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The Benefits of Water Exercise Classes

To increase strength and stamina, just add water

By Patricia Corrigan

Driving to my first aqua yoga class, I wonder how we’ll manage a “downward dog” in the water. A short time later, with our backsides against the pool wall, feet out in front of us, a deep bend from the waist and arms stretched forward, we do.

Water Aerobics
Credit: Adobe

The instructor also leads us through mountain pose, warrior pose and more, modifying each pose to accommodate standing in waist-high warm water. Many fitness centers and public pools now offer aqua yoga and other trending water exercise classes. Check online to see what’s available near you.

Some of the options include:

  • Aqua ballet
  • Aqua boot camp
  • Aqua cycling
  • Aqua Pilates
  • Aqua step
  • Aqua tai chi
  • Aqua Zumba

Zumba! I remember that class from back when I could boogie with the best of them in an exercise studio; it was great fun. Dana J. Monson, national group exercise director for VillaSport Athletic Club & Spa, reports that Aqua Zumba has been popular at the club‘s branch in Colorado Springs since it was first offered seven years ago.

“Aqua Zumba blends Latin and international rhythms with water resistance, creating a pool-party-style workout, and our members absolutely love this class,” Monson says. “It’s suitable for all ages and fitness levels, and perfect for those looking to make a splash by adding a low-impact, high-energy, aquatic exercise to their fitness routine.”

The Benefits of Water Exercise Are Many

Why dance, swing kettlebells, ride bikes or practice yoga in water? Fans of traditional water aerobics classes already know the resistance of the water ramps up the intensity of your workout while providing a low-impact experience that cushions joints, builds core muscles and improves flexibility, stability and balance. And no, you don’t have to get your hair wet!

Sari Gelzer, lower right, teaches stand-up paddle board yoga in Alameda, a city on an island near San Francisco.  |  Credit: Compliment of Sari Gelzer

Signing up for aqua yoga made sense to me. I already practice yoga and I’ve done water aerobics for so long — more than 45 years  — that as soon as I am in the pool, my arms and legs independently start performing the exercises. That muscle memory is especially useful now as I recover from Achilles tendon surgery.

Bryan Wells, the aquatics program manager at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, suggested I try an aqua yoga class, which fills up at every session. “New aqua fitness classes come out all the time. Some are suited for power athletes, but we wanted to add something for our members in water aerobics classes who requested something slower and less impactful,” Wells says. “And that’s aqua yoga.”

Susan Giba, 56, teaches aqua yoga at five pools in San Francisco. Her students range from 20-somethings to a woman who just turned 99. “She credits me for helping her stand up straighter,” Giba says. “Six or seven years ago, she walked with a cane, bent over and leaning on it. Now she uses the cane only as a helper, not a crutch.”

Giba limits class size to 14 people so she can work with each individual. “I promote that students work at their own pace and not try to keep up with anyone else,” she says. “It’s all about what you feel up to, and we can modify any pose.”

‘If Your Body Feels Better, Your Mind Feels Better’

Nine years ago, Giba became certified by the Aquatic Exercise Association as a water fitness instructor. About 18 months ago, she became certified to teach aqua yoga.


“I knew this would be huge. Baby boomers can’t do everything they could do before, but many are still healthy, and want to do things,” Giba says. “I love helping people, watching them blossom as they realize they can do things they couldn’t do before, and just getting in the water is good for you. Teaching this class is so important to me, because if your body feels better, your mind feels better.”

Giba earned her certification through Camella Nair’s Aqua Kriya Yoga program. Nair, 58, lives in San Jose, Calif. A longtime yoga practitioner and teacher, Nair was asked 20 years ago to create a water yoga class for a local YMCA. She did, and later she created the teacher-certification program. To date, Nair has trained more than 1,000 instructors all over this country and in others.

“Teaching aqua yoga is not as simple as just translating poses from land to water,” Nair says. “The law of the earth realm is gravity whilst it is buoyancy in the water. This allows for a different experience of conscious movement and breath work. And the main barometer for any yoga asana is, ‘Is it comfortable and stable?’"

Yoga on Open Water Comes with a Perk

Some aqua fitness aficionados prefer yoga classes held on water instead of in it. Stand-up paddle board yoga (SUP yoga) attracts confident swimmers and requires wide boards with surfaces that grip your hands and feet. Classes are offered in bays and coves and on lakes across the country.

“It’s a mental thing. You get up and you know you could fall, but you steady yourself with your breath,” says Sari Gelzer. She teaches SUP yoga at Mike’s Paddle in Alameda, a city on an island just east of San Francisco. Her classes draw students ages 25 to their late 60s. Gelzer also trains teachers.

Yoga practiced on boards in open water comes with perks. “We hear birds, we feel the breeze and when we raise our arms and look at the sky above us, it’s incredible,” Gelzer says. “When we lie on our backs, we can dip our hands and feet in the water. The class is really healing and nourishing — and of course people get more comfy on the boards over time.”

Mastering Aqua Yoga

Mastery of anything takes time, of course, and that’s true for any new exercise program, including aqua yoga at an indoor pool. As we practice the tree pose, some of us wobble as we try to stand on one leg.

“Hang on to the side of the pool for now,” Giba advises. Then she offers these words of wisdom: “Remember how hard this was today, because in three months, you’ll be rock solid.”

Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and also a book author. She has written for Next Avenue since February 2015. Read more from Patricia at Read More
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