Home page image by  NICOLE DE KHORS  from Burst  Image above: “Yoga and breathing exercises can help manage your health,” says Charu Puri.

Home page image by NICOLE DE KHORS from Burst

Image above: “Yoga and breathing exercises can help manage your health,” says Charu Puri.


Fitness and desis, it’s a bad news-good news story.  First, the bad news: We aren’t as fit as we should be or could be. We aren’t getting nearly as much exercise as is recommended by physicians to maintain a healthy weight and keep a whole slew of illnesses at bay.

It’s a cultural thing, say some. “We’ve perhaps seen our grandparents go for a ‘constitutional’,” says Sushma Rao. “Our parents? Never! There’s even a Nana-Nani park near my parents’ home in Mumbai where, you guessed it, grandparents go for a leisurely stroll.”

So newcomers who have the resources and the mindset to do so, sign up their kids for swimming and baseball lessons, for hockey and skating, to speed up the process of becoming ‘Canadian’. But for themselves, physical activity continues to take a back seat. Shovel the driveway? Goodness, no! We had people to do such things back home!

Cleaning the house, cutting the grass, even taking the dog for a walk... there was someone who would do it for us. We come from a culture where being plump (read obese) is seen as a sign of prosperity, of coming from a “khatey-peetey ghar” literally, being well-fed.

Even with younger desis for whom staying fit is equated to looking good, factors linked to immigration come into play. They are so busy looking for a job, sometimes working two jobs to help pay the bills, who has the time to exercise?

“I couldn’t find the time to enjoy a decent home-cooked meal and got by on burgers at the take-out window,” says Piyush Sharma. “I went to the gym regularly in Delhi, I even had a personal trainer. Here, I am lucky if I can fit in a jog once or twice a week.”

But there’s good news, too. Everyone doesn’t have to hit the gym to stay fit. Desis have other ways of staying fit. And having fun, in the process.

GTActivity, a study conducted by the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto, explored the diverse types of physical activity – dances, games, sports, martial arts and exercise systems – that people in the Greater Toronto Area participate in.

“We are particularly interested in the activities that diverse immigrant communities in the GTA engage with, including ethnic dances, sport clubs, and martial arts,” wrote research project manager Dr Mark Norman.

As part of the project, the team maintained a website – – that both showcases the diverse range of physical culture in the GTA and allows community members to submit their own stories and experiences. starts with a simple question: How many different kinds of physical activity do people who live in the GTA participate in?

The Greater Toronto Area is widely recognized as one of the most multicultural communities in the world, but we have not recognized, recorded or celebrated in any formal way, the physical cultural diversity that exists in the GTA note the researchers. is a citizen science project, a public archive and celebration of the diversity of physical culture in the GTA.

A quick check of the site revealed interesting insights. While one expects cricket to play a significant role when it comes to desis and sports, several other activities listed may come as a surprise.

Bollywood dance.





Perviz Mavalwalla, though,  is not surprised to find dandiya listed as a form of physical activity.

A Parsi, she was raised in Bombay, where garba events are a big part of the cultural calendar.

“It’s the best cardio ever!” she says. “It gets the whole body moving. Feet, arms, hands, your neck, the head... the graceful but energetic dance entails waist and hip movements, too. In the US, I believe, they have garba as part of a workout routine at a chain of gyms.

“Dance is my passion. I’ve been dancing since I was barely three and been involved in garba events since my college days.”

She recalls her mother saying that she used to start moving and trying to get up from her crib when she was a baby every time her uncle whistled or sang.

Dil ka haal sune dilwala was apparently very popular! He encouraged my love for dance and music and contacted a lady who gave dance lessons at Marine Lines and persuaded her to teach me when she said I was probably too young. There, I learnt Bharat-natyam, Kathak and folk dances. She used to organize melas and two shows every year and I practised for and participated in those. I loved her and really looked forward to my dance classes.”

Mavalwalla communicated her love for dance to students young and old whom she has taught for over 20 years, starting when the family lived in Jeddah. These included children as young as three or four years old and people in their 50s and 60s.

She has choreographed shows at her sons’ schools and for wedding functions, etc. At a community fundraiser for underprivileged children in India, she helped raise $80,000.

“For that, I got my whole family involved!” she says, her enthusiasm palpable.

She lists the many advantages of dance, including one many of us may not be aware of.

“Dancing helps with memory. I participated in a recent event for a yoga celebration with ladies who were not dancers. They found it difficult initially to remember the steps but I saw that the music helped them link the steps, and soon, as soon as they heard the notes, they knew the steps. Dancing also helps with movement. One of the ladies was dancing after knee surgery. I improvised the steps for her comfort level, and she saw it as excellent physio.”

The body becomes supple with dance, says Mavalwalla, citing the example of Indian movie actor Hema Malini.

“Look at her! She’s 70 and she still dances for at least an hour every day. She recently performed on stage with her daughters.”

Dancing is also a mood enhancer, she says.

“Dancing energizes you and is great for physical, emotional and mental well-being. When I don’t dance for a few days, my joints hurt. I say ‘my joints are cracking up’. They teach zumba at the Zoroastrian Association and though I can’t make it to the lessons that are held during the day, I know the participants love it. I wanted to learn ballroom dancing but my husband put his foot down! I’m still working on him for that, until then, I might just put on some music at home and dance when I feel like it. I feel happy when I dance!”

Kabaddi, that most Indian of sports, gets very enthusiastic thumbs up from two long-time supporters.

Jaspal Gahunia describes it as a sport close to the hearts of all Punjabis.

“Most Punjabis would have played kabaddi as children or youth in open spaces near their homes,” says the Toronto-based insurance broker. “I did! The best part about it is that there no kit required, no ball, bat, stumps... you just need a pair of shorts to jump in! It’s the cheapest form of entertainment and staying fit. And many of us carry that bachpan ka (childhood) interest with us wherever we go.”

Which is why kabaddi is so popular in Canada, says Gahunia, who immigrated in 1985.

“Kabaddi tournaments draw more crowds than hockey or cricket tournaments. While it can be hard to find sponsors for other games, for kabaddi, log dil khol ke dete hain (they support it with generous donations).”

He should know, having been instrumental in organizing the very first international tournament in the country. Though kabaddi was played in Canada since at least the 1970s, it was at the local level with small clubs, he says. He helped found the Metro Punjabi Sports Club in 1988 and formalized the game by registering the club in 1989.

Kabaddi Canada Cup, held in 1991, drew teams from five countries including India and the US. Canada fielded two, one each from Toronto and Vancouver.

“It was very successful, with 100 well-known players participating” says Gahunia. “Held at the Varsity Stadium which can hold 6000, it was a sold-out event.”

After that, tournaments were held each year. A few years later, different clubs were brought under a kabaddi federation, and since then, each year, the tournament is hosted by a different club.

Many of us have seen and enjoyed movies like Mary Kom, Dangal and Soorma in which the spotlight was on female athletes. And yet, the number of women in hard sports remains lower than that of men.

Gahunia has a different take. Over the years, he has only seen kabaddi grow in popularity and not only among boys and men. He cites the example of the two girls’ teams that play for Toronto Police and Peel Police in show matches.

There’s also the kabaddi academy that offers free lessons to kids. The president is a famous player himself.

“Any sport, really, is good for you. And I think kabaddi the best physical exercise you could get and so much fun! ”

Speaking for himself, Gahunia who has played here on a non-professional level, stays fit with running – on the treadmill in winter and outdoors in summer.

He remains connected to the game as a supporter and in an advisory capacity at the club he helped found.

“I love kabaddi!” he says with an infectious laugh.

As does Gurdeep Dhillon,  past president of the club. Famous as Panky Dhillon, he used to play as well and he, too, recalls the first international tournament.

“It was the first ticketed event for kabaddi – tickets were $5 – and there was a $10,000 cash prize. The club has a lot of history. Now more youth are getting into the sport and we have under-21 teams. Kabaddi is even taught at some high schools in Peel and so it is gaining popularity among students of different ethnicities as well.”

Dhillon notes kabaddi’s rising popularity with satisfaction.

“It has grown pretty big. Golf was introduced as an Olympic sport only at the last Olympics. And baseball is yet to be played at the Olympic level. So getting kabaddi to that level will take time, but we have pretty good games in the mean time!”

He sees kabaddi as an “all-in-one” sport. One needs strength and a good grip as a wrestler, speed and stamina as a runner, he points out. Kabaddi needs and helps develop all of these.

“I have played kabaddi for over 35 years. Now I am 60 and I still play! I exercise with the team and keep up with them. ‘If Panky comes, we should be ready for him.’ they say!”

Dhillon who hits the gym every other day and also plays golf sees a rising awareness of the need for physical fitness among desis, and points to the presence of ladies and seniors at his gym.

Dharshana Fernando, better known as Badminton Fernando, founded Fernando’s Youth Badminton Academy 15 years ago to help eliminate obesity in kids.

It is still an issue, perhaps even more so, with children and youth glued to their phones and computers, says Fernando, who has been recognized by many local organizations for his contributions to physical fitness and for promoting the sport of badminton internationally and building cultural diversity in Canada through sports.

Recently retired from CIBC, he now concentrates full-time on developing the sport in Canada and nurturing the passion in his students at eight locations across the GTA.

His daughter Piyumika, herself a former world champion in racketlon – a combination of table tennis, badminton, squash and tennis – also teaches at the academy. “She has a Master’s in Physiotherapy from England and has a great way with kids,” says he father with a hint of pride.

The 12 other instructors are all NCCP (National Coaching Certification Program) certified.

While the 250 students at the academy range in age from six to 19, Fernando also reaches thousands of others through his partnership with the Peel District School Board.

 But what about adults seeking fitness? Can badminton help them, too?

“Badminton is a sport for everyone from six to 80!” says Fernando. “I participate at world masters’ level – in my age group. I can’t hope to compete with younger players with more stamina. Most people can learn to hit the shuttlecock over the net, it just needs hand-eye co-ordination. We conduct three adult recreational badminton programs.

“Badminton helps build stamina, flexibility, agility, speed, strength and hand-eye co-ordination. It is a good cardiovascular workout. Another benefit is that as an indoor sport it can be played 365 days a year. It is also the ideal sport to show your skill. In a team sport, you may be very good but another player may not pass the ball to you. Here, you can be the champion based on your skills alone. Badminton is the fastest racket sport and most people are surprised to learn that it is the second most popular in the world, after soccer. Canadians find that a little hard to believe, for them hockey is number one!” he chuckles.

“But one has to remember that to play competitively, one needs cardiovascular conditioning and muscular endurance, strong wrists, shoulders, abdomen, strong thigh and calf muscles. People tend to say, ‘I want to play to get fit’, but it’s equally true that you have to be fit to play badminton. And to play professionally, you have to practise for hours every day. Kids who lose can get very upset, but I tell them that there are no short-cuts. You can’t up your practice this week for a tournament next week. You have be committed and focused to get results. I give them the example of kids in China who train for six to eight hours a day, who follow a special diet plan in order to become world champions.

He cites the role parents, specially South Asian parents, play in the development of professional players.

With doing well academically being the prime objective of most desi parents, specially newer immigrants seeking success for their children, extracurricular activities can take a back-seat.

“They don’t want their children putting in the hours of practice it takes to play professionally. So most of our students are happy playing for their school teams, but that is also good, as it helps keep them fit.”

However, the students that do compete in international tournaments do exceptionally well. In December 2018, his team of 12 brought home three gold, three silver and two bronze medals for Canada at the tournament held in Buffalo. They also compete in regional and local tournaments and are currently in training for the competition to be held in Poland in August.

Fernando, who turns 61 this year, hits the gym regularly to stay fit for the game he is so passionate about.

“I am a guru, I pass on the secret to my students, but I also have to set the benchmark high,” is how he puts it. “When I set them an exercise, I should be able to do it. I lead from the front. For my age, I am in good shape, touch wood! “ I start by skipping, 1500 a day – skipping is mandatory in all our programs, badminton needs fast feet! – then I do strength exercises, build muscle strength. And shadow training. This is a foot drill in which you assume the shuttlecock is coming at you from this corner, then that... It is very tiring, but it gets you very fit, it helps build endurance and speed.”

Fernando travels a lot to teach badminton, and also to learn. In March this year, he was in Singapore to conduct a training program at the invitation of a club. From there, he went to Indonesia to learn from a world champion.

“The game changes. The more people you meet, the more you exchange ideas, the more your game improves. I’ve run programs in China and Vietnam, teaching and learning.”

Asked to describe the benefits of physical activity, he says, “For me, badminton is special, but any physical activity or sport that requires running, jumping or movement, be it swimming or soccer, keeps you motivated, enthusiastic, and is believed to ward off depression, anxiety and stress and helps build self-esteem. It also helps maintain optimal weight for height and age.”

Charu Puri started practising yoga 13-plus years ago. She learnt from practitioners at Bharat Heritage Services in Rishikesh, India, and from the Yoga Institute in Mumbai.

She has dealt with asthma and bronchiectasis for over 10 years now and says yoga helps her manage her health. “I am forty and fit! Most people don’t believe my age. It all comes from yoga.”

The beauty of yoga is that it’s both a fitness and mind/soul connection, says Puri who now shows others how to breathe better, think better, and live healthier.

“It’s like spiritual exercise – while you are doing yoga poses or asanas, you connect with your breath and energies, too. It’s a full-on experience of mind, body and spirit. There are a lot of good commercial practitioners out there that focus on mind/soul practice. You have to search around and find the one suited for you. I like to add pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) as part of my yoga programs, it shifts the energies of the mind. I have seen there’s not a lot of focus on pranayama and there could be more of it since not everyone can do physical practice due to injuries, etc., but everyone can breathe.

“Yoga helps maintain one’s optimum weight. We see this in our global yogis like Baba Ramdev, Sadh-guru and others like Yogi Cameron. Our South Asian community is known for high blood pressure and diabetes. Yoga and breathing exercises keep the blood pressure in-check. There are numerous yoga poses to help manage diabetes, poses like, child pose and legs-up-the-wall pose. They help manage blood sugar level and improve circulation. Diaphragm breathing slows the breathing rate, decreases oxygen demand, requiring less effort and energy to breathe, and this helps calm the mind.”

Through her corporate yoga programs, Puri works with professional women and men who are concerned and confused about their mind and body health, demonstrating ways to better manage mental, physical and emotional well-being. She claims she can show participants how to gain more energy, relax, block out negative thoughts and distractions so that they can enjoy the benefits of a happier mind-body at work and life.

“I guide you through simple, office yoga poses to give you more energy and release stress from your body,” she says. “Also, use breath to shift your energies, literally breathe your way to better health. After the program, you can continue the exercises on your own. Most yoga poses and breathing exercises can be done in a chair or standing. Sitting and typing all day, as we know, has negative effects on your body. Easy chair or standing yoga poses a few times during the day and on your breaks will keep your mind and body in good form.”

Some of her corporate yoga clients include Canadian Mental Health Association, Canadian Lung Association, Children’s Circle Montessori, Ontario Court of Justice, Brampton, and Loblaw head office.

So there you have it. Put down the phone/remote and get fit. Go for a brisk walk or a swim, sign up for badminton or kabaddi lessons, or just put on some music and dance. For one thing is certain, with all those benefits, we’ve run out of excuses not to!

As Gurdeep Panky Dhillon says, you have to be active if you live here. He quotes Gurdas Mann. “Sehat zaroori hai.”

For more info, visit or call 647-282-6475. To set up a trial corporate yoga session or to sign up for other sessions, contact Charu Puri at or visit

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