Anthony DiDomenico, Daniel Dinizo and Joanna Bis founded YogaFest in Hamilton in 2015. Since then the trio has broken speed records in creating a sensation that many consider to be the highlight of the year for yoga experts and curious beginners alike. We met up with these three uniquely gifted professionals and talked yoga, karma, childhoods and their vision for the future of both Yogafest and the city they love.
So tell me a bit about YogaFest.
DD: The original YogaFest took place on June 6, 2015 during the 101 Day Intervention. Anthony and Joanna heard about this from some friends of the community and they thought, "Wow, this is going to be a really good, real revolution coming to Hamilton." They loved the idea of a lot of small events taking place to create lasting change, to inspire long-term change. At the time, Anthony was busy with other projects but Joanna was really passionate about the 101 Day Initiative, so we decided to see what we could do. I was just finishing my schooling at McMaster and the three of us had a meeting early in May. We only had a month to pull it together but we were definitely aligned, so we decided to at least test it out.
So with the 101 Day Intervention, YogaFest was born?
DD: Yeah, 101 Day was definitely our kickstarter. We had about a hundred people come out for Yoga at the Park at Bayfront where we did three classes by local instructors. It was a great day, a lot of fun. The people loved it and that really got us thinking, OK, we need to continue this, maybe upscale it. And because we've had experience in the events space – Anthony had been working with iHELP Entertainment awhile – we thought, let's really up this, let's do a festival. It was that thinking that propelled us to team up with Mark from A Midsummer's Dream festival.
Fast forward to August and a huge YogaFest. Take me through that first YogaFest, what did it look like?
DD: Our theme was very tropical. It was a perfect time to integrate palm trees and keep the summer vibes alive. We had a nice yoga garden, flowers everywhere, all enclosed. And there were all these yoga classes going on. We had eight studios do classes and a bunch of health and wellness vendors along the perimeter, plus there were blank art canvasses all around for people to express themselves.
DD: For sure, there was live music and dance performances. We like to look at it as a really expressive space. The painting, the arts are really alive there. And of course, the yoga was the main theme of the event.
How did it work with A Midsummer’s Dream?
DD: What was really neat about partnering with A Midsummer's Dream was the two vibes. When people entered the YogaFest area of the park they felt this Zen vibe. It was a lot more relaxed, a place where you can just come to, maybe take it easy ...
That's awesome. And how many people came out?
DD: Between both festivals it was estimated at 6,500 people.
Wow, incredible, that really puts the saying “It takes a community” into action.
AD: It helped a lot working with Mark Gowland and A Midsummer's Dream since they had four summers under their belt. It was amazing how they welcomed us, with open arms, how he was open to collaborating and working together in the same space. I think it was because our purposes really seemed to align. His intention is truly just to spread joy in the Hamilton community. And for us, we felt the same way, trying to inspire healthy positive living and mindful changes, all in one large space.
By creating a partnership with an existing festival, you did exactly what you're preaching, which is collaborating and creating more positive energy by working together.
DD: Yes, exactly.
After that big day in August with the first YogaFest, where did you go from there?
DD: Honestly, after the first festival we really felt a huge fire. There was a lot of local response. The vendors did well, which we were really happy about. The people had an unreplicable experience so we realized that obviously this was going to be happening again next summer at Gage Park, once again with A Midsummer's Dream.
And you added pop up YogaFest events in the winter?
JB: We knew we wanted to keep that YogaFest fire alive and let Hamilton know we're here and we're here to stay. So you know, we thought, Why wait a whole year? We ended up collaborating with Liuna Station, which was an amazing venue in the core of Hamilton. Really elegant. We felt we took it a step forward in a short time because, again, we wanted people to understand that YogaFest is here to stay.
What do you want people to leave Yoga Fest thinking and feeling?
DD: I think it’s for people to walk out having just left a vortex of love and high vibrations. Then they’ll talk about it and let other people know that, wow, this happened in Hamilton and it was unforgettable.
And the collaboration approach was put into action again?
DD: Once the venue was set, we reached out to the people that have supported us from the beginning. Those local businesses and studios that helped us initially, they started getting the word out.
Was the message all around yoga?
AD: This time around we knew that we wanted to focus on the yoga, but we also wanted to integrate other aspects of mindful living through motion.
JB: Yes, this time we were able to have the yoga garden in the main ballroom and also the workshops going on. It was all about creating a flow and living it out through the experience.
Did you get inspired through other YogaFest events in other cities?
DD: For sure. We started going to events in Toronto where we met some amazing individuals. We got inspired by their workshops, layout and decor. We built relationships, and shortly after, we said, "Hey, we're having a yoga festival coming up soon, do you guys want to collaborate?" And it was just like everything just started flowing together.
Sessions included nutritional workshops, hand balancing, deep breathing, guided meditations. All really intuitive workshops that are going to help people with mindful living aside from the yoga.
Talk to me about the canvasses you hang at each event.
JB: We had three huge canvasses hung at the entrance into Liuna. It was just magical because the people felt the energy right away. They said, "We're in a creative space here, this is not just a yoga festival." And that's exactly what we were going for. Our good friend Alexandria Ameni from Joyful Expression just started drawing on the canvasses and we were, like, wow. This is what she's meant to be doing.
AD: Absolutely incredible adult coloring boards, large-scale, for the community. They were beautiful.
At what point does the calm and centred YogaFest team get totally stressed? Does it ever get crazy?
DD: Something really special happened with that winter YogaFest. We had a much bigger team, a lot of people putting their passions into the festival and doing what they do best.
JB: It was the night before the festival and Anthony, Joanna and I were at Liuna Station and we just said, "Guys, why don't we feel stressed right now? Like, we made this happen in only two and a half months, why do we not feel stressed?"
And we realized it was because the universe is taking care of us, we've done our part and now it's our time to just enjoy the show, sit back and let people do their thing. So it was magical, truly magical.
I love it. I saw you guys putting calls out for volunteers. Do you see a lot of momentum there, people coming to you?
AD: Yeah, we reached out for volunteers and within no time we had a lot of great responses. Looking back, we see that this team that came together was a huge part of how smoothly the festival ran from start to finish. People just fell into place. For example, an old friend of mine ended up emceeing the entire night and did a great job. It was last minute stuff, to be honest, and she really went up there and owned the stage, got people excited for who was coming up next, giving them an intro and outro. Being a not-for-profit organization, we really see how the community is there with open arms, ready to get involved.
DD: We definitely want to keep these volunteer teams growing, and we want to try and interconnect with more volunteer Hamilton organizations that are based around that.
We focus on fitting individuals to roles around what their passions are. We really value people enjoying what they're doing rather than just coming there and offering their hours. It's more like we want it to be an experience for them so they leave feeling great, being part of the big picture.
Volunteering in a role that speaks to you is so important. There’s nothing worse than volunteering and either having nothing to do or something you don’t like doing. But the way you’re working with volunteers you’re giving them a role where they can bring their gifts, and feel like they’re really contributing. That's awesome.
Tell me about the person who shows up at YogaFest. Is it one type of person? Is everyone in yoga pants drinking a smoothie?
AD: [Laughs.] It’s a very diverse audience. We did see a lot of the really committed yogis that have been doing yoga for the last ten years. But we also saw some beginners, people who came to this space to try it for the first time.
How was it for the beginner?
AD: Everyone came with the same intention. And yes, you could look one way and see a yoga professional and then look the other way and see someone doing their very first downward dog. Being such a diverse crowd can be inspiring, everyone is making progress. You just have to be doing your best in that moment.
We wanted to keep it open to everyone, because it takes only a small step to start yoga and you quickly feel the benefits. That’s what will inspire you, to keep the fire going, to help you stick with it. To see the real long-term shifts in your personality and who you are as a person.
Do you guys think yoga is a way to move toward a more mindful life?
OK, so if yoga is the gateway, the question is, the gateway to what?
AD: I think it’s the gateway to finding what's within yourself, really connecting. You're touching a side of you that lives within. And since you were a kid maybe you had these passions and these things you really enjoyed, and maybe through growing up you've veered into different directions and kind of forgotten about those things. But the more you sit with yourself, the more you breathe, the more you look within, you have a chance to really reflect, asking yourself, Have I been doing things that I really enjoy doing? Have I been doing things that I haven't enjoyed doing? What are ways that I could further better myself towards being a higher version of who I am?
Yoga helps you take the time to breathe and slow down, it really seems like it has the ability to slow down time, which sounds completely impossible. Even as we were planning and putting YogaFest into action, when things were so fast paced, doing things in two months, we were feeling this energy to do more, do more, do more. Things need to be done. But then there was a time when you just kind of needed to shut it off, even if it was for ten minutes, and breathe and slow it all down. Then we could walk back into it with a clear and balanced state of mind.
To me, YogaFest is a strong connective force, bringing people together that normally might not meet.
AD: It goes beyond the connections we made and our plans. So many amazing connections were made by the people who volunteered or came out to participate. We heard so many people say, “Oh, I met this person at YogaFest and now I'm going to be doing a project with them.” We really felt that love.
I’m going to jump back a bit in time. When I met Anthony, he was a club guy. He was packing Sarcoa every weekend. So how does this align with YogaFest or was it a business pivot?
AD: Even though the bar business and club events were my focus, everything I did was very purpose-driven. If it was a party, it was a party with a purpose. YogaFest is just an extension of that.
Purpose is definitely a driver of YogaFest. We ask ourselves before doing anything, Why are we doing this? What is our intention and what shifts are we trying to make? And where do we see this growing towards?
If someone needed an answer to why you created YogaFest and you only had 25 seconds, what would you say?
JB: We created YogaFest because we wanted to create a space to gather the community on a high intention. We wanted to create something that's unreplicable for Hamilton as well. We wanted to inspire healthy and mindful living. If one person takes anything from this festival and walks away with a new outlook or a new energy and then applies it to their life, we’ve met our purpose!
DD: And it keeps going from that single person. Maybe they came to YogaFest and made positive changes in life. Next thing, walking down the street and maybe feeling in a better mood, maybe it's them just giving a smile to someone. And all these interactions and actions and reactions can really shift the entire frequency of a city. We wanted to create a starting point for it all to happen in.
Joanna, tell me a bit about your personal journey to YogaFest. How did you get here between these two high energy guys?
JB: I guess it was when I started doing yoga three years ago. I heard about hot yoga and I always wanted to try it. I did my first class, and I loved it. I was so in love with yoga I just started doing it every day, doing it more often. And that's when I started talking to Anthony more often, and he inspired me with spirituality and introduced me to certain books and ideas.
After about a year and a half, Daniel, Anthony and I came together and thought about our passions. We were all inspired by yoga conferences and different ideas around us. During 101 Day it just came into focus and took off.
During an interview for this Innovators issue, we had one of our features tell us, “Change can be as easy as falling off a log. When it's the right change, it’s easy.” Was creating YogaFest easy?
JB: It’s always been very fluid, it's been like everyone's just, “Oh, you're doing this? We'll help you.” And we thought, sweet, everyone's helping us, it's awesome!
When I saw your photos on social media at the very end of YogaFest, I commented that all three of you looked like you were standing in what I call “Tired, but happy event organizer pose.” At the end of the day, how did you guys feel?
JB: Oh, I could totally get emotional with this. I feel really strongly about bringing everyone together and just seeing the outcome of it all. Obviously the hard work that goes in is intense, but to see it all come together, to see different groups of people all interacting and making connections and singing together, doing yoga together, doing art together, doing all these things, it’s just so fulfilling. That’s enough for me in life, it felt so great.
As an event organizer you have to think, “These people wouldn't have come together without this.”
JB: Yeah, and that's powerful. I've had this vision since we first started creating YogaFest. I’m at the front of the yoga garden doing a yoga class, being in downward dog and looking behind me at all the people that are there, and seeing everyone we brought together doing it with me, with us. And man, there's no feeling like it. It's incredible, so much love, so much love.
Daniel, I know you’re a McMaster University grad. How did you find yourself on this adventure?
DD: I studied materials engineering at McMaster, and that is definitely a contrast to Anthony and Joanna, but what's amazing is how we came together. Anthony and I threw our first all ages event in Grade 11. It was called Impulse, ironically. We're still acting on impulse a lot. We've had this drive to bring people together and do these events, creating a space for people to just express themselves and have fun.
And the McMaster degree?
DD: I pursued engineering at McMaster because to me, that was a challenge. I've built a capacity to break through problems through my engineering training. Creating YogaFest, well, it's not engineering exactly, but there's so many of these little parts of the structure that need to be put together. I’m on a team that allows you to voice your opinion. When we talk to each other it’s like, okay, you're onto something, I'll hear you out. It creates this flow, and that's why it's so special how diverse we are.
As a parent, I can imagine some of the discussions around the table. It might go something like this, from an engineering degree to YogaFest? Where are you going?
DD: I tried preparing my parents right away. I knew I wanted to go into the field of engineering and I wanted to pursue entrepreneurship. They see this as a path, but one that will lead back to a more traditional style of engineering work.
Longer term goals?
DD: We want to create spaces that don't exist in society today. We want to make a space for the community. We’re starting to see it. Anthony has an amazing property on Book Road in Ancaster, it’s a space where we spend a lot of time. He’s got an unfinished barn there, and that is where we actually want to start.
Dream big and take a few years to plan, or just start? Allow yourself to begin as we said earlier?
DD: Instead of worrying about down the road and a huge investment, we thought, why not just start this summer and start transforming this barn into a creative space? Bring people in for gatherings, and see where it goes.
So Hamilton is a community that seems ready for that. What makes Hamilton special? Could this be happening in Kitchener-Waterloo or Vancouver?
AD: I would say for Hamilton, I think it's the mix of the passion from the younger generation and the experience from the older generation with these two coming together, that’s what’s making these things happen. I know a lot of people in our boat and our age saying, “This place is amazing. Hamilton is so good, let's stay here. Let's not move out.”
How does the steel mill mentality meet the hipster mentality?
DD: I know a lot of people who love it here, but a lot of the older generation thinks it's still Steel City. This is slow to change. It’s a chance to open their minds to the young, to meet and collaborate. It’s long-term change. But it's just about starting now, and even this co-working space we’re having this talk in, CoMotion on King, this is where it begins. This is where the creativity begins.
JB: And obviously Hamilton is a place of so much culture and the arts. It's right in front of us here. It’s an undervalued city, I think. Even though there’s a lot happening, some people put that negative connotation around it. Saying, “Oh, it's Steel City, it's old, it's grubby.” But there's so many talented, spiritual people here, yogis and people who are health and wellness ambassadors.
DD: I would say it's definitely shifting. Four or five years ago, I remember standing at the escarpment looking over the city, thinking, This is home. Like hearing so many of our high school friends talking about how they need to get out of Hamilton to go to university, and living through that.
The three of us were always kind of thinking, Why run from this? This is home and there's so much value that doesn't even get acknowledged.
Just geography-wise, the mountain, the bay. It's Chicago with a mountain.
DD: It's absolutely incredible. So we just knew that through us expressing ourselves and doing what we love, we can help shine that light. And a lot of other industries and people are doing that in this community as well.
You can’t walk down the street without talking to someone about new ideas for the Ambitious City.
DD: There's so many different start-ups and ideas coming through Hamilton. Our role is to help inspire people through the festival. Both the people who live here already and the businesses too. People come to YogaFest or Supercrawl and they say, “I want to live here, I want to build a business here.”
So you’re putting in a good word for Hamilton with the universe right?
AD: Totally. Right now we're opening our energy to create a special experience for one day. And the more we dig into it and the more we put our passions together, we see it lasts far beyond a one-day event. It's creating that shift. So tomorrow you wake up and you're feeling, Wow, that was a special experience. I need to be better today. I need to be healthier today, I need to maybe wake up earlier.
And then from that it's going to drive you to start going to those local shops, those healthy shops and you're going to open your mind and say, Hamilton already has this. It's already right in front of me and I'm just unravelling it. And that's what we've realized, from going to the Lovolution event in Toronto to waking up the next day and going to Goodness Me and shopping healthier. It created a shift in us and this is why we're doing it.
YogaFest can kickstart a new attitude and behaviours. But it’s only a few times a year. If you were a doctor, how often would you prescribe YogaFest?
JB: We definitely want to do it as often as possible. I think hosting an event semi-annually is a start. But soon, we see ourselves hosting smaller events, too.
Like we said, Anthony has 25 acres of land, we can do anything we want there. So we can do things throughout the summer, too. Maybe host a retreat. We can't say exact numbers yet, but definitely a lot more events for sure.
I understand that your team believes in the phrase, "Ask and you shall receive". Can you elaborate?
AD: Absolutely. When you have a vision for something and you put it out there, you'll see the magic happen. For instance, we needed a giant chandelier over our yoga garden to decorate the space at Liuna. We knew we needed it. We had no idea where we were going to get it; we didn't really know budget-wise what we were going to do.
Then we get a Facebook message from a friend of ours that we met at Lovolution. He says, “Hey, check out my friend's new piece of art. It's crop circle, flower of life-inspired.” And he had this six-foot diameter, giant chandelier and said, “Let's display it at YogaFest.” Yeah, and it just came. We knew we wanted it; we had no idea how we were going to get it. The universe conspires. Our intention was real. It wasn't for the sake of greed, it was all for the sake of the experience of everyone.
JB: And it happened to actually be like a crazy powerful chandelier because it had a crystal, it had Metatron's cube, then it had the flower of life and all this sacred geometry. And just that hanging over the garden and people looking at that all day, that's expanding your mind, just by seeing those patterns and experiencing that energy.
To wind up, let me take you back to grade school. Were you always visionaries flying your “do your own thing” flag?
AD: I would say I was definitely always thinking big. I know that my visions have always been big, big pictures. And seeing them come to life now, it's what I anticipated. It's just walking with who I am and who I've always been.
JB: I would say I always felt different as a kid. I always felt like I was very outgoing. My parents said that sometimes I'd be shy, but when I'm outgoing, I'm really outgoing, and I started really doing things. So I feel like, maybe I just grew up into the person that I am.
I believe like attracts like. But definitely as a kid I was an inspirer. I like to teach dance, I like to be a teacher, I love dancing and going onstage and just doing lots of things. Imagination was huge for me too. I guess we all just connected that way.
I like that, when you say you just grew into more of the person you were.
JB: That's the best way I can put it.
DD: As for me, growing up, my biggest inspiration was my father, who owned a woodworking business, and I saw through his entrepreneurship that he was able to provide for the family. He was able to take us on vacations. I knew it was something special. So this was always an inspiration for me, and he always spoke highly of engineering. And although he never got an engineering degree, in my eyes, he is still an engineer for what he's created.
So that was always my drive to university. We’ve always had these visions to do big things. I really think that's true for all of us, and fast-forwarding, it almost seems like all school was, all these little events leading up to being a young adult, was preparation for what we're doing right now, to bringing these visions to life.
AD: Like I said, I can't stress enough the importance of the team. It goes beyond us. It's you guys here interviewing us today, it's the people that are volunteering when we say, Guys, we want to do a photo shoot. It's literally ask and you shall receive. We've really prepared ourselves to take this step because we know it's going to inspire a lot of others.
And we're realizing that there's so many other leaders in front of us that we're just watching and getting inspired by. So it's a nice little chain here.
JB: We were all rebels as kids, at least a little bit. My sister's an engineer. She's in school, she's got a job, she's got a house, she's got a boyfriend. And that’s awesome for her. But me? I'm doing YogaFest and I'm still living at home having a good time. I think we just don't see our boundaries as really being boundaries. More so, they’re obstacles to overcome.
Is there anything any of you would like to add before we wrap up?
DD: One thing I think is really important to add is gratitude. It's appreciation for everything that's happened. It's a miracle seeing what can happen in only two months' time because all we did was create the idea and we started taking action bringing it to life. But without everyone else responding to it and capturing it within themselves, it wouldn't be what it is.
All those yoga studios and teachers who taught a class, all the people who offered workshops, there was so much happening at one time while you were at this festival, the credit has to be distributed evenly.
JB: At the Liuna event, mostly everything was taken away from the space, except for the chiffon and the chandelier, and I was just staring at it. I was starting to get emotional because I was filled with so much gratitude. It was almost overwhelming. It's not just us. It's everyone, and because of that, that's what makes it so emotional, because there's so many people connecting to it. It's incredible, it's indescribable. It is magic and it's definitely something I've never felt before. I've never felt this much gratitude in my life.
That's a great place to leave our chat. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. Namaste.
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