An Ode to Toronto

I’m sitting on my balcony, watching cars and people cross the intersection below. The sun is setting, but its one of the first warm evenings of the season and I am not yet ready to move indoors. The rain stopped a few minutes ago, and the saturated colours and sounds of the city surround me: the familiar trundle of the streetcar as it crosses the perpendicular tracks, the splash of traffic over puddles, laughter and conversation wafting upwards; the dark red brick that defines Toronto architecture, asphalt, concrete, glass towers and glassy blue water in the distance. This is my Toronto.


I look down at the Wheat Sheaf pub, a three-storey corner building of red brick with green gabled windows, that has stood at the corner of King and Bathurst streets for over 200 years.  I see the neon OPEN sign in the window, the raindrops on the plastic tables and chairs that line the patio, and I imagine it’s first patrons – British soldiers – walking up from the garrison for an evening pint. The cars and crowds have not appeared yet, nor have the two-storey buildings that line the route now. The soldiers are walking up a wide dirt road, sparse cottages lining their way. They arrive at the entrance and the leader of the pack holds the door open for his friends to pass.

Some years later, after the garrison was shuttered and the Fort York cemetery became a resting place for civilians too, after the railroad was laid and the Wheat Sheaf was swallowed by the expanding City of Toronto, a factory was built across the street. Four storeys, same red brick, same green shutters.  I look through the fourth-floor window, and instead of a co-working space, I imagine garment workers in neat rows, their sewing machines anchored to the same hardwood floors workers walk on today. The streetcar passes and snaps me back to present day. The familiar bell dings, the wheels trundle over the opposing tracks. I imagine the garment workers hearing the same familiar sounds, but they don’t look up. They are paid by the piece, and they are efficient. The foreman enters, counts their pieces and hands over their pay. Another workday complete, I imagine them walking down the creaky wooden stairs, chatting with friends. As they exit the building on Bathurst Street, some walk to the streetcar stop eager to get home, some cross King Street and enter the bank to deposit their earnings, and a few of the younger workers decide to cross the street and step into the Wheat Sheaf for a quick pint before heading home to their lodgings.  They are laughing, cajoling, patting each other on the back. First they are English, then Irish, then Italian, Portuguese, Greek. Time moves forward, more factories sprout along King and Bathurst streets, always in that same red brick. The years continue to pass, there are more cars, more people, the red brick is painted over, hidden behind siding and neon signs. The factory is converted into lofts, the bank becomes a restaurant, and the Wheat Sheaf remains. Many of the factories are demolished to make way for parking lots, and those parking lots make way for glass condo towers with concrete balconies like the one I am sitting on today.

Once upon a time, this little corner of the world was born as a small hamlet to serve the Garrison down the way. It grew with the population, and it evolved with our needs. This corner has seen cycles of wealth and poverty, and wealth again, yet beneath the glass towers, behind the neon signs and layers of paint, on the hardwood floors of independent coffee shops and the exposed bricks and beams of modern offices lies the heart of Toronto.  The factories are gone. Fort York cemetery is now the neatly manicured Victoria Square, but the buried soldiers and civilians remain, resting beneath dogs playing fetch and lovers embracing on a park bench. The Toronto Bank is now a high-end restaurant, with a vault full of wine.

As I look across from my balcony in the fading light I see condos and commerce and modern life, but I also see Toronto’s history. We are not a city famous for any battles, or treaties, or even famous citizens. We have something better: a history weaved by a million stories, built by immigration and stitched together with camaraderie. Co-working spaces have replaced the garment factories, restaurants and coffee shops have replaced the abattoir and markets, our credit cards have replaced the bank, yet the Wheat Sheaf remains.  As I pack up my notebook in the last minutes of twilight, I see a group of friends exit the pub, laughing, joking, living.

Headstands Part 1 (or that time I tried to stand on my head, and remembered how to somersault instead)

I watched my yoga teacher as she dusted off her hands and walked to the middle of the circle we had formed with our mats.  It was a hot, humid August morning, and we had found a clearing under some large oak trees where I could watch the leaves rustling in the breeze every time I looked up. Our teacher, Hana, stepped off her mat and into our circle, looking for a flat spot to demonstrate a headstand.  I was quickly learning one of the biggest challenges of yoga in the park: the uneven surface of the earth.  Beneath my mat was a landscape of roots, soil and tufts of grass that teased my balance, but were one of the greatest benefits of yoga in the park as well: if I fell out of a position, I was guaranteed a gentle landing.

I first tried yoga nearly 10 years ago, and before I came to Mula Yoga, headstands were squarely in the category of “things my body cannot do”, so I never tried.  In the nearly 10 months since I first walked through Mula’s doors, my courage, strength and confidence in my abilities have expanded more than in all my previous years of practice, culminating in today: my first attempt at a solo headstand.  I have had been attending yoga classes on and off for years, first at my gym, and then at several studios in my neighbourhood.  For the most part, the studios felt like a gym with herbal tea and Buddhist artwork.  The primary purpose of a yoga class seemed to be fitness, and the teachers taught accordingly: sun salutations, leg work, ab work and then some stretching before easing into relaxation.  Sometimes I would find a pose that felt good: a sweet stretch, a good burn, and I would want to stay there a little longer, but even a few extra seconds would leave me 3 steps behind the rest of class and struggling to catch up.  I liked yoga.  I liked that it made me feel strong and lean, that it loosened my legs after long runs, but just like my classmates, I considered it exercise.   What I know now is that although I liked yoga, I had not yet learned how to enjoy it, to savour it, to truly practice it.

And then I attended my first class at Mula Yoga: Tuesday morning Vinyasa with Hana.  I had done hundreds of Vinyasa classes, and felt fairly confident I would check this one off as another solid workout.  I could not have been more wrong; this class was hard!  More than just physically challenging, it was mentally challenging.  Hana did not follow the “gym class yoga” flow I was familiar with.  Yes, there were sun salutations and leg work and stretches, but they were different: Hana encouraged us to explore, to settle into a pose and feel all it had to offer, to savour both the “sweetness” of the stretch and the “spiciness” of the burn, to challenge ourselves and trust our strength.  Most importantly, she made yoga fun.  Headstands were no longer something “my body cannot do”, but a mental and physical challenge I would work towards while I played on my mat.  I left that first class exhausted and addicted.  Over the next 21 days, I took full advantage of my unlimited new student pass to try as many classes and teachers as my schedule – and my body – allowed.  I learned to love the slow flow early morning Vinyasa, the playfulness of Energy Flow classes that made me forget I was holding poses I once considered myself incapable of, and the relaxing late evening classes that prepared me for sleep.  I was also learning what it feels like to be part of the Mula family, the community that Hana and her fellow teachers have created.

Over the next 10 months, I learned what it truly means to practice yoga, as opposed to doing yoga.  It was no longer another form of exercise, but became my time to connect with myself, ground myself, energize myself and learn about myself.  One of the biggest lessons Mula has taught me is to trust myself and my strength.  Every time I conquer a fear or face a challenge on the mat, it reminds me that I have that same strength off the mat: physical strength and courage translates to the mind and soul as well.

And now here I was, at my first Park Yoga class on a Thursday morning in August, watching Hana demonstrate how to get into a headstand on uneven ground, and I was going to try it!  I got into position, placed first my hands and then my head onto my mat, pressing into the soft ground beneath me.  My fear melted away: if I fell, I knew I would have a gentle landing.  I pushed into the ground, braced my core, and lifted one foot off the ground; I pressed harder, started to lift my other foot…and somersaulted over the grass, landing on my neighbour’s mat.  She looked over and smiled with encouragement.  We were in this together, both of us members of the Mula family.

I successfully completed my first headstand prep two days after writing this post