I recently travelled to Kosovo to teach yoga, meditation and Ayurvedic workshops. You read correctly, Kosovo! Kosovo is north of Greece and south of Hungary, to give you an idea. Because it’s a relatively new country there are many “firsts” there, and the Sparks Holistic Festival I participated in was no exception. (photos here) The first ever of its kind! How did I end up there? Thanks to a long-time client of mine, Andrew, who’s been working in Pristina with the United Nations for the past three years. To stay in shape while abroad Andrew has developed a network of holistic health practitioners in Pristina that he highly values. A few months ago he felt inspired to share those practitioners, and many more, with a larger audience. He ran the idea by them, they were game, hence the Sparks Holistic Festival was born. As for myself, I had been searching for ways to bring my knowledge of holistic health to people who don’t have easy access to it, without much success. So when Andrew asked if I would participate it was a no-brainer.
I’ll be honest, Kosovo didn’t wow me initially. I woke up on my first morning in Pristina to a uniformly greyish sky, due to high pollution. I learned that for one day last year Pristina was even the most polluted city in the world, thanks to the coal industry going strong. Walking down a main road on my way to a supermarket, I observed what my host had mentioned: lots of unfinished houses, a sign that “the money stopped coming in”. Kosovo officially became a country in 2008, a few years after what is now known as the Yugoslav Wars ended. It is a new country, still recovering. A lot remains to be built, not just houses, a clear identity, solid peace between the Serbs and the Albanians, a stable economy. Unemployment rate is high in Kosovo. My host’s driver, a gregarious kosovar, tells me it can be determined by the amount of people sitting at the cafés during the day. Indeed, cafés were busy. I was also told that laws in Kosovo are more like suggestions. Pros and cons to that of course!
Later Friday we headed to Gjakova, an hour and a half away from Pristina and the festival’s location. There my outlook began to shift. We all stayed at Hotel la Villa, one of the nicest hotels around, right by the forest. I met the rest of the crew there, particularly a bunch of local teenagers who had been recruited to volunteer at the festival. And boy oh boy, they were dynamite! Energetic, curious, fun. In exchange for volunteering they were able to attend the festival’s activities for free, and attend they did. As the week-end unfolded I met many more kosovars, as well as German, Italian and Swedish expats, often working for the European Union or NGO’s. Across the board everyone who came was engaged and eager to learn. For many it was their first yoga class, their first meditation, their first exposure to Ayurveda. What joy to see their positive response. I met other health practitioners who were leading workshops at the festival, a kundalini yoga teacher, a pranic healer, a mind-body psychotherapist, among others. There were talks on Quantum Medicine, Emotional Freedom Technique, Yoga for Brain Power, one-on-one Reiki and craniosacral therapy sessions, dance workshops and even a live music concert on Saturday evening. There was local + 100% organic cherry juice and delicious snacks made by “Made with Love”, whose profits are used to help women victims of violence of all forms. The energy was high, the vibe happy. One narrative that emerged over the week-end was that everyone who showed up really wanted to be there. Holistic health options are not yet widespread in Kosovo but interest is growing fast. Our last class on Sunday afternoon was glorious, followed by many hugs, selfies and people already asking if we we’d be back next year.
On Monday I was invited to lead a discussion on “teaching yoga” with a group of yoga teachers in the making. There are no formal Yoga Teacher Trainings in Kosovo and traveling abroad to attend one is a headache because of visa issues (Kosovo is not recognized by India, for example). But Kosovo needs more yoga teachers. Jenny knows that. A german native, she is a judge by day, a yoga teacher by night and the founder of Total Yoga in Prishtina. A few months ago Jenny formed a small group of yoga practitioners interested in teaching. They meet monthly and follow a thorough curriculum she has developed. It meant so much to me to spend an evening with those dedicated souls. Obviously the war has left a lot of people traumatized to various degrees, and if one thing can help it’s yoga. Yoga has the power to heal our broken selves, at the deepest level, at the soul level. I am hopeful those budding yoga teachers will help many kosovars feel whole again.
I arrived in Kosovo feeling nervous, a bunch of questions swirling in my head: who, how, where…As my trip progressed and genuine connections were made my nervousness gave way to immense gratefulness for this opportunity. I left feeling touched and impressed by the people I met, hopeful that the small but mighty yoga community in Kosovo will continue to grow and spread its goodness.
Heartfelt thanks to those who made it all happen in the first place: Bronwyn Jones, Brikenë Bunjaku, Anita Agagjyshi, Saranda Rexha and Andrew Russell.