About Alla

Alla Guelber is the founder and director of the Meaningful Work Project.

Connecting to nature through plant music

Eily Aurora plays the harp with an orchid connected to the Music of the Plants Machine at the September 2017 Heart Resonance Concert. Photo by Mike Unrau.

What is Plant Music?   

Have you ever wondered if plants sing? Indigenous healers have shared that plants possess a spirit essence that communicates through light, sound and vibration. Musician Eily Aurora joins forces with Alla Guelber, founder of the Meaningful Work Project, for a unique Sound Journey and exploration into the mysterious world of the plants.

Science is now proving what native cultures have known for thousands of years: plants are aware, sentient beings. The Music of the Plants machine has made the song of nature audible for the first time. One powerful response while listening to the song of plants is the release of the bonding hormone  oxytocin, which initiates a healing process in the listener to bring mind, body and spirit into balance.

Listening to Plant Music reminds us of how intricately connected we are to nature. Plants are highly intelligent. They have a powerful ability to communicate with what’s around them and interact with their environment with over 20 senses. With the ability to now not only feel the benefit of being with nature, but actually hear and co-create musically with plants, our vital relationship with and to each other is even more evident than ever before. We need nature to survive. How can plant’s song wake us up to listen to the living beings around us and bring greater harmony to the world?

Follow the Inspiring Hearts Project for an exciting schedule of concerts, public Pop-Up Plant & Harp Concerts, and other ways to share plant music as an entry point to deeper inquiry about our connection to the natural world.

The Music of the Plants Machine, attached to a live plant.

The Collaborative Flow

Hanging out at the North American Systemic Constellations conference.

Ever since I created the Meaningful Work Project in 2009, and even before that, I have been learning to tune in to the flow of collaborations, following the energy of people and organizations that inspire me, and finding ways to work with people that share a complimentary vision.

It has come as a most wonderful and pleasant surprise to find my most recent collaboration with Eily Aurora. Since an amazing brainstorm at the Sangha Festival of Medicine in July, we have hit the ground running, with co-organizing the Heart Resonance Concert in September 2017, traveling to the North American Systemic Constellations Conference (where I assisted Eily with her presentation called Keys to Discovering Music as Medicine). And now, we have been fortunate to receive two grants that are kicking our project into fast gear.

With the support of the Small Experiments Grant through Calgary Arts Development, and the Take Action Grant through The Arusha Centre/Calgary Dollars, we are moving forward on some exciting offerings through the Inspiring Hearts Project.

But this dynamic collaboration was many years in the making.

We met at Mount Royal University in 2007. As I was nearing graduation, she passed on the leadership of the campus sustainability initiative that I co-founded to Eily and several other current students. Eily was a passionate student organizer, and, in her role as a student executive, advanced the vision of creating a campus-wide sustainability plan, committee, centre and full-time sustainability coordinator from 2007-2011. Both of us have shared a deep passion for sustainability, environmental and social action. We have sought innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to inspire positive change in our communities.

Through each of our own journeys, we have come to understand that the most powerful, impactful and long-lasting changes come from connecting to what we love, cherish and treasure. People protect what they love. This is a movement of the heart. It cannot be forced, and it is not responsive to fear or guilt. We aim to motivate and inspire others through a connection to the heart.

Concert photos by Mike Unrau.

Join us at the next Heart Resonance Concert on Feb 3!

How to Marry your Business Partner: Weaving a ritual container for right relationship in business

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By Alla Guelber

The bride and groom enter the room from opposite corners as the upbeat electro swing of the Formidable Vegetable Sound System’sGet Together” pipes in.

He nervously adjusts his large white and blue top hat while looking out on to the assembled room of fifty or so friends, family, colleagues and clients, takes a deep breath and approaches his bride. She is resplendent in a flowing green and blue gown, decorated with a profusion of flowers and sprigs of greenery, carrying curly Russian kale, plump golden beets, spry little radishes and more, assembled in an ambitious mid-winter bouquet of last fall’s bounty.

“We are gathered here tonight in the presence of Gaia and all of our relations on traditional Blackfoot Territory.  We are joining in ceremony similar to one celebrated by countless cultures around the world… gathered to witness and support the creation of a fruitful and symbiotic relationship,” says the officiant.

They approach the rest of their wedding party: the best man, dressed as a voluminous yellow chicken (this is, of course, longstanding friend and mentor Rob Avis of Verge Permaculture), and me, the mastermind and maid-of-honour for this most lovely and unusual of celebrations.

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The reGenerate Design business wedding party. Photo courtesy Chad Chudyk

And so, with great pomp and circumstance, Mike Unrau, in the guise of the Fantastic Mr. Fox, opened the Business Wedding Ceremony for reGenerate Design, represented by the business’s principal owners, Lindsay Meads and Adrian Buckley.

Thus begins a community ritual several months in the making to celebrate two friends and business partners committing to working together, not only in right relationship with each other as colleagues, but also in alignment with their shared values in ecology, permaculture, and community.

Ensconced in a warm community space in downtown Calgary as winter winds howl outside on the first Saturday in February, Lindsay, Adrian, and their friends, colleagues and family members set strong intentions for a business that not only creates right livelihood for its owners, but sends out wider ripples true to their business mandate of holistic design solutions and empowering people to be leaders for positive change.

Plant nerd jokes, permaculture theory, well-wishes and light-hearted humour all interweave in a tight circle of connectivity, creating a ritual container to hold the larger-than-life endeavour of the “Great Work” that permaculture designers like Lindsay and Adrian take on as their chosen meaningful work.

Mike continues: “Both Lindsay and Adrian deeply respect the earth-based traditions in their personal and professional lives; Lindsay comes with a rich history in urban design and environmental geology and Adrian comes with experience in botany and community design. Together, they share a deep passion for ecologically and socially regenerative systems.”

Weaving community
As friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators, Adrian and Lindsay arrived into my life at approximately the same time. I met Adrian at the inaugural Calgary Harvest pick in October 2009 (Calgary Harvest is an urban fruit recovery initiative). At the time, Adrian was also actively starting a new permaculture design company called Big Sky Permaculture. In the spring of 2010, Lindsay attended the first-ever Meaningful Work Retreat that I organized, where Adrian was a guest presenter.

Fast forward to 2015. As their business “matchmaker”, I reveled in the joy of their individual journeys toward meaningful work converging in such a momentous occasion.

“The wedding ritual is one of the most powerful rituals in Western society,” says Sarah Kerr, owner of Soul Passages and founding director of the Holistic Death Network in Calgary. Sarah is a death midwife, celebrant and facilitator who offers nature-based spiritual support to individuals and communities navigating illness, death and loss.

A week prior to the business wedding, we all had a sense of the importance and gravity of the words spoken during the ceremony, and it took Sarah’s deep experience and insight to ensure that we created an appropriate ritual container.

“By formalizing their business partnership in a community ceremony, Lindsay and Adrian honoured the sacred aspect of their work. The ritual invited their human community and the larger living world, to participate in and support their endeavour,” Sarah says.

Sarah’s teaching reminds us that as we move forward in the work of ensuring that humans are a regenerative force on the earth, it is important to remember to weave ourselves back into an intimate relationship with the earth that sustains us.

“As healers and visionaries for a new world, permaculture designers and change-makers of all kinds have an opportunity to create appropriate rituals. These ceremonies help to anchor us in the wisdom and tradition of the infinite healing powers of the Earth, and honour those who have come before us,” she adds.

At this challenging junction in human history, the work of earth repair and people care can be deeply supported by personal and community rituals that anchor and sustain us in this transformative work.

Spades in the soil
Returning to the community room, warmed with repeated peals of laughter, the Fantastic Mr. Fox continues with an effusive, even theatrical flourish:

“If the sun is the guiding light, then ethical protocol is the torch that holds the flame.  In the permaculture tradition, ethics are the greatest manifestation of principled action to benefit the planet and people.”

Partyguests-AG“I am to remind you of the serious nature of the relationship you are now about to enter.  Therefore, if any persons can show just and sufficient reason why these two businesses cannot be joined in a business merger, let them now declare reasons, or from this time forward, forever keep their spade in their own soil.”

Peals of laughter erupt from the room. A little girl in a bunny costume darts across the room. Bright eyes and red cheeks spread out amongst our brightly coloured guests donning various stages of earth-themed costume radiate warmth, love and support.

At that point, inspired by the Celtic ritual of the warming of the rings, we passed around the Unanimous Shareholders Agreement. The business partners asked each person in attendance bestow their wishes upon this agreement to help and support the business in moving forward.

Asking each business wedding guest to spend time offering their blessings and positive intentions into the Unanimous Shareholders Agreement created an additional layer of structure and support into the ceremony.

“Ritual provides a structure through which energy can flow. People aren’t very often given structures through which they can flow love and support – and this ritual was about sharing love and support. This energy is real, real and it matters. That’s why the community warming of the rings – or the business agreement in this case – is so powerful,” Sarah explains.

Sharing Vows
Adrian and Lindsay wrote their own business vows, and, at this point in the ceremony, they recited them in unison in front of their assembled guests:

“We engage in transparent communication based on mutual respect.

“By continually understanding each others’ gifts and talents, we balance and support each others’ professional growth.

“We maintain a healthy degree of separation between our professional and personal lives. The business creates meaningful, fulfilling and sustainable livelihoods for us.

“We are professional, organized and unrushed. Our approach to problem solving is solutions-oriented. We activate and inspire people to create positive change in the community.

“We have fun!”

Mike then continued: “I now call upon you both in the presence of family and friends, and in the presence of this land, to benefit future generations, and deepen our connection to Mother Earth, and commit to the important work of being a regenerative force on the great lands and waters of this abundant world. Please repeat after me…”

Lindsay repeated: “I commit to you in a business partnership / until such a point / when it is better for the both of us / and for the world / for each of us to move in our separate ways.”

Adrian followed, “I commit to you in a business partnership / until such a point / when it is better for the both of us / and for the world / for each of us to move in our separate ways.”

With this statement, the audience lets out a deep sigh.

And the final icing on the cake, Mike said, “Now, I shall ask you to exchange your business cards, to finalize this business merger.”

Adrian and Lindsay exchanged business cards, and Mike added:

“As life is not without death, with these cards, Big Sky Permaculture will now serve as business mulch and sprout anew as reGenerate Design through both of their mycelial networks.”

“In the name of Bill Mollison and Jane Jacobs and by the power vested in all of us collaboratively, I now proclaim reGenerate Design Ltd. to be a new business. I now pronounce you business partners in right relationship to each other and your business. You may pound your fists!”

Business bride and groom sign the Unanimous Shareholders Agreement

Business bride and groom sign the Unanimous Shareholders Agreement

And so, with some fist pounding and the signing of the Unanimous Shareholders Agreement, the deed was done.

After the ceremony, we enjoyed three sisters burritos, honouring the sacred New World triad of corn, beans and squash, and a lovely potluck, as well as local mead and beer. We doled out small potted plants as prizes for best costumes. Adrian, Mike and several other friends performed live music, and the evening concluded with a DJ.

The business wedding served as a memorable, meaningful and creative way to recognize a significant commitment and transition in the lives of two business partners.

As Rachel Carson famously wrote in Silent Spring, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

And this well-intentioned, at-times silly, at times immensely deep ritual in the dark time of winter served to anchor in a new awareness for valuing age-old ritual. It planted seeds of structure, intention and support to lend energy and direction for the business’s continuous thriving. The partners in reGenerate Design and others like them engage in meaningful work that is far more than drafting and landscape design. Through their concerted efforts, they are contributing to the healing of our world, and the more that they and others are supported by community, as well as ritual process, the stronger their work will become.

This article is also posted at: http://regeneratedesign.ca/archives/787

Grief and Cultural Transformation

Acknowledging the distance between vision and a more beautiful world

By Alla Guelber

As I sat in a session at Living the New Economy, a five-day gathering of leaders in articulating and developing the emerging new economy, hot crocodile tears streamed down my face.

All of a sudden, everything that I had been feeling hit me like a raging torrent.

During this exciting, inspiring conference, my dear mentor and friend Mark Lakeman, architect and permaculture designer, as well as founder of the City Repair Project shared not only his vision for the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” (to borrow a phrase from Charles Eisenstein), but the reality that he experiences in his day-to-day life in Portland, Oregon.

As Mark spoke, in the inspiring overtones of a great orator, he took us all on a journey like a raft on a river, coming across magical and inspiring possibilities for a different way of being in our modern, industrialized cities, stopping for a brief interlude at the world’s first 24-hour solar-powered T-Station, then perhaps over to the Cat Palace, a little meander to the chicken coop shaped like a lovely, giant red-beaked chicken, and back over to the beautiful mandala painted in the middle of his neighbourhood intersection, acting as the universal cross-roads where people meet, interact, and foster strong community ties.

The Block Repair activity looks at ways to create more connectivity and connection on the neighbourhood level. Mark Lakeman is in front. (Taken at the Living the New Economy, 2014)

The Block Repair activity looks at ways to create more connectivity and connection on the neighbourhood level. Mark Lakeman is in front. (Taken at the Living the New Economy, 2014)

These brightly-painted amenities are not merely interesting art installations or functional public infrastructure. Through the dialogues that lead to their creation and ongoing upkeep, the development of these interventions have resulted in tangible improvements to quality of life, safety, and community integration in the neighbourhoods where they were created, and expanded to influence the overall culture in Portland and beyond. Find out more about the Planet Repair Institute in Portland.

This time, as I absorbed Mark’s stories and reflected on my own experiences with community building, it hit me, with ever-increasing intensity: the wide chasm between my reality and the world that I yearn to live in.

I took in the presentation with two other dear friends – Lindsay Meads of reGenerate Design and Kym Chi of Giggling Chi Tree. Earlier in 2014, along with urban designer Natalia Zoldak, the four of us had hosted Mark in our home city, Calgary, for five days of inspiring workshops on urban placemaking and permaculture through a grassroots project, City Repair Calgary.

The poster from all of the learning engagements that City Repair Calgary hosted in July 2014

The poster from all of the learning engagements that City Repair Calgary hosted in July 2014

All this to say, I had already been deeply steeped in exploring alternative possibilities for urban living and in many ways had my finger on the pulse of creating this more beautiful world that my heart knows is possible.

And yet, there is still a chasm between my day-to-day reality and the world I want to live in.

As I say this, I’m quick to try to minimize my pain, to reframe this experience and start listing all of the people, opportunities and amazing examples of community that I have been truly blessed to experience in my life (for a few links, see below). The opportunities to travel and study in Oregon, work directly with a visionary like Mark Lakeman and bring him to teach in Calgary, have all been life-changing opportunities.

To have the time, opportunity and access to information that allows me to imagine this different future is an immense privilege, and I constantly remind myself of the many gifts I have received in my life. But that is not the point in this instant.

When grief comes, there is a reason.

This way of life that I envision emerges from what we know in our hearts, in our bones, in our cellular memories – or in many of the great ancient cities that we fly to visit on vacation. This is the way people are supposed to live. This is the way we have lived for millennia in towns and villages across the world. Where neighbours know each other, where families live in close proximity, where the wellbeing of each individual is a crucial contributor to the wellbeing of the entire community.

And it was in this remembering, and in the grief that comes with a sense of alienation and disconnect, that I broke down and let the torrent of tears cleanse my heart.

“Grief is an act of transformation.” This was one of the key ideas that emerged on a panel of strong, inspiring women on the Remembrance Day panel hosted at that same conference in 2015.

On that panel, four visionary women from across British Columbia shared the different ways that they have experienced the need to move through the powerful emotions we experience as we go through the storm of sociocultural transition.

Mark and his colleagues, friends, and collaborators have instigated a powerful cultural transformation in their city. The oft-parodied experience of Portlandia isn’t just about pickling strange objects or ironically putting birds on things.

The underlying reality is that there is a major experiment going on with a radically different way to engage with communities and neighbours in all manner of life interaction. And no, Portland (or Victoria, or Vancouver) isn’t some magical fairyland, but there are many things they are getting right in those cities. Not solely based on the quirkiness of the city’s residents, but by design. And, increasingly, major transformations are starting to take place in Calgary’s urban landscape as well, creating more opportunities for community interaction and citizen empowerment.

As we move from the old economy and the new, we experience periods of grief and we need to create opportunities to let ourselves feel those feelings. It is not a smooth, linear process. There are set-backs, confusion, reflection, regrouping, and an eventual re-inspiration to head back out into the fray. DSC_0483

As I started to process my experiences and posted about them on Facebook, comments started coming in from my friends and colleagues.

“All the words and facts in the world won’t change a thing until people move from guilt to grief to gratitude. Cultural transformation will have to happen out of love and compassion not guilt and fear,” added one friend.

“Grief is necessary to keep people humble and remind them of things that cannot be changed and remind them of things that can,” expanded another.

Grieving Rituals

One person who has helped me learn about the transformative power of grief is Sarah Kerr, of Soul Passages, a death midwife and ceremonialist.

Sarah has great gifts in helping people who are ill or near death prepare for crossing over, and creating the appropriate rituals and ceremonies that help both the individuals who are dying or experiencing a major loss and their families to be able to embrace the change they are going through with grace and humility.

While I have not experienced Sarah’s rituals in the context of death, I regularly attend her New Moon Rituals and recently joined the Community Healers’ Council.

Sarah teaches that the more we are able to transition gracefully between all of the smaller starts and ends to the cycles of life, the more gracefully we will be able to handle the ‘big ones.’

Attending the New Moon Ritual is about letting go of the previous month, and any challenges or impediments might have arisen, grounding in the experience of the present moment, and setting intentions for what might happen in the coming cycle.

Grief and gratitude come from the same place.

Only when we truly experience the deep grief of human experience can we return back into our hearts to experience the emotion that sits on the other end of that spectrum.

As the heart breaks, the heart breaks open.

Joanna Macy is an elder in the movement to create a space for grief as part of the essential process for reconnection and “coming back to life”. She calls her process The Work that Reconnects. Writing, teaching and facilitating extensively over the past 50 years, Macy has created a powerful framework for moving through personal and societal transition. (More on her revolutionary work in future blog posts). She writes:

“In owning this pain, and daring to experience it, we learn that our capacity to suffer with is the true meaning of compassion. We begin to know the immensity of our heart-mind, and how it helps us to move beyond fear. What had isolated us in private anguish now opens outward and delivers us into wider reaches of our world as lover, world as self.”  Find out more about The Work that Reconnects.

Back to the day-to-day

Gratitude for the beauty and abudance of nature is important in the process of recovery.

Gratitude for the beauty and abundance of nature is important in the process of recovery.

I experience chronic pain and fatigue on a daily basis. Some days are better than others. Some days I feel far too tired to go on and I am mired in a fog of sadness and despondency about the difficulty of this physical existence. My mind can leap and run far beyond the constraints of my challenged body, and I am often at odds between the thoughts, ideas, plans and projects that my mind cooks up and the very real constraints imposed on me by my physical limitations.

Other days, my heart brims with gratitude for even the shortest experience of vitality and energy. I am able to connect to the infinite source of energy and love that exists in this universe, and step outside of the false perception that my physical experience of this reality can limit me in any way.

These polarities exist within my own body, and they exist within our shifting world.

We all carry the grief of what we have lost and the grief of what’s broken in our world. We also all carry the deep propensity for love, hope, healing and interconnectedness.

Whether it’s the shooting pain in my hip, or the deep pain of witnessing polluted waterways and overloaded landfills, there is palpable sadness in the ways that so much does not work or flow in my – and our shared global – present reality.

And this sadness, this indescribably deep grief, needs to be felt.

I have learned, when working through my chronic pain, that in the body, physical and emotional pain is not separate.

Emotions, when not expressed as feelings, can become lodged in the body in the form of physical pain.

Could it be that all of the immense and senseless ugliness that we see in our external environment is an outward manifestation of all this unexpressed, unprocessed inner grief?

It is only through truly deeply feeling the grief of the world can we start to transform these intense emotions into tangible actions that lead to larger-scale change.

Deepening the understanding of grief as a process of transformation
Books

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess we’re in Without Going Crazy By Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible, and other works by Charles Eisenstein

The Smell of Rain on Dust by Martin Prechtel

Inspiring people and organizations

Mark Lakeman, Planet Repair Institute and The City Repair Project (Based in Portland, Oregon)

Joanna Macy and her work (Based in Berkeley, California)

Living the New Economy Conference (Based in Victoria, BC)

Healing Cities Institute (Based in Vancouver, BC)

reGenerate Design (Based in Calgary, AB)

Giggling Chi Tree (Based in Roberts Creek, BC)

Diving Deep: Interview with Cynthia Naydani of Ocean Sound Dive & Yoga

By Susan V. Cousineau | See her blog

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I interviewed Cynthia Naydani at her home in Ban Ko Tao, Chumphon, Thailand, where she operates a dive/yoga studio. Cynthia has not one but two Bachelor of Science Honours degrees, in Ecology and Primatology. Yet several years ago, on the verge of starting graduate school, she found herself in crisis as she came to realize that a life of academia wasn’t for her, and set about discovering her own purpose and direction. She talks about the challenges and joys of following a dream, the highs and lows, what it took to get where she is now – and the joy and gratitude that she’s found in creating her own meaningful work.

So, here it is: the minimally cut interview version (my questions in italics):

One of the things that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time is profiling some of the really, really cool women [Dec. 2015 edit: people in general] that I’ve worked with or that I know or hung out with. There’s kind of a laundry list on my fridge right now of women that I’ve been wanting to interview. I think it’s important for girls to hear these kinds of stories and see examples of others pursuing – and exceeding – their own dreams.

I feel really grateful that you thought of me and that you think my life is worth including in that list.

So you kicked ass in biology. And then how did you end up doing what you’re doing now? How did you transition into that?

I did two degrees at the same time. I was planning on going to grad school, I really loved what I was doing and I knew I didn’t want to go into consulting. I’ve always really thrived in academia and that’s all I really knew. The last year of my undergrad I started taking some grad courses, and that was all really good but I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to follow ecology or primatology. I was also interested in marine biology but I didn’t have a background in it, so I decided to stick with primatology for graduate work. One of my supervisors in my undergrad offered grad positions, and I picked one that would take me back to Belize, so I went to Belize after I graduated to assist in a field school as a teaching assistant and have a preliminary field season on a new field, establishing a new field site where I’d be doing my graduate studies.

So I was there for the summer and I was all set to start, I had my funding and stuff, and then that summer in Belize lots of things went – at the time I thought that everything was going wrong – the shit hit the fan in so many different ways that were totally unpredictable. I just felt like I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. I kept having this sinking feeling when I thought about committing to grad school. I was 23, and I thought that that was it. School had been the only thing I ever knew but I just felt like it wasn’t the right path for me. I ended up calling my supervisor from the jungle a couple of weeks before the semester started and telling her I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do this.

So what went wrong?

Everything from tripping in the forest, falling on my machete and almost cutting my finger off, and not being able to go back into the forest and work to realizing that the project that I wanted to do actually wouldn’t be possible at that field site, to more personal things, feeling like the situation I’d gotten myself into really wasn’t worth it and wasn’t what I was meant to do. Personally and professionally. Now when I look back on the amount of things that went wrong and the wide variety of errors I really honestly feel like it was a sign, like the universe was telling me, “No, don’t do it don’t it do it”, and I was so scared, I was so lost. I was 23, school was the only thing I knew, and I was just like: what am I going to do now? I just felt like it was all over, you know, but I just knew that I couldn’t stay, my heart wasn’t in it.

You know that sounds so familiar. I’ve been out of academia for about 2 ½ years. After I got to the end of my Masters, I was just burned out, completely hit a wall, and it was really unexpected because it had been the only thing that I ever really wanted to do. And I’ve done it, checked the boxes, and now what, is it just totally not my thing or am I just tired, everything implodes, so yeah, for sure, I can relate to that.

It was the beginning of the hardest year of my life, for sure. To be 23 and think that your life is over for something like this.

It’s kind of cute, isn’t it?

Yeah, it is! but at the time it was super traumatic, I had no idea what to do, so I went back to Canada but I was very depressed, very miserable. I ended up just selling a bunch of stuff, my Jeep, all my stuff, just to make money. I knew I didn’t want to be in Canada so I went back to Belize, and I kind of told myself at the time that I’d go back to grad school, I’d just take some time off. I sat for my GREs because I kind of thought I’d go to school in America, but I just really didn’t know. So I went to Belize and basically just sat there for a year, just trying to figure out what to do.

So what happened in Belize? Is that where you got into diving, or yoga, or what happened there?

Well, I first got exposed to yoga when I was 15, because I was so unfit, and so unflexible, and I was riding horses and one of my instructors suggested I try yoga so I got a book on yoga for equestrians and tried some of the stuff, but I wasn’t really into it. Then when I started at the University of Calgary I started taking some of the yoga classes at the school and around the neighbourhood. But I wasn’t really committed to it, I wasn’t practicing a ton, but any time there was something difficult in my life, that’s when I felt like I was called back to yoga – even though I wasn’t really good at it at all, I didn’t even really like it, I didn’t know what I was doing, I had some videos and DVDs and books. When times were hard, that’s when I would practice, and then I would fall away from it for a few months. So when I was in Belize, yeah I was doing yoga, but I wasn’t very committed to it, I didn’t know what would end up happening with it.

You never know where it’s going when you’re in it.

Yeah, it was just what I was doing – I’d wake up in the morning and if I felt like doing yoga then I would, and then if I didn’t feel like it then I didn’t do it. So I hung out in Belize and then eventually it was time for me to leave. I’d started diving when I was in Belize for the field season, and I’d gone to Honduras and did my PADI course. I first went to Belize on the field course that I ended up being a teaching assistant on, and I really fell in love with the ocean there. It was my first time travelling, my first time in the tropics, my first time swimming in the ocean like that, and that was what really started the shift for me. I started diving, and I loved it, so that year that I spent in Belize I did a lot of diving. I still thought I’d want to do grad school in marine biology, or I told myself that because I didn’t really know what else to do, and I kept telling myself that and I knew I wanted to do something positive but I didn’t know what that would look like, I didn’t know how to do that. So then once it was time for me to leave Belize I thought that it would be a good idea to be a dive professional, so that for graduate positions if I wanted to work in the field – which is what I really loved then – I’d have good qualifications for that. And I’d been in contact with with some grad schools and professors at UBC and Dalhousie. I had a friend that had done his dive master training on Khotel, which is one of the islands here in Thailand, and I’d never been to Thailand and it seemed like a good idea, so I booked a flight.

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And there you are –

Here I am.

So how did that happen? How did you go from going to Thailand to do your dive master training to …

So I came to Thailand to do my dive master and dive instructor training, my professional training. That was a little over 6 years ago. And I was getting more and more into yoga, I was here, I was diving, I was doing yoga, I was working and I was really enjoying it. Right after I arrived here I met the man who was my boyfriend for most of those 6 years, and now he’s one of my business partners. Although we’re not together in that relationship, we’re still really close friends. He and I founded Ocean Sound. So we were both working and then we got job offers for Bali, so after a year here we moved to Bali. We lived there for 6 months teaching yoga. By then I was practicing every day and I’d really made a commitment: I just woke up one morning and decided I’m going to do yoga every day from now on and I’ve done yoga every day since. So in Bali we were working there for 6 months in a little fishing village but there wasn’t really enough work to keep us going. I ran out of money, we were running out of money, so we decided to go back to Canada – he’s Canadian as well. We thought we could go there and make some money – so we ended up moving to Vancouver, although neither of us had lived in Vancouver before. But we thought that it would be a nice place to live, it’s still by the ocean, we thought that maybe we’d still be able to dive but no – the water was way too cold, forget it.

And make some money in Vancouver, too, right?

Yeah, yeah exactly –

And that’s what we thought was going to happen until we got to Vancouver. I’ve got two university degrees, I’m applying to all these jobs, no one will hire me. I applied to restaurants, bars, and ended up working at a coffee shop that was killing my soul. Thinking about it now… I’d wanted to do my yoga teacher training for a long time, but because I’d been living in these remote places, I’d never had access to it and I’d also never had money and then we’d ended up freeing up some money. I also had a membership at a yoga studio that was right by our apartment so I started going two or three times a day, taking two or three classes. I practically lived there. Finally my partner told me, “You need to do your teacher training.” And I was working at this coffee shop – the very first day they made me sweep up leaves and throw them in the garbage. This was one of the pivotal moments of my life; I’d lived in nature for years and then all of a sudden I was being told to sweep up leaves that were outside and put them in the garbage. I decided to my teacher training because I couldn’t stand the thought of having a job that I didn’t adore and that I dreaded going to every day. After teaching diving, the thought of just putting up with my life, I couldn’t – it just wasn’t an option. So I did my yoga teacher training, and then started teaching, just volunteering, classes at Lulu Lemon, I taught yoga as secondary therapy at a women’s outreach centre, I was volunteering at the SPCA taking care of all the dogs, I was doing lots of stuff that fulfilled my soul – but nothing paid my bills. We weren’t running out of money but we had this money and asked ourselves, “What are we going to do with it? Are we going to stay here and spend it all really quickly because Vancouver’s really expensive, what should we do?” And then I woke up one morning and I was like, you know, life was good on Khotel – let’s go back there. And I sold everything that we owned on Craigslist, we bought one-way tickets, and came back to Khotel. We were on a layover in the San Francisco airport and we started building our website for Ocean Sound. We had talked about it and we thought, you know, this time let’s do things a little bit different. We don’t want to work for someone, we don’t want to be at anyone’s mercy, we want to take control of our lives a little bit more and do things our way. So we thought that we’d have this website because then people that we interacted with like our dive students and our yoga students could keep in touch with us more easily, and they could also refer people to a website rather than, you know, look up Cyn on Facebook. We’d have a proper business page. That was the original idea for Ocean Sound, how it started. And then it didn’t take long before we had our first booking of someone we didn’t even know, someone that found our website, liked it, and voila –

There you go.

Yeah, so for a couple of years we were just a booking website – we would book people to dive with Will and then I was teaching yoga at a different yoga studio and they would come, or find out about the yoga through Will and then come to my classes at the yoga studio and that’s how Ocean Sound was born.

That’s such a neat story – to see, to go through your website because I’ve been following your websites for awhile, like your vegan blog and recipes – oh my god they looked good. It’s been neat to watch the evolution of Ocean Sound but now to hear the whole story of how it came about.

Yeah, we never even knew that it would turn into this, and we didn’t even initially – there were lots of times that we – that people would ask, “Oh, do you guys want to have your own dive centre?” And we would say no, we don’t really need that, this way is really good – we just thought that it was good. And it was good, it was great, but it just kept growing and expanding, and we kept thinking about how we just really wanted to take care of customers, from beginning to end, arranging everything, and being able to make all the decisions that we thought would best serve people, and we were also getting quite busy. Will couldn’t teach everyone that was trying to book, he’s just one person, so we had to turn away a lot of people. It was just expanding and getting more and more, and we wanted to have our own thing. We have a third partner who’s lived on Khotel for about 14 years. He was one of the head instructors at the dive centre where Will and I both did our dive instructor training, and he was our friend, so we went out for dinner with him and said, “You know, we’re thinking of opening Ocean Sound, do you want to partner up?” Right away he said, “Yup, let’s do that!” So we talked a little bit, we finished dinner, we got on our motorcycles and started driving around looking for locations and maybe two weeks later we signed a lease on our building.

And is that where you still are?

Yup, yup, we’re going to stay there – it’s really nice, it’s just up the street from my house actually. I can see it right now from my window actually, my yoga studio is right there.

So how long have you been running in the shop, then?

It’s going to be our two year anniversary on May 1st [2016].

And where do you see it going from here? Do you have an idea or are you just taking it as it comes, day by day, year by year?

We’re happy where we’re at now, but we’re constantly evolving – it’s been really cool starting our own dive shop and yoga studio because the three of us have been able to build everything from the ground up, to decide every step of the way, how we think we can do things best – everything from checking in customers to the yoga schedule to the way that the courses are run and the order in which instructors do things, all of that. We’ve worked hard this last year, sorting all that out.

And you’ve got several instructors with you now, right?

Yeah, basically I run the yoga studio and they run the dive shop, and then the three of us all work together on the other side. I do all the meetings with the lawyers; I meet our lawyer every month, and do the bookkeeping; they have other tasks, like doing all the booking emails. I book the accommodation and pay the hotels. At the moment we’re just refining everything. I teach classes but the two of them don’t teach anymore, they work in the office, so we have a staff, a pool of instructors and yoga teachers that work full-time –

So it’s working –

Yeah, yeah, we’re expanding a little bit but our mission is not to get really big. We like to be small, we don’t want to take on more than what we’ve got at the moment. Things like I’m expanding the retail side of things and I’m in school right now, studying holistic nutrition through distance education. It’s something that I’m super interested in, as you know from my food blogs –

Yeah, like your chocolate avocado pudding recipe –

Yeah, you know what? I just had chocolate avocado pudding recipe for breakfast!

But of course you did – because you can!

I can, from avocados that are grown on the island, yup. So once I’m done school I’d like to open a restaurant down the road. But life is good. We love our company.

Snapshot, dreamy look in eyes!
So what is it that makes this meaningful work for you, and what were your major challenges to getting there?

I really feel like it’s my purpose, to do what I’m doing – I love yoga, more than anything. It really is the centre of my universe, the centre of my world, to share what I love – I can’t think of anything better. And not just to teach yoga, but the way the whole business runs. We’ve always built our business not on trying to maximize profits, not on trying to expand – we’ve always, always based our business on how we can best serve our customers. When I’m teaching a class, I’m thinking how can I best serve my students. When we’re making a business decision, what’s going to serve our customers the best? That’s how we make our decisions; that’s how I want to live my life: how can I best contribute to those that I interact with. And I really do feel that everyone – that we each have a purpose, and that purpose is something that fulfills us on a really personal level, something that makes us full of gratitude and joy. I give thanks every day. And I also think that each of our purposes is something that contributes to the greater good – I don’t think that anyone’s purpose is to destroy the environment, or start wars, or to harm other people, or to convince other people that you have to buy a certain product or look a certain way. That’s no one’s purpose, something destructive.

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From the time I was little I felt this – I mean, I loved animals, so I wanted to be a vet; when you’re a kid and you love animals, that’s the job you think of, right? And I wanted that until I started my first year of university. I always just wanted to make the world a better place. And I feel like I can do that now: that’s why this work is meaningful to me, I love it, it’s personally fulfilling, and I hope that I can enrich the lives of the people around me. And I think yoga is very beneficial itself, it helps people believe in themselves and feel good about themselves and realize that things that they think are impossible, are possible. That doesn’t just apply to the physical poses; it starts with the poses, like, you see a funky arm balance and something weird and you think, oh man, I could never do that. And then you start to work at it, you dedicate yourself, you show up, you fall down, you lose your balance, and you keep trying and then the impossible becomes possible. And then you think, Well, if I can do this on my yoga mat, why can’t I do it in my whole life? So yoga itself is very beneficial, and plus I hope that it does inspire. People say quite often to me, “Oh, you have a dream life”, and yes I do – life is awesome, and I’m grateful for it, but if I can live my dream then someone else can to. It doesn’t have to be yoga on a tropical island, it can be anything, whatever what makes your heart sing.

And I find that too, that what people struggle with is finding their specific personal thing that they want to do.

You know, there’s all those inspirational things, the memes floating around: but some of them are true. Like one I remember is that wherever your mind goes when you daydream, that’s what you should be doing. But it’s not easy: I had to give up everything that I knew, I spent a year in Belize, super depressed, and it sounds so nice: sitting in a tropical place on the water, and yet I was in some serious personal turmoil. I didn’t know what to do, I thought it was all over for me, and yet it wasn’t – it was just the beginning, and I’m so grateful for every mishap that’s occurred in my life because it’s all been bringing me to here, to who I am now and the work I get to do.

And your other questions about the challenges: the main challenge, I guess, was stepping away from a life that I knew didn’t serve me, but also having no idea what did, and no idea what to do next. You know, really making the decision, and I remember talking to my parents, talking to my friends, saying “I don’t think I can do this [graduate work],” and they thought that I would just get over it. When I didn’t and I made the phone call to my supervisor and said I wasn’t going to go through with [my project] everyone was just like, “What do you mean?”

Did you feel like you had a lot of support from your family, from your network?

Oh no, not at all – I mean, I was so entrenched in the world of academia, I pretty much lost all my friends, because I wasn’t part of the department anymore. There were whispers about me, rumours, and my parents, you know – they were scared! They didn’t know what I was going to do; they only knew me as a student as well. And my dad is from Egypt; he gave up everything to move to Canada in his 20s, and he worked so hard to give me everything that he didn’t have, education was so important to him, and it was really difficult and confusing for my parents. They were really scared for me, they didn’t know what I was going to do, plus the fact that I was so miserable: they didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to do, and then, you know, I decided to move… so far away from them.

But now we have a better relationship than we’ve ever had my whole life, and they’re super proud and very supportive, so I’m so very grateful for that of course.

[So a big part of all this is just getting over the fear of starting, of not having it all figured out -]

One thing I think about this whole thing, people tell me this sort of thing quite often: a lot of people go travelling because, and you know I mostly interact with travellers, they’ve just been through this big life change or they’re contemplating a big life change, so they go out on a big pilgrimage looking for answers. I think that people are looking for change but they don’t really know where to begin, or what to go to next. And my advice – my unsolicited advice – is not to wait to have it figured out. Just get started. If you know something isn’t working for you, just leave it: even if you don’t know what to do next, what does serve you, just go – do what you need to do, give up the things that aren’t working for you, and you’ll create space and then you gotta have faith. Things will work out. Don’t worry about waiting until you have the next thing lined up. People are always saying “When this, when I have this amount of money, when I finish that, when this thing happens, when this is in place, when I know where to go next…” And that day’s never going to come. Because ultimately that’s not what stops us from changing out realities. What stops us from changing our realities is our fear of failure and so we try to avoid the failure by lining up everything so that failure is no longer an option. But I think that’s the wrong way to go about it: that’s not the way it works. The only way to overcome failure is to face it.