Boom in Yoga Fusion Classes Attracts Attention

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Reaching her hands above her head and lifting her left foot to her right knee, Christiane Crawford looked to an old pine as she coaxed her class into the tree pose.

Her wobbling students cautiously lifted their feet off the damp grass Saturday in Codornices Park - one of four yoga "stations" in Crawford's weekly class that integrates hiking in the Berkeley Hills with traditional yoga poses and relaxation.

Yoga fusion classes like Crawford's have been cropping up across the country as more Americans practice yoga for fitness and as a complement to other physical activity, reinventing a foreign tradition.

After completing the poses in the park, Crawford led the class up the stairs - over one hundred, she counted.

The class packs a caloric punch that would please any Weight Watchers devotee. According to Crawford, the 3.4 mile hike alone - excluding yoga - burns more than 700 calories. The class concludes with a final relaxation pose at the rock garden tucked behind UC Berkeley's McLaughlin Hall.

Crawford's class is offered through San Francisco-based Hiking Yoga, a company founded by Eric Kipp in 2007. The company now offers classes throughout the Bay Area and in Los Angeles, San Diego and Arizona. Their newest location opens this Thursday in Austin, Texas.

"I wanted to do something that I could do for the rest of my life," Kipp said in an e-mail. "I like the fact that anyone can practice hiking yoga on their own pretty much anywhere, and it does not require special equipment of any kind."

As the company's success demonstrates, Americans are becoming increasingly interested in yoga practice, according to the 2008 Yoga in America market study.

The study, sponsored by Yoga Journal, reported that 6.9 percent of American adults practice yoga and spend $5.7 billion per year on classes and related products. While the number of practitioners has decreased slightly since the last study in 2004, the annual spending increased by 87 percent and the amount of non-practitioners responding "very or extremely interested in yoga" tripled.

This spike in interest and marketplace has created the perfect niche for these yoga fusion classes, which are not limited to yoga and hiking.

"People are looking to find ways to integrate yoga with other physical activities that they enjoy," said Jennifer Rodrigue, senior associate editor at Yoga Journal.

In addition to classes combining yoga and hiking, Big Sky Yoga Retreats in Montana offers yoga fusion classes with horseback riding and skiing. Margaret Burns Vap founded the company in 2007 when she noticed the benefits of yoga on other physical activities.

"I firmly believe that yoga helps you do anything better," Vap said in an e-mail. "As a yogini who takes her outdoor pursuits seriously, I also noticed the benefits of regular practice had on my performance while skiing, horseback riding and hiking - lack of soreness, better balance and body awareness."

These new classes, however, have come under fire for changing the more inward, meditative state of traditional yoga.

Jason Britton, a dance and fitness lecturer in UC Berkeley's physical education department, said he was concerned about yoga fusion causing fatigue and thus less self-awareness, a "main aspect" of yoga practice.

"(Hiking yoga) sounds like a lot of fun, but it doesn't sound like yoga," Britton said. "It's definitely more of a western approach."

If there was a sense of less self-awareness, class participants on Saturday did not seem to notice.

Tanya Grimes, the student services manager at UC Berkeley's molecular and cell biology department, recently moved to Berkeley and was looking to explore the area, as well as to continue practicing yoga.

Grimes said she felt "really grounded" after the class and described feeling "spiritual" from the yoga poses but even more so from being in nature, as the yoga sessions were not as long as a typical studio class.

A New York Times article on Sunday reported that a Manhattan yoga studio has received criticism for failing to subscribe to the more spiritual aspect of yoga practice, choosing to instead focus on yoga as fitness. Despite such criticism, the studio's business is booming - the studio offers 40 classes per week and the founder's YouTube account has four million views.

Crawford said the criticisms are valid, but American culture tends to separate spiritual and physical activities.

"We are Americans," she said. "Our perspective is going to be different."


Sara Johnson covers the environment. Contact her at [email protected]

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