As a new year chock full of well-intentioned resolutions begins, our Founder and CEO Christine Carlton wants to reveal one of her best-kept secrets: her restorative yoga teacher Jennifer Copeland. “Jennifer has changed my life,” says Christine. “I’m so impressed with the effect she’s had on how I feel and how she’s transformed the way I see things that I had to share her with The September audience.” Here the boss lady herself sits down with Jennifer for an interview that could change your life too….
CC - You are passionate about so many things – Buddhism, Ayurveda, restorative, prenatal and kids yoga, mindfulness – but before we dig deeper, tell us about your medical background and the path that led you to yoga.
Well, I am a registered nurse. I entered nursing school right out of high school and completed my BScN at Queen’s University. After graduation, I accepted my first nursing positions at The Hospital for Sick Children and at Women’s College Hospital. During this time, I went back to school and completed my Master’s degree in Nursing at U of T before moving to New York City to work in a busy women’s health clinic. Eventually, I returned to Toronto to both Sick Kids and Women’s College where I worked on leadership teams as a Clinical Nurse Specialist. During these years, I started a family. I had three kids in three years with a couple of miscarriages in between. I was deemed high-risk, I spent months on bedrest with my twin daughters and many weeks in the NICU. Needless to say, it was a very stressful time.
CC - And it was around this time you took up yoga?
Yes. Yoga came into my life as a way to manage some of that stress. I started out by practicing with a group of neighbourhood moms. We would meet late on Tuesday evenings after the kids had gone to bed, with a lovely instructor named Fiona. She would travel to us to teach in our basements. When we broke for our summer hiatuses, I would be at a loss. I missed it so much. I knew that I had to learn more and make yoga a central part of my life. It wasn’t long before I enrolled in a teacher training program and embarked on a path that broke me and my world wide open. Like Fiona, I taught my very first classes in friends’ basements and my own basement which evolved into what’s currently known as “Neighbourhood Yoga,” my weekly yoga and mindfulness groups. I also have the good fortune to be a part of the teaching team at Prashanta Yoga, a wonderful little studio where I practice with you each week.
CC - I think we can all agree that “mindfulness” is an overused and often misunderstood word – but not with you. Tell us what it means to you.
Yes, mindfulness has become a buzzword and even a brand in our modern Western culture. One of my teachers coined the term, “McMindfulness.” He likens it to a fad with similar motivating factors that often drive people towards yoga; namely enhanced health and happiness and a way to manage stress and the dissatisfaction of busy lives. I count myself in this category. The above are all reasons why I initially turned to yoga and mindfulness and they are valid reasons!
CC - It’s one of the reasons you resonated so much with me – your focus on calming the nervous system and managing stress.
There is well researched science behind the stress-reducing effects of these practices and, God knows, we all need skillful ways to manage stress! What is often misunderstood or lost in translation of these ancient practices is their historical context and intended purpose. Both yoga and mindfulness meditation are embedded within sophisticated Yogic and Buddhist frameworks. The physical postures of yoga are merely one branch of the eight limbs of yoga attributed to Patanjali (200BCE), and mindfulness meditation is just one facet of a larger three-pronged therapeutic framework attributed to the Buddha (500BCE). Ethics, meditation and wisdom are the three-pronged approach to finding freedom from suffering.
CC - So where does the fad aspect come in?
What we tend to see in the mindfulness fad is an overemphasis on meditation to the exclusion of training in ethics and wisdom. While we may achieve temporary states of relaxation and peace of mind, this in itself is not sufficient for transformation, and the freedom and happiness that the Buddha intended and that many of us are seeking.
CC - You often speak of “self-compassion.” How can we learn this?
I do mention self-compassion, a lot! Buddhist mindfulness practice has the specific intent of developing compassion and offers a way to change our relationship to suffering by surrendering our need to reject it. As we begin to open to our distress, self-compassion will arise.
CC - And what does that lead to?
Compassion toward others becomes a natural extension as we begin to recognize that no one is exempt from suffering and the wish to be free of it is universal. We can learn compassion by getting to know the felt sense of it as opposed to just thinking of it as a mental idea. An analogy would be what you would feel if you saw a small child fall and scrape a knee. Your natural response would be to pick up the child and offer comfort, not because the holding makes the scrape go away but because it is healing to the child’s spirit. It is with this kind of compassionate spirit that we learn to hold ourselves during our mindfulness practice.
CC - Why is yoga so important for our physical, mental and spiritual well-being?
Yoga is a holistic practice. It impacts the entire system; the physical body, the “pranic” or breathing body, the mind and the emotions. Because of its integrative capacities, meaning its ability to promote connection between parts of the system creating wholeness, it is an important practice for healing and well-being. An integrated system is often defined as mental health.
CC - Do you think there is a stigma attached to seeking out therapy?
Sure, I think there is stigma around seeking therapy and around mental health issues in general. I am hopeful, though, as evidenced by the recent coming forward of sexual assault survivors, that stigma is lessening. Recognizing that you need help and seeking a healing relationship with a professional is a brave and wise thing to do.
CC - Can you share some of what you’ve learned from studying Buddhism?
Buddhism for me has become a way of life – a worldview for understanding and making meaning of my experiences. It is the philosophical foundation of the psychotherapy that I offer – Contemplative Psychotherapy – and therefore informs how I work with the individuals who come to see me. “Buddhanature” or basic goodness is a core Buddhist belief which acknowledges that you’re basically a good person. This can be an incredibly healing thing to hear and a powerful antidote to the deeply rooted shame that many of us carry. What resonates for me, are the teachings and practices that help us heal our wounds, and connect back to our inherent wisdom and compassion so that we can live our lives with more ease and joy.
CC - Many of us are familiar with the term “Ayurveda” but not entirely sure what it encompasses. Can you explain it?
The word “Ayurveda” can be translated to mean "the sacred knowledge of life.” Yoga and Ayurveda emerged from the same philosophical roots thousands of years ago and they were intended to be practiced together in mutually enhancing ways. Ayurveda could be described as a holistic, healing system that celebrates our uniqueness, guides us towards self-awareness and provides simple remedies to sometimes complex imbalances.
CC - How does it do this?
Ayurveda focuses on daily and seasonal routines to create harmony with the elements. I like to think of it simply as the “art of noticing” – noticing the qualities of our internal landscape and how they are aligning with or not aligning with the external landscape and opening to the body’s natural intelligence towards balance. Getting to know your Ayurvedic constitution or unique mind-body blueprint is a fun exercise and can be a useful tool for guiding self-care practices.
CC - There’s this preconception that meditators and yogis are “kooks.” As a busy mom of four, you know this couldn’t be further from the truth. Why do you think this idea still exists?
Well, if that preconception is out there, I’m okay with being seen as a “kook!” For me, my yoga and meditation practice have been the most grounding things I do for myself and by extension for my family. They are skillful practices that keep me firmly rooted in my life and in my relationships. As a busy mom of four, I need ways to manage uncertainty, lack of control and all the reactivity that comes with these day-to-day realities. I feel that one of the greatest gifts that I can give my kids is my calm, attuned nervous system. It requires patience, perseverance and a willingness to go to uncomfortable places within myself. Maybe that has something to do with the preconception.
CC - What are some easy ways our readers can incorporate self-care into their daily lives?
Ayurveda’s daily routine or “Dinacharya,” for me, has been a must for any kind of healing or thriving in a busy, chaotic world. The hallmarks of this routine are early to bed, early to rise, regular mealtimes properly spaced to allow for optimal digestion, heaviest meal at midday and an early, light dinner. We follow this routine when on Silent Retreat and it is incredibly nourishing to the mind and body. But ultimately self-care is more than healthy routines. It’s about making choices that support well-being in the midst of all the challenges and hardships that will inevitably come our way. I practice and teach what I call, “radical self-care,” which are reminders on how to take care of mind states and patterns that can lead to unhealthy and destructive habits. It’s not chocolates and bubble baths but our times call for more than that!