Benefits of Yoga
Abdul-Jabbar attributes his remarkably long 20-year basketball career to the benefits he derived from yoga. “I wouldn’t have played as long as I had if I hadn’t done it,” he told Maclean’s. “Basketball is a game of skill, and either you have it or you don’t. But being able to maintain the skills is directly related to yoga in my case.” The former Los Angeles Laker star centre adds that yoga “really helped my flexibility and range of motion, and it paid off in injuries that I did not get. It also helped me use my strength more efficiently.” Although he is now retired from basketball, Abdul-Jabbar still practises Ashtanga, a physically demanding form of yoga that is gaining in popularity among elite athletes. Still, he says that some of the athletes he has introduced to the practice “bail out” after 45 minutes because they are not prepared for such an intense workout.
Other styles of yoga appeal to people who are seeking less strenuous forms of exercise. CBC broadcaster Benmergui says that he particularly appreciates yoga as an alternative to aerobics. In aerobics classes, he says, “everybody stares at each other’s spandex bums,” while at health clubs “people sweat profusely as they cling to cycling machines and grunt for everything they are worth.” Benmergui says he prefers the more relaxed atmosphere of yoga classes. Geills Turner, wife of former prime minister John Turner, also abandoned a vigorous aerobics regimen in favor of yoga. After she developed a back problem several years ago, her chiropractor suggested yoga. Since then, she says, she has been virtually pain-free.
Yoga is become popular
Yoga’s popularity is rising as it becomes less esoteric, more physical and more adapted to the North American lifestyle. One advantage is that it can be practised virtually anywhere, on a rubber mat in the home or through classes at yoga centres, the local YMCA, university gymnasiums and as part of lunch-hour fitness programs in corporate highrises. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, for one, offers yoga classes to its employees at two Toronto locations.
Iyengar, a form of yoga that emphasizes posture and improved muscle control, is already widely practised in the United States and is rapidly gaining popularity in Canada. It attracts everyone from directors of companies to students–anyone who likes the discipline and precision involved in perfecting each posture. “Iyengar is very specific, very of this world,” says Marlene Mawhinney, senior teacher at Yoga Centre Toronto. She adds: “It doesn’t involve incense and candles.” Instructors receive at least three years of rigorous training, and with further training can learn how to create individualized programs for people with a wide range of problems, including multiple sclerosis and arthritis.
At first glance, the downtown Toronto centre looks as well equipped as a torture chamber–although the exercisers are clearly enjoying themselves while they work up a sweat. On a Thursday afternoon, 10 people puff away while Mawhinney directs in a loud, booming voice. She helps one woman with a back injury suspend herself upside down in a swing-like contraption of ropes. The rest of the class stretch in various positions with the aid of props such as ropes, harnesses, wooden blocks and bolsters.
The other forms of yoga
At the Sivananda Yoga Centre, so-called Integral yoga takes a different form, with greater emphasis on meditation and diet. The instructor lights sweet-smelling incense before the class begins. Behind her on an altar, the bronze statues of Hindu gods stare out into the room. Then, in a soft-spoken voice, she leads half a dozen students gently through various bodily contortions. Finally, the instructor bows in prayer and ends by chanting “ommmm,” a traditional yogic mantra signifying universal energy.
In Montreal, Westmount real estate developer Robert Lajoie practises yoga postures regularly–though for him, yoga is much more than a form of exercise. Yoga, he says, is “a spiritual quest that everyone should go on.” His reasons for taking that journey are clear: “Because you’re not here on earth just to grovel around downtown, drink beer and work at the office. You can do that, but more important, you’re here to flourish as a human being.”
But whatever their reasons for taking up yoga, advocates agree that the benefits are widespread. Triathlete Drury notes that many fitness enthusiasts spend small fortunes on sophisticated gear such as racing bicycles and wet suits, even though their most valuable piece of equipment–and the only one that cannot be replaced–is their own body. For its adherents, yoga is a way to keep the equipment running smoothly.