The People – The Passion – The Practice
To grow a plant one must first prepare the soil. Make the earth friable so that the seeds will not be damaged by rocks, weeds nor the weight of the dirt. Then of course the soil must be watered in order for the seeds to germinate.
The seeds of yoga were germinating in Whitehorse, Yukon when I arrived in 1970. I enrolled in a Yoga class at the YWCA, now the High Country Inn. Joe’s manner was gentle and it belied his line backer shoulders. To my surprise he asked me to teach yoga when attendance increased beyond room capacity. Unabashedly, unashamedly I bought a copy of Light On Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar. I know, it was presumptuous of me, but I followed the asanas (postures) and tried to mould myself into the fantastic shapes and configurations in the photographs. Ignorance is bliss. But I was more interested in the practical and physical benefits of yoga. Releasing kinks in my body, being more flexible. That was my entry onto a path that I have followed to this day.
Jeannie Stevens was one of the pioneers of yoga and began teaching in the Yukon at Hellaby Hall, Riverdale Dance Studio, and a variety of make-do venues. Jeannie’s inspiration came from both B.K.S. Iyengar and the late Swami Sivananda Rhada. I was particularly intrigued by Jeannie’s style of teaching. The postures were taught as symbols, enabling us to explore not just the physical aspect of an asana, but their spiritual, universal, reflective and intuitive meanings. The Hidden Language of Yoga was one of the courses Jeannie offered, in which I remember we were given a posture to perform and then reflect upon it on paper. I did an upside-down tree pose because I was injured. This new perspective connected me to all of life in its diversity. Asanas are named after animals, plants, mythic gods and goddesses. Exploring yoga in this way had a profound effect on me.
Jeannie also conducted a chanting group (kirtan) with her partner Paul Stevens. How I looked forward to those sessions. In retrospect, I think of chanting as being Bhakti yoga, the yoga of surrender, the offering of ourselves into the ocean of consciousness that felt like a sea of love. These chanting circles were not restricted to East Indian chants, but those of all denominations. Chanting enables one to get out of the intellect and connect with the heart.
Currently Jeannie teaches meditation, breath work and therapeutic yoga in Sidney B.C. Her book Yoga – A Journey of Self-Discovery is “a love-song to my teachers Swami Rhada and Gangaji.” It is with gratitude that Jeannie came into my life and guided me through the dark nights of my soul. I bow to you Jeannie.
Erica Heuer’s introduction to yoga began when she and her mom went to loonie Friday drop-in classes in Calgary. Also an Iyengar practitioner, she studied with Jeannie for a long time. Eventually she became a student of Iain Grysak in 2004 until 2012 in the Ashtanga style. Erica says that her practice of yoga has brought her “into the fullest potential of all that I can be.” Other teachers who have influenced her are Richard Freeman and Tim Millar. She now has completed her 500 hours of teacher training. “Teaching is so centering. It’s like a two-way door. You’re giving and so much is coming back. It’s nourishing. Yoga has purified me. It’s a gift.” This system of yoga is derived from the teachings of the late K. Pattabhi Jois, founder of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. He was known to say to his thousands of students, “99% Practice and 1% Theory. Practice and all is coming.” He designated the name Ashtanga to this particular style in order that practitioners not forget that there are eight (ashtau) limbs (anga) to the practice of yoga.
Jodee Dixon is another devotee of Ashtanga Yoga. She resides in Juneau, Alaska and teaches above the Alpine Bakery. “I see the benefits of preparing physically and mentally when teaching at 6:30 AM. Some will simply breathe and others do gentle movement. It’s the intensity that drew me to Ashtanga, an intensity that is more than physical. I’ve had a rocky relationship with Ashtanga. Feeling the challenge of structure, and my limitations. But the limitations are what teaches you. They come in waves. Like road blocks, especially practising on your own.” Jodee is up at 3:30 AM and on her mat at 4:40 AM before facilitating the Mysore class at 6:30 AM. “If I don’t have the structure, then I can’t do the work that is necessary. Becoming familiar with the sequence, I don’t have to think about what pose comes next, I can move with the flow of breath. I look forward to practice each night, but it’s still hard to rise at 3:30AM.” This is how Jodee explained how spiritual practice is woven into the first and second series that she currently practises. “ Ahimsa (non-violence) and santosha (contentment). It’s a moving meditation. There is no room for distraction if you stay with the vinyasa (sequence of postures). Over the last few years, my relationship with ahimsa and santosha is accepting what is, and not pushing forcefully, yet still doing the work. I work alone because a led class can be distracting. I feel that I am being forced out of my rhythm. But I also take led classes to force mey out of my habits. Her vision is to create a studio in Juneau that will offer a full rostrum from beginners classes to teacher training courses. I would like acroyoga and partner yoga to be part of the offerings.”
When I practised Ashtanga yoga on a regular basis, I loved how each posture was linked with breath, drishti (gaze), and flow, linking it all into an exploration of ever deepening practice.
Both Tegan Brophy and Terice Reimer-Clarke are Iyengar instructors in Whitehorse. Tegan is a relative newcomer to the yoga circles. She taught in South Africa, owned her own studio in Namibia, taught in Abbotsford B.C. and moved to the Yukon in 2011. She teaches at the White Swan Centre and at The Studio in Granger. Terice taught at Golden Horn for twelve years and more recently above the Alpine Bakery.
Terice is a physiotherapist and likes “the meld between the physical body and pranayama (breath work). What appeals to me as a physiotherapist is the neurophysical and muscular alignment. The gift of Iyengar is based on principles that can be modified. The postures provide a strong base. If you practise Iyengar yoga then you are practising safely.” In order to maintain their certification, Iyengar teachers need 50 hours of continuing training every year.
Tegan says that “Iyengar definitely helped me with my own health issues. He is the first to make hatha yoga scientific, in an objective repeatable form.” Tegan’s interest in natural health led her to study and complete her training as a homeopathic doctor. Her sense of adventure led her to the Yukon. “Iyengar is a meditation on the body. It’s evolving. It’s not static.”
I couldn’t agree more. I recently read that “Iyengar has the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet.”
Jessica Read began her formal training at the Sivananda Ashram in India’s Netala Region in 2006. In 2006, Jessica opened the Breath of Life Yukon wellness collective by the waterfront. “My focus is to make it more of an open community, more accessible to a transient community. Most sessions are drop-in classes. Twenty percent are registered.” Her practice took a turn when she was drawn to the movement and free flow of vinyasa. Shiva Rea, whose own teachings follow the lineage of the late Krishnamacharya, became her mentor. “I believe we need more freedom and consciousness in our practice in order to create an open body and still mind. Prana is the life force of every living being which is reflected through breath. It is less about the pose and more about the life journey. I use East Indian music as a backdrop to assist in the expression of the body/mind. Yoga is a journey to self-love and inner strength. We are capable of more than what our inner voice dictates. Vinyasa provides the opportunity to experience and reflect on that deep level. I have an all-male class.” When I asked how it differs from a registered class, Jessica replied, “Energy! Besides a room full of testosterone, they feed the room with strength. I don’t need to coax them to engage their power. I need to encourage them to ease off and not try the hardest pose when provided with choices.”
Bonnie MacDonald began her yoga journey with Jeannie Stevens in the late 80’s. Several years of venturing to the San Francisco Iyengar Institute eventually led her to Rodney Yee and later Mary Paffard. She brought Rodney to the Yukon to give workshops. I was thrilled to be part of one of them. At the time I thought he was the rock star of the yoga scene in the Yoga Journal magazine. But it was Mary Paffard with whom Bonnie took a long distance teacher training certification which she received in 2006. “Mary integrated a Buddhist component into yoga. Shavasana, (corpse pose) informs me.” This is how she explains it. “We want to live fully. We want to open ourselves to all that life offers. In the Western world, we are very good at efforting. Shavasana we must be totally relaxed in the body and completely alert in the mind. I integrate that concept of relaxation and alertness into all the asanas. I am exploring the practice that takes me into that sattvic place. I’m not looking for a balanced state where I get to hang out. I need to hone back into that state again and again.”
Bonnie’s statements definitely resonate with me in my sitting meditation practice. The mind wanders. We bring it back to the focus of the breath again and again. Or back to the focus of our meditation. Not hanging on, but returning to that sattvic place. Bonnie teaches at the Vista Learning Centre on the Mayo Road where one is surrounded by the majesty of mountains and sky and will soon offer classes at The Breath of Life studio.
Sabu Chaitanya was sixteen years old in India when he began practising East Indian philosophy at an Ashram with Vishnudevananda. “I became a pre-monk.” His regime seven days a week consisted of rising at 4:00 AM, showering, meditation, chanting and scriptural study (satsang). He also had a vigorous hatha yoga practice. After eating, he would do service (karma yoga) either at the Ashram or in the community. At 6:00 PM he ate dinner, and then did satsang. “Every day was the same.” Except Sunday – residents of the Ashram didn’t have to practise hatha yoga on Sundays.” Between 2002 and 2005, Sabu ran the Sivananda Ashram in San Fransisco. He lived and taught in Montreal and Santa Cruz before moving to the Yukon in 2009. He currently owns and teaches at the Shanti Studio at Hawkins House. “Habits and character are developed through the practice. It’s a system of lineage. Every Saturday and Sunday there is an open meditation class at 8:00 AM. All my education was inspired by Vishnudevananda. He has given me a meaningful and disciplined life. My teachers are my backbone. I spent six years with Swami Vishnudevananda , 1987-1993. He was very joyous. He was a monk. He died in 1963. I feel the presence of Sivananda and Vishnudevananda everywhere. Sivananda was free. He was detached from the wheel of attachment.” When I asked Sabu why he left India, he replied, “I had more freedom to teach. In Kerala, India, I was influenced by a social reformer who was against the caste system. All humanity is one. We are all one. My vision is that everyone does yoga.”
Indeed, after these interviews, it appears that yoga is for all. The seeds of yoga are scattered in all four directions of the Yukon. The branches continue to flourish, transforming our lives towards self-realization. I bow to the teachers of the past, present and the future. Namaste.