The Art of Gym Yoga

I am now in my thirteenth year of teaching Yoga. I mainly teach Yoga in gyms. This is by no means a popular choice with Yoga teachers. There seems to exist a feeling that gyms somehow desanctify the Yoga tradition. That Yoga must only imparted within the confines of  ‘healing centre’ or acdemy. To those who are willing to pay more. Sadly, this is the main bugbear. Money. If you run your own classes you are going to get far more money than if you teach for a flat rate within a gym.

There is a feeling that if someone is serious about their Yoga practice then they must spend the money. Make the sacrifices. Support you as a teacher and really shift their lives around somewhat. Well I disagree. Teaching in gyms is actually a real privilege. We live in a world where not everyone has a massive disposable income. Many people, especially in the UK, are unemployed, or massively underpaid. Many people have families and other things to spend their money on and could not realistically drop £80 a month on their Yoga practice. Does this mean they don’t deserve to have a Yoga class? Absolutely not.

Gyms are a different environment to a Yoga centre. You never know who you are going to get in your class. You might have a mixture of weightlifters, triathletes, pregnant women and older people with osteoporosis all in the same class. There’s certainly a lot of stuff you have to deal with. As a practitioner of Yoga it’s actually an awesome opportunity to really examine all of your own stuff, your attachments, your bugbears, your kleshas.

It can be challenging because it’s nice to have a regular class- people that are focussed and wanting to progress step by step every week. Liner progression. In a gym you certainly have your regulars but you get beginners nearly every class. You have be good at teaching the classical postures whilst being able to focus on the individual needs of everyone in the class, some of who you may know better than others. You have to know your anatomy and common illnesses until you can skilfully and quickly adapt postures for people without holding the whole class up. So someone with a weight problem can salute the sun with the others without making a big deal about it. So a pregnant woman gets an alternative to a deep twist without being made to feel awkward. So the older person with hypertension can stay comfortable. And you have to make sure that everyone in that class gets the best teaching you are capable of – because – especially if someone has never done Yoga before and to them you’re the face of it – you don’t want to put someone off it because that would be a real shame. There’s no place for arrogance when you teach Yoga.

The first and most important thing you can offer is a friendly space. To make your students understand its OK not to be perfect. To let go of agenda and simply be present in the practice. To teach them to respect their own feelings and approach the practice with curiosity rather than as a performance. To clearly communicate that Yoga is about living life as best we can despite the Instagram ideals that do exist. To include EVERYONE. I have a young lady in my one of my dynamic Yoga classes who uses a wheelchair but she gets on the mat and she joins in and she loves it. The practice simply works. Because despite our physical differences our humanity unites us in practice. Yoga is the ultimate Leveller.

It’s not easy. You have to deal with a lot of stereotyping. I make sure I avoid Thai fishermans pants and tie-dye like the plague. Coping with people turning up to your class who really don’t want to be in the gym and so they pick Yoga because they think it’s easy. And then get outraged when you ask them to stand up. People that see Yoga as the ‘easy option’ when anyone that’s taken the Yoga path knows how raw things can get. And most commonly, people saying to you outside the class ”Oh I would come but I’d be rubbish- I’m just not bendy” as if Yoga is nothing more than a freaky performance sport and anyone that’s not actually double-jointed can reasonably be expected to be asked to leave by your good self. I used to get really het up and protest about this, pointing out that paralyzed people can do Yoga… But now I don’t waste my breath because if someone wants to try it, they’ll try it.. I also play music in my gym classes whereas I never do in my own classes. I get a little creative and have fun with it..

I’ve learned a lot about myself from teaching Yoga in gyms. I can be so judgemental at times. I get upset watching people struggle with their practice sometimes- when its an easy posture and something anyone with a healthy body should be capable of- and it really gets to me that people take better care of their cars than their bodies. That adults who would consider themselves successful intelligent people can’t take the time to look after their bodies just a little. Sometimes you can look at someone and see the days they live in their postures. They sleep, get up, get in the car, go to work, sit down all day, drive home, sit on the sofa, back to bed and repeat x 5 and then the weekend comes and its more sitting until they turn up in your class. It’s not an exaggeration to say that people actually disable themselves through their inertia.

 If you don’t use your body it can seize up and if you eat processed food every day of your life chances are you will end up sick, with all kinds of problems born out of of years of a sugar rich, white flour rich diet. And as someone who genuinely enjoys exercise and feels great after a run (and on the whole avoids custard creams) I just don’t understand people that would choose to live without that endorphin rush and sense of well being that exercise brings. I am talking exercise other than Yoga. To be honest much as I love my Yoga practice Yoga asana is not the be all and end all to me. It’s really not. It changes throughout your life and you adapt it. But I find genuine laziness hard to deal with and that’s my problem.

And so that brings me back to the Yamas- Ahimsa, which of course includes not judging. I don’t know what someone has going on at home, and I have no idea why they have neglected themselves, I just have to try my best to inspire them to get into their Yoga practice. Nobody should be judged.

There are many Yoga postures which you can’t go anywhere near in a gym Yoga class. This is because there is often a tendency for people to be in that mindset of always wanting to achieve- and with some postures this can be asking for trouble so I simply leave them out of my gym classes. If you think about the body’s functional range of movement there are many Yoga postures that would not fall into this category. Such as Matsyasana- fish posture after shoulder stand. Shoulder stand brings the chin down towards the chest which is quite easy and functional. Matsyasana on the other hand jams the head back and then puts weight into it. For someone who has never done Yoga- and perhaps is in their 40s and has spent years in a slightly defensive posture – maybe a bullying boss or a challenging relationship – this posture could be agony. I also steer clear of Hanumanasana (splits) and anything involving lotus or half lotus. If people want to progress and do something more challenging when they are ready then they can attend a workshop where they’ll get more attention.

I have met some wonderful people in my gym classes. Some people that have opened up opportunities for me- to teach at festivals, to teach women’s only Yoga to Moslem women mosques, to teach Yoga to primary school children and to students at the local university. Once a woman turned up in one of my classes who had a lot of physical challenges, an interesting tattoo and an energy about her that seemed like a story.. So I googled her name and my Goodness that woman had a story alright.

Gym classes are like little festivals or camps- you have to construct them anew every week. And it’s hard work and the financial rewards aren’t great. But what you reap in learning is far greater. Plus on a practical note it’s a regular wage and you have no overheads so notching up a few doesn’t do any harm. It definitely tests your patience- and helps with your people skills.

Teaching Yoga in a gym is a real skill which only time can hone. It also forces you to look at the practice every week afresh and to be concise. Because the average gym class has a far lower tolerance for long flowery lectures than a Yoga centre class does. To listen to the wisdom and feedback of the people in your class and to remember how strong the practice of Yoga is as to introduce people to the practice is a real privilege. To see people in their practice, in their power as well as in their vulnerability.

So be accommodating- be friendly- be helpful, make people laugh and make the world a better place. In these days of cheap monthly gym memberships I strongly feel that Yoga teachers- rather than bemoaning that gyms take away their business- should celebrate the opportunity to get more people into Yoga.

And – lets face it – the people that want to spend crazy money on organic cotton Yoga gear and expensive retreats in Costa Rica aren’t going to stop attending Yoga centres because the gyms offer classes.

So take Yoga into the gyms – and make your classes the best they can be.