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Toronto Yoga Conference 2018 (Day 1)

As I am getting ready for the Conference, I catch a glimpse of my outfit in the mirror and think to myself: am I going to a ninja conference or a yoga conference? I am dressed from head to toe in black. All black everything, ninja assassin. To be honest, this isn’t really a surprise — black pretty much is my wardrobe. I have been looking forward to this Conference since last year’s — I booked all my sessions the moment the 2018 schedule was released. I spent the whole day yesterday prepping myself for the Conference - grocery shopping, meal prepping, tidying up the apartment (I call this my expression of Stoicism), unpacking and putting together my snazzy noir outfits — crop tops and high waisted tights, always. I went to bed relatively early and awoke with that sense of satisfaction that comes from being well prepared. The walk in the rain from my apartment building to the Conference Centre is about 8 minutes, from the waterfront to Front Street via Blue Jays pedestrian bridge. On my way over, I’m so distracted with anticipation for the days ahead that I almost take out a random girl’s eyeball with the corner of my umbrella. Whoops. I grew up in the prairies — where umbrellas aren’t quite as second nature.

This is my third year in a row attending the Yoga Conference so I know where to head. First things first: pick up my session schedule badge. I remember from previous years that the registration and badge lines are often very long, but Friday is often worse than Thursday (Thursday is just mostly hardcore keeners, such as myself). Every year, the volunteers ask you to sign your waiver and have your ID ready for the sake of processing efficiency. This year, however, I can hear the volunteer ahead in the line demanding we have our IDs in hand. Trying to juggle my umbrella, my lunch bag and my tea mug in my hands, I realize in a huff of frustration that I actually have no way to get at my ID. (Siiiiiiiiiiiigh, suddenly I’m amateur hour) The volunteer is making her way towards me, processing the attendees ahead of me at what seems like lightening speed. “Do you have your ID ready?” the pleasant blue haired volunteer calmly asks. She wears undeniably fun cat eye glasses and an authentically cheery smile. “I only have two hands,” I reply, admittedly with an evident tone of snark. Utterly undisturbed in her own sense of peacefulness by my sh*tty attitude, she kindly gestures an offer to hold my mug for me. “Wow,” I think to myself, “I am such an a**hole.” This moment is a good reminder of where I am, where I’m about to be immersed for the next four days. As I remember from my past experiences, the Conference is generally a place full of really nice and positive people.

I consciously adjust my sh*tty attitude into something more pleasant, pausing to take a few keep breaths to help myself dial down. I’m successful in obtaining my badge, VIP access with 24+ hours of sessions booked. In an effort to be more conscientious of others, I move over to the side, out of the way, so I can organize myself before I locate the room where my first session will take place. 205D… I know it’s near by.

I look back at the growing badge claim and registration line and notice there really are a whole lot of white girls with Starbucks here. And I am one of them. One girl, a curvy brunette with a yoga bun perched a top her crown, drops her backpack and a “herbal” grinder rolls out onto the floor. HA! I’m in good company. I watch a particularly gorgeous woman in all black including a studded leather jacket, skinny tights and shoes that look like a cross between Doc Martens and classic high tops walk by me, chatting with her equally well dressed girlfriend. Part Yoga Conference, Part Fashion Show. This is Toronto after all.

I find 205D in about 3 seconds flat as it’s literally just around the corner from registration. I make my way to the lounge area outside of the designated room, looking for an open seat. I find what feels like just the right one and put my bags down. The woman sitting across from me seems legit, good energy; she’s a sharp looking blonde woman with short blonde hair and an amazing black tote bag. I ask her if she doesn’t mind watching my things while I run to the washroom. When I return, I introduce myself to Lindsey, a mother of two who teaches yoga to high school students in the Beaches. She’s aware of the Bikram Beaches Studio I used to practice at when I first started living part time in Toronto.

We chat about the sessions that we are attending at the Conference: we are both taking sessions with Travis Eliot but at different times; she’s taking a workshop with Brad Waites tomorrow, I did one with him last year. She mentions how he makes fun of everyone who wears black to the Conference; I gesture to my ninja outfit. We laugh. She says she always wears black too, with the exception of her preference for colourful undies. I share that my underwear are also, in fact, black. We laugh some more. How did we get onto the subject of panties so fast? I like this woman.

The conversation ebbs and flows naturally; two like minded and open hearted women sharing random fluff stories. We talk about coffee. I tell her I haven’t had coffee since January because of a flu bug that helped me stop drinking it. I get the sense that she expects me to tell her it’s the best decision I’ve ever made, but instead, I confess it’s the worst decision I’ve ever made and, generally, a very poor life choice. My dry ironic humour is well received. She likes Kicking Horse Coffee, the good blends too — Kick Ass and Three Sisters. She and her husband own a 120 year old fully renovated home somewhere in Toronto (sorry, Lindsey, I forget where)… She is an incredible first person to meet at the Conference. I’m happy when I run into her a couple days later and we share a brief update. We add each other on Instagram, also known as a moment of modern bonding.

The first session I am attending this year is YogaTheory with Kim McNeil. It is a full day session of 8 hours with a 1 hour lunch break. When I enter the room, I take a back corner by the door so I have access to the support of the wall and a quick exit should I need to (when I need to) go pee a thousand times over the course of the day.

McNeil introduces herself with an apology for starting slightly behind schedule; she needn’t of worried, no one seems remotely bothered about the minute delay. McNeil is a young petite brunette; she looks comfortable in a long white t-shirt and ankle length tights. She sets the tone, attempting to relate to the attendees traveling in from out of town by telling us about her airport security struggles; she apparently managed to amuse a security personnel with yoga chimes. When she asks about any injuries she should be aware of, I recognize that I am definitely in a room full of fellow anatomy nerds when people start referencing their supraspinatus and rotator cuffs. Someone references hypermobility as a source of pain they’re coping with and McNeil mentions that there are nine points that can for hypermobility.

The session will have four (interconnected and overlapping) sections: breath work, hips, shoulders and spine. “We are not independent pieces, everything connects to everything else,” McNeil clarifies the reason for her structural approach, “We are compartmentalizing only for the sake of the flow of the session.” She acknowledges there are issues with the “Problem Area” approach when dealing with pain in the body, mainly that very often the problem itself is not actually where the pain is felt. We must look at the body as a whole.

She begins the session with breath work in Savasana. To be honest, I am feeling fairly disappointed. Lindsey and I had both agreed, it would be really nice to start the first morning of the Conference with some kind of flow. I am stiff from my flight as well as all the pavement walking I did yesterday while I ran errands. I really don’t want to start with a breathing exercise… which means I probably should, I know.

She asks us to recline and get settled in neutral. Before I can concede, I spend a few breaths in Knees to Chest Pose and allow myself a quick gentle twist on both sides — then, and only then, do I head toward Savasana. I lay with my breath and experience intense resistance and profound sensations of boredom. I have heard all of these breathing cues before. In fact, I have said most of them myself. I feel frustrated by the lack of movement happening so I find myself fidgeting and dropping loud exhalations. The exercise was probably 5-7 minutes in total, but it felt like forever. Sometimes it’s good to remember what it feels like to be a beginner in these meditative breathing practices. We think fancy asanas are the advanced work but, really, it’s finding stillness in meditation that’s the challenge. Afterwards, McNeil asks us to describe our experiences and while other attendees describe a deep sense of calm and relaxation from the experience, I confess to McNeil I experienced intense resistance. “You’re like, ‘breathe,’ and I’m like, ‘no, I want to flow,’” - a truly sophisticated comment. She laughs, I think welcoming the departure from the standard responses. McNeil argues that beginning practice with breath work is an effective way for practitioners to lessen tension in their bodies before they start moving so as not to layer already existing mental tension over resulting physical tension within the following asanas. I dig it; I start most of my classes this way but McNeil’s is a fresh articulation of the purpose behind it.

She asks us to come into a supine position with knees bent, feet on the floor at hip width. We will lift one foot at a time, “marching the legs,” but — and this is where she loses me —specifically without engaging the abdominals, exclusively isolating the hip flexors to facilitate the movement. This idea of relying on the hip flexor to lift leg weight without the assistance of the abdominals runs in stark contrast to everything I have previously learned about anatomy and a happy spine… I remain skeptical and unconvinced this makes any sense. I am concerned about the possibility of straining the hip flexors by lifting leg weight without abdominal assistance… The woman beside me asks,: If we’re intended to keep the pelvis level while lifting the leg weight, without engaging the abdominals, what is stabilizing the pelvis throughout the movement? I feel as though McNeil evaded the question as I can’t recall any sufficient answer to the woman’s question.

(Fast forward a couple hours)

OKAY, so it’s been a few hours now and I have to say I am little bit irritated by McNeil’s overly passive vocabulary. Everything is indefinitive,“maybe or maybe not.” She apologizes to a stepped on strap on the floor in two separate instances. Does this educator seriously expect me to believe that muscular engagement is not a reasonable part of executing sustainable movement… We’re not bones without muscular support…. UGH. My same old resistance is bubbling up at full strength. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I consciously check myself and my resistance to contrary ideas; I make myself stay.

We come to standing position and shift our focus to balancing postures. “Be easeful, find ease in everything you do - no matter how advanced,” McNeil says while describing a posture. I agree with this and I get back on board with the program. Her teaching ethos fundamentally advocates for breaking postures down into smaller more specific and interpretable movements to help students understand the whole picture of the pose or the transition. Totally valid. She advocates that students would understand the poses better if teachers spent the time to break down the poses into their most basic, primary movements.

In Standing Balancing Pose (one leg lifted, thigh parallel to the floor), we worked to isolate a rotation in the hip, rotating the leg out to the side, touching the toe on the floor and then reversing to return. In Tree Pose, we placed the foot on the leg without the assistance of the hands. I am intrigued by these movements but, again, I can’t figure out why McNeil is seemingly advocating against abdominal engagement, in supine leg lifting and then again in balancing poses.

I’m not alone in my confusion. Enough participants comment on the incomprehensibility of this “lack of abdominal engagement” motif that McNeil eventually recalibrates her phrasing. She tempers the tone of her position and shifts her language. She clarifies that therapeutic yoga must be understood as a specific yogic discipline of its own. In this specific context, practitioners are asked to soften whatever is not being used directly in the action being created so as to prioritize being easeful in every movement by avoiding strenuous or unnecessary muscle recruitment. The goal is pain reduction through lessening tension in movement.

She moves on to discussing cueing language. As teachers, McNeil suggests prioritizing the proximal base rather than the distal when structuring our cues. For example, in cueing Warrior 2 from Wide Stance, McNeil focuses on the external rotation of the front thigh bone and the internal rotation of the back thigh bone rather than the direction of the toes. I feel this bring greater awareness into my pelvic region and its position in relation to the stance of the legs. In Extended Side Angle, Triangle Pose and Half Moon Pose, McNeil focuses on the hip hinge on the front leg, describing the movement as the “pelvis tilting over the front thigh.” When that action stops, the spine starts to compensate by side bending. We only want to tilt the pelvis so far that the spine can stay long, so that the shoulders are in line with the hips. We are USING our obliques on the back leg side to stabilize ourselves in the corral plane. HA!

FINALLY, lunchtime. I’m starving. 1:30pm - 2:30pm.

I chat with the girl, Shoshi, who is doing her first teacher training in Kingston. She’s 24 years old with 4 kids (8,6 and 2 years old) - for her, it’s a big deal to get away for a couple days to the Conference. She’s just about finished her program and describes a bright future of teaching ahead of her at a local studio. She tells me that she had actually never taken a yoga class at a studio until she began her teacher training. Soon we discover the woman sitting next to me, Kim, is friends with Shoshi’s teacher trainer, Mona. They’re closely connected to each other by proxy in their congruent yoga communities. They’ve been mentioned to each other by their common acquaintances; in fact, Kim is aware of Shoshi’s session schedule. This is such a small world. I admit I’m most interested in that fact that they both own Blue Healers.

For lunch, I have a salad: romaine, arugula, red onion, quinoa, chicken breast, goat cheese and avocado. It’s fantastic and I wish I had brought more.

I muse out loud to Shoshi and Kim (both of whom are barely listening) that I can’t decide if I am actually going to stay for the whole duration of this session. I might skip out and go to the gym instead. I really do feel like I’d prefer to move and activate rather than practice disengagement… The moment passes. Shoshi gives me delicious strawberries.

McNeil begins after lunch with the introduction Becky from Nimbleback and the prop she’s offering, the Beam. What follows is a thinly disguised sales pitch with a demonstration. It feels a little bit like the shopping channel — I’m not into it. After the 30 minute merchandise demonstration, I am left with the feeling that the Beam is the skinny, hard cousin of a firm bolster. *shrug* Seems unnecessary. She definitely got paid for this sales pitch; at least a half a dozen women just bought the Beam for $20.

I zone out for several minutes…… My interest in this session is wearing thin.

She’s demonstrating a prone facing pectoral stretch, referring to it as a rollover.

And I’m officially out, I can’t bring myself to spend anymore time here… 3:30pm

I politely pack up my things and head back to my apartment. I absolutely need to move. I am content with the fact that I stayed as long as I could and now I feel ready to move on.

I head directly to the gym and run for 5km before beginning my workout. I love the gym in our building when it’s empty but when it fills, it’s way too tight. I have the place to myself for the first hour and then a couple girls arrive, heading straight for the cardio machines (I used to be a cardio bunny too!). Half an hour later, one dude turns into seven and the gym is packed. I vacate the premises because the air becomes thick with testosterone and malting peacock feathers. I head to the Stretching Room down the hall where there’s a good set of free weights weights, some steps, a few medicine balls and mats. The other girls from the gym are also here — we’ve all come to escape from the machismo bros. I like it here, with these girls and these weights. I’m glad I left the session.

Later on Andrea Robin arrives from Winnipeg. She’s staying with me until Sunday. Tomorrow morning we will attend another all day session together and then maybe watch the Jets game downtown somewhere afterwards.

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