With mind/body programs gaining popularity, more clubs across the country are giving peace a chance.
Once part of a new wave of techniques slowly infiltrating the health club environment, exercises that fall into the category of "mind/body" have, for the most part, emerged from their infancy in the mainstream fitness world. A growing number of today's increasingly savvy members and prospects no longer find such terms as yoga, tai chi, qi gong or Pilates to be foreign and intimiditating.
"It's really taken off over the past four to five years," observes Lindsay Merrithew, president and CEO of Toronto-based Stott Inc., a supplier of equipment and services for Pilates-type exercise. "There was a time before that when the whole concept of mind/body was quite foreign. But it kind of crept in the back door."
And, what once served only a small niche of New Age aficionados now attracts a highly diverse clientele. "It's been interesting to observe how it's caught on," says Francoise Netter, an instructor at the Longmont Athletic Club in Longmont, Colo. "It used to be a much smaller demographic, but now we've got every walk of life. A senior gentleman came into the club saying he wanted more flexibility and was interested in taking a yoga class. We get people in their 20s through 60s and 70s."
Mind/body activity definitely has arrived at YMCAs across the country, as a total of 826 Ys offered yoga in 1999 - more than one-third of the organization's 2,200 facilities. "There's been more of an acceptance of these programs, as they've become better known by fitness professionals," explains Mi-chael Spezzano, health and fitness director of Chicago-based YMCA USA.
Since fitness professionals in general have become better educated about mind/body techniques, they feel more comfortable promoting mind/body programs during other fitness classes. This has stimulated participants' interest, as Spezzano can attest.
"The number of Ys offering yoga classes has tripled in the past few years," he says. "Before that, there was nothing near the kind of popularity we see today." In addition, 414 Ys reported that they offer tai chi, while 312 said they offer "relaxation" classes. As many as 325 said they offer "other" mind/body programs.
Commercial clubs are also adding more mind/body programs to their schedules - or even combining these techniques with existing classes. New York City-based Crunch Fitness has taken this approach.
"Our focus has been on more hybrid forms of yoga and Pilates programming," reveals Donna Cyrus, Crunch's national group fitness director.
This programming creativity is most prevalent in Crunch's yoga offerings. For example, its Flow yoga program combines the teachings of Joseph Pilates with yoga. Crunch also offers a class called Liquid Bliss, "which is more of a typical stretch class based on balletic movement married with yoga poses," according to Cyrus. This makes the class more accessible to people who would normally avoid yoga.
"Sometimes the purest aspects of real yoga training do not lend themselves to the gym setting," Cyrus says. "Members might get frustrated by not being able to do some poses that are easier for advanced participants in a yoga studio setting."
Longmont's fitness/wellness director Kristi Kyte advises that programmers always should keep a finger on the pulse of the industry as a whole when developing a menu of services. "We go with the wave of what's up and coming in fitness in general," Kyte offers. Many of her club's programs tie in with NIA (Neuromuscular Integrative Action), which Kyte describes as a "dance mind/ body aerobics class."
At the Marsh in Minnetonka, Minn., newer techniques such as chi ball and Feldenkrais (see box) are starting to catch on.
Chi ball combines elements of tai chi, qi gong and modern dance, according to general manager Tim Morten-son. "The chi ball serves to focus the mind and enhance movement awareness," he says. Meanwhile, Feldenkrais (pronounced, feld-in-crice) is "a one-on-one application in which a trained practitioner uses gentle manipulation and movement to encourage the body into new, easier ways of moving."
While the Marsh has always been on the cutting edge of mind/body programming, Mortenson expects these newer activities to gain acceptance at facilities around the country. For example, Feldenkrais' emphasis on movement makes it attractive to aging baby boomers. "As they age, people are going to want to move more effectively in a more comfortable range of motion," Mortenson says.
The various benefits of different mind/body programs may draw members, but many experts agree that the key to the success of such fitness offerings depends upon the staff delivering the programs.
"The mind-body method or approach to fitness is only as effective as the training behind it," notes Stott's Merrithew. "Club members demand instructors who are trained and knowledgeable, and that's the bottom line."
The Y's Spezzano agrees, adding, "Any time you talk about successful programming, it begins and ends with the instructor. And they've got to have the personality. It has to be enjoyable enough to make people want to keep going."
Mandatory instructor certification, most fitness pros agree, should be expected. And the certification must be specific to the mind/body technique, and even subcategories of each technique. For instance, instructors can be certified in hatha, kundalini and ashtanga yoga, to name a few. "It's really specific to the technique," says Crunch's Cyrus. "I can't stress enough how key it is for the staff to be trained in the exact technique they're teaching."
Crunch harvests the cream of the crop through monthly auditions at its New York City facilities. "Most have been trained with someone else already teaching with us, so the referrals come from reliable sources," notes Cyrus.
But staff training and certification needn't be just another operating expense. If you take a cue from Crunch, it could become a successful profit center. The chain offers instructor training in mind/body techniques. In doing so, it has created a fertile breeding ground for the future talent pool. "It helps prolong your ability to offer good teachers," explains Cyrus. "There are so many people out there who aren't well trained, but we're missing the obvious place to look for new teachers: within your classrooms. By offering training programs, you'll be able to find the right people with the aptitude to go from the member base to the instructor base."
Training isn't the only profit center mind/body programs can generate. As with any group fitness activities, there are always accessories to be sold. The most basic mind/body-related item your facility may sell is the yoga mat. "We usually put a minimal number of mats in the classrooms for our members to use for free," Cyrus notes. "The idea is for them to eventually want to purchase their own mats. The mats require an investment of only about $10 to $15 each wholesale and can be sold to members for $25 to $30."
And mats are just the beginning. Some mind/body techniques call for special exercise blocks and blankets, while others require ropes and bands designed to enhance flexibility. With a little retail savvy, your facility can really cash in on these specialty items.
Mood enhancers or instructional materials also make attractive retail items. "Anything from music and videos to books can earn you extra money," recommends The Marsh's Mortenson.
There's money to be made outside the confines of the club, as well. Today's manic corporate executives often lack the time to frequent fitness facilities, but they, perhaps more than anyone, are desperately in need of the calming benefits of mind/body techniques. So why not bring the programs to them? Sending your mind/body ambassadors out into the local business community is a profit center waiting to happen.
Longmont's Netter has created her own business - independent of the club - based on this corporate concept. Through her company Body/Mind Dynamics, Netter teaches a technique she calls Mindful Movement in a corporate setting. "It's a way of using movement as a tool for other solutions, such as healing and brainstorming business strategies," she explains. "It teaches them to reach their goals through the mind/body connection."
Whether your staff carries the mind/body wave outside the club or you keep it strictly on-site, you've got to develop a safety strategy before your members inhale their first deep breaths. In Pilates-type methods and yoga especially, there are certain moves involved that could be hazardous if attempted by novices. It is incumbent upon club operators to convey caution clearly to members, especially those crossing into the mind/body realm for the first time.
"Early on, we had to pull some classes from our schedule because of safety concerns," admits Crunch's Cyrus. "Some types of yoga were on that list because they involved standing on one's head and hitting poses that were close to impossible and very unsafe."
Cyrus draws a safety parallel between martial arts and mind/body programming. Clubs hire martial artists often with as much as 20 years of experience under their belts (pun intended). Regardless of how seasoned the instructors are, injuries still run rampant in classes because participants sometimes bite off more than they can chew. "You can't expect someone who sits at a computer all day to replicate certain moves and make it safe," Cyrus warns. "I try to focus on these issues with mind/body."
But she does concede that members are much stronger and more savvy today than when mind/body first started finding its way into a gym setting. Still, there's no such thing as "too safe."
"I have my directors address safety issues class by class," Cyrus says. "We'll say, `You can't do pose number such and such because we know it's not safe.'"
And instructor-to-member ratio should factor into your safety strategy as well. "Classes would obviously need to be smaller because the instructor has to focus more attention on the individual participants," advises The Marsh's Mortenson. "That's what mind/body is all about."
What the Heck is Feldenkrais?
The Feldenkrais method was developed through 40 years of research by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian-born physicist, judo expert, mechanical engineer and educator. It's designed to improve ease and range of motion through a series of gentle, directed movements, as well as promote a greater functional awareness of the self. There are two primary modalities associated with the method: Awareness Through Movement (ATM) and Functional Integration.
In ATM, the practitioner verbally glides the participant through a sequence of movements. This helps the participant discover how he performs certain movements and teaches him to abandon certain habitual patterns. Ultimately, the participant develops awareness, flexibility and coordination.
Functional Integration is performed with the student lying on a table or in sitting or standing positions. The practitioner illustrates how the student organizes his body's movements and conveys the experience of comfort and ease of movement through gentle touching. The student learns how to reorganize his body and behavior in more expanded functional motor patterns. The practitioner often uses props such as pillows, rollers and blankets to support the student's body configuration or facilitate certain movements.
Qi gong (pronounced chee koong) combines slow, meditative movement with deep breathing to produce both a tranquil mind and healthy body. It's hardly a new technique, as it's been practiced in China for about 6,000 years!