Ponczka has been dragging me off to yoga class most Saturday mornings lately. I resisted at first, in part from feeling that the practice was somehow in competition with the Tai Chi I've worked at for almost ten years, but that I've neglected lately.
It's a wonderful class though, and I find myself looking forward to it. It's different than Tai Chi, but the practices share elements too. Both are meditative, as much about conditioning the mind and awareness as the body. And both build strength and balance in both overt and subtle ways. And, like Tai Chi, yoga is more challenging, and presents much more of a workout than I ever imagined as a casual observer.
When Sheila, our instructor, has guided us into a particularly challenging pose – torso twisted, muscles straining – she often intones the words, "see what's possible". It's her invitation to us, not to assume we know our limits, not to stop ourselves at the border of the territory we know. She regularly reminds us not to overdo anything, to rest when we need to, not to allow ourselves to suffer in pain. At the same time, she coaxes and encourages us not to give up before the strain is upon us, not to anticipate and avoid that point beyond which we fear to go. She offers up the hint that our bodies will stretch more than we imagine, that our stamina will carry us further than we dare hope, that we are more than our image of ourselves.
And of course, she's right. How very much is possible.
A recent and unexpected call reminded me of this lesson in another way. On my way home from work the other night I answered my phone and heard a familiar but unrecognized voice speaking to me. There was the slightly buzzy, fuzzy sound of the void forming a background and suggesting either long distance or a poor connection or both.
"You'll never guess where I'm calling from," said Ed, after introducing himself. It had been a long time and I was glad to hear from him. I'd met Ed when I worked in Regent Park, trying to develop skills-building and mentoring programs for youth, in a climate where there was much cynicism and skepticism about such programs, for many reasons, some of which were legitimate and some not. Ed showed up at a community meeting to sell his Life Skills/Hip Hop dance program to an ad hoc community council of youth workers, and around the table he was met by a lot of impassive faces, a few rolling eyes and little else. Maybe the most legitimate reason for the response is that Regent Park, like many other impoverished and distressed communities, was often visited by transient do-gooders who don't understand what the community offers, in either resources or challenges. Once they do understand, they often disappear, leaving little behind, but far too willing to cash in on their brief experience.
But Ed was not one of these. Rather, he was an innovative and creative pioneer of sorts. He absolutely didn't look the part of a Hip Hop impresario. What he was, in fact, was a White, Irish, Catholic School teacher from one of the Eastern provinces who specialized in teaching the hearing challenged. But in his school, he'd observed, investigated and explored the dynamics of a diverse school body. And after noticing the way a couple of his hard-of-hearing students interacted with some of the schoolyard break dancers, he'd carefully and skillfully put together a program pulling together peer mentoring, goal-setting and performance. Ill Skillz became a phenomenon, to which Ed attracted a whole array of contributers and supporters from the performance, media and business communities. The students took their act to a wide array of venues, with great success, and set many of its members of their pathways to successful careers.
Ill Skillz had accomplished about all it could in his one school, and was on its way to garnering the support of the Catholic School board to expand the program. But what Ed wanted was to give the program to a community that needed it more and could potentially do more with it.
Long story short – it never got off the ground in Regent Park. I've never been the organizer, nor promoter that I've aimed to be. Ed and I tried some things, got a couple of kids interested for awhile, but never managed to generate enough energy or momentum to get it going. He and I hung out a couple of times, appreciating one anothers' efforts and visions. His Ill Skills continued to grow into a powerful learning, teaching, mentoring vehicle. I eventually left Regent Park too, and we lost touch. Until the other night.
It turns out that Ed was phoning me from Paulatuk, a tiny Inuit community in the extreme Northwest Territories, overlooking the frozen Beaufort Sea. It's name means "Place of Soot" because of the coal deposits in neighboring hills that smolder and give off smoke. It's a community of 274, and as a teacher, he's one of a dozen or so outsiders in the helping professions. He said he thought of me because a discussion in a meeting among these professionals brought to mind something I once said about how change happens incrementally. And he gave me a call and invited me for a cup of coffee when he comes to Toronto in a few months.
So Ed has been on my mind. When we have coffee, I intend to ask him how he came to carry himself all that way, to a place where he experiences -50C temperatures and wolverine invasions causing school shutdowns, storms with howling hundred kilometer-per-hour winds, grizzlies in the neighborhood, and alcoholic binges that keep kids out of school for days at a time. I'm pretty sure that part of his answer will be that he wanted to see what was possible.