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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Midwinter Bliss with Yogi, Surfer and Blissologist Eoin Finn

Midwinter Whiteout, Toronto January 7, 2014, photo: 100M

I don’t know where you live, but I live in a city. Cities can be confusing places in the wintertime; friends and strangers can get worked up in the holiday hustle. Remember the holidays not so long ago? During the holidays some buy more than they can afford, as if that little bit more would help manage, placate, enable the desires of their loved ones. Others can’t afford to get to a yoga class or find a second of peace over those holidays, those holy days that bring a flurry of gifts, exchanges, returns and ribbon. And so, at the cash register first-world fingers overreach and warp the seams of need until the celebrations of solstice and spice cake are nothing but a cosmopolitan habit, a low-level hum that spills out of the city’s safe neighbourhoods into the urban sprawl, onto the margins, overwhelming what common sense remains. Equanimity is hard, when it’s one for feast, another for famine...

I recently had a wonderful conversation with the much loved yoga teacher, self-confessed blissologist Eoin Finn who had a number of salient things to say about finding your bliss during this midwinter season that can bring together a confusing mix of want, wish and need. 

Eoin Finn, (BA, EYRT 500 hrs) is a yogi, surfer and blissologist, who teaches his unique, transformative, alignment-based Blissology Yoga all over the world. He shares his passion that the nurturing mindset required to practice yoga with sukha as well as an intimate connection with nature is at the foundation to allow us to live our most meaningful life possible. Fusing his passion for athletics and yoga, Eoin has prepared over 100 Olympians as well as pro-athletes from around the world for high-level competition.  Eoin is one of Canada’s most renowned teachers, was one of Lululemon’s first ambassadors, has a line of platinum selling yoga DVDs, teaches sold out workshops and YES (Yoga Ecology Surf) Retreats around the world and has been featured in InStyle Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Huffington Post, Elle, Flare, Yoga Journal, Vogue Australia, the Globe and Mail and Oprah Magazine. He has studied Eastern and Western philosophy in Canada and France and been a student of yoga, meditation since 1988. He counts among his teachers Ravi Ravindra, Nadia Toraman, David Swenson, David Williams, Pattabhi Jois, Nancy Gilgoff, Donna Holleman, Orit Sen Gupta and Gioia Irwin, Myofascial Alignment teacher Tom Myers and Body Mind Psychotherapist Susan Aposhyan. 

In our conversation Eoin talks about the childhood he spent wishing he were a fish in the great Canadian waterways, his childhood studying yoga and his years praising the surf in the Mediterranean. But for anyone who has ever been in any of Eoin Finn’s ecstatic yoga classes, it’s probably hard to imagine Finn as anything but the irrepressible conflagration of near shamanic energy that he is... So you’ll be surprised to realize (as our conversation bears out) that Eoin was, at one point long ago, indebted to a self-definition that was well beyond his means.

Eoin Finn

Eoin Finn's father (left), Eoin Finn (right)

"When you’re being paid, you often think: Well, I can deal with not being switched on... I got so much respect from my role as a businessman. I had respect from my dad who was a lawyer. All of a sudden, he and I could talk business. His other passion was horse racing. I don't know if you've ever watched thoroughbreds running around in a circle every 20 minutes, but he spent most weekends at Woodbine Racetrack. He owned horses and he loved horse racing. And I really wanted to connect with him." (Eoin Finn)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed (1942-2013)

"Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony."  -Lou Reed (1942-2013)

L ou Reed, a man who needs no introduction, moved on today. I've since been thinking about his friends and family, especially those whose friendships with him may have been complicated, unresolved... When people finally go, you have no option but to make peace.
Anyway, perhaps the yoga community does not know the extent to which Lou Reed was invested in his Tai Chi practice, incorporating it into his live shows, composing music for the practice. The following is excerpted from a piece done for The in which the writer interviewed Reed about his dedication to the martial art. I have to admit, I laughed out loud when I read that to the interviewer's ears, Reed's Tai Chi accompaniments "seemed different and a bit odd."

That's just as it should be.


American musician Lou Reed attends a Tai Chi session led by his personal teacher Master Ren Guan Yi at the Sydney Opera House forecourt on June 7, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. Members of the public were invited to take part in the free event as part of the Lou Reed-curated Vivid LIVE festival.
(June 6, 2010 - Source: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Ties that Bind: A Conversation with Actor, Author and Yoga Instructor Amanda Erin Miller

One Breath, Then Another, by Amanda Erin Miller

A t the end of the last semester I found myself telling my dissertation advisor that I didn’t like any of my ideas, anything I had ever written or perhaps anything I would ever write. She, who has seen it all before, advised me to stop reading, to stop writing/rewriting, to just stop. Why would I though?? I had become effortlessly neurotic, a walking warning, a nutcase phd candidate...insomniac, firing on all cylinders and ready to snap. In the thick of it, I got a gift in the mail from writer, actor and yoga instructor Amanda Erin Miller. I couldn’t have been more grateful. There’s a sense of amazement that accompanies every book that comes to the house addressed to Shivers Up the Spine: despite any and all difficulties, there are always other people willing to share their stories to the benefit of those of us wound up a hair too taut. I quickly glanced at the back of the paperback:

“From a young age, Amanda identified with her father, a heavy smoker with food issues who starved himself until he was skeletal. She, in turn, developed a severe case of anorexia that led to hospitalization. A year after she recovered, he died of lung cancer.

Amanda Erin Miller
Amanda Erin Miller is an actor, writer, yoga instructor and massage therapist, intrigued by the ways these practices inform each other. Amanda recently published her memoir One Breath, Then Another about her quest for healing to avoid her father's self destructive path on her own Lucid River Press. She has adapted the book into an interactive solo show about studying yoga on an ashram in India, which will premiere as part of Theater For The New City's Dreamup Festival in NYC August 2013. Excerpts from One Breath, Then Another have been featured in Freerange Nonfiction, Underwired Magazine, Om Times, Love Your Rebellion, Runaway Parade and So Long: Short Memoirs of Loss and Remembrance, a memoir anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Rumpus and UC Riverside's Cratelit. She hosts and books the monthly literary/ music series Lyrics, Lit & Liquor at The Parkside Lounge in NYC.  Amanda earned her BFA in Acting from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.

Amanda’s book One Breath, Then Another, a memoir, is a moving retelling of her formative years that exposes the depth to which we bond with fathers, mothers, siblings, friends and lovers, and how relationships are manifest in very real physical patterns. Quite simply, people seem to get under our skins; we embody those we love, and those ties that bind are sometimes the same knots that require a lifetime of undoing.

Amanda Miller (left), her father David Miller (right)

"Okay," he said and turned. I followed him down the hall and through the kitchen, where my mom was washing the dinner dishes. He held the front door open for me, and I stepped under his warm into the early evening twilight, planted my feet, and turned back to watch the door swing shut behind him. We began walking side by side in stiff silence, moving slowly due to the poor circulation in his leg. Neither of us looked at the other. Instead, I tried to see inside the windows of the houses we passed. I wondered what other families were like, what other fathers were like, what kinds of relationships they had with their daughters. I listened to my father's heavy breathing until it became the only sound in the world. I imagined the inside of his lungs; they probably looked like the smokers' lungs I saw in my health book at school, part inflamed, part black and shrivelled. As he dragged his leg along, I thought about his heart working so hard to pump fresh blood into his clogged arteries. I thought about his body straining to perform its basic functions. I considered what I'd done to my body and realized I was partially attempting to emulate him." (Amanda Miller, from One Breath, Then Another

Friday, May 17, 2013

In Perpetual Motion: A Conversation with Norman Sjoman PhD on Yoga, Art and a Personal Sense of Order

"Dark Rudra" original on canvas and paper, Norman Sjoman

I t happened the usual way things happen for me. I read something curious and then the thought of it grew, generating questions that then fractured and multiplied, interrupting my routines, populating my peripheral vision. I owe this particularly pleasant detour to Canadian painter, writer, yoga teacher and Sanskritist Norman Sjoman who I’m told was living in Argentina at the time I managed to make contact with him. See, I was on a mission to sequester myself (very successful on the isolation end of things) with the books I needed to read for my final comprehensive exam when I re-read Sjoman’s lovely book, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, in which he wrote the following:
"I feel that the only possible way of communicating any meaningful sense of justice is through one's personal sense of order, one's aesthetic."
So of course, this seemed an unusual pronouncement to make. I mean, not that the statement itself is hard to understand, but that Sjoman had decided to open his discussion of the hatha yoga traditions of the Mysore Palace with this note to his readers seemed out of the ordinary. What was his concern with the aesthetic? 

Norman Sjoman
Norman Sjoman has published on art, art history and the techniques of yoga, and also lectured on these subjects as well as Sanskrit at universities in various countries. Born in Mission City, British Columbia, Sjoman has a BA Honours from the University of British Columbia, a Filosofie Kandidat from Stockholm University. He has a Vidyāvācaspati (PhD) from the Centre of Advanced Studies in Sanskrit at Pune University, a pandit degree from the Mysore Maharaja’s Mahapathasala and a Diploma from Alberta College of Art. Over a 14-year period in India he studied four different śāstras (traditional philosophical disciplines), in Sanskrit, with several individual pandits. From 1970-1976 Sjoman studied yoga under B.K.S. Iyengar. Sjoman has taught yoga in several countries and is accredited by yoga studios in Canada, the Netherlands and Japan. In 1982 he was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Yoga by the Nippon Yoga Gakkei. At present he resides mainly in Calgary, Canada, while making frequent visits to India,
"Harihara," original on canvas/paper, Norman Sjoman
Europe, Mexico and South America. As a visual artist, Sjoman has illustrated his own books and books by others. He has prepared exhibition catalogues for various artists, including Druvinka, Shehan Madawela, Raghupati Bhatta, and R. Puttaraju. In 2006 Sjoman was invited to the first panel on yoga at the American Academy of Religion in Washington, DC, where he presented a paper entitled Summary of Research on Yoga. In 2006 he presented a monograph "The Yoga Tradition" at India's Lonavla Yoga Institute.

I like to think that like all detours from life’s main roads, this conversation (which is the result of a volley back and forth of questions emailed over great distances) gives you a sense of yoga’s tributaries and alleyways as Sjoman discusses art, poetry and the body in motion...all those things that make the busy pace of the main road that much more bearable. And so using something other than straight lines we build relationships that can sustain more than plans and ambitions: a personal sense of order, a treehouse, an āsana, a fable that happened one day in the backyard.

"Rudra Rajata" original mixed media on canvas, Norman Sjoman

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Psycho-Spiritual Realizations from a Great American Road Trip with Author and Yoga Teacher Brian Leaf

I t should come as not surprise to yogis that Leonardo da Vinci made a habit of writing and walking backwards. If you’ve spent any time in head or handstand you know how yoga’s inversions are designed to stimulate elaborate reversals, to flip the world on its ear. Such adventures of life lived upside-down are part and parcel of the yogic quest, and if you asked yoga teacher and author Brian Leaf, he’d tell you that there’s no better way to gaining a backstage pass to your own psychophysical matrix than by getting in a van and driving across the country on an extended road trip. His book Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi chronicles his attempt to get off the known path, to sleep in the back of a van like a beat poet or itinerant, to bring life back to the bare essentials, making his existence itself one grand psycho-spiritual experiment.

Brian Leaf
Brian Leaf, MA, is director of The New Leaf Learning Center, a holistic tutoring center in Massachusetts. In his work helping students manage ADD and overcome standardized-test and math phobias, Brian draws upon twenty-one years of intensive study, practice, and teaching of yoga, meditation, and holistic health. He is certified by The New England Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine and holds licenses or certifications as a Yoga Teacher, Massage Therapist, Energyworker, and Holistic Educator. He also incorporates Bach Flower Essences, Cranio-Sacral Therapy, Reiki, Shiatsu, and Tai Chi into his work. Brian is the author of eleven books, including Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. His books have been featured on The CW,, Fox News, and

Leaf’s book is a memoir of one man’s yoga experiments that invariably result in a host of absurd experiences. Uplifting and occasionally humiliating, the book is a comical and lighthearted marriage of the ridiculous and sublime that's a perfect fit for a Hollywood script. But as I found out in a conversation with Leaf, what preoccupies him in this landscape of the adventure chronicle is the role of yoga in developing intuition...that rapid fire cognition that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking... that knowing that comes on so quickly that you can’t quite justify it in common sense terms. In Brian’s words, intuition is the point of yoga, the very thing he was searching for in his psycho-spiritual experiments...
I knew I loved yoga so I went on this cross-country road trip to explore more styles of yoga mostly because that was right after Amrit Desai had been asked to leave Kripalu, and having been a student of Kripalu, I was really devastated. So I went on this trip to find other styles of yoga. And so I would do all of these programs and I'd go to ashrams and retreats and just always kind of searching. And so it turned out to be a big, long adventure. - Brian Leaf
Brian Leaf on the road

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

1968, Meditation and Obstinate Faith: A Litany of Daisy Chains for Dear Prudence

Prudence Anne Villiers Farrow Bruns in Rishikesh, front row left

I have a set of pushpins squeezed into a pretend timeline in my mind. It’s linear (only for the sake of order) and runs left to right (convention). Anyway, on it, several crucial dates are pinpointed. It’s like those maps of the world people have on their inspiration corkboards with pushpins that represent every place they’d like to go. If I could fling myself back to one year on that ridiculously reductive line, it would be 1968. My reasons are myriad – I won’t start that list. But a good number of those reasons started flooding back to me when I spoke at length to American yoga and meditation teacher, author and film producer Prudence Farrow Bruns.

Prudence Anne Villiers Farrow Bruns is the daughter of film director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan, and the younger sister of actress Mia Farrow. She also happens to be the subject of the breathtaking Beatles song “Dear Prudence."
On January 23, 1968, Farrow, along with her sister Mia and brother John, traveled with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi from New York to India and then to the Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh, India for a Transcendental Meditation teacher training course. The Beatles arrived shortly thereafter, on February 16 and 20. Farrow became so serious about her meditation while in India, that she turned into a near recluse, rarely coming out of the cottage she was living in. As a result, Lennon wrote the song “Dear Prudence.”

Prudence Farrow Bruns
Farrow taught Trancendental Meditation for several decades after her teacher training course in India. She received her BA, MA and PhD in South and Southeast Asian studies from University of California at Berkeley. Her doctoral dissertation was on pulse diagnosis, titled Nadivijnana, the Crest-Jewel of Ayurveda: A Translation of Six Central Texts and an Examination of the Sources, Influences and Development of Indian Pulse-Diagnosis. She has also worked in film production, with credits including The Muppets Take Manhattan of 1984 and The Purple Rose of Cairo of 1985, with Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen.  She also conceived and co-produced the 1994 film Widow’s Peak.  Farrow became a magazine writer in the 2000s. Using her married name, Prudence Bruns, she has authored articles on Asian studies, world religions, ayurveda, and healthy living. She has presented at conferences and held teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin. She has taught Transcendental Meditation in Northwest Florida since 1970.

Occasionally, -like anyone not enough advanced in their yoga practice to be able to inhabit two (or more) lives at once- I lament that there must be a way to bend time, to live exponentially. And so it is with remarkable candour and detail that Prudence talks to us about her travels and experiences circa 1968. She relates the seismic impact of a spiritual experience that followed on the heels her father’s death, her unbroken loyalty to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, what the song “Dear Prudence” meant to her, the miracle she requested (and received) at Lourdes, teaching asana to Andy Kaufman, and the story behind her very name, a name which she notes, “fashioned my destiny.”
"I was sitting around my brother’s house reading a book on meditation because I was obsessed with it. It didn’t really make sense, but I was obsessed with it and he came up and he said, “What are you reading?” And I said, “I’m reading a book on meditation.” And he said “So, you’re interested in meditation...”
And somehow when he said that, I just felt... But I felt something happen and I just KNEW that I was hearing something that would have profound effects on my life..." (Prudence Farrow Bruns)