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On Being Stuck (aka, The Day I Fell Out of Love With Yoga)

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I remember the shock I felt when I uttered the words, “I hate yoga.”  I had been struggling with my practice for months,  but the realization that I had fallen out of love with yoga felt like being kicked in the gut.

Up to that point, I had done my best to remain equanimous about my situation:  I observed my discomfort mindfully with as little judgement as possible, trying to surrender with dignity and grace to the moment.  The truth, however, was that I was crawling out of my skin and my patience had worn thin.

I watched helplessly as my relationship with yoga unravelled.  This sacred practice, which not only changed my life but saved it, became another glaring indictment of what I loser I was.  Yoga and I avoided each other.  Its once-endearing quirks now annoyed me.  We stopped sharing the same bed.  We even began talking about divorce.

Around this time I read an article by Judyth Hill.  In it she talked about how being stuck can bring with it a sense of safety and we become invested in staying there.  At what point do we decide to move out of this predicament?  And how do we do it?

She asked her son, an avid climber, what he does when he’s clinging to a rock face with seemingly nowhere to go.  As a climber, I’ve found that scaling walls and practicing yoga are remarkably similar on an internal level, so it stands to reason that the way out immobility in one can lend itself to the other.

When I’m stuck on a tough route, it’s amazing how easily I convince myself that I’m hanging out there because I want to enjoy the beautiful view, but eventually I can’t deny the fact that I need to move on.  Breathtaking vista aside, I realize that the only way out is through, so I have to take a leap of faith.

Hill offered up a roadmap to moving through the sticky, uncomfortable morass, breaking it down into four steps:

Shift:  Climbing is all about finding balance.  So is yoga.  Sometimes the shift is literal, such as bringing my weight forward onto my upper arms so that my feet can float off the floor in Bakasana.  But just as likely the required shift is in my perspective.  What are the small ways I can quiet my discursive chatter so that my practice can unfold, unfettered by self-recriminations?

Reach:  I’ll never get to the top of a rock face if I don’t act on that leap of faith and continue upwards, staying rooted to my breath and my body.  Likewise, by remaining open and curious in my yoga practice, I allow myself to fully occupy each moment on the mat.

Is being stuck merely a way for me to feel safe?  As uncomfortable as inertia feels, it’s predictable, so there’s no risk involved.  Can I allow myself the time and space to explore my practice with childlike curiosity, to try new things?  Can I set aside my notions of what a ‘good” yogini is, cut myself some slack, and enjoy my practice?

Commit:  In climbing I often hear my partner telling me to commit to a move, to act on my intention.   To what extent am I allowing fear, fatigue, aching muscles, or frustration to prevent me from getting onto the mat?  If yoga transformed my life as much as I say it has, is my continued commitment to it reflected in my efforts?  Am I actually getting up off my asana?

Trust:  “Trust your feet” is also something I hear frequently when climbing.  Can I trust myself – and the practice of yoga itself – to guide me, even if I end up falling on my face while attempting Bakasana?  How much is my ego holding me back?  Can I let it go and just relax, knowing that I don’t need to feel embarrassed about not being perfect?

I’ve been giving myself gentle reminders since then, both on and off the mat, to apply the sage wisdom offered up by this young man.  I’ve found the Shift-Reach-Commit-Trust mantra helpful in a host of ways – in my meditation practice, my approach to my career, my sometimes thorny family relations – and it’s proving to be a wonderful way to see my way through the muck.

I can’t say that I’m entirely out of feeling stuck, but I’m on my way.  Nor can I say that I’m madly in love with yoga the way I was when I first began practicing.  And I think that’s a good thing, because no relationship can maintain the flush of new love forever.  It’s exhausting and unsustainable.  In order for a relationship to deepen and mature, it needs to move past infatuation and ground itself in a balanced, realistic way.  Divorce yoga?  Nah, not a chance.

-Elizabeth Ewanchuk

Bio: Elizabeth Ewanchuk feels privileged to support clients as they create rich, vibrant, balanced lives for themselves. Plus, she gets to wear yoga gear and go barefooted all day.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

While Bakasana continues to challenge her, she’s at peace with repeatedly falling on her face (though some folks wonder why the bridge of her nose is always bruised).

When not bending and stretching folks, Elizabeth can be found curled up with a good book and a cat, toodling around town on her orange scooter, Lola, or indulging her love of heights as a climbing enthusiast.


Yoga in the Park

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Join Octopus Garden on Sundays from 10:30am to 11:30am for yoga classes in Dufferin Grove Park. We are pleased to be able to offer this for free to the community, and we would love to see you there!

The classes will be held each week near the middle of the park, to the west of the central playground. They will run until August 28th and will feature a different Octopus Garden teacher each week. Please bring your own mat.

Ask the OG Team…

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You asked: How do I take care of my yoga mat?

We asked the current Yoga Teacher Trainees in our Effective Teaching: 300 hour Advanced Teacher Training course and they came up with some great suggestions.

Spray Bottle Method: Mix 10 drops of Tea tree oil into a spray bottle of water. If your mat is lightly soiled or needs a freshen up, spray the mat or a damp cloth and wipe it down.  Dry with a clean terry cloth towel. Tea Tree oil has natural disinfecting properties that work wonders. You can add a couple drops of your favorite essential oil if you don’t like the smell of Tea Tree. (At  Octopus Garden we use the Tea Tree Oil solution in our studio spray bottles.)

Bath Tub Method: For mats that require a deeper clean, wash your mat in a tub of cool water with a mild, biodegradable detergent, like laundry soap or dish soap.  Use only a small amount of soap because any residue may cause your mat to become slippery when it gets wet from perspiration. A good trick is to roll your mat up tight with a towel and step on the roll to soak up water or soap residue. Then hang it outside to dry on a sunny day.

Laundry Machine Method: Wash your mat with a load of towels or a couple other mats, in a front loader machine only, as your mat will knock a top loader machine out of balance. You can then put your mat in the dryer on low heat but remember to watch it so it doesn’t melt. A cool cycle works best to get out the initial moisture and then hang dry to finish. It is important to note that not all mats can be washed in this way. Please consult the manufacture’s instructions before you proceed!

What do I do with a new mat that seems slippery?: It is not uncommon to unwrap your new mat and find it a bit slippery. You can try to soften it by washing it or spraying it after every use with the Tea Tree solution. The best way to get past this is to practice as much as you can on it, 10 to 15 times to help reduce the initial slipperiness. Practice…Practice.

Thanks Teacher Trainees for this great advice. And whenever it seems as if your mat needs some freshening up take it home and give it a clean. Your mat will thank you for it!

To teach, do not be a teacher.

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To teach, do not be a teacher.

As the path of Teacher training unfolds in front of me I came across this quote a friend sent me from Ken McLeod, Buddhist meditation teacher, writer and scholar on teaching.

To teach, do not be a teacher. A walker appears only when a person starts to walk: a teacher appears only when two people interact in a certain way. There is no ‘teacher’ as such, but when conditions are right, teaching (and learning) take place. The same, of course, is true for ‘student’. To see oneself as a teacher is to create an imbalance in the world.

A person may sit in a room and talk about the most profound understandings and insights but there is no teaching (let alone a teacher) if there is no one else present (or no one is listening).

One has only what one experiences. As time passes and one accumulates more and more experience, there is a greater and greater tendency to see the person in front of you in terms of that experience. Assumptions and projections proliferate, and the results are both inevitable and predictable.

In each encounter, put aside everything you think you know. It won’t go away: it will be there if and when you need it. But in forgetting about it, you create the conditions for seeing ‘the direction of the present’ and what is to unfold in each moment.

When people thank and praise you, what they say has nothing to do with you. This is just their way of expressing joy in their own experience. Remember this, too, when people blame or criticize you.

Rest deeply in your own experience: you will know, through your body and feelings, whether you responded to the direction of the present, or fell into projection and reaction.

Consider carefully the question “Why do I teach?” In the end, it must, in some way, be part of your path – that is, when you teach, you wake up in some way.

The Octopus Garden Teacher Training and Yoga Education program is a comprehensive 1000-hour curriculum divided into three segments: 200-hours, 300-hours, and 500-hours. Begin with the fundamentals of self-practice, expand your teaching skills in the second segment, and advance towards a yoga therapy specialization in the final component. This program is the most extensive and rigorous teacher training of its kind in Canada and exceeds the highest standards of the Yoga Alliance.

Want more information? We invite you to join us for an informal question and discussion period with Scott, Pat, and program alumni. Upcoming information sessions are scheduled for Saturday, June 18 at 1-2pm and Tuesday, July 19 at 7-8pm.

Stay tuned… next weeks postings will be letters from our teacher trainees about the program.

Thank you David Good and Ken McLeod.

The Longer You Practise Yoga, the Happier and Healthier You’ll Be

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From Monday’s Globe and Mail

When Nina Moliver decided to study the long-term health and wellness effects of yoga for her doctoral research in psychology, one of her professors offered some advice.

“The yoga world doesn’t need more testimonials,” the professor at Arizona’s Northcentral University told her. “The only way you’re going to communicate with the medical community is with numbers.”

Yoga science is a burgeoning discipline, with researchers probing yoga’s effects on everything from stress hormones to skin conditions. But how can a typical four to six-week study capture the benefits of an ancient mind-body discipline that takes years, if not decades, to master? It can’t, Dr. Moliver concluded – so she decided to take a radically different approach that offers the first quantitative look at yoga’s long-term benefits. And the results of her study are promising for dedicated yoginis.

The “gold standard” in medical research is the randomized controlled trial, or RCT. Subjects are randomly assigned to receive either an experimental treatment or a placebo or sham treatment. Yoga fits uneasily into this model: It’s impossible to “blind” participants to which group they’re in, and imposing a standardized protocol runs counter to yoga’s ethic of individual progress.

But the more serious problem is practical. Prospective trials tend to last only a few weeks or months, which means conventional studies are “forever studying beginners,” says Dr. Moliver, who is now a research consultant in Boston. It’s simply not practical to randomly assign volunteers to a yoga practice and expect them to maintain it for a decade.

The alternative is observational studies. Dr. Moliver’s thesis, completed last year, surveyed 211 women who had been practising yoga for as long as 50 years, plus 182 matched controls. Her goal was to search for a “dose-response” relationship between cumulative yoga experience and positive psychological attitudes, perceptions of aging, medication usage and other traits, while using statistical analysis to eliminate confounding factors like age, education, body-mass index, other exercise and processed-food consumption.

“I wanted to see if there were linear relationships, where more yoga leads to more benefits,” she says. “Because the yoga masters make these claims, but nobody has ever tested them.”

Sure enough, the study found that levels of psychological and physical well-being among the study participants were proportional to how long and how often the women practised yoga – a greater dose produced a greater effect.

Interestingly, the most experienced yoginis weren’t necessarily happier or healthier than the happiest and healthiest non-yoginis, at least in the parameters Dr. Moliver was able to measure. “They didn’t find ‘enlightenment’ that others can’t reach,” she says. The biggest differences were at the other end of the scale, in the scarcity of unhealthy or unhappy long-time yoga practitioners.

Unfortunately, one question observational studies can’t address is how yoga works. Traditional yoga teaching ascribes its benefits to prana, a Sanskrit word meaning “vital life” – a concept that’s difficult to measure, and thus, as Dr. Moliver points out, easy to ignore.

Timothy McCall, a doctor and the author of Yoga as Medicine, cites studies investigating more conventional explanations for yoga’s powers, such as its influence on the body’s physiological response to stress, the connection between breathing and the autonomic nervous system, and the emerging evidence that the brain can rewire itself in response to techniques like meditation – “crucial components, though not the whole story, of yoga’s efficacy,” he points out.

Dr. Moliver’s research can’t settle this question, and it can’t conclusively untangle cause from effect. After all, it’s possible that happy people do yoga, rather than the other way around, or that the discipline necessary to maintain a yoga practice over many decades is the type of character trait that leads to a happy and healthy life, with or without yoga.

But such debates don’t undermine Dr. Moliver’s central finding. Whatever the reason, those who make a long-term commitment to yoga tend to be happier and healthier – and the benefits continue to accrue the longer you stick with it.

“There’s no plateau,” she says. “What the masters promised was true.”

What type of yoga is best?

The subjects in Nina Moliver’s study reported following more than a dozen different yogic traditions, including Kripalu, Hatha, Iyengar, Anusara and Kundalini. She found no significant differences between the followers of different traditions – in fact, she says, most people end up taking elements from several traditions to create a program that works for them. So what’s the “essence” of yoga that distinguishes it from, say, an aerobics class? For the purposes of her study, Dr. Moliver emphasized three elements:

Asana: These physical postures and patterns found in yoga are dominant in many Western practices

Breathing: Controlled breathing exercises, or pranayama, link the physical and spiritual realm

Awareness: Meditation and concentration on internal sensations differentiate yoga from most conventional forms of exercise.

Thanks goes out to the  Alex Hutchinson and Globe and Mail  for reporting on the benefits of yoga.

Ask the OG Team…

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You asked: I experience muscle cramps, can a shift in my diet help? 

We asked OG’s Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Kate Leinweber.

Make sure you are drinking enough water. Dehydration can show up physically as pain and tightness in the calves. If you are drinking reverse osmosis filtered water add a few grains of Himalayan salt to re-mineralize. Minerals are required to properly digest, absorb, and assimilate the water.

Minerals are key in the contraction and relaxation of our muscles. Magnesium in particular is related to the act of relaxing the muscles. Muscle cramps, twitches, and poor sleep can be signs of a magnesium deficiency. Foods high in magnesium include buckwheat, oats, whole wheat, artichokes, almonds, and cooked spinach. Cooking with homemade soup stock is a natural way to supplement the full spectrum of minerals.  Good quality magnesium comes in a supplement as well a tea called Natural Calm found at any health food store.

You asked: Why do I crave sweets when I am stressed or tired? What can I do to lessen these cravings? 

Carbohydrates are the fastest form of energy we can provide our body. When we are stressed we burn more calories and can crave sweets, and when we are tired we crave sweets for a quick burst of energy. These situations often arise when our blood sugar is low, but just in taking sugary snacks is not the answer. Simple carbohydrates which include: refined sugar, white flour and white rice, cause a spike in our blood sugar and then a rapid crash afterwards. This fluctuation causes a lot of stress on our pancreas and can lead to a pre-diabetic condition (hypoglycemia).  The adrenal glands also attempt to regulate blood sugar, but over time can result in general fatigue and exhaustion.  If you have been diagnosed with hypoglycemia there are specific eating patterns that can greatly reduce your symptoms.

A diet which includes whole grains as well as a healthy source of fat can contribute to long-term energy sources and help our bodies deal with stress in daily life. Fat provides endurance and long-term energy. A variety of fats are required for balanced energy including unsaturated fats: flax, hemp, olive oil, or avocado, and of equal importance saturated fats found in meat, dairy, or coconut oil.

There are other imbalances in the body that can cause sugar cravings ranging from an imbalance in macronutrient intake to candida overgrowth.  Meeting with a qualified Nutritionist can help you design a simple daily meal plan that specifically helps your body stay in balance.

Thanks Kate.

Kate’s holistic model empowers each client with knowledge of how whole foods can sustain a healthy and whole body.

Let the Beat Go On…

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Octopus Garden is excited to have Anita Katakkar’s drumming beats accompany our Friday 630 to 800pm Level 1-2  class, lead by Alix Bemrose.  We asked Anita to share her take on drumming in a Vinyasa class and how it can deepen your practice.

I have two practices: yoga and playing tabla (the premiere drum of North India). I’ve practiced yoga for the past 9 years and have played tabla for the past 16 years. I think that I’ve deepened my yoga practice through my tabla practice and vice versa. In my experience my yoga practice is the most powerful when I dedicate it to someone else. Similarly, the best musical sessions that I’ve had with others are when my only agenda is to completely support them. In both my yoga and tabla practices, I listen to my breathing, and have learnt to pay attention to the emotions that result from the composition I’m playing or the asana I’m taking. I’ve learned the importance of my core and have related the balance of my hands in many yoga poses to the balance of my hands while playing tabla. In both practices, I’ve learnt the importance of separating my non stop influx of thoughts from my sense of self.

Indian music, in general, is largely an improvised art form. In accompaniment (dance, instrumental or vocal) it is the tabla’s role to follow the mood of the person they are accompanying. One of my beloved yoga teachers (Jeannine Woodall) asked me to play for a yoga class a few years ago. I played to a single loop that I burned onto a CD for the entire class. I remember becoming very aware of the energetic levels as the class progressed – it starts out low, then becomes very energetic and flowing for vinyasa and standing poses, then dips for seated poses, rises again for inversions and back bends, and then comes back down for samastithi. I also remember recognizing the equivalent importance of silence and sound.

Since then, through developing my accompaniment style to yoga, I try to honour the need for space while also trying to capture the mood exuding from the class. My weekly residency with Elke Shroeder in 2009 – 2010 allowed me to develop my accompaniment style to where it is today. Elke liked to link breath to movement for part of the class and then in the other part, she let this link go. Playing for yoga class is not an exact science, which I love, because it allows me to explore a creative side that etiquette does not allow for when playing classically. My other non traditional outlet is my solo project Rakkatakwhich merges Indian classical rhythms with instrumental melodies and electronic soundscapes.

When accompanying yoga, in addition to my tabla, I bring in a laptop and loop a plethora of samples including drones, beats and melodic samples. Going forward on Fridays, I’m playing weekly with Alix Bemrose at Octopus Garden and am excited to see where it will evolve to next. Hope to see you out!