Prior to last weekend, the only yoga conferences I’d attended were huge gatherings in gigantic conference hotels.
And while I’ve benefited from them, I’m not motivated to go to another anytime soon. To a large extent, that’s because I don’t like the disjuncture between my internal experience of yoga and the external experience of practicing in these gigantic hotel environments. While the resulting mixture of personally meaningful and generically corporate is interesting, I also find it kind of draining and dispiriting.
At this point in my practice, I’m interested in more integrated, intimate, and in-depth ways of connecting with other practitioners than such gigantic conferences can provide. Last summer, I had the good fortune to experience that in spades when I attended Yoga Festival Toronto. Last weekend, I discovered that the Being Yoga conference at the Omega Institute in upstate New York offers this as well.
The Omega Institute is a nonprofit and it shows: Being Yoga was suffused with a sense of being mission rather than market-driven. The conference setting, size, and program offerings combined to create an experience that felt spacious and intimate, diverse and integrated all at the same time. These elements enabled me to experience Being Yoga as a special time set aside for energizing repose, playful learning, and serious fun.
Nature and Intimacy
The Omega Institute is located about two hours north of NYC in the wooded, rolling hills of upstate New York. It’s very green—both naturally, with an abundance of trees and grasses, and in terms of the built environment, with an award-winning Center for Sustainable Living, organic and locally sourced food, and simple accommodations. The 195-acre campus has the feel of an old-time summer camp – which, in fact, it once was.
While there is a gift shop at Omega, the conference had no huge, cavernous “yoga mart.” I liked this. While I’ll admit to having enjoyed browsing the wares at Yoga Journal conferences in the past, the relentless commercialization of yoga has since come to feel more wearisome than enjoyable. I’d rather spend my free time at a conference kayaking on a lake or walking in the woods than shopping for a souvenir t-shirt or cute yoga gear.
Combined with the spacious natural setting, the relatively small size of the Being Yoga conference (about 200-250 attendees) made it much easier for me to meet new people and feel a sense of connection with the entire group. I found the conference’s opening and closing ceremonies to be truly meaningful in part because they were both small enough to feel intimate, yet large enough to feel like I was part of something substantial.
Diversity and Multi-Dimensionality
The Being Yoga conference was notably diverse in terms of age. There were a lot of older practitioners—definitely more than I’ve seen at the yoga classes, workshops, and events I’ve gone to before. But there were also lots of younger people, and a good smattering of little kids running around. Overall, the collectivity felt easily intergenerational—a natural coming together of practitioners across the age spectrum.
That said, it’s also true that Being Yoga was dominated by the same white female demographic that you find everywhere in North American yoga. While there were a good number of men and people of color there, it wasn’t exceptionally diverse on either score.
The program offerings, however, were more diverse than I’ve found elsewhere. I was really pleased that Sharon Salzburg, one of the most well-known meditation teachers in North America, played a leading role, teaching multiple classes and guiding much of the closing ceremony. I’ve come to believe that mindfulness is the critical component of a powerful yoga practice, and it was heartening to see so many practitioners connecting with one of our most accomplished meditation teachers.
I also liked the fact that the conference featured both big-name and relatively unknown yoga instructors. Interestingly, I found that the one class I didn’t like at all was taught by a yoga icon, while the one I found extraordinarily helpful was taught by someone I’d never heard of before. This made me feel that Omega was making good choices in terms of investing in lesser-known names and giving them a chance to reach more students.
One of the best things about the conference was the music, which was exceptionally awesome. At the opening ceremony, Masood Ali Khan and Sheela Bringi generated a powerful wave of focused attention and emotion. They also played live for three yoga classes (Sharon Gannon and David Life, Peter Sterios and Elena Brower. As luck would have it, I’d signed up for all of them.)
There was also super-celebratory and crazy-energizing dancing on Saturday night led by the vibrant Hemalayaa, who was on fire and dressed in red. (I had fun dancing with Roseanne Harvey, who thought it was pretty funny that I would Bollywood it up like I did.) Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band led us up, down, around, and through so much with their music that night that I’d have to write another post to begin to describe it. I wasn’t surprised to hear that they were the only Kirtan band to ever play the New Orleans Jazz Festival—they expertly wove that Creole magic.
The Bigger Picture
In the end, what made me really love the Being Yoga conference was that I felt that it embodied something more purposeful than simply having a fun weekend.
Being Yoga is labeled as a “conference retreat,” and there was certainly a more serious retreat element threading through the dancing, relaxing, and fun. In both the opening and closing ceremonies, Omega’s yoga program director Traci Childress reminded us that “’being yoga’ means taking our practice off the mat and into the world to our families and communities.” Several speakers in the opening “Yoga Stories” presentation, which is designed to enable teachers to share more personal stories of learning and growth with the group, noted how fortunate we were in having the means to attend this event. We could be in Syria dodging bullets—or simply part of the substantial U.S. population struggling to find enough food to eat and a safe place to sleep.
No guilt-mongering intended. But the question is clear: For those of us who have the gift of an established yoga practice—as well as the resources to do things like attend conferences, workshops, and retreats – what are we going to do with it? How do we take our practice beyond the confines of our time on our mat and make it something more expansive, meaningful, and relevant to a world in crisis?
There are no easy answers. But I do believe that there’s real value in coming together as a group through such substantial, yet intimate events as Being Yoga. We are social beings, and connecting with each other enables us to connect more strongly to our own individual vision and purpose.
Right now, there’s a growing cynicism about shallowness, commercialism, and self-indulgence in the North American yoga community. And it’s well founded. But that all seemed a parallel universe as we sang the Metta (Lovingkindness) Chant collectively at the closing. As tears streamed down my face, I felt utterly absorbed in the power of the moment. I sensed a collective heart opening. I trust that such experiences will help orient and guide me and others for some time to come.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta