Not all who downward are lost…
My take on the practice of yoga in the Nation’s capital…
By: Emily Dickinson
Ichih Wang has a resume, but she has never printed it out.
“I sat in the library checking the Internet for office jobs, and then my Nokia started buzzing,” she says. “It was people asking me if I could teach.”
That was nine years ago, when she was barely halfway done her yoga teacher training at age 34. She got called into the office at Rama Lotus Yoga Centre, where she was completing her course. She assumed she was “in trouble.”
Not quite. They asked her to start teaching.
“I’m not qualified,” she replied.
“But, you’re qualified,” they told her.
Since then, she has never had to apply for a job. All her business has come to her.
I met Ichih unofficially just over a year ago. I went to Santosha Westboro with a friend for the first time for a 90-minute hot (40 degrees Celsius) yoga class that I hoped would help clear my mind. Running in slightly late, I was forced to the very front of the class, something I avoided like the plague at that time.
“Are you a worrier, or a warrior?” asked the small Asian woman, over and over, as she stood in front of me watching every muscle in my body vibrate. She must have sensed my insecurity. Her light, curly hair was pulled back, and her tiny, toned body fluttered around the room, pointing out when people were doing poses wrong. She zeroed in on me a few times.
As I sunk deeper into my warrior two pose, I was worried that my thighs might fall off, but I wanted to prove I was a warrior. How could I possibly care what a woman I’ve just met thinks about my yoga pose? I had never felt so engaged in the mental aspect of yoga before. I didn’t think once about my life beyond the mat for 90 whole minutes. At times, I thought I would leave the room and conquer the world. How, why, I don’t quite know.
I started going to see Ichih every once in a while, when I needed a killer workout but more importantly, to get some mental clarity.
Although I had done lots of yoga before I stepped into Ichih’s class that November evening, I had never felt the mental benefits until that day. It started me thinking about what I might be doing wrong.
I first tried yoga in September 2009 when I signed up for a class at Carleton University. It was slow, somewhat painful, and terribly boring. I went to that one class (I might have left early… no yoga etiquette there) and branded myself a yoga-hater. I got my 65 dollars back.
A year later, under pressure from my know-me-better-than-I-know-myself mother, I got an unlimited month-long pass to Moksha Yoga in Little Italy. At that fairly new and trendy studio, my obsession was born.
I hate laying in savasana (the resting pose at the beginning and end of every class) because I easily get bored and my mind wanders back to my anxious thoughts, but I love how physically challenging the classes are. It’s been two years, and I have been going back for the hot power flow classes, which leave my arms feeling like they’re going to fall off from the multiple vinyasa flows (an eight-part sequence that essentially feels like a really hard push-up.)
I have found a Zen-like yoga state on only a few occasions. Why am I usually not able to shut off my brain? Is it my inability to clear my mind, or the average teacher’s inability to teach yoga values? It seems like more of a workout class than anything. A friend of mine put it perfectly: Yoga has gone Starbucks. It’s trendy, expensive, and the thing for cool twenty-somethings and soccer moms to do. Somewhere on its journey from India, did yoga get lost?
In order to try to see where it’s gone, it’s important to understand where it comes from. Yoga dates back roughly 5,000 years to the Indus Valley Civilization, located in what is now present-day Pakistan and Northwestern India. My imagination leads me to the top of a mountain, where a small, bald man sits in absolute stillness, his hands placed on his knees. He lets out “om”—a chant—and the soothing sound radiates over the villages below him. The activity he is doing uses positions, refered to as asanas, to heal the mind and the body. It is called yoga, and it is the combination of four pillars—jnana, bhakti, karma, and raja—that are practiced as one to combine exploration of knowledge, love and devotion, service to others, and meditation.
By the middle of the 20th century, Hatha yoga was on it’s way to North America. Theos Bernard, an American, traveled to India to learn about the practice that originates from the 15th century. Many yogis train in this kind of yoga today. Not surprisingly, when it arrived in New York, it was marketed more for the body than the mind, to get people interested. By the 1970s, studios were becoming more available around North America.
In 1994, Rama Lotus Yoga Centre was the first studio in Ottawa to open that offered only yoga. Before that, yoga had appeared in church basements or at fitness centers, but didn’t have a strong following. Since Rama Lotus opened their doors, the city of Ottawa has grown into a yoga metropolis. There are now more than 90 different places to do yoga—in all shapes and sizes—in the city and the surrounding suburbs. I am now part of a massive community that thrives in Luon (stretchy, sweat-wicking fabric famously used by the clothing brand Lululemon.)
Walking through Centretown at any given hour, it’s shocking how many stretchy-pant wearing girls there are, their hair in messy knots on top of their head and a yoga mat slung over their shoulder. Imagine over 2,000 bodies spread across the front lawn of Parliament Hill. The 30-degree weather makes this studio cool compared to a hot studio, but the blaring midday sun changes everything. The rainbow of tank tops, tights, and mats was a shocking contrast to the buildings behind them. Every single one of them is on their hands and knees, with their right leg up. Three-legged dog. What a sweaty sight to be seen. This city loves to do yoga.
Behind the scenes of this yoga community there are many yogis. Right in the middle, teaching the class, is Ichih Wang. I must refer to her as Ichih because she is a household name in the Ottawa yoga community.
If you walk in the doors of the Lululemon Athletica in Westboro, you can see her picture on the walls. In return for her contribution to the yoga community, the yoga-clothing brand outfits her.
“She is always in the store, and volunteers her time to us, way more than what is expected of her,” says Katelyn Fenik, the assistant store manager in Westboro.
This means teaching free yoga classes on Sunday mornings, being behind the scenes in organizing Parliament Hill Yoga (which is a free yoga class on Parliament Hill) and helping out around the store.
She teaches public, private, and corporate yoga classes, seven days a week. Ten times a week, anyone can drop into one of her classes at either Rama Lotus in Centretown, Santosha in Westboro, or Pure in Westboro.
She has a large following in Ottawa; the classes of hers that I have attended have been packed with anywhere from 20 to 60 people. But it’s not easy to write on paper what makes Ichih such a great yoga teacher. I needed to hear it from someone else so I could maybe understand it myself.
Manon Newberry is a teacher from Hull who is a familiar face in the Ottawa yoga community. She’s been practicing all kinds of yoga for about a decade. She is the face behind The Bliss Project, a blog she started to talk about how awesome life can be if you try new things. The blog is centered around her yogaventures.
Her and I bonded over the difficulties of writing about yoga. We came to the conclusion that it’s nearly impossible to translate what someone says in a yoga class to make it come off inspirational on a piece of paper.
“It can sound phony and typical, but when Ichih says it you know she truly believes it,” she says. “When she says it, you feel she really means it.”
Newberry is a friend of Ichih’s, and attends her yin class religiously at Pure Yoga in Westboro, where she is a member. Yin is a style of yoga that combines Indian Hatha yoga with Chinese Taoist traditions—making it a slower practice where poses are held for a longer period than most forms of yoga. Newberry appreciates how Ichih runs the class because she explains why you’re doing each post, how to approach it properly, and imparts her “yoga wisdom” through stories and quotes.
Newberry describes her Wednesday evening yin class as a “big yoga hug.” She says that Ichih is the best at teaching this particular kind of yoga, one that is not popular in this power flow yoga world we are currently living in.
“I get out of class and feel amazing,” she says. “It’s not just yin, it’s her yin class.”
Although she now exclusively practices at Pure Yoga, one of the three places Ichih teaches, she used to spend a lot of time at Upward Dog, a place that has been fascinating me for a while. It is the only studio in the Byward Market, and it doesn’t have hot rooms. I assume it’d be bad for business. I must be wrong—they have a full schedule of 22 different varieties of yoga classes.
A decade ago, when Roxanne Joly first opened Upward Dog, there were only three studios in Ottawa. She’s seen the massive shift towards workout-yoga.
Joly is tiny, blonde, and calm. Although she no longer owns the studio, she is still a teacher there. She’s not wearing Lululemon (the unofficial yoga uniform of Ottawa) and has a boho look in baggy pants and a cream-coloured knit turtleneck.
She told me she sees that despite this community that keeps on growing, yoga in Ottawa is often lost.
“Yoga is about stillness, meditation, and breathing. But that gets lost. It’s become all about body beauty,” she says. We talk about the amount of pushups and situps that somehow find their way into classes under the sneaky names yoga bicycle and low pushup, to high pushup.
“When you read the yoga text, nowhere in there is there pushups or sit ups,” she tells me.
When I feel anxious, I go to a power flow; something intense and active to get my mind cleared, but I almost never feel calm. I spend most of the class thinking about how I need it to be over so I can go back to “real life.” All the talk of being present on my mat goes right past me.
Joly tells me that I’m firing myself up in a way that isn’t calming at all. Someone who needs to calm down needs to be doing something more, well, calm.
“But those kinds of intense workout classes keep people coming back,” she says. “When you’re still, things come up that you don’t want to think about.”
Upward Dog offers power flow classes; they just aren’t hot. The rooms don’t go above 28 degrees Celsius; because she says the standard hot room just isn’t necessary. She also makes sure that her classes are focused on the mind. She thinks a lot of teachers aren’t trained properly, and many newer teachers would rather teach a “workout” yoga class because frankly, it’s easier.
She finds a way to do both.
“We give them what they want, with a little of what they need without them knowing it,” she says.
People like Joly and Ichih have a way of instilling a sense of serenity in their classes, whether I can explain it or not. They have different approaches—Roxanne focuses on stillness, where Ichih takes the “kick your ass” (as one friend put it) method.
So here I am, laying in Savasana at the end of Ichih’s hot flow class at Rama Lotus, where I now have a pass.
My heart is still beating and I my mat is covered in sweat. The room is scorching hot, and I can feel the heavy breathing of the yogis around me, as we calm down from an hour and a half of asanas, vinyasas, while working through the negatives aspects of our days.
“I’m not there to kick your ass,” she says to me, days later, over green tea and dessert.
“I’m there to shake up your life. To shake you out of your complacency and your comfort. Get you out of your habit. We are all creatures of habit.”
I am starting to understand that yoga is all about finding what’s right for you. For me, Ichih is able to calm my brain and make me feel that sense of stillness that I have been chasing since I started doing yoga a couple of years ago.
“Yoga works the mind, the body, the spirit, and who you’re being in life,” she says.
So wherever yoga might be, maybe it’s not gone for someone else. For me, it can be found through people like Ichih.