"It's not a job for me to teach," Diane Bruni says.
More than twenty years ago as a mother of two, she wanted to do something active to get back into shape. That turned out to be Ashtanga yoga, and she was one of the first names behind Ashtanga yoga at Downward Dog in Toronto.
Diane has a sparkle in her eyes and you get the feeling that as much as she's in the now, she's also right on the pulse of what's next. The owner of the beautiful studio 80 Gladstone, she teaches inventive yoga classes like "Yoga Off the Mat" and "Yoga Rebound" where warm-ups are on an exercise ball.
"Are you having as much fun as I am?" she asked while bouncing with her arms in the air as if she was about to experience a spiral on a roller coaster. Outfitted in a body braid, which held her posture and form, she spoke with us about the injuries that changed her and the yoga cue we should always ignore.
How did this all begin?
I taught my first Ashtanga class in Toronto 20 years ago. That was the first Ashtanga class in the country. That's pretty wild, right? The classes were immediately packed.
How did you start to move away from Ashtanga?
Up until my early 40s, yoga was nothing but beneficial. Then my first injury was a knee injury that I kept hoping was good structural change. We used to tell ourselves that discomfort was a natural part of the process. I finally went to a doctor because it was waking me up in the middle of the night – the pain was so bad.
It was a cyst in my knee joint. The doctor suggested I stop doing the poses where I feel any pain. In the Ashtanga series, that's about every single seated pose! I had to change my thinking, my practice, how I taught. I don't believe in teaching what you're not practicing yourself. Teaching is an expression and an extension of myself. I am the guinea pig and my body is my laboratory.
How did you begin to heal yourself?
I started doing hip openers. I opened my hips so much that I could sit in Baddha Konasana (bound angle pose) pain-free for long stretches of time and feel absolutely nothing. One day I sat in that pose and my mental dialogue went "Oh, isn't this great. The yoga worked. Now I can sit." Ten minutes later, while teaching, I heard four loud popping sounds. I probably tore three glute rotators. I tore them right off the bone. Pop. Pop. Pop-pop.
Ouch! Did you get diagnosed?
I went to a sports medicine doctor, Doug Richards, who gave me a great analogy. He said, If you take a piece of meat from the butcher, and you hang the meat from a hook, after 20 minutes it is going to be hanging down 50%. You wait another 20 minutes, and it will hang down another 25%. You wait until 20 minutes, it will only be held down by a very small amount of fibres. That's what happened to you. You took your muscles and you pulled them off your bone and you were just barely hanging on. You went to do one more little movement and it snapped the last part that it was hanging on.
How could you go back to teaching after this experience?
It ruined everything for me. There I was, believing in my hip openers, believing that the goal was to sit in full lotus without pain so that I could space out. What I began to learn over the space of a few years is that we can stretch ourselves out so much that we become hypermobile. We will get injured, as developing that degree of flexibility will sacrifice strength and stability. So now, I thought what's next? I am a middle aged Western woman. The Ashtanga practice was designed for adolescent Indian boys.
Did you have to change your practice dramatically?
It became more contained and stable. I didn't want to do extreme postures anymore. I started to pull back. It started to get boring to not generate more energy through my practice.
One day I was talking to a friend of mine who introduced me to the idea of Axis Syllabus. It's based on a very clear anatomically sound movement principles. I signed up for a week's worth of training. I was really uncomfortable and awkward with movement even thought I was such an advanced yogi. It was hard for me because I was used to being good. However, I realized I had connected with something that was going to excite me again.
Learning from different modalities must have changed your yogic perspective.
I realized what I had been teaching was incorrect and ignorant, like when we teach students to relax their glutes in all poses. In many cases, this is counterintuitive. Yoga teachers will say that the inner hamstring can do the job, but why can't glutes actually do their job? Backbending poses strengthen your whole back body, but why is there a disconnect in that one area?
Wow. Gotta remember to engage our glutes!
I was feeling like I couldn't speak the truth, because it was in opposition to what was being taught generally speaking in the rest of the yoga world. It would get me in trouble when I would start to speak up about it. I wasn't conforming to the rules of the tribe anymore. I was stepping outside, and that was confusing. Tribe members are tribe members because they have the same belief system. I wasn't a believer, but I still wanted to belong.
We all feel that way. Did you get back in with the tribe?
When I found out I had stage three breast cancer, I asked myself what went wrong. What do I need to say out loud that I haven't said? If there was anything in my life that was out of balance during that time, it was the sadness I had about being disconnected. A flood of emotion came pouring out of me, and it really rocked the boat at Downward Dog. That was the beginning of the end because my heart and soul wasn't in it anymore.
How did your heart end up at 80 Gladstone?
Two weeks before I found the lump in the breast, 80 Gladstone came up on the market. As soon as I saw it, I knew. I realized "What am I waiting for? Why would I wait? I could be dying!" I rebuilt the studio while I was under treatment and leaving Downward Dog. I got a fresh start. I was up for that.
How do you feel now?
I feel amazing. I feel so much stronger than I have ever felt. I feel more resilient than I've ever felt. I feel more elasticity in my body than I've ever felt. I do not feel as flexible as I felt before. I can't get into extreme yoga poses. There's no way! It hurts. It's not what I'm passionate about anymore.
When we finished talking, Diane said "How's that for an interview?" Indeed.
Look into her amazing workshops and one-of-a-kind classes at 80 Gladstone's website.