Parliament Hill Yoga: “All you have to do is breathe”

Melissa Dick recently became a city-dwelling Ottawan after growing up in the beautiful countryside of Gatineau, QC. She studies geography, works for a social justice organization, makes silkscreen prints for t-shirts, enjoys watching her garden grow and is on the continuous look out for the best rosemary-goat cheese croissant in town.

During the summer, most of my lunch breaks are spent sitting in Confederation Park reading a book and enjoying the sun, meeting a friend for a picnic lunch, or scurrying around doing little errands. However on Wednesdays – and I mean each and every single Wednesday in the summer – I head to Parliament Hill over my lunch hour, yoga mat tucked under my arm. Walking up Metcalfe, I often find myself among a swarm of other yoga-mat holders. Where are we all headed? To Parliament Hill Yoga, of course!

Parliament Hill Yoga on Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Parliament Hill Yoga is a free outdoor event held on the front lawn of Parliament Hill every Wednesday from 12 to 1 p.m. over the summer months. It is facilitated by lululemon athletica in the Rideau Centre, whose friendly staff bring mats to lend to newcomers and arrange for the most talented yoga instructors to guide the sessions every week. They strive to bring new instructors to the Hill every Wednesday, providing the opportunity for attendees to experience different routines and types of yoga every time they attend. 

The event has been organized by lululemon Rideau Centre for the past five years. I discovered it in summer 2010 while walking around trying to get circulation back in my legs after sitting at my desk all morning. I remember being slightly shocked at the sight of it: hundreds of men and women, of every shape and size, kids and toddlers, all doing sun salutations in front of the beautiful Parliament buildings, laughing and moving into different yoga positions as guided by the energetic instructor. From that moment onwards, I knew this would be my place every Wednesday at lunch: stretching and breathing deeply on Parliament Hill. 

The event is held rain or shine and is only cancelled in cases of particularly nasty weather. Everyone is welcome and the participation of each individual is celebrated. As yoga instructor Ichih Wang said this past week during some balancing poses, “We don’t have walls here, so pick someone’s head in front of you and focus on that to keep your balance!” Sometimes there are even groups of children on field trips who attend Parliament Hill Yoga, doing sun salutations for their first time and giggling as they try not to fall over during a balancing pose. There are many employees from the downtown core, such as myself, who venture out of their air-conditioned office buildings for some yoga time in the sun. There are elderly people, families and even babies who get to enjoy some upside-down time while their mother or father expertly holds them as they follow the movements.

Instructor Ichih Wang at Parliament Hill Yoga

To give you a sense of what a yoga session on Parliament Hill is like, here is a summary of my own experience from this past Wednesday . A striking 502 people attended on this day, where Ichih led us through an energizing power yoga sequence. The sky was slightly overcast and a light breeze blew over the Parliament Hill lawn. It was the perfect weather for outdoor yoga. Ichih had organized for a speaker system to be set up so it was easy for everyone to hear and follow her directions. I brought a colleague from work who does yoga regularly but whom had never experienced Parliament Hill Yoga before. She was amazed at the sheer number of people present, and who continued to arrive even as the session started.

Ichih led us through a challenging set of 100’s after the initial relaxation pose, which left us all laughing and clutching our abdominals. As someone who sometimes gives up once my muscles start to burn, it’s definitely motivating to know that 501 people around me are feeling the exact same thing and are pushing though! Ichih continued with a modified sun salutation series, a handful of balancing poses, some seated stretching exercises and then the relaxing savasna, or corpse pose, to wrap up the routine.  She joked throughout the session and was clearly enjoying leading the immense group: “Stretch a little higher, now bend a little lower. Just like the elevator in your office!” The refreshing breeze seemed to sweep through the crowd at perfect moments, like when we were holding a pose for a bit longer or when the repeated sun salutations started to heat us up.  During the final relaxation pose, Ichih calmly said over the speaker system, “Now, all you have to do is breathe.” What better way to finish an enjoyable outdoor yoga session than with the reassurance that all you have to do is breathe? Simple as pie, and oh-so relaxing.  

Speaking to some other attendees after the yoga session, I learned why other people love Parliament Hill Yoga. “It’s like skating on the canal, but without the cold and the ice! It’s open to everyone, and so accessible,” one man, who had learned about Parliament Hill Yoga through his daughter, told me. A woman told me with a smile, “I love it because I can easily bring other people, like my boyfriend, who never does yoga.” The underlying thread that seemed to unite everyone I spoke to was the sense of community that Parliament Hill Yoga creates. It was the fact that the event asks nothing of you and leaves you feeling energetic, relaxed and refreshed, and also that it’s outside! I spoke with Ichih as people rolled up their mats and the Hill started to empty out, and she noted how Parliament Hill Yoga encourages the idea that yoga can be done anywhere and that there are no limitations. “Anyone can do it. I love it because it creates this amazing sense of community and peace that everyone can feel a part of, even if you came on your own,” she said. 

So whether you are a yoga guru capable of pretzel-poses and standing on your head, or are new to yoga and have no idea what “namaste” means, I encourage you to check out Parliament Hill Yoga on an upcoming Wednesday. Bring friends, family or coworkers and don’t be intimidated if the instructor leads you through some “Om” chants – with everyone pitching in it feels like you’re part of a sea of subtle and soft sound (and no one will notice if you’re off key!). In my opinion, yoga under the open sky with a large number of people is an experience that transcends any type of yoga that takes place in a studio. And to be able to do it over my lunch hour, outdoors, three blocks from work and free of charge? It doesn’t get any better than this.

Plus, it’s always funny to see tourists standing there, as dumbstruck as I was when I saw Parliament Hill Yoga for the first time, perhaps thinking to themselves, “So this is what Ottawans do in their free time!”

Great pictures and post Melissa – thanks for sharing your experiences with us! For more information about Parliament Hill Yoga, check out lululemon atheltica Rideau Centre’s Facebook page or events website. Will you be heading over the PHY next Wednesday? If so, we might see you there…