Body and soul
Yoga is becoming increasingly popular in Canada, and a number of well-known athletes such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar advocate the use of yoga is training regimens. There are several different styles of yoga, but they all emphasize the integration of mind, body and spirit.
A tanned, ruddy-faced triathlete sits cross-legged on a futon in the basement lounge of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre in downtown Toronto. Leith Drury became a serious convert to yoga last January when she began training for the 1994 world triathlon championships, to be held in New Zealand in November. Although her coach had designed a five-hour-a-day training regimen, the 51-year-old Drury felt that the program did not include enough emphasis on flexibility. Since she took up yoga, she says, her breathing, relaxation and endurance have all improved. “In yoga, when you’re lying on the floor, you try to concentrate on your breathing and focus your mind,” explains Drury. “I try now in my competition to get that same kind of focus, and to let go of everything else that’s floating around–including what other competitors are doing.”
Drury is one of a growing number of Canadians, including musicians, business executives and athletes, who now practise yoga. Among them are broadcaster Ralph Benmergui, cellist Ofra Harnoy, former national women’s ski team member Andrea Bedard and Blue Rodeo singer-guitar player Greg Keelor. In the United States, former National Basketball Association star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a vocal proponent of yoga, praising its emphasis on suppleness, concentration and breathing rather than brute strength. In addition, some doctors recommend yoga for patients who suffer back and neck pain. The NHL’s San Jose Sharks have even incorporated yoga stretching exercises in their fitness routines to reduce the risk of serious muscle injuries.
Union or Harmony
Yoga, which means “union” or “harmony” in Sanskrit, has its roots in the Hindu culture of India, where evidence of yoga practices dates back 6,000 years. Over the centuries, it developed both as a philosophy–which holds that the mind, body and spirit are inseparable–and as a system of exercises to improve physical health. The exercises consist of more than 1,000 carefully controlled moves and poses, or asanas, which are designed to develop balance, flexibility and increased strength. Equally important are the breathing exercises, intended to focus concentration and relieve stress.
To many North Americans, of course, any discussion of yoga conjures up memories of the late 1960s, when hippies with love beads were attracted as much by the mysticism of the ancient system as by its physical benefits. But in the 1990s, yoga is going mainstream. Beginners can now learn yoga from a Jane Fonda exercise video or by enrolling in classes, which typically cost about $8 for a one- to two-hour session. They can also choose from a variety of styles of teaching, from those that emphasize the more traditional meditative forms of yoga, to less mystical forms such as Ashtanga, or “power” yoga, which provides an aerobic-style workout by requiring practitioners to perform a series of poses in rapid sequence.
According to Toronto-based physiotherapist and yoga instructor Olive Pester, athletes often seek out yoga sooner than people who do not live by their bodies. That is because most sports involve repeated use of specific parts of the body, which can result in overly stressed muscles. By stretching those muscles, yoga can prevent injury and improve flexibility. Many baby boomers, now advancing into middle age, are also attracted to the gentler form of workout offered by classical styles of yoga. Unlike aerobics, yoga postures can be practised at any age, regardless of an individual’s strength or cardiovascular conditioning.