YogaFest Helps Middle East Yogis Make a Difference with MAPS
Yoga festivals in the Middle East are blooming, thanks in part to the efforts of Elaine Kelly, the founder of Yogafest Middle East. The annual event debuted in Dubai Internet City in 2010 as Dubai’s first sustainable and international festival, and now attracts over 5000 visitors. Today, Yogafest is also in Abu Dhabi, and will launch in Al Ain this March, with plans for expansion to Oman, Saudi Arabia and Tanzania, Africa over the next two years.
At the same time, while Arctic sea ice melts, the Middle East has experienced some of the worst drought in 900 years. Events like Yogafest bring yogis there together for a healthy world with Yogis Unite. At the recent yoga festival in Dubai, Elaine spoke for MAPS, the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary, and invited everyone to join her in Yogis Unite. This month, she shared with us how her passion for yoga and festivals goes together with a passion the wellbeing of others and of the planet.
Parvati Magazine: Elaine, as the former MEA Portfolio Manager at Microsoft, how did you become the event organizer for the largest yoga and sustainable event in the Middle East?
Elaine Kelly: I used to organize conferences in an earlier part of my career, so I had some experience of curating events around a theme. Once I became a yoga teacher in 2010, I knew I had to share what I had learned with as many people as possible. I truly believe that when something is meant to happen, you find the right partners and support to make it a reality. Yogafest Dubai is testament to that.
Parvati Magazine: Unlike other yoga festivals, Yogafest is free to attend. Was this always part of your plan for the festival or did it happen organically? How has this policy had an impact on community members who might otherwise not have been able to join?
Elaine Kelly: The initial idea came from an event that I saw in Yoga Journal magazine which takes place every summer solstice in Times Square, New York City. They offered free classes from sunrise to sunset and the event was open to everyone. I thought I could do the same, on the winter solstice, when the weather in Dubai is beautiful. What started as a one-day event grew into a weekend festival. Raising funds for children’s charities was my idea. I ask attendees to give from their heart. To date, we have raised $150,000 for various charities around the world. Everyone gives their time, so it really is a very precious gift.
Parvati Magazine: From your experience, how has the practice of yoga been received in the Middle East?
Elaine Kelly: It has been warmly embraced and is growing exponentially like many other cities around the world. The government now hosts a festival, XYoga Dubai, every year, which is also free. Bahrain recently launched a Happiness Festival which included yoga.
Parvati Magazine: Generally, what type of audience comes to the festival? Have you ever been surprised at how popular it has become?
Elaine Kelly: We had 118 different nationalities at Yogafest Dubai this year. It reflects the diversity of Dubai as an ethnic hub. There are 75 percent women and 25 percent men. I never dreamed the festival would be so popular and last this long, but it’s a testament to the growth of the wellness market and our passion to help people live healthier and happier lives.
Parvati Magazine: Over the years you have lived in Dubai, what changes have you noticed in the environment? What role do you believe you can play as a yogi to respond to the humanitarian and ecological crisis we see unfolding globally?
Elaine Kelly: In the 25 years I have been in the UAE I have seen some good changes. Dubai is the only city with an aboveground rail system, encouraging more people to use public transport. There is curbside recycling for all houses, and the government has just brought out a law that requires all restaurants to offer patrons filtered tap water, should they ask, instead of bottled water. Expo 2020, hosted in Dubai, is focused on sustainability as the government knows this is the future. Yes, more could be done like banning the use of plastic bags or making people pay for them as has been done in Europe.
Parvati Magazine: You were one of the first festival organizers to show interest in Yogis Unite for MAPS. Why did you feel drawn to the message of MAPS—supporting a healthy world? How was MAPS received by attendees to Yogafest?
Elaine Kelly: It was applauded by all participants when we announced the amazing commitment you have made to create the protected area in the Arctic Ocean. So many people came up and said they loved our blue [MAPS] t-shirts that asked people how they can take yoga off their mats. I think most people want to make a difference. They just don’t know where to start. MAPS gives yogis a simple and fast opportunity to make a difference and to help safeguard our planet.
Elaine Kelly is a wellness advocate and life-long yoga student. In 2010 after certifying as a yoga teacher, she created Yogafest, the largest wellness festival in the Middle East. Elaine also completed her 300 Therapeutic yoga training in 2016 and works with special groups and individuals with chronic conditions.