What is progress? by Fiona Stang

Sept. 20, 2018

While in Morjim, I loved the daily chats on our trip to pick up Asha and Arjuna after school.  The drive to their school was around 40 minutes, so many afternoons Viveka, Sharmila and I would take the beautiful car trip to their school.  The drive was always filled with rice paddies, curvy, sometimes hilly roads with views of water, trees, jungle, beautiful old houses and a few different towns.  It was during these trips that Sharmila and I would chat about yoga and various other topics.

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One conversation that has stayed imprinted in my memory is when Sharmila asked, “What is Progress?”

This question resonated so deeply with me.  

Sharmila went on to say:  

“Is progress a mere accumulation of asana for physical perfection?

Or

Is progress being fully present to find harmony inside?”

As aspiring yogis, I think this is such an important conversation to have with oneself. What is progress?

I am reminded of my husband Julian’s journey with the Marichasana’s.  I think the series took him about 6 years to complete from the start of his ashtanga journey.  Never did I realize how important his self journey would also be for me as a witness. Julian had an even, calm disposition and visited the Marichasana’s day in and out with non-attachment.  This is easier said than done.

Julian in Baddha Konasana
Sharath instructs Julian intently on doing padmasana.

When Julian started practicing, I actually did not think he would ever sit in ½ padmasana.  Years of hiking, biking, skiing and generally being in nature as much as possible had given him a tighter hip and pelvic region.  Add a genetic component of tightness to that and that was Julian Deck. Julian worked slowly, mindfully and never pushed himself over that edge and into the wrong kind of pain / i.e. injury.  He had a patience that was commendable despite the difficulty of the postures he was working on. Since Julian was tighter physically but drawn to yoga, he delved into yoga philosophy and was an avid reader of the ancient texts.  Studying and contemplating the ancient yogic texts combined with asana opened another door to a different approach to yoga that was self-inquiry and journey focused, versus focusing on the end point of a physical form.

I believe it was on Julian’s first trip to Mysore that Sharath helped him to finally sit in ½ padmasana.  It was Julian’s second trip, I believe, that Sharath named him, “Mr. Marichasana D.” And the journey continued from there.  At some point, I can’t remember when, Julian bound in Marichasana D and then he sat in full padmasana.

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Sharath on Julian’s Marichyasanas…this went on daily.
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Even Guruji got into the act whenever Sharath was attending someone else.
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Pic says it all…intensity. But it’s coming!

I do not remember when it exactly happened because it wasn’t the achievement of completing a posture that mattered, it was the adventurous journey and what that journey symbolized to him and even to me.  My whole perspective on life and what was possible was shattered. The journey was deep – sometimes uplifting, sometimes confusing and sometimes dark. The journey, as yoga teaches us, was not a linear process.  The years of opening hips led to emotional releases, profound reconciliations with his past and awareness of who he was. This seemingly physical journey all happened at a cellular and nervous system level but went so much deeper into spirit and soul.

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Julian to this day, with awareness, can get into full lotus.

To this day, there is a greater level of ‘comfort’ with himself and who he is.  And when he sits, cross legged on the floor, you can see how the openings in his hips and pelvis remain; Julian’s seat is now still and lighter.  What I believed might never happen at a physical level happened, and it was much deeper than just physical; the opening was spiritual and mental.  For me, as a witness, this changed my entire perception of what was possible in yoga. Suddenly, with the right focus on cleansing and healing, and uncovering the self plus an approach that did not focus on posture attachment, the sky was the limit…. and it still is.

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Ambrose was equally determined and went to practice regularly.

In 2016, I was in Mysore with Viveka and Ambrose.  Ambrose was very keen to practice while we were on this trip.  He asked Sharath and was told to come in the afternoon to study with Shruti, Sharath’s wife.  Viveka and I would sit in the foyer and read Harry Potter together or do coloring in one of her coloring books while Ambrose practiced inside the shala.  I’ll never forget the first day Ambrose practiced with Shruti. Shruti came out after his first practice and looked rather alarmingly at me mentioning that Ambrose’s hips were very very tight.  I just laughed thinking back to the genetics of my husband which were quite obvious passed down to our son, specifically in Ambrose’s hips. Ambrose persevered and knew no differently that postures could be easier or harder.  So he diligently enjoyed the month of practice with Shruti. Being young, his hips opened much more quickly than Julian’s but it was again, the journey of showing up with focus and awareness that superseded any kind of tightness and concern of physical progress.  It was interesting to be, yet again, a witness to another perspective of yoga practice.

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Exhausted after a full day in Mysore…

If, for my boys, practice was a mere accumulation of asana for physical perfection, their journeys would have ended eventually.  Yoga would have ceased. Julian would have never continued on with yoga for his posture accumulation was harder and slower than most.  

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If practice, for me, was a mere accumulation of asana for physical perfection, my journey would also have ended.  I myself have been working on the same few postures for many years – I am not exaggerating. Around 50 days of skiing with my kids last year and playing tennis with my son, hiking up beautiful mountains and lush forests has strengthened my body and even created some tightness.  For me, this is always evident when I put my legs behind my head or attempt that journey to put my legs behind my head. But as I have journeyed my way through intermediate series and some of the third series, the journey of internal progress and progress for my mind and fine tuning drishti (gaze) has been my deeper aim… if there were to be one.  It is through that ebb and flow of practice – sometimes too strong, sometimes too soft eventually both meeting in the middle creating a still practice. Within the strength practices, I find the grace. Within the graceful practices, I find the strength of mind and gaze. Over the years, I have grown steadier in mind and soul despite sometimes being stiffer in physical body.  I still show up day in and day out and this journey of yoga asana, is a journey into myself, an opportunity to look deeper, strengthen my soul, be fully aware and in my inner harmony.

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Early morning practice while Julian and the kids are catching fresh tracks in Whistler.
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A quiet practice session when everyone’s finally in bed.

This was a lovely journey into the concept of progress all brought up on a windy road as we drove from Morjim to school.  Sharmila continued this discussion and brought it up again at the weekly satsang gathering at the shala so all the students could ponder this question for themselves.   Ask yourself, “what is progress?”

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Simplicity & Tradition…by Fiona Stang

Sept. 18, 2018

We arrived in Goa yesterday morning to a beautiful sunset viewed from the airplane window. It is so nice to be back in India. The simple pleasures of life are felt here.  The mundane task of folding the clean and hot clothes from the clothing line outside provides another moment of simplicity and strangely, great appreciation of clean, crisp clothing that dries so quickly in the Indian sun. The days slow down here and are never filled with too many tasks. Compared to Vancouver, it is HOT.  And downtime is mandatory. That is one of the joys of having a sabbatical. This is a time to move inward, slow things down, and just arrive.

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This morning’s practice was magical. As I walk to the Shala the sounds of the forest and of the jungle surrounded me. Birds, peacocks, and so many other animals and insects filled the air with a chorus of sound. The outside sky was still dark when we arrived at the shala. After sitting, Sharmila Desai chanted in and practice began. I practiced as the light arrived into the day and the light from the sky filled the room. Jungle greenery greets my eyes and provides an extension of drishti – natural drishti.  The shala is quiet and the energy, was profound and deep and very, very still. It is so nice to be back in India feeling the nourishment of Mother India right from her roots. Practicing in Sharmila Desai’s Shala is like re-integrating into nature. The roots of Mother India are felt just as strongly as the roots of the ashtanga lineage are felt. The walls of the shala are filled with photos of the Jois family and reminders of this great tradition of practice.

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Yesterday evening was the Ganesha Chaturthi celebration. Sharmila, myself and our children all walked down to the beach on a bumpy dirt road.   Morjim beach is a beautiful, large and expansive beach. They were very few tourists and very few people when we arrived. However with time, many families started started arriving carrying their family Ganesha statues in cars or sometimes balanced on their heads. Over the course of a couple hours, the families lined up their family statue along the beach.  By the end there must have been over a hundred Ganesha statues. Offerings of food, incense, and flowers embellished the statues. As the sun began to set, there was a procession of the Ganesha statues down to the beach where they were washed, symbolic of cleansing away all impurities. Ganesha is the remover of obstacles.

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At that point,  after a very long day for Viveka and I (we arrived in Mumbai just after midnight and had been awake since),  we walked back to our homes and settled down for our first nights sleep in Morjim.

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Leaving…Letting go and having faith… by Fiona Stang

Sept. 9, 2018

It’s packing time.  Viveka and I leave on Friday.  I remember years back leaving for Stockholm to visit one of my best friends, Sharon.  The kids were so young and it was my second trip solo without them. I had a freezer full of labelled meals prepared for each night that I was away.  I had a 10 page typed and printed document which detailed the daily life of Ambrose & Viveka without mom. Bringing up in my kids in Vancouver seemed almost perfect for our family.  Vancouver is a healthy and beautiful city surrounded by ocean and mountains. Nature is so easily accessible which, for Julian and I was non-negotiable. I had an amazing community of yogis and the studio was a backbone for me.  The only missing piece for us was family. My extended family lived in the east, all the way from Maine / New Hampshire and down to Florida. Our family was always so supportive but they were far away so we had learned how to get by without the day to day support of our parents and siblings.  It was always difficult when one of us decided to leave.

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Viveka playing the keys overlooking Vancouver’s skyline
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Abundance from the city’s numerous public gardens
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With Sharon in Stockholm. She has given me significant inspiration on how to run the shala.

I had never really left the children.  To be honest, it was incredibly complicated to orchestrate the whole scenario without family help and, when the kids were younger, they needed mom.  And frankly, I wanted to savour each and every moment with my kids. But then the time arrived when I could leave for a short bit.  And I recognize that at times, leaving is important. It is important to fuel your soul and spirit so you can be a better parent and mom.  I was always grateful to have the studio as that was one such place I would be alone, even if it was just for a couple hours. I would leave my role as a mom and a parent and a partner and just open up to the students and myself.  The studio was my place to share knowledge and inspiration as well as receive knowledge and inspiration. The studio was where I practiced and where I shared. This relationship nourished my soul on so many levels. It was amazing from an early period to have that bit of separateness (but not too much) when I arrived at the studio.  It was a chance to refuel myself as a mom.

 

 

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That trip to Stockholm was also a gift to my soul.  One of my first solo journeys without my children. I knew both the children were in good hands. I had amazing support from friends and I found myself completely pampered in the hospitality of a very close friend as well as being inspired by a new country, different culture and the silence of being without children for a week.  And wow, it was quiet.

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Aspen, our little bear

On Friday, I am taking one child to India and one child will stay behind. This is a new type of leaving.  There is a certain strength and faith needed to let go and leave my three boys, Ambrose, my husband Julian, and our new puppy Aspen.  I will never forget the words of Leo Buscaglia who my father used to quote so regularly. Buscaglia spoke of learning, laughing, labouring, loving but then also leaving.  With children it is easy to want to coddle them forever but there is also that time to recognize that you have to let go so they can be the strength they are. It is another act of balance and finding midline, the middle path, and I know that my yoga practice has allowed me the grace and strength to be able to let go so Ambrose and Viveka can be the children they are trying to be.  I had great role models for this. I remember my parents were always giving me so much independence yet at the same time, they would provide me with the stability and structure of support. It is not easy to leave or to let our children slowly ease away from the foundations we have given them. But it is part of the ebb and flow of life and through daily practice, we are reminded to show up and become aware of our own personal needs.  Postures come but they also go and sometimes that is the point. Life is not cumulative just as yoga postures are not cumulative. What we have one day, we may not have the next. So we plant strong seeds and remind our souls of the essence of life. We learn, we love, we laugh and then we need to leave. And in the leaving, there is a trust. Just like I trusted when I left for Stockholm. I trust as I leave for India with one child and the other stays behind for another adventure in life.  So far, there are no frozen meals in the freezer. There is no long list for Julio to follow. Just a few notes on some internet passwords! There is just the trust and knowledge that they will be fine and the leaving will offer Ambrose an even greater strength and confidence in himself. And the journey with Viveka will be yet another adventure, another memory on its own. Off to India we go.

Fiona kids and Guruji
In Mysore 200
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Mysore India 2009
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Mysore India 2016

Back to Nature by Fiona Stang

Sept.1 , 2018

I always feel nostalgic during that last weekend before school, marked by Labour Day. Our month in Whistler is ending and it’s back to school for the kids. I feel reflective as summer draws to a close and we leave our retreat in the woods and mountains.  

For our family, the entrance of our children into the world was a rebirth of the importance of nature’s power in our lives.  When Ambrose & Viveka arrived into our world, the need to share traditions and rituals suddenly became important. I returned to my own youth and recreated many of the same traditions that had been passed down from my parents to me.  At the same time, the need to dig deep into their beings and plant strong seeds was an important foundation for us as parents.

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Nature had been an intrinsic part of my life since I was a child.  I used to play for hours in the vast woods of my backyard. I learned to ski and loved the freezing cold, wintery New England air.   So much so that I chose a University that was situated in nature and close to mountains. It was at university where my love for nature was awakened through hiking, skiing, teaching skiing, and the constant retreat into the mountains.  

My first overnight hike was during my freshman year.  I had never slept in a tent nor had I hiked up mountain peaks with a full sized, heavy backpack.  But I was ready. It snowed during the weekend and the quiet of nature brought my nervous system to a place of great deep and still peace.  At this point, I had not found ashtanga yoga or reiki or shamanic healing; these were all experiences which happened later in my life. I had experienced journal writing and intensive competition in the various sports I played. These endeavours had become ways to look inside. And now, nature became another way to look within, to delve into my self.

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As a woman of eighteen years old, at the time, nature stripped me back to my core.  Utter simplicity – a tent, sleeping bag and the clothes on my back and a few additional layers I slept in.  It was bare bones and straightforward – just mountain air, the sight of water flowing in the creek, snow flakes settling on the path ahead – all gifts from Mother Nature; never planted just existing.  These were all sights that had penetrated my soul. It was several years later that I discovered, Reiki, Shamanic healing and eventually yoga. I noticed that from these various practices, the outcome was similar; the same potent energy overtook my body, mind and soul.  What made yoga unique is that it involved a regular daily practice. From a young age, my children probably believed that everyone had a daily yoga practice. It was something they witnessed. It was a part of our lives watching Julian and I on our mats day in and out. The early “yoga” teachings for our children, came from them watching us.  But it also seemed natural to share other experiences of “yoga” with our kids. Mother nature’s power called deeply when our children arrived into the world. Julian and I retreated to the mountains and it was only natural for our children to follow.

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1 yr old Ambrose with Viveka on the way.
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Ambrose at 12

 When Ambrose & Viveka were young, we wandered into the woods; first with baby carriers, then strollers that acted like mini SUV’s and then, when the kids were walking, with small pedal-less wooden bikes.  Eventually the woods led to mountains where we would ski in the winter and hike in the summer. Retreating to nature was another yoga for my soul and also a gift of yoga for my children’s souls. Different from an Ashtanga practice, yet still yoga in that nature was another way to help Ambrose & Viveka delve into their higher selves and tap into their inner knowledge, intuition, and strength.  Putting Ambrose in nature freed his wild and energetic soul. In nature, there were no limitations for a spirited boy. He was calm and focused and I had some of my most favourite chats with him during our regular mountain treks.

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Last Fall marked an important turning point in our children and our life.  Ambrose had been asking us all summer about an overnight hiking expedition.  Ambrose organized the entire expedition. He helped us accumulate the necessary gear, he planned the route, and off we hiked one Saturday morning.  It was a gruelling hike with a heavy, heavy pack. In fact, I could not even lift Julio’s pack. But, as a family, we made our way through a valley and up and up to a beautiful crystal clear alpine lake and then up and up again to yet another still lake.  Fall was arriving and the brush wore colours of red and golds. The air was crisp and once we found our campsite perched just above a beautiful little lake, the stillness and vastness enveloped us. My hips were sore and tight from the heavy pack and we all layered in fleece, down and toque’s as the autumn sun began to set.  There was no access to the internet and we were 12 km into the wild. The most simple dinner of veggie hot dogs and wraps is a completely gourmet experience when you are sitting in the woods bundled up in layers. The stars overtook the evening sky and it was one of those perfect expeditions. A memory that none of us will every forget.

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The yoga practice, for me, was so much more than just a physical practice that trip.  The practice, for me, was watching the stars, seeing my children laughing their heads off as they ran down the deserted path to our tent, drinking the most delicious hot tea for breakfast when I was freezing cold, playing go fish with Viv in our tent that night, lit up by the glow of our headlamps.  The “yoga” was creating memories and a tradition that the Deck Stang family will remember. Once again, we will return to the woods.

 

There are many forms of yoga practice – practices that take us into our self and ask us to be aware, look within, and listen.  These forms of practice have become certain rituals in our lives. Patterns we, as a family, like to create and repeat, again and again, as reminders to connect back to our source and delve within, helping us return to the simplicity and beauty of life in the moment.

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Emerging by Fiona Stang

August 31, 2018

It’s another turning point in my life.  For the past 14 years, time has been observed by the length of skis that line the wall of our garage.  This year Ambrose has surpassed me in ski length. Having children reveals the passing of time in a completely different way than I have ever experienced.  Through this passing of time I have several tethers: the gift of my practice, the gift of sharing the practice through teaching, the studio, and of course, my family and my time spent watching and nurturing my children grow.  

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Skis galore
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Within nature, in our element…

 

It dawned on me this August – the past 14 years I have spent much time retreating with my growing children.  I honour their school breaks and their summer breaks. I honour all school pro-d days, field trips and volunteer days.  This pulls me away from the tribe of my yoga studio at times, but this also has been a key element of honouring my family and taking advantage of living each moment with them fully.  And just like the skis that line our garage wall, time moves quickly and small skis turn into longer and longer and faster skis. As a family, we have core values that I like to return to for inspiration.  I ask my children, my husband and I to reflect on our actions. When there is tension or confusion in the air, it’s wise to sometimes re-visit our family core values and see if our actions reflect the core values.  One of our family core values is “honour.” And these past years have definitely encompassed honouring our family and immersing myself into the life of being a mom. However, throughout this time, the yoga studio community, my teaching and my practice, have been my tether and a great part of my life force.   Even when I am not physically at the studio, Ashtanga Yoga Vancouver is the place I fulfill one of my passions, teaching but it also the place I seek for my internal refuge, the grace of my daily practice. And for this space and this community, I am eternally grateful. Even when practicing away from the studio when travelling with my children, the energy of AYV is held in my heart and is a beacon of light, hope, and gratitude.

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Teaching a workshop
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Counting a led class

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This past August, I retreated with my family to one of their favourite places, Whistler, and spent time nestled in the mountains with fresh crisp air, surrounded by trees and dancing wildflowers of the high alpine.  With my children, I hiked mountains and through alpine meadows, visited stunning waterfalls, and I sat on wooden docks of Lost Lake watching my children swim in the cold waters. I listened to children’s laughter fill my home and soul.  

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There has been a noticeable shift in my life as a mom this summer and this shift has provided me time to reflect.  “Time.” It’s quite the word for a mom because suddenly there is more TIME in my life. I no longer need to entertain my children.  I no longer need to tie shoelaces and wipe runny noses. We are long past the diaper phase and sleeping through the night phase. My son now would probably sleep all morning long if he did not have a job!  My children have many friends and enjoy many adventures alone with their own kid tribe. And as they explore their independence, I find myself with TIME. And it is a very strange realization. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the house is quiet as the kids are out with their community of peers.  I realize that I have given so much energy to these beings but now the seeds are ripening. I have more time to return to myself. Back to my own roots.

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Focusing inwards, with breath, in gratitude…

Do not get me wrong, my house varies between being 100% alive to 100% quiet.  The difference between solo time and child time is as extreme as ever and usually co-exists with multiple groups of children inhabiting the space at once!  I still have these blissful moments and adventures with my children. On one particularly memorable day, I hiked up to Rainbow Lake with Viveka and her friend.  I was mainly quiet listening to the two girls making up stories and adventures and playing games the entire 8km hike up through the valley and mountains to a crystal clear lake.  

On another occasion, I spent an afternoon with my 14 year old son Ambrose hiking into the high alpine.  Hiking with Ambrose is usually our best moments of bonding. We chatted and I told him how proud I was that he has a job helping at the tennis centre in Whistler.  And we also chatted about the realities of having a teenager – we discussed finding guidelines around listening to his elders (my partner Julian and I) as well as trying to create fluidity and flow in life, rather than fighting the current upstream….  

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Our adventures in nature together bring out the best of my kids, Julian, and myself.  These adventures are fun, but they also plant seeds of learning, deep into our souls. Lessons are always being shared in attempts to teach and inspire.  Although the days of diaper changing are over, now we are in the days of relating to teenagers and an almost teenager and how to help them navigate the world as it is today.  It is never easy. I recognize that teenage minds are full of information and the great keen desire for absolute independence is a strong push and pull. But at the same time, teens are still young, their brains have a long way until they mature fully and Julian and I have been around the block just a little bit more.  How does one share without preaching?

Fiona and kids meditatiing