Can Joy and Grief Co-exist?

A personal reflection from Branches Co-Director, Leena Miller-Cressman

It’s my most sincere hope that you can find our classes or events to be a soft place to land, whether it’s back in community or back in your body, and that you can re-realize the joy of practicing together.

Leena Miller-Cressman

You may have noticed that the studio has been busy this past month! We’ve added some classes, and the schedule is feeling more full after such lean times in the thick of the pandemic. Hooray!

None of this is to pretend that our healthcare system is okay or that COVID is gone, but we sure are glad that many people are feeling up for in-person classes. The contrast between this January and the one from 2022 has me feeling reflective…

The Marathon We Didn’t Know We Were Starting

Looking back, even though our classes weren’t busy, the pandemic was the busiest time of my life. For example, I started making sourdough bread years ago (before having kids) and I just made it again for the first time the other week. Unlike some folks who got into it during the pandemic, I had absolutely no time for a cozy and nourishing habit like baking my own bread. Like so many parents, I was juggling work and childcare while schools and daycares closed and opened, and closed again. And I was also hustling more than ever to keep the studio afloat through pivot after pivot.

Over this period, there wasn’t time to slow down, reflect, feel or to grieve what was happening. I just kept moving forward. These days I don’t think too hard about whether I would have gone ahead with everything had I known how long it would all take. But thanks to so much hard work from our whole dream-team, a deeply supportive community, and vital government small business supports, here we are – finally.

When Joy Shines A Light On Grief

The other weekend, a lovely group of 14 people gathered at the Branches for the first of two Deeply Chill Restorative Immersions. In the closing circle, a number of participants remarked on how healing it was for them to be in a group again. One participant shared afterwards, “My heart is overflowing from the wonderful group of humans who shared practice, space and stories. The way TBY co-creates community is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”

Hearing this, it’s impossible to put my gratitude into words – having folks come together in our new studio home ignites my sense of purpose. But the joy I felt from hosting a group of people moving and breathing together was also tinted with melancholy. It felt a little more complex because it was in such high contrast with what it was like during the times we were isolated from one another.

One year ago, we were grappling with a stark sense of emptiness (literal and figurative) during the shut-downs associated with the Omicron wave. Re-encountering vibrant togetherness one year later has revealed the hidden grief that I didn’t have time to process when I was too busy moving forward. It all became quite clear when this song popped up in a playlist and I started crying!

Anyone Else Still Feeling the Effects?

Realizing how much we missed something only after glimpsing it again is such a bittersweet gift. For me, finally giving those emotions some airtime is helping me let go of tension, land in my body more fully, and move forward in a more wholehearted way. Are any of you still working through the changes of these past few years?

It’s my most sincere hope that you can find our classes or events to be a soft place to land, whether it’s back in community or back in your body, and that you can re-realize the joy of practicing together.

Next week we’ll be sharing all the details of our annual Community Week, so stay tuned for info on how you can join in!

With care,

Noticing Our Confinement

A Story About Outdoor Cats & The Enneagram

This is a guest post by Tamara Shantz, Spiritual Director and Enneagram Teacher. Tamara’s work centres on “practicing incarnation,” with the Enneagram as a key piece of the puzzle.

Our cat Izzy is NOT an indoor cat. 

When we first took Izzy and her brother Alex in six years ago, they had been living as outdoor cats for at least a year. We hoped to transition them to being fully indoors, but after months of constant crying and complaining, we caved, and allowed Izzy and Alex to move freely between inside and outside.

Alex died really unexpectedly the other summer, and we were so devastated. As we grieved Alex, we were also trying to figure out what to do about Izzy. There was a possibility that Alex had died from exposure to rat poison, so until we got the results from an autopsy, we decided to keep Izzy inside. 

One day of her confinement, she spent about 8 hours loudly petitioning to be let outside. There was nothing pleasant about Izzy’s confinement for anyone in the household. Thankfully, in the end, rat poison was not the cause of Alex’s death and we decided to return to Izzy’s usual state of roaming freely between our indoor and outdoor spaces. 

Protection or Imprisonment?

This experience with Izzy got me thinking about the idea of protection. I’m sure any parents (of human or fur babies) can relate to the choice-making we do for the protection of our vulnerable charges, even when they conflict with the desires of the one we seek to protect.

I have no doubt that Izzy did not feel protected. She felt imprisoned. Like many protective acts or barriers in the world, it really depends on perspective.

What one person sees as an act of protection, for another, is an act of confinement.

We can find this dynamic within ourselves as well. 

The Wisdom of Enneagram

The Enneagram is a tool for self awareness that describes 9 basic personality structures. It sees your personality as a collection of coping strategies – defence mechanisms that develop in order to keep yourself safe. Especially when we are children, at our most vulnerable, we need to learn how to protect ourselves in the world. We begin to create a tough outer layer to defend the tender parts of our truest selves. 

And so Ones begin to perfect themselves, Twos start to shower others with care and kindness, Threes get busy, and so on. Each one of us believing that these strategies will keep us safe; will bring us love.

Nothing Is Inherently Wrong

What I have found to be so beautiful about working with the Enneagram is that this development process isn’t seen as something that has gone wrong, or that these protective layers are to be judged in any way. 

It has been incredibly liberating to be introduced to the Enneagram’s perspective on human development where there is nothing inherently wrong. The structures of our Enneagram type, the ways that we have tried to protect ourselves are necessary, natural, and good.

There is beauty, love, and power at work in the formation of our personalities.

From Protection to Protest

Just as our choice to confine Izzy was rooted in love, it was still confining!

Even as our personality formation is essential and marked by love, these same traits and structures that have protected us can also begin to chafe. They begin to feel confining. 

Like Izzy, I have found myself at the closed windows of my being, loudly protesting my confinement. 

This is where meaningful work with the Enneagram really begins. 

One of the purposes of learning about your Enneagram type is to begin to see these various coping strategies clearly, to notice when they become activated, and to develop the freedom to let these habitual patterns go. 

I find my home at point Nine on the Enneagram. One of my primary coping strategies has been to numb out, dissociating from physical sensation and retreat into my daydreams.

For many years this was a necessary habit to keep me safe. But as I moved into adulthood, I began to realize how this numbness also was its own prison, and work with this limitation. My confinement is much clearer and more temporary than it used to be.

Letting Ourselves Be Outdoor Cats

We were a bit anxious when we ended Izzy’s confinement, but we do have some tools we use to keep her (and the birds) safe: a bright, rainbow clown collar and bell, neighbours who keep an eye out for her, and an early ‘bedtime’. 

The Enneagram can provide these tools for each of our own processes by helping us to become acquainted with our unique confinement, and offering practices to help us feel supported as we risk venturing outside of our protective walls.

Curious? It won’t kill ya! Join us for a workshop to dive in: The Enneagram: Nine Journeys of the Soul on February 10 and 11. Registration here.

You can learn more about Tamara and her work on her website.

Fear and dumbbells at The Branches

Branches Co-directors Leslie and Leena break down why a strength training practice can be so complementary to yoga and share some options of how you might get started with us!

Eyes wide, an unsuspecting new student walks into a class at the Branches, and to their horror, sees a line up of dumbbells and kettlebells in the middle of the room.

‘I thought this was supposed to be a yoga class?’ they think, alarmed at the prospect of lifting something too heavy and hurting themselves, or of being in over their head at a class that’s too hard.

TL;DR: Start lifting weights. It’s good for you. We can help.

We know that a lot of people are drawn to try yoga because they heard it’s a good way to add a movement practice to their lives. Yoga encompasses a lot more than asana (the poses), but nonetheless, we appreciate that folks want to get moving in a way that feels approachable.

So why the weights?

If your primary interest in yoga is to improve the way your body works on the level of muscles and bones (flexibility, strength, mobility, balance, bone density) – adding a strength practice is going to benefit you big time.

The cells of your musculoskeletal system speak in the language of load. Those cells are just waiting to be given a challenge so that they can respond, and grow in their capacity to bear weight. This will make your body more robust. Everyone was born to be strong.

Don’t be scared. You’re already strong!

Some of the fear about weights is actually about familiarity. Think about the lifting you might already be doing in your life without realizing it: 

  • picking up kids, grandbabies, and pets
  • hauling groceries
  • pushing your couch to the side to vacuum
  • going up and down stairs
  • lowering your slow cooker down from the top shelf
  • hoisting a bag of flour up from the bottom one

Our daily lives are already full of managing load. It just doesn’t look like a kettlebell.

Actually, strength training serves asana.

In an active yoga practice, you do move your body around. In a lot of cases, your own body weight is something you are already or can easily become conditioned to manage. So if you’ve chosen yoga as your movement practice, we don’t want you to be surprised if your bones don’t end up all that dense from doing standing poses and going for walks. Adding strength training can fill the gap of providing your body with the input it needs for longevity, especially bone density.

In other instances, certain asana require a lot of strength to move your body weight around, meaning that you can barely do one repetition, which is not enough to actually get stronger (chatturanga is a common one – the lowering down from plank to the floor). Adding strength training with weights would actually be a wise regression, building towards more challenging asana with techniques that use less than your body weight.

Hard truth: you won’t get stronger doing what you can already do.

Even for folks who are purposely coming to class with weights, we often see them choosing the lightest weights possible. But if your chosen load weighs the same as your purse or laptop bag, you won’t be getting any stronger. It needs to feel challenging. If you can bang out 12 or 15 good reps, you’re maintaining your existing capacity, not expanding it.

Squatting with 5 or 10 lbs is easier than carrying your groceries up your front steps. The idea is to train heavier so that daily life feels light!

Why we personally love strength training – anecdotal benefits.

Many of us at the Branches maintain dedicated strength routines. We love practicing yoga, and we also want to have dense bones, strong bodies, and be able to help our friends move, pick up big kids, and maintain our independence well into our golden years. These things are not at odds. In fact, they complement each other.

Pairing strength and yoga has offered Leena greater resilience and comfort in response to chronic pain. She has noticed that when she is deconditioned (that is, when she’s not lifting), she is much more likely to struggle with pain. This makes restorative yoga and meditation much harder.

Leslie finds that her flexibility and enjoyment of basic poses increases with her strength. When she’s lifting regularly, her body is much more willing to give her a greater range of motion, which she can apply to yoga asana. Freed up in this way, she can pay attention to the subtler sensations of practice rather than struggling with the shapes.

Ready to pick up something heavy with us?

One important FYI is that some of our classes are not intended to only be yoga classes. We made our tagline “Yoga & Movement. Rooted in Community,” on purpose! If you want to explore, you might try the following classes that incorporate body weight strength, free weights, and resistance bands:

  • Strength Essentials on Mondays at 10:00am and Mondays at 5:45 pm – all about starting to build strength, focusing on the fundamentals, very friendly to beginners
  • Strength & Flow on Wednesdays at 5:30pm and Saturdays at 10:00am – a mixed experience of strength and asana, much more adventurous

Going beyond the musculoskeletal system.

If your reason for exploring yoga doesn’t include a huge focus on your body mechanics, rest assured we are committed to self-inquiry, presence, gentleness of the breath, generosity of the spirit, and classic yoga poses and transitions.

Who knows, maybe kettlebells can lead to spiritual growth. We invite you to come find out.

With enthusiasm and confidence that you can do it,
Leslie & Leena

Restorative practice for rebellious rest

A note from Leena, Co-Director and long-time teacher at The Branches

I believe that in these hectic times, resting is a counter-cultural, even rebellious, act.

Leena Miller-Cressman

Rest and leisure are inherent human needs for our sanity and spirit. Yet our fast-paced culture is always driving us to do more: be more productive, fit another activity into the schedule, answer one more email. This stresses our nervous systems and can erode our mental and physical health. Restorative Yoga is a form of resistance to the hustle. You can relearn the sacred art of rest and stillness.

Just like fields need to lay fallow to regenerate, or a compost pile needs time to turn to fertilizer, and animals hibernate in cold winter months, our bodies and minds also need time to pause and just be, rather than always doing more.

I learned the principles of restorative yoga (quiet, darkness, warmth, support, slowness, and stillness) from the work of Judith Hanson Lasater, and I incorporate them every time I practice and teach restorative yoga.

As part of our commitment to rebellious rest, we offer weekly restorative practice sessions on our drop-in schedule, as well as special candlelit workshops throughout the Winter season.

Whether we have the pleasure of guiding you through a restorative practice or not, I invite us all to do just a little less, and instead be a little more rebellious, and rest.

With care,

Metamorphosis & Active Hope

Musings on climate chaos and caring action from Branches co-director Leena Miller Cressman.

This summer, as I take in the horrifying stories of fruit baking on trees in BC, and mass dying of wildlife along the west coast, fifteen monarch caterpillars have hatched in my care. It’s a tiny act of hope for a natural world in peril.

In the wild, only 10% of monarch caterpillars normally survive to reproduce, and those rates are decreasing due to pesticide use and climate change. Inside, all but one has survived so far. Once the butterflies emerge, I’ll release them to my garden.

In two weeks a caterpillar’s weight increases 2,700 times as they devour only milkweed leaves. Then they search for the perfect spot, and hang in a J shape, waiting, and over 6-12 hours they slowly change form under the surface. Then in a sudden final burst, (as seen in this 10 minute time lapse), they wriggle out of their caterpillar skin and become a chrysalis.

one of four monarch chrysalides in Leena’s dining room

Ecologist and Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy describes hope as a verb. It is something you do, actively, not something you have. In my little monarch sanctuary, I’m practicing these acts of hope for the world, and observing, with awe, the processes of nature. These processes are not linear – the reveal of a butterfly is just one step in the cycle. Equally significant are laying the eggs, days of devouring milkweed, waiting in a hanging J-shape, and the surrender into the chrysalis. 

The showy transformation of a butterfly hatching from the chrysalis is so often in photographs or videos, but this stage of metamorphosis – from caterpillar to pupa – is stunning in its own right. These creatures are so full of rich metaphors and timely teachings. 

Metamorphosis, for the caterpillar, requires a full stop and wait. It pauses, and it literally softens until it can easily wiggle out of its skin into a new form. Can you think of a time in your life when you felt or seemed stuck, but under the surface something new was emerging for you? 

As we remerge from our COVID cocoons, we might ask ourselves how we want to re-engage with the world. What hopes do we want to live into for our own wellbeing, and that of the planet? Do we really need to go back to so much jet setting? Could we continue to do more local travel and exploring? Will we keep up our new vegetable gardens or our breadmaking?

During the pandemic, we’ve seen governments and communities make monumental changes, fast. We’ve spent billions to help keep vulnerable businesses and workers afloat. We can no longer say that huge changes are impossible or just too hard. I’m living into hope for climate justice. 

To me this is about acting with care, but without attachment to the results. This is a key teaching in yogic philosophy and in the Bhagavad Gita. Will my small number of monarchs make a difference? Will the letter I send to my MP calling for action on climate change do anything? Who knows, but it’s still a good action. For more exploration on applying the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita to our climate emergency, you might check out these two posts by my friend and colleague Matthew Remski: one, two.

Let’s bolster and inspire each other with active hope – share in the comments what actions you’re taking.

Here’s our new name, you can take it or leaf it

A Post from Leena Miller Cressman, Queen Street Yoga Owner/Director 

We needed a new name. But how to choose?

After the weighty decision to move from our home of 15 years, 44 Queen Street South, the decision to find a new name was obvious. However, what to rename ourselves ended up feeling like a monumental task. It took several months of brainstorming, testing, and soul-searching before we finally reached a decision. I felt a huge responsibility to rename this studio, since Queen Street Yoga has been a special place for many people for a long time – including me. This task felt akin to renaming a teenager. 

I wanted a name that felt true to who we already are, and would lead us into what we can become. This has been an opportunity to think carefully about why our studio exists. And now, I am proud to introduce you to our new name: The Branches.

We wanted this new name to connect to our values. The branches of Yoga include so much more than just asana (postures). It is meditation, community service, and a spiritual pathway to wholeness. In addition to being a way to care for our bodies, we believe Yoga and movement practices can be a catalyst for social and environmental justice. Yoga practice can help us recognize our interconnectedness. Yoga can give us sustenance to care for ourselves and others. With Yoga as our common ground, we can learn to engage with the world more wholeheartedly. 

Our studio has been around for 16 years and we hope “The Branches” conjures the image of a huge, mature tree. We’re not a young sapling. We’ve got deep roots, a sturdy trunk, a big canopy, and we’re home to lots of life. The Branches represent the diverse people who have gathered in our community for the past decade and a half, and the many new people we are connecting with in online classes. Our new name speaks to the many people who have graduated from our Yoga Teacher Training to seed their own classes in schools, prisons, community centres, backyards, and seniors’ homes. Our strong branches reach far beyond a physical location.

We’re not a young sapling. We’ve got deep roots, a sturdy trunk, a big canopy, and we’re home to lots of life.

The Branches is a place of growth and nourishment. In our new location, no longer beholden to landlords and threatened by ever-increasing rent prices, we have more freedom to put down roots and create inclusive community space. We are working to build a ramp to make our ground-floor studio accessible. To remove financial barriers, we’re now offering sliding-scale prices for all our classes. We hope that our space can become a hub for community action by offering low-cost meeting rooms. Our new location is easily accessible by public transit, walking and biking. We’re in the middle of major renovations and have invested in a small environmental footprint by eliminating natural gas and retrofitting our building with energy-efficient heating, cooling and insulation. 

Come practice yoga with us outside under the branches of the maple, linden, and spruce trees

So welcome to The Branches. We’re so excited to practice together with you in our brand-new yoga space, whether in person or online. It’s going to be beautiful! This summer, as we await the hopeful resolution of the pandemic and our renovations, come practice yoga with us outside under the branches of the maple, linden, and spruce trees on our spacious back deck. 

P.S. We have a brand new website to match our name launching soon!

Shame About Shame: A Reflection from Emma

This post is written by QSY co-director and lead teacher, Emma. This month, she is starting a gentle return from her maternity leave, and is excited to rejoin the QSY community.

Shame about shame. Would we call that Meta-shame?

I officially come back from my maternity leave later this spring, but I’ve got some thoughts to share with the community as I start to think about yoga and teaching again. 

One thing I’ve been mulling over during my maternity leave is body shame. And not just shame about my body, but shame ABOUT the shame about my body. Because I shouldn’t be feeling body shame, right? I’ve been teaching Yoga for Round Bodies for 8 years, talking up themes of body neutrality, self-acceptance and self-love in my classes and our teacher training. I’m YOUR cheerleader for taking things at your own pace, for focusing on how it feels to be in your body or yoga poses, rather than thinking about what you look like. I’m supposed to be a role model for self-acceptance, right?

The Sting of the Second Arrow

This shame I’m feeling is what many Buddhists call “the second arrow”, which I first heard about from Tara Brach. Simply put, when we experience something painful, there is often reactivity and blame (of someone else or ourselves). We experience more suffering than the initial pain, a suffering on top of suffering. Tara talks about cultivating the ability to “pause, recognize and open” in order to step out of that cycle of suffering. 

Pause. Okay, deep breath. 

Pause and recognize. I guess where I need to start then, is recognizing that I still have body shame. Actually, let me re-write that. I recognize that my culture taught me to have body shame, and I’m still recovering from that. My culture taught me that the best bodies were thin, fit, able and beautiful. My culture taught me that if I gained weight, I was lazy, ugly and unlovable. Oof. That’s quite a cultural idea to recover from. 

It’s a tangled thing, unravelling these cultural stories and seeing how they show up in my mind. That’s where the shame about the shame comes in. I feel embarrassed that I haven’t completely transformed the way I feel about my body. I want to hide that, and only show the part of myself that is okay with how my body looks and moves. I can’t tell my yoga students or community that I don’t completely accept my body, can I?

Pause, recognize and open. Sure I can. Something I’ve discovered about shame is that it changes when I speak it out loud. When I share the vulnerability of it, and ask others to hold it with me. 

Do we have to already love ourselves to practice Yoga?

When I really sit with this and mull it over, it points me to the importance of having spaces and communities like ours, where we can show up in our realness, where we can pause, recognize and open on our own terms. Where we can be our half-realized dreams of who we are and want to be, and live the unravelling and reconstructing process that it is to learn about and (eventually, maybe, sometimes) love ourselves.  It’s not REQUIRED that you already accept and love yourself to practice yoga. That can be what a yoga practice nudges, nurtures and slowly allows.

A community like ours doesn’t make self-acceptance the next “perfect” to measure ourselves against. We can be careful not to make shame about shame the “new shame in town”. We can recognize that there is always more to learn, practice and discover about ourselves, and there is always more kindness we can extend. 

Reflecting on this also reaffirms my dedication to this work. This work of facilitating movement spaces where our bodies and attitudes can be welcomed with love. This work of making sure these themes are present and active in our teacher training program. We can work together to create a culture around bodies that tells new and different stories. Because the old narratives are harmful and untrue and they rob us of joy. They keep us separated from one another in little boxes of shame.

Have you experienced something like meta-shame? Or other concoctions of feelings about your body? Did it come after a big body change (like for me, pregnancy)? Or a gradual body change? What kinds of thoughts did you notice coming up? Did you feel like you could share them?

Old Habits Die Hard, So Kill Them with Kindness

This post is by QSY lead teacher Leslie Stokman. 

Changing my habits has been a life-long struggle.

Do I lack willpower and self-discipline, giving in too easily to procrastination? Is my struggle to blame on the symptoms of ADHD? Or is my difficulty maintaining a routine actually an issue of nervous system dysregulation? The answer might not matter too much in the end. 

If you’ve struggled like me to keep up with the new habits, even the ones you identify with great intention and enthusiasm, this post is for you.

We’re a week into the new year – it’s a loaded time. Whether you’ve been heeding messages that promote wellness-focused New Year’s resolutions, or voices that dismiss them in favour of maxims like “New Year, Same Awesome You,” the topic is definitely on our collective mind for better or worse. I admit that there is nothing magical about the year changing. 2020 is an arbitrary measure according to a calendar that was created in the 16th century by a Pope. That said, the coming of the New Year is one of the only times when our whole society acknowledges one pure moment of transition. And times of transition can be powerful opportunities for personal reflection and transformation.

Continue reading “Old Habits Die Hard, So Kill Them with Kindness”

Let’s make community care the new buzzword

Self-care is a buzzword, and we use it liberally at Queen Street Yoga. It can be an important practice of slowing down, taking time for yourself, and caring for your heart, body and mind. However, self-care and yoga practice can be inaccessible to many people. What we need to complement self-care and enhance overall wellness is community care, where people “are committed to leveraging their privilege to benefit others. ¹

Community care takes the onus off of the individual to take care of themselves, all by themselves, and places the responsibility for care within the community, in friend networks, or through structured groups or organizations. For true wellness, “people should receive community care from both their government and their friend networks.” Of course, we know that that doesn’t always happen. And recently, with drastic cuts to provincial healthcare, education, and the arts, more and more community care is being taken away from those who need it most. 

We want community care to become as strong a buzzword as self-care. We also want it to mean something, and to actively practice and embody it. Two ways that we are amplifying the principle of community care at Queen Street Yoga are:

Continue reading “Let’s make community care the new buzzword”

How Can We Acknowledge Cultural Appropriation in Yoga?

In acknowledging the various cultural objects and practices that are part of QSY, we are hoping to begin to address elements that may be alienating for some people in accessing our space, or start a discussion with those who might not have considered this topic before. We welcome feedback and critique about our efforts.

At Queen Street Yoga, we are actively working to make our space more inclusive, more accessible, and anti-oppressive. As part of this work, we would like to acknowledge the cultural objects and practices that are present in our studio. Cultural appropriation is a reality in our world; cultures constantly borrow (or take) designs, images, clothing, and practices from one another. However, when a dominant culture, such as North America, does this to less politically, economically or socially powerful culture such as India, and those aspects are used outside of their original cultural context, this can have the effect of reducing or commodifying those aspects of culture in ways that can be disrespectful.

Here are some questions that we try to keep in mind as we consider the presence of cultural objects and practices at QSY. We invite you to try them on for yourself as well.

Continue reading “How Can We Acknowledge Cultural Appropriation in Yoga?”