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Under Fire! Yoga and Pilates professionals rise to the challenge to ensure students’ safety  

“Don’t do yoga.”

This somewhat surprising admonition appeared in the January 5 edition of The New York Times as part of an article entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” It has, predictably, sent shockwaves rippling through the fitness industry. 

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  • The story was excerpted from The Science of Yoga: The Risks and The Rewards, a new book by William Broad, the Time’s science writer. The book details Broad’s discussions with Glenn Black, a yoga instructor with more than 30 years of experience who teaches classes at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, a nonprofit wellness organization based in Rhinebeck, New York.

    Black, Broad recounts, tells of both yoga students and highly regarded teachers suffering injuries “in droves.” Black also contends that many instructors are unqualified to lead classes. “You can’t believe what’s going on,” he warns.

    Coincidentally, another story, this one published in the Wall Street Journal several years ago, told a similar cautionary tale. The piece, “Is Your Pilates Instructor a Health Hazard?”, likewise warned of unskilled, ill-prepared teachers and a high probability of injury.

    Both stories have raised doubts, contested by many, about the safety and efficacy of yoga and Pilates—not about the disciplines themselves, but, rather, about how they’re sometimes taught. However, the controversy represents an opportunity for IHRSA-member club and studio operators, as well as yoga and Pilates instructors, to take a step back, reexamine their offerings, and resolve any lingering concerns.

    In doing so, they’ll enhance the practice of these respected disciplines, ensure the safety and satisfaction of their members, and help them achieve the results they’re looking for.


    Time to reevaluate

    Kathleen Solem has been doing just that.

    “It’s never wrong to ask questions and engage in challenging discussions,” says Solem, the director of programming and Pilates at the 75,000-square-foot Prairie Life Fitness club in Omaha, Nebraska. The club is part of an upscale chain that includes nine facilities in four states that serve well over 30,000 members. “In that sense, these articles are a good thing.”

     “It’s definitely gotten a lot of people talking,” observes Stacy McCarthy, a leading yoga instructor for the Western Athletic Club’s Pacific Sports Resort in San Diego, California. This 100,000-square-foot, multipurpose facility boasts a 15,000-square-foot fitness center, three swimming pools, and eight outdoor tennis courts, and caters to approximately 9,000 members.

    To some extent, McCarthy feels that the Times article and the ones that followed in other publications were “misrepresentative” since all physical exercise involves an inherent risk. “Furthermore, in every profession you’ll find instructors who are more skilled than others. ”

    But she admits that these stories have encouraged some much-needed self-reflection about these fitness pursuits. “One question we do need to ask ourselves is, ‘How can we be sure the people who are teaching are actually qualified to teach?’”

    It’s a question Solem has pondered and doesn’t hesitate to address head on: “Do we have some issues in terms of instructors? Yes. Quality does vary widely.”

    Solem and McCarthy both blame the rapid proliferation of venues and classes for creating some of the problems. “Clearly, the explosive popularity of yoga and Pilates is a positive thing,” McCarthy asserts. “Yet, whenever there’s a supply-and-demand issue, and whenever there’s money to be made, quality can wind up being compromised. We’re now popping teachers out as fast as we can. Considering that these classes involve complicated movements, the consequences can be severe. In the wrong hands, clients could be seriously hurt.”


    Management a factor

    Given this fact, McCarthy urges club owners to ask themselves another pointed question: “Why would you offer a class if you didn’t have a fully qualified person to teach it?”

    As Solem sees it, sometimes it’s a matter of club owners and managers simply not knowing any better. “Unfortunately, at some clubs, there’s a sort of disconnect,” she says. “That is, upper management becomes overly focused on the bottom line. Unfortunately, somebody who’s looking at the numbers may focus on attendance rates to the near exclusion of other matters. As a result, they can become less concerned about qualitative issues, such as hiring truly proficient staff.”

    Moreover, she points out, management sometimes “doesn’t even understand the difference between a weekend workshop and a course of education that’s allowed an instructor to grow professionally over a number of years.”

    Tom McCook agrees that this sort of lack of awareness is a real problem. He’s the founder and director of Center of Balance, a San Francisco-based studio offering mind/body programming and teacher training courses. He’s also a master instructor and mentor for Balanced Body, based in Sacramento, California, a leading manufacturer of Pilates equipment and provider of Pilates education. McCook acknowledges that there’s currently a dizzying number of training programs and certifications, which often makes the selection/hiring process arduous and confusing.

    McCook thinks that, despite the complexity, clubs can begin to wade through the maze of options simply by avoiding, for the most part, those training courses that are obviously less comprehensive or, in other ways, clearly inferior. For example, an individual whose sole preparation comes from an Internet-based course will be less skilled than someone who’s participated in an in-person, 500-hour study course.

                Live coaching is essential, he argues, because only then can budding instructors participate in hands-on demos and receive all-important feedback. “The fact that you can now get certified online in yoga and Pilates seems ridiculous to me.”

    Quickie-type, weekend-long courses should also be questioned. “There’s too much watering down,” McCook opines. And, conducted over such a short period of time, a lot of information is bound to be missing.

    Solem couldn’t agree more. “Weekend courses are just a baseline, a starting point,” she says. “You can’t learn all you need to know in just two days.


    Keeping members safe

    All of this uncertainty leads to an obvious question: How can a club owner navigate their way through all of the intricacies involved?

    One solution, suggests Solem, is for clubs to dedicate some time to learn more about each discipline and its minutia. “Improved awareness, throughout the entire chain of an organization, from the top on down, would be ideal and invaluable.” Alternatively, she recommends clubs find someone with excellent credentials, and then solicit their assistance at filling in the blanks.  

    “Networking is an indispensable tool,” agrees Dian Ramirez, the fitness director at the San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club, a 2,750-member, multipurpose facility in San Diego. The club, situated on 10.5 acres, features a state-of-the-art fitness center, a 25-meter swimming pool, and 23 championship tennis courts. She also advises that club operators take advantage of available industry resources. “IHRSA, the American Council on Exercise (ACE), and the IDEA Health & Fitness Association are all great sources of information,” she suggests.

    Developing a program and growing  a staff is an ongoing, never-ending process, Ramirez reminds. “I liken it to gardening in that it requires diligent nurturing over time. Sometimes, for example, you’ll need to plant new seeds and water them regularly. At other times, however, you’ll have to weed out those things that aren’t working very well.”

    Solem points out that it’s also important to know which things to avoid. “At our club,” she explains, “we decided to avoid exercises that are deemed riskier. So we don’t include moves like headstands or shoulder stands. By doing this, we’ve greatly reduced the risk of injury right from the get-go.”

    Of course, some members will expect a practice that does incorporate more advanced postures. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to accommodate them, while still being safety-conscious. “We offer small-group training,” Ramirez explains. “This allows us to focus on certain specific movements, some of which might be inappropriate for a more general audience. We can, for instance, offer complex routines for members who are athletic, or gear a group toward beginners or toward those with physical limitations.”

    Such training may also mean added income for both the instructor and the club, which might allow the club to hire better-educated and more experienced teachers.

    Another strategy that Ramirez employs is to make sure that instructors stay on-point. “I try to take my teachers’ classes, because it gives me a chance to evaluate them. I find being proactive and engaged helps ensure that, over time, my team remains up to par.”

    At McCook’s Bay Area club, staff mentoring and monitoring occur, in part, during staff workouts that take place twice a week. “It allows us to scrutinize one another. It’s an occasion we use to solicit feedback, make inquiries, and exchange ideas.”


    Updating instructor training

    With those same goals in mind, Ramirez encourages other clubs to host and attend workshops on an ongoing basis. “Regular training enables instructors to upgrade their knowledge,” he points out, “They’re able to review techniques and learn new protocols.” The alternative, he notes, doesn’t bode well for business. Instructors, he warns, can easily become isolated and stagnant. “It’s imperative that a club create a culture where growth is encouraged and facilitated.”

    Doing so may require a financial investment in training, says McCarthy. “If you want these programs on your schedule, and if you want the environment to remain safe and the instruction to be effective, you may need to pay to educate your people.” It’s an investment that will pay off in a number of ways, she says. A strong team will lead to lower attrition and improved retention rates. “Clubs compete with a lot of individual studios; losing members to them is an ever-present threat. If someone is offering good stuff down the street, you have to offer good stuff, too.”

    To do so, says McCarthy, clubs might also be obliged to pay teachers more. To achieve success, standards must be high, instructors valued, and the yoga or Pilates department must be made a priority, she contends.

    As Broad sees it, the priorities for yoga and Pilates are still in need of review and, in some cases, revision, but, overall, he feel the benefits “unquestionably outweigh the risks.” This is primarily because there’s a “large intelligent movement” that’s bringing about positive change, he reported in a recent interview with National Public Radio (NPR).

    Clearly, a number of dedicated, well-educated, and experienced yoga and Pilates practitioners are leading the way toward yet another positive upgrading of these highly valued practices. Many people, even his critics, would likely agree with one point that Broad made in a follow-up story in the Times entitled, “It’s Not Too Late to Become a Yoga Believer.”

    The mind/body approach to fitness, he observed, “makes sense only if done intelligently.”



    Product Showcase

    Yoga and Pilates have long histories, with yoga dating back centuries, and Pilates, more than 80 years. Both have evolved over time, and today, trainers and students can tap their timeless benefits, utilizing innovative new 21st-century concepts and products, such as those offered by the following IHRSA Associate members.

    For more infomation, or to contact any of these companies, visit


    Balanced Body, Inc.

    Balanced Body, a leading resource of Pilates and mindful movement equip- ment, education, and information for fitness facilities, believes that mindful movement can change members’ lives. Consider the new Allegro 2 Reformer, which was designed in collaboration with input from many Balanced Body health and fitness customers. It’s one of the

    most intuitive, adjustable, easy-to-use reformers on the market. Balanced Body also provides high-quality, on-site training to help fitness facilities get going quickly, which includes mat, reformer, apparatus, the CoreAlign method, and other courses. Contact:800-PILATES,


    Merrithew Health & Fitness/STOTT PILATES

    Merrithew Health & Fitness has introduced a new Deluxe Reformer Series. The equipment has been created using only the finest and highest quality manufacturing materials available. The result is sleek and streamlined equipment that’s versatile, durable and engineered to provide maximum safety and effectiveness. The Deluxe Reformer is equipped with new High-Traction Reformer Feet, which provide a more secure grip. The Precision Gearbar System offers superior ergonomic spring placement, and the Quick-Set Pulley Posts feature six height settings, offering quick rope-adjustment angles and consistently even pulley heights. Contact: 800-910-0001,


    National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA)

    NETA’s Mind/Body Specialty Certifications are designed for professionals who want to learn how to teach yoga, Pilates, or reformer-based exercise. The workshops include a lecture, practical work, and an exam. The two-day workshops are held on weekends all across the U.S. To earn a certificate, participants must successfully pass a written exam. NETA, ACE, AFAA, and NASM CECs are provided. NETA’s Specialty Certification is valid for two years. Contact: 800-237-6242,


    Peak Pilates

    Peak Pilates, the choice of experienced Pilates professionals worldwide, offers a complete Pilates solution, including innovative equipment designs, expert consulting services, and unsurpassed instructor training. Clubs can provide their members with a fun and cost-effective Pilates experience with small-group reformer and chair programming. Peak Pilates can facilitate the process with its high quality equipment, skilled instructors, and innovative programming. Contact: 800-925-3674,



    Sports & Fitness Insurance Corporation (SFIC)

    The Sports & Fitness Insurance Corporation (SFIC) offers comprehensive insurance coverage for yoga and Pilates studios, as well as personal policies for individual instructors. Professional liability is included in its general liability and umbrella policies for instructors, and for personal trainers, massage therapists, and other spa service providers. SFIC understands the health and fitness industry and can provide a productive review of a club’s insurance coverage. SFIC is the managing general agent for Liberty Agency Underwriters, a division of the Liberty Mutual Group for the fitness industry, and the preferred vendor for Curves International, Inc. Contact: 800-844-0536,


    SPRI Products, Inc.

    SPRI has introduced Gaiam Sol Yoga Mats. Sol Salutations (salutations to the sun) are the very foundation of the practice of yoga, and, with its Gaiam Sol line of mats, SPRI salutes those who make the practice of yoga a part of their daily lives, whether personal, professional, or both. The products in its premium line are designed by yogis, for yogis, with attention paid to mindful design, responsibly sourced materials, and professional quality construction. The mats are perfect for gym, studio, and home use, and are available in several 100%-natural-rubber options, as well as in a variety of sizes and thicknesses. Contact: 800-222-7774, 


    YogaFit Training Systems Worldwide

    YogaFit, the largest yoga training school in North America, offers clubs a results-driven program that provides club members with safe, effective, and enjoyable yoga options. The YogaFit Club Series package includes use of the popular YogaFit name, class formats, club promotional materials, online marketing support, and quarterly releases of CDs and DVDs. Club members profit from consistent, high-quality instructional training. YogaFit is also a supplier of yoga mats, equipment, and apparel. The company is the exclusive yoga partner for ACE, Tiger Rock, Can Fit Pro, the GoodLife Fitness Clubs, and Town Sports International Holdings, Inc. (TSI). Contact 310-320-0110,


    VTX kettlebells by Troy come in a variety of dynamic colors that don’t run, and have a thick vinyl coating for lasting durability. Ranging in weight from 5 pounds up to 30 pounds, these unique, ergonomically designed kettlebells will weather the toughest club environments, while satisfying users of all fitness levels. Contact: 800-872-7767 ext. 215,



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