Erin Anderson will never forget the way the inmates melted when she touched them during class.
"There was an exchange of energy," says Anderson, who could feel them light up as she adjusted their yoga poses. "This physical touch was everything."
The class Anderson was teaching was at a Kenyan prison. The women who needed assistance were not only imprisoned, but also HIV-positive.
"It was love. Unconditional love," says Anderson. "No one hugs them. Their bodies are heavy with despair."
A simple act of compassion. Through yoga.
Anderson, who is the founder of White Gold Yoga and Live Big Co. in Whistler, was in Nairobi working with the Africa Yoga Project. Part of her service with the non-profit was to go to the local prison and teach yoga.
The type of yoga Anderson teaches involves a lot of hands-on assisting, which is just another form of communication. "In Baptiste Yoga, we are taught and trained to see people. 'I see you. I hear you. I touch you,'" she says.
To those prisoners, Anderson's touch, being seen, and being heard, was transformative. So was the connection, which, in moments like those, is raw and palpable. It reminded Anderson, on a deeper level, that we're all the same.
Yoga has that way.
So much of yoga goes beyond the pose, the mats, and the fashion. It opens people up. It connects them at the core.
Yoga — which means divine union in Sanskrit — is the ultimate unifier, according to Anderson.
"There's a huge world out there and we're all connected," muses Anderson. "We all feel our bodies. We all sweat. We all shake when we are holding a long pose," she says. "We don't need to talk... we get to communicate on another level."
Connection. It's part of the underbrush fuelling the yoga wildfire and has played a pivotal role in its explosion in popularity.
Yoga's 5,000-year-old roots bend and twist back to India. It first arrived on the American scene in the '70s, a time punctuated by free love and forward thinking. Gradually, it became a patchouli-soaked fringe movement for new agers.
While yoga, a mind-body practice, has grown steadily over the years, it's really taken off in the last couple decades.
"Yoga is a culture, a tribe, a community," says Megan Moscatelli, a former Lululemon team leader, who had front-row seats as yoga engulfed the U.S. and Canada. "Yoga is a way of being."
"The reason it's grown in popularity comes back to balance. People started to realize they didn't have to segment their life between work, personal, and fitness. As a culture, yoga encourages crossover, with Lululemon being a leader in that," Moscatelli says.
It's about embracing the lifestyle.
"We don't have to be unhappy Monday to Friday and then do something (we want) on Saturday. You can go to work and pop out for yoga midday," says Moscatelli.
Finding yoga is easier than ever, too. "Yoga is more accessible now, which is always a good thing," she says.
Between studios, gym classes, Yogatube, and downloadable downward dogs, there are plenty of places to get your Namaste on.
With yoga's popularity comes great diversity and expansion. The practice continues to rise and grow because inventive yogis take a piece of one style and fold in their own spices, creating a new flavour of yoga.
"There are so many different kinds of yoga now," Moscatelli says. When she first started in 2003, there were only a few popular styles — Hatha, power, Bikram. "Now, there is ultimately a yoga for every person."
A quick search at the Whistler library underscores her observation – 245 books about yoga come up. There are books on Athletic Yoga, Detox Yoga, Laughter Yoga, Yoga Meltdown, Yoga Bitch, Fat Free Yoga. Does it come in two per cent? And that only scratches the surface. Amazon delivers over 22,000 titles.
In many ways, yoga has also been branded and packaged for the mass market. This, too, has propelled the blaze.
A kit, priced just right at the corner store, comes with a mat, a towel, and a pill for spiritual enlightenment. All you need to do is add a yogi.
"The rise of commercialism around yoga (for better or worse) has made it a fashionable activity," says Jeff Krasno, founder of Wanderlust. Whistler's five-day festival featuring yoga, music, meditation and more begins here today, and conitinues until Aug. 3.
The Wanderlust festival — the mission of which is to create community around mindful living — is a good example of how yoga has taken off. The festival, which started in 2009 as a grassroots effort in Squaw Valley, has now become a poster child for yoga.
When asked how Wanderlust has elevated itself into a massive event in multiple international locations, Krasno refers to part of a Zen Buddhist quote: "Chop wood, carry water," which is to say, focus on the effort, not the end result.
"There has never been a single inflection point. It's literally 'practise, practise, practise,'" says Krasno, who adds that there is much thought that goes into theses events. "It is impossible to scale it by pushing a button," he adds.
"It's all about the incredible creative energy of a group of young people (mostly women) sitting in Brooklyn," notes Krasno, "and the subsequent execution of a best-in-class production and operations team."
The myriad health rewards associated with yoga have played an important role in its continued surge.
Beyond strengthening, conditioning, and being able to do the splits, having a regular yoga practice has been known to fight addiction, chronic pain and imbalances. Likewise, people have flocked to the mat for its rejuvenating grace.
Jo Bones, a Whistler yogi who teaches classes at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, Lolë and Yogacara, can attest to its reparative effects, remembering when she first started yoga:
"I had acquired a serious back injury from the mountain and thought yoga could complement my healing process," she says. "I was right! Not only did it help speed up my physical healing, it also helped bring peace and calm to my mental and emotional body."
We just need to listen — to our joints, our muscles, our alignments, and ultimately, our spirits.
"Our bodies are amazing messengers," says Anderson. "The tight shoulders and tight hips... Rather than judging our poor bodies, we get to have our bodies be a messenger for where we need to put some attention."
John Shelly, an athlete and Whistler yogi, says in rediscovering yoga — years after practicing on and off — he was able to increase his flexibility. "I needed some kind of exercise which provided a chance to get flexible. My back is quite bad. 'Yoga for Stiff Guys' at White Gold Yoga sounded like what I needed, and sure enough it was," he says.
Yoga's also good for the heart, in every way possible. It lowers heart rate and minimizes hypertension. It also helps reduce stress, anxiety, and the blues.
"I experienced a loss of worth when I injured myself as I could no longer work or function how I had in the past," shares Bones. "The breath work and asanas (poses) truly slowed down my mind, brought ease and allowed me to accept my situation and myself."
In this fast-paced, always-dialed-in world, the calming, cleansing and grounding effects of yoga are powerful, unparalleled and — in many cases — necessary for positive physical and mental health.
The sign on the yoga studio door reads: Come one, come all. So there is no exclusion. Everyone's welcome.
"Yoga meets you where you are at, with open arms and gratitude. It gives you permission to be who you truly are," says Bones.
A typical class may have people from every race and walk of life, all lined up together, mat to mat, working towards nirvana.
Yoga isn't limited to those who can bend like a pretzel or look great in expensive leggings, believes Tanya Di Valentino, a dedicated Pemberton yogi and yoga teacher who co-founded/directed the Whistler Yoga Conferences. She is also currently a co-creator of Anandastar Yoga and the visionary/director of Pemberton's h'OMgrown Fest.
"True yogic teachings know no boundaries, do not care for demography, are all-inclusive, and thoroughly benevolent," she says.
Yoga's all-embracing attitude is alluring, especially to women. While many men do practice, in North America females make up 82 per cent of the soul-seeking, body-stretching pie, according to a 2012 Yoga Journal survey.
Why this skew exists here is a great debate.
"You go to India and it's the opposite," says Anderson. "Yoga used to be forbidden for women. It was only for men."
Are women more patient than men, wonders Moscatelli, and more committed to finding "their yoga?" Sometimes it takes a while to find your home — the right room, the right modality, the right people. "Men are quicker to be like 'I tried it, it's not for me,' and then move on," she says.
Bones points out that the discrepancy might have something to do with misconceptions, or, she muses, "Perhaps it is not as easy for the majority of men to be vulnerable and step out of their comfort zone and try something that is not as aggressive." Bones bookends it with this: "The males I know personally that practice yoga, love and swear by it."
There just aren't that many of them. (Pssst: consider this an invitation, Whistler dudes.)
While Di Valentino thinks yoga is empowering to both sexes, she says, "I think women in particular are resonating with the nurturing power of the practices... women are drawn to the inclusiveness... the beautiful mix of ages, backgrounds, cultures, professions, etc."
Whatever it is, the male minority is a committed group of open-hearted men, who can appreciate the benefits of yoga, too.
"I recognize that my yoga practice supports and enhances my body, and my mind," says Shelly, a proud part of that masculine 18 per cent.
When pressed about why Western yoga is female-centric, Shelly points out that it might be as simple as marketing, which is largely angled at women.
"I also think from an outsiders perspective yoga is perceived as something one needs to be physically flexible for," he adds, "and the common perception is that women are more flexible than men... ergo they will be 'good at' yoga. Anyone who has practiced yoga knows that this 'good at' label is irrelevant."
Regardless of sex, yoga corrals folks in unique ways, breaking down all barriers.
"One of the beautiful things about yoga," Moscatelli says, "is that it brings people who might never be friends together."
Yoga is the definitive melting pot — one big, colourful happy family.
Research shows that yoga is growing by 20 per cent every year (Static Brain Research Institute). And, in the U.S. alone, a whopping 24 million people called themselves yogis in 2013 (Statista).
That's a lot of spandex.
Why this steady groundswell?
First timers might try yoga because they want more flexibility, or body tone, or solace from their busy life — but what's the hook? What keeps people coming back, galvanizing them into yogis for life?
To get to the heart and muscle of yoga's current trajectory, let's go back to Wanderlust 2013 in Whistler. At the festival that year, there was a powerful art installation at Whistler Olympic Plaza called the "Intentions Board." It was a big, double-sided chalkboard with heaps of colourful chalk.
What are your intentions, the board begged, as Wanderlusters moved between classes and events, yoga, live music and new age gurus.
The big conceptual ideas about why yoga's taken off became clearer when yogis, themselves, were asked these questions: What did they want out of life? What were they searching for?
Many of them stopped and scribbled the whispers of their soul: Be fearless. Freedom in togetherness. Love my beautiful self.
This pointed inquiry and its answers were telling, speaking to broader themes about why yoga was such a huge part of their lives.
While the intentions were as varied as pant styles at Lululemon, there were three intentions that encapsulated why yogis keep coming back to the mat, and, in turn, what keeps yoga afire.
Intention 1: See the truth
"Yoga practice is so much more than sweating on your mat," Anderson says. "It's a tool for people to access their spirituality."
People are realizing going into a cave and meditating for 10 years is not the answer, she adds. "The answers are within themselves."
It's the search for enlightenment people are after — the sacred illumination that burns when yogis quiet their minds, look inward and listen.
A wormhole into the inner world, yoga is a place where you can go as deep as you want, as far as your spirit is willing to dive.
Yoga is, after all, meditation with movement.
"We, as humanity, are recognizing that we have nearly exhausted our current resources both literally and figuratively in our outer search for lasting joy, peace and love," says Di Valentino.
And through that fatigue, she believes many have reached their tipping point. "Enough is enough with searching in the outer world," she says, adding many have turned inward with life's biggest questions, where the "instruction and practices of yoga can offer answers."
Yogis are looking for the truth, for salvation.
"These little pockets of enlightenment open up from time to time, and feel so much like home that they are impossible to deny," Di Valentino adds.
And so often these moments happen on a yoga mat.
"I think this is happening more and more, and people are becoming curious and engaged in how to sustain these moments of pure, inner freedom and joy. This is available to everyone and is what my entire yoga lifestyle is all about," Di Valentino says.
Many seekers of spiritual bliss believe society is going through a sea change and that human consciousness is expanding. Look at the huge strides human rights have made around the world of late.
Could this be a driving force in yoga's upsurge?
"I see it all around me every day... people are starting to wake up," says Di Valentino, "and realize that there is in fact an infinite playground of peace, joy and love right under our noses."
More and more people are becoming introspective, looking for sacred space outside organized religion.
"The yoga studio has become a community centre, a sort-of-secular church, for people looking to gather around shared values and practice," Krasno says.
According to a 2012 Pew Religion and Public Life Survey, the number of people with no religious affiliation is growing at a rapid rate. Seven per cent of the U.S. population reported that they were "spiritual but not religious."
People are tapping into their inner world in lots of ways, yoga being a seminal outlet for those who consider themselves spiritual.
One of yoga's aims, quieting the mind so you can go further into your true self, is transformative — in the same way religious folks describe their experience with their higher power.
"I keep coming back to my mat because to me, it represents a mobile temple that requires no walls," says Di Valentino.
"Through yoga I have found my centre," says Bones. "It opens you up on all levels of being even if you do not intend it to. It has allowed me to practice coming from my heart, on all levels of being, moment to moment, on and off the mat."
That is called enlightenment.
Like with meditation, presence — being fully present in the moment — is essential to getting the most out of the practice. It's listening and learning at its highest level.
Intention 2: Make a connection
"It's popular because people are searching for something, either within themselves or with an experience of being with other people," says Anderson.
In her viral TED talk about the power of vulnerability, researcher Brené Brown says connection is why we're here. "It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives."
It's no wonder then why humans are constantly seeking out connection — to one another, to something deeper inside themselves.
"There is an energetic oneness that is created when you go to a yoga class," says Bones, who believes that in that space, you're giving to yourself as well as to your fellow yogis. "Inspiring and connecting to each other through smiles, movement and breath."
Within the yoga practice, connection manifests in two ways — on a personal level and a collective. "It's a beautiful dance between the two," says Anderson, who confesses that's one of the things she loves most about yoga. "That is it for me. I can feel my heart racing when I talk about it."
Ram Dass, in his spirit-shattering book Be Here Now, writes, "The message you communicate with another human being has nothing to do with what you say. It has nothing to do with the look on the musculature of your face. It's much deeper than that," he says. "It's the vibrations that emanate from you."
And the yogic vibrato is rattling souls and windows from Whistler to West India.
Bones says it's allowed her to see the vibrancy within others and herself. "The more aware that you become of yourself, the more aware you become of others and that energetic current that is running within you and everyone around you, bonding us all... I personally feel that powerful connection to others when 'OM-ing'... it's the fusing of all our voices, uniting and connecting to the oneness," says Bones. "It's a powerful, extraordinary and beautiful thing."
Intention 3: Find freedom
Moscatelli believes as many people go to yoga to enhance spirituality and connect, as go to "escape everything, shut down, and turn off."
"It slows me down, refocuses, and declutters," Moscatelli says.
Life is full of screens, and meetings, and traffic and all the other stuff we cram into one day, so people are desperate to unplug.
"This is what I loved about yoga when I had two young kids," Anderson says. "I got to be quiet on my yoga mat, not talk, not make decisions, just be with myself... breathing deeply, sweating, moving, flowing and having another human being right beside me doing the exact same thing."
On the yoga mat, the outside world fades away and you're left with a divine, soft synergy. If — and it's a big if — you're able to surrender at the door. Rapture isn't just handed to you.
"You get so much more out of it if you give in," says Moscatelli. "This is where the holistic aspect of yoga comes in," she adds, because if you don't give in, you don't really get anything back — except maybe a good workout.
"Whether or not people think they are looking for something spiritual in their lives, yoga is providing more than just strength and flexibility training," says Krasno. "Breathing and the slowing of the mind are giving people the mental rejuvenation they are looking for — beyond just flat abs."
While it's hard to pinpoint a sole reason why yoga has, as Di Valentino puts it, "hit the mainstage with a proliferating vigour," one thing is for certain – Yoga has captured a generation, and beyond.
And it's changing the world for the better. "Yoga brings out the best in people," believes Bones.
In the end, Anderson says, "I just want people to have their temple, their place of total expression and freedom."
And with that, she makes two promises if you end up on a mat in her studio: "You will sweat and you will smile," she says. "Everything else is up to you."
Gina Noelle Daggett is a freelance writer who calls Whistler home. Her words appear regularly in the Vancouver Sun, The Province and Curve Magazine. She's currently in the throes of her second novel. ginadaggett.com.