Saturday, November 20, 2010

Queen Street Yoga Turns Five in Good Health and High Spirits: An Interview with Founder and Director Meaghan Johnson

  "For some reason, I went and looked at it, and the space was just huge, with hardwood floors and high ceilings, and there two rooms like that with change rooms. And I just thought, "Oh crap, we have to start a yoga studio"!
(Meaghan Johnson, Founder and Director, Queen Street Yoga, Kitchener, Ontario)

Q ueen Street Yoga recently celebrated its fifth birthday in its birthplace, Kitchener, Ontario. That's no small accomplishment for a small studio that opened during a yoga boom. But, with an expanding array of classes and workshops in yoga and meditation, and a focus on the therapeutic function of yoga as pertains to stress, trauma and illness, Queen Street Yoga has managed not only to survive, but to grow its reach and impact in local communities.  Part of this buoyant, "can-do" atmosphere owes itself to the high-spirited approach of Queen Street Yoga's founder and director, Meaghan Johnson, whose exuberance and engagement with her own practice is palpable in our interview.

Meaghan Johnson was first introduced to Yoga in 1992, and has had a dedicated practice for the last 8 years. She began teaching yoga in 2002 after completing a 250 hour teacher training in Toronto. She completed a second teacher training with Hart Lazer in 2004 and has been studying with him ever since. She is influenced and supported by the yoga teachings of Ramanand Patel and Donna Farhi. Meaghan also maintains a regular meditation practice, and completed a month long silent retreat in the Tibetan tradition in India. A self-proclaimed arts enthusiast, she's actively involved in running Queen Street's operations, as well as overseeing its increasing reach in several communities. In our interview, Meaghan talks about her own encounter with yoga in her early teens, and its mitigating influence on her later struggles with bi-polar disorder. We also chat about what it's like to run a yoga studio in a city that sits in the quieter shadows of the big-smoke, Toronto; and, her interest in taking yoga into art galleries to explore the relationship between therapeutic body practices and art.

(Meaghan Johnson, Queen Street Yoga)

"Often there's a lot of rhetoric in yoga and meditation that doing these things is going be blissful and relaxing. And for many people, that's really not the experience they encounter. You're actually going to be thrown back into this body that remembers everything that happened to you."     (Meaghan Johnson, Queen Street Yoga)

Interview with Meghan Johnson of Queen Street Yoga, Kitchener, Ontario: 

PT: What was the actual anniversary date for QSY? 

Meaghan Johnson: I'm not really sure actually. It's funny i'm just not very nostalgic that way, but I think it was at the beginning of September 5 years ago...So our actual birthday is over - but we consider it a long birthday. In some ways it's been an amazing five years. I often say, you know the community must want this yoga studio because I'm just flying by the seat of my pants trying to keep up (laughs)

(Queen Street Yoga's Studio in downtown Kitchener)

PT: (laughing) So i've read your bio, but maybe you can tell me how you came to practicing yoga.

Meaghan Johnson:
Yeah sure - I was a big drama and singing kid, and i went to this performing arts school every summer, and we did warm ups for half an hour every morning, and I just loved them. They were all very embodied, relaxation, stretching, and breathing based exercises. And a couple of years later, I found out that it was all taught by a yoga teacher. But they didn't call it yoga then, because you know it was the 80's and we were kids right!! (laughter)
But I actually took a lot of those tools and used them all through my teen years especially some of the progressive relaxation techniques that i learned. I was a pretty wired, stressed out kid so I found the breathing and the muscle relaxation really helpful. I think i was about 11 or 12 when i first came into contact with the idea that you could do practices that had to do with your body that would affect how your mind and your nervous system reacted.

11 or 12 is a great age to catch a child and expose them to those practices.

Meaghan Johnson: Yeah I think so! And you're also really open at that age. It's like "Yeah this feels great, let's do more of this". I didn't practice formally again until i was seventeen or eighteen. I got very interested in Buddhism around that age, and I went to Thailand on an exchange, got introduced to a lot of very cool Buddhist meditation teachers; but I actually ended up having a pretty big breakdown while I was there. So I came home early from that exchange and i was diagnosed with depression. Then later, I was diagnosed as being bi-polar. So my therapist at the time was the one who encouraged me to do yoga because I was obviously just really struggling, and needed to move more.

So do you still struggle with bi-polar disorder?

Meaghan Johnson: I don't know if I would still be diagnosed as bi-polar...I struggled with it a lot all through my early twenties. I went to the hospital a few times; but they were reluctant to give me the same diagnosis because they would have expected to see me in the hospital more. And, because it was such a slow cycling... 

PT: Were you prescribed medications?

Meaghan Johnson: I was for a period of time. But I never really liked the medication very much; so I would spend six months on something, and then I'd go to my doctor, and we'd be responsible about it, but we would wean me off of it.  But I think the last time I remember having any real dramatic issues with it was over eight years ago. So I don't know now if I would be diagnosed with anything. Except with being a dramatic kind of person... (laughter) which it could be because I'm bipolar, but I'm not sure if that's the reason! (more laughter) 

PT: So what role did yoga play in those years that you were really struggling?

Meaghan Johnson: I think I wouldn't have gotten so serious about yoga and meditation had I not had such extreme struggles in my early twenties. I've done a lot of thinking and some writing as well, around yoga and mental health issues; and one of my main personal theories about my own mental health issue was that the problem rests in an untethering of the mind from the body. So a mind can get so active and interesting that you forget about the needs of the body. And the practice of yoga has definitely been one of really bringing the mind back into the body which is really quite uncomfortable, because I think our bodies are what hold our stories in them; and then, by coming back to my body, to really be with my history, was really uncomfortable. Yoga was really good for me to realize I was able to come back to my body.  

PT: Would you say that yoga changed your understanding of the diagnosis?

Meaghan Johnson: Well, I wrote a small article about it a while ago and I got to teach at a workshop specifically on that issue of yoga and mental illness. It was also really healing for me personally to have gone from having doctors say, "You're always going to be ill or need to be on medications for the rest of your life", and "your family won't be able to trust you"; or, over and over, "your mind is out of your control", to then be able to go on to teach yoga, and run a studio. In fact, I've had social workers who used to see me at the hospital come out to my yoga class. And that's been a really amazing experience for me, because they've seen the 180 degree shift in me. And I've been able to say, "Ha ha! look! now I have tools for you!" (laughing)

PT: (laughing) You probably have more tools than most because of those first-hand experiences. Would you agree?

Meaghan Johnson: Well who knows in comparison with other people. But, I often think as humans, we don't do things unless we think we have to. And I had to do something if I didn't want to be on medication. It's often a point of crisis that leads you to become serious about your spiritual practice. 

PT: Having come through that, do you think you have a better understanding about what it means to be human, or to struggle?

Meaghan Johnson: And you know, it didn't feel like a better or profound understanding most of the time; it just felt tiring and exhausting....and boring. oh and hard work! (laughing)

PT: So even in hindsight you don't feel that it was a profound experience?

Meaghan Johnson: Yeah! exactly. and i guess I don't feel it's profound because it's still going on. And there was never an "I get it " moment. It's just the history that led me to get more serious about yoga. And you know, it's still a daily struggle. This brain is always either getting either really happy, or really angry, or really nervous, as we talked about earlier... So I don't want to underplay my experience; but i also don't want to overplay it either.

PT: So at what point did you decide you wanted to open a studio?

Meaghan Johnson: Because I was bi-polar, I had a really hard time trying to get into university. I would go, and then I would drop out, that kind of thing. And I was on my way to go university and then had some issues I didn't want to deal with in terms of registration. And, I was looking at a yoga centre at the time, so I thought, well maybe I'll teach yoga. So the whole teaching yoga, began with "Well, I want to do something good in the world". I was going to go into social work, but had trouble getting through the registration process, so that was really the beginning of it all. And then it just really worked out. So I'd been teaching for three years and it just kept growing. And a lot of my classes were full, so it was going really was a nice problem to be having..

And then I took a four month break and I went to India. Oddly enough, I didn't study any yoga in India; but I stayed at Tibetan Buddhist centres doing a month long retreat. And it was the first time I had travelled abroad after my first serious breakdown at 17, while travelling in Indonesia. But this time, my mind was ok. And that was wonderful. There was some kind of turning point in India through that experience. I had this teacher there and i remember saying to him after the month long retreat: "Oh, it's so good to know I'm not crazy".  And he said,

"Oh Meaghan, it's not that you're not crazy, it's that everybody is crazy".

So something shifted in India where I started to feel like life was really possible...a lot of things could really be possible! And I came back and went back to teaching my classes. Around that time, I was walking along these trails in Kitchener called the "Iron Horse Trails", when my friend Mary Lou, who had been in my life since I was a kid, told me about this space in downtown Kitchener, and how I needed to see it. She said, "It's going to be your yoga studio". And I said, "no I'm too young, i'm 27, I don't want to start a studio". But, for some reason, I went and looked at it and the space was just huge, with hardwood floors and high ceilings, and there two rooms like that with change rooms. And I just thought, "Oh crap, we have to start a yoga studio"! (laughing) So, it never felt like a decision, it just felt like, ok this is happening. 

(Queen Street Yoga Retreat, 2009)

PT: So you walked into your new life!

Meaghan Johnson: Yeah, there really was no choice! I went to my accountant and I came up with numbers as to how much it would cost, and how many students I already had etc. And the numbers just confirmed that it wouldn't even be that difficult. One of the nice things about being in Kitchener is that it's a really down to earth, hard-working community, and so we didn't have to make the studio all fancy and spa-like. So all our furniture is donated, cool second-hand furniture; and we opened the studio on something like $5 grand...something ridiculously low.

Priya: That is crazy. So did you grow up in Kitchener?

Meaghan Johnson:  I moved here when I was 11 years old.

Priya: And where were you from originally?

Meaghan: Kind of all over. My dad's an Anglican minister. My brother and I know very little about Christianity; except that church was fun on Sundays. So we were the minister's kids. But my dad's very interesting; he actually teaches meditation at his church in Montreal.

Priya: My dad is a minister as well; and he teaches meditation in the Syrian Orthodox tradition. 

Meaghan: Oh no way! Which church did you say?

Priya: Syrian Orthodox. It's a whole other story.

Meaghan: Oh wow! We're both PK's!!!! (priest's kids) 

Priya: So tell me, what it's like to operate a yoga studio in Kitchener, Ontario? Are there unique challenges or opportunities that pertain to running a yoga studio in a smaller town as opposed to a larger city? Is yoga in Kitchener different from big-city yoga?

Meaghan: Sure, I do notice differences. But I think every studio is its own little culture right? I don't know if the differences I see between my my studio and others has to do with the city, or just because of the kind of character that I am and the kind of teachers that I've hired and the character of my teacher. And I think people gravitate toward the kind of character or setting in which they feel comfortable. But that being said, I think space does affect us, and geography does affect us.

I often find when I go to larger cities, there's a seriousness about yoga...if you want to put it that way. And there's an anxiousness to people in a big city, and about being in a big city. You have to make more money to afford to live there. So when people go to relax and do yoga there's more of a kind of drive behind it.

And things have also changed here since we've been here. When we first opened, we were the only larger studio. And so we didn't have a lot of competition; which was really nice! (laughing). So over the years, more studios have opened. We have a moksha studio and a bikram studio; and they're great at their marketing. So we've had to think, well do we need to get better at our marketing? And then part of it is, yeah we need to get better at that; and, the other part of it is, we need to just keep being who we are. So then the people who like who we are, can stay with us; and the others who don't like what we do, have plenty of other options. And that's great. It took some time to get into that mindset of things; when the first instinct with the growth of new yoga studios is to get threatened, because it's stressful running a small business.

Priya: Well, small business can be nimble in a way that larger business cannot, no?

Meaghan: Yes. And we're having fun! I don't ever want to be doing this and not be teaching the way it feels really authentic. Most of our teachers have done their teacher training with Hart Lazer or been training with Ramanand Patel. So they're both post-Iyengar teachers. So there's a real, safety, alignment, prop-use, therapeutic focus to our teaching. All of that is really solid with our studio. One of our teachers has an anusara background. So similarly, very alignment based and very structured program. But at the same time, we want all of our teachers to teach from their actual practice, and their personal experience of yoga. Because I think that comes across in a much deeper way; and I also think it encourages students to go off and discover their own personal experience of yoga. 

 Priya: You mentioned Hart Lazer. What is the work you're doing with Hart Lazer right now?

Meaghan: Well, we finished a teacher training with Hart. We just finished hosting him with his work on Yoga for Stress and Trauma. There's a lot going on right now with regard to looking at how the body is a map for all of our experiences. There's really nothing that can happen to us that doesn't have a place of holding, or a memory experience in the body. So that when we really want to release trauma, it's not always going to help to intellectually go back through the process of "oh this happened to me, and now I have this..."

There's a physicality to the experiences of trauma and stress. And Hart Lazer was a therapist before he was a yoga teacher. And one of the reasons I loved working with him, as someone who had been diagnosed as bi-polar in my youth, was that I felt very safe with him. He has this capacity to work with the harder parts of ourselves.
Priya: You mentioned you've written an article about trauma in the body and the practice of yoga...

Meaghan: What I was writing about was a little bit different than what Hart was working with. For me, it was a matter of tethering the mind back to the body. And I think the mind often gets out of the body because of trauma. Like, "It's not safe in this body anymore. I need to get out of here". I think it's good to remember to bring the mind back into the body because often there's a lot of rhetoric in yoga and meditation that doing these things is going be blissful and relaxing. And, for many people, that's really not the experience they encounter. You're actually going to be thrown back into this body that remembers everything that happened to you.
Priya: I read that you've worked with Freeing the Human Spirit, as well as several other local community organizations. Do you want to tell me how that evolved?

Meaghan: Well, I've always had the desire that these practices be available to more people than just the middle and upper classes (laughing). I think they're really helpful practices and the more access people have, the better. I helped to work with the program here; and I think it's a great program. And I really enjoyed working with the women at the prison. There was this frankness about yoga that you often don't get in the studio, where everyone is trying to be a polite, good yogi. But in the prison system, people just ask you, "Well, why are we doing this??".  It was a lot of fun to go into that kind of environment where people aren't shy about asking questions.

Because our studio is in downtown Kitchener, and there's a lot of social services right downtown, we've also started connecting with organizations closer to the studio. That way, we felt like we could get access to people closer to our own community and closer to the studio. So one program we teach for is called. "Bridges to Health", and it's a two-week day program for women who are coming off alcohol or drug addiction. And they only have to be two weeks clean before they enter the program. So it's really a program designed to help them through those first two weeks, a very trying time for staying clean. They have access to the usual anger management and therapeutic groups, but they also get access to meditation, massage and reiki, and one of the days, they come and do yoga with me. So that's been really wonderful.
And a lot of them have never done yoga before; and then after they've done it they feel pretty good about their first experience of it. So they also start to notice where the challenges are in their bodies. And one woman who just completed that program has just signed up to do an eight week course with us so that's really exciting as well!

And then we also have been working with a program called "Pathways to Education". They're a program that supports youth and staying in school in communities in which there might have been a larger dropout rate. That program is super fun because I was exposed to yoga as a teenager and I'm really thankful that I was so I feel like it's really fun to plant seeds with them...

Priya: So you're doing a lot of community work?

Meaghan: Well I wanted to be a social worker before I became a yoga teacher. And so in some ways, I think I still do want to be a social worker! (laughing). I did front line work at a homeless shelter, and over the years have worked with a lot of social workers. But I'm really happy that I'm getting to do this kind of community work with the tools of yoga, rather than with the more traditional methods.
Priya: Why? Do you think you can get through the cracks better?

Maybe...or maybe it's just because I get to have more fun! I get to go in and just help people feel good, and understand themselves more...And then I don't have to deal with any of the red tape or any of the more difficult tasks ie getting housing etc.
Priya: Of course. yeah.

Meaghan: So I feel like I get to a lot of good work in the community; but I also feel like I get to have a lot of fun doing it.
Priya: You sound more like a community organization than a studio.

Meaghan: Yeah that's true. Like those two programs I mentioned, those are just two out of the 25 classes a week that we offer. So it's a small percentage. Our life blood, or what keeps us running is the money that we make from classes. I thought about should we have this be a collective space, or should it be more of an organization. But I honestly think it's sometimes much easier to run as a straight-up business and be very upfront about the fact that you need to make money and you need to charge, and then in the time that you're not doing that, you can go off and do the other community work that you want to be involved in. Like if we were an organization, we'd have to have a board of directors, and then we'd have to follow all kinds of protocol. But me just being a sole proprietor, well, things get done much faster. And, then we have fun working with the organizations that we want to work with as well!

Priya: So with all this growth in five years, do you have specific plans for the future? You already said you're not one for forecasting; and, maybe you're thinking "I'll do another six months and then I'm done"...I have no idea! (laughing) 

Meaghan: (laughing) Oh you've understood who I am so easily and so quickly!
Well, we just did this year-long teacher training program and I got to co-teach my teachers. And I realized I don't really want to teach teachers right now. And that's often the next step for studios, is to teach teachers. But I'm not sure if I know what I really believe in regarding teaching, because I've been so committed to studying with Hart Lazer and Ramanand Patel for such a long time, that I want to take some time to explore some other ways of moving to see how it can affect my practice. So I was recently able to study with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen who is a movement therapist who really influenced teachers like Donna Farhi...but she's more in the dance world. And then I've also been taking dance classes; and we've also started offering dance classes at the studio.
Priya: So you're really getting more broadly into movement...

Meaghan: Yeah, and our meditation teacher has done a lot of work in body-mind centering and also life-art processes. So in October, we began a stress-reduction class called, "The Life Art Process". So it's looking at embodiment practices that will also incorporate art. I'm also really excited about the fact that I got to teach in an art gallery looking at embodiment practices and our experiences of our senses, and how when we interact with visual art there's always a pattern or a story going on in the body as the same time as our mind experiences art.
Priya: That's sounds quite interesting...

Meaghan: Yeah it went really well!! And the art gallery has asked me back for November. So we're going to do another one on November 20th. So those are the projects that I'm really interested in. So you know we're balanced, we're healthy, we're in our bodies, now what?? WHAT DO WE WANNA DO WITH THAT?? I feel that as adults we don't have enough FUN with that! Art galleries for me have always been kind of this place of refuge. To just go in and get to be with the quiet space...And they're also telling us stories from our history, and also encouraging us to be challenged about what's happening now. And so I think they're actually great places to think about how to be present with "now".

W hile continually looking to new creative projects that support local communities, Meaghan Johnson and Queen Street Yoga have carved out a unique spot for yoga in Kitchener, Ontario. Queen Street Yoga has evolved into a studio that is committed to providing access to yoga and meditation in a diverse cross-section of communities, in a steady effort to mandate yoga as an accessible part of community health. And, Meaghan is the first to remind us that the key to health begins with a simple sense of fun and wonder.
Happy Birthday Queen Street Yoga! May it be a very long, and happy celebration.

On Sunday November 28th, 2-4 pm, Queen Street Yoga Will Run A Restorative Yoga Workshop and Fundraiser with Brad. Brad will be offering one of his deeply relaxing restorative yoga workshops, and all proceeds from the class will go towards buying basic necessities for the kids at the Ray of Hope Petersburg facility. The class is open to yoga students of all levels.
* Brad has been teaching Yoga at Ray of Hope detention centre to kids ages 13-18 through New Leaf Yoga since September 2010. 100% of the money given will go to buying personal items that the kids are in need of.

For more information regarding classes and workshops, please visit Queen Street Yoga.

1 comment:

  1. What an exciting experience!/Hilarious! Delightful! True!/wonderful stuff! thank you!
    Good Health