An Ancient Discipline With New Goals Yoga Is Rapidly Gaining New Acceptance On The Health Club Circuit

Over the past quarter-century, Ellen Vellicchi has observed plenty of changes in the fitness industry — one of which is the growing importance of “lifestyle” activities that go beyond traditional workout programs.


“The fitness industry wants to be more than just an athletics Mecca,” Vellicchi said, who has run the women-only Females in Training health club in Springfield for 25 years. “The appeal for the general population is in the lifestyle-enhancing skills and techniques, and people see yoga as a stress reliever — it keeps them more flexible and limber and makes them stronger.”

According to fitcommerce.com, a Web resource for the health club industry, 74{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of U.S. health clubs now offer yoga programs, and that number is on the rise — partly because of media attention placed on alternative forms of health and wellness.

Another reason is that, in today’s fast-paced and overworked society, many people are looking for wellness offerings for stress relief that center on the relationship between mind and body, flexibility and toning without jarring, and health and fitness solutions that don’t require pharmaceuticals.

For those health club members, yoga certainly fits the bill.

It’s a Journey

Still, Vellicchi said, like many health and fitness trends, yoga has a tendency to be misunderstood by many people who see it as a quick fix and not a discipline to be cultivated over time.

“Everybody wants to do it because they’ve read about it, and the stars do it, so they think it will solve all their fitness problems,” Vellicchi said. “But what it comes down to is, when you’re first learning a discipline, it’s difficult, and it takes time to show results, and people tend to get discouraged.”

Developed in India, yoga is a psycho-physical discipline with roots going back some 5,000 years. Today, most Western yoga practices focus on the various physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation, and the benefits of each to the body and mind.

Although yoga carries a strong spiritual element, the focus at health clubs and many other venues is often on the more down-to-earth rewards. The poses achie-ved during yoga sessions are meant to build flexibility and strength, while other benefits include mental clarity, greater self-understanding, stress control, and general well-being. Indeed, one reason yoga has found such a wide range of proponents today is that its flexibility allows practitioners to focus on the physical, psychological, or spiritual aspect — or a combination of all three.

From a physical standpoint, yoga can be considered both aerobic exercise and, to some degree, a calorie burner. But while traditional exercise is goal-oriented, practitioners say, yoga emphasizes the process, the idea being to focus participants’ awareness on what they are doing and how they feel. Therefore, while missing one’s goal in traditional exercise implies failure, in yoga, success can be found in trying.

There are other differences. For example, while weight training strengthens the body by breaking down and rebuilding muscle tissue, yoga increases strength by toning the muscles.

Mix and Match

Healthtraxx Fitness & Wellness in West Springfield is one of many area clubs that offer yoga. Karen Learned, the facility’s service director, said the six-week, hour-long session averages 20 to 25 people, making it one of the more popular classes.

But clubs are always looking to keep up with fitness trends, and pilates — a body-conditioning program comprised of a series of specially designed movements — is another popular one, so Healthtraxx melds that discipline with yoga in a hybrid format.

“There are some new variations,” Learned said. “Pilates is growing very popular, especially for people with various ailments, and we’ve combined yoga and pilates together to address these issues for many people, from seniors to those doing rehab.”

Proponents of yoga are primarily middle-aged females, followed by senior citizens — two groups more likely to be attracted to the morning classes scheduled by many clubs — but classes nonetheless feature a wide array of demographic segments, men and women, young and old.

“It is well-received here,” Vellicchi said, “but in a club environment, we can offer it only so many times a week. There’s a wide variety of classes, but teaching time can be an issue for some if they can’t make it on, say, Wednesday night or Monday morning.”

Another challenge for health clubs is to make their yoga offerings palatable to a wide range of people, and that requires a balance in skill level and intensity.

“What we do is intermediate,” Learned said, “not so low-key that they get bored with it, and now so extreme that someone who has never heard of yoga or pilates won’t be able to do it.”

First-timers quickly find that this ancient discipline provides many benefits for modern ailments.

“They can do the moves without straining any body parts, which is nice for people with back problems, hip problems, arthritis, or fibromyalgia,” she explained.

“You’re using your muscles, but not to the extent that you’re lifting weights or anything like that. You need to keep your muscles conditioned when you have problems like these, and this is a nice way to build your muscles and become stronger without inflicting any damage on the body.”

After all, developing a fitter body is the reason people join health clubs in the first place. But a growing number of yoga adherents are discovering that the additional mental and even spiritual rewards can be equally beneficial.