A DAR­ING ACT OF BAL­ANCE

Lau­ren Koehler ben­e­fits as much as her stu­dents from the SUP Yoga classes she guides at Water­loo’s Lau­rel Creek

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - BY DAWN MATHE­SON PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ALISHA TOWNSEND

The tran­quil­ity of be­ing on wa­ter, the phys­i­cal de­mands of a stand-up pad­dle board, com­bined with the calm­ing ef­fect of yoga might be just what the doc­tor or­dered at a time when so many peo­ple are strug­gling with anxiety.

You read that right — yoga taught on a pad­dle­board out on the open wa­ter.

Lau­ren Koehler, 30, who kicked off just such a class in partnership with the Water­loo Pad­dling Club last sum­mer, is fa­mil­iar with the ef­fects of anxiety and the search for life bal­ance. A Men­tal Health Risk In­dex pub­lished in 2017 by Ip­sos in­di­cates 41 per cent of Cana­di­ans are at high risk of de­vel­op­ing a men­tal-health ill­ness.

“That was me com­pletely — that is me, what I’m work­ing with ev­ery day,” Koehler says.

Her con­fes­sion comes as the dar­ing yogi bal­ances on a tipsy pad­dle­board, guid­ing a group of shaky-legged women through War­rior pose in the mid­dle of Water­loo’s Lau­rel Creek on a sunny af­ter­noon.

Stand-up pad­dle board­ing (SUP) is one of the fastest-grow­ing sports in North Amer­ica. Com­bine the SUP trend with one of the old­est — yoga — plus the all-around ben­e­fits of be­ing in na­ture, and a lot of en­thu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pants are ready to get on­board.

Koehler’s 90-minute class started with a short pad­dle out on the knees be­fore the four par­tic­i­pants an­chored semi-cir­cle around Koehler for a cross-legged sit “to get grounded and con­nected to the wa­ter.”

The core strength and bal­ance re­quired on the board meet par­tic­i­pants at their own level: the un­sta­ble base al­lows sea­soned yo­gis to find chal­lenges in the most fa­mil­iar of pos­tures; be­gin­ners to both SUP and yoga can mod­ify po­si­tions to fo­cus on sub­tle core sta­bi­liza­tion.

Each pos­ture builds in in­ten­sity as the par­tic­i­pants find their foot­ing on the board and their fo­cus in the mind. Koehler de­scribes

the learn­ing curve as sur­pris­ingly quick.

“It is amaz­ing to see,” she says. “In a sin­gle class the con­fi­dence grows. Sure, some have an oc­ca­sional dip, but that just means they’re go­ing for it!”

The fresh take on yoga gen­er­ated quite a buzz in the Water­loo com­mu­nity right away, mak­ing the first sum­mer of classes easy to fill.

Born and raised in Kitch­ener, Koehler has been prac­tis­ing yoga for 10 years on and off, and teach­ing for two. Un­til last sum­mer, how­ever, her classes were strictly land-based.

“I’m al­ways up for a chal­lenge,” Koehler says.

Her In­sta­gram page — @en­light­ened.lo — shouts out provo­ca­tions such as “Noth­ing easy was ever worth it.... Go for it!!”

And “YOU GOT THIS. Ig­nite and flour­ish, baby! You are magic…”

From a dis­tance, Koehler is all YOLO (you only live once) and carpe diem: a vi­brant young woman with de­ter­mi­na­tion in ev­ery step, cheer­ing on ev­ery­one around her. Hard to believe some­one so full of vim and vigour — a woman who just per­formed a tree pose on her SUP board 100 me­tres from shore — bat­tles feel­ings of be­ing over­whelmed and angst.

Scroll down her In­sta­gram, and you will wit­ness a mix of mo­ti­va­tion and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Koehler cites her strug­gles with de­pres­sion and anxiety as the cat­a­lyst to a com­mit­ted, dar­ing dis­ci­pline of body-mind bal­ance.

“I was rid­dled with anxiety,” Koehler says, re­veal­ing that the peak of her men­tal-health cri­sis hit mid-de­gree while en­rolled in a mu­si­cal theatre per­for­mance pro­gram at Brockville’s St. Lawrence Col­lege. A par­tic­u­larly as­tute bal­let teacher — in whose class Koehler had shared her strug­gles of in­creas­ing back pain and anxiety — sug­gested Koehler try yoga.

Dis­cov­er­ing the restora­tive pow­ers of the an­cient prac­tice at age 19 soothed not just

“She is such a risk-taker, with a dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion. I’m not sur­prised it didn’t take long be­fore yoga on the mat didn’t push her far enough. ” ASIA NEL­SON

Koehler’s ail­ing body but also her dis­traught mind — for the time be­ing.

Upon grad­u­a­tion, the devil of dread struck again and, as is true of any long and wind­ing road, Koehler lost her way. Re­turn­ing home af­ter col­lege, too stressed to pur­sue a ca­reer in the arts with its in­evitable re­jec­tion and strug­gle, Koehler de­faulted to re­tail: fa­mil­iar from past part-time jobs, but also some­what ab­horred. A “short break” from her goals turned into stints at Time Ma­ter­nity, then Amer­i­can Ea­gle and, by 26, man­ager at Mas­ter­mind Toys in Guelph.

Koehler set­tled in but not com­fort­ably. She was in a funk. When a friend sug­gested she check out the new hot yoga Mok­sha stu­dio in Water­loo, a light went off. It had been three years since Koehler’s last yoga class. Of course — yoga.

Again, Koehler ex­pe­ri­enced what she calls a to­tal rush.

“I loved it immediately. I felt like I was sweat­ing out stress — like get­ting my body ac­tive was re­ally help­ing my mind.”

In­deed, the sci­en­tific study of yoga demon­strates that men­tal and phys­i­cal health are not just closely al­lied, but also es­sen­tially equiv­a­lent. Har­vard Med­i­cal School re­ports the ev­i­dence is grow­ing: yoga prac­tice helps in­crease the body’s abil­ity to re­spond to stress.

“Anxiety lives in the body, not just the mind,” Koehler says. “And be­ing grounded in the body is a great place to work through it.”

Still, at this point, yoga was just a per­sonal prac­tice. Her work was in re­tail, even though it was un­ful­fill­ing. At the same time, her per­sonal life was suffering with the end of a close re­la­tion­ship.

Koehler’s big leap for­ward came at 6 a.m. on a cold St. Pa­trick’s Day in 2015. Aware of the pro­found ef­fects of yoga on Koehler’s men­tal health, a friend gifted her a pri­vate yoga class with her favourite guest teacher at Mok­sha, Asia Nel­son, founder of Pranal­ife Yoga.

Nel­son has of­fered group yoga classes since 2006 and yoga-teacher train­ing for nine years.

“I said I’d be happy to do it,” says Nel­son. “And I never say that about any­thing that hap­pens at 6 a.m., ex­cept more sleep­ing, so I must re­ally love her.”

Dur­ing that first pri­vate ses­sion, Nel­son wit­nessed Koehler come alive.

“I could see that she was lu­mi­nous. She has a bright light,” Nel­son says in a phone in­ter­view. “But I rec­og­nized her light was dim when I first worked with her.”

Nel­son, who spe­cial­izes in back pain due to her own in­jury, con­nected with Koehler on sev­eral fronts.

“Ba­si­cally, Asia be­came my guru,” is how Koehler ex­plains it. “Yoga and Asia were mak­ing such a dif­fer­ence in my life – it brought me such big bliss. I wanted to fig­ure out how to get my ex­pe­ri­ence out to peo­ple to do this prac­tice too.”

Koehler ap­plied to do teacher train­ing un­der Nel­son, com­pelled to move her life’s love and sav­ing grace into her vo­ca­tion. The year she ap­plied, Nel­son was con­tem­plat­ing chang­ing her busi­ness model. She had been play­ing with the idea of not do­ing teacher train­ing at all that year.

“But, hon­estly, with Lau­ren sign­ing up, and her en­thu­si­asm so high, I said, ‘Hell yeah, I’m go­ing to run the train­ing.’ ” Nel­son de­scribes Koehler as one of her most en­er­gized, mo­ti­vated and suc­cess­ful yoga teacher grads to date.

Grad­u­at­ing in 2016, Koehler de­cided to give her­self a “test year,” teach­ing yoga part time along­side her full-time man­ager role at Mas­ter­mind Toys, to see if she could make yoga into a vi­able busi­ness. “I promised my­self that, no matter what, I would keep say­ing ‘yes’ to yoga.”

Koehler says it was fate last year when she was con­nected with Ricky Tjan­dra and Evan Traf­ford. Tjan­dra, 26, and Traf­ford, 30, are for­mer Univer­sity of Water­loo dragon-boat rac­ers who founded the not-for-profit Water­loo Pad­dling Club in 2013 at Lau­rel Creek Con­ser­va­tion Area.

When they got wind of the new SUP yoga trend mov­ing in from the West Coast they started a search for just the right teacher.

“We needed an am­bas­sador to bring SUP yoga to our club,” Tjan­dra says. “Some­one with a big per­son­al­ity, a self-starter with a re­ally in­fec­tious pas­sion to drive this idea.”

Koehler was the first person they in­ter­viewed. “She was per­fect.” Koehler, who just kept say­ing yes to yoga, was on­board immediately. Tjan­dra and Traf­ford gave her the month of June 2017 to play around on the board to see what kind of pro­gram she could de­velop.

Lau­rel Creek’s 47 hectares of ma­ture woods, wet­lands and mead­ows owned by the Grand River Con­ser­va­tion Author­ity, just min­utes from Univer­sity of Water­loo and sur­rounded by res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment, is a bit of a na­ture haven in an in­creas­ingly ur­ban set­ting.

“It was gor­geous,” Koehler says. “I just kept go­ing out to the lake, test­ing out how the wa­ter re­sponded to me, what my body could do, how much I could dare my­self to do. Re­ally look­ing for that sweet spot (bal­ance) on the board.”

Koehler immediately felt chal­lenged by the added de­mands of bal­ance and strength: the in­sta­bil­ity of the board re­quires fan­tas­tic core sta­bi­liza­tion in the yoga pos­tures.

“The body has to en­gage all the lit­tle mus­cles that are of­ten over­looked in strength train­ing and car­dio ex­er­cise.”

Be­ing so close to na­ture with the calm­ing ef­fects of wa­ter made the prac­tice near per­fect for Koehler. The next thing to fig­ure out was how to mar­ket the pro­gram and make it prof­itable.

Once again, Koehler found her guid­ance in Nel­son, who hap­pened to be pro­mot­ing a new ad­vanced yoga busi­ness-train­ing pro­gram called Pranal­ife Yoga Pro, code­signed with busi­ness coach Carla Be­harry and PhD sys­tems en­gi­neer Ada Bar­latt. Nel­son de­scribes it as a per­son­al­ized “ac­cel­er­a­tor cen­tre” for build­ing a strong, smart pro yoga busi­ness.

“Lau­ren and her SUP yoga model were per­fect,” Nel­son says. “She is such a risk­taker, with a dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion. I’m not sur­prised it didn’t take long be­fore yoga on the mat didn’t push her far enough.”

An ob­server might de­scribe Koehler as fear­less, but Nel­son is quick to cor­rect that no­tion.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t call her fear­less. She is full of fear and she doesn’t try to hide it. The re­ally re­deem­ing qual­ity about Lau­ren is that she is brave in the face of fear.”

That courage helped Koehler last Septem­ber as she walked away from her job in re­tail. “I didn’t even have to give it a year to see how I could make yoga work full time,” Koehler says.

Teach­ing at sev­eral lo­cal yoga stu­dios, plus a full sea­son of SUP Yoga at Lau­rel Creek this sum­mer, in­clud­ing a new ‘med­i­ta­tion on the board’ course, Koehler is ready to use her own raw en­ergy, open heart and bal­anced body-mind to dare and in­spire oth­ers.

For more on Lau­ren Koehler, visit en­light­enedlo.ca For more on Water­loo Pad­dling Club, visit wa­ter­loopad­dling­club.com

Lau­ren Koehler, right, poses with her ‘guru,’ Asia Nel­son, founder of Pranal­ife Yoga. PHOTO BY ADA BAR­LATT

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