The architect of Fitness First's Flow Yoga classes, Duncan Peak is revolutionising yoga.
Of the different kinds of yoga offered as classes by Fitness First, Flow Yoga is the one that least fits the cliché of yoga as a gentle, relaxing activity. Essentially a contemporary version of the very physical Vinyasa Yoga, Flow yoga is intense and challenging, building strength as much as flexibility and mental resilience. It's the kind professional footballers are flocking to because it also helps them recover from injuries.
It comes as no surprise to find that the man responsible for creating it looks more like a member of the SAS than a yogi. Duncan Peak actually was an army paratrooper who worked as an instructor in the Australian army's Special Forces training centre. He was a rugby player and surfer before he started teaching yoga professionally.
In fact, it was a particularly vicious army exercise designed to test his leadership skills that went wrong which set Peak on his path to yoga. After surviving a 7 day jungle trek without food and just 2 hours sleep a night, he suffered a ruptured ulcer and was close to death during the 8 hours it took to get him to a hospital.
The injury and the operations Peak needed (he still has massive operation scars) led him to quit the army.
“The physio who was working with me to rebuild my core took me along to an Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga class and that’s really what inspired me to create what we’ve created, a modern version of that,” Peak tells Fitness First.
He was also inspired because he was no stranger to yoga. As a teenager in Canberra, a family friend who was a yogi taught him the OM Mantra and a strongly mental-based yoga called Raja Yoga.
So when he experienced Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, it was a completely different and physically challenging style. “It’s a very physical yoga that for most people would be one of the hardest workouts they would ever do, especially fitness style people who are working against a lot of muscular resistance who aren’t naturally flexible.”
“It’s really Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga that’s given birth to the whole contemporary yoga scene. The Vinyasa Yoga, which means flowing styles of yoga, and the Flow Yoga we teach in Fitness First, comes from that basis.
“It really touched me and also challenged me physically. It was just a sensible, intelligent style of strength. I really thought that it would be a great basis, as I matured, to heal a lot of the injuries that I had from playing rugby my whole life. So yeah, it just got me. It was the way I was going to train for the rest of my life.”
"It's a very different way to train than just exerting yourself as full as you can for performance..."
Peak’s business, Power Living, got off the ground when he came back from a couple of years travelling the world – after quitting his job as a business consultant doing leadership development. People who watched him practise his style of yoga kept asking him to teach it, so he hired a hall at Sydney’s South Curl Curl Life Saving club and ran his first class.
"This was way back in the days where yoga wasn’t cool and men weren’t doing yoga," he says. "The first class I really ever taught was all ex-footballers and bodybuilders, and all males; about 15 of us and me teaching them this new way to train and the philosophy of how to keep the right attitude as you do it." From there, his classes grew quickly, to the point now where Power Living has over 10,000 people coming through its studios every week, and his brand of yoga is also taught at Fitness First.
Peak stresses he hasn’t created a new type of yoga, but reinterpreted what was already there. One change, he says, is that "we’ve entwined an anatomical intelligence that’s required for modern times because it doesn’t exist in old school yoga. We’ve put that in it to keep it safe and healthy for people for modern lifestyles."
By anatomical intelligence, Peak means ensuring you know how to move to prevent injury.
"Like when you are doing a low push up which we call Chaturanga, with the rotator cuff muscles (the deeper muscles of your shoulder that control and support the Glenohumeral joint) there’s ways you turn those muscles on to ensure that you’re not putting too much stress to the anterior, the front side, of the shoulder and causing injury.
Since our practice is so repetitive in the movements that we do, you’ve got to make sure you’re moving safely. If you’re not moving safely because it’s so physical in the way it is, you can suffer injuries."
Peak says the foundations of the Flow Yoga classes at Fitness First are the same as what’s taught in his own yoga studios. Describing a typical class, he says "we start with gentle warm ups and the focus is around flexibility and then the way your whole body moves. Whether it’s an eccentric, concentric or isometric contraction, if you want to look at in a real anatomical way, we do a lot of holding poses and then we do a lot of moving poses."
"We do a lot of core-based work, where you’ve got to hold alignment through your whole body while you’re moving. You are moving with that mindful awareness."
"So it’s a very different way to train than just exerting yourself as full as you can for performance. It’s more about a steady consistency with a mental focus that is challenging for people and building stability of your joints."
In the classes, says Peak, you can’t compare your performance to that of others, because you’re working with your own body and your own limitations. "People will have skeletal variations that impact on muscular flexibility and on whether you can do these poses or whether you can’t."
"So you get to a point where you have to accept that this is your body, this is what you can do and no manner of pushing yourself harder is going to improve it. So there’s a level of learning patience and accepting yourself the way that you are rather than ambitiously training."
Peak now runs a big business but still tries to teach as often as he can. "I teach at most of the retreats and teacher trainings within our business and I get involved with the Fitness First stuff as much as I can. Then I teach in the studios as often as I can. I go around the whole lot of them, so I’m spread pretty thin, but I love getting on the floor. I will never give up teaching."