Friday Five: Five Signs You Might Be An Ashtangi

So begins what I hope will become a regular feature on this blog: Friday Five. Why five? Well, that much should be clear by the end of the post. Throughout this post, I will refer to Mysore-style Ashtanga practice. Check out the link below for more information.

Five Signs You Might Be an Ashtanga Yogi:

1) Cheerful, Excessively Early Riser? Probably an Ashtangi…Oh, yes, like everyone else, you glare menacingly at your alarm clock as it goes off at 5:00 AM, and curse loudly saying things like “BLAAAARRRGGG” and “WHAT?” and other more profane indignant utterances. Then you get up, pull on yoga clothes, and head to the shala. Where, it should be noted, there are already about fifteen other people, and it’s only 5:30.

2) Even-Keeled Temperament? Probably an Ashtangi…There will be kind of amazing mornings when, even though you worked sixteen hours the day before, had half a glass of wine and slept only four hours, your practice is AWESOME. Like, fluid, easy vinyasa, and uttitha hasta that looks like the cover of Yoga Journal. Conversely, there will be days when you ate only wheat grass and went to bed at 7 PM, and your practice will suck.

Sometimes you will do a really excellent version of a pose (binding in Marichyasana D! On your own!) and have a mental party. You are so awesome, this practice is magical, the world is so lovely. Well, until breath # 5. Or, it will be Led Class, and you will hear the teacher say “take legs over head, sarvangasana (shoulderstand)”, and your huffing, puffing inner Dorothy Parker will think: “What fresh hell is this?”

If you are an Ashtangi, you will not freak out. You will shake your head, laugh at yourself or have a quiet grumble to a yoga buddy, and then you will realize: It’s just the practice. It just is. Does this mean we don’t celebrate when we achieve good things in our practice, or off the mat? Heavens no. Which brings me to…

3) Supportive Person with Lots of Kind Friends? Probably an Ashtangi...Let me stress here that there are LOTS of kind people in my life who have never practiced Ashtanga and never will. But this practice is FREAKIN’ HARD. So Ashtanga people will celebrate with you. They will say things like: “Wow, your backbends looked so great today.” They will put balloons near your mat when you have a milestone birthday. They will be happy when you rock your Phd defence. And they will also comfort you when there are tough times, on and off the mat. They will rush to you if you fall out of headstand. They will ask about your ill family member. Because, getting up at an insane hour to do a spiritual practice from India six days a week builds community as few other things do.

4) Obsessed with the number 5 ? Probably an Ashtangi…In Ashtanga, we take five breaths in every pose of the practice. By now, every magazine has written a story about mindfulness. Everyone knows that taking a deep breath and pausing allows you to handle stress much better than panic attacks and ranting (with apologies here to the colleagues with whom I still sometime panic and rant :/ ) But, the real secret to remaining calm in the face of dangerous workplace rumours, snarled traffic, and conversations with cellphone providers, is…you guessed it. To take FIVE breaths. Need to figure out IKEA instructions? Take 5 breaths. Trying to explain homework to your seven-year-old while packing the next day’s lunch? Take 5 breaths. Can’t find a good title to your blog post? The answer is!

It works. Really.

5) Healthy routines? Probably an Ashtangi…Do you find yourself inexplicably eating more greens? Contemplating vegetarianism? Going to bed earlier. You’re probably a yogi. There will come a time in your practice when you become aware that your dinner effects your morning practice. So, you will eat fruit for dessert, and a small piece of chocolate, because…well, you’d like to bind in Marichyasana D again. Of course, yoga is about balance, so there are some days when you will see a cinnamon bun, think about pasasana, and have the pastry anyway. But the point is, now you’re thinking about your choices.

This post is for my teachers, Svitlana Nalywayko and Christine Felstead of Breathe Yoga Studio in Toronto, and their assistant Halyna. Many pranams also go to Sheldon Shannon and Laurie Campbell, my first Mysore teachers, as well as JP Tamblyn-Sabo and Susan Richardson.

Check it out: Breathe Yoga Studio 🙂 Happy weekend!

On Endings and Headstands…

BridgeTerabithia6I’ve always been really bad at endings. In life or literature, they really throw me. Departures. Friends moving away. The death of loved ones. I was the girl who wept inconsolably when I first read the end of Bridge to Terabithia. Even in writing, I was terrible at creating conclusions. Attention-grabbing introductions, with crisp thesis statements? Sure, no problem. Wrapping it all up, with a pithy world-view widening final sentence?

Just. Couldn’t. Do. It.

It’s a common bit of Buddhist wisdom that life will continue to confront you with the things you resist until you learn to face them with equanimity. Perhaps that’s why, in the past five years, I’ve had to face the end of two important relationships. And I’ve had to move. Perhaps that’s also why I have a job which forces me to say goodbye to people I care about every single year.

You see, I teach Grade 6. In my neck of the woods, this is the final year of elementary school. Children leave us go to middle school. It’s a small thing really–but big for them, and big for their families. So we celebrate it with a “graduation” and a “clap out” on the last day. Recently a colleague asked me: “How do you manage to get through all of that without crying?”

Confession: I don’t.

Oh, I hold it together to hand out diplomas, speak with parents, hug my students goodbye. I smile and chat and pat people on the shoulder. Then I go home and read the cards from my students, and have a snotty, tear-streaked time of it.IMG_0152

Because our lives on the yoga mat hold up a mirror to our lives off it, I’ve recently been struggling with the Finishing Sequence of my practice. Fellow Ashtangis will know this as the shoulderstand/headstand/padmasana part. This is the part of the practice where we cool down the body with inversions in order to quiet the mind. Kino MacGregor, the great yogini, calls this “entering the inner space”.DownloadedFile

Recently, I can’t seem to occupy the inner space without shaking. With the end of the school year, coupled with the end of a significant chapter in my personal life, my headstand has been super-wobbly in an elbows straining, legs flailing, run-for-the-wall kind of way.

And there is nothing I can do but accept it. Breathe through it. And move on. Maybe this is the real lesson of endings. You will need to grieve.  Possibly with thank you cards and a big kleenex box. (And chocolate.) Eventually you will need to accept the ending, maybe not yet, but some day. Because, like that elusive first-rate conclusion, endings can widen your world-view by making room for new ideas. Even if you’re not exactly sure yet what those might be. As the poet Wendell Berry writes:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

Capital wanderings…and books

Summer arrives, and the teacher sighs with relief. And heads for the hills. Heads for the valley actually. The Ottawa Valley, where I grew up.

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Yes, they DO actually have summer in Ottawa. Here you see boats going through the Rideau Canal Lock System, beside Parliament Hill and below the Château Laurier. This was taken on one of the few warmest days. There were walks and bike rides with my family, space to think, time to read.

zevin_firky_hcI loved The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. A.J. Fikry is a thirty-nine year old bookseller who has just lost his wife and his priceless copy of Poe’s Tamerlane. Suddenly bereft of both love and retirement funds, one day he finds a basket in his bookstore. The basket contains a baby, and thus begins the storied part of A.J’s life. Thanks to baby Maya, A.J.reconnects to his Island community and finds love and friendship.

If this sounds hopelessly hokey and maudlin, let me assure you, it’s not. Zevin deftly avoids most of the traps of adoption stories and romance by giving us supporting characters as flawed and loveable as the grumpy bookman himself: Amelia, the charming rubber-boot wearing editor, Lamiase, the local police chief  who becomes a crime-fiction afficionado, and Maya herself, a budding writer. This a book about books and book lovers, and it is full of hope. And we all need that, whatever the season.

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Another novel I whipped through was Ruth Reichl’s novel Delicious. Those of you familiar with foodie publications may remember Reichl as the author of such mouth-watering and compassionate memoirs as Comfort Me With Apples and Tender at the Bone. She was also the Editor-in-Chief of the now defunct Gourmet magazine. Her new novel Delicious puts this past to good use, as it recounts the travails of a young woman named Billie who works at Delicious Magazine just as it is going bankrupt. A cache of letters between a young girl and the great cookbook writer James Beard, a romance, a family tragedy, and scrumptious scenes in an Italian deli are but a few of the pleasures of this novel. In spite of my terrible description, this book has a big heart. I hope readers will see beyond the chick-lit-esque plot and give it a chance.

So…that’s my summer so far. Tomorrow: on Ashtanga yoga, cooking and endings.