spirited away: a weekend at the kootenay spirit festivalI was in the mood for a little autumn getaway when I got an invitation to Kootenay Spirit Festival (Sept 18-20, 2015) in Nelson, British Columbia, so I was more than happy to make the 10-hour journey to a lovely town in the mountainous southeastern corner of the province.Read more

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spirited away: a weekend at the kootenay spirit festival

I was in the mood for a little autumn getaway when I got an invitation to Kootenay Spirit Festival (Sept 18-20, 2015) in Nelson, British Columbia, so I was more than happy to make the 10-hour journey to a lovely town in the mountainous southeastern corner of the province. My yoga roots are in this region (I lived and studied at an ashram on a glacier-fed lake), although over the years I haven’t been able to spend much time in Nelson itself.

I believe in the power and necessity of homegrown festivals to strengthen community and connect practitioners, and was curious to see what how this festival would attempt this. Using a standard weekend festival structure (Friday evening opening, Saturday/Sunday workshops), the second annual KSF had the right ingredients for a charming event: a balanced schedule of asana, meditation, philosophy, music, and dance; a mostly local lineup of experienced presenters; free outdoor classes and marketplace at a park by a lake; and a Saturday night DJ at a downtown club.

One thing that set this event apart from other similarly-sized festivals was its decentralized model. All of the workshops took place in seven venues (community halls, converted churches, and yoga studios) within walking distance in the heart of Nelson.

A big part of our vision is to feature our local yoga scene, which includes the downtown studios and eclectic venues,” said co-organizer Trisha Wilson. “We see this as a way to unite the local community while showcasing Nelson to out-of-town guests.”

And Nelson is completely showcasable. With its restored heritage buildings and idyllic tree-lined streets, the town is so picturesque and photogenic that it was the setting for the Steve Martin film, Roxanne (it’s immortalized in a mural, of course). With a population of 10,000 people, Nelson is unbearably charming, featuring fun little shops, a high concentration of artists and artisans, sophisticated cafes, and dramatic mountain views in every direction. It’s a former industry town that became revitalized with arts, tourism, and economic help from a thriving marijuana industry; the vibe is a little hippie, a little urban, a little flakey, but mostly quirky and laidback. Nelson is located in the southern Kootenays, not far from the US border – the whole region was infiltrated by American draft dodgers in the 70s, which also lends to its countercultural, anything-goes feel.

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Photo by Joel Pelletier

It was fun hanging out in Nelson’s downtown core (which is like five square blocks) on a sleepy early autumn weekend and see the streets overtaken by chill smiley people with yoga mats. It was also refreshing to attend a festival that wasn’t in a sterile hotel conference centre or ski resort. But the decentralized festival model does have its cons.

One of the downsides was that I didn’t get to experience the concentrated energy of an urban retreat, or feel like I was immersed in a community of practice. Although there were 30 minutes between sessions, I still felt like I was scrambling to get from one place to another, and other people seemed to be late as well. Without the possibility of random “hallway” encounters, I felt less likely to encounter familiar faces.

I couldn’t get a sense of how many people were at the event, and even times when attendees could all come together, like the closing ceremony, didn’t feel representative of the whole community.

Turns out there were around 400 people at this little festival, with fifty volunteers keeping things humming behind the scenes. The end result was a warm and welcoming festival that was well-organized and professional without feeling bland or corporate. It was tight in the places that matter – workshops started on time! and had a checklist of attendees! – but abundant with folksy touches like the hand-sewn “KSF” banners.

Wilson told me that the festival has a $35,000 budget, is registered as a non-profit society, and is guided by a steering committee of eight people who plan the event throughout the year. The 2014 event was completely volunteer organized (requiring 2746 hours of volunteer energy), but this year, three steering committee members received honorariums. The workshop teachers and presenters received honorariums between $100 and $500 (depending on how many classes they teach), a travel stipend (for the few out-of-towners, who traveled from places like Vancouver and Canmore), as well as a festival pass valued at $160.

The Kooteney Spirit Festival had a lot of spirit – as well as heart, integrity, and respect for the practice of yoga. While the decentralized model of the festival had its challenges, it was overall a delightful and enjoyable event, and I could feel the passion and love that were poured into it. The Kootenays are one of my favourite places in the world, and I think the festival captured the spirit of the area and the people of Nelson: down-to-earth, honest, and creative.

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