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Lunch at Lever House with: Yana Blinova

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-20

Yana Blinova has brought Siberia's spring to New York.

"A spring in the step, a spring in the heart that comes from good health and well being," the acclaimed Russian gymnast and coach said yesterday, referring to an exercise regimen that she's created for business executives and busy people based on her education in her native Siberia.

That regimen is predicated on her belief that machines aren't necessary for good health.

"Machines make you vulnerable to muscle wear and tear," Ms. Blinova said.

She's opposed to jogging, too.

"Too many Americans blow out their knees from running," Ms. Blinova said. "That's makes for good business for orthopedic surgeons, but it isn't necessarily good for everyday people."

So what is her Siberian method?

"I teach mental preparation," Ms. Blinova said. "What I teach is better use of intelligence, and better body behavior. I believe in good diet and a healthy lifestyle."

She paused to look intensely at a reporter who was taking notes while slouching at the lunch table.

"Have you ever met your shoulder blades?" Ms. Blinova said to the reporter.

Before he could respond, she said:

"Of course not. Other than the occasional scratching, you don't think a lot about your shoulder blades, do you? But they play a most important role in proper posture."

Ms. Blinova threw back her own shoulder blades. Her torso, already svelte and long, seemed to rise in her seat.

It was impossible for the Indian-born reporter - a little wide in the waist from his daily lunches - not to feel a bit intimidated by the supremely fit Russian. Perhaps sensing that, Ms. Blinova smiled warmly and talked to him about how, when she'd been growing up in the Siberian city of Perm, she avidly listened to Indian music and viewed Hindi films, then - as now - very popular in Russia.

"Perm was a closed city on account of all the military research that was done there - so the only way the outside world came to us was through music and films," Ms. Blinova said. "Most people here think of Siberia as a remote place. It is that. But for me, it's also home. Siberia shaped me."

Ms. Blinova's family had lived in Perm, an industrial city of 1.5 million at the easternmost edge of Europe, for a long time. The city, once known as Molotov, is sited where the Ural Mountains begin, was historically a gateway to the remote reaches - and resources - of Siberia, and tales of how a local hero, Ermak, assembled an army here on the orders of the Stroganov family to successfully conquer Siberia for Russia, are still part of local folklore.

As much as that folklore, Ms. Blinova grew up hearing about sports. Her father, Vitaly Blinov, was a champion pole vaulter who became a coach. Her mother, Lyudmila, was a champion gymnast.

"I spent my childhood between the stadium and the gymnasium," Ms. Blinova said. "My ears became tuned to talk about the ballet as well."

She started training in rhythmic gymnastics - a sport almost exclusively performed by women - since she was 5. She started giving presentations.

"I would perform while older gymnasts were taking an intermission," Ms. Blinova said. "I would whisper to the band, 'Play me Carmen,' and they would happily oblige a little girl."

Soon she was participating in local and national competitions. By her teens, Ms. Blinova was representing Russia and winning medals at international meets.

"No other country spends as much on its athletes," Ms. Blinova said. "And no other country pays as much attention to what its athletes will do after they stop competing."

Under the state-sponsored educational system of the time, Ms. Blinova obtained a master's degree in physical education from Perm University. She began coaching the national team, as well as the rhythmic gymnastic team of the Soviet Army.

"Rhythmic gymnastics is a very concentrated sport," Ms. Blinova said. "It came into its own in the 1940s, when dancer Isadora Duncan influenced gymnastics with her free-body movements. Gymnasts use rope, ribbons, clubs, hoops and balls during the one-minute presentations."

Those presentations are accompanied by a soundtrack of the gymnast's choice.

Her performances and coaching assignments took her abroad, including Italy. After the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1991, Ms. Blinova took up residence in Porto Ercole, a particularly picturesque region of Italy's Tuscan province. She was to spend a decade there as coach of the Italian national team.

"You have only that much of competition in your own life," Ms. Blinova said. "I'd been performing and competing since I was five. Now it was my turn to groom others."

She proved to be a highly successful coach. The Italians beat all odds and won medals against the favored Russians and Bulgarians, the two nationalities that have long been dominant in rhythmic gymnastics.

"If you look at virtually every national team that competes in rhythmic gymnastics - they all have Russian coaches," Ms. Blinova said.

A lower-back affliction necessitated a drastic change in her plans.

"If you're going to start life from scratch, what better place than New York," Ms. Blinova said. "I decided to teach exercise, and also become a life coach."

She arrived in New York and launched her new business, tapping into a network of friends developed over long years of competitive gymnastics - and from having sustained contact with Americans who'd visited Porto Ercole.

"Exercise is a powerful tool," Ms. Blinova said. "I find that busy executives gain more energy and vitality if they better understand the relationship with their own body."

Her clients range in age from 25 to 93, and many of them expect Ms. Blinova to e-mail them exercise reminders when they travel.

"I developed a collection of these reminders," she said. "I gathered so many of them that one day I had an idea."

Ms. Blinova's idea was to transform the tidbits into a full-fledged book on exercise.

Will it be called "Exercise: The Siberian Way"?

Ms. Blinova would not say.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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