Stress getting your members down? Bring them peace of mind with mind/body programs.
A strange thing happened last summer at The Sweat Shop, a moderate-size fitness center in St. Paul, Minn. During the normally slow month of June, owner Gayle Winegar noticed that for the first time, the club's highest-source of income was stemming in large part from its privately offered Pilates training sessions.
Over at The Airport Club in Santa Rosa, Calif., power yoga bumped aerobics classes off the prime-time schedule due to unprecedented membership demand. And a key selling point at the soon-to-open Sports Club/LA's high-profile New York City fitness center is a 5,000-square-foot Body/Mind Solarium, where members can stretch, meditate, and find themselves under a bamboo rooftop gazebo.
A quiet revolution is taking place at these and hundreds of other clubs across the country. The hushed tones of yoga are replacing the loud beats of aerobics classes; body-sculpting classes are being muscled aside for Pilates-training sessions. Fitness in the 21st century may well be described in two words: mind and body.
"Mind and body is the future of fitness in the new millennium," declares Nanette Pattee Francini, founder of Sports Club/LA. "It's something that we're very much committing ourselves to, and it's only going to grow stronger."
In truth, mind/body could be used to describe nearly any aspect of exercise. After all, there's no separating brain cells from movement. But the term first began to creep into our fitness vocabulary with the rise in popularity of yoga a few years ago, spearheaded in large part by media stars like Jane Fonda and Madonna. Soon, other "softer" activities like Pilates and martial arts such as tai chi joined the fitness fray. The link between each - an emphasis on breathing, and a focus on how the body moves during exercise.
Today, the term has trickled down to a variety of other group-exercise classes. At Sports Club/LA, for example, a typical body-conditioning class has been recast as "Mind Over Muscle," where students use guided visualization and imagery to concentrate on each muscle movement. Even a group cycling class can be labeled mind/body, with students asked to visualize themselves grinding up a hill or racing to an imaginary finish line. And there are the inevitable combination classes, taking aspects of yoga, Pilates, and martial arts and blending them into one single workout session.
"Mind/body exercise is all about putting you back in touch with yourself," explains Laura Sachs, creator of Emotion video and audio mind/body exercise tapes and a teacher trainer in mind/body fitness. "The term can be applied to so many aspects of fitness."
And, in fact, classes that were once all about feeling the burn have taken a sharp turn to the cerebral. "Today it's not about going harder, faster or longer," says Lisa Hufcut, director of programming at New York Sports Clubs (NYSC) in New York City. "Our most successful classes - be it Step, or body conditioning, or Spinning - are about finding the motivation from within and the mental benefits that come with exercise."
Whatever the rationale, mind/body classes are making their way onto class schedules in clubs from Poughkeepsie to Palo Alto. "A few years ago people couldn't even spell Pilates," says The Sweat Shop's Winegar. "Today, they're demanding more mat classes - and we just converted one of our traditional aerobics rooms into a Pilates training studio." In addition to featuring 12 Pilates mat classes a week, The Sweat Shop also offers private training in the studio - providing an added profit center for the club.
Over at New York Sports Clubs, yoga has moved from an occasional offering to a necessity. "Maybe five years ago, yoga was far more specialized - if you had some room on your schedule, you might offer it as a class, but it wasn't a priority," says Hufcut. "Today, you wouldn't dare open a new club without having yoga be an important part of your program. It's become a part of our core classes, along with Step and body conditioning."
Coming of Age
Why the sudden shift in mind/body popularity? Look no further than modern society's biggest influencers, the baby boomers. "Most of the trends in fitness stem from what the baby boomers are doing," observes April Morgan, programming director for The Sports Club/LA. "When they were young, high-impact aerobics was the thing. Then as they got a little older, lower-impact activities came into vogue. Now the trend is to do an activity that feels good."
"The whole fitness industry is driven by the baby boomers," agrees Winegar. "This isn't a population segment that is going to want to do high-impact cancan kicks in 10 years. I know my body's not going back there, and I don't think our members will, either."
But you don't have to be a member of the baby boomer set to appreciate mind/body exercise. Nearly anyone subject to the constant pressures of today's time-crunched society is finding that a 90-minute intensive yoga session is the ideal antidote to a stress-filled day.
"People need a retreat today from their hectic lifestyles," says Sachs. "They're trying to find an element of balance in their life, a place where they can go within themselves, and many of these activities can provide that."
Some have even gone so far as to say that these mind/body classes represent an important component of fitness, in the same league as aerobic conditioning, strength training and flexibility. "People are tired of being frenetic," says Winegar. "They need this element of fitness that will let them de-escalate."
Clubs at the Core
Activities like yoga, Pilates and martial arts were once the specialization of small studios, which attracted die-hard participants but often alienated newcomers. Today, health clubs are taking the lead in bringing many of these activities to novices and enthusiasts alike.
"We have the opportunity to introduce people who wouldn't normally take these type of classes to an important component of fitness," says Paula Potter of The Airport Club. "Many of our members probably wouldn't walk into a yoga studio on their own, but if they see a class taking place in the club, they may be more willing to try it for themselves."
Of course, health clubs have their own challenges to meet when it comes to integrating some of the more specialty classes into their schedules. For one, while students demand authenticity, the programs still need to be palatable for members of all skill levels and backgrounds. That may mean toning down the Sanskrit language in a yoga class, or keeping the New Age sentiment to a minimum in a stretching session.
"We still have to remind our instructors that they are teaching in a health club. We can't let these classes become elitist in their outlook," says Hufcut of NYSC. That means keeping candles off the floor so the boxing class scheduled for the next hour won't have to contend with wax drippings, or snuffing out the use of incense so the Step class won't smell like patchouli. "We're not a yoga school, we're a health club - we just want to give our members a thorough workout in an enjoyable, welcoming atmosphere."
For many health clubs, that also means placing fitness fundamentals over more fringe-oriented teaching styles. "In the past a lot of yoga moves have been contraindicative, increasing the risk of injury, or they are progressive, meaning that a beginner would have to practice for a year or so before being able to complete the postures," says Winegar of The Sweat Shop. "Our yoga classes are taught with a fitness consciousness - students can drop in any time and still get some basic benefits."
One thing is certain, though. If you aren't already offering some sort of mind/body-oriented fitness class, you better add some to your schedule - or risk losing membership dollars. "People are going to go where things are easiest to get. They probably won't go to a transcendental meditation studio or an ashram [a religious retreat], but if health clubs don't make it easy on them, they will go elsewhere," surmises Winegar. "Clubs that don't provide what people want are setting themselves up for failure."
One of the biggest challenges facing health clubs is finding instructors who can communicate the ideas behind activities like yoga and martial arts to a mainstream audience while still holding on to their authenticity.
Take, for example, Pilates, the conditioning program founded by ex-boxer and gymnast Joseph Pilates some 70-odd years ago. Because of a strict certification program, some clubs say there are actually a shortage of certified Pilates instructors in their area.
Yoga represents a different challenge, since there's no standard yoga certification in the fitness industry. Instead, clubs have to rely on auditions and word of mouth to find instructors who are adept in the fitness field. "You can't just be a yoga instructor; you also have to be a good communicator," says Hufcut of NYSC. "You need to know how to talk to people, and make your classes accessible."
Clubs are also tackling the accessibility issue by providing introductory classes to activities that may otherwise appear offsetting to beginners. These make newcomers feel comfortable in the studio. "In something like our 'Intro to Yoga' class, students have the opportunity to go in and ask questions like 'What are the best clothes to wear?' or 'What if I'm not flexible?' " adds Hufcut. "It makes them more secure when they choose to take a more advanced session."
Facing the Future
So where will mind/body fitness classes take us in the next millennium? Many in the industry say it could be virtually anywhere, and everywhere. "In the past, classes just took one type of body/mind activity, like yoga, tai chi or Pilates," notes April Morgan of The Sports Club/LA. "Now, we're taking the best parts of these different modes and combining them into one class." The club's "All the Right Moves" class, for example, blends elements of yoga, Pilates, dance, and stretching/ strengthening, all set to music. "Teachers are getting more creative," adds Morgan. "They're learning to pick out the best of mind/body fitness and expand upon it."
As the field continues to evolve, you can expect to see mind/body mingled through a variety of activities. It's even leaving terra firma for wetter worlds. At the new Sports Club/LA in New York City, for example, group exercise sessions in the pool will be specially targeted for mind/body workouts, with everything from aqua boxing to yoga taking the plunge.
Also expect more clubs to get involved with the business of wellness, offering seminars on topics like aging and stress management as a holistic health program. "Mind/body is still such a nebulous term, but if you talk about whole health or wellness, then people understand," says Winegar, whose club frequently offers up wellness seminars to its members. "This is something that has reached critical mass - it's as integrative to fitness as movement itself, and it's not going to go away."
The ABCs of Yoga
Don't know your asana from your elbow? Here's a quick rundown of some of the more popular traditional yoga class styles:
* Ananda: Yoga postures are used primarily as a way to prepare for meditation by clearing the mind and energizing the body. Affirmations are often used with each posture, or asana, and the style is usually very gentle and relaxing.
* Ashtanga: Also called "power yoga," ashtanga classes will repeat a series of postures several times, flowing together until it becomes an aerobic workout. Often has fans among more hard-core fitness devotees looking to break a sweat in whatever exercise they try.
* Bikram: Similar to ashtanga in style, but done in a room that's heated up to around 85 degrees (the theory being that a hotter room will loosen muscles so the postures become easier). Can be highly rigorous.
* Hatha: Really an umbrella term used to describe all physical yoga, but on many schedules this merely means a general yoga class incorporating several different styles.
* Integral: Classes are dominated by a sense of well-being and peace, usually with a mix of positions, deep relaxation and meditation.
* Iyengar: Named after yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar, these classes emphasize precision and alignment. Often uses props like blocks and belts in order to help achieve a deeper stretch.
* Kundalini: Puts the focus on breathing techniques and meditation. Also places an emphasis on the body's core through all movements.