Updated

Yoga rocks ...and more

By DON OLDENBURG

The Washington Post

Washington Post photo/Katherine Frey

Christine Burke, right, in lotus position in one of her classrooms, opened Liberation Yoga in Los Angeles with her husband, Gary McCleery.

Washington Post photo/Katherine Frey

Rob Wrubel and George Lichter, right, say their goal is to bring more yoga to more people.

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 squeezing grapefruit-size blue rubber balls 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 gather 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 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 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 hypercommercialized 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 weird, a lot of people can’t grasp it,” she says. “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 hall, Lawrence Biscontini leads 75 students in his Yo-Chi Glow session in a dark ballroom. They wear glow wristlets 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. There’s a yoga-Pilates studio opening on every corner.”

Yoga is on the schedules at D.C.-area fitness centers in one form or another. Members pay monthly dues and take as many classes as they want — a cheaper alternative to the typical $15 per class that yoga studios charge.

On a recent Friday morning, a dozen women moved fluidly through a series of positions in Margie Weiss’s 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 ... staying youthful and supple.”

Is fitness yoga just yoga lite?

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

Para Darin Somma, who teaches traditional Vinyasa yoga, is concerned about the “shallowness” of commercialized yoga. He has seen articles about yoga and sex, 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.

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, which aims to make yoga teaching a certified profession.

At the fitness conference, Richmond 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.

Spirituality is an individual thing, says Lauren Eirk, the Yoga-Resist-a-Ball instructor. “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?

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