I am obsessed with the benefits of embodiment. I believe the body is the place where emotion goes to hide. Tucked away safely in the tissues of our physical form, the mind is relieved of the burdensome fluctuations of feeling. The body is a fantastic receptacle for unprocessed experience, but there is a limit to its capacity to store. Physical sensation can be a tool for immediate acknowledgement of feeling, and for embodiment. Sensation that you feel safe to explore melds the different facets of our being, allowing communication between body and mind through observation.
I have spent hundreds of hours in anatomy labs distracting from the burden of my thoughts and emotions, but also seeking to understand that my body holds the transcripts of what I am trying to avoid. My experience in human dissection goes well beyond the physical observation of anatomy as structure, and I have found that my work with living bodies is an extension of this study—I am getting closer to understanding the agreement my body and brain have settled upon in regard to processing emotion, and I want to encourage you to contemplate this too. When I massage, I am using my hands as tools for you to borrow—if I get it right, you are embarking upon your own dissection through the pressure of my touch.
In massage, it’s a precarious balance that holds the potential for absolute mind-body awareness. A touch that is too light can come across as tentative, lacking confidence. Barely impacting the skin, as a recipient I struggle with this type of touch. If the pace is too slow, it feels more intimate than what I am willing to receive. Too quick and I cannot relax. When the pressure is deep I’m more likely to hold my breath in an effort to cut off from sensation. In both scenarios, embodiment is nearly impossible because my mind is unable to settle.
When I offer touch, I am drawn into a meditation on the body. My thumbs press into the edge of muscle and trace the fibres to places where the tissue is dense with stress, holding my awareness as I interpret how much pressure to apply. My intention is to bring you with me to the intersection of tension and release. The rhythm of your breath tells me exactly how much depth I can get away with. I am tuned into the pace of my movement, directing your mind into the muscle. My goal is to hold you on the edge of consciousness where pleasure might at any moment give way to pain. In this way I am directed from muscle to muscle, relieving physical knots that are reflexively loosening the tensions of your mind.
This type of touch, done effectively, leaves no space for interpretation. It holds you captive in an experience of your body, narrated by your mind—exactly as it is—right now. Afterwards, maybe you’ll return to the rumination that’s been blocking your inner wisdom. Maybe you won’t—for a time at least. Experiencing this brain-body integration is magical. I believe it’s the answer to most of our problems, and there are many ways to experience it. What’s yours?
My mother modelled what it was to be a great friend. She kept in touch with many people over many miles. Writing letters and taking road trips that kept her present in friendships that may not have otherwise survived the distance. A generous gift-giver, she went above and beyond. I learned these things from her.
In the presence of my peers I excelled at friendship. I was loyal and supportive. I never forgot a birthday and sent hand-made Christmas cards jammed with words that everyone loved to receive. I took annual road trips with several stops to visit with the kindred spirits I had picked up over the years. At home I would be the one to bus across town for dinners, making myself an easy friend to have. I spent nights in the crevices of other peoples basements or on couches, forfeiting my time the following day while awaiting the most convenient time for my hosts to drive me home, because I believed as a good friend, their time was more important than mine. I was lucky to have them and I didn’t want to push my needs on anyone. Showing up in this way made me feel good—it made my friends feel good—and we had a lot of fun without the constricts of time. My time. This was the pattern I created.
As the pandemic rolled in, I embraced the forced solitude with my cat. I didn’t mind the isolation, and took comfort in the self-care skills I had developed over the years. Actually I felt relieved to not have to show up for anyone in the way we had all become accustomed to. As my body took deep rest I began to see how my willingness to make friendship easy on my comrades had actually been a detriment. I trained people to believe I didn’t ever need them to make their friendship easier for me: a realization that left me feeling awful.
I began to thrive in isolation without having to uphold the expectations I had placed upon myself to arrive at this dinner or that event. Truth be told, I didn’t miss many people. I missed my work—putting my hands on bodies and sharing in boundaried connection. I didn’t miss pushing through exhaustion to arrive somewhere social after work. I decided that beyond the pandemic I would give my friendships the space to find their way to me instead.
As restrictions began to lift, the energy of renewal felt lonely as I witnessed those around me regain their social lives. My network became my clients, not quite friends, but human connection. I was somewhat excluded from my circle because of my daily interactions with the public, which was understandable. I wasn’t all that bothered about it, but I also stopped reaching out—because after months of solitude, I had begun to fill from the inside. I felt pangs of guilt for not making my usual efforts, but not enough to revert to the old me—which highlighted a new stability. I began to listen to the introvert who valued quality over quantity. I no longer wanted to spend my energy on making the cards and composing the words within—yes, sending a card (on time) is work, even for me. Although I gained so much pleasure from giving, something inside of me stopped wanting to work so hard to be likeable.
In my younger years I had witnessed several cold wars within my mother’s relationships and developed a deep fear of becoming what I had interpreted as disagreeable. The end of a friendship, for me, was tied up in failure and an old narrative of not being good enough. But I see now how I had been setting myself up for this very thing. I had to fight against those old beliefs to allow my external efforts to wane, and as I did, some of my friends picked up the slack. Others disappeared entirely. Some have been losses that have taken time to grieve. Others, not so much.
I realize now that the end of a friendship is not a failure. For a friendship to end someone had to speak, and someone had to hear, some hard truths. At least one person had to set a boundary that they had previously been incapable of setting. Both parties had to either silently pull away from an unhealthy dynamic, or decide how to interpret the breakdown and choose to move forward, or not. The end of any relationship is emotionally distressing, which I believe honours its power. Losing a friend, while deeply painful, is actually a victory—for everyone involved.
Friendships come, and friendships go. We know this. I’m choosing to move forward while celebrating the loss as growth. Mine and that of my friends.
320 Spadina Avenue, not to be confused with 320 Spadina Road, that was Jeff Healey’s recording studio, Forte Records—not my apartment, but we did receive his mail quite frequently.
It was 1998 and from the street 320 could not be easily located. Our unofficial neighbour concealed our entrance from dawn to dusk: a friendly old guy with a shopping cart full of cheap plastic toys he sold for cash without a permit. The pedestrian traffic came to a halt right in front of 320 as the wide sidewalks were cluttered by the additional outdoor aisles of the exotic fruit shops, restaurant supply depots, produce markets and illegal vendors selling herbs and trinkets atop cardboard boxes. On occasion a monk would sit on a folded blanket in the thick of the bustle across from the door, playing his flute and garnering the deepest respect from the elders who placed their coins in his old copper singing bowl. All of this visible from my third-floor bedroom window.
There was so much confusion about our address, we started using 318 because it was the only number you could locate from the street.
Once inside the ground floor door, you would immediately be assaulted by the stink of raw sewage, rotting flesh, dirty socks. Durian, the world’s smelliest fruit, it’s banned from some public spaces in southeast Asia, but not 320 Spadina. Everyone who visited became quickly educated on durian, but we couldn’t really figure out why the smell landed inside our building when the fruit shops were several doors over. Someone was even nervy enough to bring it to a party we once hosted. It tastes like custard, but only if you can get past the smell.
At the top of a long staircase was our door, which opened onto another steep and narrow set of stairs. Once inside, the apartment was a sprawling space of rooms opening off the hallway that was as long as the building was deep. The two front bedrooms looked over Chinatown, which was never quiet. A bustling foreign market in the heart of the city by day, and a parade of monstrous mobile trash compactors by dusk. Daily. For hours. So. Much. Garbage. Guests would toss and turn all night at 320, especially in the winter when the radiators squealed their high pitched announcement of the oppressive heat—and accompanying dryness—guaranteed to make the inside of your nose swell until it too squealed as your breath laboured through its narrowed passages. The windows had to remain open, we wore shorts year ‘round and the street noise quickly became our lullaby.
320’s hanging gallery of random items in the hall.
The living room was massive, with high ceilings and skylights. Sturdy galvanized pipes framed the room from above, providing a place to hang the laundry, which also served to keep the air from getting obnoxiously dry from the burning rads unaltered in their original gold. The third bedroom, nestled between the living room and kitchen, trapped all the smells of the building: mostly hot deep fryer grease, and durian. The only source of light came through an opaque pyramid of glass affixed to the roof some sixteen feet above. Before the smell in that room could be subdued, it was used as a workshop space for various projects from crafts to carpentry, bike maintenance and eventually my darkroom. There was a four foot recess that went straight up between the ceiling and the window, making the light a challenge to block. I solved the problem by constructing a foam core framed trap door that swung open and closed by a duct tape hinge. The long laundry pole was an essential accessory to the operation of the ceiling door. I would spend hours in there, bathing in the smell of the film processing chemicals which became my contribution to the bouquet of 320.
The fire escape from the kitchen led not to the ground, but to the first floor roof one flight below—the backside of Chinatown and its alleyways to Kensington Market. The small wrought iron landing was warmed by the afternoon sun and despite the constant vibrating rumble of the fans that spit out thick greasy kitchen byproduct, my potted sunflowers still bloomed. Here I savoured the first cigarette of the day before the vents sputtered and banged in acceleration toward the lunch rush on Spadina Avenue. In the kitchen if you sat quietly you would be treated to a parade of mice exiting the stove in search of any and all edible goods. In a day, over a dozen tiny spines were broken by the snap-traps that we didn’t even need to bait. This was not a solution, so the traps were discarded. You could not be negligent around food clean-up. Ever. The old washing machine was inherited with 320 and had to be manually hooked up to the kitchen faucet. The sink was a shallow but wide enamelled cast iron relic from another century. The water discharge hose was threaded through a heavy steel railroad fishplate that we stored under the sink until laundry day—I have no idea who came up with this, but it worked brilliantly.
Undoubtedly the best room at 320. Note the laundry hose.
The hot water tank took up most of the bathroom’s real estate and a only slight majority of the small floor tiles were actually fixed in place. I glued photos to the bottom surfaces of the most commonly kicked floor plates. Every now and then a shriek of delight would travel through the apartment, signalling that a guest had stumbled upon one of the hidden images. The toilet never fully emptied unless you chased the contents of the bowl with a pitcher of water. I like to think the surprise photo under the floor helped to lighten the burden of toilet use at 320.
It was 1998 and I was 25–I loved that apartment. The cockroaches were the size of my thumb and 320 had a pair of shoes that existed solely for their management. As gross as it was to pop their crunchy shell and deal with the resulting explosion that could travel in any direction for up to six inches, it didn’t take long to tame the populations of rodent and insect—they stopped coming around almost entirely once my cat moved in. Sadly, the neighbours used poison, which took her life when she was just six.
The back stoop off the kitchen and my potted sunflower garden.
For seven years 320 held the space for me to transition into adulthood. I learned how to cultivate silence amidst the constant movement and volume of that time. It was the most documented period of my life. I have hundreds of photos of the apartment, neighbourhood and parties. Many are muddy and out of focus while I refined the skills that would eventually sharpen my future. I started a journal, which cemented experience through the imagery of words juxtaposed with what was fixed on film. I tried out six different avenues of employment, swapping the same number of roommates, stumbling toward the stability I craved without compromising my need for freedom and creativity. I became acquainted with grief, something that had lived within me all along, but blended with the chaos of 320 where I felt safe enough to let it roar its way out of me, joining the sounds and smells that shielded me from its full weight.
The view of Chinatown from inside the ground floor door.
Back then hauling my steel frame bike up and down the two flights of steep narrow stairs—to keep it from being stolen on the street—was no big deal. Navigating traffic and street car tracks on two wheels was the choice I made to afford my newly acquired taste for lattes over the fare of the TTC. Just now as I consider that lifestyle from middle age, I am not all that surprised to admit that I would do the same today. While so much has changed in my life since 320, many things remain. A bike is still my main mode of transportation, I write in the same notebooks, ordering the same pens from a shop on Spadina, now hundreds of kilometres away. I’ve decided it’s time to invest in a proper espresso maker and hope to one day get back to capturing more mundane moments on film.
So many memories but perhaps the forgetories* are the things that matter more.
*Of course I made that word up, but it has profound value if you really let it sink in. What does it mean? It’s all of the challenges and traumas that made us into the awesome people we are today. Those things that once weighed us down but no longer occupy space in our current reality.
Two years ago a longtime friend invited me into a romance.
Love has always been a complicated thing for me. Historically I have avoided it. Friends would accuse me of being too picky, and although I couldn’t disagree, it was an unconscious survival strategy. Sometimes when I travelled I’d have a brief sexual encounter to fill my need for human connection, safe in a timeline that avoided any longing beyond the time it took me to get back home and into routine.
My family of origin is broken—very broken. I come from a long line of heartache, which is a conclusion I have crafted from the innate ways I have run from vulnerability of any kind, all my life. I didn’t have to learn this from anyone, I believe I came into this world with the stains of ancestral pain throughout my body. So when my friend asked me to risk my heart, I stood with great trepidation, at the crossroads of potential. It could have gone either way: unbearable pleasure or pain. It was both.
I immediately said no. But I’m a middle aged woman with the heart of a child. The woman inside wanted to experience the love being offered by this friend, and she trusted him. The child wanted it more, and trusted him more. It took me several months to come around, but I did and the reward was immediate. Our physical compatibility was undeniable and we poured our bodies into one another with complete abandon.
It’s not the first time I have confused sex with love.
Quickly and wordlessly he was unable, or unwilling, to show up for the emotional side of me. I was starving for affection, perhaps starving for my family’s lineage of missed connection, so I stuffed down my hurt and showed up for the crumbs of love anytime they were tossed my way. Those crumbs were the richest most decadent treats, and I would savour the aftertaste far beyond the time of consumption. The longing that followed was a bottomless pit. I would spend weeks at time in the damp cold dark stink of abandonment, but I’d be ready anytime he tossed down his rope, in hopes that this time, I would be brought to safety.
Somehow I blinked and two years had gone by. Two years waiting for him to fully arrive. Two years blind to my own worth. Two years hoping that this friend was not actually doing this to me. Fuck.
I have blamed myself for every part of it. Why did I take the chance. Why didn’t I demand more. Why didn’t I walk away. Why didn’t I protect and value the fierce woman I was, and am.
They say the first heartache is the worst. I always took this to mean the first venture into chosen love, but my perspective has shifted. Like many of us, my first love happened at home in my family. I have spent my life chasing down that familiar dysfunctional dynamic, in hopes of having it play out differently. This one—my friend—has been the hardest loss. Because it was a cruel disregard for the soft parts of me that I so willingly surrendered.
Don’t get me wrong, I have learned a great deal from this. I am empowered by the further healing of my old wounds. Wounds that had to be scratched and brought to the surface anew. I am reminded of my worth. But perhaps the biggest take-away is the realization that I have allowed toxic positivity to gag me for much too long. The ability to extract the lesson, and reason with my pain—in order not to feel it—has kept me from truly healing some very real hurts.
I am in a deep deep place of feeling right now. I hate it. but I am going to rest here for a bit and see what I can burn away with this fire.
When was the last time you were aware of your body?
Present in a way that did not include pain? Embodied without some kind of emotional desire?
The workday has been reduced to the screen in front of you: looking upon your face as those on the other end of your meeting are seeing you. Adjusting lighting, background, and turning off the microphone to eliminate the sound of the actual life in your space.
In return, you receive the same false electronic interpretation of your workmates and friends. Unconsciously scanning the screen in search of humanity where it cannot exist.
Missing are the subtle exchanges that take place in a sideways glance, the accidental giggle or sigh that doesn’t get picked up by technology, the toe tapping, leaning in, or slow slouch.
The body has it’s own language AND interprets the language of others, separate from the brain. We have been reduced to images of bodies trying to communicate without being seen. The disconnection is showing up in *your body* as pain, fatigue, overwhelm.
I know this because I touch bodies.
Your body needs to feel connected again.
Move mindfully—without music or video instruction. Touch with the goal of feeling.
In the summer of 2005, having just moved to Montreal, I took the bus to the Eastern Townships for 10 days of silence.
Upon arrival I handed over my pen and journal, my earbuds and iPod, along with the book I had been reading.
I was gifted one of only five private cabins just outside of the main house where I could spread out and be comfortable without any concerns for the roommate that those inside the main building would have. I found a pencil under the bed and its tip was worn right down to the wood. I wondered who had been in the room before me, and what they were scrawling on with the exhausted illegal writing tool. I was excited-scared.
As all of the other participants arrived, fifty of us, we casually mingled around the property until the bell called us into the main dining room. Just before the drape was pulled across the thread that divided the space into two halves—men and women—I caught a glimpse of a couple who were returning for the second time. They smiled at one another and hugged, one of them started to cry. Oh fuck. What have I gotten myself into?
I barely remember the structure of the first day, but as the routine of meals and meditation settled in, I wondered seriously, how I was going to get through the next ten days.
There was a brass bell that hung from its wooden handle on the front door frame of the main building. Someone walked the property at 4am clanging that thing so loudly the trees quivered. The first meditation of the day was to begin after the second bell at 4:30. There were days the second bell would sound before I heard the first. It was a special kind of hell, but I was appreciating the challenge having heard so many of my peers rave about their experience at Vipassana. It took me three days to finally get quiet. There were 10+ hours of meditation each day, and despite there being a technique to follow that was meant to bring the mind into the body, I spent much of my time performing a silent soundtrack of music in my head. When thoughts would pop up, I would have a song ready to complete the experience in my mind. I’m not entirely sure I wasn’t also dancing a bit on my meditation cushion. During the short walking breaks, I skipped and kicked my legs out in front of me to get the blood moving through my lower limbs. It was all a bit silly.
Things changed drastically for me on day three when we gathered for the first short meditation of the day—one hour, the short meditation was ONE HOUR. We were instructed not to move. No opening the eyes, no stretching the legs, no moving the hands. Suddenly the music stopped. All I could think was why no one had told me about this!? I wasted the first three days of technique-training and now I was being thrown into the stillness and silence completely unprepared. The method was not difficult and suddenly I was clinging to it as if it were the only grounded thing in a world without gravity. As per the instructions, I scanned my body, beginning at the top of my head on the right side. As soon as I felt sensation, my awareness would move the tiniest bit south in search of my body’s response to the spotlight of my attention. This continued until I felt every bit of my flesh through the cognition of my mind. My God, sitting is painful. The back of my head on the left side began to ache, and then my knees begged for movement as they cramped in their folded position, causing my feet to go from tingling to burning and then numb. A relentless ache settled into the bone as my feet cycled through this sleep-wake-repeat that was unbearable. But the instruction was to continue sequentially scanning the body despite the distraction. It’s really hard to breathe through that kind of unnecessary pain. Every ounce of concentration went into surviving that hour. My breath was shallow and while one side of my brain remained inside, scanning my body, the other was begging for release.
Goenka’s recorded chant broke the silence and I heard the sudden sobs of a woman behind me just as my own also released. Through urgent punching tears, I covered my face with my hands and wept with pain and relief.
We learned through observation that each one of us had a crazy person living inside of our head. The places she goes in the quiet moments are astonishing. She’s an absolute nutcase and I’m humiliated by her existence. I must never reveal her to the outside world. During the evening discourse on day four, the room erupts with uncontrolled laughter as Goenka refers to our internal crazy. How does he know? I’ve never seen this man before in my life, and he’s telling an extremely accurate story of my experience, that is also everyone else’s. The release of the laugh feels amazing.
At lunch I observe others as my form of entertainment. Meals, we learn quickly, are the only thing we can—sort of—control. The mind does all kinds of ridiculous things in meditation when technique falters, and I know for myself, I would let it; until the pain in my body pulled me back. In the dining hall, we could gain momentary comfort from stuffing our faces. I watch as meditators journey from stoic repose to desperate vultures around the food table. Collectively, we came to expect that every second day there would be dessert. I’m not sure if it’s a game of the servers, but the plate of fresh baked cookies would be set upon the table once we were all seated, shamelessly filling the void of personal connection through the comfort of food. One by one meditators abandon their half-eaten meal to grab a handful of cookies. HANDFULS! OMG. The emotional friction just thinking about not getting to the plate before it emptied was excruciating. We were reduced to indulging the crazy person living inside, the one who might actually crack over the loss of a cookie, and no one seemed to care if they were responsible for denying the next person of that last crumb. I just watched. And judged. Watched the vultures and felt my own panic rise. Thankfully there was always another cookie on the plate by the time I finished my meal. I indulged my own smug superiority, rewarding my restraint with an increased sense of pride. This was how I felt good. For the others it was a handful of cookies. For me it was judgment of them. I’m not proud of that.
Sometime after day five, wondering how I’m going to manage even one more day of silence, I start thinking about how I can get out of the mandatory don’t-move meditations that were scheduled three times each day. I wondered if I got the hiccups if someone would kick me out. The thought has me chuckling silently as I settle onto my cushion trying to remember which knee should be folded first to keep the pain from beginning too quickly, as if it mattered. Scanning my body, acknowledging and ignoring the burn in my knees, the silence is broken by a sudden chirp from somewhere behind me. Then a giggle. Chirp. Giggle. Chirp. Shuffle.
A woman near the door has the hiccups and she is being kicked out of the meditation hall!
Someone close by is giggling. I can’t believe what is happening. There is so much unexpressed emotion inside of me, I’m not sure I can hold it down. The giggler runs from the room, I can hear her bounding down the stairs, and just then from the far end of the corridor, another loud hiccup. I completely lose it. I have my head in my hands and my body is heaving with laughter. I’m snorting, and tears are running down my face. I cannot make it stop. The deep rumbling sound of suppressed hilarity in my throat is making things worse. I’m laughing at myself for predicting the hiccups and then laughing again because the crazy person is also psychic and she’s now shamelessly exposing herself. I’m surrounded by several dozen stoic meditators, but I’m all alone inside this comedy scene. Why haven’t they kicked me out yet?
The meditations begin to blend into one another. The first sit of each day is two hours, and on day seven I’m so exhausted by the busyness of my dreams at night that I find myself unable to stay awake. My body keeps slumping. Over and over again I awake just before my head hits the floor. It’s worse than the laughing fit. I break the rules, go to my room and sleep until breakfast.
Day nine is my 33rd birthday and the sunset is spectacular. I’m starting to appreciate the rhythm of silence. I’ve learned that alleviating the pain by repositioning my legs is ineffective. The sensation comes back with more force only seconds after the adjustment. If I remain still, the intensity peaks and then disappears for good. So many lessons in this one tiny exercise, and the resistance to learning it is astonishing.
Our final discourse is delivered in two groups: one in the meditation hall, one in the dining room below. A man in the other group has what resembles a psychotic break initiated by Goenka’s constant repetition of a single word throughout the talk. He is quietly ushered outside and I hope that the event is just the momentary emergence of his inner crazy and not anything more serious. But I’ll never know. Apparently psychotic episodes are not unusual during these courses.
Following the discourse we participate in one last meditation. This one is only 30 minutes but it feels as lengthy as the two-hour 4:30AM sit. I feel anxiety rising inside as I abandon the technique in anticipation of social interaction. As the subtle white noise of the recording fades out and meditators stretch their legs, one by one exiting the hall to join the buzz of conversation on the first floor, I am frozen on my cushion.
For ten days we have silently journeyed together through the rough terrain of our internal grounds. No one is going to understand how I feel right now better than these people, yet I’d rather remain alone inside the bubble of all I have just experienced. After another twenty minutes of self-inflicted isolation in the meditation hall, I creep down the stairs to join the group, but I don’t want to. Immediately I am embraced by a stranger and the emotion I was avoiding escapes in one heaving cry of relief. And I’m fine.
I am glad I experienced vipassana when I did. I would not do it again now. No way. Those ten days were among the hardest I have ever experienced, and the most worthwhile. It took ten days to learn the lesson of avoidance through the wisdom of my body. TEN days. It’s so simple I’m not sure if that amount of time is unreasonable, or a pithy.
I feel the looming challenge of the post COVID re-entry. If it doesn’t arrive for another year, I have that much longer to anticipate how I am going to make myself want to crawl out of my shell and join the world again.
I can wriggle and repeatedly adjust my way out of discomfort, but until the embers of disquiet completely burn up, there will be no final relief. The choice becomes impossible: feel, watch, experience the thick unwieldy texture of fever until it evaporates, or fight it. Run, deflect, deny. Live as best I can in the blissful moments between that looming avoidance, until the fatigue of the fight forces the sensation upon me anyway.
In the first six months of the pandemic while struggling to acclimatize to the uncertainties that lie ahead, I began walking. It was the most effective way to fill my day. I didn’t listen to music or talk on the phone. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone along the way. For hours at a time I put one foot in front of the other marking a giant perimeter around my centretown neighbourhood. My walk route would change from time to time, but inevitably I would find myself tracing the waterways of my city and the glimpses of nature provided there. I walked until the blisters on my feet oozed with infection, but I could not bring myself to take a day off. I needed the movement, the fresh air, the distraction.
Historically in my younger life during times of unemployment, I would use the time to nestle wrestle more deeply into my yoga practice. It was a tough discipline to get myself to the studio and sweat out my boredom and frustration, but I had nothing else to do and a single class could occupy me for two hours or more—depending on how quickly my legs carried me to and from. The practice has always been a love-hate thing for me. The love was for the release of hormones and the surge of endorphins that made me feel so alive. The hate was for the anger and frustration that frequently bubbled up through my body as the heat began to rise from the physical challenge. I never knew which sensation a practice would bring—love or hate. The fear of not knowing, or not being able to control the outcome, pulled at me strongly and it was often a fight to get myself to the studio. When I succeeded it was because the threat of boredom was stronger than the ominous emotion that lay beneath the dullness of my life at the moment.
This fight has been ongoing for the past 22 years. The toughest were between years two and ten. How did I do that? Eight years of wrestling my way through a practice I love? What do I love about it? These are very difficult questions to answer. I guess it’s the lightness that I feel in my body after having tangled with the demons of my emotional self. Win or lose, there is a general satisfaction in having engaged. On the days I opt not to fight it out I feel comforted by my melancholy. Like an old friend, I can snuggle up with her, allowing her weight to ground me in the stillness and rest that comes with inaction. It’s wonderful to have the relief of life’s pressures for a time. But then restlessness propels me back to my mat. The tick-tock of these two extremes has been very tiring.
I brought my practice home early on, but relied greatly on the community of the studio to keep me engaged. I identified with a mostly made-up social pressure that demanded evidence of my advancement in asana, which kept at least one foot in the studio struggling to keep up with my peers.
Yoga destabilized me. It knocked me down over and over, bruising my ego and embarrassing me into action. Fuck I hate yoga–but I know it has saved my life.
I haven’t done a full yoga practice in months.
My mat has been undisturbed in the closet since sometime in the summer. The vacuum cleaner beside it has gotten more use, and I feel great.
When I get down on the floor for a downward dog randomly during the day, I experience a delicious stretch that reaches into my fascia and travels deep beyond a single muscle. It’s a sensation I have not experienced in forever. If I am inspired to complete a sun salutation, the breath is more fulfilling than I recall it ever being, but I’m not compelled to do more than two. My joints feel strong and the sensation is reflected in my mental and emotional state.
The exhaustion of having to continuously dust off the assault of my yoga practice has forced me to get stronger. Or is it softer? I suppose it’s something in between the two. I no longer bruise as easily and my boundaries are more defined but also not as sharp as they once were. I feel stable for the first time in decades.
I don’t think this is the end of yoga for me, but I don’t know. Walking has been amazing. I am appreciating the view of the nature around me over the obsessive focus of the climate within. The steadiness of my step sprouted from my yoga practice and I’m going to continue walking while the roots lay beneath the earth unseen for a while.
This was my mantra as 2020 was prepping to unleash all its glory upon us. It’s a strong statement, one that has escaped my lips on several occasions in relation to various aspects of my life. Unfortunately, I actually can’t recall more than one discarded item as I prepare to draw a symbolic narrative on how freeing it has been, and I doubt that it has been so successful as to have erased my memory of those attachments, but it has been a hell of a year. This has been the kind of year that demands more of the present because reflections on the past are too painful when we consider all that has been lost, but this was not my goal when I put those words onto my private 2020 bucket list.
I wanted to see what would happen if I softened my grip on the shadows of the passions that have actually been fading for years. Some of these practices have defined me for decades and as their images shrink in my rear-view, the feeling of loss has disarmed me to the point of not being able to truly let go.
When I retired from teaching yoga in 2016, I was exhausted from trying to meet my own expectations of success, and retirement gave me permission to stop wanting embodiment for everyone else. At some point I realized that all those years of teaching had kept me at an imperceptible distance from my own embodiment and I had to leave it behind in order to reclaim my own mind-body connection.
After leaving the dissection lab in 2019, I committed to taking a year off to write. The revelations my yoga practice exposed following my retirement were so profound I wanted to see what a year of reflecting on dissection would uncover. Turns out, a lot. And I’m not sure I need to cut into another cadaver as long as I live.
That’s a tough statement to swallow.
Chances are if you think or speak of me, the words yoga and dissection are probably present. So you know how huge this is.
This past weekend I cleaned out all of my drawers, cupboards and closets. I came across the first book I wrote. I hand wrote it during the years of 2007 though 2009. It’s about my journey into yoga and teaching —and it’s really bad. I pulled it out months ago as reference for the current manuscript, but couldn’t stomach more than a few pages.
It’s not that the writing is bad. It does perfect justice to the young woman I was when I wrote it… but I’ve come a long way.
I knew this volume would not survive me to live on in my absence, but didn’t know how to dispose of it properly (and completely). I thought of throwing it in a campfire, but I only filled 200 pages of a 488 page hardcover journal —that would take some time to burn. I could take it to Staples and pay for it to be shredded, but that would mean trusting someone else to complete the task. I had to do it myself.
This week I had a brief text conversation with a friend from the lab. She had a scalpel in her hand carving her way around the shoulder, neck and skull. 2020 has unceremoniously closed her business and she confesses to be nearing her limit on dissection; aimless and wondering what to do next. I respond in support of her sentiment, like one foot is in the familiar, while the other is already marching forth into something new… but neither of us really know yet what that is.
I pull out the scissors and begin tearing pages out of that first book. As I do, my eyes are taking in small snippets of the manuscript that wasn’t destined for anything greater than this moment. As the words flash through the blades of my manual shredder, I see exactly what 2020 has taken. Taken in terms of denial; all the things we had to forfeit. But also taken in terms of what it has required; all the ways in which we were or were not prepared.
This pile of paper on my coffee table is the past. It’s all the hurt my young self carried along to the point of finally saying: Leave the past in the past.
I took a stunning picture on one of my walks along the canal on day 7 of this craziness. It was a particularly difficult day for me as I wrestled with the uncertainty of what lay ahead.
Over the past four months I have walked that route repeatedly while struggling to recreate the photo as the seasons changed. I have a thing about documenting the passage of time, and it seems as though that moment has refused to cooperate.
I live in a very vibrant part of town. I have an amazing apartment with a huge area of outdoor space that looks over a quiet residential street. Looking for this apartment nearly 10 years ago was an enormous stress. I had moved back from Costa Rica the year before with $2000 in my bank account and decided to return to school for massage therapy. I was born and raised in Ottawa but fled as soon as I could (it took me nearly two decades to return for good). It was a difficult landing, and I spent my first summer in Toronto teaching yoga and doing thai massage to raise my tuition fees. I settled on an apartment in Westboro that really wasn’t my style, so when I gave my two months notice, I was insistent on ticking just three boxes: laundry onsite, centretown location and aesthetically pleasing outdoor space, (not a concrete balcony). Two and a half weeks before moving day I still had not found my home. I started lying about my income (which was zero while I was in school), and it became a full-time job cycling around the city looking at potential places to live. They were all dumps!
Stressed to the max, I scored my now home just two weeks before moving day, and have not budged since. It ticked all of the boxes and at the time, was the priciest place I had seen. I didn’t care.
I am introverted by nature and spend a lot of time at home. My home has to feel like an oasis, and often people entering my space comment on how great the energy feels… this is not unique to my current apartment, it has always been the case.
Like everyone else, I have ridden the wave of the COVID ups and downs. Overnight we all experienced drastic life changes. I slumped right into the victim roll exclaiming, “at least you still have a job,” and “be thankful you have a partner by your side.”
It was a lot.
I learned quickly about the role my work plays in my life. Massage therapy brings me social connection through the tiny snippets of small talk to the deeper heartfelt conversations with my clients. The physical aspects are just as healing for me as they are for you. I was feeling the loss of this more than anything. But I have a lot of experience with introspection and I got right down to it.
I walked 10K a day. I devoured book after book, completing one every few days. I wrote. A lot. I explored new territory on my bike and rode farther than I ever have in a day. I drank a lot of wine too (and beer, and gin and moonshine -maple, if you’re wondering). I did all this, not because I am disciplined (or an alcoholic). I did it because I had nothing else to do.
The hardest part was hearing my friends who were also struggling —but in very different ways— tell me how lucky I am to live alone. How lucky I am to have this beautiful outdoor deck. How lucky I am to have time to get out on my bike and go for long walks. How lucky I am to be able to afford to live on the $2k a month offered by CERB.
I want you to know that my feet have never been so constantly blistered and sore in all my life. My neck is in perpetual spasm from poor reading posture and I need glasses now from the screen (I read on my iPad). In the spring on my walks, my mind was consumed with finding a decent place I could shelter myself to empty my bladder, (which makes for a lousy walk). Now that it’s hot, a migraine might blind me while I’m barely hydrated 30k from home on my bike (despite the water I brought with me). There is not a lot of perfection going on. But my home? Thankfully I made that happen a decade ago.
My favourite are the yogis. The ones spouting words that I cringe to admit have been my words also: “this is a wonderful opportunity to dig in and do some deep emotional work.” Can you hear the sugary patronization of that tone? It’s not intentional, but it can come across as lacking in empathy.
I am so sorry for ever condescending to you like that. Apart from maybe your therapist or partner, no one has the right to allude to how much work you have yet to do.
The BIGGEST lesson I have learned through all of this is to let go of comparison. Your struggles, that are the thing I long for, and my struggles, that are the thing you long for? They feel the same amount of crappy.
And you’re right. I am lucky, (but really, I made those choices and luck had nothing to do with it —for better or for worse).
I got to return to touching people this week and it has been more glorious than you can imagine. I am in an industry that has allowed me to resume a somewhat normal life. I feel so greatly for everyone who is working from home, longing for the day they get to leave the house for their morning commute. I have no advice for you… do what you have to do. No one knows when things will change, and I hope that if you are out there getting blisters on your feet, obsessing about where to pee and fighting off a migraine, you’re doing it with authenticity.