Gym Yoga: An Unpretentious Practice. ~ Laura Crandall

Via elephant journal
on Apr 6, 2013
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I’ve been practicing yoga for over a dozen years now, with a few different teachers.

Though the teachers have changed, I’m lucky enough to be still practicing with some of the same students I started out with; one of my regular mat mates has practiced near me for 10 years.

I’ve always practiced in studios, shalas—whatever you want to call them—and I’m primarily a Mysore-style practitioner who steers clear of led classes. I’ve had periods of time where I practiced almost exclusively at home.

In general, I like a style of practice where I do my own thing, without an instructor leading the way. Right now, I have a teacher who operates his morning class this way, and I spend three or four mornings a week there.

In October, I joined a gym.

I did this largely to use the hot tub on a winter’s night while I wait to chauffeur my teen cellist back home. After a short spin on the elliptical, some handstand practice and some back bends, I’d drop into the hot tub with an international, multilingual clientele. Sitting in the tub, my eyes stinging from the bleach fog, I’d marvel at the blend of bubbles and languages, and the assortment of flip-flops and shower shoes on the deck.

A minimum attendance of one day per week justifies the cost, so when my cellist didn’t have rehearsal a couple of weeks in a row, I went to the gym for the elliptical/some yoga/hot tub the first week and took a gym-yoga class there the next.

It was a strange class, taught by the conventionally-named Colleen, who did a fine job. I was intrigued by this class. The whole scene was different than my yoga world, and so were the people. This seemed like a good social science experiment, so I checked the schedules at all the related gyms within a 15 mile radius of my house to find my next gym-yoga experience.

It’s cold in the gym, and I don’t like that, so I layered up much more than I ordinarily would for yoga.

Gym yoga is refreshing because the participants are so unpretentious in their clothing—ugly sweats, plain old cotton t-shirts, hoodies, and sneakers. They wear their sneakers all the way into the room and leave them by their mat.

This is perhaps the most shocking element of gym yoga. As every traditionally-trained yogi knows, the yoga space is a sacred space: one is not to wear one’s filthy shoes into the sacred space, for they have stepped in the muck of dogs and the spit of strangers.

But gym yogis are unburdened by this yoga rule and placidly amble in, unaware of their footwear crime, even stepping on their own personal sacred mat space with their saliva-drenched, muck-encrusted shoes. Gary Null once gave an admirable tirade on alternative radio in which he railed against indoor-shoe-wearers so hard, it seemed a shame to waste such vitriol on the bland goal of a sanitary home environment.

As you probably know, the gym is littered with mirrors. Not so, the yoga studio, where one is expected to use only their special powers, and not their sense of sight, to check their alignment—unless you are in an Iyengar studio, where alignment is key.

Here is some news: I have zero sense of where my body is in space and have no way of knowing what it is doing. When I look in these mirrors at the gym during the yoga or Pilates class—yes, I did some Pilates, too, which was even weirder—I have trouble picking out which person is me. I’ve taken to wearing a brightly-colored shirt so that I can identify myself and rein in my errant body parts.

Studio yoga instructors have their own language, which is not based in reality or on English. It is a passive, suggestion-based melange of poorly-pronounced Sanskrit and pop-psychology wisdom.

Studio instructors will ask you to take a shape if that feels right to you. A shape is something a shape-shifter takes, and shape-shifting makes me think of science fiction and Ray Bradbury, and that story about the person with no bones and suddenly I have what my pop-psych studio instructor would call monkey mind, as my mind jumps from thought to thought like a little monkey from branch to branch.

Well, you started it.

Gym yoga instructors, mercifully, use English. I appreciate this because it gives me a rest from eye-rolling. I don’t have to silently fume about pompous language or submissive invitations to place my hand underneath my foot if that feels right today. Order me around! Tell me what to do! That’s why I’m here. I can laze around and do what feels right for under $17 on my own.

There is no sanskrit chanting in the gym, only grunting.

At studio yoga, there is a lot of chanting and in some forms such as Kundalini, you will chant during your asana practice. Introverts beware.

Last year, I frequented a hot yoga studio downtown once a week, because it was hot inside and winter outside. I disliked much that went along with that scene, most notably that one instructor’s inspirational tales at the beginning of class always came from a movie or a television show.

The day she unraveled a piece of wisdom from Kung Fu Panda was the last day I went to her class.

The other thing that happened at that place was yell-chanting—I swear it was a competition to see who could yell Om the loudest. I’ve been through different levels of devotion with my yoga and in my more rabid period, I did a lot of chanting. So I understand chanting, what it is, and what it does and I used to love it. But mostly I loved it because I love to sing, and chanting is like singing (see: chanteuse). Nowadays, I just want to do some yoga without all that tinsel of chanting, Lululemon, mudras and moon days (days off of practice due to the stages of the moon).

There have been no sun salutations at gym yoga—there was the threat of a sun salutation last week, but it never materialized.

I’m glad about that because after so many years of sun salutations, I’m pretty bored with them. Let’s skip those.

Two weeks ago, I went to a class led by a woman who was between 65 and 70. Right on, old lady teacher. She was good. She was coherent, had a nice sequence, and she did this really bizarre move that I haven’t seen anywhere else. It made me wonder if it came from the Kundalini world because it combined vocalization with movement—I have no personal experience of Kundalini.

She called them Ha-Ra-Oms—or at least that was how she pronounced it.

The move had three components and each component had its own syllable: it was arms out—saying ha, a hand clap over the head—saying ra, and then bend the knees and hit the floor with the hands—saying om.

Everyone in the room took to this with enthusiasm, and I have to say it warmed me up quickly. My only regret was that I could never take this move into my current studio and do it because I would feel too foolish.

And it was then that I realized why gym yoga appealed to me, and the real reason I was enjoying it: I could drop my own judgements and pretenses that I had about myself and how I moved.

I could go into this cold gym with mirrors on the walls and heavy bags lined up on the edges and sit down next to people I would never find in a studio class: a trio of old Asian men, a middle-aged overweight African-American man, a few young people, some grannies, and even a giant bearded dude who wears shorts and a football jersey and looks like he’ll break when we twist. I love being in this variety of people.

I also love that I can roll my mat out into this anonymity and be a person in a gym just trying out some moves called yoga. I don’t need special clothes, or a special language, a secret handshake, or expert alignment.

Because I don’t need anything special, and I don’t require the teacher to be an expert, I have none of the expectations I do when I go to a yoga studio. Without those expectations, I can enjoy whatever unfolds during class time—even references to football—right down to the round of applause the students give the teacher at the end.

I’ll be at gym yoga at least once a week.



laura crandallLaura is a habitual practitioner and reformed Ashtangi. She takes the yoga as it comes, and listens to her body, which creaks differently every day.




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Assist Ed: Olivia Gray/Ed: Bryonie Wise


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20 Responses to “Gym Yoga: An Unpretentious Practice. ~ Laura Crandall”

  1. Susan says:

    Very nicely written. Gym yoga really can be more enlightened
    than studio yoga. Non pretentious, non judgmental teachers and
    students is very liberating.

  2. Molly Hastings says:

    An inspirational, well written, wealth of yoga experience.

  3. Dawn says:

    Great insight and well written. A reminder to judge less and experience more. Thanks.

  4. soulandbreath says:

    i love gym yoga too. i like being able to go and feel like i can get a workout. pushing myself physically helps me let go of feeling like i will choke the next person that tells me to relax. during savasana, i love the feeling of rising from the ashes that used to be my body & only feel this way after crazy spontaneous power vinyasa that doesn't stop til it's over. a practice that i've only found in gyms, love a good ashtanga class, too, but the discipline isn't always what i'm looking for– and music is nice!!!!. really love iyengar too. very surprised to go to my local gym and find bob glickstein teaches 3 classes there every week, and has for years, even though there are a couple studios that would probably love to have him. he said he likes the environment and no stress structure, he is definitely the most knowledgeable person i've studied with. thank you for writing this article, i have met so many great instructors at gyms. gyms pay very little and contrary to the stereotype most of the long term instructors there are not inexperienced newbies, but people that are just not concerned with the money and just want to do what they love. i have been practicing for 20 years and the teachers i miss the most, i met at gyms. i think the high overhead cost of running a stand alone yoga studio puts a lot of pressure on owners and instructors to fill their classes and workshops, and unfortunately that pressure is sometimes felt by the practitioners. in my town i have noticed many of the studio teachers coming into the gyms to teach & sub and i think it is because they realize it is a great way to generate new clients for their studio– and it is.

    so happy to read an article on this site that is positive and friendly.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Your unpretentious 'review' makes you sound like a pretentious yogi. But alas, just as you make light of gym-yoga idiosyncrasies, I make light of studio-yoga hypocrisies. There's a side to every story…

  6. mizboognish says:

    I practice Ashtanga 5 days a week and do a gym yoga class once a week. I love the atmosphere. Wrong mats, wrong straps, socks, heart rate monitors, diversity, people falling over, people laughing, a sense of community. It's striking how different the same class and same teacher can be in a proscribed yoga studio vs. the gym. Yoga sometimes is just yoga.

  7. Laura says:

    There are some creative ways that people are bringing affordable our free yoga to people. The yoga + money=ethical conundrum was a tough equation for my traditionalist ashtanga teachers. They never felt good about charging, and yet, they had to eat. The ymca ifs also another great place for yoga. I took my first classes at the y.

  8. Laura says:

    Oh, Stephanie, I probably am pretentious. But at least I can laugh at myself.

  9. greatnorthsky says:

    Beautiful, Thank You Sooooooooooooo Much. Although Not A Pro Yogi, I Actually Don't Call Myself A YOGI, So The First Time I Heard That, My Head Said, Huh!!!!!! Anyway, I Got My Start In GYM YOGA and My Best Experience Has Been With These Teachers. Their Passion and Their Commitment Has Far Exceeded Anything I've Experienced In A Traditional Studio, That Is Usually Just What I Consider The Scene.

    As A Perfectionist, The Mirrors Indeed, Helped Me With Alignment and As For All The Other Stuff That Goes On In There, Well It Has Had Me Appreciate and Own My Practice That Much More. Once Class Starts, Its Just Me and The Teacher, I Also Learned To Appreciate That We All Have So Much Going On In Life. And We All Want Sooooooo Much More In Life and The Possibility That YOGA Offers Attracts Students From All Walks Of Life. So Any Time That A Student Can Make It To Class, It Contributes To The Collective, and That For Me Has Been My Biggest Break Through In Gym YOGA, Loving All My Fellow Students, Taking On My Practice To Deeper Levels For Everyone In Class, Being Okay When There Is A Substitute, and Allowing Me To Practice Anywhere, Anytime Transparently.

    Hummmmm, Lastly, My Start In GYM YOGA, The Variety Of Teachers, Enabled Me To Move Into and Take On My Anusara Practice Very Passionately and Approach Forrest YOGA Fearlessly.

    Thank You Again Soooooooooo Much Laura!!!!!!!! ♥ ♥ ♥

  10. Westley says:

    NAMASTE! If you are ever in Omaha Nebraska come to the Maple Street or Downtown YMCA. My Yoga Classes will make you feel “at home”. The room will be cold, wall-to-wall mirrors, lighting too bright or too dark, & diverse students. No chanting either AND, as a bonus, I will make up some Asana names for ya! My students swear I make up all of those funny Sanskrit names. 🙂

    Great article my fellow Yogi.

  11. Laura says:

    Westley, that sounds fantastic! You bet I’ll come! Thanks for reading.

  12. Donna says:

    Great article and I'm guessing that some of today's rock star yoga teachers started teaching in gyms – before lululemon even existed 🙂

  13. Amanda says:

    Very good read, thanks for sharing. Love your honesty and openness…blessings!

  14. Amy says:

    Funny, inspirational and very well written. But you might want to reconsider Kung Fu Panda inspiration…. (Not really)

  15. Robyn says:

    I only practice at home now because of having a toddler and nobody to watch him, but I'm not sure I've ever practiced in a class setting that wasn't a gym. Back then I kinda enjoyed yoga but was not much connected to it or devoted to it. This story kind of makes me want to go do some gym yoga!

  16. Angela says:

    Wholeheartedly agree! This attitude, even the referring to a yoga class that happens to be taught in a gym as "gym yoga", is obnoxious and precisely the reason I have cancelled my studio memberships.

  17. Vision_Quest_Redux says:

    I guess it depends what kind of gym.

    You know what kind of gym – the very upscale ones – the yoga studio would not look down their (pierced) noses at. Don't overlook the pilates studio (I am very grateful I didn't) … some have now gotten in the game and go "gym yoga" one better They can and do, give you the best of both worlds …

    At least for the rank newbies, their yoga classes are barefoot-optional … they don't choke you with the incense; and they really pare down and off the "frills" of the studio class. They lower their price accordingly.

    And the classes are mild, forgiving … self-mortification-free …:-)

  18. missbernklau says:

    Yo, Random question…is this Mizboognish from The Flaming Lips/Non-Lips message board? It's me, Funkrobot! xoxo!

    Also, I've only ever been to gym yoga at Equinox and then the classes I taught at a very very small local gym for a while. I have to say Equinox still had the feel of a studio (in so far as it was still mostly a white-female dominated space) although with more of a mix of students than your typical room full of thin white ladies. It may be because it was Equinox, the snootiest of all gyms, but it didn't feel very different in terms of how you can feel a bit like an outsider as a "newbie" in a Yoga studio.

    When I worked at a local gym, with rubber mats on the floor and the smell of rubber piercing your nose so much that you taste it in the back of your throat as soon as you enter, people wearing sneakers on their mats, etc…that place did feel different, I loved teaching there! And yes, I felt less judged (actually I felt zero judgement) by the gym owner and students as a teacher. The students there are just open to receive because they have no notions of what Yoga is "supposed" to be, and in turn I think I taught "better" classes because I wasn't held down by my insecurity and second-guessing myself in the back of my mind while I'm trying to be mentally present for students (not possible to do if you're all up in your head being insecure!). I actually got more positive immediate feedback from students in my gym classes than the ones in studios, maybe because I would clam up and stammer in yoga studios because I wanted to be "perfect", whatever the fuck that means.

    But, it comes down to the teacher, doesn't matter what space you are in, the teacher is responsible for fostering inclusiveness. But, any insecurities about feeling "excluded" or feeling insecure that exist in the mind of the student are their own responsibility to work through, a teacher can only do so much (although it doesn't take very much to make someone feel included: a smile, referring to the student by name, encouraging them, whole-hearted Savasana touches, non-timid adjustments, etc.)

    Also, I really don't take issue with teachers telling students to do what feels right to them. There are probably more people that will push themselves too hard to the point of injury, than those who will opt to take child's pose and rest (or maybe I'm just speaking for myself here). Especially in a gym setting. So, I think that's actually a good thing. But I feel you on just wanting to be told what to do, because you could "do what's best for your body" for free 🙂

  19. MatBoy says:

    I'm more of a results oriented person, even when it comes to yoga. This is a bit off topic but I think it conveys a similar attitude.

    I had been lifting weights long before I started doing yoga. I remember having a conversation with my yoga teacher about hip openers. I told him I had a LOT more progress with hip openers doing deep squats with a heavy barbell than with asana because the movements were very functional. At first he didn't like hearing this but eventually he decided to try the gym out for himself and now he goes regularly to address areas that are harder to get to through asana practice. Adding weight to a movement really recruits more muscle and connective tissue growth, and deep movements increase range of motion. Together, they make deeper movements safer for the body because the flexibility is better supported by the surrounding muscle and connective tissue. Not what many people would consider a yogic experience, but, hey, it works. And at my age, I'll take anything that works, and give a pass to those conjured up beliefs that may sound and feel good but simply don't work for me.

  20. Vision_Quest_Redux says:

    They say the same about inflexible hamstrings. The hamstrings must be strengthened first, and then they could stretch … Dancing … which I must do since I have multiple cardiovascular issues and had to ditch some of the yoga, will strengthen the hamstrings a LOT faster than yoga will. My quadriceps tend to easily overdevelop, so I have to be careful about the type of dance.