When I was twenty-five years old I lived on a street right next to Parc Lafontaine in Montreal. I was nearing the end of a nine-year relationship that I had held onto desperately because I knew that when it ended, I was going to be faced with me, myself and I, and I was a bundle of insecurity and uncertainty at that stage in my life.
I grew up gay and alone, despite being surrounded by people who loved me. Scratch that. They didn’t just love me. They LOVED me. I have always been blessed with a family made in prime time television heaven. Two brilliantly incredible brothers, and parents who have never stopped showing the world the multifaceted experience of true love. Regardless, as far as I was concerned, I was alone.
Growing up gay in the 70’s and 80’s was hellish. The only depiction I had of a gay male figure was Jack Tripper from Three’s Company, a character who was straight, but had to pretend he was gay to be allowed to rent an apartment with two beautiful girls. The comments made to him or about him by unsuspecting side characters were less than kind, and so as you can imagine, all I knew as a kid was that I was the bona fide real thing, and so all those comments made about Jack were basically about me. Being in my skin as a child wasn’t my favourite place to be, and yet I had no alternative. So I did what I had to do and survived.
Cut back to me at 25. No sense of self or Self, the sum total of the years growing up gay and feeling terribly alone. My relationship was not doing well for many reasons, the most glaring of all being that I had no idea who I was. Enter yoga. For some reason, yoga was somehow on my radar at the time, and so I decided I’d start to research it and if see it was something I wanted to learn more about. I remember going to Mélange Magique, which was a store commonly referred to as “the witchcraft store”, but which sold more than Wiccan literature and accessories. The place was great – they sold books on religions and philosophies, sacred traditions and rituals. They had books on yoga, so I’d hang out there reading and eventually bought a box of yoga flash cards. Each card had a different posture on it and was colour coded depending on the type of posture (seated, standing, forward bend, backbend, etc…). I remember bringing the set home and sitting on the green industrial carpet of my then-bedroom. I laid the cards out and started to build my own home practice that I soon started doing a few times a week.
After practicing alone for a few months, I decided I needed to start looking for a proper yoga teacher. My door number on my street at the time was 964. After doing some digging with my soul-sister and friend Nadia (who was also interested in trying yoga), we found a teacher. Who lived across the street from me. Directly. Joan Ruvinsky lived at 987. And she still does. Nadia and I registered for the session along with another friend, and all I really remember is that after the second class I got up from my yoga carpet and felt like I had just ingested something magical. I felt relaxed and alive and peaceful and happy. And so we kept at it. Our friend who registered with us eventually stopped classes, and then I, over the next few years, came to the classes and then veered away, came back and veered away.
The years that succeeded that first session were heavy for me. My relationship did indeed end, my grandmother died, a friend died in the attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, and one of my dogs died. Every time something happened, I’d phone Joan and leave her a message to let her know that I wouldn’t be finishing the current session that I’d been registered for, as I was so beaten up emotionally that I couldn’t commit to showing up for classes. And it was in 2001 when I called her, post 9/11, that I got her on the phone and she said to me, “Consider the possibility that times like these are when you most need the practice.” She changed my life with that one line.
I also remember booking a private mentoring session with her. I needed to talk to someone about everything that I felt wasn’t right about my life at that point, and she made time for me. I talked and talked, and when I was done she looked at me and matter-of-factly said, “Bram, you just have to get out of your own way!” And so she changed my life again. She also made time for me one afternoon to teach me how to use a neti pot – I’ll never forget her leaning over her sink, tilting her head and pouring water with uniodized salt in it into one nostril and watching it pour out the other. She could not have been more hands-on with her teaching, despite her asana classes being mainly verbally guided.
Over the years I went back to Joan’s school Pathless Yoga less and less frequently, with the occasional session here and there, but she was no less present in my life and in my thoughts. When I left my last career in 2008 and started studying to teach yoga, she was with me in every decision-making moment where I kept telling myself to simply get out of my own way. I used to dream of her as a vision in white, flowing fabrics, light emanating off of her, and when I would wake up I’d laugh because I knew she’d laugh herself silly if I ever told her about it. My class structure, once I began teaching, mimicked hers with a longer dharma talk followed by asana, which I’m now somewhat known for. I unconsciously ended up doing as I’d been taught, and she has Taught me.
When I did my iRest Yoga Nidra Level 1 training in 2013 I was happily surprised to meet people who would say to me, “You’re a student of Joan’s! Tell me about her!” I had no idea how they knew her until I put two and two together and realized that that body-sensing thing she was doing with us back in 1999 was actually one of the key components to iRest. She studied under Jean Klein, as did Richard Miller who pioneered the iRest modality, and was part of the iRest tradition and community, leading retreats with the Integrative Restoration Institute and mentoring students doing their full certification. I had chosen a training that once again reinforced for me that all paths led back to Joan.
It’s always been about Joan, for me. I suppose your first teacher (and as far as I’m concerned, she is my first teacher…she is the first person to teach me what I innately knew I would work with for the rest of my life) is very much like your first love. The face time with them may have a set time frame, but they stay with you for every step of the journey, and they both teach you about love.
Joan opened the doorway for me and I’ve never wanted to shut it since. She did it humbly and quietly, leading by example and being a source of support and wisdom when I most needed it. She whet my appetite for the physical practice, and albeit unknowingly to me, planted the spiritual seeds that have grown into the forest of inquisitiveness and seeking that I eat, sleep and breathe today. She gave me the training wheels and the tools to grow into a man who respects and loves himself, a far cry from the introverted gay kid afraid of the world. She taught me that there is just this. No trying, no fear, no forcing…no problem. Nothing to do, nothing to say. Just this.
I spent time in sangha with Joan and our community this weekend and one of the many things I’ve taken from this time we shared is that, in her words, “We’re still here.” As long as we’re still here, we are. As long as I am, and as long as my students are, Joan is. She is still teaching me and showing me how truly blessed I have been and always will be to have had life’s grace bestow upon me a teacher as infinitely everything as Joan is. I aspire to have the quiet grace that she has shown me and the world, and every time I think of her, I feel a recommitment to the essence of the yogic teachings. I am because she is.
There’s a saying that goes something like, “When the student is ready the teacher will present him or herself.” Joan presented herself to me back in 1999 and has kept doing so for other students from all over the world ever since. I need to get these words out now, I need to pay homage where it is so strongly overdue.
Thank you Joan. I am because you are.