When you grow up in a rough part of town, while struggling with a tumultuous and rough home life, you’re bound to experience a little anxiety. For Ruth van der Voort, director and founder of the Toronto Yoga Show, this was certainly the case long before she started the show.

“Panic attacks were weekly experiences growing up” says Ruth. By grade 10, she had trouble coping with routine aspects of life.

This all changed when a new substitute teacher came to a geography class. At first, the teacher tried to settle down an unruly group of kids who were throwing paper, yelling and behaving like rowdy tenth graders do when there’s a substitute teacher.

Meanwhile, Ruth noticed a calmness on the substitute’s face. He didn’t get angry or try to fight back. He merely said, “Well, if you’re all going to do nothing, I’m going to teach you how to do nothing well.”

The teacher proceeded to talk about mindfulness and lead a meditation through the calamity. While not everyone paid attention, Ruth did. She still has a clear image of it today. She remembers feeling his strong calming presence in the room and hinged on every word he said about the power of breathing and mapping your inner mind.

“I was so blown away by the lesson, I left the class shaken and couldn’t focus for the rest of the day. When I went home I had a long cathartic cry.” Ruth recalled.

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Soon after the experience with the substitute, Ruth visited her school guidance counsellor to find out more about meditation. In a time before the internet, obsessing over a new subject meant actively seeking out books in the library and resources in town.

Eventually, her research and daily practice of meditation led Ruth to less anxiety. Panic attacks decreased as she developed strength to be authentic, assertive and confront the issues at the root of her anxiety. Yoga became a regular practice as she started visiting temples, ashrams and studios in the Greater Toronto Area.

In the following years, Ruth wanted to learn more about different types of meditation but exhausted resources in Ontario. Eventually (after listening to Kathmandu by Bob Seger a few too many times), Ruth wondered if she could learn more about meditation by going to the source in Southeast Asia. She spent a year traveling through temples an ashrams in India, China, Thailand and Nepal on a series of retreats to learn the nuances of different mediations and cultures surrounding it.

In 1990, while on a two-week meditation retreat in Nepal, Ruth began practicing yoga in the mornings. As she continued practicing more, others from the monastery showed up to learn from her. This was Ruth’s first time teaching yoga, but she found a new skill and calling. With these resources for like minded people in Canada, Ruth knew she could return home with something of value to share.

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When yoga began surging in popularity in the late 90’s, Ruth found a lot of yoga “instructors” who taught step-by-step yoga like a fitness class. However, a lack of yoga “teachers” was apparent. There were less people teaching lessons of mindfulness, breathing, or aligning your body and mind. Someone would need to step in to teach the lessons of mindfulness and meditation Ruth learned in Grade 10.

This lead Ruth to start her own Yoga Teacher training and eventually start the Toronto Yoga Conference – now in its tenth year. Her goal was to preserve the importance of Yoga “teaching” over simple “instruction.” She wants to continue developing the practice for students and teachers alike, so more people can be reached and helped emotionally and spiritually like she was.

Meditation remains Ruth’s favourite part about yoga. Ruth admits, as the director of Canada’s largest yoga conference, she could spend a little more time meditating to calm her nerves. But from one teacher, starting with just one lesson, she’s journeyed a long way and is committed to helping others do the same thing.