So I’m back in Montreal after a lovely weekend urban retreat at Yoga Festival Toronto. As the pre-event package suggested, I approached the whole weekend as a retreat, and I was lucky enough to have a whole apartment to myself in the east end of the city during my stay, supporting my retreat. The 3-day festival was an inspired and inspiring event. I attended nine workshops/seminars, two keynotes and a closing party with storytelling and music. I met many amazing people, had some great conversations and ate good food.

Best of all, I discovered a vibrant community of Toronto-based yoga teachers and practitioners who are engaged with the evolution of yoga, and they are having an intelligent, informed, inclusive and passionate dialogue. And there was plenty of dialogue, along with questions and explorations, at the festival. In addition to the formal conversations (lectures and keynotes), there were spontaneous connections that popped up in the hallways of the National Ballet School, in the lunch line-up, even in the bathrooms.

It’s difficult to summarize all the insights and learnings I received over the weekend, so what I’ll do is list my five favourite sessions (in no particular order) and tell you why I loved them.

Crescence Krueger, Creation: The Heart of Yoga
The small gathering, 9 people, was very intimate ~ which suited the subject and Crescence’s belief that “yoga is relationship.” We sat in a circle while Crescence Kruger, a doula, yoga teacher and student of Mark Whitwell, lead us through an organic discussion on the connection between yoga and birth and motherhood. She started off by introducing the teachings/approach, then explained what happens in childbirth and how it is a spiritual experience. Crescence had a soft but clear presence, and she spoke of motherhood and spirituality without being sentimental or romantic. Her talk easily flowed into a group conversation, very fluid and open, as people talked about their impressions of birth and asked questions. The conversation was so great that Crescence lost track of time and we weren’t able to do her planned asana practice, just squeezing in 7 minutes at the end.

Michael Stone, Yoga For A World Out of Balance
I just think Michael Stone is great. Even though I’d already heard the content of this talk when he came to Montreal in the spring, and it’s pretty much what he’d written in his book, he’s talking about stuff that I need to hear over and over. It’s a message that never gets old. So when Michael started off his talk by saying, “Yoga is a vehicle for waking people up, so we can bring militarism and consumerism to an end,” I just wanted to raise my fist in the air and say, “Hell yeah!” And when Michael said that yoga is “a way of being counter-cultural,” I had to ask how this happens. While I agree with him, yoga often does not feel counter-cultural to me; it feels completely mainstream and commercialized. After a little thought, he responded: practice, finding good teachers, not just self-inventing what you like to do, make sure that the internal insights are being expressed, and put your practice to work. Hell yeah.

Michael Stone speaks to an enraptured audience of yogis.

Matthew Remski & Scott Petrie, Yoga 2.0 book launch
The festival co-directors shared a book project four years in the making, a text which explores the roots of biology apparent in biological evolutionary acts, based in shamanism. They read some passages from the book, which is clearly and unabashedly postmodern, seamlessly blending the language of critical studies, philosophy, poetry (which they see as forms of prayer). As the title, with its “web 2.0” reference, indicates the book is a means of opening conversation, encouraging debate and offering space for feedback. It’s testament to the writing that this is exactly what happened when Scott and Matthew finished their reading and opened the floor to the people, sparking a lively and insightful conversation. And I hope to continue the conversation here, by reviewing the book soon. In the meantime, you can learn more about it and read an excerpt.

Susan Richardson, Centering With Gravity: Activating the Core
I had heard whispers about Iyengar teacher Susan Richardson’s Sunday morning asana practice being “sold out,” and her Friday/Saturday classes were enjoyed by many. When I walked into the studio, I was pleasantly surprised to see that she was the long-limbed woman with bright eyes whom I had met the previous day when we had been in several sessions together. Susan is cool. Just in every way. She has this zennned out stoner kind of vibe, a great laugh and a laidback (yet Iyengar precise) teaching style. She’s also a great storyteller, and she kept us holding poses while listening to stories about dakinis and lightening storms. I signed up for this class because I have some, er, core issues, and I want to learn as much as I can about the anatomy of this part of my body. However, Susan completely uprooted my preconceptions of what the core even is by telling us that our core starts in the muscles in our feet, and moves through the fascia and muscles up our legs into our psoas. Whoa! Her asana practice took me right into these little known core muscles, deepening my experience of my body.

Festival co-director Scott Petrie (right) introduces Geoffrey Wiebe (left).

Geoffrey Wiebe, Our Rishiis Have fMRIs
I heard Geoffrey Wiebe speak up at the Yoga 2.0 launch and I was captivated by what he said. When I found out he was speaking on Sunday afternoon, I adjusted my schedule so I could be there. I’m glad I did, even though his lecture was him reading an essay (I assume he must be some sort of academic though he didn’t say what he did – but really only an academic would write and read a paper). Maybe it was his Master’s thesis, because it was thorough, well researched and detailed. He covered a wide territory, from the parallels between yoga and neuroscience, to how the brain works, to the energetic body. He advocated that contemporary yogis take lessons from modern science and apply them to yogic sciences (without “blending”). However, it was his argument for best practices, in the form of a stronger structure for yoga teacher certification and trainings, that caught the attention of the yogis present. Geoffrey called for a unified set of standards – peer review, critical discourse, written exams – in the yoga community, and many people had something to say about it. Sadly, we only had five minutes left for discussion, as Geoffrey’s paper took up most of his allotted two hours. This is a conversation, now that it has started, must continue.

I came home from Yoga Festival Toronto feeling fired up and connected. And a little sad that I don’t live in Toronto, a city with such an apparent great yoga community. The Montreal yoga community feels pale in comparison… but I realize that there are probably many inspiring teachers in my own adopted city. The event has inspired me to seek out the hidden gems in my neighbourhood, those who are doing their work “quietly and earnestly,” and shine a light on them.

I feel that this kind of gathering is the future of yoga. It would be amazing to see every city, every community, hold their own festival. We need to step out and look at the practice of yoga, how it is evolving, responding, growing. At the festival, yoga was often spoke of using plant metaphors: “tending the roots of yoga” (Hart DeFouw) and “looking at how the yoga seed is sprouting” (Geoffrey Wiebe). It’s our responsibility to take care of the abundant garden of yoga.

Earlier: an interview with Yoga Festival Toronto co-directors Matthew Remski and Jennifer Taillifer.

Before an asana workshop, in one of the ballet studios.

The super cute exhibitors' space - yes, that's all there was!

Yogis hanging out in the hallway between sessions