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amy verner on detox flow yoga

Instructor Tracey Soghrati leads a detox yoga class at 889yonge in Toronto.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

I should have been imagining a babbling brook or repeating my dedication to endangered leatherback turtles. Instead, as I struggled to twist my body into a position more complicated than a reef knot, all I could think about was how my internal organs were going to thank me for all the love I was giving them.

Because nothing says New Year like a detox, I spent four days last week wringing out my insides, purifying my breath and finding new energy during a "detox flow" yoga class at 889 Yonge, a yoga and wellness centre in Toronto.

Do I look miraculously slimmer or less abused by winter? No. Do I feel like a different person? Actually, yes.

Before continuing, allow me to explain that I've always been skeptical of detoxes. To me, they register as scare-tactic-inspired stopgaps that encourage even worse habits - as in, "I'll let myself indulge for the next week because I plan to detox on Monday."

I'm also turned off by people who sing the virtues of detoxing: They come across as smug and eager for acknowledgment of their willpower. And, of course, detoxes are rarely fun. Or sustainable.

Detox flow yoga has its roots in a program developed by Seane Corn, a California-based teacher and social activist with a global following and numerous books and DVDs.

The objective is to cleanse not only the body, but also the mind, to help dislodge or unclog anything - from emotional stress to chemicals - that has built up. This is done through twisting and bending to compress and decompress the spine while stimulating the kidneys, colon, liver, gallbladder and spleen. A breathing technique called Kapalbhati (skull shining breath) involves forceful exhalations through the nose while contracting the abdomen; it is thought to eliminate negativity. It sounds roughly similar to Lamaze minus the undertones or fear and panic

Although the studio is warmed to 90 degrees, the practice should not be confused with hot yoga. Think tropical breeze instead of sweaty sauna. According to Jennifer Findlay, 889 Yonge's yoga director, this helps "stimulate heat in the body" but does not replace actual work.

And it is work. Considerable focus is placed on the core, and people who don't know how to engage those muscles properly will not derive the same results. Additionally, the sheer number of poses that involve lunges, squats and arm strength will challenge even those who do traditional resistance and weight training.

At times, it's not so much hard as humbling. I could only get halfway into my Full Wheel, an energizing back bend supposed to stimulate the thyroid and fight depression.

Does that mean my thyroid only benefited half as much? Lindsay Bisset, a family doctor in Toronto and Bowmanville who practises yoga regularly, finds herself conflicted about how the concept of a detox gets reduced to a catchphrase.

"From my perspective, 'toxic' is something that directly causes tissue cell damage or death," she says.

While she believes that detox flow yoga isn't designed to be misleading, she says it may not address larger lifestyle problems such as being sedentary and smoking.

Still, she points out that anything that gets people doing more physical activity is positive. "If someone says, 'My mind is clearer and my body is functioning better,' who am I to say they're wrong? Yoga really has few downsides."

So what are the upsides?

"Enjoy your digestion for the next couple days!" an instructor gleefully shouted last week as class members rolled up their mats. I drank loads of water, ate wholesome foods and took a bath that night as advised. I may have burped a bit more. The next day, between prolonged periods at my computer, I felt compelled to take stretch breaks that reminded me of class. Hello, energy, where have you been all my life?

But if consuming chocolate, watching mindless television and using my microwave means that I am retoxing, then so be it. The most important takeaway message from the class is that detoxing need not require deprivation. I enjoy the class so much, I'm basking in my skull shining breath.

Detox yoga data

What is it?

A modified form of yoga that involves twisting, bending and breathing to flush out the digestive system and fight stress. The room is heated to 90 degrees to kick-start the inner furnace.

How hard is it?

Harder than hatha yoga, but not as power-focused as ashtanga. Mostly, the poses require a lot of concentration and proper breathing technique. Some of the twists can prove particularly challenging for people with flexibility issues.

What does it work?

Planks and downward dogs work the entire body, but other poses give special attention to the ascending and descending colons, the liver, kidneys and spleen with movements that simulate wringing out a towel. Forward bends compress these organs, while back bends decompress the spine. Inversions are a real mood booster.

What are the classes like?

At 889 Yonge, detox flow yoga is taught by four instructors (all women) who each put a personal stamp on their practice. The classes taught by Natasha Wright and Cecily Milne flow at a faster pace. But that doesn't mean detoxing with Tracey Sorghati or Jennifer Findlay is any easier. They hold poses for longer and provide challenging breathing exercises. Some use music (both Eastern and Western) and apply energizing and soothing balms to the neck at start and finish of class. Class size maxes out at 20.

Who's taking it?

Mostly fit women, from lithe twentysomethings to silver-haired Type As. A few surprisingly flexible men. Dress code: Lululemon apparel is not mandatory, but exceedingly popular.

Sign me up?

889 Yoga is a members-only studio, but anyone can join and there is no initiation fee. Packages begin at $68 a month for four classes; most popular is the unlimited package at $135 a month; Seane Corn's Detox Flow Yoga CD ($20.62) is available at