In times of economic crisis, people turn to yoga

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - As layoffs loom and pensions plummet, more people are unrolling their yoga mats and polishing their poses to find flexibility and sanity amid the financial chaos.

People participate in a YogaWorks class in Santa Monica, California in this handout picture taken early 2009. REUTERS/Handout

Fitness experts say gym memberships are holding steady, or rising, and yoga classes are thriving.

“The economy may have taken a downturn, but attendance in our yoga classes has grown,” said Jess Gronholm, National Yoga Coordinator for the Crunch health club chain.

“A yoga practice becomes a refuge from the negativity of an economic recession, and the studio becomes the sanctuary,” said Gronholm, whose employer has over 100,000 gym members in five U.S. states.

Yoga, which originated in India, uses movement and postures to strengthen the body and breathing techniques and meditation to quiet the mind.

Gronholm believes the 5,000-year-old practice is just the ticket in these belt-tightening, nail-biting times, when banks aren’t lending, consumers aren’t buying, and experts are calling the latest economic numbers terrifying.

“At the very least members can come in and ‘take a break’ from whatever else may be going on in their lives. And at the very most, a practice can become a transformational experience that reenergizes and rejuvenates you,” Gronholm said.

A recent Roper poll, commissioned by Yoga Journal, found that 11 million Americans do yoga occasionally and 6 million perform it regularly.

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These days, when an estimated 10.3 million Americans are jobless and countless more worry they will be, devotees are eager to cite the tranquility they have found by twisting their bodies into pretzel-like contortions.

“People want to do something relaxing and physically active,” Yoga instructor Adam David said after leading his class through a vigorous ashtanga-style session at a New York City studio.

“My experience is that attendance in classes has gone significantly up in the past few months,” said David, who turned to teaching yoga when his advertising jobs dried up in the recession of 2001.

He conceded his private clientele have fallen off a bit, but “generally, my long-term private clients are financially well-off and eager to recommend me to their friends.”

At Equinox Fitness, which operates a chain from coast to coast, the yoga business is also booming.

“We’ve added yoga classes” said Nicole Moke, spokeswoman for the luxury fitness centers. “We add classes every January.”

And if the brunt of hard times should fall upon their well-heeled membership? “We’ve added a lot of meditation classes. Our members seem to be very excited about that,” she added.

California-based YogaWorks, which operates yoga studios on the East and West coasts, agrees that business is thriving. “In our experience attendance is up year over year,” Marketing Director Terri Seiden said.

“We expect to see this trend continue. In difficult times practicing yogis are more reluctant than ever to give-up their practice,” she said from her office in Santa Monica, California.

Seiden said YogaWorks opened a new studio in January and has plans for more. “To that end we are hiring more teachers and studio staff,” she said.

So is yoga a recession-proof shelter from the storms of economic turmoil?

“We don’t say yoga is recession-proof but rather recession-resilient,” Seiden said. “Yoga is one way that people can take care of multiple needs - it is a complete workout for your mind and body, a form of stress relief, entertainment and there is a sense of community as well.”

Om, Anyone?