Mysore Practice

 

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5:30 AM Stepping out the cold dark night, I go up the stairs. In a dim studio, with lovely blond wood floors. I unroll my mat and step onto the grey surface. One or two friends are also stepping onto the mat as our Mysore assistant lights candles around the room. My toes push into the stickiness of my mat, grounding me and sending a rebounding energy upwards. Clasping my hands in prayer position, I silently recite the opening chant and send lovingkindness to those on my mind.

5:42 Sun salutations have begun to send energy through my body. I am counting breaths, and thinking only of breaths. (This is because my inner Dorothy Parker–the wise-cracking red wine-drinking dame I’m just not, except sometimes in my head—isn’t awake yet. Wine swilling glamour girls rarely are, at this hour).

6:04: In Ardha baddha padmasana (standing half lotus) Dorothy Parker suddenly jolts into life. As I painstakingly go into half lotus on the right, she wise-cracks….”some people are cool, and some people are Tragically Un-hip!” (Get it? unhip in a hip opener?)

6:31 In Marichyasana D, my teacher patiently helps me bind on the left side. My right obliques are on fiiiiyaaaaahh but I persevere. She calmly and safely holds me in the bind, and is kind enough to suggest I’m making progress.

6:36 I get my right hand and most of my left through in garbha pindasana, and roll clumsily up to my version of kukutasana, lifting my whole seat up as I press into my hands. Suddenly I feel strong. Dorothy Parker, however, would like to point out that it’s really probably only a 3 on the Kino-Index (Where 1 is a pile of kindling and 10 is Kino’s version of the pose, a joyful expression of strength and surrender to the Divine.)

6:52 Dropping back with my teacher’s help, I have an epiphany—LEGS! If you engage them properly they take the weight out of the lower back. Not sure if all of my dropbacks reflect this, but at least the penny has dropped. Or the nickel. Or whatever we’re calling that now. During the squish, my breath deepens. I am a sweaty but happy mess.

7:03 A fragile headstand, again with help. But held a full 12 breaths.

7:10 Clean mat, roll it up, go shower and go teach.

Why do I go to Mysore? Because it’s the heart of the practice, the best way to come to know yourself and the philosophy of yoga—compassion, truth, discipline— in your very bones.

Because the energy of the room is soothing and powerful, an ocean woosh of gentle breathing. Because my friends are all around me learning these same lessons, perhaps never suspecting how inspiring and graceful they look on the mat. Because our teachers and assistants are just the right amount of wise and demanding.

Because it has made me stronger in body and mind than anything else in my life. Because it works. Try it.

p.s. You may have noticed that the blog header got a little makeover. From now on, I’ll be trying to post more frequently, about three times per week. The poll below will help me figure out what sorts of topics you’d like to see here on bookishyogagirl.com.

Fall Books and a Question…

We have been rudely snapped back into the cold reality of autumn…14 degrees, charcoal skies. And the news—Franklin ship find, US takes on ISIS, Rob Ford falls ill—everything is happening so fast. Here’s a bit of Can-lit book news though, to balance out all the evil.

Fall Books….

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Girl Runner, a Novel by Carrie Snyder….Snyder, whom you may know as the writer of the quirky but brilliant Juliet Storiesis also a mother of four and a hard-core runner who blogs at Obscure Canlit Mamma. This book is the story of Aganetha Smart, who at 104 years old, is suddenly kidnapped from her nursing home by two young people whose motives become clear later in the story. Aganetha Smart grew up on a farm in small town Ontario, and became a member of the 1928 Olympic team. It’s a story about family, loyalty, and about running, “aimed towards a fixed point on the horizon that seems never to draw nearer.” Though it is not as literary as the Juliet Stories, Aganetha Smart has VOICE, a strong, reedy, unusual voice that crackles from the moment we meet her til the moment she vanishes into lost time as the story closes. Worth a read.

Between Gods, a Memoir by Allison Pick, author of the moving novel Far to Go. This is by far one of the most memorable books I’ve read in a long time. It is Pick’s visual and visceral recount of her conversion to Judaism. Her spiritual quest occurs as she recovers from depression, publishes her first book, marries and has a child. Thick with the curious grey fog from which the depressed are rarely released, this is a memoir of finding wholeness. Pick’s grandparents had been Holocaust survivors; once they immigrated, they had converted to Christianity and never spoke of their former religion. In reclaiming her Jewish background, Pick feels that she is not only redeeming herself, but her family too. Well but never over-written, oddly suspenseful for a memoir, and utterly engrossing. Read it 🙂

IMG_0134Delancey, by Molly Wizenberg, isn’t really a fall book (it came out this summer) and it’s not CanLit. But regular readers of the blog Orangette, and fans of Wizenberg’s first book, the foodoir A Homemade Life, will thoroughly enjoy this book. In her first book, Wizenberg details how she became a food writer, and through that, how she met her husband Brandon. A Homemade Life was a love story interspersed with wonderful recipes (really, everyone should try Wizenberg’s Banana Bread recipe!) which ended with a wedding. Delancey is the story we rarely get, the what-happened-after-happily-ever-after. In it, Wizenberg describes how her multi-passionate husband finally committed to creating the Seattle pizza restaurant Delancey, in which they both worked at as chefs. We are privy to everything–construction dust, assembling dough mixers, financing a restaurant, tremulous first days. We are also given a warts-and-all portrait of a marriage, one that survives and endures even when Molly Wizenberg decides that she can no longer work for the family business, and goes back to writing. Though it lacks the conventionally neat ending of A Homemade Life, Delancey feels more satisfying. It is brave, it is honest, it is real and loving.

And it leads me to my question…someone recently posted an info-graphic about happy marriages. After two failed relationships, I can honestly say I don’t know much about how this long-term togetherness works. I found the graphic illuminating. What do you think makes a happy marriage? Feel free to post in the comments. 

 

The Sweet End of Summer

Much gratitude to all of you who read and commented on my slightly ranty post about depression. Your support and understanding are truly appreciated.

It’s a bright day here, and a hot one too, the heat a paradoxical reminder that autumn and school are both right around the corner. But before we let ourselves be swept up in all that, here are a few ways to prolong the sweet end of summer…

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Walk on a beach with those you love…Along the Lakeshore in Toronto if you must. Or by the Canal in Ottawa. But preferably at Keppoch, or Brackley Beach on PEI. Preferably with the best parents in the world (my folks). Listen to the wind. See the white waves crashing along the shore. Feel the wet sand solid beneath your feet. Get lost in the peace of the horizon. While on PEI, don’t forget to eat Lobster, visit Green Gables, and make a pilgrimage to The Dunes, a quirky and beautiful pottery workshop, gallery and Buddhist garden near Covehead Harbour.

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Stock up on fresh, seasonal fruits and veggies. It’s raspberry, blueberry, and peach season. How awesome is that? Now, my feelings about peaches are similar to J.Alfred Prufrock’s….do I dare eat them in public? But peaches, with their sunset skins and runny sweetness, are one of the great, fleeting pleasures of life. They’re really only good about two weeks per year. So indulge…Slice one up and dollop it with Greek yoghurt and a spoonful of homemade granola…Or make Meghan Telpner’s Raw Peach Cream Pie. Et voilà, le déjeuner est servi !

IMG_0114Gear Up for Fall…Ok, so we’re not all scrubbing shelves, sorting books and setting up classrooms this time of year. (That’s the French book shelf in my Grade 6 FI classroom, and yes,  that is the LAST time this school year that it will be that neat. That’s good though, because when the bookshelf’s chaotic, it means the kids are reading. In French. SCORE!) But we can all revel in the fresh-start energy of September by taking a new class. Starting a new fitness regime. Setting small goals for ourselves. For example, two of my non-yoga, non-work goals this fall are to blog more often and to try two new recipes per week.

Lastly, I sometimes I think it’s ok to wallow in a warm bath of nostalgia. This was, in many ways, a brutal summer for me. It included endings, an important decision, a rigorous yoga training. It challenged me a lot. So perhaps I can be forgiven for wanting to harken back to a simpler time? A time of tapered jeans and big hair. A time of fluorescent colors and slap-on bracelets. A time when I was IN grade 6, not teaching it. 1989, to be precise. So here my friends is my secret (*covers face with hands and hangs head in shame*): I was a Roch Voisine fan. I will leave you with the earstwhile Acadian hunk singing Hélène, a song about a summer fling. I believe in 1989 we “studied” it with our new music teacher, a young man with curly hair who played guitar just like Roch. And when you’re in grade 6, these are the things that swoons are made of. Don’t judge. Just listen 😉

 

 

 

 

It Takes a Village

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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

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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.