Opening the Heart of the Prairies

I am a yoga teacher from Saskatchewan. People here take care of each other. Sometimes my students complain that my morning classes are too social and friendly. But that is something you just have to get used to. People from Saskatchewan talk to strangers; because once you start to talk you realize you have common friends and acquaintances. Once you start to talk, you are no longer strangers.


An open heart is one that honours difference but embraces harmony. An open heart is capable of healing and being healed. Opening the heart of the prairies means acknowledging the suffering and damage that has happened here, not so that we can assign blame and dole out punishment, but so that we can heal together and take care of each other.


Prairie folk imagine themselves as the descendants of brave, hard-working settlers who started with nothing and built this place from scratch. And that is not totally inaccurate. My great grandfather walked here from Winnipeg. I can’t even imagine the boldness and perseverance it must have required to settle here.


But that origin myth does not account for the people who already made a home of this land before the settlers arrived. Settlers needed to be believe the land was free for the taking.


The prevailing attitude here is that white settlers just worked harder and were more productive than their indigenous contemporaries. The economic and political power enjoyed by white immigrants is imagined like a family heirloom. As though the settlers gambled and won the prairies. But the game was rigged from the start.


The settler’s interests were protected by the state. Policies ensured that settlers always had an upper hand. They were allowed farms four times the size of farms allowed by Indian Affairs. Residential schools attempted to “kill the Indian in the child.” There is no nice way to frame that.


It is cultural genocide. It happened. And if we don’t confront it, it just keeps happening.


I hope reading this makes you feel uncomfortable. That is what reconciliation is supposed to feel like. That uncomfortable feeling is reconciliation’s price of admission.


There are so many people in this province who are not ready or willing to confront the truth of this place. But it is the only path forward away from the cold, heartless colonial attitudes that have caused so much suffering here.


Opening the heart of the prairies means standing with your face to the wind. It is bracing and tempting to turn and run from it. Like walking through the rain, our inclination is to scurry for cover rather than calmly walking and accepting our cold, wet reality.


Yoga teaches you how to make that calm, cold walk with your face to the wind. In meditation there is no escape from your thoughts. You can try for years to block them out with mantras and platitudes about inner peace, but ultimately your thoughts are just your thoughts. Live streaming, play-by-play, commentary flows from your mind like water from an artesian well. Good thoughts, bad thoughts, random thoughts, all of it just whirls about in your mind. Yoga teaches you how to sit and watch rather than being swept away.


That is why I believe yoga can play such a vital role in opening the heart of the prairies. Learning about the role that your ancestors played, knowingly or not, in genocide brings up all kinds of defensive, reactive, and deflecting thoughts. One of the requirements of reconciliation is listening. We need to be able to calm ourselves and get out of a reactionary mindset into something more contemplative.


Have you ever seen somebody do or say something so ignorant and hurtful that you thought to yourself, “what were they thinking?”


Well, if you never sit quietly and observe your thoughts, how would you know what you are thinking? If you don’t see your patterns, you can’t ever change them.


Yoga is all about awareness. One of the things that people love most about yoga is how it wakes up the mind and body, allowing you to see yourself in a new light. There are literally thousands of people who sit and stand with alignment that is causing or contributing to chronic pain. Teaching those people to sit and stand in healthier, more structurally sound ways, involves pointing out their postural habits. Awareness of the habit makes changing it possible.


I believe that racism is a habit. White settlers have a habit of discounting, diminishing, and disbelief when their hear indigenous voices. This habit started when the colonial government told settlers that the land was free for the taking. Settlers were told that indigenous peoples were not “us.” Indigenous peoples became a cultural “other” that did not factor into “our” plans for this land.


If we do not start to see this habit of thinking, it is allowed to continue unabated. We need to reformulate our idea of who “we” are to include indigenous peoples.


The attitude of the provincial government toward the Justice for Stolen Children camp in Wascana park provides a case in point. “We” had a plan for a beer garden in the park. “They” had tipis set up where “we” wanted to celebrate Canada Day. If we are not aware of our colonial habit of thinking that frames these issues in “us” vs “them” there is no way for that habit to change.


Being from the prairies isn’t better than being from anywhere else. But it is different than being from anywhere else. The people here are different. Not better. But different.


The people are unpretentious and don’t bother putting up much of a front. That is one of the reasons Saskatchewan can appear so much more backwards and racist than the rest of the country. The backwards racists here don’t take the time to hide it.


Like I said, not better. Just different.


The yoga in Saskatchewan is like the land. It is very easy to drive through or fly over without giving it much notice. But look more closely and you will start to see why people choose to stay. A smaller population means a smaller market, which means it is very unlikely that any yoga teacher here is going to see much in the way of financial rewards. Like the people selling mushrooms and micro greens at the local farmers market, yoga teachers here are not doing it for fame, prestige, or money.


Yoga teachers here, like in every small market around the world, teach because they love it. There is also no elite gym like Equinox or fancy studio chain like Core Power where you can be a part of a fancy yoga scene. There is very little in the way of social payoff from attending a studio here. The students are also in it for the love.


Why do we live in a place where winter tries to kill us for 4-5 months of the year? Because it is our home. We adapt to the harshness by working together and taking care of each other. We push each other out ruts and dig each other out of snow banks. We smile at each other on the street and we talk to our neighbours. We love it here because of the love here.


Opening the heart of the prairies means loosening the boundaries of our identity in order to grow larger. It means including and embracing more. It means out-growing an outdated habit and learning something new and better.


Growing is almost never comfortable. It hurts to stretch beyond your perceived limitations. But just beyond the imagined boundaries of our identity there is the exciting possibility for something new. We can be more than we are now. We can embrace more. Include more. We can open our eyes and see the world a new light.


The prairies are a beautiful place. It’s the understated majesty of the place that gets you sometimes. There is no crashing waves or towering mountains, no skyscrapers or theme parks. Just an expanse of sky behind a perfect, solidarity tree in the valley. It can feel overwhelming in its vastness and emptiness. But that is only if we imagine ourselves as small and separate from the land and the people.


Opening the heart of the prairies is opening yourself to the land and to the people. It is standing with our face to the cold wind, but it is also standing to meet warm light of the rising sun. Together we can heal and be healed. With awareness we can apologize, forgive, and move forward together.

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