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Toronto Yoga Conference 2019

Thursday, March 28 - Sunday, March 31, 2019

I know it’s a generic sentiment but I’m going to say it anyway — time just flies when you’re having fun! I can’t believe a whole year has gone by since I attended the last Toronto Yoga Conference. I had a dream a while back in which the passing of years fully felt like the passing of just months and that’s kind of the sensation I’m getting right now, walking back toward the Convention Centre and reflecting upon everything that has unfolded over the last twelve months. My morning mood is like a cocktail with a pinch of melancholy, a sprinkle of awe and a heaping spoonful of sarcasm; the bleak weather doesn’t particularly help but I remember from the last three years: early spring in Toronto is grey and rainy. End of story.

Nothing in the Convention Centre has changed with the exception of my usual route of entry being blocked off so I’m forced to change course. Maybe that’s a good thing. This year the sign in process is seamless as I remember to have my ID ready so as to avoid the awkward scene of sweaty apologetic fumbling that was yesteryear. My ego smirks with the slightest sense of superiority when I watch other less experienced attendees juggle their backpacks, phones and hot beverages as they struggle to produce the necessary identification — as though preparedness was some indicator of morality. Oh ego, you’re such a b*tch. Nevertheless, I reveal in my silent gloating that I know better. HA! The volunteer who retrieves my badge at the registration desk is the sweet little blue haired babe who feared for my well being as she watched me struggle through a horrific hangover in a detox flow practice last year. She remembers me as well and insists it’s because of the “uniqueness of my last name,” showing me mercy by not recalling my last year’s transgressions. Her kindness reminds me where I am and I decide to leave my b*tchy ego at the door. Dejavu.

I saunter down the hallway toward the first session and plop myself down on the carpeted floor to begin this entry. No surprise, this year is another active wear fashion show. Some dress for comfort and functionality, others use their attire to outwardly proclaim their status as a free spirit. There’s your standard colourful leggings, excessively wide harem pants, disheveled top buns, massive infinity scarves meant to be worn not for warmth but as a calculated flash of colour, knitted leg warmers, bulky nose rings, Hindu inspired tattoos. Make no mistake: I am not above the superficial obsession with donning “on point” fashion selections. In fact, I plan my outfits days in advance. This morning, I’m in a cozy grey Marc Jacob NY Performance hoodie with the simple feature of criss cross of shoe strings up each arm, black Calvin Klein Performance tights with a similar criss cross up the back of my legs, black and white Adidas sneakers. Beneath my sweater I’ve chosen a white Sam Edelman tank top with the words “Find the Silver Lining” across the chest and a hot Lulu Lemon pink sports bra.

Although my resting bitch face is strong (it’s still the morning, cut me some slack), I am operating with the intention of trying to remove the usual distance I create between myself and other attendees this year. I’m going to try to be more approachable and less stand offish about my participation in the experience. I’m most comfortable with my tight knit inner circle so I don’t open up easily…. especially to gatherings of people that more than likely hold far left anti-science perspectives. See? Those are my apprehensive assumptions and critical judgments based in my own fearful anxiety of rejection. I’m going to try really hard not to put up any walls. Open heart, open heart, open heart. My silent inner mantra.

I see Tracey joyfully floating down the hallway, pausing to dole out hugs to whom I assume are some of her regular students and friends. I recognize her beautiful face immediately and I am reminded of why I was fond of her during my 200hr teacher training years ago at Spynga Inc. I respect her greatly and take her seriously as a mentor. She’s a golden goddess exuding the kind of self assuredness in a woman that I so admire. She is a science based educator brimming with evidence based knowledge that she’s eager to share in a concise and easily accessible way — all business, zero fluffy nonsense. That fits the bill.

The doors open right on time and I take my usual favourite spot in any session: back spot, near the exit, against a wall. We make eye contact briefly but I don’t approach her immediately and instead continue to type away on my laptop. Unsure if she recognizes me, I wait until she comes around to provide each attendee with a detailed handout. She definitely remembers me, offers me a warm hug instead of the impersonal handshake I offer, and tells me how much she missed my brain. This makes me smile, inside and outside, as I’m often insecure that I am remembered more for my appearance than my intelligence.

And so it begins…

Last year when I blogged about my experience at the Conference, I created a narrative that focused as much on my emotional experience as it did my intellectual findings. This format suited me in that particular time and space. This year, however, I’m letting myself off the hook narratively and simply providing polished and expanded notes on what I learned from each session. While this is a slightly less personal formatting, I think this more objective framework will give you, the reader, space to draw your own conclusions about the content.


SESSION NAME: Resolve to Evolve

INSTRUCTOR: Tracey Soghrati, BSc., BSc.N, RN, C-IAYT

FORMAT: Workbook Exploration & Discussion; Functional Yoga Therapy Practice & Myofascial Release w. Yin Yoga Practice

LEARNING OBJECTIVES: Self study from a psychological perspective; exploring emotional triggers and their origins; learning how to identify and manage emotional triggers in more productive and healthier ways.


Workbook Questions (Pre & Post Practice): Who are you today? How do you feel physically, emotionally and mentally? What is your intention?

Interoception: defined as “our awareness of our internal processes and how we feel,” or our ability to tune into our internal environment and cues.

What does Conscious Action mean to you? Earnest participation, willingness & vulnerability, seizing opportunities to engage, recognizing defensiveness & resistance.

The Polyvagal Theory: the third response of the Central Nervous System that refers to “the social engagement” system, a playful mixture of activation and calming. Activated when chanting & singing. Related to feelings of safety & community.

Emotional Triggers: defined as “psychological buttons of sensitivity” that are “formed when we experience things that we have difficulty understanding or processing (often during early childhood).” When these buttons are pushed (triggered), we experience “feelings and sensations that are connected to the circumstances that gave birth to the trigger [and our] reactions may or may not represent what is happening in the present moment.” (Soghrati) Being “triggered” as symptomatic of avidya, or the state of misunderstanding or misknowing, one of the Five Hinderances.

We are embedded with patterns in response to childhood experiences of difficult family situations: we learn to AVOID those conditions at all costs or we ACCLIMATE to these conditions and later seek to reenact those conditions that have come to feel “normal” to us.

Emotional Contagion: defined as “the phenomenon of having one person's emotions and related behaviours directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in other people.” Learn to step back from the source of contagion and don’t take on what’s not yours. Establishing personal boundaries, stepping away from co-dependence.

The ABCDE’s of Managing Emotional Triggers:

(a) Accountability for Ourselves;

(b) Build Emotional Intelligence;

(c) Connect to the Feelings Beneath Triggers;

(d) Decide what you will do with your awareness;

(e) Execute your plan to evolve.


There are only three knowns in this life: 1. you were born, 2. you will die, 3. things change.

Checklist to recognize when to let go of something/someone:

  1. The attachment has become pathological (obsession, rumination, preoccupation);

  2. The relationship has come to a definitive end;

  3. It is/they are interfering with my mental health & stability;

  4. My daily life is being impacted (Soghrati)

Self Soothing: defined as “the ability to take care of your needs… [without] expecting someone else to say or do something to make [you] feel better about what’s happening inside,” “an internal locus of control,” an internal environment that set the stage for healing. (Soghrati) Make a recipe for self soothing ahead of time so you have something in place to turn to in moments of crisis.

"Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past." — Lily Tomlin (forgiveness = acceptance)


SESSION NAME: Reimagining Alignment: Full Day Asana Lab

INSTRUCTOR: Leslie Kaminoff

FORMAT: Lecture and demonstrations w. Q&A

LEARNING OBJECTIVES: Exploring new ways of considering skeletal alignment in asana; challenging commonly held beliefs and ideas about alignment cues; teaching the fundamental principles that inform the specifics.


Asanas don’t have alignment - people do. Suggesting otherwise reinforces the misconception that asana has alignment. People have alignment. The reason asanas don’t have alignment is because asanas don’t exist apart from the person that’s doing them. They don’t exist in a platonic dimension divorced from human beings.

An asana only exists when an individual places their body into a particular shape. You cannot abstract the asana away from the person and assign it meaning. Arguing against the platonic ideal.

What is Alignment? Skeletal alignment is a clear pathway of weight passing through balanced joint space; something only an individual can perceive from within, can’t be perceived externally.

Balanced joint space = well distributed weight contact across the bearing surfaces, not overloaded one aspect of the joint. Muscle action in asana is effective when it positions the bones to produce functional skeletal alignment.

Healthy Movement: Well distributed, a little bit of movement coming from a lot of places VS. Unhealthy Movement: Too much movement coming from too few places, repeated too many times (repetitive stress injuries).

We are the only true biped creatures on the planet — the smallest base of support, the heights centre of gravity and the largest skull proportionately.

Standing Asana: the basis for understanding all other asana (Kaminoff’s primary methodological position).

3 Points of the Foot:

(1) base of the big toe;

(2) base of the pinky toe;

(3) middle of the heel.

The ability to transfer weight through the pathways of the foot is a more significant indicator than the appearance of the foot with regard to how well the foot functions.

The human foot evolved in nature (uneven terrain) but now we live in an industrialized world with paved surfaces and shoes which have impacted our relationship with our feet; they’re supposed to be ATVS (free range feet).

The value of foot exercises: If there’s a problem with a slanted roof, don’t check the attic — check the foundation.

Photographic yoga poses (performance) VS. therapeutic experience in reality of personal practice (authentic); What looks good VS. What feels good for the person doing the asana, very different concepts.

The desire to do today what you did yesterday is often what leads to injury. The body is always changing and requires internal awareness. The body is a moving target, requires self reflective time to adjust and provide for present moment body. You’ve never been this old before (this is a constant for everyone single one of us) and you’ll never be this young again (both statements are true for the exact same reason).

Sthira: strength and stability without rigidity; alertness without tension

Sukha: flexibility and mobility without instability; relaxation without dullness

Cues to Re-Imagine:

(1) Square the Pelvis: geometric references in cues are understandable way to orientate body on mat but imposing geometry on the body has draw backs, potential risk of violence if we over do it; the body does not have straight lines, only spirals; Warrior 1: the hips will never be square because we have a human pelvis; argument: square the hips as verb or noun?; breaking out of the tyranny of the rectangle

(2) Heart Openers: Backbends open the front of the heart, forward folds (Childs Pose) open the back of the heart — literally. Back of the heart, the tubes that deliver blood & nourishment to and from the heart — kind of pinched in and closed off in backbends. There are structural protections in place to prevent you from backhanding in your thoracic spine. Your organs are 3D. More lung in the back than the front. 60% more access.


In order to have an “ah-ha” moment, you must first have an “uh-oh” moment. In other words, what you think you already know needs to fail away so something new can coalesce.

What makes an asana safe and effective for an individual depends entirely on that individual’s ability to focus their awareness within their own bodies and gain knowledge from listening inward (proprioception); internal reference points > external reference points.

Proprioception: defined as “the awareness of one’s body, its position in space, and its movements.”

Teach shapes in a way that empowers people to find their own expression of asana; finding one’s own expression requires proprioception; it is more powerful to encourage an inquiry than directing a “correction,” does not mean we abandon technique but not become dogmatic.

Teaching proprioception: don’t tell people how to feel, but recognize and acknowledge their process (gaining insight); the recognition of confusion is itself a form of clarity, the beginning of all knowledge.

Consciously select our language to engage our students in an inquiry; empower the student to become less dependent on the teacher.

Whatever you teach should emerge from your own practice.

The form of a practice should serve its function. What are you trying to accomplish?

The object of meditation for the teacher is the student. Suspend your expectations of what you think your student should be doing. What’s most powerful for people is to be met where they are.

A tiny positive change in something someone does a lot of will add up to an enormous amount of positive change.

As a teacher: be mindful that your practice is still about you, not about planning a class; be present in that moment for yourself; trust that whatever bubbles up in your mind and is worth sharing will be there after your practice.


SESSION NAME: This is Your Brain on Yoga

INSTRUCTOR: Dr. Blake Martin, research scientist

FORMAT: Lecture w. Q&A

LEARNING OBJECTIVES: To understand the dialogue between the central nervous system and other parts of the body; to recognize that the Cartesian divide between mind, body and spirit in Western culture as well as the dualistic tendencies of traditional yogic philosophy are arbitrary divisions that are unsupported by the findings of modern scientific research; to understand the importance of doing “new” or unexpected things for maintaining brain health


There is no meaningful distinction between the nerves in your body and your brain; we are like a tree; a functional whole, a unit joined together holistically.

Brainwave Patterns: measured outside the head using EEG, represent the organized electrical activity of millions of neutrons; change throughout the day and across our lives.

(a) Alpha Waves: relaxation and reflection; critical for learning; quiescence state is really important and we’re seeing less of it.

(b) Beta Waves: alert, working but also worry and anxiety; rumination; anticipation.

(c) Theta Waves: drowsiness, idling, sleep, deep meditation, next level vibrations (3000+ hrs meditation)

Cortisol: the stress hormone; whole body communicator; hormones are none specific, the amber alert; generalized output that is interpreted differently throughout the body; relatively slow to propagate; broadcast signal; communicates strongly throughout everything but there’s not a single, specific response; released by the adrenal glands.

Benefits of Cortisol: glucose metabolism, immune function, inflammatory response; more released during higher stress for quick burst of energy, lowered pain perception, heightened memory and immune function.

Chronically Elevated Cortisol Levels: muscle atrophy, higher blood pressure, reduced immune and inflammation response, impaired cognition, bone density loss, blood sugar imbalance.

Summary of Study Findings: Yoga practice (rest, asana, pranayama, meditation) increases alpha brainwaves, decreases cortisol levels, increases natural killer cell activity, increases GABA release in experienced practitioners, increases serum BDNF.


The brain is dynamic and subject to change (plasticity).

Brains with wider ‘experience’ stay healthier longer and maintain better “cognitive flexibility.”

Teach fewer asana and focus more on pranayama.


SESSION NAME: Handstand Clinic

INSTRUCTOR: Todd Norian, founder of Ashaya Yoga (home of the heart)

FORMAT: Flow practice; discussion w. Q&A; demonstrations, drills & partner assists.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES: Exploring the alignment and dynamics of handstand.


Handstand is Extended Tadasana, just done upside down.

Handstand requires proprioception. It is an elegant mixture of discipline and play: the purity of play (unconditional) combined with the strength gained from purposeful work (conditional).

Fear can block you from achieving handstand because it’s a contractive emotion that disrupts your proprioceptive GPS. Although fear keeps us safe, too much of it is corrosive to the heart. How can we reduce our level of fear to gain a level of confidence? The pose then becomes an easeful adventure.


The universe only brings you challenge when you’re ready to rise up. Resistance in your life is a blessing because it provides an opportunity to grow.


SESSION NAME: Soulful Slow Flow


FORMAT: Flow Practice w. Extended Savasana

LEARNING OBJECTIVES: Moving through a flow to settle into a juicy Savasana.


Savour the moment, enjoy the tunes and find the pleasure in your movement.


My right ankle twitched in a deep Savasana. Odd.


SESSION NAME: Backbend Clinic

INSTRUCTOR: Todd Norian, founder of Ashaya Yoga (home of the heart)

FORMAT: Flow practice; discussion w. Q&A; demonstrations, drills & partner assists.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES: Exploring the alignment and dynamics of well aligned backbends within a variety of different asana families.


Stars shine outward from intense nuclear fusion taking place within their core. Drawing inward to radiate outward is a principle embedded in nature.

Soften the heart; thighs back; lengthen the tailbone down and away.


Transformation takes place when the risk to stay in the bud becomes more painful than the risk to blossom.

To expand your consciousness, you must be willing to shed the bud — but in the bud’s time, not your own. The resistance of the bud is necessary for our growth; we must learn how to align better with resistance in order to expand.

So, in sum…

Proprioception is the concept that came up most often (four different sessions: Soghrati, Kaminoff, Martin, Norian) as a critical and nuanced aspect of our awareness that we often undervalue and under develop. Trusting our inner senses requires tuning out the noise around us so that we can listen and feel inward. Close your eyes on your mat whenever you feel comfortable and feel your practice rather than watch it in the mirror in front of you.

In between sessions, I was at the gym (strength training) or running around downtown (cardio) because it’s my firm belief that yoga asana doesn’t provide absolutely everything your body needs in terms of a fully balanced fitness routine, nor should it be expected to do so. Yoga isn’t a workout anyway — it’s much deeper than that. From a social perspective, I took the time to indulge a delicious dinner at a trendy Peruvian restaurant (Casa Fuego) with my sister and her girlfriend with my partner and one of my best friends on Saturday night and enjoyed experiencing the ultra swanky vibes. I went shopping (more than once) at the Yoga Show on the upper level and bought myself a few adorable new tank tops to practice in when I get home…

Speaking of getting back home: I’m on the plane right now, heading back to Winnipeg. I’m going to give myself plenty of time to absorb and metabolize the new knowledge and perspectives I’ve been exploring all weekend. Although I’m eager to share with my students, it’s important that I take the time and space to make what I’ve learned my own by integrating it into my own practice first so that what I’m teaching comes from an authentic place. I think that’s something worth waiting for.


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