Yoga extends its reach into the mainstream

By Teresa McDonald

“Waheguru, waheguru, whaeguru, wahe jio,” streams from a radio in the corner of the Rama Lotus Yoga Centre. It’s Friday night. Curiosity has brought me here to find out why so many people are buying into yoga.

Incense hangs in the air of the earth-toned room. I can feel the hollow eyes of a giant mask watching me as I fill out the first-timer form and pay for the class.

Finally barefoot and seated on my sticky mat, I am initiated into the world of yoga. “Ong namo gurudev namo,” the class says in unison. My instructor, Lorraine, explains we are calling on the energy of the universe and the energy inside ourselves to guide us through the class.

Two years ago the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute reported that nine per cent of Canadians chose yoga as their primary source of physical activity. In 1995, yoga did not even make the list.

Robert Hay, who founded the centre in 1994, sits cross-legged on the floor to explain yoga’s popularity.

“There is no “strange” factor anymore because yoga has been around long enough for people to know what it is. People also know that it really works for physical fitness and stress relief. The pace of change in our society is so rapid that we need a way of dealing with it.”

Over the past eight years the centre has blossomed from 60 students using rental units on Elgin Street to 2,500 students housed in this spacious facility on Gladstone Avenue. One of the largest schools in North America, Rama Lotus currently offers 70 classes in eight styles of yoga.

Now a successful business owner, Hay explains how yoga first caught him. “I was looking for something that combined athleticism with meditation. It was a little strange but I felt so amazing after my first yoga class that I said ‘aha,’ that’s what I want,” says the Carleton sociology grad.

Inside Rama Lotus’s hot room, one of the centre’s three studios, the mirrors are steamed up. Entering is like stepping into an Ottawa heat wave, but it is the perfect atmosphere for the hottest style to hit the yoga scene.

In Bikram yoga, 20 students contort their bodies in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius. For Patti Norm, this highly demanding, fast-paced yoga is a perfect fit. “I’ve been doing Bikram since April. It’s great exercise, a way to relax, and I love the heat,” says Hay’s student.

John Winter, a retail analyst and president of John Winter Associates, explains yoga’s recent popularity.

“Health-conscious Canadians are looking for ways to stay active. As long as businesses monitor the market and react to the trends, yoga will remain successful.”

According to Hay, changes in the medical profession has also contributed to the yoga boom.

“Doctors in Ontario have made a big jump forward opening up to new horizons and acknowledging yoga. We have referrals from chiropractors, counsellors, therapists and physicians, whereas five years ago there were none.”

Future plans for Hay include a yoga retreat centre in the Ottawa countryside and an outreach program taking yoga into places like women’s shelters.

With bowed heads students utter a traditional yoga farewell to end the class, honouring the light within oneself and the light within everyone else.

“Namasté,” they whisper.