Toronto Yoga Conference 2018 (Day 3)

April 15, 2018

I wake up on time and, as per routine, I put on the kettle, hop into the shower and begin to get ready. Andrea rises shortly thereafter and we chat about the experience of yesterday’s sessions. She’s excited about the moon phases she learned about yesterday and that makes me smile. We have our breakfasts and enjoy our morning tea. Andrea is incredibly easy to room with; she even put away the dishes last night and found a new roll of paper towel. We walk over to the Conference and part ways, agreeing to meet up later. She’s told me there’s a good chance she’s going to skip her middle session for a nap which, given my state, sounds like a great option to me. I head toward the lower level where my first session is located, riding the escalator with a sense of great indifference on the way down. 

 

Travis Eliot’s “Holistic Flow: Vitality” is first up on my docket. The room is already packed when I get there so I just throw my mat down pretty much right in front of the door. The room is hot and I immediately regret wearing fleece lined, high waisted tights and a cotton t-shirt. That’s when I realize I definitely have a bit of a wine flu. Eliot introduces himself and his wife to the class and begins outlining the intention of the practice to come: “Vitality is something innate, something we’re all born with,” he says. “Although we are born with it, things usually obstruct that vitality from being as full and radiant as possible, preventing us from reaching our full potentiality.” Today’s practice will be all about circulation which he describes as facilitating the elimination of toxins, the reduction of stress and tension as well flushing fresh new nutrients through the body’s organs; improved circulation allows our vitality to expand. Oh gosh, I am so glad I had that wine last night, I think to myself with great sarcasm. “We’re more than the physical body, we’re the energetic body — the mind, the heart, the wisdom self and the spirt and the soul,” he exudes enthusiasm. “After this two hour holistic yoga flow, you should feel like you’re firing on all cylinders.” OH. Wonderful. 

 

We start in Child’s Pose and my hips feel incredibly stiff. I rest my brow on a block and adjust my position several times. Starting in Child’s Pose is challenging for me first thing in the morning, but I do welcome the position of rest. We transition to Downwards Facing Dog and my hands immediately begin to slip on my brand new Manduka mat. I try to keep flowing through a few vinyasa but the slippage proves impossibly irritating. In sweaty frustration, I get up, grab my shoes and wallet and leave the room to head upstairs and buy my old reliable, the  B-Mat. I’m back in my spot within 7 minutes. I move through about 75% of the practice and spend the rest next to death on my back in Savasana. {Haha, Corpse pose…) The genuinely concerned blue haired volunteer asks me if I’m alright and if I require “assistance.” I informed her rather dryly that I am simply experiencing the joys of a hang over. Despite my admission, there’s not an ounce of shame in my voice. Whatever — I am yogi, not perfect. But, seriously, I really should have planned this out better… Tail between my legs, I crawl out the door about 30 minutes before the practice ends and decide to work on this entry instead.

 

Coby Kozlowski will lead the next session I’m scheduled to attend: “Wave Rider: Flowing through the Six Qualities of Consciousness.” I wait outside the room briefly and the same volunteer who was just at Eliot’s class is here; she asks me if I feel better yet and I reply that I do not but that I absolutely did this to myself. When we enter the room, Kozlowski is breast feeding a new born. I place my belongings at the back corner of the room and take a seat near the exist, close to my escape route. She makes a joke about paying $5 to hold the baby and I cringe inside. I expect the baby to start crying, but it doesn’t and soon its father takes it out of the room. I am relieved as a crying baby and the wine flu are simply incompatible.

 

I ignore Kozlowski’s encouragements to snuggle up closer into the group circle. I admit, I like to keep my distance initially in group settings. She clarifies that despite the title of the session including the word “flow,” this will not be an asana practice but a lecture and discussion.  However, Kozlowski explicitly gives people permission to move and stretch if they feel the need to which I think is a really nice offer. She describes herself as a Contemporary Yoga Educator and Philosophical Entertainer: “I don’t think that any body can teach yoga,” she says, “all I do is facilitate an experience for people to figure out what yoga means for themselves.” 

 

I’m grateful when she shifts from her introduction towards the lecture. Kozlowski begins by stating her belief talking about Consciousness is impossible — but she’s going to anyway; she also believes defining Consciousness is impossible — but, because we require a working definition to facilitate discussion, she’s going to anyway:

 

Consciousness: everything that was and was not, everything that is and is not,

everything that will be and will never be; potential is everything that is not; not 

nothingness, the potential for something to become something.

 

We will approach Consciousness from within this framework with a contemporary perspective informed by Tantric yoga philosophy. “Yoga is a path that provides zero answers,” she explains to roomful of yogis, “but what it does do is provides infinite inquiries and experiments.” Tantric philosophy provides the tools and techniques for us to extend and stretch ourselves into our greatest possibilities, to interpret those inquiries and experiments. 

 

We will explore how Consciousness itself behaves by outlining its six qualities: 

 

  1. CHIT

  • translated (roughly) as “the fluctuations of the thinking mind” 

  • Kozlowski argues for trusting the intelligence of consciousness itself 

  • The Leaf on the Tree analogy: the leaf does not fear or resist falling from the tree in autumn, but rather lets go freely and without fear

  • Learning how to ride the waves of life (the highs and lows) — when we numb ourselves to the lows (negative emotions we don’t want to feel), we’re unable to fully enjoy the highs (the joys of life), resulting in a “flat line” existence

  • How do I skillfully participate and engage with the movements of life?

  • “I am something like you, I am nothing like you, I am nothing but you” — the conversation is more complex than simplistic and generic notions of unity that so often dominate yogic discourses

 

2) RAHASIA

  • translated (roughly) as “secreting” 

  • Part of life will always remain a secret/hidden to you; there’s something you don’t know, something you’re unaware of — as things are revealed, understand that there’s always more to come — the infinite 

  • There’s beauty in things being concealed from you, that’s the very design of nature

  • The Goldfish & The Castle: the goldfish constantly forgets the castle is there but has the pleasure of remembering, every time — much the same way we forget everything will be okay, until we practice our yoga and experience of momentary “remembering”

  • Kozlowski echoes the same Tantric philosophical perspective as Norian — the pleasure of remembrance: “We forget for the sweetness and joy of remembering”

  • In the season of winter, we often forget that the season of spring is coming — there’s always more & sometimes we just forget

 

3) PURNATVA

  • translated (roughly) as “wholeness, completeness, fullness”

  • Everything is perfect exactly as it is, nothing needs to change and, at the exact same time, we’re always evolving into a different perfection (the beautiful paradox of life)

  • The obsession within yoga community with “future self” — an irony in that if we simply practiced self acceptance, most of the transformations we aspire to would naturally take place on their own

  • Everyone is already whole and complete 

  • Balance between acceptance and evolution

  • The Pinch Pot analogy: you are a master potter and your friend is a beginner; your friend works tirelessly to create a pinch pot for you as a gift; although the pinch pot is not technically perfect, you are able recognize it as a beautiful gift because, even though there’s room for improvement, you understand that it comes from an authentic place of thoughtfulness and genuine effort

  • Can you celebrate the Pinch Pot that you are? Even though you’re not glazed perfectly and there’s a little crack, even though you can learn to be better?

 

4) SVATANTRYA

  • translated roughly as “infrastructure” 

  • The only way to find freedom is within a boundary; boundaries lead to freedom 

  • We fight for our imprisonment and our suffering

  • In what aspects of our lives do we refuse to free ourselves?

  • What is it about boundaries that upset you? How can you find freedom within your own particular boundaries? 

  • The Monkey and the Banana analogy: a banana is placed inside of a cage with a hole big enough for the monkey to reach through, but not big enough for the banana to be pulled out; the monkey becomes trapped outside of the cage because it will not let go of the banana within the cage 

 

5) SHRI/SRI 

  • translated (roughly) as “auspiciousness” or “abundance” 

  • We forget we come from an abundant universe, there’s always more

  • The Lessons of The Sperm, The Blueberry and The Star: 

    • the sperm: it only takes one to create life and there’s always enough

    • the blueberry: it’s seemingly impossible to pick them all from a single bush

    • the stars: there’s a trillion stars, even ones we can’t see 

  • You are always enough as you are. Can you celebrate where you are?

  • Tap into the abundance of the universe (three E’s): 

    • Economy: do enough — not more than enough, not less than enough

    • Efficacy: do what works

    • Exigency: resourcefulness, ingenuity

 

6) KULA

  • translated (roughly) as “the sacred community”

  • Find your people, your sacred community, the people who help you realize yourself

  • CHECK! I have a solid crew.

 

Kozlowski finishes her lecture right on time and, unfortunately, I have to head out promptly to make it back down to the lower level for my next session. The ladies’ washroom is notoriously packed at the Conference so I slip into the mens’ washroom… you know, because it’s 2018 and gendered washroom segregation is an antiquated concept. I run into Eliot and apologetically confess my hang over. I promise to see him in his morning Yin class tomorrow, without a hang over. (Spoiler alert: I fail to keep this promise and decide to skip his class the next day in favour of shopping for gifts. Honestly, Yin just isn’t my cup of tea most of the time.)

 

Matthew Cohen’s “Befriending the Dragon: Balancing Destructive Emotions” is the session I have perhaps been looking forward to most. When I arrive, the doors are open and the room is filling quickly. Cohen is definitely a silver fox; he has a sturdy build with a broad chest and wide shoulders; his decades of martial arts training has made hard and muscular. I dig it. Cohen asks us all to move closer and, this time, I am willing to oblige the request. (NO, not because he’s a babe but because I’m trying to overcome my resistance to being included… Geez…) He begins with a brief introduction of himself and his efforts to create an approach to managing depression and anxiety by fusing together practices from Japan, China, Thailand and India. He’s lost people he loves to the depression and anxiety and he wants to help others who are struggling to cope. Cohen gestures to a woman’s mala bead necklace and asks to see them. She attempts to take the necklace off but the beads become tangled in her hair; everyone laughs when she admits her mala beads were specifically about learning to let go. Sweet irony.  

 

“We’re all going to die,” Cohen states frankly. “We don’t know when our numbers up, but we’re all going to die. We should own that and stop being afraid of it… Why don’t we talk about that?… Yeah, you’re going to die but let’s live today and be together and have a good time.” It’s becoming abundantly clear Cohen is at his core being a West Coast Baby Boomer. He is explicitly interested in the practice of mindfulness and meditation: “You can do asana all day long if you want, but if you don’t meditate, you’re still going to be bat shit crazy.” If we don’t focus the mind on the breath or in meditation, we can get lost in the rabbit hole of the Ego, often a dark place filled with feelings of anger, fear and sadness. Negative emotions are not bad, he clarifies, they are appropriate human emotions — but when we get stuck within them, when we have allegiances to them, when we’re governed by them, when we can’t breathe — we can’t really live. Yaaaaasss.

 

“Do you live primarily in the future or the past?” (Future, I am a planner) “Are you aware of your primary emotion?” (Anger, being a woman has been hard) “What do you relate to energetically” (Anxiety — I suppose I’m an angry woman with an agenda book)… This is really deep and really intimate, I think to myself. Most of the time, what we think is true is not, especially when it comes to fear. Cohen provides a clever acronym for FEAR: “False Evidence Appearing Real.” When dealing with our negative emotions, he suggests asking ourselves, “How can I know this to be true? Can I accept what it is? And, if not, can I accept that I cannot accept this?”

 

We begin our first practice. It’s a meditative practice rooted within Japanese culture. Cohen instructs us to come to a comfortable seated position, allowing the spine and shoulders to round softly. In the Japanese culture, the left hand (feminine) always takes hold of the right hand (masculine). The finger tips correspond to the different energetic lines that run throughout the body (think: the meridians). To begin, the left hand wraps around the right thumb, the digit that corresponds with worry. We sit here with the clasp, our tongues gently pressing into the roof of our mouths, teeth together but not clenched (enough to create just an imprint in a basil leaf), for 3 minutes. We switch to the pointer finger (fear), the middle finger (anger), the ring finger (sadness) and the pinky finger (pretentiousness). It’s a lengthy meditation and I’m skeptical that its real (I’ll come back to this later on). Cohen seems to read my mind: “If it helps you, if it works for you, if you believe it,” he says, “then it’s real and and it’s good.” Belief is powerful, whether it’s operating positively or negatively. 

 

He continues on with a discussion of the five branches of Chinese medicine, embedded within the ideology of Taoism: acupuncture (meridian lines), herbalism, massage therapy, Qi Gong (energy cultivation), meditation (the highest branch). Qi Gong and meditation are considered the two highest practices of self care in Chinese medicine, but “they’re not sexy like getting sweaty in your Lululemons.” When we practice meditation, we learn to be with just ourselves: “We came into this world alone and we’re going to die along, get used to it.” It’s hard stuff to hear, but Cohen is speaking my language. 

 

Many of our emotions come from a place of judgment, he states. “There’s a difference between discernment (informed and educated opinions) and judgment or prejudice (ignorant, biased and bigoted).” More specifically, we can almost always categorize our emotions as coming from a place of either a) self judgment, b) the judgment of others, or c) the perception of others judging us. Love is what’s left when when we are able to let go of judgment and rest in forgiveness. There’s a commonality among centurions, he mentions, those who are happiest and live the longest: they have a strong sense of community and regularly have conversations with strangers. They are connected and engage with others. Unfortunately, for many of us in Modern Western society, we are so disconnected, the extent of our communication boils down to text messages, Instagram and emojis. We find ourselves in a profoundly lonely state of disengagement because we are fundamentally shut down. When we engage with each other, we are able to recognize that we are not so different, we are not alone and we can connect with others who understand us. We become less judgmental of ourselves and others and, thereby, we become happier. 

 

He leads us through a final practice, a meditation about judgement. We come to a seat or a reclined position, one hand on our chest and the other on our low bellies (palm up), eyes closed. “Go back to your morning and find the first judgment you made in the day,” he instructs us. “When you’ve found that first judgment, flip your palm down so I know we’re on the same page.” I made my first judgment the moment my eyes opened (Ugh, Nicole, did you really need that last glass of wine?) so my palm flips down almost instantaneously. Cohen pokes fun at the people who take several moments to find their first judgment because “obviously they’re so pure and non-judgmental that they should be leading this session.” He instructs us to acknowledge our judgment and recognize whether it was a judgment of ourselves, a judgment of others or the perception that others were judging us. “Once you make this clear to yourself, allow yourself to let go of it. You don’t need it anymore, man. Just let it go, drop it. Rest in forgiveness with it. Then, remind yourself of a time when you felt love, and allow yourself to feel that love, let it radiate out.” (Truthfully, I’m paraphrasing, I don’t think Cohen uses the word “radiate.”) I find myself able to acknowledge and categorize my judgment, even forgive myself, but the feeling of love evades me. I don’t really feel anything. Hmmmm… 

 

After the meditation, Cohen asks us to share our experience. I admit I didn’t feel much when he asked us to feel love. He assures me it’s possible and that it’s there, just allow it to develop overtime. There’s a few more exercises, something called “Mind Boxing” that involves sweeping the arms up overhead, out to the sides and back around, supposedly a detoxification method for the lungs and diaphragm. I don’t know if I’ve expelled heavy metals like everyone else apparently does but… I like it and my shoulders certainly feel more free afterwards.

 

Cohen’s session ends 10 minutes early and I’m very happy about this. I’m ready for the day to be over. On my way out, a young woman stops me and tells me she also struggles with the word “love” in relation to meditations. She says it’s just a matter of vocabulary, semantic preference. I tell her I like the word neutral. We shake hands awkwardly and I scurry away. That was so intimate. 

 

When I walk outside, a historic storm has arrived in full swing and blanketed Toronto in treacherously slippery sheet of ice. I run into Andrea on my way out as she’s just arriving for her evening session. She did skip out for a nap and feels refreshed. She warns me to watch my step on the way home; she apparently shuffled the entire way here, so as not to fall on her face. Her quads will feel that tomorrow. Andrea and I agree to cancel our plans to go out and instead order sushi in to the apartment. Our food takes forever to arrive and we both pass out shortly thereafter. Real party animals we are. 

 

 

 

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