Saturday, September 3, 2011

Collective Creativity & Magic: Reflections on Yoga Community Toronto

It’s already been two weeks since I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion on yoga blogging at Yoga Festival Toronto (YFT), along with the inimitable Roseanne Harvey of It’s All Yoga, Baby, and Bob Weisenberg of Elephant Journal. I’d planned on reporting on this event – a post that I’d written publicizing it generated some good discussion (both supportive and skeptical), and I’d promised to follow up.

Now that I’m back home, however (having tacked on some extra time for a family vacation in Canada), I realize that it doesn’t make sense to report on the blogging panel in a way that separates it from the overall conference. Because much as I valued it, the truth is that the blogging panel was just one, very small part of a much larger, deliciously organic whole.

Rather than trying to give a run-down of the many great classes, workshops, lectures, and discussions that were offered (many more any one person could possibly attend), I want to try and give a taste of the overall YFT vibe. More ambitiously, as I attempt to translate this taste into words, I hope to puzzle out the pieces that created the synergy of this event – that sense, which I certainly felt, that the proverbial whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Intimacy and Ease 

I felt a remarkable sense of intimacy and ease pervading the YFT experience. Being much more of an introvert than a “people person” – I generally hate crowds and find most prolonged group experiences draining – I really noticed how remarkably easy it felt to hang out with the people that came to this conference.

Now, YFT is all about building a yoga community in Toronto, bringing people together across the lines of method, studio, and philosophy that so often divide practitioners from each other. But me, I’m not from Toronto – hell, I’m not even Canadian (although my sons enjoy giving me shit about how I’d like to be, given my dismay over the current state of American politics and culture. But that’s another story). So I did have a bit of apprehension about being an outsider – one of only a few Americans, someone who’s not conversant with the local scene.

But it wasn’t like that. While I did sense that Toronto has an on-the-ground yoga community that I’m obviously not a part of, it felt remarkably open. Rather than coming up against a foreign group that I had to figure out how to fit into, I had a sense of stepping into a culture that fosters intimacy and ease.

I was really struck by the fact that YFT is run by a group of volunteers that’s working quite hard, for many hours with no pay. Yet there seemed to be a remarkable lack of stress, anxiety, and resentment. Of course, life being life, there may well have been tensions under the surface that I didn’t see. But to me, it looked like a group of people who genuinely enjoyed working together to create a larger collective experience. I found that to be hopeful, and inspiring. 

Honoring Multi-Dimensional Difference 

Another thing that I found remarkable about YFT was the extent to which the programming included not only many different facets of yoga, but also many different ways of working with each one. In addition to asana classes, there were many in-depth explorations of yoga history, philosophy, sociology, service, and so on. And, the asana itself varied from the very precise Iyengar instruction provided by the 9th-level certified Marlene Mawhinny to the “seriously West Coast” vinyasa of Blissolgy master Eion Finn.

Of course, having a mix of asana methods has become standard at most yoga festivals. The fact that YFT coupled this diversity of asana methods with sufficient time to explore some extremely different takes on yoga history and philosophy, as well as the culture of contemporary practice, however, made it feel much richer and more meaningful to me.

YFT’s commitment to honoring different understandings of yoga was most beautifully illustrated by the radical diversity of its three keynote events (which were free and open to the public) that closed each day of the conference.

Dr. David Frawley at YFT, August 2011
On the first day, David Frawley sat cross-legged on an easy chair and serenely expounded on the intricacies of Vedic Science for a good two hours (the longest keynote address, he noted, that he’s ever given). Aryuveda, Jyotish, Vastu, Yoga, Sanskrit. Sacred sound, ritual action, pranic science. His words flowed out with effortless grace. As I listened, I envisioned a diamond lattice of knowledge, each part crystalline, inextricably connected to the whole; each part crystalline, perfectly contained within itself.

To me, it really didn’t matter whether I “believed” his account of the Sanatama Dharma, or “eternal law,” or not. (Frankly, I found it far too much of a totalizing system to swallow hook, line, and sinker.) What mattered was that I had the privilege of listening to an in-depth lecture by an incredibly learned man who’s devoted his life to studying yoga and is masterful at what he does. I loved and valued it deeply.

But what I loved even more was that on the following day, I had to opportunity to listen to yet another brilliant man, who shares a parallel passion for yoga but works with a radically different understanding and craft.

I found it rather perversely delightful that Frawley’s initial address on the unchanging verities of Vedic Science was followed by a second keynote with Priya Thomas (blogger at Shivers Up the Spine) interviewing Mark Singleton (author of Yoga Body) about his path-breaking study of how the cultural construction of the “yoga body” changed dramatically during the modern period – and the undeniable significance of this fact for contemporary practice.

Priya Thomas interviews Mark Singleton, YFT 2011
My favorite moment in the interview came when Priya started prodding Mark to disclose more about how he understands his own practice. “Is yoga – as you personally experience it – ‘spiritual,’ ‘religious,’ or ‘secular’?,” she asked, her tone insisting on an honest answer.

A pregnant pause. “Yes,” Mark replied, looking Priya straight in the eyes.

Another heartbeat of a moment passed. Scattered laughter erupted from the crowd. “No, really.” Priya repeated her question. But Mark, ever thoughtful and polite, simply refused to choose one of her proffered categories.

Instead, he carefully explained why he couldn’t work within the framework that these taken-for-granted, yet culturally baggage-laden words – “spiritual,” “religious,” “secular” – necessarily create.

And I loved this . . . because I completely agree.

Digging deeper, you can’t contain yoga in such boxes – that’s just not the way it works.

And the third and final keynote presentation confirmed this. The last event on the last day wasn’t asana, pranayama, lecture, or discussion – wonderful and valuable as they are. Instead, it was music, chanting, and mythical storytelling, with Raj Balkaran and two young, brilliant musicians weaving a magical web of beautiful sound and ineffable meaning.

We all sat or laid down on the floor, let it wash over us, and shared the collective magic of the moment.

Creative Synergy

The culture of intimacy and ease that the Toronto yoga community embodied, combined with the structure of multi-dimensional difference they honored, created a natural synergy that sparked many such magical moments throughout the three-day festival. And this, for me, is where the deeper experience of yoga is found.

I believe that everyone, yoga practitioner or no, recognizes such moments. There’s a sharply piercing, but also deeply satisfying sense that everyday time’s split open for an infinite nanosecond. There’s so much conveyed in one flash from someone’s eyes, you could meditate on it all day. You see the sunlight and feel it on your body in a way that suddenly makes it completely wondrous, eternally new.

We all have those moments. But if we practice yoga in ways that work for us, we start having them more and more. And if we practice together in ways that create a collective synergy, we open up that wellspring of possibility even more deeply.

I had a lot of those moments in Toronto. And I’m grateful for it. I believe that the people there are doing really good work, and hope that others will support them.

And whether we’re ever in Toronto or not, I believe that it’s important to recognize the immense value of taking whatever opportunities we have to co-create the lived experience that there really is no "us" and “them.”

It is possible to create an open community that’s fueled by hope and trust, rather than a closed one based on fear and cynicism.

And we need that collective nourishment today, more than ever.

With special thanks to Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie for hospitality and inspiration. 


  1. Great article, Carol. This captures the magic and the meaning of the event perfectly.


  2. We were very honoured to meet you, Carol. YFT will be working with the Canada Customs this year to create special Yogi Visas for stressed-out Yankee practitioners. successful applicants get french lessons and endless cups of tea. it was a delight to hang out with you, and look forward to the next wherever and whenever-it-is.

  3. lovely reflection! this is a wonderful synopsis of a very special weekend.

    i love how you close this, and it reminds of Jack Layton's final letter to canadians (which he happened to have written the weekend of the festival): My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

    my belief is that collective gatherings such as YFT are a vital step in changing the world. and this recount is proof that it is possible.

  4. Collective creativity? We have to be careful that the "them" doesn't beam the new "Us". Much of the skepticism is as a result of te shadow that academia casts on what is essentially, a non-academic project. Although academic attention should not be made unwelcome by the ignorant, the religious and the otherwise devoted it should learn to take its seat alongside the mystics, the deluded and the lost. In the yoga blogosphere where words are key, I am less than optimistic that the yoga community will be fairly represented since yoga bloggers are likely to be as stuck to their keyboards as bloggers in other niches, especially when the back-handers and the perks roll in from all the commercial lifestyle and wellness companies start to roll in. how long will it be before elephant journal is bought out by some mediocre media concern? ThEre are people already lining up to take up certain functions within that tired old commercial format, in search of kudos in their retirement, to suggest that journalism is as important as the art is to suggest that the tail wag the dog

  5. Hi, Yogi Mat.

    I have to admit, this is one of the more interesting comments I've read recently. But I could use a little clarification of the last sentence.

    I went to your blog link above for more of your writing, but I can see you haven't posted anything there yet.

    Please help me by elaborating on "that tired old commercial format" and "in search of kudos in their retirement".



  6. Thank you for your part in supplying the nourishment we all need, Carol. It was good to meet you!


  7. Wonderful post, Carol!

    I'll even cop to a bit of envy of those of you all getting to hang out! When I was in Montreal, I got to meet the "inimitable Roseanne Harvey" and went to an awesome "mixed-media performance rock" shindig with her! I'd have loved to hang with you, Roseanne, Bob, and the Yoga 2.0 duo!

    Thanks again!

  8. Carol, been waiting to read your impressions on this, I have a feeling that Toronto is a very special place for yoga. I am also in awe it is all created by volunteers, and that is so open. Thanks for writing!

  9. thanks for this beautiful, thoughtful reflection, carol. i found that in addition to all the amazing programming of the festival, there were these inbetween "magical moments" of conversation and debate that turned up in every corner: walking out of the festival at the end of the day, standing in line for lunch, etc. for me, this is where i felt a real sense of community.

  10. Awesome post!!! This was a really quality post. In theory I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real effort to make a good article. Yoga with music how wonder, that's brilliant concept and really I missed the golden chance. Meditative music has a healing effect on the body, mind, and spirit.

  11. Dear Body Electric,

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