grassroots yoga festival: digging into the roots of communityY’all know that IAYB loves a grassrootsy, community gathering in the name of yoga. So when my best friend from high school (who now works at a Bikram Yoga studio in the suburbs of Vancouver) told me that she was going to something called the Grassroots Yoga Festival, I knew that I had to check it out.… Read more

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grassroots yoga festival: digging into the roots of community

Y’all know that IAYB loves a grassrootsy, community gathering in the name of yoga. So when my best friend from high school (who now works at a Bikram Yoga studio in the suburbs of Vancouver) told me that she was going to something called the Grassroots Yoga Festival, I knew that I had to check it out. I requested a media pass and hopped on the ferry from Victoria to the mainland.

The festival took place at the lovely Crescent Beach in South Surrey in the Lower Mainland (just outside of Vancouver). According to the website – which is admittedly a bit slick for a “grassroots” festival – this inaugural event is a “3-day celebration bringing together our community’s local and like-minded individuals and businesses all in a loving and supportive setting.”

For the most part, it lived up to its promise, although it didn’t always hit the mark. After arriving early on Friday evening, I experienced the opening ceremony, and most of the programming on Saturday and Sunday. When I wasn’t in a yoga session, I was hanging out at the Bikram booth in the vendor village or lounging on the grassy area listening to the live music that carried on for most of the weekend (or getting a massage or shopping, of course).

Festival Seeds: Some Sprout, Some Don’t

There were a lot of things to love about the festival. The location, events and retreat centre Camp Alexandra, was wonderful, with its summer camp vibe and proximity to the beach. It boasted charming little buildings with rooms for classes, a central grassy outdoor space where the stage was set up, and even a bonfire at night. With the thrift store decorations and workshops on “sustainability,” the whole festival had a general eco-consciousness feeling. There seemed to be about 200 participants, (difficult to say, though) making the festival cozy and intimate, with small class sizes (apparent max of 30) and a roster of Lower Mainland-based teachers.

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While my best friend from high school ended up in a disastrous and unsafe inversions workshop, I was generally pleased with my selection of sessions. I was particularly impressed by an excellent chakras practice with Rachel Scott (clear, dynamic presentation, fun information) and a session on container gardening. Also, I just loved that there was a container gardening workshop at a yoga festival – touches like this stood out on the otherwise lacklustre workshop program. Even so, in the gardening workshop, I would have liked to see the yoga connection a little clearer – how can gardening be a yogic practice? What similarities are there between caring for ourselves and caring for the earth? Connecting this dots would have pushed the great presentation to the level of awesome.

Despite all this goodness, there were a few festival weak points that stuck out. The programming was fairly heavy on asana, with not much in the way of philosophy or other yogic practices (meditation, etc). There was some variety, but in a couple of time slots, I had only physical practices to choose from.

The workshop programming also played into what I found to be the festival’s main weakness: an overall homogenous feeling. The attendees and workshop presenters were mostly white, young, women and a few super fit men. My friend described the vibe as “urban hippie.” I know that this demographic reflects the state of yoga in North America, but there seemed to be no conscious effort to promote diversity at this event, especially in age and body type. For example, one of the few presenters over 40, Sandra Sammartino, was slotted first thing on Friday morning – hardly a prime time.

A few glaring unprofessional things jumped out at me. I realize that any kind of grassroots and volunteer-run event will lack polish, and that’s okay. I distrust grassrootsy things with polish. But in this case, many of the workshops (and the Friday night opening ceremony) started late. The organizer dropped a few F-bombs during her thank you speech – I have nothing against a little cussing, but when you’re speaking in public to and on behalf of a community, it just feels out of place. These little details went beyond the “grassroots” category to straight up amateurish.

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The Roots of Community

Which brings me to another thing that didn’t sit right with me about the Grassroots Yoga Festival. Community was one of the core values of the festival, and is explicitly embedded in their mission. But community is a funny thing. It’s something that we all want, but it’s also hard to define. I find myself frequently involved in projects that “build” or “connect” communities, but these communities don’t actually define what it means to be in community. It’s a word that gets overused, and perhaps not often enough reflected upon.

I will say that, as an outsider, I didn’t really feel a sense of community at this festival. What I felt, instead, was a sense of clique-ishness. I witnessed a gang of teachers, and their students, who apparently knew and practiced with each other, hanging around in a pack, and they felt inaccessible.

However, to them, they are each other’s community, and they probably felt a sense of community. There was a mutual sense of support and camaraderie, I could see that. But I didn’t feel included. It’s possible, too, that I didn’t include myself, or make an effort to be included.

Which is the funny thing about community: you may have an idea about the community you claimed to have created, but other people will have other experiences.

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But who’s to say what is and isn’t community? If somebody has a feeling and names that feeling “community,” then they are, in effect, experiencing community. It’s totally subjective. All I know is that after attending other events like the beloved Yoga Festival Toronto and the Yoga Service Conference, this wasn’t a community that felt open to (or even aware of) people beyond its own inner circle.

Anyway, despite my griping, by all appearances the Grassroots Yoga Festival was a success. People were having fun all over the place, the organizing team seemed pleased, and the workshop presenters appeared to be having a good time. There are the seeds of something great in this first-time effort – with the proper nourishment, they will sprout and grow and extend to everyone.

What I would love to see for future incarnations of this festival (and any festival, yoga or otherwise, with grassrootsy ambitions): keep the good aspects of grassroots (intimacy, low-key, D.I.Y. energy) and lose the negative aspects (late workshops, swearing during speeches). Take a wide-lense view of community, ask if all segments of your community are represented, and then take another look. Then we’ll all be able to enjoy a festival that completely lives up to its promise.

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