by Matthew Remski, with Scott Petrie (and about 500 others)
“We can do something different.”
In 2006, my partner Dennison and I rented a table at Toronto’s main yoga show to advertise our fledgling neighbourhood studio. You might be familiar with this type of event: big convention/hotel venue, a trade floor with hundreds of vendors selling heated yoga mats, crystals, and trance music, the whine from juicing stalls, warmed-over dahl from the local temple, raw snacks priced as entrees. Consumerism, displaying its most earnest and hopeful products.
Spreading out from the yoga mall was the web of carpeted and chandeliered meeting rooms packed with practitioners sweating over the precious instructions of rock-star yogis from LA, New York, Boulder, Santa Fe. There were a few faculty members from Toronto – their rooms identified by their relative emptiness. For the most part, floating through the convention-centre hallways on a wave of soap-and-candle scent was like a tour through a movie set of exotic and glamorous virtue, haunted by the knowledge you would wake up on Monday morning, and it would all have evaporated into the magazines stacked by the door for recycling.
We made a few friends – from other towns – and sold some ghee. Attended a few interesting classes, and a couple of duds led by A-listers who seemed generally bored of touring. We couldn’t blame them, really. The scene felt devoid of intimacy, the life-blood of teaching and learning. Attendees strained to make connections that teachers doubted were possible, because the collective heart was wrapped in the saran of branding, and distended through an economy of scale that dwarfed the present moment.
We came home with that feeling we had as tweens getting back from the theme park: overstimulated, woozy with sugary stuff, headachey with the rush of things and talking, and hollowed out. We slept like stones. When we woke up, one of us (we can’t remember who) said: “That didn’t really serve us, or the community.” The other said: “We could do something different.”
The idea seemed to survive the hard light of morning chai, so I phoned our friend Scott. He interrupted me half-way through. “When do we start?”
Within a day, Scott had visualized the logo: a towering oak tree with roots mirroring the branches that canopied our name. The oak tree gave birth to the acorn theme…
We began by writing a manifesto…
…(how grandiose!) – for the kind of festival we thought would reflect the yoga culture we knew. Here are some of the basic principles we came up with:
Create human-scale economy. Reduce overhead to the point where intimacy is possible because footing the bill is not the central anxiety. For yogis, this means no convention centers or big hotels. It also means setting tuition rates at truly accessible levels. (This also means pay-equity for faculty– see #5 below.)
- Foster relationship. The vast majority of faculty should be local teachers who have been slogging it out in the trenches of studio life for 15 to 30 years. These teachers are the backbone of yoga in the city: without them, there’s no community. What’s the point of staging an event that doesn’t establish strong local bonds that continue to grow when all of the mats are rolled up? We set our local-faculty goal at 90%.
- Crowdsource the programming. An A-list conference can feel like a parade of brands that have robotically ascended to the top of the marketing heap. A great example of things that become popular because people are told they are. We say: let’s reverse it, and instead of telling people who’s cool, asking them what they need?
- Craft the programming. Don’t let any faculty come and simply hawk their brand. Really milk the teachers to get the crowdsourced requests fulfilled. As programming director, I often start with the question: “If you had one last class to teach in your life, what would you teach?” If the teacher starts reading from their brand-notes, I know we’ll have some work to do.
- Expand the yoga palette. 90% of yoga instruction today is asana. But as a cultural movement, it needs ethics, method, communication, social action. Asana has led to a renaissance of the deeper strains of yoga culture: we need them. Make sure that festival programming is no more than 50% asana.
- Reduce commercial alienation. Nobody needs to buy sunglasses at a yoga weekend. If we’re going to have vendors, they’ll be local, and making useful and inspiring stuff here in town.
- Foster equality. We’d heard the back-end stories of A-list yogis and their agents, and how some would be paid 20K for the weekend, while the local yogi in the next room is teaching for $30 an hour. This is not okay. We’ll pay every faculty member $108 per hour. This will self-select the faculty that shares our values.
- “Urban retreat.” The venue is common, in town, accessible. The vibe is quiet and contemplative. Give folks the feeling that they’ve escaped the city, within the city. Encourage full-day participation, so that a group-vibe builds.
- Zero footprint. Offset the carbon of the whole event. This isn’t perfect, but it helps. If faculty or attendees come from beyond 200 miles, buy their offsets.
- Food. Balanced food on proper washable plates at round tables, with a dedicated lunch session for all attendees. Let’s not send people through the vata spin-cycle on a yoga weekend. Let people bond over food. They almost always do.
We put it all down on paper, and called a meeting: “What should a yoga community event look like?” and circulated the invite through our networks of students and teacher-friends. We had a great turnout, and presented the manifesto to uniformly awesome feedback.
Everybody said: “When do we start?”
Our fantastic staff…
…were drawn like honeybees: teachers, students, therapists, veterans and newbies, all from a broad mix of backgrounds and lineages. Folks who shared two things – a love for yoga, and a yearning for community that came from feeling that yoga culture is disjointed by commercialism, proprietary values, studio isolationism, and race and class barriers. We were a good cross-section of a community that shared more than it ever knew: yogis, all teachers, 25 to 55 years old – a gestaltist, an event manager, an Alexander Technique master, a novelist, a devotee shlepping to India twice per year, a corporate publicist, 2 moms-to-be, a spa owner, a woman fighting to get yoga and mindfulness meditation into grade-schools, a woman who ran a yoga studio as a community co-op, an ex-bartender and a political activist who both specialize in women’s health and restorative yoga. We bonded over food. We lucked out on a venue, set a date, and reached into our pockets to front the cash to start it all rolling. Scott went into samadhi and built a website in about 12 hours.
We knew that we’d get nowhere without…
…the support of studio owners, of which there are over a hundred in Toronto. We’d seen how other events had tried to purchase allegiance and poster-space on studio walls with giveaways and coupons. But that wouldn’t fulfill our community-building mandate. In fact, regular product-marketing tended to both obscure and exacerbate a painful truth – that studio culture exists in a competitive economy that often teaches people to guard territory and presumably scarce resources. The Toronto yoga scene isn’t nearly as high-pressure as what I’ve heard the big-city U.S. scene is like, but still it is strained by the casualties of competition, and the ironies of yoga instruction gone professional: students who graduate into teaching roles, and then realize that they can’t make it without competing against their teachers for students. And so on.
So we just called it all out into the open. We invited Toronto studio owners to a series of three lunches. There were whispers that nobody would come – “You’ll never get Swami Joe and Yogi Jane to sit in the same room together!” But I made dahl, grains, veggies, chutneys, ladoos, and khir. Folks who hadn’t spoken to each other in a decade sat side by side and slurped and chattered away. And then we hit them with the festival (as though it were a done deal!), and asked them how they’d like to see it unfold. It might have been the first time that most of them had been asked to consider their businesses as part of a concrete social network that might share a common goal. Over three lunches, we fed close to 70 studio owners, and knocked the general pitch of competition down by several octaves. Studio owners were nominating each other for leadership roles. We almost drowned in the melting ice.
Since then, we’ve created enough trust to move forward collectively, even in such contentious areas as the realm of self-regulation as an industry. This past fall, we hosted 2 town-hall discussions on the possibility of stronger standards for training and teaching. Many of the same studio owners have come out, and some new ones, along with many teachers and dedicated students. We recorded the sessions and posted the audio, which has since been downloaded thousands of times all over the world. The town-hall discussion format grew directly out of our roundtable discussions, which have been a prominent feature of our Festival for the first three years.
Our first year…
…opened a can of goodwill all over town. None of us slept during Festival week. We had 70 volunteers who Dennison helped marshal around with her old theatre-director skills. Great turnout. Good rhythm, from community meditation in the morning, through asana, lecture, workshop, and twilight discussion. Fantastic faculty who rose to the “last class” challenge. A roundtable with heated repartee about yoga, both ancient and modern. And most importantly: Toronto yogis coming to know each other and each other’s teachers by the grace of the fact that, for a few days, we erased the thresholds of studios, commercialism, and urban alienation. The new bonds have proven sustainable.
In our first year, we had no idea how the cash would turn out. We had a rough business plan, but no real projection as to how popular the event would be. So we asked registrants to donate to a kind of Festival neonatal care fund that would help with a possible shortfall. We called it the Acorn Fund. We ended the season in the black, and with 2K sitting in Acorn. So we decided to give it away. Now, it’s a growing funding source for the most innovative yoga outreach projects we can find. You can read about it here.
Four years along…
…the Festival has morphed into a year-long schedule of events and workshops. Slowly, we’re learning the ropes of sustainability, and can sit back a bit and watch what we’ve co-created unfold in directions we couldn’t anticipate. Through this, we learn the lessons of community: the more who participate, the more power multiplies and spreads itself around. There’s no one in charge. A shared mindfulness holds the rudder.
We would love to see this happen everywhere. We really mean it. Yoga provides an ideal set of media for embodied evolution, and we definitely need to evolve. The one thing yoga lacks as a modern community is perhaps the thing it has rarely had in its long and fragmentary history: a sense of inclusive social power that conjoins internal wonderment with external action. Yoga has always been the rebel in the spiritual schoolyard: rejecting caste, dogma, and alienation from experience. It is hard for yoga to remain true to its heritage when burdened by the caste structures of modern economy, neoliberal dogmas of growth-cures-all, and the alienation of consumerism. When we cover yoga over with the very things it can dispel, we close a wide-open window.
- We’re actively seeking local groups to mentor in our model. We think every city in North America of over 100K people can sustain a homegrown yoga festival, and we think we’ve found a method that works. Let us know if you are interested. The folks at YOCOMO (Yoga Community Montreal) are already making a run at it!
- Our festival is local. But it’s also awesome. If you’d like to attend from beyond 200 miles, we will pay for your carbon footprint offsets out of the tuition you pay us.
- Special offer: If you come this August from beyond 200 miles, via zero-footprint means (hitching, cycling, sailing, or through an established ride-share programme) we’ll let you attend the whole weekend for $108. If you travel by zero-footprint means and blog about your journey on our community pages every day you’re on the road, we’ll let you attend for free. Come join us!
Much love to the EJ community, in all the places you are,
from Yoga Community Toronto