urban solstice yoga: the great lawn & a small mountain

The solstice sun peeks above east Montréal & the St Laurent River.

I’ve been reading the blog posts and dispatches from the Yoga at the Great Lawn event in NYC. The largest gathering of yogis ever (10,000 of ’em) also turned out to be the shortest, as the event was rained out after the first few downward dogs. From what I’ve seen from various blog posts and comments, some people were grateful for the brief practice, some were frustrated with the long lines and poor communication, and others were angry that they didn’t get the promised free Gaiam mat (which was nicely branded with the JetBlue logo). Some saw it as a lesson in impermanence, others saw it as a divine retribution for an overly ambitious plan to set a World Record.

By taking yoga out of the studio and into the elements, I also learned an important lesson this week

On the morning of the Summer Solstice (June 21), I met up with a crew of yogis from the neighbourhood at 4:30am and walked in silence to the top of Mount Royal, the iconic mountain for which Montréal is named. We got to the lookout point just as the sun started to rise and we unrolled our mats. Still silent, each of us began our own individual practice: sitting in meditation, moving through surya namaskara, standing in tadasana. The atmosphere was contained and connected, reverent and focused.

Until a drunk man showed up and started ranting. His appearance caused a little ripple through our crew, and the guy next to me joked, “Is this the yoga teacher?” But we all kept our attention focused on our individual yet collective practice. The man cracked open a bottle of beer and continued ranting, seemingly trying to get our attention. He ranted about karma, God, Allah. He made a couple of comments that elicited a few chuckles ~ “I have to pee. Why don’t I pee when I have to pee? I don’t know!” and “I don’t understand how you people communicate!!” Mostly, we kept focused on our practice, avoided responding, and maintained our silence.

For the most part, he stayed on the periphery, on the edge of the lookout above the city. It was pretty easy to block out his monologue and reflect on what his presence brought up in me: annoyance, agitation, discomfort. This drunk dude was ruining my magical idyllic mountaintop yoga practice! I breathed through my emotions and worked on feeling compassion, acceptance. I focused on the rising sun reflecting off the downtown buildings, the cool morning breeze dancing across my skin.

Then he moved into our practice space. His rant became more aggressive, pointed. He singled out people, stood by their mats and tried to provoke them. He circled around a young woman a few metres from me, and I felt everyone in the vicinity bristle with attention, preparing to become defensive if he made a wrong move. Luckily for him, he decided to move on back to his little bag of beers.

By 6:20, the sun was fully above the horizon and people started to roll up their mats and get on with their day. One woman, who had been lingering around the back, waved at the man and thanked him for “his words.” To his delight, she told him he was a great counterpoint to all the “serious yogis,” and he profusely thanked her, apparently grateful for the attention. I was appalled that she could thank somebody for being disruptive, rude, aggressive and threatening. I regretted not calling the police and having him removed for being a public nuisance.

And that’s when I realized that this guy was the yoga teacher. And that the lesson I learned here wasn’t compassion for all beings, or to accept things as they are. The lesson I learned was to voice my discomfort, to not let myself be intimidated, and to take action. Even in a space of collective consciousness and shared outer experience, yoga is a process of independent lessons and internal work. Whether it’s rain on a great lawn, or pests on a small mountain.

  1. I’m surprisd that you went up on the mountain so early. I always stayed away from that place during “night” hours…. dangerous spot for sure.

    What I have wondered about the homeless- is what must it be like to be completely ignored throughout the day? Talking to people and have them outright ignore you? They must feel invisible. And since most of the homeless also have mental health issues along with their addiction- add another layer of reality…. or non-reality.

    However, making eye contact and responding in Montreal is MUCH trickier than here in Halifax. I had people follow me before in Montreal when I responded, AND I had one lady run down the street screaming at me when I didn’t.

    Sounds like it was the perfect experience for Summer Solstice 🙂

  2. it’s funny: i read this post this morning off of my phone around 600am this morning right before my 615a class, feeling all snargly about how early it was. reading it, i thought… woah. nope. *that’s* early.

    i would have had some “feelings” arise towards drunkards who hadn’t hit the pillow yet, too.

  3. Hello, I’ve been checking out your blog for a little while now and I want to say that I enjoy it and usually learn something that I did not know before. This post is wonderful, I too would have reacted the way you did, I am sure. I can only hope that I would have learned the lesson as well. Blessings.

    • thanks for stopping by, yarrow! i’m glad you felt compelled to comment. i’m sure, if you were in the situation, that you would have learned your own lesson and you would have learned it just fine! see you around 🙂

  4. What a lovely post. It reminds me of a story I heard about Gurdjieff. I’ll paraphrase it very loosely here: There was a disruptive and rude man in Gurdjieff’s community who continually got under everyone’s skin. When he finally left after months of antagonizing everyone, all were relieved, until Gurdjieff sought the man out and brought him back. He understood that this man was everyone’s teacher because he forced them to look at their own resistance and aversion.

    I’ve been in a few long, silent, insight meditation retreats where another participant has really gotten under my skin. It’s true that the process of being present with your resistance and aversion, and then finally accepting it all, is quite freeing. And isn’t freedom the purpose of yoga?

  5. So true, so true. Thank you for sharing this story, and that photo. It is always wonderful to be reminded of the way yoga helps us survive the real world. There is no perfect situation. We cannot act perfectly in any situation. We can only hope that each moment we are true to deepest selves.

  6. I remember once scrambling up Mount Royal on a freezing January morning/night – under the influence of several substances I won’t name here (lol) to look at the stars or see the sunrise. Heh. I was crazy back then, my goodness.

    In my old age I would have reacted exactly as you did to the attention-seeking man. But as you say, it takes all types to make a world and there is a lesson for each of us to learn in every encounter we have.


    • hahaha, la gitane! i have to wonder how you would have reacted to a group of yogis practicing on the mountain in your state of mind (especially in january!)…

  7. Great post! As soon as I saw the picture I knew where it was even before I read the post. I grew up in Montreal and miss it very much. The picture made me feel very homesick (but in a good way) I’ll be visiting soon. : )

  8. As someone who shared the experience with Roseanne (still catching up on sleep over here!), every word she wrote about that morning positively glows with truth and insight. For me, the challenge wasn’t ignoring him.

    That would have been impossible.

    My goal was to continue experiencing the moment – even if it included discomfort at his growing aggression. And to absorb his comments about questioning and acceptance, identity and anonymity, respect and compassion.

    His words were no less worthy to me because of his drunkeness and inner turmoil. I just hope that he comes to find some peace.