How to Keep the Yoga Class Relevant in Today’s Fitness Market 

Yoga class on rooftop. Photo by Amin Sujan.

Studio yoga classes must start to incorporate the traditional practices of pranayama, mantra, meditation and kriya into group asana and movement classes if they want to thrive, not just survive, in the fitness industry. Although yoga, considered historically and holistically, is not only “fitness,” one must recognize that most group yoga offerings, especially in a gym setting, crop up on schedules that are also populated by group exercise formats. Many people’s first encounters with yoga take place within this fitness context, even if their explorations ultimately take them beyond that. 

The standard vinyasa class has been around for 20+ years and contains some pretty universal components –warm up, some version of sun salutations, standing poses, seated poses, supine poses, savasana. There are varieties for sure- Ashtanga, Iyengar, yin, restorative, ect., but it is all body movement based. There may be a nod to a pranayama technique (Nadi Shodana or Ujjayi Pranayama) but the standard yoga class is mostly asana or physical fitness. Still, even if you get creative, there are only so many ways to move a body, and there are many different gyms and small box studios that cater to people looking to work their bodies.  

As yogis we know the human being is more than just the body, as the paradigm of the five Koshas illustrates. It’s time for yoga to evolve beyond the body. If not, yoga classes will soon become a niche, like Pilates, which has had the same choreographies for 50+ years. Pilates studios are rare, and most of them get by on private sessions, not group classes. You might see a few group classes at gyms, but rarely will they be as ubiquitous as yoga. 

Vinyasa classes, and studios that offer only asana classes, have been at risk of being relegated to a niche for some time and they are starting to show their age. During the pandemic most asana classes went online, and now you can find nearly any sort of asana class online. So why go to a studio?

Editor’s Note from Trish:

Chris Parkison inhabits two spheres which are often separate – he manages group fitness classes at a popular gym in Washington, D.C, and, for many years, he has also devoted himself to studying some of the traditional practices of yoga, especially those of the Himalayan Vedanta and Tantra, culminating in several trips to India. He wrote these thoughts during his last trip to India, as he reflected on how yoga teachers might be missing out on opportunities to elevate their classes beyond the commonly-known physical shapes of yoga. Since we are focusing on the future of the yoga teacher, his thoughts fit nicely in with our inquiry at EP.

One other reason in-person yoga classes are at risk is that they compete with other fitness formats: Barry’s boot camp, Orange Theory, Solidcore, ect. Although yoga teachers typically don’t perceive themselves as such, from the perspectives of many of their students, they are fitness instructors and “stretching” teachers. 

Asana is a great option for those who need low impact, mobilizing, full body workouts. Many people go to “yoga” for just that reason- they have a bad back and a doctor told them that yoga might help. Doctors also tell patients with bad backs and bad hips to do Pilates. And if “Yoga” wants to remain the exercise option for a certain segment of the population that desires a low impact workout, then it can.

But if the yoga industry wants to thrive again, it needs to start teaching more than fitness. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel- all the techniques already exist within yoga’s traditions to offer a class that touches every part of our being. By offering more integrated classes that include pranayama, mantra, meditation and kriya, we can now provide a yoga experience, instead of just yoga poses.  

Many competing physical fitness modalities promote and market a psycho-emotional benefit to exercise – take Soul Cycle, for example. The studio is heated, candles are lit and the instructor gives out words of encouragement and wisdom during a 45 min stationary bike ride.  People go because it is exercise, but also because the workout is an experience. Whether this leads to long term contentment and joy through a spiritual connection is debatable.

What isn’t debatable is the psycho-emotional and spiritual benefits of traditional yoga techniques beyond asana. There are thousands of years of history and experience that show, that with continued practice, they do lead to long-term contentment, mental discipline and spiritual growth.   

Take Pranayama. Pranayama techniques are effective at strengthening the cardiovascular system and reducing stress, and that’s just the physical benefit. We know that pranayama also offers a journey into the subtle energetic body that is at the heart of yoga–a transcending of the mind/body duality we experience in day to day life. Do 30 mins of pranayama a day and your world will change. 

If you have done a Kundalini class, you know it takes supreme willpower and physical fitness to attempt many of the kriyas. A seated kriya done for 5 minutes will make a body builder wilt. A standing kriya can move you into a flow unlike any Dancing Warrior series.

Cardiovascular training? Check. Subtle body awareness? Check. Vigorous exercise for arms, core and legs? Check. Conditioning of the nervous system and stress reduction? Check.  Total absorption for the mind?  Check.  

Many pranayama and kriya practices are 2-8 minutes in length, and easily incorporated into a 60-minute asana class so you can still do plenty of poses.

Have bad knees or back or hips? You can sit on a cushion or a chair. Many of these techniques are actually more accessible than the standard sun salutation.

Can you find yoga or unity consciousness through asana? Sure. In my experience this takes daily practice over the course of years, which the general population does not have the patience or discipline for and isn’t likely to develop any time soon. Even now, after years of practice, it takes me 30-40 mins to really find connection with just asana.  

With the right teacher, Breath of Fire can move your awareness from distracted and lethargic to totally focused and full of energy in minutes. The effect is immediate and in a culture addicted to instant gratification, pranayama and kriya are (ironically) perfect for working away from stress and distraction and towards unity.  

We haven’t even talked about meditation or mantra practices–both of which offer a deeper yoga experience that would set the studio apart from the fitness industry. It must be noted that many studios do in fact offer meditation classes, kirtan, and many other traditional devotional practices. In my experience, those are the studios that flourish.  

If studio yoga wants to remain relevant and thrive, it must evolve into something more than the asana class. Otherwise, “Yoga” risks becoming a niche option at gyms with a few studios or worse, a fad that comes and goes. An integrated yoga class that includes traditional yoga techniques provides a physical, mental and spiritual space that Orange Theory cannot. Yoga will no longer be competing with physical fitness options and will be free once again to evolve, like it has been doing for centuries.