Sunday, May 11, 2014

For Every Phase of the Moon: Toronto Yoga Educator Diane Bruni on Resilience and Reinvention

Diane Bruni, both photos: House of Bonas

O n Friday, April 13th, 2012, Toronto yoga educator Diane Bruni was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stage 3 breast cancer and the dark side of the moon so graphically tattooed on her left arm (always a focus of my curiosity and admiration to be honest) would be a reminder that life mirrors the moon and its half-lit cycles, forcing tides and bodies into unknown mutations, welcoming ebb and change on a cellular level...

No stranger to radical reinvention, (the kind that tests all existing assumptions about what it means to live and move) Diane Bruni’s powerful exploratory classes are well-known to anyone who has ever set foot in Toronto’s Downward Dog Yoga Centre, that iconic institution dedicated to ashtanga yoga that Diane co-founded with business partner, Ron Reid. Yet, despite being frequently identified as an ashtangi, Diane’s personal practice as of the past ten years has in fact been far less interested in those virtuosic performances of lithe physicality commonly associated with the syllabi of the Jois lineage, than they have been with those more subtle cues of movement efficacy: grace, fluidity, circularity and resilience. Resilience in particular forms a cornerstone of Diane’s practice. With that in mind, Diane opened 80 Gladstone – carefully carving out a spot in Toronto from which to cultivate yoga not as its own segregated practice, but as part of a much larger matrix of movement practices that bridge the martial arts to dance and beyond.

Diane Bruni has been practicing yoga for 35 years, teaching students for 20 years, and training teachers for nearly two decades. The first Ashtanga yoga teacher in Canada, Bruni co-founded the Downward Dog Yoga Centre, and hosted an internationally aired television series called Breathing Space Yoga. Her new studio at 80 Gladstone avenue in Toronto is a  movement and yoga research lab where innovative new ways to practice yoga, move and heal are being born. The creative incubator has birthed a revolutionary form on body work called Tensegrity Touch Therapy that incorporates treatment done on a bed of balls, as well as a new yoga prop called the Body Braid, a thick elastic woven onto the body following the spiral lines.

In our conversation, Diane talks about her early years studying kundalini with Yogi Bhajan, with the BKS Iyengar/Scaravelli trained Lisa Schwartz, and later, her training with Richard Freeman and  extraordinary partnership with Toronto’s Ron Reid. She also talks about how through her diverse explorations into dance and varied movement practices, she has tried to come to terms with the realities of her own body, not as an ideal embodiment of any classical practice, but as an instrument pliable enough to confront injury, illness and the changing realities of everyday life.
"When you're living and dealing with a diagnosis like cancer you question everything. You question the water you drink, you question the plastic bags that are carrying your food, everything. Everything feels like it could be a potential reason why I have cancer, why so many people have cancer. And I also believe that there's always an emotional component in any illness. It may not be the cause of it, but it's definitely an opportunity to confront and to deal with whatever emotional issues are underlying the surface of your existence that you're not dealing with and you're not processing, something that you'd suppressed." (Diane Bruni)

Diane Bruni, photo (bottom) House of Bonas
 "What happened was I started questioning yoga, of course. I wondered what went wrong with me and my body. And I was really curious. I was always reading. And I was reading a book written by a physiotherapist and dancer. And the book was about anatomy and movement. And I was learning so much from this book about my body and how it moved. Not about yoga poses, not about yoga philosophy, but about my body and how it was designed move. Not designed to hold postures in a static position, but designed to move. And I said: What else is out there in the world of dance that might be interesting to me?” (Diane Bruni)
Yuan Sifu (Shaolin Monk) and Diane Bruni at 80 Gladstone, photo: Earl Beadle

Shivers Up the Spine: The Yoga Examiner
A Conversation with Diane Bruni at 80 Gladstone, January 2014.

Diane Bruni, photo: House of Bonas

Priya Thomas: Was your encounter with Yogi Bhajan in 1978 your first contact with yoga?

Yogi Bhajan, brought Kundalini to Toronto in the 70s
Diane Bruni: Yeah it was my very first. And it was initiated when I met a woman. I was working at the Toronto Zoo. I was 19 years old. I had a job there for two weeks.

Priya Thomas: You came to yoga through the zoo? That’s an odd one. What were you doing?

Diane Bruni: In the gift shop. And I hated it as soon as I got my first paycheck. But I worked there for two weeks. And during that time this woman walked in and she came up to the counter. She was buying something and she was with a bunch of kids. And we made eye contact. And I knew something was up with this woman. Here's a white woman wearing a turban with a bunch of kids and they all had their hair tied up in little white buns on the top of their head. And I asked her. I said, “What's with the getup?” And she laughed, smiled just like that. She said, “Oh, well, we belong to a community called 3HO and we practice Kundalini Yoga every day. And I said, “What's that?” And she said, “Well, it's a type of yoga our teacher Yogi Bhajan brought over from India. We all live together in an ashram.”

“Where?" I said...

I thought she was going to say Tibet or something. She said, “On Palmerston Avenue downtown in Toronto.” And I just was really struck by this woman. I'd never met anyone like that before. And many months passed and I was walking on Harbord Street one day and I looked into a health food store, and there she was, the same woman!

Priya Thomas: Odd.

White Tantra at Church of the Holy Trinity (Toronto, 2011)
Diane Bruni: Yeah. So I walk in. I recognized her right away. And I'm not sure if she recognized me or not. We started chatting and she said, “What are you doing tonight?” And I said, “Well, I'm going to a party.” And she handed me a flier. She said, “My teacher is in town this weekend. I think you should come.” And I said, “Oh, I've never done yoga before.” She said, “That's perfect. That's why you should come. This would be an amazing introduction for you.” And I made a phone call saying to my friends, “I can't come out to the party tonight. There's somewhere else I have to go.” They were really upset with me and I went anyways. I walked into the Holy Trinity Church. You know where that is?

Priya Thomas: Yeah.

Diane Bruni: Yeah. And they had come from all around. There were about 200 of them there. They were all dressed in their full attire. It's really an intense experience to be there watching this. So I sat at the side because I wasn't sure I was going to go in. And some man came to sit beside me and he said, “Are you going to be joining us tonight.” I said, “I don't know, I've never done this before.” He said, “Well, you came here. You're here now.” He said, “You might as well come in and sit with us and join us.” So I trusted him and off I went and got my spot. Did you know Yogi Bhajan?

Priya Thomas: I know of him...

Diane Bruni: But have you ever seen the white tantra?

Priya Thomas: Yes.

Diane Bruni: So that's what it was. That's what he was beginning that night in Toronto. And it was transformative. I walked out of that building and that experience that night and looked around like everything was, oh my god, brand new! And I actually had to stop and question whether or not I had taken any drugs before going in. I was in such an altered state that I had to remind myself that this was completely natural, that I hadn't taken anything.

Priya Thomas: You took a chance and showed up there. Why?

Diane Bruni: I was looking for something. I knew I was at a point in my life where what I was doing wasn't working. I was doing drugs and hanging out with people who were partying all the time. And feeling really shitty. And I knew that I wasn't in a good place. And I hadn't been for many years since I ran away from home when I was 16. And I had just moved back home. And I was ready to make a shift in my life. I moved back home so that I could get my life back together again because I just went a little wild for a few years. And yeah, I went too far. And I was really lucky I had a home to go back to and get grounded again.

Priya Thomas: Shortly after that you met Lisa Schwartz?

Diane Bruni: Well, I became very much a part of the Kundalini community after that experience. Then I went to Shiatsu school, and it was in that Shiatsu program that I met someone doing Iyengar yoga. So I went to check it out and it was completely different than Kundalini yoga. So I ended up connecting to the Iyengar community because I knew I needed to learn a few things. There was a lot of knowledge, a lot of research that had been done on the asanas and I wanted to tap into that. I could feel the effects of that knowledge in my body immediately. With Kundalini yoga, there's no attention to alignment, no understanding really about how the physical body is put together. It's all about the energy body. Iyengar yoga is much more about the physical body, which of course influences the energy body. So I knew it was really good for me, but I hated it. And I didn't like the teachers there. And one day I was there and I had heard people talking about Lisa Schwartz, that she was just in India with Iyengar for two years. So I looked her up in the phone book and finally one day I went to her house and she answered the door.

I said, “I want to take yoga with you.” 

She said, “What does that mean, you want to take yoga with me?”

I said, “I want to come practice with you. Do you teach?” 


And I said, “Do you practice?”

“Of course!”

I said, “Can I come and practice with you?” And she said, 

“Sure. I'm not going to teach you. I'm going to practice. You can do whatever. Follow me if you want or do your own thing.”

And that's how I connected with Lisa. So I went over to her house that Sunday and it was just me and her.

Priya Thomas: That's pretty awesome.

Diane Bruni: It was really awesome, amazing. I intuitively knew that here's a woman who's just come back from studying with the master. But she wasn't interested in teaching at the time. And she was just this crazy, wild woman. Not a typical yoga teacher/yogini. She was a very independent and unique woman. And just incredibly gifted and able to transmit what she had learned from Iyengar through her body, through her practice. It was very, very loose; we would practice in her living room. And it was intense keeping up with her. It was like three hours of strong Vinyasa practice because at the time Iyengar – this was 25 years ago, and Iyengar was younger and he was still teaching a very dynamic practice at that time. So when Lisa was with him he was teaching what looked more like ashtanga yoga than Iyengar yoga. What I learned from Lisa was sequences. She would have a back bending sequence, a forward bending twist sequence, inversion sequence, standing pose jump sequence.

Priya Thomas: Do you remember those now?

Diane Bruni: Yeah, some of it. She used her living room as a big prop. Eventually she got ropes in her living room. She showed us the rope sequence that Iyengar taught. And then I got pregnant. So after my son was born I took a break for nine, ten months from going to classes. And when it was time to go back, someone had told me about Bikram, the first hot yoga class. And that's where I actually taught my first yoga class. And during that time I read an article about ashtanga yoga. And I ordered a video and then fast forward to studying Richard Freeman in Niagara Falls, nineteen years ago.

Richard Freeman at 80 Gladstone wearing the 'body braid'

Priya Thomas: So what was it about ashtanga that drew you?

Diane Bruni: It was combining so many elements of practice. The energetic component was there because of the internal focus. The breath work, the concentration and focus on the breathing was a huge draw for me. I was missing that because in Iyengar yoga there is very little attention paid to the breath. Whereas in Kundalini yoga it was all breath and energy work, but no physical practice really. So the ashtanga was like a combination of bringing the energetic intensity of the connection through the breath. And then physical practice of course was really interesting to me at the time because it was so challenging.

Priya Thomas: So at what point did Downward Dog come together?

Diane Bruni, early days at Downward Dog
Diane Bruni: Like two and a half years of teaching ashtanga. That's where I met Ron. He came to my class. And we both wanted a place where we could both do just ashtanga classes. And he asked me if I would be a partner with him. And that's what happened. We went out and we looked for space and we found the first place we looked at, we took. [laughs] It was very easy once we had decided. It was very funny. And the first afternoon, we walked into a space, we looked around, we said, “This is perfect.” [laughs] This was our first studio. I Remember we went for coffee after and I said, “Amazing. It was so easy. I thought it was going to be a big ordeal.” [laughs].

Priya Thomas: Sounds like everything was conspiring to move in that direction...

Diane Bruni: Yeah. It definitely felt like there was a greater plan that I was just going along for the ride. I was just in the flow.

Priya Thomas: You must be really proud of all that work you've put into that space. It’s an iconic institution in Toronto.
Sting practicing at Downward Dog Toronto, 2007

Diane Bruni: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you, Sting.

Priya Thomas: [laughs] Is that right? I don't actually know what Sting's history with that place is.

Diane Bruni: Well, Sting came to Downward Dog before we opened. And then we opened the doors and we were swamped with people. Absolutely. I think it would have happened anyways eventually, but the media thing was huge. Sting came to do yoga at Downward Dog. We have pictures of him with like a towel on.

Priya Thomas: Yeah, I've seen those when you walk in.

Diane Bruni: And the media was soaking it up because at that point yoga was new. Yoga was news. So everybody wrote about it and it was in all the papers. And so as soon as we opened, yeah, we were swamped right away.

Diane Bruni (left), Ron Reid (right), early schedule from Downward Dog
Priya Thomas: And yet, I understand you have your concerns about the kind of type A personality that is often drawn to ashtanga. What is it that concerns you about that?

Diane Bruni: Well, the main concern I have nowadays and it's completely based on my own experience is that the ashtanga practice is really, really great for people at a certain age and with a certain body type. And it can be a really powerful beneficial transformative tool. It changes people. It changes their bodies. It changes their cellular structure. It changes the way we're put together. Once we've changed and the practice has fully manifested in your body, it's done all it can do. We get attached. And we can't let go. It's made you limber. It's made you flexible. It's made you strong. It's done all of those beautiful things that it does. And then it's time to move on. But we get attached and we keep doing the same thing. And then what happens is we create repetitive strain injuries in our body. That's what happens – and this is very, very common.

For the average person who starts ashtanga yoga, they're in decent condition but they've never done a lot of stretching. And they have an average body type, meaning they're not hypermobile and they're not flexible people. They're just normal people. They'll benefit from an ashtanga practice. My estimation is between five to ten years. Five is probably more average. Few people go ten. But five years for the average person is what it takes to get their bodies into this very flexible and limber strong place that's normal, still in the normal range. Am I making sense?

Priya Thomas: Yeah.

Diane Bruni: And then they want to start doing more and more extreme postures or these same postures over and over again. And what happens then is it begins to overstretch certain parts of the body. And when we overstretch any part of the body, we weaken it. Our body was basically made of collagen and those are the two main components in our connective tissue. And just like an elastic band. So when you go to yoga and you're really tight. You go to do your first forward bend it's like, “Oh! Oh!” And it pops right back. So a year goes back and that starts to feel better. And then two years go by, oh, you're going a little further. Cool. Three years. Oh yeah, this is fun! This is really good. Oh, this doesn't hurt anymore. Four years. Oh, I'm actually getting good at this. This is really great. Five years. I'm good. I'm a yoga teacher now. I'm working all the time. Oh, I want to start to get legs behind my head. Oh, now I'm five years older. Now I'm ten years older. And guess what? You can see what would happen, right? Just keep going. Keep going. And one day it's not popping back. And that's what happened to me. And that's what's happened to so many practitioners.

Priya Thomas: Do you think there's a reluctance to talk about that?

Diane Bruni: Yeah.

Priya Thomas: And why is that?

Diane Bruni: People will talk about it in their small little circles. But people aren't going public with it.

Priya Thomas: Why?

Diane Bruni: I'm not sure. Why haven't I?

Priya Thomas: Is there a reluctance to call any attention to injuries for fear of perceived weakness?
If pride or other considerations get in the way of admitting injury then there's a problem there, right?

Diane Bruni: Yeah. There's a problem. Part of it is pride. Part of it is not knowing what went wrong. I didn't know what went wrong. I didn't know. I kinda knew. I mean, I had another injury with my knee. It took me years to process what went wrong.

Priya Thomas: That's interesting, because I read about you tearing your glutes very suddenly after many years of sustained practice, right?

 connective tissue changes in aging tree and human optic nerves,
Diane Bruni: Yeah. I was at that point where it was just like one little thing. I wasn't doing anything when it happened and I could hear them tearing right off my bone, popping right off the bone. It was like, fuck. I was really messed up. Pretty severe pain for a few weeks.

Priya Thomas: What do you recommend can be done for people who don't know what's happening to their bodies as they live with the practice?

Diane Bruni: Educate themselves. They need to do the research. And I think it's the responsibility of people like me to begin to be more vocal and be more public with what has happened to me, what I've learned, and how I believe we can turn this around. It doesn't mean that yoga isn't a really powerful practice. It's just how we need to adapt the practice. Once we're flexible, we don't need to keep pulling on our tendons to become flexible. We need to do other things at that point in our practice. We need to build in more resilience instead of more flexibility.

Priya Thomas: Which brings me to the issue of the glutes... I know this is getting into the details.

Diane Bruni: I'm good with details. I like details. [laughs]

Priya Thomas: What do you recommend regarding safe use of the glutes? Are you supposed to keep the glutes soft (as we so often hear in classes) or are you not? I want to hear your anatomical explanation for what you think is the best way to handle postures.

Diane Bruni
Diane Bruni: First of all I don't even remember where where that instruction came from, to soften the glutes... And I've asked lots of other yoga teachers. No one can remember where it came from. Someone heard it from someone else and someone started regurgitating it. And what we told ourselves then was that too much tension in the glutes would put too much pressure on the SI joints. We bought it. I believed that. But it doesn’t make sense now in retrospect. And actually when I started ashtanga I had fully functioning glutes, normal glutes. When I started yoga, I was firing my glutes and back bending. It seemed to make sense. But I learned how to go into back bends without using my glutes. And what it requires is a tremendous amount of flexibility. It requires that your hip flexors, your quads, your psoas muscles, everything needs to be really, really open and super long and relaxed. So it takes virtually no effort from underneath to go into a back bend. If you're really flexible, you don't have to use your glutes. You don't have to use them to go into a back bend. You can use your ham strings instead of your glutes. And that's what we trained. People are being told to not use the most powerful muscle in their body in favour of what we thought were superior methods of achieving hip extension: namely, engaging the inner hamstrings, inner core muscles, and pelvic floor muscles. The result was The hip flexors on the front body that are being stretched in a back bend were being told to engage to provide the support and stability that should be coming from the glutes. It does not make any sense to engage your hamstrings and lower back muscles  but then tell the glutes to go on holiday and disconnect. This is where the dysfunctional pattern begins. Cuttting off one member of the group, the extensors from the co-ordinated roles that they share. How I see it now is that turning off the glutes while doing hip extension weakens the glutes. So part of my rehab when I tore my glutes I went through quite a lengthy rehab program of strengthening my glutes. That's when the questioning began for me.

That's when I realized I had blindly listened. I didn't question it because I wasn't having any issues and we couldn't really see the effects of our actions at the time. We were the guinea pigs. And it didn't work. The research showed that it's completely dysfunctional. So what's happening in the yoga world is there are all these people walking around with glutes that don't know how to do their job. And there's all kinds of problems. So the sports medicine doctor who sees a lot of yoga injuries in the city, he told me that the number one injury he sees coming into his office is hamstring tears.

Priya Thomas: And that's from not firing the glutes?

Diane Bruni: Well, it's all the same thing. So the hamstring attaches right underneath the glute. It's a combination of so much stretching and not enough strengthening. This glute issue has been going on. I've been talking about it, not publicly, but within my circle and within the teacher training programs and the teachers of Downward Dog. When I first started talking about it like five years ago everyone thought I was nuts. Nobody was questioning it. The injuries were common, but people didn't understand what was causing the injuries. We were injuring ourselves blindly. It's not that there was a cover up, it's just there was ignorance.

Priya Thomas: So was that partly why you moved on from ashtanga being your primary practice? Is ashtanga still your primary practice?

Diane Bruni: No. No. I haven't practiced ashtanga since I injured my knee. That was the injury before the glutes. I stopped doing the primary series then.

Priya Thomas: And what happened with your knee?

Diane Bruni: I had a cyst in my knee. From practice. From friction in the joint. I was lucky that it wasn't a torn meniscus. That's what I thought it was.

Priya Thomas: So it was brutally painful?

Krishnamacarya sequences Yogasanagalu (1941)
Diane Bruni: It was waking me up in the middle of the night. After a year and a half of pain and being woken up I finally went to a doctor. He was just going to do an MRI but she started with an ultrasound and it showed a big cyst in my knee. And she said you should probably stop doing deep poses. I said, right, OK. There goes my whole entire practice. And that was when I started teaching classes that were really alternative at Downward Dog because I couldn't do the regular practice anymore. I couldn't bend my knees let alone do half lotus and all those other poses. Now that my knee is healed I can do those poses again, but if I do too many, forget it. Now I don't even bother doing them because I see there's really no benefit at all. But for years after the injury healed I would visit those poses sporadically because it was really hard for me to let go.

Priya Thomas: Sounds familiar... The form trains you and then you get attached to the form.

Diane Bruni: You get attached to it. It's really intense. And there are a lot of people really attached to whatever they're doing. So the knee injury changed the way I practiced. I no longer did the primary series. I developed this whole new way of practicing, which included lots of hip openers because everyone says I got my knee injury because my hip wasn't open enough. So I spent the next five years opening my hips. And then what happened? I tore my glutes. Because my hips were so open they were so weak. I opened them so much. I stretched things out so much that I could sit very comfortably in Baddha Konasana. All those poses became available to me because I had weakened the joint structures that are designed to keep everything stable and together. So you do those poses obsessively every day for years, yeah, you're going to change your tissues. That's when I injured my glutes. So haven't really been doing ashtanga for probably 10 years.

Priya Thomas: What did you move on to immediately after that?

Diane Bruni: In the old Vinyasa flow, you know, linking different postures together and always making it creative and different. And of course that was the trend that was taking place around us with the teachers who brought ashtanga to North America: Sharon and David from Jivamukti, Chuck and Maty from Yoga Works, the Hawaiian contingent, Danny Paradise and David Williams, David Swenson. David Swenson's knees, by the way, were wrecked by ashtanga yoga. All of those people who were leading Mysore style classes out of their studios were not teaching ashtanga in their classes. They were teaching ashtanga vinyasa, like a strong strenuous practice based on ashtanga, but not ashtanga because ashtanga was injuring way too many people.

Priya Thomas: So do you think ashtanga is not a life-long practice?

Diane Bruni: The primary series of ashtanga was designed for young adolescent boys. So the fact that I could do it up to the age of 40 is remarkable. And I was obsessed with it. But it was not designed for middle-aged women. And it's just not a practical practice once you get older. Maybe when you're young. It gets you to a certain level of flexibility depending on your body type. As soon as I got my first big injury we went from being a more strict ashtanga studio to now being like a Vinyasa studio. And then I realized why Sharon and David did what they did and why Chuck and Maty did what they did. Because the numbers were growing. People were coming. They were teaching beginners, and you can't teach the primary series to beginners. It's not practical. It doesn't work.

Priya Thomas: I remember I talked to Geoff Wiebe at the studio a few years ago and at that point he had mentioned, “You know Diane is really experimenting with Axis Syllabus." So I guess you had started to experiment with other movement practices as well.

Axis syllabus at 80 Gladstone with Ruth Douthwright
Diane Bruni: Yeah, what happened was I started questioning yoga, of course. I wondered what went wrong with me and my body. And I was really curious. I was always reading. And I was reading a book written by a physiotherapist and dancer. And the book was about anatomy and movement. And I was learning so much from this book about my body and how it moved. Not about yoga poses, not about yoga philosophy, but about my body and how it was designed move. Not designed to hold postures in a static position, but designed to move. And I said, “What else is out there in the world of dance that might be interesting to me?” So that was the first time I heard about Axis Syllabus. It was almost three and a half years ago. 

And the principles they teach are very adaptable to every day life, such as walking and rolling. Really practical... I was tapping into a certain way of programming, making connections through my body and it was very exciting for my nervous system. And all it is, is learning how to move gracefully. What is graceful? When you see someone moving gracefully, what are the images or the feelings that come up for you? And that's what is interesting to me these days. Like why is some movement graceful and effortless and other movement is clunky and hard and muscular…

Diane Bruni (left), Yuan Sifu (right) at 80 Gladstone, photo: Earl Beadle

Priya Thomas: Interesting... So what does graceful movement bring to people?

Diane Bruni: To me it implies fluidity and nothing is abrupt and it's continuous. And there are smaller movements within the bigger movements. So there are smaller angulations, circling and spiraling pathways within the bigger movement. So if you just take a look at someone walking, someone walking gracefully is walking with really subtle rotations and their pelvis is doing a figure eight. The shoulder girdle is doing a figure eight. And there's an inherent fluidity in their movements. As opposed to someone not walking gracefully. They're clunking. They're pushing themselves or pulling themselves through space as opposed to finding the rebound from the ground and then taking the rebound from the ground and – I want to say transforming.

Priya Thomas: Do you think there's a mechanical benefit to that kind of graceful moment?

Diane Bruni: I think the joints are a lot happier with graceful movement. I think when we learn to move, understanding how our joints are designed to move. Our joints are designed to move in these spiraling pathways. Right? And we don't do things in a straight line in our bodies. There is a rotation 
and there's a spiral that happens. Simple as that. As simple as that. 

Diane Bruni
Priya Thomas: It wasn’t long after you started to deconstruct your yoga practice that you discovered a lump in your breast. What were your immediate feelings when you were diagnosed with breast cancer?

Diane Bruni: Oh, it's so hard to describe. Incredible fear. Fear. Fear of dying was the first and most intense feeling. Yeah, that was huge. It's a whole different kind of experience.

Priya Thomas: In your blog entry about cancer you mention that just prior to the diagnosis you had felt invincible. In fact, you talk about having a screen saver that was a picture of you and Marshall (Diane's son) – was it in the Rockies?

 Diane Bruni: Yeah. I was having the time of my life. I felt like, wow, life is too good right now. Every day I thought that my life is just – my kids are grown up. I'm not worried about them. My career is amazing. I don't have to worry about money. I'm doing exactly what I want to do. Yeah, I was so blessed and I felt so lucky.

 "My last radiation treatment happened to fall on December 31, 2012– the year the world was supposed to end. And it felt like mine had, my old world that is, the one where I thought I was in control, the one where I felt invincible, the one where I took simple things like being healthy for granted, and the one where I thought I had a say in my own mortality. Leading up to my diagnosis, I felt like I was on top of the world. The image on my screensaver was a photo I’d taken the previous summer in the Rockies. My son and I are standing on the peak of a high mountain and he’s looking over the edge into the abyss. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt like I’d been thrown over the edge of a mountaintop and thrust into a canoe. Then I was going down, down the rapids, and holding on for dear life." (Diane Bruni)

Priya Thomas: And so you were really shocked...

Diane Bruni: Totally shocked because I was feeling great.

Priya Thomas: And yet, you kind of had a feeling that something was about to change, didn't you?

Diane Bruni: When I first found out the lump I realized I had been having feelings for the past I'm not sure how long. But I had this underlying feeling that something big in my life was about to happen and I didn't know what it was. And as soon as I found the little lump, I said, “Oh, fuck. This is it. This is it. I'm in for a rough ride right now.” And I knew when I found the lump that it was cancer.

Priya Thomas: Did you speak to anybody about it?

Diane Bruni: I did. I spoke to Joy Dorsey, who's the manager at Downward Dog. I was with her when I found the lump. In fact, we were sleeping in the same bed because we were on a yoga retreat in Mexico and in the hotel room we had this king size bed and we slept together that night. It was very unusual. There we were on a retreat in between locations and we were sleeping together in a big king size bed when I rolled over one morning and my hand just brushed along my breast and I found a lump. Just like that.

Priya Thomas: It was just by accident.

Diane Bruni: Yeah, exactly. I just rolled over. I did this and I went, “What?” And I remember Joy was waking up and I said, “Oh, Joy. I guess I just found a lump.” And she said, “Oh, it's nothing. It's probably a cyst or something.” I said, “Really? Yeah, OK.” But I knew. I knew. But I was preparing myself... We were at the end of the retreat in Mexico and I was now going into two weeks of Holiday. And I just thought I'm going to take this time to get ready.

Priya Thomas: At that point, you had actually bought 80 Gladstone... So why, at that point, were you buying the space?

Diane Bruni
Diane Bruni: Two days before I left, before going down to Mexico, my husband and I bought this.
And since I started teaching yoga I always had this dream of teaching yoga in a home-like setting like Lisa Schwartz. Because the experience I had with Lisa in that setting was so transformative for me. So for the previous two years I had talked to a real estate agent and I told him what my dream was. And then when this one came on the market, as soon as I saw the listing I thought, OK, this looks like it could be the building I've been looking for. And we were just going to live here, rent it out, and hang onto it. So I was planning ahead. I was visualizing down the road. Then we bought the building, I went to teacher training in Mexico, my husband sold our other house when I was in Mexico, and days after he sold the house I found the lump. I came home. Went to the doctor. Found out it was cancer. And then I got an email from the hospital telling me that chemotheraphy treatment began on our moving day.

Priya Thomas: That's right. I read about that strange synchronicity in your blog.

Diane Bruni, radiation treatment
Diane Bruni: Yeah. It was May 18th. I couldn't believe it. It was like, OK. I got really upset and I was sitting there crying. “I don't know what to do. I don't know what I should do. OK, should I postpone the treatments? And my son said to me, “Mom, don't bother changing the day. You have to do this. Just go through it.”

Priya Thomas: Which brings to mind this amazing video you've got on your blog, which is of you doing this headstand in this room with these workers coming in, the chaos of a renovation all around you...

Diane Bruni: Right. They were lifting the layers and layers of the floor, yeah.

Priya Thomas: And it made me think, it looked like you were actually trying to physically understand the synchronicity of these things coming together. And rather than try and fight against it...

Diane Bruni: I'm just going with it. That was the goal, to just, OK, whatever. My life was perfectly calm and everything was beautifully in order and smooth for so long and here I am in this incredibly intense chaotic state... all of a sudden.

Priya Thomas: And then two months later your father was diagnosed with cancer too, right?

Diane Bruni, mid-renovation
Diane Bruni: Yeah. It was just a terrifying time but I think we helped each other. He was really funny. One day we were talking and he says, “You know, Diane, I'm only doing these treatments to keep your mother quiet because I don't want her to get upset.” He said, “I don't believe there's anything wrong with me. And I think it's just a big business for the doctors.”And I said, “That's right, Dad. You're absolutely right. There's nothing wrong with you. But do it for Mom because otherwise she's going to get really nervous and upset.”

And my father has not acknowledged that he has cancer. I don't even know if he knows what it means. He's 85 years old. And I talked to him the other day. He said, “I feel better than ever. I feel 20 years younger. Every day I walk for three and a half hours.” He just refused to acknowledge it. It's a really interesting approach. And he taught me a lot about not giving into the fear. Because I believe that's what happened to me when I first found out I had cancer, I got really scared. And that fear is overwhelming. I've never been so afraid of anything in my life.

Priya Thomas: Did you have a lot of support from family?

Diane's son Marshall (left), daughter Kathryn (right), father Pasquale (right)
Diane Bruni: Yeah, I had incredible support. Yeah. Three days after finding out that I had cancer I was meditating one day...out in my garden, sitting outside on the grass for the afternoon. And it was a beautiful, sunny day. And I asked myself, “What is going on? What do I need to say out loud that I haven't said? What am I not dealing with in my life right now?”

Priya Thomas: Are you in some way intimating that things left unsaid had something to do with the cancer?

Diane Bruni: I have no idea. I have no idea. When you're living and dealing with a diagnosis like cancer you question everything. You question the water you drink, you question the plastic bags that are carrying your food, everything. Everything feels like it could be a potential reason why I have cancer, why so many people have cancer. And I also believe that there's always an emotional component in any illness. It may not be the cause of it, but it's definitely an opportunity to confront and to deal with whatever emotional issues are underlying the surface of your existence that you're not dealing with and you're not processing, something that you'd suppressed.

Priya Thomas: And what were those things for you?

Diane Bruni: The main thing was I was really unhappy at Downward Dog. See because my practice had become something that was looking less and less like ashtanga yoga, Ron had asked that I avoid practicing there during Mysore. And I was really unhappy because I was no longer practicing with my community. But I didn't acknowledge how much I missed practicing with my community. I had suppressed that.

Priya Thomas: In your blog you mention that you're not the type of person who likes to rock the boat. And I found that a little bit hard to believe...Is that true?

Diane Bruni: When it comes to relationships that are meaningful to me. Relationships are important to me. It means a lot to me to not hurt other people that are important to me in my life. And yeah... On the other hand, there are times when you have no choice but to rock the boat. So I realized that this was one of those times in my life where I had no choice. But I needed to do what I needed to do, and that was create a new life for myself.

Priya Thomas: So in some ways the construction at 80 Gladstone, the cancer, the decision to leave Downward Dog were all renovations.

Diane Bruni
Diane Bruni: Were all renovations. Yeah. Redoing my whole life. I kind of knew that that things were all connected. And it was a really, really hard time, obviously. On so many levels, you know? Because leaving Downward Dog was a really difficult process. Yeah. I had invested a lot of my life there.

Priya Thomas: It was also inevitable that one of you, somebody would change.

Diane Bruni: Yeah, and by the time I realized I had all this repressed emotion, I kind of lost it on Ron (Diane's business partner). Yeah. It all came out. It was really intense. Anyways, that was the beginning of a really, really hard year for Ron and I. But we got through it. We worked through it. It's amazing. We worked through it. And it's a huge relief.

Priya Thomas: Cancer was the catalyst for so many things.

Diane Bruni: Cancer gave me the courage to get it all off of my chest. Poor Ron. So my brother said to me one day, “Di, listen. I don't know why you're so mad at Ron. What did he do? He didn't do anything. You're the one that changed.” He said, “hey, whatever the religion is that Ron is attached to, you were a member of that religion too. You were in his shoes. You were in his shoes for all those years it worked for you. And now you've changed.” And he said, “You know what, Di? It's time for you to move on to another church.” And that's what I'm doing. I'm moving on.

Priya Thomas: And you taught while undergoing treatment, didn't you?

Diane Bruni: A little bit.

Priya Thomas: Because I did a class with you. I remember you looked as good as ever in my mind.

Diane Bruni, Aylen Lake summer 2012
Diane Bruni: Really? I was coming into the city right before chemo treatments. Chemo treatments were every three weeks. And I was up at the cottage. And I would come down into the city, teach a class and then go for chemo the next day. So at the end three weeks you're feeling kind of better. And then you get hit with the chemo, then you get really sick for a week. And then start to feel a little bit better. And then you go in again and they hit you again with the chemo. So it's like this cycle. I was teaching at the high points of the high cycle. And I didn't want to run away and hide.

Priya Thomas: Yeah, that reminds me of Pema Chodron's words about 'descent' that you cite in your own blog post about cancer...

“Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all the others behind. In the process of discovering our true nature, the journey goes down, not up. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move towards turbulence and doubt. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain and we try not to push it away. At our own pace without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of compassion. Right down there in the thick of things we discover the love that will not die.” -Pema Chodron

Diane Bruni: You're actually falling down into a deep dark hole.

Priya Thomas: Do you still find it hard? Talking about the cancer?

Diane Bruni: No. I'm less afraid. I'm less afraid. But I'm always aware of how my life has changed because of it. So much changes when you're confronting your death and wondering what it would be like. Well, what if the cancer came back? Well, what if I only had six months or a year to live? What if? And those questions become real when you've got cancer. Really real. So it's not just like speculating. And things change when you realize that; very, very, very few things that actually matter when you're in that state. And that the most important things are the love, the feeling of love that I have in my life and the people in my life that I love and love me. That was what kept me going through that whole entire year. It was my meditation.

Diane Bruni at 80 Gladstone, photo: Earl Beadle
Priya Thomas: When did you get that tattoo?

Diane Bruni: Oh. The moon. The moon. The dark side. The moon is reflecting the light coming from the sun, but we're only seeing one side of it and there's another side that we don't see. I got it a long time ago. I was 15.

Priya Thomas: Oh, wow. So that's way before yoga.

Diane Bruni: Yeah, that's right... before yoga.

Priya Thomas: Interesting. Looks like something a yogi would get. that crescent moon... I’ve always wanted a tattoo but never could settle on an image. Last time I thought about it, the only thing I could think of was the one I’d seen on your arm. So I didn't do it. [laughs]

Diane Bruni: Why not? You know what, that would be really cool!

N ow, call it synchronicity, but a few days following our interview, I had a curious opportunity to get re-acquainted with that primal fear of the dark, of all those things that are beyond comprehension, unknown and mutating, for which cancer seems but a convenient repository. So it was that I went in for my first mammogram, following which I was asked to go for an ultrasound. My mother had breast cancer in 1996 so I knew that a request for a repeat visit with the lovely elderly Pakistani technician (who incidentally sang me an old Hindi movie tune to keep me amused during my breast exam) was not necessarily good news. The findings, “probably benign” seemed inconclusive, and left me thinking about that moon only half visible...

But there are other fears that plague those of us that practice yoga regularly. There are, as Diane reminds, questions about how sustainable a physically demanding practice might be over the course of a lifetime. If, as the oft-quoted Krishnamacarya has observed, the seeds of yoga spring forth differently in each person, then are we leaving enough room for that practice to grow and take shape in as many different forms as possible? And ultimately, are we ready to abandon the design, just as one day we will be required to release these bodies? And as teachers, how can we teach working with the body as if it were a waxing and waning ecology?

So I may yet get that tattoo, though somehow it seems as if that inscription belongs most perfectly on Diane’s arm... as if a reminder (both to herself as well as those looking at her) that life is not what you thought it would be... only half of what you can see. And as you come across the moon lying in the gutter or the shadow (where it has reliably existed for a very long time) hopefully your practice will have prepared you not to flinch or look away, as you descend into the fertile darkness, into the place where love grows.

• You can find out about 80 Gladstone, sign up for its wide array of movement classes and read its blog at
• If you want to join the discussion about yoga related injuries, make a point of attending WAWADIA (What are We Actually Doing in Asana) at 80 Gladstone, hosted by Diane Bruni and Matthew Remski on Thursday May 29th. The intention is to raise awareness around yoga injuries, to voice concerns for community members in a safe space. The Participants will have an opportunity to share their personal stories. Runs from 6:30 - 9:30pm
Participants should sign up in advance. Suggested donation: $10
Diane's Yoga Rebound class precedes the discussion from 4:30-6pm. Space is limited, please note that pre registration is necessary. You can sign up for WAWADIA and the Yoga Rebound class here.


  1. Because we are designed to move in spirals and rotations, we need to remove the straight lines and right angle body positions from yoga. We need to do asana that simulates natural function to increase the stability of our joints. Flexibility is glamorized in yoga asana and now people are suffering and I call it the liability of flexibility. I created a method of yoga called YogAlign after being injured doing ashtanga over 25 years ago. As a bodyworker, I added self massage and many techniques that rewire our postural software. People feel out of touch with source and with their body because of the time spent in chairs. Muscles that feel tight are actually tense because they are performing tasks they are not designed to do. But stretching does not make that tenseness go away. We do not need to get rid of tension, we need to balance tensional forces in the body and that does not happen by trying to pull on our parts. One of the big reasons people have weak gluteals is from all the forward bends with straight legs. The glutes have to turn off to allow those radical forward bends that compress the lumbar and loosen the necessary tension in the back body that keeps us upright. What I am most excited about is how YogAlign changes peoples posture so quickly and yogis with flat butts get them back quickly. Asana can work much faster to shift the physical body than people realize. We are just trying to put our round curving structure into linear positions. It permeates most yoga practices. We are designed to move so we need to stop trying to stretch with the brakes on. Bend the knees deeply and use the gluteal muscles in all forward bends while keeping the spine in neutral. See my article in EJ

  2. wow. beautifully written, but from such a bitter-sweet perspective. I myself am on a constant journey, within myself, trying to understand my own complexities and simplicities; all this duality in life, and so much heavy emphasis on things that, when we are dying, have no meaning what-so-ever.

    1. thank you for reading, and i hear you and trust every single one of us is on a similar trip. be well, priya

  3. michaelle, i was able to peruse your article briefly. i found much of it interesting. certainly, diane has been talking about spirals for some time as well. perhaps you should connect with her if you have a chance. be well, priya

  4. Priya, I did send an email to Diane and am looking forward to hearing back from her. Check out my website at to view the before and after photos of people who do this practice. When the focus is on aligned posture, rather than alignment in 'poses', there is always a favorable outcome. Postural alignment is an important determinant of health and vitality so with my work, this is the focus. It is not about finding extreme ranges of motion but rather strengthening the forces that keep us upright in neutral . People age going forward so why are spending so much tim in yoga trying to flex our spine and go forward? Its a huge blind spot in yoga asana and fitness. No animal in nature has to stretch for an hour at a time. Yoga asana needs to make anatomical functional sense and my work with YogAlign helps people get strong core function and upright natural posture. It is not necessary to 'touch our toes' to do it. I have another website called if anyone reading this wants to take a survey on how and why yoga injuries are occurring.

  5. your closing thoughts were pure poetry priya. i love your interview style so much. thank you again.

  6. Lovely, lovely. Beautiful spirit.

    Spirals, circles and fluidity have saved my body and provided a healing experience to a whole community of women. In case you are interested in geeking out on the differences between male and female pelvis structure you can find detailed info here:

    "As the pelvis is the foundation of the body and the source from which all yoga poses rise, I've found it extremely important to honor anatomical differences in my teaching."

  7. Hi Taryn, Sati... thank you for the kind comments. Taryn, I'm actually quite interested in anatomical differences and how they relate to habit/practice etc. So thanks for forwarding that link. Looking forward to it, priya

  8. Yeah I know that Diane Bruni is a great yoga educator. I have attended Diane’s exploratory online yoga classes. Reading her life story on this blog was really amazing. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post dear!!

  9. Amazing blog posted. Thank you for sharing it.