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Meet the founder of New West’s first yoga centre

On International Yoga Day today, The Record talks to Gail Leslie, who founded The Dancing Cat Yoga Studio in 1999 — long before yoga apps and Lululemon pants were a thing.

The Dancing Cat Yoga Studio on Sixth Street is about a 1,000-sq-ft space with large windows that keep it airy and bright. This is where Gail Leslie has been teaching the New West community to breathe, since May 1999.

Back then, Leslie had started out with three students, and little competition. Hers was the only yoga centre in town, she says.

“There were some [yoga] courses that were being taught here and there, in high school and other places, but mine was the first centre,” she adds. 

Over two decades later, Leslie’s studio sits on the same spot, welcoming all those who want to perfect their cat and cow poses. Now, however, a ton of other yoga studios dot the city — Santosha Yoga, Oxygen Yoga and Move Studio are just a few to mention. While that’s one big change since the late ‘90s, yet another, as per Leslie, is the way the yoga practice in itself has evolved.

Today, yoga is categorized into different branches like hot yoga, Bikram yoga, restorative yoga, and so on.

“Whereas, earlier on, there was just yoga,” she says, with a laugh.

“I don't even know if there was a name for it,” adds Leslie, who used to teach a continuing education class at New Westminster Secondary School before opening her own studio. 

Besides traditional hatha yoga, Leslie has been trained in therapeutic and somatic yoga. Therapeutic yoga involves breaking a traditional yoga pose into smaller and slower movements; whereas somatic involves being deeply present with the body through breath to calm the nervous system. Her teachings are a blend of these styles of yoga.

There is more to yoga than just bending and twisting, she says.

“I think there's lots of people that just think of it as a physical form of exercise. That's fine because the poses are so wise and beautiful that you’ll get tons of physical benefits. But when you bring spirit and philosophy into it, it benefits you mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” says Leslie, who trained with renowned meditation guru Deepak Chopra in 2007.

Ultimately, what yoga helps us with is to make us realize that we all have a choice around what happens to us — it helps us pause and reflect, rather than go into immediate panic, says Leslie.

“When COVID hit, I really wondered what I was going to do,” she recalls. But years of yoga practice had taught her to stay calm in any situation. So she paused, meditated for a few minutes, and thought of creative ways to keep it running. “It gives the ability to cope with whatever comes your way. In a way, that is a choice. Right?”

How to get started with yoga?

  • Try it more than once; make it at least a once-a-week practice to give yourself some time to see if you really like it.
  • Start off with easy poses that you enjoy practising — like the cat pose. A good way to begin would be to start with one pose when you get out of bed. Take a minute to be quiet and breathe deeply. Follow it up with another pose. 
  • When you start to see the benefits, maybe sign up for one class a week; couple that with your practice at home.
  • The ABC of Yoga, by Kareen Zebroff  would be a good introduction to the practice, suggests Leslie. The book was, in fact, Leslie’s first exposure to yoga.

Visit The Dancing Cat Yoga Centre to learn more.

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