July 11, 2007

Yogalates: Work Like a Dog

By Whitney Mitchell

I was initially intrigued by yogalates because of its Starbucks- esque hybrid name, but I didn't really understand the concept.

Aren't yoga and Pilates essentially the same thing? I'd always lumped the two together in the category of trendy mind/body workouts that countless svelte celebrities swear on their six-packs by.

So what the heck is yogalates?

Instructors describe the decade-old fitness class as a "fusion between yoga and Pilates" that essentially takes the best aspects of each type of exercise and combines them into one workout. I also learned that yoga and Pilates are quite different. In taking yogalates, I'd be getting the meditative and flexibility benefits of yoga and the muscle strengthening and toning benefits of Pilates.

Before the class at the Weight Club in Blacksburg began, my chipper instructor recommended that I double up on yoga mats instead of using a Pilates mat. Because about 65 percent of the moves we'd be doing were yoga-based, the thin, stickier yoga mats were preferable to the cushy Pilates mats.

I rolled out my purple mats, took off my shoes and stretched as my classmates trickled in.

There were about 15 people in the class -- all fit, all women and almost all wearing the same pair of Nike spandex capri pants I was. Just looking at my fellow yogalates classmates with their toned arms, ripped abs, and lean legs was motivation enough to make the class a habit.

The only sound in the room other than the instructor's soothing voice was the new-age music that was supposed to make me feel like I was in an Indian jungle rather than a gym squeezed between a CVS Pharmacy and a Kroger.

Although I've never been to an Indian jungle, I am pretty sure it would sound just like the yogalates soundtrack, so I tried my best to pretend.

After a few minutes of stretching, we moved into a sequence of different moves that would look inappropriate anywhere but a yoga class.

The downward dog, upward-facing dog and lunge were recurring themes throughout the workout. I enjoyed the downward dog, where your body forms a triangle with the floor, because it didn't require much effort or flexibility.

The upward-facing dog, in which you push your arms toward the floor and arch your back, was a nice stretch as well.

The chataranga quickly became a favorite, but only because it made me think of a delicious Mexican chimichanga every time the instructor said the word. The chataranga is yoga's version of a pushup, in which you lower your body up and down slowly with your arms shoulder-width apart, always remaining parallel to the floor

After about 10 of them I was tired and sore, and the thought of a chimichanga made me want to vomit.

The Warrior positions also became two of my best-loved yoga moves. I liked Warrior II the best, where you lunge forward with one leg, put your weight onto your front leg, and hold your arms parallel to the floor, stretched in opposite directions. Think of an exaggerated archer's pose.

We held this position for a few seconds, which was more than enough to bring on a burning sensation in my legs. To distract myself from the pain, I imagined I was hunting among the thickets of an Indian forest with the original 3,000 B.C. era yoga masters. The mock shooting of an arrow that we did in Warrior II was the icing on top of my fantastical cake.

My expedition was cut short when we moved into a planks sequence that demanded more than my poor abs could deliver. My core was aching, and I was shaking like someone with Stage I hypothermia. A few of my fellow yogalates friends were right there with me, but most people held the pose with grace and balance.

Just about the time I thought I couldn't take it anymore, we moved on to something else.

That was one thing I liked about yogalates. The moves are slow and focused, and although they are challenging, you are never doing an activity for so long that the pain becomes unbearable. And if you do feel pain, you can always take a break or move to a modified, easier position.

At the end of the class, the instructor flicked off the lights, and we lay peacefully on our yoga mats to cool down. I left the class both physically exhausted and mentally refreshed, which was a great feeling. My lack of flexibility didn't hinder my ability to enjoy the workout. If yogalates becomes the next cult fitness trend, count me in.

Ms. Fit says ...

Class: Yogalates

Description: A fusion of yoga and Pilates

Duration: 60 minutes

Where: The Weight Club, Blacksburg

Cost: Free for members, $7 for nonmembers

Sweat factor: 4 out of 5

Fun factor: 4 out of 5

Estimated calories burned: 380

Final verdict: The workout is mostly yoga-based, but it also incorporates some of the strengthening moves characteristic of Pilates. The class is both relaxing and challenging, and positions can be modified depending on skill level. So whether you're a pro or a beginner, like me, you'll build up a sweat, get stretched out and work muscles you probably didn't know existed.