This subtle discipline can help cancer patients, condition weekend athletes and enhance corporate team building.

The growing popularity of yoga can be easily explained by anyone who practices it. Yoga is an ancient health and fitness discipline offering many benefits, including emotional wellness, stress reduction, improved strength, flexibility, balance and postural alignment, and enhancement of the immune system. One of the greatest aspects of yoga for fitness facilities is, with proper instruction, it is easy to practice and anyone can participate.

A unique opportunity

Yoga offers an opportunity to create a unique personal development program that serves a broad market. The mainstreaming of yoga is evidenced by a sampling of articles from recent issues of Yoga Journal, such as: Yoga for Cancer, A Case for Cross-Training, Yogis Tee Off and Incorporating Yoga. Whether it is helping cancer patients, conditioning weekend athletes or providing corporate team building, the practice of yoga has become a mainstay of consciousness-minded communities everywhere.

“Anyone can practice yoga. You don’t need special equipment or clothes — just a small amount of space and a strong desire for a healthier, more fulfilled life,” states Lucy Lidell with Narayani and Giris Rabinovitch in their book, The Sivananda Companion to Yoga. “The yoga postures, or asanas, exercise every part of the body, stretching and toning the muscles and joints, the spine and the entire skeletal system.

And they work not only on the body’s frame but on the internal organs, glands and nerves as well, keeping all systems in radiant health. By releasing physical and mental tension, they also liberate vast resources of energy.”

Although it may sound simple, the creation of a yoga program, if you are to be successful, requires a serious commitment. To get started, you need a dedicated program director experienced in Hatha yoga, and a quiet aerobics room, preferably with a hardwood floor. An understanding of yoga and a commitment to the process should come first. And don’t be discouraged by those who may scoff at yoga’s benefits and business potential. Try it for yourself.

Benefits of yoga

People often have the misconception that yoga is a religion or a meditation technique. Yoga is, in fact, a 5,000-year-old science of life, which includes meditation as one component of a complete practice. Yoga incorporates the body/mind/spirit connection, and the importance of proper diet and rest. When practicing yoga, many experience meditation, which is the result of being focused on the activity and mindful of the deep and full rhythm of your breath. Yoga meditation is the opposite of concentration, which is strenuous; yoga meditation is designed to dissolve stress, both in class and in your daily life.

“Yoga offers an excellent way to develop healthy coping skills, relieving the stress so common in today’s frantic, daily routines,” according to Leeann Carey, who holds teaching certificates in several yoga styles and who has studied many disciplines, including the Iyengar method, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy and International Yoga Studies. This is accomplished, she explains, through a correct and relaxed breathing pattern that creates optimum movement of the pelvic, thoracic and vocal diaphragms, which, by stimulating the body’s natural relaxation response, helps to prevent the internal anxiety often caused by shallow, chest-only breathing.

Physically, according to Carey, “Hatha yoga increases overall body strength and flexibility through simultaneous active muscle contractions and passive muscle lengthening.” Carey adds that “Hatha yoga develops balance by teaching how to distribute weight evenly when standing, sitting and moving.” By learning proper balance, she says, posture can be improved and, in many cases, chronic neck and back pain eliminated.

Yoga also helps students develop a sense of inner tranquility, says Carey. “Tranquility is what naturally occurs with optimal body functioning. As a natural response, the mind relaxes. When the body and mind are harmonious, we become more aware of the present moment, more aware of who we are and [are] happier because of it.”

Each yoga class begins by establishing proper breathing techniques, and then moves into a series of asanas designed to prepare the body for the more challenging work. Care is taken that every posture is countered with an equal number of breaths dedicated to the opposite side. Balancing asanas are usually included, as well as an inversion. Inversions, such as shoulder and headstands, require particular care. Classes conclude with a relaxing posture.

Class times may vary, but 90 minutes is a normal length. Ninety minutes allows time for teachers to connect with each student, inquire about any physical injury or restrictions, establish proper breathing and, most importantly, make adjustments during the asanas. Adjustments allow the teacher to physically guide students, within their ability, to fully achieve each posture.

Finding a qualified program director

Much like your fitness director, your yoga director needs to be an experienced and capable person. Classified advertising in trade magazines and local networking should bring several qualified candidates. Although there are many styles of yoga, Iyengar focuses more on alignment, while Ashtanga is oriented toward cardiovascular conditioning. Carey, who conducts workshops and teacher training in her Planet Yoga studio, Hermosa Beach, Calif., recommends finding someone trained in classical Hatha yoga methods, which provide excellent fundamentals appealing to a wide audience. At least five to 10 years of teaching experience is necessary, she adds.

It is important to find out where the potential director trained and if anatomy and physiology were included in their training. A complete understanding of the body is essential to making safe adjustments during instruction. Carey’s training, for instance, includes the theory and practice of asanas, teaching and adjustments, philosophy, internal/external respiration and pranayama, meditation and restorative yoga therapy, in addition to supporting courses in anatomy, physiology, pathology and kinesiology.

A director needs to have the credentials to set the standard for all teachers, as well as be able to present themselves in the community and represent your facility. You will also want to purchase separate yoga teacher insurance. This is a specialized coverage package, and you will find several companies offering policies in the pages of Yoga Journal.

Community networking

Referrals to your yoga program should be easy to come by. Make physicians, sports medicine specialists, physical therapists and chiropractors aware of your program. They will likely produce a steady flow of students willing to pay $10 to $15 per class. You can include yoga classes in your membership dues, offer classes at a premium or establish a freestanding program. Check with other yoga studios in your area to learn their rates and class times so you can determine what works best in your market.

Health fairs, community events and outreach to human resource directors provide fertile ground for networking. Corporations are receptive to programs bringing stress-reduction and coping skills into the workplace. You can include yoga as part of your corporate fitness membership program. Don’t underestimate its acceptance by stressed-out baby boomers, especially female executives and supermoms. Yoga is particularly attractive to seniors, since progress is measured by participation in the process, not how far you swim or how much you lift. The increase in flexibility experienced by seniors will make a noticeable difference in all of their activities, especially other fitness pursuits.

Success breeds success and referrals to your facility. Begin by learning what’s going on with yoga in your market, then consider the possibilities offered by an enlightened yoga director committed to helping people transform their lives. Adding yoga to your wellness program will add credibility and open many new doors, especially within the physical therapy and chiropractic communities. FM

My Personal Journey into Yoga

My interest in yoga paralleled my interest in health and fitness. During the early ’70s, my older brother Frank, a track star turned bodybuilder, was promotional director for a major health spa chain. I witnessed firsthand how health-spa marketing and promotion worked and how the business was run. I had always been involved with athletics and exercise, and I was studying advertising, so my brother’s business presented many opportunities.

It was about that time that my aunt Joan gave me the book Yoga and Health by Selvarajan Yesudian and Elisabeth Haich, which I still have. The photographs of yogis twisting their bodies into amazing postures was fascinating. Balancing the body, mind and spirit seemed an honorable and completely logical pursuit, especially to a college student coming out of the ’60s. I also thought yoga was consistent with what a full-service health spa should offer the public.

In Yoga and Health, the basic thesis of Hatha yoga is presented as control of the body. “The name Hatha Yoga goes back to the truth on which this system was founded,” writes Yesudian and Haich. “Our body is enlivened by positive and negative currents, and when these currents are in complete equilibrium, we enjoy perfect health.” The positive current is represented by “Ha” and means sun. The negative current is represented by “tha” and means moon. Yoga translates to “joining” or “yoke.” Hatha yoga, therefore, signifies the perfect knowledge of these two energies joining in perfect harmony, and the ability to control these energies under the yoke of the self.

So, it wasn’t an accident that I became involved with health and fitness marketing and became a yogi who joined a facility with an active yoga program. Over the years, in the course of my work with manufacturers and service providers, I have encountered dozens of prosperous fitness facilities across the country. The recurring story, the key to membership growth and retention, is always the same: Build a sense of community within the facility and provide extraordinary service. The basic tenet of marketing is to find a need and to fill it. Yoga programming provides a unique opportunity to extend your service offering in dynamic new ways and to a receptive new audience.

Consider the importance of the aging baby boomer market. This has been the most discussed segment in health and fitness for the past 15 years. Theirs is a generation that did whatever they wanted and now they have to slow down and take stock of their lives. Boomers grew up with the most freedom of any generation in history and now, perhaps, they are seeking to find some deeper meaning to their lives and to rediscover the freedom they once enjoyed. Yoga presents the perfect path for this inward journey, and is certainly worthy of consideration for your wellness programming.

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