The Yogi’s Guide to Vancouver

Don’t be fooled by the fact that you’re in a major city: Canada’s yoga capital has plenty for lovers of Down Dog and the great outdoors alike.By Sue White

It doesn’t take more than a minute while sitting poolside at Vancouver’s The Fairmont Waterfront hotel to realise this is no typical hotel yoga class. There’s music, Om-ing, flowing vinyasa and Sanskrit. All presented mindfully, but with the confidence of someone teaching in a town where yoga is so trendy it’s, well, seriously mainstream.

Nestled around a harbour on Canada’s west coast, Vancouver has always been known as an outdoorsy city. Residents of British Columbia love the fact that they have some of Canada’s mildest weather. They embrace cycling, skiing, hiking and everything outdoors with panache. But they still need plenty of indoor pursuits; after all, it’s not without reason that Vancouver is known as a rainy city. You can expect rain here almost any day of the year (perhaps not so much in July and August), but the people, the scenery and the healthy living options will make up for any pesky precipitation. Yoga, vegetarian and local food offerings all feature in abundance, making the city perfect for a yogic visit.

GETTING STARTED

If you’re staying at The Fairmont Waterfront, yoga classes are held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, but if you’ve just flown in from Australia, it’s likely you’ll be up way before it’s time to hit the mat; after all, it’s a 14-hour-plus flight and a 17-hour time difference from our east coast to Vancouver. The solution? Make like a local and walk or jog around the 22km Seawall, a waterfront pathway stretching from Coal Harbour to gorgeous Stanley Park (a gem you should save for another day). Then, get back early enough to check out the Waterfront’s herb garden and beehives before you roll out your mat. Finally, tune out of the city and let your mind focus on your breath.

Next, jump on a bus or take a $10 taxi ride out of the downtown area to West 6th Avenue (at Granville) to wipe away any final memories of your flight at the Miraj Hammam Spa (www.mirajhammam.com).

The experience starts by shedding clothes in layers. Sandals replace shoes, jumpers by a sarong and finally, it all comes off. You’ll then spend 30 minutes naked in a room so steam-filled it’s hard to see the door. Eventually, an attendant will move your open pores to a marble bench where she will efficiently soak, oil and exfoliate. Lastly, the experience moves from functional to decadent with an excellent half-hour massage to ease out tired muscles.

The Miraj experience is another example of Vancouver’s approach to healthy living—impressive, confident and truly memorable. But Vancouver’s sense of confidence is also uniquely Canadian: respectful, not too in-your-face and always polite. Here, bus drivers happily offer directions, cars will stop for pedestrians (even in the middle of an intersection) and anyone looking lost with a map will soon be helped by a passerby.

KITS BEACH

After your treatment at Miraj, use your map (and those helpful locals) to stroll to the birthplace of Vancouver’s yoga scene, Kitsilano. This beachside suburb was home to the first ever Lululemon store—a business that came about after the owners opened up their design studio after-hours so yoga teachers could run classes. Today, “Kits” (as it’s known to locals) is bursting with excellent yoga, good food and beach bums. The latter are drawn to the area’s waterfront access, known to sand-starved Canadians as a beach, but to Aussies as “a nice spot of grass by the harbour”.

Start exploring Kits via a meal at Sejuiced (www.sejuicedvancouver.com), a small vegetarian and vegan cafe loved by locals. Once satiated by dishes such as the Swami-G Yogi Bowl (a vegan feast of brown rice, steamed vegies, tofu and a creamy peanut and coconut sauce, $9.95), pop next door to In again. The pickings at this vintage store are good, but that’s not the only attraction, In again is the only op shop with a separate Lululemon section (upstairs in the loft area).

By now, you may be ready for another class and in Kits you’re spoilt for choice. Vancouver does have some big-name teachers—Eoin Finn is well known on the festival circuit and musician Will Blunderfield often teaches around town. But in a city where there are more yoga teachers than actors (and a good dose of both), teaching standards everywhere are high. Visitors have hundreds of options to choose from; just pick a style, time and location that suits. Most studios will loan or rent mats, so you can easily weave your yogic explorations of the city into a touristy day (just pack your pants in a daypack and you’re good to go).

Like many major cities in North America, Vancouver is home to a number of yoga studio chains. Two of Vancouver’s major franchises, Semperviva (www.semperviva.com) and YYoga (www.yyoga.ca) have studios in and around Kits, both with dozens of classes each day. If you want to avoid the major chains, head out of Kits to Yoga on 7th (www.yogaon7th.com), a wonderful studio co-run by the delightful Eve Johnson.

After stretching in a class at Kits, do as the locals do and head to the water. In summer, Kits’ pool (which, at 137m, is the longest outdoor pool in Canada) is a hub of activity. Likewise the neighbouring park; expect the grassy environs next to Kits beach to be as packed as Bondi on summer’s day, as groups of Vancouverites don bikinis and beach gear to soak up the short-lived summer rays. Given Aussies don’t usually get their beach bodies out for less than 25 degrees (and only then, on a beach), it’s worth checking out this Canadian phenomenon; even if only to see just how much we sun-drenched Australians take regular sunshine for granted.

By now, you’ll have worked up an appetite, so it’s time to tap into the other side of Vancouver’s pleasures: food. Like its American counterpart down the coast, San Francisco, Vancouver is a foodie city. If you’re after healthy or local eating, you can’t go wrong here.

In the Kits area, vegetarians must try The Naam restaurant (www.thenaam.com). Arguably the city’s most famous vegetarian restaurant, The Naam has received numerous awards for its food and ambience. It also has one other unique quality: it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week. No wonder yogis flock to Vancouver.

For higher end dining, head back over the water to Raincity Grill (www.raincitygrill.com). Here, you can enjoy the 100 mile tasting menu at one of Vancouver’s best restaurants. Depending on the season, this five-course meal may include items like Salt Spring Island honey mussels or North Arm Farm beetroot salad. Almost all of the restaurant’s ingredients are sourced within a 320km radius of this West End location. A meal at this hugely popular restaurant is highly recommended.

DON’T FORGET

While it’s easy to while away days soaking up the cruisy vibe of Kitsilano, there’s plenty more to Vancouver’s yoga scene to explore. Head back downtown for three important hotspots: Deepak Chopra’s first yoga studio, Chopra Yoga (www.choprayoga.com), and a wander through both Gastown and Yaletown.

At Chopra Yoga, a slick, stylish 743sqm of yoga space awaits. It’s said that the self-help guru chose Vancouver for the first of his yoga studios because it is his favourite Canadian city. The result is two yoga rooms and luxurious amenities, including a sauna and organic cafe. As well as dozens of classes, guided meditations are held daily (check the timetable). Chopra’s seven spiritual laws of success are also integrated into classes, particularly those of studio director Danielle Nagel.

Leave time to wander the historic centre of Gastown not far from Chopra Yoga. While you’re there, pop into the excellent Gorilla Food (www.gorillafood.com) for a dose of yummy raw delights. Drop in next door to find some gorgeous second-hand clothes at Social Fabric, possibly the most boutique-like op shop you’ll ever visit.

Lastly stroll up to Yaletown. Known as Vancouver’s yuppie central, converted warehouses abound—YYoga’s gorgeous Yaletown studio is a great example of how compelling these can be; stopping here could be the highlight of your Yaletown visit.

Ready for food again? Coming right up. There are plenty of food trucks scattered throughout the streets of Gastown, Yaletown and the downtown area. Many, like Fresh | Local | Wild, have an eco or vegetarian slant. Locations and opening hours of all food trucks are found on an excellent smartphone app (streetfoodapp.com/Vancouver, free from the iTunes store).

Of course, there’s more to Vancouver than yoga, but happily, using yoga as your excuse to get out and about, you’ll start to see why locals love the city so much. Remember though; don’t get so distracted by the excellent offerings on the mat that you forget to tick off a couple of the usual tourist spots. Many visitors enjoy Granville Island, where the Public Market buzzes with fresh food options, and the superb 404-hectare Stanley Park warrants a day trip in itself. Hire a bicycle and, when you need a rest, stop off at The Teahouse for a quick bite.

Fact File:

STAY

The Fairmont Waterfront is a great option for its twice-weekly yoga classes (Wednesday and Saturday), healthy living menu in Herons West Coast Kitchen restaurant, guided morning runs and free bicycle rentals (ride to Stanley Park in 10 minutes). The organic rooftop herb garden and resident honey-bee hives are also great touches. Bed and breakfast packages start at CAD$329 per night. Visit www.fairmont.com/waterfront. Further away from downtown, but well located for the many yoga studios off Broadway and the Kitsilano beach area, is Suite Dreams Bed and Breakfast. This new, eco-friendly pad offers a nice way to connect with locals during your stay. From CAD$150 per night, including breakfast. Visit www.suitedreamsbb.com

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

Air Canada operates direct flights from Sydney to Vancouver. If it turns out to be cheaper/easier, transit via Los Angeles LAX with Qantas.When you arrive take the Canada Line rapid-transit train from the airport straight into town (25 minutes, CAD$8.75 one way). Getting around Vancouver is also simple: you can take the bus or cycle to most destinations, then walk and explore once you are in each neighbourhood. Remember, if you’re travelling by bus you’ll need CAD$2.50 in coins. Your ticket will remain valid for 90 minutes, so you can catch another bus free within that time. Bikes are free for guests at The Fairmont Waterfront, or you can hire one from Spokes Bicycle Rentals at the entrance to Stanley Park (www.spokesbicyclerentals.com).

Sue White is a Sydney-based freelance writer and the author of smartphone app Yoga Holidays Worldwide.