines and followed a similar formula of aerobic and/or resistance training with the purpose to reduce disease risk factors.
So how or where does Yoga fit into all this?
In 2011 The ASCM released an update to its guidelines (released every 5yrs+). The notable addition is shown in italics and came after the following
- Cardiovascular exercise
- Resistance exercise
- Flexibility exercise – suggested as stretching for up to 30 seconds
- 4. Neuromotor Exercise. Neuromotor exercise, sometimes called “functional fitness training,” is recommended 2-3 days per week. Exercises should include activities that improve balance and stability to improve physical function and prevent falls in older adults. Yoga and tai chi can be forms of neuromotor exercise.(ACSM, 2011)
I started this essay with the story of the academic discussing stretching. It’s likely he would have used the ACSM guidelines at that time with just the first three categories. Based on those guidelines, holding Yoga postures for longer than the recommended ‘flexibility’ protocol would have gone against the Fitness Industry ..Mantra!
The Fitness Industry, just like any other, is made up of businesses driven by the market, the next big thing, the next profitable niche and of course the media. Themes, buzz words, fashion and the pursuit of the body beautiful as dictated by the media also shape group exercise class timetables in health clubs and village halls.
The marketing, branding and franchising of group exercise classes has become more important as many consumers will choose a gym based on its classes.
One such franchise is the industry leader of group fitness classes distributed to health clubs, the Les Mills company (BTS)². If you can imagine the McDonalds business model applied to the fitness classes then you’ve got the gist. One of the classes on offer is Body Balance or Body Flow which is advertised as mixing Yoga, Tai chi & Pilates.
But what has this got to do with Yoga apart from a brief mention above? Well, Yoga is not immune to branding or chunk sizing. This idea of ‘taking the best’ or parts of something original is nothing new. For example, Richard Hittleman’s ‘Yoga 28day exercise plan’ ..’has the essence of Yoga wisdom in a unique 28-day system’ – that was back in the 70s. Persuasive marketing perhaps, unlike the much brasher approach that is Broga a style aimed at;
bros (aka dudes, aka men). …target audience is a physically active man who understands very well the benefits of the downward dog but would sooner cultivate his horribly stiff hamstrings than walk into a room full of girls spouting mystical Sanskrit (om, no thanks). (Usbourne 2013)
William Broad, a scientist and daily practicing Yogi observes the following;
All-male classes, by definition, avoid the flexibility gap between women and men and instead play to masculine strengths. The classes tend to emphasize muscle building and fitness moves like squats, as well as poses. The styles include YoGuy (“be comfortable”) and Broga (as in bro yoga, “where it’s O.K. if you can’t touch your toes”).(Broad,2012).
It’s on record that Yoga is practiced more by women than men but does marketing to encourage more uptake from men really need the machismo?
If that wasn’t enough the list of brands includes; Yogalates (yoga mixed with Pilates), Yoga Bo (Yoga mixed with boxing) and even the chance to ‘Be a Yoga Sports Coach’³ or even DDP Yoga;
‘.DDP Yoga is not traditional yoga, it’s a hybrid workout that incorporates some traditional yoga movements and adds dynamic resistance, active breathing techniques and power movements to make for a more challenging and results oriented workout̽º. …’
When I began to research I wondered whether Yoga could sustain the diluting and modern rebranding effect by the fitness industry, goaded on by the media.
A similar debate has already been going on with the Hindu American Foundation who launched the ‘Take Back Yoga’ movement in 2010. The movement is concerned that today’s practice is too obsessed with the physical (asana), has largely lost its more cerebral or philosophical side, ‘which, one could argue, is what it’s all about in the first place’ (Walton, 2012)
Alice Walton continues the debate further in the same article and puts my observations into context, with answers to some of my earlier questions.
‘there are six other “limbs” of yoga, which are largely forgotten in the West. If yoga is just about the body’s flexibility, then what makes it different from Cirque du Soleil? Why call it yoga? If it’s just physical, it’s not yoga.” (Shah & Walton, 2012)
I tend to agree with the above since exploring Yoga personally. The concept of taking the physical practice of adding something else and calling it Yoga with a twist isn’t in keeping with the Yamas & Niyamas. These and the ‘six other limbs ‘ mentioned earlier are referred to in the Yoga text of 200BC known as the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali (Belling,2001). Today the text still serves as a guide to Yoga practice while remaining open to interpretation and acknowledgement.
In recent times ancient texts have had their relevance challenged.
My personal belief is that in an electronic age of increasing stress, simple Yogic concepts of breath control, mindfulness, harmony of the mind & body make a more complete picture for overall wellbeing and are very much relevant even if times have changed beyond recognition since the days of Patanjalis Yoga Sutras.
Media pictures of a ‘celebrity’ practicing Yoga in her bikini inspired the headline ‘
‘Now that’s an Advert for Yoga’. (Buckland,2013)
A publicity stunt or a high profile example of a change? Nonetheless an advert for a younger generation featuring a 22 year old high profile star going through practice on the beach rather than a Yoga flavoured fitness brand, vying for her current generations attention.
Today more than ever ‘Yoga’ in whatever form you choose is best enjoyed as the whole fruit over the pulp, extract or essence. Yoga may still have to evolve but hopefully of its own accord and not pressured by the snowball effect of a few media journalists and performers.
I consider Yoga to be a beautiful journey that will continue to outlive branded fitness trends and industry margins; always knowingly appreciated by wiser, more discerning devotees and yes, accepted and blatantly advertised by young trend setters
These are the days of sedentary living and over-everything (including over-striving to be a magazine cover version of “fit”). Thankfully, the beauty of embarking on a yoga regime to supplement one’s fitness program (or to provide an entire fitness package by its own rights) is becoming evident to thousands who hail from a variety of lifestyles and age ranges.(Richards,2008)
When assessing Fitness and Yoga I find the following quote sums up all I’ve written thus far;
S Newton | July2013
Broad,W.J.(2012) Wounded Warrior Pose http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/sunday-review/the-perils-of-yoga-for-men.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Buckland, L. (2013) Now there’s an advert for yoga! Fitness fanatic Miley Cyrus shows off her incredible bikini body as she ‘gives thanks for her blessings’ in Costa Rica -http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2270644/Now-thats-advert-yoga-Miley-Cyrus-shows-incredible-bikini-body-gives-thanks-blessings-Costa-Rica.html
Campbell, P., MacAuley,D., McCrum, E. & Evans, A. (2001)
Sport Psychology Age Differences in the Motivating Factors for Exercise
Goldberg, P. (2011) George Harrison: The Quiet Beatle was a Not-So-Quiet Yogi – http://layoga.com/inspiration/artists-musicians/george-harrison-the-quiet-beatle-was-a-not-so-quiet-yogi/
Richards, G. ( 2008) The Purpose of Fitness and the Fitness 0f Purpose: A Yogic Perspective – http://www.edgemagazine.net/2008/04/the-purpose-of-fitness-and-the-fitness-0f-purpose-a-yogic-perspective/
Usbourne, S. (2013) It’s yoga for dudes: one busy man’s guide to broga – http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/its-yoga-for-dudes-one-busy-mans-guide-to-broga-8709917.html?origin=internalSearch
Wade, J. (2013) Quoting Madonna in Madonna Stays in Shape With Ashtanga Yoga Workouts – http://www.motleyhealth.com/celeb/madonna-stays-in-shape-with-ashtanga-yoga-workouts#ixzz2adQKVWY1
Walton, A.G (2012) The Great Yoga Debate: Has Yoga Sold Its Soul?
Belling, Noa (2001) The Yoga Handbook, New Holland Publishers Ltd
Hittleman, R.(1971) Yoga, 28 day exercise plan, Hamlyn, London