It Takes a Village

IMG_0068

This is a view of Keppoch Beach, in PEI, where my Mom’s family is from. And before I post about the general awesomeness that is the Island, I wanted to talk about something a little more serious.

Depression and Anxiety.

In the wake of the sudden suicide of Robin Williams, much has been written about the importance of acknowledging mental illness and helping those who suffer from it benefit from treatment.

Firstly, let me say if you or someone you care about suffer from Depression or Anxiety, please speak to your doctor. These are serious conditions caused by imbalances in brain chemistry. A variety of useful treatments exist, including medication, therapy, or combinations of these. Cardiovascular exercise, certain supplements, and yoga have also been known to help. And it is VITALLY important to seek treatment.

But this post is not really about that. It’s about the external factors that make these treatments WORK. It’s about the Village.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In my ten years of schoolteaching, practicing yoga, and living adult life, I’ve come to believe it takes a village to do most things. It takes a village to stage a school musical, keep a Mysore program running, move houses and renovate, come to terms with grief. And for Mental Illness, it really takes a Village to support someone’s recovery.

So here’s what you need to know: it’s not enough to post heartfelt Facebook tributes to Robin Willians and pay lip service to the importance of treating Depression. Treatment itself is not enough. It needs to be supplemented with love, human contact, laughter. You need to show your support for your depressed parent, sibling, or friend with ACTION. How do you do this? REACH OUT.

You are NOT off the hook if the depressed person has a partner. Likely their partner would love it if you took their suffering beloved out for lunch, or if you dropped by for tea. Likely their partner would also be so grateful if you put a heavy hand on their shoulder and said: “How are YOU doing with all of this?”

You are NOT off the hook if you are busy. You are not off the hook if you have children, work three jobs or run a small empire. You can pick up the phone once your kids are in bed, and call your depressed friend. You can write them a kind “thinking of you” email or text before your big meeting. You can invite them over to hang out while you cook Monday’s dinner and supervise math homework. You can BE THERE. Silently offering tissues as they cry for reasons that seem silly or even illogical to you.

How much does it matter? A LOT.
How do I know? Well, I was once very close to someone who was going through Clinical Depression and Anxiety. And, since February, I have suffered from Depression myself.

On both sides of this situation, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. As the loved one of someone with a mental illness, I did not ask for help. I did not ask my loved one’s friends to drop by and play board games with him, I did not ask his family for support.

For my own bout with Depression, out of which I am thankfully emerging, I did not seek treatment as soon as I should have, which destroyed a very important relationship. I did not ask for all the hugs and listening and care I needed from my family and my friends. I was scared to do that. I didn’t want to be a burden.

Sometimes that feeling of not wanting to be a burden can transform into something darker–such as suicide. Robin Williams was a gifted actor. In his roles, he showed us all the humour and pathos of the human condition. But living so close to these extremes of dark and light, alive to the very marrow and poetry of existence, is often perilous. We need to remember that even the very gifted can suffer. Even they need both treatment AND support.

Thanks to a sympathetic doctor, a fantastic therapist, supplements and yoga, I have pulled through this episode of depression. I tell you about my errors in this area because I want you to benefit from my experiences. So that you can, in the words of the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado, “make sweet honey of my old failures.”

Here are some resources for those dealing with Depression, either their own or a loved one’s:

-A Canadian Resource providing explanations and treatment options for Depression depressionhurts.ca

-An article that might help if you are the caregiver, relative or friend of someone with Anxiety or Depression (about anxiety, but applies to both, in my opinion) http://hellogiggles.com/7-things-people-anxiety-want-loved-ones-know

Falling Into Grace

IMG_0007

This post began last Tuesday morning in the Mysore room, when I fell out of headstand. Hard.

My inner Dorothy Parker would like you to know it was an embarrassingly loud cymbal-like crash that everyone in the room heard and saw.

Talk about Eight Limbs. There was a looooonnng moment, seemingly in some twilight-ish space time continuum, where I could still feel both elbows on the ground, saw my hands come apart, and my legs scissor swing towards the wall. Miraculously, my neck was not broken. I was not concussed. My knee hit the wall, resulting in what is now a fashionable purple bruise.

Not going to lie. I did not breathe, meditate, or observe any of the yamas or niyamas. I went into child’s pose and began to weep. Quietly.

My teacher immediately came to check that I was ok. When I assured her I was, she gently coaxed me back into headstand, standing there to be my wall. I held it for 12 breaths as she whispered: “You got this” over and over. But as I walked home, I felt a curious mixture of adrenaline-fuelled fear and shame. Had I wanted that pose too much? Failed to practice aparigraha? Or worse, been guilty of a sort of tapas-fuelled hubris? A kind of—hey look how much progress I’m making, I can do headstand!

But then I realized something: that fall was a blessing. It showed me a lot of the Eight Limbs at work all around me. My teacher showing huge compassion (ahimsa) for my sore body and my bruised and fearful ego. The concentration (dharana) it took to get up there again immediately after falling. All the breathing I did as I walked home (pranayama).

Every time I have fallen in my life and my practice, it’s made me understand my students better. Not being able to hold a pose you’ve done hundreds of times is just as frustrating as not getting long division, or being talked about even though you’ve dispelled the rumour. Having your heart broken allows you to understand the eleven-year-old sobbing in front of you who didn’t get the role they wanted in the play. I always tell my grade 6 students that “everything is figureout-able”. The truth is, everything is figurout-able, if you keep practicing. If you keep growing. If you allow your practice, and your spectacular falls to change you.

My practice is my time to feel alive, loved and free. And over time, I think (I hope) it helps me make others feel that way too.

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.

IMG_0151

 

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.

leiner-reichlmashup

 

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.

Good Books….

Here’s a round-up of some interesting non-fiction I read earlier this “spring” (if that’s what we’re calling the cold grey downpour that was April). A note here, as these are three fairly glowing reviews—I am in NO way affiliated with any of these authors. Just appreciated their books.

IMG_0087

 

The Oh She Glows Cookbook by Angela Liddon Many of you know, and likely salivate while reading Angela Liddon’s beautiful blog www.ohsheglows. And if already you’re a fan of her inventive and delicious Vegan fare, warm, self-deprecating stories, and gorgeous food photography, then you’re in for a treat. Her cookbook glows too…from the nutrient packed, rainbow-colored smoothies section, to the impressive selection of Vegan mains, to the final fabulous dessert section, Angela does NOT disappoint. Everything I’ve tried so far has been scrumptious, and her YOLOS, a vegan interpretation of a popular roll-shaped candy, will convert the most sceptical anti-veg. Highly recommended, for Vegans and Non-Vegans alike.

28 Days Lighter by Ellen Barrett and Kate Hanley Ok, forget about the title for a moment–this is NOT a diet book, it’s about the menstrual cycle.  Gentlemen, you may want to go stick your fingers in your ears while singing LALALA for these next paragraphs.

Fitness expert Ellen Barrett and Wellness Coach Kate Hanley have teamed up to provide women with a detailed guide to understanding their menstrual cycle, with tips to make each phase more bearable. The goal here is not so much weight loss, but a deep understanding of the moon cycle that allows women to flow through the month (if you’ll excuse the expression) without bloating, cramping or pre-menstrual mood swings. This understanding is grounded in Western Medicine, but also in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Yoga and Ayurveda (Traditional East Indian Medicine).

Some of Barrett and Hanley’s suggestions are wise but very counter-cultural. For example, they recommend NO exercise and additional rest or sleep during the first two days of a woman’s period. The idea here is that the body is already working very hard to shed that uterine lining, and exercise diverts the body’s energy away from that crucial task, creating strain.  (Ashtanga yoginis will be familiar with this theory, as Pattabhi Jois also advocated for a “Ladies’ Holiday” from yoga practice during the first days of the cycle). For the pre-menstrual part of the cycle, which they name the Vixen phase, Barrett and Hanley recommend Solitude, Hydration, and Cardio. Essentially, the authors say that women should find the time to be by themselves and to walk briskly, dance or bike in order to channel energy and preempt irritability.

After implementing a few of their suggestions, and finding that they DO make a real difference in how I feel and react, I can heartily recommend this book. For more information, do check out the authors’ websites www.ellenbarrett.com or www.msmindbody.com

Paris Letters by Janice McLeod Ok, I admit, I am an unabashed fan of re-invention memoirs. (This couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that I am in my mid-thirties, and trying to re-invent myself. Heavens, no! ) And this one is especially fun.

This is the story Janice MacLeod, a Canadian copywriter who has achieved success. At the beginning of the book, she is living in a big American city, working for a large company. She has a nice apartment and financial ease. But she is beginning to feel trapped by her career and her mere two weeks of vacation per year.

One New Year’s, she resolves to write three pages in her journal everyday, and to see what changes result. In so doing, she discovers she wants to travel. Thus begins a money saving blitz during which Janice MacLeod cuts out all frills, becomes Vegan (to avoid the expense of meat) and generally scrimps.  At the end of it, she has saved enough money to go to Europe for a year. While in Paris, she meets and falls in love with a butcher named Christophe. After travelling through more of Europe. Christophe calls her back to Paris. There, Janice starts a business sending subscription water-color illustrated letters about Paris back home to Canada and the United States. She is still making a living by writing, only now, she writes about what she loves, on her own hours, in a truly enchanting setting.

What sets this book apart from the traditional re-invention memoir is MacLeod’s refreshing frankness. She tells us what she had to give up to save money, including a whole list of saving tips at the end of the book. She is also careful to point out that challenges constantly come up, even in her new life : MacLeod struggles to learn French. All of which makes for a very pragmatic, but still quite inspiring book. Do check out her continued adventures in Paris at: www.janicemacleod.com

Signs of Spring…

Um, until today, there were none. On Wednesday it was still -9 here in Toronto, with a snow squall warning in effect until midnight. (Snow squall? What it is, January in the North Atlantic? Aaarrrrgg. End of weather rant.)

But here’s what giving me hope this week:

IMG_0083 Purple and yellow tulips from a thoughtful friend.

IMG_0087

Good books…more on them very soon!

And THIS video by genius French singer Corneille. I dare you not to feel happy after hearing this one! Have a great week, everyone…

 

 

Learning to trust myself

March. Suddenly the sun, after months of absence, has taken on that lemony clear quality of light that foretells the coming of spring. It was pouring through the window after morning practice last Friday as I was hanging out in a Junction coffee shop, drinking tea and chatting with my favourite yoga friends. And it made me feel blessed. Blessed, and a bit reflective.

You see, these friends have known me throughout the whole shift. Sometimes growth is slow to happen, but then it happens all at once. I’ve come a long way in five years.

Five years ago, my life began to shift, slowly at first, then very fast, as I went through yoga teacher training, got separated, moved, got divorced and kept growing.

Back then I was doing a lot of cardio and weight training. Now I practice Ashtanga yoga six times per week, strength train a few times a week, and run…occasionally. I teach and learn more about yoga whenever I can.

Back then I ate fruit and processed cereal for breakfast everyday before I drank my heavily sweetened cup of coffee. Now I still eat fruit, and occasionally homemade granola, and drink green tea.

Back then I went to bed late, and tortured myself with negativity. I really hated myself. I thought I was terrible at everything: teaching, being a wife, staying thin. Now, I’m careful about rest. I acknowledge my faults—temper, sweet tooth, tendency towards melodrama—but I don’t hate myself anymore. I love my body and all that it does for me—how it supports me in headstands, lets me play tag with my students, teach, write poetry and just be. I accept that I am me, and I am learning.

Not that my war with myself has completely ended. You see, last November, I was working, practicing and teaching yoga, and running four times per week. My hip flexors hurt all the time. My body felt heavy. And then I fell ill.

Like, really ill. I had pneumonia in both lungs and had to be off work. I couldn’t practice or run. Midway through the first course of antibiotics, I felt no better. Luckily my doctor found another antibiotic.

Then I was well again, but so frail, and my doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to run for a while. But I could do yoga.

Somewhere deep inside my brain, my thin-alarm went off. “What if I gain weight because I’m not running?” So got a little obsessive about strength training, on top of yoga. But then the gains I was making in my practice started to disappear, and I realized something.

I’m enough.

My practice is enough. If I really commit to yoga, and walk like I normally do, I’ll be fine.

I believe it was Goethe who said: “Trust yourself, and you will know how to live.”

I’m still learning how to do that.

My blog

Here, without further ado, is my blog…A space to record my thoughts on what I’m reading, yoga poses I’m struggling with, the general mayhem of teaching middle school or random yummy recipes. Your patience is appreciated, as I figure out this scary new world of uploads and coding! Comments are welcome, but please be kind 🙂