The "aha" moment came at the end of the second bottle of wine.
As usual, the men had gathered near the end of one of our family get-togethers. The congregation had either grown from a communal desire to talk sports, or the topic itself had driven the women away. The end result was the same.
I took the opportunity to explain my evolving yoga practice to my father, brother and brother-in-law. Not surprisingly, I was met with expressions ranging from curious amusement to veiled cynicism. They couldn't get their heads around the transcendent feeling I experienced in my shoulders during warrior 2 pose, or the expansive feeling in my hips during pigeon pose. I was even careful to avoid using terms such as "transcendent" and "expansive."
Their reactions were understandable. My family is good, hearty Canadian stock. They play golf from the first thaw until the second frost (the first never takes). Hockey is a year-round pursuit. Exercise equals good-natured combat, whether your opponent is a winger with a mean wrist shot or a wide green with a precipitous slope.
Then I tried a different approach. "Side twists increase mobility and flexibility in the spine, which can mean a bigger backswing and a longer drive," I said. "And deep breathing can intensify your focus, which can improve your putting." The glaze disappeared from their eyes.
"You know, I've heard that somewhere," my brother offered. He has a seven handicap, which for him is seven strokes too many. "It makes a lot of sense." And with that, the conversation moved on to the impending playoffs.
This counted as a big victory in my attempts to introduce yoga to the men in my life. At the risk of generalizing, the guys I know play sports with sticks. The object is to win, then spring for the first round at the pub. Deep breathing? Balance? Meditation? These are flighty conceits with no application in the real world.
Similar conversations unfold over beers with my university mates and during dinners with my father-in-law. He's a man who, in his salad days, would spend an easy Saturday laying a concrete floor by hand and building the framework for a garden shed, and follow that with three games of competitive squash. He refers to my yoga practice as "the pretzel routine," with a hint of gentle derision.
And yet, I can't stop talking about it.
My wife introduced me to yoga about nine years ago. Like many, I tried it on a lark. Having learned some basics at a few beginners' classes, I started using DVDs at home. My stiff, reluctant muscles agonized through short routines led by an annoyingly fit and blissful Vancouver yogi. At the end, I would gratefully collapse into corpse pose and try to ignore the spasms in my hamstrings.
But after a few weeks, something changed. I let go of my conscious struggle to force my limbs into the basic poses and let my breathing do the work. Bending at my hip joints to reach my toes, I exhaled deeply and felt the tension in my lower back evaporate.
A door opened to a previously inconceivable reality. Before long, I was breathing release into my hips, thighs and chest. I began craving routines that emphasized strength, tone and flexibility for different parts of the body, energetic practices to follow a great night's sleep and slow-paced, restorative ones for days I felt tired. My yoga time became sacred; my mat was my sanctuary. Clichéd or not, I was living and breathing the lingo and I loved it.
Before long, one of my on-screen yogi's messages began to sink in: "As part of your yoga practice, share the sensations you're feeling with others. Spread it around." Yes, I thought, smiling as I felt my spine melting into the mat. I will indeed. This feeling is too good to keep to myself.
For the most part, women would smile knowingly when I spoke about the joys of yoga. The initiated would share their own experiences with Ashtanga or Hatha; non-practitioners would ask thoughtful questions.
Men would look at me as though I was trying to draft them into a bizarre cult.
Perhaps there is something ingrained in many men that keeps their minds closed to yoga, an unconscious fear that the release of mind and body will counter the competitive or even combative force that propels them on the ice or in the office.
Their fears would be well founded. I often find myself at my desk, unconsciously deep in ujjayi breath, my inhales and exhales mirroring the pattern of gentle ocean tides. I sink into an inner calm rather than allow myself to become agitated. It reminds me that yoga is more than exercise; it stays with you well after you've left the mat.
I still lose my cool on occasion, but I'm certain the principles of the practice have given me the gift of a calmer state of mind. What if everyone could experience this feeling each day? How would it change attitudes on Bay Street and in Parliament? What would it do for drivers stuck in rush-hour traffic and shoppers waiting in grocery store line-ups?
Think of the impact on our health-care system. Imagine the long-term relief on wait times for hip, spine and back surgery if everyone adopted a moderate yoga practice in their lives from a young age!
Obviously, yoga can't solve all of society's problems. But I'll continue to preach the gospel to whomever will listen.
Greg Sarney lives in Toronto.
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