I’ve heard a lot of talk recently about the differences between “real” yoga and “gym” yoga. I don’t know if this is really a useful distinction to make, but quite a few people who practice at yoga studios stick their noses up at the yoga being taught a gyms. And a lot of yoga teachers quietly think of their gym yoga classes as watered down yoga for the masses. Many yoga teachers I know teach at gyms primarily for the money, and for the cachet of having, say, Equinox or Beverly Hills Sports Club on their resume. But what is the difference between yoga at a gym and yoga at a so-called real yoga studio? Is there a difference?
Before making an attempt to answer these questions, I’d like to sketch out some of the (perceived) differences between gym yoga and studio yoga.
Studio yoga is more likely to have spiritual elements to it–e.g. chanting, mantras, use of Sanskrit, observation of moon cycles, overt religious themes in the studio and/or clases. Also, yoga taught at studios tends to be more “traditional” in the sense that it will tend to be based in a particular school, like Ashtanga, Iyengar, Anusara, or it’ll be some derivative like Vinyasa. The teachers at yoga studios tend to be longtime practitioners, with many years of training and experience. Lastly, it is frequently (but not always) true that the students at yoga studios are more dedicated practitioners. Students who go to a yoga studio are more likely to do yoga as their primary or sole form of exercise, and they are more likely to conceive of yoga as a complete lifestyle, as opposed to some thing they do for fun or fitness. Yoga at a yoga studio also tends to be more expensive.
Gym yoga tends to be stripped of most of the spiritual elements. Usually, yoga is promoted as another exercise class offered among many other classes, such as Pilates, Cardio Kick-Boxing, etc. People who do gym yoga tend to do other types of exercise, and, in my experience, they are less dedicated to yoga specifically, although they may be just as dedicated as studio yogis to an overall lifestyle. Gym yoga usually has more of an emphasis on the physical aspects of yoga and less on the spiritual. Also, gym yoga tends to be more affordable than studio yoga, because the classes are often included in a flat monthly fee. Gym yoga classes are typically shorter than studio classes, and they are more likely to have names like “Boot Camp Yoga” or “Yoga with Weights.” The last observation I’ve made about gym yoga classes is that they can sometimes be easier and more basic than studio classes, but, again, this is certainly not always the case.
Even if these characterizations are generally true–and I don’t know that they are–does it follow that studio yoga is better or more legit than gym yoga? Personally, I want to say no. Although I am extremely partial to studio yoga, I also think that it’s a great thing that yoga is becoming part of the larger culture and that people who aren’t into, say, chanting “Om” or reading about Patanjali are willing and able to participate in at least some aspects of yoga. I also think gyms are making yoga more accessible to people who might not be able to afford $10-$20 for a single yoga class.
I do have some concerns, though, about the preparedness of some gym yoga instructors. As yoga becomes more and more popular, more and more fitness instructors are rushing to get certified to teach yoga, sometimes with a weekend crash course or even through correspondence courses they can do from home. Many of these new gym yoga teachers have been doing yoga for less than a year, and were never themselves serious practitioners. Just from a safety perpepective, this is probbably not a good trend. And it’s probably not fair to students who expect to be taught by someone with a deep and committed understanding of yoga.
On the flipside, yoga at a yoga studio can be intimidating, and the teachers at any given studio aren’t necessarily any better than teachers at a gym. In fact, many good teachers teach at both studios and gyms. Taking yoga classes at a gym, then, might be an affordable way to take class with a very good yoga teacher without having to cough up the money to take class with that same teacher at some expensive yoga studio.
So, my final assessment is that there’s good yoga to be found everywhere. (Some of the best yoga classes around are taught out of people’s apartments!) But buyer beware–not all yoga classes are the same, and not all yoga classes are what they claim/pretend to be.