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Toronto Yoga Conference 2018 (Day 2)

I wake at 7:00am and hit snooze; I’m instantly regretting that I agreed to go see the Jets game at a pub somewhere with Andrea this evening. Early to bed is pretty much my life motto. I hop out of bed, throw on the kettle and head into the shower — that kettle takes absolutely forever to boil. After my shower, I hear Andrea stirring in the guest bedroom and she begins to rise as well. I’m so excited to have her here! We both make tea and have our breakfasts; every morning starts with a peanut butter banana protein smoothie for me, it’s my favourite! The whole morning makes me nostalgic and brings me back to being roommates with my best friend. I think women are just so great to live with; we’re so tidy, accommodating and considerate. I note aloud that it’s Friday the 13th but Andrea believes today is actually a lucky day. “What you associate it with is what is becomes,” she muses, radiating with her trademark gentle positivity. I glance in the mirror and realize it’s apparently day two of my ninja attire… again, I’m in black from head to toe.

We walk over to the Conference and today it’s not raining, just incredibly grey — typical Toronto. We are both attending Todd Norian’s full day session “Unforgettable Hands On Adjustments.” It’s in the same room as his Restorative Yoga session that I took last year with my sister. The doors open on time and everyone pours in, diplomatic mat placement negotiations in full swing. Some attendees are more particular than others in this department. Norian makes a reference to the auditory technician who gets the speakers to work: “The sound guy, he’s opened all our channels.” He gets a few giggles with this line of standard yoga cheese. He is a lean looking man, diminutive in stature— I note that he is also only wearing black. I don’t know how else to describe him other than he really does look like a Todd. Anyway, he’s the founder of Ashaya yoga and has been teaching for 38 years, longer than I’ve been alive.

He asks how many attendees are teachers, almost everyone raises their hands; then he asks how many attendees are students… most of us raise our hands. “Everyone better raise their hands,” he teases, “because the prerequisite for being a good teacher is being a good student.” We chant OM together three times and I’m in love with how my voice blends into the larger sound of the group; I can feel the vibrations in my body but my sound becomes one with everyone else’s.

Hands on adjustments, he begins, are useful to help students learn the more subtle aspects of the pose that other kinds of cues sometimes fail to communicate. As teachers, we must be able to provide our students with not only visual and auditory cues but also kinaesthetic cues. Offering hands on adjustments is an art form that has a required skill set and includes an important intuitive component, the ability to “sense” the student in their body. According to Norian, knowledge and experience are one the same. Confidence develops when we build our knowledge and accumulate our experience(s), thereby acquiring the necessary technical skills.

“You are a vessel of the universal,” Norian almost sings, “hands on adjustments are a part of your ability to transmit energy as well as feelings of safety and caring. You need confidence that you are connected to a bigger energy in order to become its vessel. To recognize yourself as a clear and open channel of unconditional love, we have to reach a level of confidence by learning to let go —becoming receptive, the ability to receive — to open ourselves to a bigger energy.” I’m pleased when he clarifies that the bigger energy he is referring to is not a religious concept: “Just recognize that there’s something breathing you; there’s an electromagnetic field we can’t see, what we refer to as the prana energy in asana — you are the crystallization of the divine’s desire to know itself.” Bottom line, when it comes to hands on adjustments, “what is transmitted through you is where you live inside yourself.” In other words, the intention with which you touch someone is what gets transited.

In his teaching ethos, offering positive adjustments demands that we operate from a space of clear intention that seeks to “facilitate the awakening of the student’s spirit, such that their heart are able to open and they can express their heart more fully in the pose.” Our adjustments must be intended to enhance the student’s experience and expression — not just to “correct” their pose because “the judgment of right and wrong can get in the way” of offering the experience of a positive adjustment. Valid adjustments include those that seek to stabilize, manipulate, soften or direct; invalid adjustments include those that are done from a space of the teacher’s own neediness as a source of contact or, worse, those that are inappropriate or violating kinds of touch. Our adjustments must “serve the student’s spirit so that their heart can awaken and express more fully through the beauty of the pose.”

Norian outlines the four guiding principles of the Ashaya yoga discipline when practicing a posture: 1) become receptive in attitude; 2) engage and activate the appropriate muscle groups; 3) integrate alignment of bone structure 4) fully and confidently expand into the shape of the pose. Continuing on this line, in Ashaya yoga, every hands on adjustment operates according to the three Ms: melt, mold, and move, the guiding principle to ensure we are touching in a both sensitive and safe way. He provides a structured sequential approach to offering adjustments. First, teachers must make their presence known to the student and ask permission to perform an adjustment in order to avoid the unsettling “sneak attack.” This is especially important because Norian suggests that adjustments should primarily happen from behind the pose (not blocking the gaze) from a standing position (superior leverage). When the teacher places their hands upon the student, they should let them linger or “melt” for a moment, allowing the teacher to sense the tone of the student (this allows for the teacher’s intuition to interpret the needs of the student). The teacher’s hands then “mold” onto the student, shaping the hand around the muscle or bone and then applying the appropriate level of pressure. Finally, the teacher “moves” the student according to the trajectory or intention of the adjustment. Melt, mold, move: the three guiding principles.

We spend the next eight hours (minus a very welcome two hour lunch break) practicing, dissecting and discussing adjustments for a variety of postures. In Table Top Pose, we learn how to address a kyphotic thoracic spine. In Downwards Facing Dog, we address internally rotated shoulders as well as reverse curvature in the lumbar spine. In Triangle Pose, we correct hyperextension in the front knee with the clever angled placement of a block. I snap an adorable photo of two fellow attendees, Denise and Allison, while they practice an adjustment in Half Moon Pose, learning how to provide a sense of stabilization for the standing leg and top hip. When we shift from standing poses toward prone facing back bends, we work on Bound Locust and Bow Pose. We focus on the internal rotation of the thigh bones as well as learning how to provide extra leverage for a deeper (but structurally aligned) expression. Lastly, before our lunch break, we learn how to assist the rotation of a Seated Twist variation as well as a how to provide an absolutely lovely lengthening of the cervical spine with just a light lift of the skull.

During the lunch break, Andrea and I have lunch together and then wonder through the massive Yoga Show, hundreds of vendors pitching every imaginable kind of product and merchandise. I stop at Spiritual Gangster and purchase overpriced but adorable crop tops; I console myself with repeated statements that their clothing is “great quality.” Andrea falls in love with Moon Phase jewellery and buys necklaces for herself as well as her 16 year old daughter. We pick up our swag bags and I don’t want the fleece jacket given to the VIP attendees so instead I take the grey yoga mat bag. We head back to the session room and I’m jealous that one of the girls got chocolate in her swag bag while all I got is stupid chia seeds and organic protein powder (both of which are actually awesome but I’m hitting a midday slump and could really use a sugar boost — did I tell you I gave up coffee? Ugh).

The post lunch portion of our session begins with a brief lecture on Tantric philosophy. “In Tantric philosophy, you are already whole and complete,” Norian states gently. “The practice becomes remembrance, remembering that you are whole and complete — but forgetfulness is designed in the system because without forgetting we wouldn’t have the delight of remembering.” He touches on the feelings of self doubt, self hatred and deep seated fear that so many of us struggle with and his words resonate with me. The ground of our being is joy, wholeness and bliss but we can’t access this because our bubble of consciousness is covered in a dust (“mala,” or the divine concealing itself) creating within us a sense of lack (think: I am not enough, I am unworthy) which, thereby, creates a desire for fullness, the source of our drive to remember. “We are the limited version of the unlimited,” Norian explains, “The universe has chosen to forget itself for the pleasure of remembering itself.” We just need to remember that we are already enough and we are always worthy.

In Tantric philosophy, there are no mistakes in life, just learning opportunities. “Challenges only come when you’re ready for a promotion, when you’re ready for positive change,” he assure us, “Life is a school and we’re just here to learn. Everything in this life is for your awakening.” The happiness that comes from remembering our true nature is permanent and unreasonable, meaning it’s a happiness that is not externally created or the result of any specific reason whatsoever - it just is, always. I admit, I choke up a little bit when he says, “Permanent joy is our true nature and birth right, it is the gift of life — you can’t earn it, you are already worthy and you never have to pay it back.” How f*cking freeing is that concept? Really though.

We continue on from here, learning more adjustments. In Extended Side Angle, we address the appropriate thigh rotation of both legs as well as how to increase shoulder range of motion by drawing the head of the arm bone more firmly into the shoulder socket before reaching overhead. In Triangle Pose, Norian teaches a deep back bend variation that’s unnecessary for my hyper-mobile self but will be useful for many of my significantly less bendy students. Part of the Conference experience teaches me how to reconcile different approaches to postures coming from the interpretations of different instructors and how useless the judgement of right and wrong really is. For example, McNeil advocated for practicing with less depth in Triangle Pose, only moving as far as the pelvis can tip over the front hip because after that point, the spine starts to compensate for the reach and begins to side bend. She presented an interpretation of Triangle Pose as an oblique strengthener. On the other hand, Norian presents an interpretation of Triangle Pose that is a bend bend. Both interpretations are valid (because they’re technically both safe) but they’re vastly different.

Norian asks for a volunteer to demonstrate Supta Padangusthasana 1, 2 & 3. I don’t quite catch the Sanskrit name of the poses but, eager to engage with him one on one, I raise my hand to volunteer anyway. “I don’t know what those poses are,” I admit when he selects me. “Well thanks for being so trusting,” he smiles. It turns out he’s after what I refer to as Reclined Leg Stretch A, B & C. This is actually a favourite series of mine to begin classes with because it’s done from a supine position so students can relax while they work to open and awaken the back of the legs, the inner thighs as well as the hips. I’m pleased that the adjustments he provides me through throughout the series are actually the same that I routinely provide my students (Yaaaaay! I’m doing something right, I think to myself).

Toward the end of the session, we learn how to adjust Bridge Pose by simultaneously lengthening the thigh bones toward the knees and grounding down, as well as how to use a strap under the shoulder blades to provide traction and facilitate a deeper opening for the diaphragm. Finally, we learn some lovely adjustments to Savasana that I can’t wait to bring back to my students. We conclude by chatting with the other attendees about our experience before we chant OM together one last time.

I’m buzzing with positive vibes but I am thrilled when the session is over and feel utterly exhausted. There’s just so much knowledge to process. I remember this feeling of saturation from previous years. I’m supposed to attend Diane Bruni’s workshop on fascia and the aging process but I’m so burnt out from the day that I give myself permission just to settle with just reading her 8 page electronic hand out on the workshop. Even that is a lot to be honest. I walk home by myself as Andrea has another session to attend before she’s done. When I return home, I allow myself the space to unwind and sort through all of my thoughts. Tomorrow will be a long and active day so I head to bed after (a few) glasses of wine.

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