So I’m back from Yoga Festival Toronto! The intention, as usual, was to blog live from the event, but that didn’t happen, as usual. I was too busy going to workshops and lectures, making new friends, and reconnecting with old acquaintances, instead of typing blog posts on my phone or laptop.
The weekend was rich and full, with many great conversations, new ideas and fantastic people. I was especially excited to share it with my Yocomo partners in crime, as we conspire to create a similar event in Montreal next year. We’ve all come back to our fair city feeling inspired and pumped about the task ahead.
Every workshop, keynote and lecture that I attended was enjoyable, but here are the three events which left the strongest impression on me:
Mark Singleton ~ This scholar and yoga practitioner based in New Mexico recently released Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, considered by many to be a seminal text on yoga. He presented two morning lectures, complete with slides and a little laser light, and was interviewed by Priya Thomas in a keynote conversation. He started off by explaining that he wrote the book because he had seen a disjunction between what he was doing in yoga class and what he was learning in textual study. His extensive research was motivated by the observation that there was something missing from the story, and the book was his attempt to understand how “yoga” has become synonymous with asana.
He made it clear that the book is a cultural history about the derivation of yoga postures, but not the origins of them (despite what the title implies). Over the course of two lecture sessions, Mark took a small, eager group of attendees (who were mostly yoga teachers and bloggers) on a condensed journey through Yoga Body, starting in the 19th century, when Hatha Yoga was associated with magic in the West. He also detailed the influence that developments in the northern European physical cultural movement had on asana practice in colonial India, and its ties to Indian nationalism (with the underlying agenda to build better bodies to forcefully resist colonization).
However, it was when he showed two images of the same action – an Indian “yogi” and a German body builder, with contracted abdominal muscles (what is known in yoga as nauli, or abdominal churning) – that the complexity of Mark’s work was revealed. What makes these two actions different? Whenever a person does a certain action, is it yoga? And ultimately, what is yoga?
Yoga blogging panel ~ As a member of this panel, obviously I have a slight bias here. But it really was good! News of this panel had ruffled a few feathers in the yoga blogosphere last month, with criticism that it was lofty, self-important and disconnected from the practice. But in reality, there wasn’t a lot of weight placed on the “importance” of blogging. The panel was originally intended to be a civil discussion between Carol Horton, Bob Weisenberg and myself, with questions from moderator, Matthew Remski. But after Bob, Carol and I introduced ourselves, members of the audience jumped in with questions, and we ended up with a lively Q&A session.
As J.P. Tamblyn noted on Twitter, it was “fun and informative… just like a good blog post.” And without any preplanning, the discussion had the spontaneity, openness and interactivity of blogging. The questions from the audience ranged from the practical (how do you find time to keep up with everything?) to the skeptical (with all this constant information, is there space for reflection?) to the curious (as writers, do you find yourself resorting to shock and humour to get attention?).
Whether or not blogging about yoga is the current cutting edge or the future of yoga, this mode of connection is changing how we relate to ourselves and other practitioners. It was exciting to bring this approach to life, with an in-person conversation and questions from people outside of the blogging community (some of whom had never even read a yoga blog!).
Check out moderator Matthew Remski’s breakdown of the blogging panel on elephant journal.
Raj Balkaran ~ The weekend closed with Raj Balkaran‘s storytelling session, “Tales of Power and the Greatness of the Goddess,” accompanied by sitar and tabla. After three days of talking and thinking about modern yoga, it felt good to simply listen and be transported into a narrative with goddesses, myths and adventures. By this point, I had stopped taking notes and tweeting, and all I could do was lie on the floor and let the stories wash over me.
Overall, the festival might sound like it was a cerebral event, and in many ways it was, with much more discussion and lectures than your average yoga conference/festival. As well, this is my experience, and I’m an admitted yoga nerd who is interested in culture and books and ideas. I did get some body practice in during Eoin Finn’s delightful Blissology class, a deep restorative session with Andrea Peloso and an Iyengar-based workshop on the essentials of back care with Marlene Mawhinney. I also indulged in a pay-what-you-can Thai Yoga massage from the Still Light Centre.
I’ve come away from this weekend feeling refreshed, connected and inspired. It’s so stimulating and fun to be surrounded by interesting, dynamic people on the path of yoga. But I’m also thinking about an incident that happened on the last day, when I took a break from the festival and left the ballet school to go to a cafe. As my friends and I walked down the street away from the venue, we saw a violent incident between two people with yoga mats walking ahead of us. A woman was hitting a man and demanding that he give her a yoga studio pass.
It felt incongruous to step out of the bubble of the festival and witness two people – whom I’m assuming are yoga practitioners – fighting in public. It was alarming and disturbing, and it left me feeling very confused. We can practice together, talk, feel like we’re connecting on some level. But there is still a disconnect between what happens in practice and what happens in “the world.” Events like this are essential for inspiring practice and exchanging knowledge, but we (those of us who are committed and care about this practice) have a lot of work to do before the values of yoga are integrated at a collective level.
All photos by Scott Petrie via Facebook.