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Wednesday September 30, 2009

Yoga pioneer studied with Indian master, and brought his teachings to Vancouver

Before the days of fashionable gear and trendy venues, a restless spirit learned how to connect with herself

Special to The Globe and Mail

Wende Davis was one of the first teachers to introduce Iyengar Yoga to Vancouver, long before it became a trendy lifestyle for the rich and famous.

Thirty years ago, she and a small group of women began looking at the 5,000-year-old practice as a way to promote health and well-being.

"She said it was best done on a cellular level," said fellow instructor Eve Johnson. "Somehow you become quiet enough to connect with every cell in your body."

In 1982, Ms. Davis travelled to India for a month-long Canadian yoga intensive in Pune with B.K.S. Iyengar, a master of a form of yoga that uses props such as belts and blocks to achieve postures that build strength and flexibility.

It was one of the last times the famous yogi personally taught this type of program.

While it sounds exotic, Ms. Davis was always up for an adventure and had been since she was a child. Growing up in West Vancouver, she often roamed in nearby woods, creeks, and mountains and cooled off by riding the waves at Lighthouse Point.

One day she and her friend Joan Turner became dangerously lost while hiking up Black Mountain in West Vancouver. A thick fog rolled in and the trail disappeared. The girls spent two nights huddled in thick bush, rubbing life back into each other's feet. They continued to walk barefoot for several hours before a rescue team rushed them to Lion's Gate Hospital.

"Wende's frozen feet fascinated the physicians, and photos were taken for a medical journal," Ms. Turner remembered 49 years later. "And those feet became wondrous yoga feet!"

A daring and independent woman, Ms. Davis worked as a ranch hand in the Cariboo, a cook along the Alaska Highway and an au paire in Paris. She once walked 100 kilometres on the White Pass railroad tracks from Carcross, Yukon, to Skagway, Ala. High trestle bridges, trains and bears were never a deterrent to her, said her friends in a co-operatively written death notice.

Ms. Davis hiked the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland and while in her 50s walked as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

As a teacher, she pushed her students as much as she pushed herself.

"She taught with a firmness that was wrapped in velvet," said Maureen Malanchuk. "She would gently but also quite firmly guide us in deepening our practice, taking us past the point we thought we could go."

With her shock of thick white hair, Frida Khalo eyebrows, and unfailing attention, Ms. Davis was a keenly felt presence in the studio even as practitioners shut their eyes in disciplined concentration. As the story goes, she once kept students positioned with heads down and eyes closed not to prolong the pose but, rather, to keep them from noticing a flasher at the door.

During 30 years of instruction, Ms. Davis and her colleagues watched yoga blossom in North America and watched the practice change.

In the 1970s, teachers carted along thick rolls of mat material, available only in green, and cut the mats themselves. After a while, a German factory was found to make an underlay for rugs that worked well for a yoga mat since it stopped people from slipping.

There was only one outlet in Vancouver distributing yoga supplies, and a cheque slipped through the merchant's back door, was good enough for payment.

While her students were happy to see the practice catch on over the years, some look back on the early days as a time of purity before yoga became more commercialized.

"[Ms. Davis] taught yoga as a way to make a living, but there was never a sense of that commercial stuff like there is now," Ms. Johnson says.

As well as mentoring hundreds of students, Ms. Davis was also a versatile artist working in ceramics, sculpture, painting, drawing and photography.

She was best known for her paintings of friends, artifacts from nature (such as splendidly tangled bird nests), and men from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside who briefly left the street to model at a local community centre.

She told friends that her yoga day began at 3 p.m., and before that her time was for her art.

But to her, the two endeavours were all part of the same whole.

"She was an artist, and yoga really is an art," Ms. Johnson said. "It's not a sport. We treat it as physical fitness but in its deepest part those poses are an art form, and in some ways they're a private art form ... it takes you into the creative centre of your being."

Wende Davis Wende L. Davis was born on Oct. 23, 1946, in North Vancouver. She died of brain cancer on Aug. 12, 2009, in Vancouver. She was 62. She leaves her mother Doris, brother John, nieces, nephews and a wide circle of students and friends.

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