Community mourns beloved pioneer of Toronto's modern yoga scene
Diane Bruni is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of Toronto's modern yoga scene, and both loved ones and members of the larger community are mourning her recent death while reflecting on all that she gave during her time as a yogi, teacher, friend, mentor, and mother.
Bruni passed away on Jan. 23 after a battle with breast cancer, and to say her death has left a giant hole in a community that so revered her is a massive understatement.
"Diane was my yoga teacher and friend for many years," founder of Hotel Yoga and Fitness Alana Hurov told blogTO. "Her classes were legendary. They were a source of inspiration for myself and countless others. She was the driving force behind the popularity of yoga in Toronto."
After beginning her yoga practice at the young age of 19, Bruni studied and trained and worked hard, eventually opening one of Toronto's first and most popular yoga studios with friend Ron Reid in 1997: Downward Dog.
The studio quickly came to be known as a place of both inspiration and community, and yogis from all over the world would show up in hopes of practicing with its renowned founder.
"Classes were always jam-packed with yogis, celebrities, and hard core regulars. It was a strong community where everyone knew each other. Diane was always so supportive and could make anyone believe in themselves," Hurov told blogTO.
"You would have to come about 30 minutes early to get your spot. If you were late, an assistant would have to try to squeeze your mat into a tiny spot up against a wall or a door. It was such a special place...the red walls, the smell of incense burning and the sweat dripping down your brow into your eyes. It was truly a magical experience. I miss those days."
Among the most notable celebrities that practiced at Downward Dog over the years was British musician Sting, and he was brought to the studio by his personal yoga teacher and Bruni's long-time friend.
"Just when Diane and Ron opened their second yoga studio on Queen Street in 2000, Sting coincidentally came to perform in Toronto a few days after their opening," Danny Paradise, Sting's yoga teacher, told blogTO.
"He asked me if there was a yoga studio we could go to to do a class. I thought of Diane and Ron and called Diane to see if they had any classes that Sting and his trumpet player Chris Botti could drop into that afternoon. Diane had no classes scheduled but she told me she could get a group together and I could come teach the class."
In just a few hours, Bruni managed to organize a group of roughly 40 students for a class with Paradise and Sting at Downward Dog's newest location.
Bruni also tipped off some newspapers about the event, which Paradise said didn't bother Sting at all, and the next day he was on the front page of the National Post doing yoga at Downward Dog.
"That really helped launch their school across Canada and was an auspicious opening for one of the first and ultimately best yoga schools in the country," Paradise said.
"Yoga was exploding around the world and Diane and Ron, being the gifted teachers they are, were at the inception of the whole thing."
But Paradise was friends with Bruni long before she came to prominence as a yoga teacher and mentor.
He told blogTO their friendship began in 1995 at Helen Pach Goldstein's yoga studio in Toronto, adding that he was immediately taken with her insightfulness and compassion.
And while Bruni first developed a name for herself by founding Downward Dog, she is also remembered as one of the few teachers who questioned many of the problematic practices and dynamics present in the world of yoga.
"Diane was an integral part of this new paradigm of not putting teachers on a pedestal, of making teachers responsible for their actions, making the approach to teaching safer and not invasive for anyone interested in learning the practices and teachings," said Paradise, adding that though her immediate impact was centred in Toronto, it had repercussions all over the world.
Bruni's daughter, Kathryn Bruni-Young, reiterated to blogTO that this was one of her main contributions.
"Later in her career she began to speak up about her experiences in the Ashtanga lineage, from cult dynamics to injuries and abuse," Bruni-Young said.
"This was a huge contribution. She was one of the first teachers I knew who was openly questioning the system. Because of her, a lot of other people started incorporating new ideas into their practice and teaching."
Bruni also made her mark by starting a Facebook group called Yoga and Movement Research Community, which she turned into a forum for dialogue about the aggressive teaching practices in Ashtanga Yoga as well as many other issues relevant to the yoga community.
The group has more than 29,000 members at present, and Bruni-Young said her mother's unconventional leadership style of asking the right questions instead of pretending to have all the answers was part of what drew so many to the online community.
Bruni also shared her passion for yoga and wellness with nearly everyone she encountered, so it's no wonder her daughter is now following in her footsteps.
"I definitely got into yoga because of her," Bruni-Young told blogTO.
"Our relationship was unique. She was my teacher, my mentor, and my mother. I grew up basically wanting to be just like her which isn't always the case with teenagers. I followed her around different studios and sat in the corner of classes for years before I was old enough to actually join in," she continued.
"Later in our relationship as she slowed down and moved into retirement my work really picked up. She started coming to my workshops, and sitting in the corner of my classes."
And it wasn't just her daughter who aspired to be like her. Hurov said part of why Bruni was so beloved was because she demonstrated how to live a happy, peaceful life.
"The way she lived her life and taught was always an inspiration," she said. "She inspired me to open a yoga studio and create a health and wellness business. I will always remember looking at her during classes and thinking 'I want to live a life like Diane.' She was always so grounded, calm, and at peace."
And according to Paradise, it was her sincerity, her ability to listen to people, her empathy, and her endless explorations into all forms of yoga and movement that made her a cut above the rest.
"Diane Bruni will always be remembered for being a leader, a mentor and a trailblazer. Her classes and teachings led the way for hundreds of teachers. She made yoga and movement magical. She helped create the yoga and movement community we have today," Hurov said.
"She is gone much too soon. I hope to always keep her memory alive by living life with integrity, passion and peace of mind."
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