Meeting a Sometimes Cruel World with Love
By Marah Ayad
here are some people in this world who are visibly awake. Their existence in the present moment is so intense that one cannot help but join them in it. They walk through life with a humble and unshakable pursuit of the truth. The intention, awareness and discipline with which they conduct every aspect of their life is done so elegantly that one cannot help but conclude there is no other way to live. Erin is one of these people.
I first came to know Erin through her classes at Flow State Yoga in Banff. I remember thinking she had a way with words; she knew what to say to pull you out of your thoughts and into your body. My most vivid first impression however was not her words but her presence. Imagine a person who was the biggest and loudest in the room but it had nothing to do with their size or the volume of their voice. She’s a force of nature. It didn’t take long to realize I wanted to interview her.
I’d been practicing yoga for 2 years and over that period of time I slowly became more and more addicted to it. I had my phases of long-distance running, bodybuilding, Spin classes, even Zumba, but since I discovered yoga, it has always been the one constant in my life. What started off as a once-a-month hobby slowly became a once-a-week, and eventually a daily practice. I often wondered what it is about yoga that kept me coming back for more; why my practice and the way I approached it dictated not only the creation but the success of every other aspect in my life. Growing up, my father always used to tell me that in order to be happy and balanced in life, you have to cater equally to the three components of your being: the physical, mental, and spiritual. An imbalance or neglect of one or more will disturb the scales. In an optimal state, the three work in harmony. I believe this state of harmony is what kept me coming back for more. Yoga brings together all the components of one’s being, and that state of blissful balance is addictive.
I started going to Flow State Yoga Summer of ’22. I had practiced at several other studios in the Bow Valley and around the world but this one quickly became my favorite. The teachers were incredible, the attention to individual progress was impressive, there was diversity of style, choices, and enough classes every day to accommodate most schedules. Of course the fact that it was in Banff, my favorite place on earth, was a plus. At some point, I decided to go to the Ashtanga Hour class on a Wednesday morning upon the recommendation of a friend. She raved about this woman named Erin.
Of course I wanted to know this woman’s story, what brought her to Banff and how her yoga journey unfolded. But my most burning curiosity, from my first class with her until the snowy December afternoon when we finally sat down was: what is the fuel to her fire? What energy source is she plugged into that feeds her radiating life force (what yogis call ‘Prana’)? When watching Erin’s yoga practice it becomes obvious that her mastery of yoga is a manifestation of a larger mastery of herself. Or perhaps the two feed each other? In his book, A New Earth, Eckart Tolle refers to “flowers as the enlightenment of plants.” I felt that yoga was the flower to the plant of Erin’s life, and I wanted to know more about the plant.
Erin moved to Banff 20 years ago from Saskatchewan. To my surprise, she was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her journey to the Bow Valley began with a revelatory moment while standing on a dock at a flying fishing camp she worked at as a teenager: “ My parents weren’t religious, I went to church a little bit but I had always been seeking God …I remember standing on this dock and thinking ‘there’s gotta be more than just making money and working and going through the motions … I need to leave Saskatchewan, I need to go somewhere else and I think it might be somewhere with more wildlife and more freedom’ … I was being called to something more spacious; that’s all I really knew.” A few years later Erin moved to Canmore after graduating University.
She recalls meeting a woman upon arriving in Canmore who inspired and supported her in beginning her yoga journey. “An angel was placed upon my path to change my trajectory…this woman was probably in her 50s; she was so full of life, she spoke about angels and energy and spirituality … Her eyes were so bright and her skin was so clear - she was just pure joy. I'm like what is your secret? She said yoga. You have to try yoga. So she takes me to this studio in Calgary. I'd never done it before and didn’t know what I'm even supposed to do … everyone stands up and they start chanting the opening invocation… and part of me thought that this is so fucking weird, and this is a cult, and i love it.” I resonated with this a lot. I remember my first yoga class and feeling the sound vibrations of 25 different vocal cords chanting “OM” in an echoey studio. I, too, remember thinking that it feels like a cult– in all the right ways.
“I became obsessed with yoga and started going a couple days a week.”
Erin’s Bow Valley journey took her to Lake Louise shortly after and, due to a lack of yoga classes in the area, she decided to start teaching herself yoga at home. “I got a little book and and I started to teach myself the sequences. I would wake up at five AM, light the candles, chant “OM” and start practicing.” After only a short learning period Erin took the leap and signed up to teach a community class. “It started out with a couple students and eventually it was like 25 people in this room.”
It wasn’t long before Erin sought out a yoga teaching certification to legitimize her place in the practice. It was the same bright-eyed woman who introduced her to yoga that encouraged her to get the certification. “I've done a couple of certifications and I did it through a company called Trinity Yoga; they're the real old school Yogi's of Canada.”
I was curious if her decision to get the certification signified a serious intention to start a career in yoga at that point in her life, but was surprised to discover that she still had doubts: “I still wanted corporate. I grew up being told you need a pension, you need a retirement, you need a resume, and I thought that was my path. I thought ‘I’m gonna work in an office, get a bad haircut, gain 20 pounds, and marry a guy with a boring name and have babies’. So at that point I just figured I would teach for free and do it for fun [while staying in the corporate role].”
Erin got her first paying job as a yoga teacher at the Banff Centre after deciding to move to Banff with her first husband and work at Ski Big Three. “I was still in corporate and I was trying to juggle the two; I desperately just wanted to teach yoga but I thought how would you survive off $50 a class and 10 classes a week - I kept crunching the numbers and I simply didn’t think I can.” It was a scrambling accident on Mount Norquay, which left Erin badly injured and concussed, that made her seriously rethink her trajectory: “I tumble tumble tumbled down the mountain and I'm sitting there thinking that could've been it. That could have been the end for me. I thought, well do you wanna die working a job you don't like even if your parents think you're just stretching people's hamstrings? It was at that moment that I knew I had to pursue the yoga path, otherwise I would be regretful on my deathbed.”
I heavily resonated with this. I studied International Business and spent the larger half of my twenties working in Big Tech. I had everything that society told me would make me happy: a good salary, benefits, social status, an impressive resume. I followed society’s guidance on securing a future, building a pension, climbing the corporate ladder. I was miserable. Every day for 7 years I lived a life that wasn’t mine and concluded that my misery must have been the result of mental health issues or something that was wrong with me, not my choices. My only refuge from the soul-crushing 9-5 was the yoga class I attended a couple times a week during my lunch hour, the occasional hikes, a trip here and there. It took years for me to realize that the thing I should be chasing is the thing that gave me the refuge - not the thing that I needed refuge from - no matter how anyone felt about it.
I was curious if Erin’s transition from corporate to yoga was difficult or carried friction in rebranding or rebuilding her identity. “No. it was such a relief. I could practice yoga when I wanted to, I got to write sequences and read about poetry and philosophy. I think by nature I'm really intrinsically motivated. If you gave me eight hours I would want to read the book on the bookshelf, I'd like to write, I'd like to practice yoga. I am curious about my own brain and body, so it was freedom … I think I hate working for the man … so it was an easy transition and it felt divinely timed and planned. It was one of those moments when you’re like 'yeah this is exactly what I wanted’ you know?” I knew.
However, the transition didn’t come without some obstacles. “There was a lot of shame around not being in the corporate world, like I was giving up; like I wasn't smart enough; like I just couldn't handle it and this was an exit door to make life easy for myself. So I think I carried a lot of that … I was kind of embarrassed. But I think the challenge turned me on. The new identity took years. I emulated people I admired until eventually Erin had a voice. And the monetary thing: I see a lot of people towing this tightrope of ‘I just wanna do yoga but the service industry pays more money’ and I think there's this moment when, for me anyway, it was a non-negotiable: you can't straddle two worlds.”
During her classes, Erin doesn’t just talk through the sequences; she incorporates philosophy, literature, poetry, inspirational quotes, all of which always seem to tie in perfectly with the flow of the practice. One of these quotes which I had heard a few times and got me thinking was about yoga making the impossible possible. I was curious what yoga made possible for Erin. “I struggled with body image my whole life, I'm the size of a figurine so people would make jokes, call me a hobbit or you name it. The tiny ‘I’ impossible was that Erin could actually love a physical form she came in, but what made that possible was showing up on the mat and trying to do a headstand and falling and trying to stretch my hamstrings and screwing up and reading the scripture and going back to the mat which is something that could be so boring. But while everyone else was going out getting drunk and having sex, I was showing up and doing that practice, and doing that practice made impossible things realistic. I think the most impossible thing though was keeping my heart open when the world keeps tempting me to shut it. Yoga enabled me to make the impossible possible by meeting a sometimes cruel world with love.”
Erin now teaches at 2 studios and runs a Yoga Teacher Training in Banff. She has a life-coaching business, and she is a mother to her son Micah who “gave her the focus to write a teacher training manual.” She is also the bright-eyed woman who inspires many Bow Valleans on the path of yoga towards their own self-mastery.