Accessibility & Ramp Update

In January of 2021 when we moved into our new building at 9 Samuel Street, we had high hopes for making our new space fully accessible by installing a ramp or chair lift. We planned our bathroom to have an accessible sink and toilet, and had a few fundraisers (community classes in the summer of 2021, and selling some of our jade plants in the winter) towards our accessibility efforts. 

We are sorely disappointed to let the community know that after many months of research, we are not able to make our building fully accessible at this time. 

There are several factors that we can explain below, but the main point of this update is to express our disappointment in this outcome and express our regret to community members who may have been hoping for a different outcome.

There are several realities we’ve had to reconcile with, one of which is the size of the front of our property. The size of the front yard doesn’t allow enough space to meet the requirements of the length of a ramp needed to access our front door. A chair lift would fit, but the cost of a ramp or chair lift, and the maintenance included brought up the next reality, that of our financial limitations as a small business. As a small business still recovering from very lean times during the pandemic, we don’t have the resources to afford either option without additional help. Many federal accessibility grants that might have made this project possible are no longer available, and we weren’t able to find any other funding that we qualified for. 

In the end our fundraising efforts raised about $1500, which in the end would be about 2% of what it would cost to make our building fully accessible. 

We’ve decided to put the funds raised towards improving the safety of the front walkway and eliminating one of the steps so that those with some mobility challenges will be able to access our front steps more easily. Our front entryway will still include five steps to get into the front door. We will continue offering ground floor programming like Chair Yoga and Adaptive Yoga for those that are able to use the entry stairs, and we will continue to offer virtual options for others to join from home. 

We are also hopeful that grants may become available again in the future, so we are holding the possibility that becoming fully accessible may be possible at some point.

In terms of accessible programming, we think the way forward is to partner with community organizations and spaces that are already fully accessible, to offer classes in spaces other than our Samuel Street location. Here’s where you come in! If you’re passionate about this issue, and know of community organizations or spaces where we might bring The Branches vibe, get in touch with us and let’s see where things go! In order for classes like these to be successful, we need dedicated community members ready to promote and advocate for these classes alongside us. So let us know if you’ve got energy to start an initiative with us.  

We’re also looking forward to one of our more accessible offerings coming up this summer; Yoga in the Park! We’ll be offering free classes in two downtown parks this summer. Go here for all the details. We’re glad to be partnering with the City of Kitchener to put on these free, all-ages events.

Peaceful confusion in the wake of all that we’ve lost

Are you looking for tools to navigate our challenging and complex world?

We see the need for guidance and practices for our collective mental health at this juncture of the pandemic. Things have “gone back to normal” but many of us are still struggling to decide how to act and how to care for ourselves in the wake of all that we’ve lost.

One way we can offer guidance is with getting accustomed to peaceful confusion (a term we learned from Dare Sohei and Larissa Kaul). This could mean making peace with the fact that we may never have the answers or solutions we desire, and yet want to and must carry on living with ourselves and one another as best we can.

To rest in peaceful confusion, we can try to be with the present moment in way that intentionally includes all of the things we both do and don’t like about it.

With this goal in mind, we’ve planned a few courses for the spring; Mindful Movement & Meditation starting May 10 and Mind-Body Yoga for Teens starting May 19. We hope that if you know a young person who is looking for tools to bolster their mental health, that you pass along the information to them, including the fact that we offer sliding scale pricing.

Both of these courses are taught by Danette, if we can make a blanket suggestion, you should really try a practice with.

To get you started in that process, we’ve picked out a really great video of Danette leading a meditation and are sharing it for free here. You’ll need 14 minutes and a place to sit. It’s a sweet little guided meditation that surprised all of us with how powerful it is despite being so simple.

Meditation with Danette: Receiving Love & Care

What does it mean to be “Natural”?

Certain stereotypes hold true for many of us at the Branches, including that we gravitate towards things that are “natural.” Yeah, we make our own kombucha, wear barefoot shoes and love us some coconut oil. But beyond the cliches, what makes something “natural” anyway?” 

Folks often make a distinction between human-made and naturally-occuring, but humans are in fact a part of Nature. Does that mean that everything we do is natural, too? Maybe. And maybe the culturally inherited belief that we are separate from Nature (or worse, meant to tame or exploit it) is part of why reintegrating humanity into the sphere of Nature feels so important.

One thing that makes it clear we are definitely animals is our autonomic nervous system. This is the branch of the human nervous system that governs all the stuff our bodies do without our conscious input, like breathing, blood flow, digestion, sneezing, arousal, sweating, crying – you get the picture. These are all things we can consciously influence, but the urge or impetus is just… natural, inherent, innate.

Another autonomic function we all share is tremoring. Sometimes it shows up as a shiver when we’re cold, or wobbly knees when we’re nervous, or a full-body tremble when we’re trying really hard to hold a steady boat pose.

Did you know that we can take a therapeutic approach to the ways that our bodies shake? There is deep potential for cultivating well being with mindful engagement with our neurogenic tremor. If your curiosity is piqued, you should check out Leslie’s course, Integrating Stress & Tension with TRE, starting on April 25.

We encourage you to find ways to embrace being natural in whatever ways bring you a sense of joy and freedom. Lots of TRE (Tension Release Exercise) programming with Leslie is coming up over the Spring, so keep your eyes peeled for news of more opportunities to learn and practice.

Community that is not just lip service

Some of you might not know this, but I (Leslie) used to be an elementary school teacher. Yes, for a good few years, I taught a lot of grade 7 and 8 (I like living on the edge, what can I say) in a few different schools in KW. One thing that was heavily emphasized during my time in teachers’ college, and as a new teacher, was community.

I heard a lot of talk in the school system about coming together as a family. But at the one critical point when I found myself in a troubling and very challenging classroom situation, the support I needed was sorely missing. All that talk felt like empty lip service.

This lack was made particularly poignant because at the same time that my faith in that life was deteriorating, I was being shown the true meaning of community in another context. At what was then called Queen Street Yoga, I was volunteering, taking class, and all the while, observing the action behind the scenes of Leena & Emma’s first yoga teacher training.

For a few years, I got to witness (and benefit from) so much genuine care put into building and holding a real community in the shape of a long-term learning container. There were a lot of hugs in the staff room, endless carefully worded emailing, generous accommodations, plenty of extra help, and sharing food, clothes, childcare and studio space as it was needed.

This spirit of connection underpins everything, and it reliably seeps into the whole group. Here are a few of this year’s students talking about what it’s been like to access community (even when we had to pivot to a completely online weekend this past January due to Omicron).

Our next 250-hour teacher training will run October 2022 through June 2023. Curious about what it might be like? Come out to our Info Session on Thursday, April 21 at 7:15pm. Just like the program, you can choose online or in-studio. When you sign up, you also get a free drop-in class to enjoy. I’ll be teaching the Slow Flow at 6:00pm just prior to the info session, and I’m gonna make it a special one.

Hope to see you soon,

April Policy Update

Re: Vaccines & Masks At The Branches

As of April 1, 2022, the Branches will no longer require visitors to show proof of vaccination. We will continue to encourage mask-wearing as much as possible to limit transmission.

We’ve taken in a good bit of information, considered the risks, and weighed it all against our values, particularly community care.

Just like our decision to initiate our own vaccine policy ahead of the province, we also wanted some control over our own circumstances when it came to setting this policy aside. We applaud individuals who are taking steps to protect not only themselves, but one another as our entire globe continues to navigate the ongoing pandemic.

While our staff and leadership team have chosen to get vaccinated, and we strongly support it as a public health strategy, based on what we now understand about transmission, it does not seem necessary or useful to continue requiring all visitors to the studio to prove their immunization status. We look forward to welcoming new students and welcoming back old community members for whom this has been a barrier over the past six months.

In addition to taking in updated information about transmission, we have also been attempting to learn about disability justice. Many immune-compromised people feel as though their lives are not being valued appropriately, as they are not able to simply “move on” from COVID-19. We’re also holding uncertainty about the likelihood of developing long-COVID, which is basically a chronic-illness disability.

With these thoughts top of mind, and knowing that it does appear helpful to wear masks to prevent transmission of a virus that spreads through both droplets and aerosol, we will continue to require all visitors to wear a mask to the studio, and encourage students to continue wearing their masks as much as they can while practicing. We will maintain this policy at least for the month of April and reassess as we go.

Inside the practice rooms, we will be running our fresh-air return system consistently – this means that the air in the building will be on a constant refresh cycle, expelling indoor air outside and bringing in fresh air as it heats/cools. While on their mats, our teachers may wear their masks less to optimize for clarity and hearing accessibility . 

We strive to consider the importance and influence of scientific experts, disability justice, and the relative risk of small-group 60-75 minute classes in our decisions going forward.

Finally, the Branches will continue to offer robust virtual teaching, including drop-in classes, courses, Branches On-Demand streaming subscriptions, and teacher training for those who feel best accessing our offerings from home.

A new kind of influencer

You’ve probably been exposed to influencers, or at least heard that they exist. Influencers share their enviable lives online and are sponsored by companies small and large to promote their products on social media.

Intentionally or not, social media influencers end up promoting materialistic and consumerist lifestyles. Everyone’s gotta make a living, but we think that influence is too important of a power to wield only to make a buck.

We aren’t big enough to warrant sponsorship from large corporations, but we have our own agenda anyway. From any given drop-in class, to our local community, to the international yoga industry, we’re out here with our hearts on our sleeves earnestly working away at reforming the culture of the yoga industry.

The socio-cultural forces at play have taken modern yoga towards an over-emphasis on athletic performance and thinness, exclusivity, and abusive and cult-like dynamics. If you are getting curious or fired up just hearing about that, we’d love for you to join us in an extended learning container.

In our upcoming Yoga Teacher Training, you are invited to learn from deep thinkers and leaders who are working to undo damage done to both the yoga tradition and to participants over the years. With a focus on inclusion, anti-oppression and trauma-sensitivity, our training produces teachers ready to lead the industry culture in a new direction.

Curious to learn more? Join us for a free info session on Thursday April 21.
When you register, you’ll get a promo code to attend one free class in April. Come meet the core faculty and get a sense for what our innovative program is like. Register here.

Our YTT core faculty, from left to right: Leslie, Leena & Emma

The link between nerves & well-being

Many people believe that Yoga is therapeutic; that it will improve their physical and mental health. Even family doctors send their patients to yoga classes as a remedy for everything from stress to back pain (no pressure on us!)

One aspect that likely plays a key role in improving well-being is your nervous system.

Your nervous system is the information highway between your body and brain, and it plays a major role in movement, mood, your sense of self, and your sense of comfort and safety. In everything you do, your nervous system is there, keeping watch and fine-tuning your experience of reality. Pretty neat.

With this in mind, we’ve intentionally prioritized some programming to be therapeutic, considering the role that this system plays in wellbeing and how it expresses during practice. Below, you’ll see two upcoming opportunities to care for this aspect of yourself. If you’ve been feeling stuck or ungrounded, we recommend you have a good look at these options.

Practices for Resilient Living with Danette Adams
Tuesdays at 7:30pm, starting March 29

A virtual offering, this course includes six livestream sessions to help grow your resilience. Over the course of six weeks you’ll discover mindful movements and stillness practices that suit your temperament, be invited to self-reflect, share with others, and grow in your ability to befriend yourself through some big feelings without toxic positivity. Together, we’ll explore the key elements of resilience and find techniques that work best for us. We’ll cultivate sensitivity and compassion to recognize our own patterns and see how the stresses of our times show up differently for each of us. All techniques will be approached through a lens of self-compassion, with the intention of learning to self-soothe and build capacity in your nervous system.

Integrating Stress & Tension with TRE with Leslie Stokman
Mondays at 5:30pm, starting Monday April 25.

Our small group and in-person sessions will focus on developing and regulating self-induced and therapeutic tremors, practicing mindful presence with your experience, and learning an approachable overview of nervous system theory to help you make some meaning of this wonderful ability we all share.

Is “Shake it Off” a viable life strategy?

In 2014, when Taylor Swift proudly celebrated her life strategy for dealing with stress in her song, “Shake It Off,” it turned out that she was actually onto something – something more than a catchy melody. While T-Swifty was probably referring to dancing and keeping a light-hearted attitude (nothin’ wrong with either of those!), there is an additional nugget of truth to the idea that you can move through stress with a good old shimmy and shake.

Dogs do it, don’t they? After an unsettling moment, you might catch your furry friends rolling through a full-body shiver. Or maybe you can picture some nature documentary footage of a deer or gazelle, suddenly alert with vigilance, only to flicker their ears, shimmy their skin, and carry on with grazing.

There’s actually a much deeper process underlying these little moments of bubbling energy, and it’s not only for nonhuman animals. It’s related to your nervous system, your connective tissue (muscle and fascia) and the dynamic interplay of tension and release that leads to natural, full-body tremors that come in waves, rhythms and vibrations.

So it is like dancing, only without any effort. If it sounds like magic, you’re not alone in thinking so. These vibrating body tremors can be learned, honed and regulated through a practice called TRE: Tension & Trauma Release Exercises.

We’re offering a fresh opportunity to learn this practice, with TRE certified provider Leslie Stokman. Join our four week course Integrating Stress & Tension with TRE starting Monday April 25. Our small group sessions will focus on developing and regulating self-induced and therapeutic tremors, practicing mindful presence with your experience, and learning an approachable overview of nervous system theory to help you make some meaning of this wonderful ability we all share.

Leslie also offers one-on-one sessions at The Branches.

Here’s what Leslie has to say about her experience of learning and teaching this modality:

“I began to practice TRE because I was looking for another tool to help my body and mind integrate the change and disruption of several traumas. My consistent practice has brought me greater ease and comfort in my body, and a much greater sense of grounding.

“I love teaching others about the beauty of their nervous systems, and guiding them to safely encounter their amazing tremoring abilities.”

Curious? Read a bit more here.

Learning to Relax with 15 Days

Some people are natural relaxers. Others have to learn (or relearn).

At the risk of sounding preachy, nope, a Netflix binge on the couch is not relaxation. It might be soothing and distracting, both of which are useful strategies that have their place in our lives. But deep relaxation requires a presence that can’t be found while glued to a screen.

Without a numbing influence like TV, many of us struggle to actually just relax. When distractions are taken away, we might need something a little different to help us get there. That “something else” is really important, and we need it to be a support into which we can lean, give over, or surrender and be held by. For natural relaxers, perhaps the floor and internal sense of comfort is often enough. But for folks who struggle to find ease, a little more support can go a long way. This support might come in the form of objects, a particular circumstance, or the presence of a trusted guide or friend.

In restorative Yoga and other gentle practices offered at The Branches, we aim to provide all three of those factors in the form of:

  1. COZY SUPPORT: props, bolsters, cushions and blankets
  2. INTENTIONAL SPACE: a practice environment created with care – we consider the timing of the practice, the length and pace of the sequence, any music playing, the lighting, and how you are guided into and out of practice
  3. CARING GUIDANCE: experienced and trusted teachers who hold space, and offer guidance, encouragement, and a warm presence, as you explore what it’s like to slow down and rest

Below, you’ll find information on a few opportunities to practice true relaxation. Carving out the time and space to unwind, decompress and soften is a big move if you’re used to going on warp speed all the time. It might be hard, but it’s worthwhile. We’re looking forward to supporting you in getting there.

Candlelit Restorative Yoga
Saturday March 12, 7:30-9pm
Join virtually or in-person.
We planned this one specifically for the evening when Daylight Savings steals an hour of sleep…so gear up to lay down, guided by Leslie.

A completely new virtual offering…
15 Days of Presence

15 Days of Presence is an approachable entry point to learn to savour the gifts of presence. This series provides daily guidance that will gently immerse you in the still waters of meditation through a combination of approachable movement, restorative yoga, and simple breath-focused meditation techniques. 

Perfect for total beginners or those hoping to reacquaint themselves with a meditation practice, 15 Days of Presence takes place from April 1 to 15. The series gradually builds towards more time spent in stillness, with a new 15-minute practice video each day. 

When you join 15 Days of Presence, you’ll get access to the program for one month, so you’ll have another 15 days to repeat the videos and further establish yourself in a consistent routine of practice. The series also includes The Gifts of Presence Workshop and features classes with Danette Adams, Leslie Stokman, Emma Dines, and Leena Miller Cressman. 

Gifts of Presence Workshop with Leslie Stokman: Sunday April 24, 7:30-8:30pm. Included when you join 15 Days of Presence, this workshop will start with a 30-minute guided restorative yoga and meditation practice, followed by Q&A, and discussion about next steps on cultivating a meditation practice.

Two Ways to sign up: 

Buy the series on it’s own: $60+hst 

Or, get your first 7-days free and then access for only $40/month when you join Branches On-Demand!

Accessible Yoga: Challenges and Lessons

Nathan is a graduate of our Yoga Teacher Training and has begun teaching all-abilities accessible yoga in the KW community. In this post Nathan shares some fantastic suggestions for teaching accessible classes, and acknowledges where the yoga world needs to change and grow in relation to folks with disabilities. If you appreciate this kind of perspective and want a deeper dive into these themes, check out Reforming Yoga Culture, where we are bringing together innovative teachers who are
transforming the yoga world from the inside out. Now, here’s Nathan!

Everyone deserves fair and equal access to yoga. I know that’s hardly a controversial statement, but in reality many people encounter barriers when trying to engage with a yoga practice. This can be especially true for individuals living with disability. Many of these barriers extend beyond the context of yoga and find their roots in larger systems of oppression and injustice. While on a more subtle level, without appropriate care and
reflection some of these same prejudice can find a presence in the very language and methods by which yoga is taught.

As a facilitator of accessible all-abilities yoga classes, I’ve learned that my
attentiveness, choice of language, and ability to hold space are just as important as poses and movements when it comes to making yoga truly accessible.

I discovered yoga during a time of personal need. In the spring of 2015, over a series of few days, my sight quickly faded until I could hardly see. After three days in the ER and a series of jabs and scans I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis — an auto immune disease that causes a breakdown in the central nervous system’s ability to
communicate with the rest of the body. At first, the effects are temporary but over time can lead to permanent disability.

Yoga became a lifeline for me in those early days. The moments of calm that emerged during and following my practice provided me with enough space to slowly begin to process and accept my new reality.

It’s this experience that ultimately inspired me to want to share this practice with others and pursue accessible-focused teaching.

Stepping into this role has been a journey marked by fundamental word-view-changing opportunities for learning. Here are a few discoveries that I hope other yoga teachers might find useful to incorporate into their teaching, especially when working with a
range of abilities.

1. Don’t push people to extend their capacity

After one of my first classes, I received feedback from a participant, about an experience of being pushed beyond their capacity in a previous class with a different instructor and how happy they were that I had led the practice in a way that allowed them to participate. It pains me to say that I have heard similar stories from many other

There’s a common myth/belief within fitness culture that by pushing someone to extend their capacity you’re actually helping them to achieve their goals. While teaching in this way may in fact be motivating to a small number of students, it can also cause physical harm and create barriers to participation. I am not advocating that as teachers we should remove the opportunity to engage in challenging activity from our classes but rather a shift in attitude. A shift towards the idea that…

2. Everything is optional.

Permissive teaching explicitly outlines that everything presented is optional and creates a space where the student has the agency to engage with the practice on their own terms. In a practical sense this might look like presenting an exercise at a level of modest engagement, then inviting the option of further exploration into more challenging territory. As a rule, I always try to model the most inclusive option and only show something more strenuous if it would be truly beneficial. If I do, I’ll return to what
I first presented after a few moments. The goal here is to give every possible signal that pursuing more strenuous exercise is entirely optional and not an expectation. This empowers students to take a more central roll in their practice by deciding how they would like to engage (or not engage) with what you’ve presented.

3. Create a ‘container of safety’

A ‘container’ refers to a collection of practices and assurances that are designed to help individuals know they’re safe from harm. As a teacher, I take on the responsibility (and the privilege) of facilitating such a space. Before I share practical considerations for the creation of a container, I want to briefly make a case for why such a space is so

Feeling safe is a privilege. The reality is that we currently do not live in a fair and equal society and some individuals face great adversity for simply being who they are. Some of this hardship is systemic and some is intentionally inflicted abuse. It’s a heavy consideration, but essential when working with a marginalized population. The intention of the container is to create a space that’s free of persecution and protected from the shortcomings and injustice so prevalent within our culture.

Creating a container goes beyond the physical space and begins with your marketing and communications. How you choose to name and describe your class, the people/groups you’re intending to reach, and who is present (or not present) in your photography are all important considerations.

A container has an inside and an outside. As such, you may choose to make your classes exclusively open to a certain group or population. The purpose of these boundaries it not so much the exclusion of others but rather to support the integrity of the group within. Strong and defined walls can help to create a space of safety and inclusion and perhaps even lay the ground work for community to emerge.

When beginning a class, I always introduce myself and define my role. As an able-bodied presenting instructor, I feel that it’s important to say a little about my experience with MS and how that lead me to want to share yoga with others. I offer ways to engage with the practice by inviting student to follow their intuition and move in ways that feel good to them. I balance this with a suggestion to avoid any movements that don’t feel good. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I talk about the way in which I hope student will relate to my instructions. As a facilitator, my role is to guide people to have their own experience and I want my offerings to be seen as optional
invitations for exploration.

4. Teach responsively (Have a back-up plan)

To help prepare for my first accessible class, I reached out to my mentor and YTT co-director Emma Dines to help navigating the unknowns of this new teaching venture. Of all her advice, what came to the forefront for me was her suggestion to teach responsively.

Emma used the example of a neck roll exercise. She suggested I start by leading a simplified neck movement. By closely observing my students’ response, I’d be able to have a good indication as to whether I should continue into the full neck roll movement or instead move onto something else.

Up until this point, I had planned all my classes in advance to quite a high level of detail before ever presenting them to students. Responsive teaching would mean to go off script and to adapt my classes based on my observation and intuition. To an experienced instructor, this is often second nature but as a beginner the prospect seemed rather intimidating.

To honour the reality of where I was at in my teaching journey, I decided that planning additional content for my classes would be the way to go. For my first hour-long class I planned twenty minutes of extra content. This way, if I noticed the movement I was offering wasn’t landing well with the group, I could move on to another exercise without fear of running through my whole sequence before the end of class.

Being able to teach responsively is a hugely resourceful tool for any instructor, but in my case practicing this way of teaching also highlighted the distance between my own lived experience and that of my students. So, as this post comes towards an end, I’d like to take a moment to briefly speak to the ethical consideration of leading accessible
classes as an able-bodied person.

When I began this journey, I had hoped that my experience with critical illness would serve as a bridge to understanding a reality much different than my own. In some way it has helped but I would limit this only to better informing my position as an ally. My heart tells me that someone with real lived experience should be leading these classes.

Unfortunately, the same barriers to entry that individual’s experiencing disability encounter when pursuing a yoga practice are further amplified when it comes to pursuing yoga teach training. There are few accessible training programs available and little representation of accessible-focused teachers in mainstream yoga culture.

I believe that accessible yoga is in a period of transition. A period where those of us with privileged positions have the responsibility to encourage, empower, and make space for those within the community to take their rightful place to teach from the lived experience of disability. I hope the day soon comes that I can step aside from my role as facilitator to make space for someone with lived experience. Until then, it’s an absolute privilege to be in this position.