While only coming to the West a little more than 100 years ago during the late 19th century, yoga is probably at least 5,000 years old and was born in India. Since its development, yoga has transformed into the various styles recognized today.
As yoga becomes more mainstream, it’s challenging to find a practice where one can be enriched by the philosophy, master the skills and engage in meditation, without feeling the effects of the controversy that surrounds it. This controversy is often focused on whether yoga is truly a healthy practice or just a trend.
As yoga has become more popular in the Western world, it has been labelled a form of religious worship, first practiced by devout Hindus. Discussion persists about whether appropriation of a traditional practice is helpful or harmful to the Hindu people, whose culture it came from.
In addition to the question of cultural appropriation, the majority of yoga marketing I see is generally targeted toward women who are white, middle class and thin, which sends the message that it is reserved for a certain group of people. Further, yoga has become a large industry — with clothing brands, ultra-grip mats, essential oils, crystals and singing bowls — and one wonders who is really profiting from these health and wellness services.
Despite the problematic yoga industry, there is extensive research on yoga’s health benefits. Medical and mental-health journals have conducted studies on how yoga improves depression and anxiety, mobility, posture and fitness. Health experts promote yoga as a safe and effective practice for those needing to improve their health.
However, there is also some debate on whether yoga is safe for all to practice, as there have been cases of serious back injuries. And yet, amidst all this controversy, I found a safe space place, where I could explore yoga in a way that felt right for me.
In Birds Hill Provincial Park, Manitoba, 30 km from Winnipeg, there is an annual yoga festival called the Prairie Love Festival. The attendees, vendors and organizers are all Manitoba locals. Workshop leaders are not just yoga teachers but also university professors, athletic therapists, health and wellness coaches and studio owners. The nearby campgrounds provide cheap accommodation, but there is also a host hotel along with shuttle services.
My experience at Prairie Love was that it best represents modern-day Canadian yoga. The teachers were open to admitting that they will always remain students and will continue to learn and practice yoga with the utmost respect to its origins. The class and workshop leaders have taken elements from their personal lives and cultures, both what they’ve been taught and have learned through self-study, to create a practice that they believe will heal others.
As a yoga teacher myself, the material I learned was priceless, and the opportunities to connect with other instructors made it a worthy trip. It also reminded me to continue studying why I practice yoga rather than just following what others have done. My own personal practice also improved dramatically over the three days of the festival.
The primary goal of the Prairie Love team is to build community. The vendors and instructors value open communication, ethical and sustainable behaviours, and acceptance of others. Everything sold there was either homemade, recycled, Canadian-made or all of the above.
In the same way that health and wellness is for everyone, yoga should be accessible to all who want it. It is important to think critically, question the reasoning behind practices and support what you believe is right.
For those starting out, you may find that shopping around for a local studio with values that match your own is more worthwhile than attending a three-day festival. However, for those who want to take their practice a step further, and for teachers looking for inspiration, Prairie Love has it all.
Graphic: Mary Sarcauga