YogaFest aims to put Asheville yoga culture in national spotlight

YOGA HOT SPOT: Asheville YogaFest Director Mike Hiers says the festival aims to "become the regional festival for serious yoga practitioners in the Southeast." Photo Courtesy of Sarah Carballo

Asheville YogaFest, a three-day festival, will launch Friday to Sunday, July 10-12, with over eighteen workshops by local yoga teachers as well as kirtan performances each evening at the Morris Hellenic Cultural Center in Montford.

Now in their second year, event organizers have big plans to catapult Asheville’s thriving yoga community into the national scene, says Mike Hiers, Asheville YogaFest director. “We want to be known as a serious asana fest, ” he says. Hiers hopes it will become the festival for serious yoga practitioners in the Southeast. “Think LEAF festival, except yoga-centric,” he says.

The Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission will be a partner and supporter of YogaFest, ABRSC executive director Ben Vancamp announced during a radio interview with Hiers on June 6. The decision to partner with YogaFest was an easy one, says Vancamp, because “yoga is already a big part of Asheville culture.”

The notion of a yoga festival was one of the first ideas he brought to the board when the ABRSC was first forming in late 2010 and 2011.

“When we heard what [Hiers] was doing,” he says, “we were excited to partner with him to make the event a little bit bigger and better each year.”

The ABRSC is an independent nonprofit that identifies and attracts sports events that generate a positive impact on the local economy and enhance the wellness, quality of life and health of the local community. It makes large-scale sports events happen, such as the Southern Conference Basketball Tournament, which brings over 20,000 people to Asheville during March (a month that is usually slow for local businesses), and the USA Cycling Collegiate Road Race National Championships, which whizzed through downtown earlier this year.

Support from ABRSC is a big deal, whatever form it comes in, says Hiers. “We are just appreciative that they have chosen to back yoga,” he says.

Hiers says he wants Asheville YogaFest to follow the tradition of events that have successfully made a mark on the national scene. For example, the Telluride Yoga Festival in Colorado started as a grassroots event eight years ago and now brings more 600 participants and 40 presenters to town every year.

And in Arizona, an already well-developed yoga community gave birth to the Sedona Yoga Festival. Now in its fourth year, the event attracts teachers and yogis from all over the world. “Yoga is a transformative tradition, and Sedona is a truly transformative location — it’s the perfect marriage of practice and place,” said event founder Marc Thritt in a recent press release about the festival’s growth.

So a yoga festival in a beautiful mountain town like Asheville—  already known for its unique culture and ever-growing yoga community — could be an instant success.

In 2011, Yoga Journal named Asheville as one of the top-10 yoga-friendly towns in the United States. Many yoga practitioners travel here for teacher trainings, workshops, and continuing education programs, the journal reported.

A new focus for 2015

While last year’s inaugural YogaFest started out with a bang, featuring international kirtan performers Wah! and Krishna Das, Hier’s turning the festival focus to asana this year.

“Last year, I thought kirtan was a key factor. Now, we see kirtan as a condiment rather than a main ingredient,” he says.

After the learning curve of the first year, Hiers found that he had to refine the vision and mission. “People had tried to put on a yoga festival in Asheville every year for the last 10 years,” he says. “We found that to be successful we had to be really clear about what we wanted to do.”

To gain perspective on what the Asheville event could become, Hiers drove up to Floyd, Va., to experience the 4-year-old Floyd Yoga Jam. About 200 miles away, it’s the closest yoga festival to Asheville. Hiers says the event was fun and friendly but on a different path than what he hopes to create in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Hanuman Festival in Boulder is closer to his goal, says Hiers. The Colorado festival started in a progressive town at the base of the Rocky Mountains in 2005. Community-driven, it has successfully expanded every year. In addition to yoga workshops and evening kirtan performances, the festival is also sprinkled with inspirational talks and lectures.

Exchange the Rockies for the Blue Ridge Mountains, and we have Hiers’ plan: “a boutique, intimate and serious yoga festival that maintains the beauty and flavor of Asheville.”

The one thing Hiers doesn’t want is “a mega-festival or party-fest like Wanderlust,” he says. Centered on “all-out celebrations of mindful living,” Wanderlust events happens in numerous cities around the world several times a year. This global model would leave out one essential and defining factor: the uniqueness of Asheville, says Hiers.

For many, Asheville has been a secret gem, an oasis for wellness and healing in the Southeast. However, as the town grows, gaining recognition with beer, art and outdoor enthusiasts of the world, YogaFest may have a unique role to play, says Hiers.

Creating the right amount of national exposure could shift Asheville’s blossoming yoga community into a sought-after yogic destination, says Hiers. “The potential for the festival is as high as Mount Mitchell. Namaste, Asheville.”

For tickets, schedule and information on the Asheville YogaFest, visit ashevilleyogafest.net.

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About Emily Nichols
Emily Nichols is a writer and photographer for the Mountain Xpress. She enjoys writing about wellness and spirituality in WNC.

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