The Beauty of Yoga

My co-teacher Veronika and I prepare to teach in our 300-hour Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Advanced Teacher Training

We came full circle.

In about 1981, I introduced yoga to Kim Echlin, a fellow PhD student, now accomplished writer of many novels and other works. Kim remains my dear lifelong friend. The late inspiring Esther Myers was our yoga teacher then. In 1987, I would move away from Toronto while Kim would go on to become a CBC cultural journalist and make a short film about Esther.

Over the years, our long friendship evolved into a weekly facetime chat during COVID. In January of 2021, Kim remarked that I sounded a bit depressed. I listened affirmatively as she told me her storefront yoga studio in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto had transformed into a zoom studio. So this time around, Kim drew me back into my yoga practice and a lovely new yoga community. There I found wonderful teachers including Iyengar teacher Cindy Campbell and flow yoga teachers Lana Sugarman and Angela Yazbek. And a group of convivial fellow students.

By the fall of 2021, I had been diagnosed with Giant Cell Arteritis and a year-long regime of medication including high doses of steroids and an expensive biologic. The counter-effects of the drugs were quite extreme and there was a potential for bone loss and diabetes and other serious developments. Leaning into the struggle, I decided to embark on a teacher training to intensify my practice (and save my bones!) My teachers guided me to Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre where I completed my 200-hour yoga training from October 2021 to February 2022. In April I completed a 50 hour restorative class and in January 2023, I enrolled in my six-month 300-hour advanced teacher training there.

A few weeks ago, two years after the previous test, another bone density low-dose x-ray bone density test showed that there is no further deterioration of the bone in my hip and I have gained 5% bone density in my lumbar spine. A very good outcome! That is the inside story of my bony matter.

The rest of the story is just as uplifting. I have loved so much of this training. It reminds me of the excitement I felt during my PhD work in the 1990s. Or the thrill of my adoption in 1999 and the complex, demanding, sustaining and beautiful process of mothering my splendid daughter over the years. I am reminded of the joy of once upon a time taking a three-week intensive clowning course with clown/mask/drama teacher Jan Henderson where the days of work and play led to the full-scale manifestation of an alter-ego, another persona or two layered on top of the familiar.

With the yoga training, I feel myself into new ways of being, my body becoming stronger, my meditation knowledge stretching and strengthening. My sense of what matters shifts with philosophical teachings that emphasize the pleasures of discipline and focus along with the necessity of letting go and redirecting your energy. Some preoccupations sift away, there is a deepening of my commitment to my loving relations and friendships and care, a commitment to healthier eating, better sleeping (when possible), the habitual orchestration of an every-other-day walk with friends. All of this makes possible a reframing of my anxieties about contemporary separatist politics in Alberta with the conspiracy theorist quacks and dangerous racist anti-feminist homophobes and the equivalent itching for power with the federal CONs. The arrows of disgust and anguish no longer pointed at my own heart and head become more practically oriented towards campaigning for NDP candidates. A boundary between the inner and outer world comes into view.

Preparing the Class

@Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre

Thirty minutes of yoga. The theme is spring equinox. The spiralling return of things with the difference time makes. The echo that sounds from one year to the next, familiar and yet leaping forward as though remade anew. The spiral of the spine, the arms and upper torso reaching up, the feet, legs, pelvis grounding. A turning, a turning. Not quite round.

The practice is your own. Your body is the limit and the extension of your practice so make it your own. Rest when you must, challenge yourself when you can. There is nothing to fail at in yoga. Only a process that moves you. Yoga practice is life long and unfolding.

(To be refined and revised.)

  • 10 minutes Energizing Poses continued
  • 1.0 Tadasana Mountain Pose (feel your feet on the ground, lift your toes and the arches of your feet. Your big and little toe mounds and your heel will become more grounded on the floor. Imagine your roots growing out below the floor and talking to each other like we’ve discovered that the roots of trees do. We are all in this sweet practice together 😉
  • 1.1 Vrikshasana Tree Pose 1: Focus on a drishti or a focal point…. a spot on the floor in front of you or on the wall… this will help you with your balance.
  • 1.2 Tree (In preparation, move a bit. First slowly swinging bent leg forward and to the side and towards the backwards). Now lift the right bent knee and position your foot on the inside of the opposite leg…anywhere along the leg from the calf to the inner thigh. Press the foot into the thigh and then in the opposite direction press the thigh towards the foot. Your neck is long and your head feels like it is lifting up. Hands can be on your hips, at your side, or draw palms together into prayer position. You can raise your hands and arms above your head if you are able. Always keep your focus on the dristi, the point of concentration that is useful in more traditional meditation. Though of course there are meditative qualities to this pose as well. Inhale and exhale…
  • 1.3 Tree: Lower leg. Stand in Tadasana.
  • 1.4 Repeat on the other side.
  • 2.1 Virabhadrasana II Warrior 2 — take long step back into Warrior 2 from Tarascan , front foot facing front of mat, back foot on the diagonal between front and side with the knee over the toes, your torso is facing the long side of the mat.
  • 2.2 Arms extend the long width of mat – feeling the oppositions in this pose, the energy moving in opposite directions in your arms, the front knee bent, the back knee straight – imagine you are hugging the knee muscles into the bone – the straight leg extending —- your thighs are externally rotating outwards moving in opposite directions.
  • 2.3 You might be able to sink a little lower. Now raise your back arm up as you imagine your back leg and arm extending in a powerful two pointed diagonal heading up towards the ceiling corner of the room and the back heel corner…
  • 3.1 Shanti Virabhadrasana Peaceful Warrior – inhale and exhale and now wave your front arm up and back in a gentle back end. The back arm rests gently on your leg.
  • 3. 2 Repeat Warrior 2 on the opposite side.
  • 3.3 Repeat Peaceful Warrior on the opposite side.
  • 4. 1 Trikonasana Triangle Pose – Your feet are 3-4 feet apart. Straighten your front leg. Your front toes face the front of the mat. Your back toes are on the diagonal. your right heel and left heel should be aligned. Raise both arms to the sides lengthening in opposite directions. Reach your right arm far in front of you.
  • 4.2 Hinge over the front thigh continuing to stretch your arm out while feeling your upper torso soar and your lower body ground into your feet. The hinge is at the hip, not the waist. Press the feet firmly into the floor.
  • 4. 3 Lower and rest your lower hand to your shin or a block placed behind your front foot or the floor or whatever you can manage. Feel your ribs move further from your hips on both sides of your body so you are lengthening your torso while allowing your arm to reach down. The upper arm moves towards the ceiling up in the opposite direction. Feel the back flat against a wall, the thighs are rotating out in opposite directions.
  • 4.4 Your head is in neutral position or you may turn it to look up, your arms gently gazing at your thumb
  • 4.5 to come out press your feet into the ground, inhale to come up reaching up with your upper arm to draw you up….
  • 4.6 Reverse on the opposite side.
  • 5.1 Parivrtta Trikonasana Revolved Triangle Pose – [Place blocks outside the front foot.] Feel your upper body moving up, lower body moving down.
  • 5.2 With arms extended out rotate your torso towards the front bending at the hip over the front straight leg. Imagine your spine turning. Remember this is not a neck bending exercise so you will want to imagine the movement is not at the top or bottom of your spine (neck or lower back) but in the middle of your thoracic spine…the bit that hinges to your ribs.
  • 5.3 Reach your left arm down towards the block on the inside of your foot. Raise your right arm up. The spiral inside your spine, will be a corporeal spring equinox all of your own.
  • 10 minutes Deepen your practice
  • 6.1 Dandasana Staff Pose (Sit on a block and you may or may not use a strap) With a straight back, tip from the hips over your front legs. (If you like, put a strap around the arches of your feet and use this to give you a bit of tender leverage. You descend far as your back is straight…This is a very humbling pose. …. After a few moments, you can round your back, and relax as you arch over your legs.
  • 7.1 Paschiomottanasana Seated Forward Bend … Press your thighs into the floor. If there is any strain in your hamstring, it should be in the middle, not up at the top of your hip or at the bottom where they join the knee. Walk your hands forward, toes pointing upward, energy moving out the heels of your feet. Your chest is facing down towards your legs…..
  • Think about letting go. Find a stretch rather than a strain, and allow your body to draw closer to your legs with your exhalations…
  • If you like you can separate your legs slightly to make room for your torso.
  • You can also place a pillow or bolster on your lap and fold over this.
  • 8.1 Seth Bandha Sarvangasana Bridge Pose Lie on your back. Knees bent. Legs hip distance. stretch your arms alongside your body. Press through your feet. Tilt your tail bone up. Your pelvis is lifting up. Lift spine bone by bone. You can feel energy moving from your knees to the wall at the front of the room. Press your arms down. You can hold onto the edges of the mat if you like or you might clasp your hands under your buttocks and stretch them towards your feet. Ground your feet. Breath in and out. Continue to press down.
  • 8.2 Lower down bone by bone.
  • 8.3 Repeat slowly once more.
  • 10 minutes Lightening and sinking
  • 9.1 Septa Kapotasana Eye of the needle or Dead Pigeon or Supine Figure 4
  • 10.1 Supta Masyendrasana Supine Spinal Twist Variations
  • 11.1 Sarasana Corpse Pose

During Final Relaxation, I Read An Excerpt From a Poem By Mary Nyquist

Wet Toes

Why fall
when you can let yourself
down gradually,
as you’d enter a pool.
Better, remain
amphibious, viewing
what the day projects
on the same screen as
what drifts onto sleep’s shore:
scenes from forgotten dreams,
previews of dreams never to be.

Practice seeing
in the dark,
not with cats’ eyes
shining, on the prowl,
but with eyes close-lidded
in the stillness
opening inner sight.
Prolong this
in-betweenness, this pre-
orgasmic freeness, float
suspended, buoyed up
by an element not
quite bodily, keeping
whatever lies in wait
below, in the deep, safely
at bay, hoping this little death won’t,
not yet

Mary Nyquist. Wet Toes. Toronto: Aoelus House (2022): 27.

Reflections on Preparing to Teach My First Class to Live Human Beings

As part of my advanced yoga teacher training, my task is to take up the latter half of a yoga class. Planning it is a bit excruciating because over the course of the four-day intensive workshop, I find my skills unfurling into a confusing mess of forgetting and improvised nervousness. Or perhaps the skills were always this unpredictable and their fragility only visible in the performative moment.

When the going gets rough, I get gone. My mind blank. A brain fog of where how why when who what!…. What comes next. How do the prompts emerge from my voice while my body is moving in rhythm with the embodied knowledge of decades of familiarity with the poses.

Midway Through the Six-Month Course, Two Insights Emerge In My 300-hour Teacher Training Four-Day Retreat

Esther Myer’s Studio circa 1980 now a private home

Insight #1: When I was about 27, I had a premonition of my body’s late-coming illness (and possible cause of death in the future). I meditated with a meditation teacher from New York who worked with palliative care patients. My meditation was transformative and I felt my body shrinking into the interior bloodways or arteries. I was a deep sea diver within my own body floating suspended happy and serene. The meditation leader eventually called to me and I came back into the space of the temple astonished by what had transpired. Now almost fifty years later I’ve developed Giant Cell Arteritis, an auto inflammatory disease that involves enlarged blood cells clogging the arteries over your temples and potentially blinding you. The disease can also cause aortic aneurisms and strokes. Now I look back and imagine this skilled and dedicated meditation teacher took me on a journey charting my own potential death. What a trip!

Insight #2: During the small group adjustment workshop, the generous teachings offered by Pat and Jen reminded me so very much of my early classes with Esther Meyers. In 1978 or so, we were a small group of students in her newly opened storefront studio at the corner of Brunswick and Sussex. Esther’s classes were beautiful. Six or seven intermediate students. I was about 28. The eldest student was seventy would go on to perform her yoga asanas into her 80s. I am sorry I cannot remember her name. One of the other students would eventually take over Esther’s studio after her early death. I am so grateful I was able to take up her intelligent and disciplined and fierce yoga teachings.

Both these insights draw me into the past of my youth and forward to this moment as an old(er) woman and beyond.

How do I love thee, yoga.

@Pilot Coffee Roasters on Ossington in Toronto

Who knew retirement was about Asteya, stealing time from the grim reaper?

I anticipating writing books, travel, solitary pleasures and doing more of what I wanted to do when I was a professor.

And so it goes.

As I have discovered over the past four years, my retirement roots into my bodily pleasures – the Eros of intimate relations with a generous lover, preparing and sharing meals with deepening friendships, and yoga’s daily practice and welcome preoccupation.

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