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Shakti Fest: An Untypical Girl’s Weekend

A shorter version of this article appears in Yogi Times.

I thought I was tough. I was sporty and strong in the unremarkable gym sort of way. When I took my first yoga class, it was a level 2/3 on a VHS tape. A measly level 1 beginner class didn’t sit well with my self-image but I wanted to learn the poses before I did them in front of people. I grunted and groaned and fell all over my living room then put the tape away for about a year. I needed yoga on so many levels back then and had no idea why.

Since then, I’ve embraced the journey through many phases of my practice and even started attending retreats and yoga festivals. Last year, I discovered the Shakti and Bhakti Festivals at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center and they lifted my practice and awareness to a whole new level. Bhakti Fest was started as a promise fulfilled by founder Sridhar Silberfein to his guru, Swami Satchidananda when he introduced the holy man to the largest crowd ever assembled on American soil at Woodstock in 1968. Silberfein said someday he would gather just as many people to practice yoga and sing Kirtan music but in a spiritual, drug and alcohol free environment and forty years later, he did just that. Shakti Fest is Bhakti’s sister festival and translates to mean a celebration of the feminine divine. Since Shakti Fest is always held around Mother’s Day, it’s the perfect excuse for a girl’s weekend or a chance to introduce yoga to the family since kids under 12 are free. So far, though, I’ve always taken the girl’s weekend option.

Both times after my festival experiences, my body felt clean and strong and my mind felt connected to those around me, despite the fact that we were all so different. I was sure that everyone needed yoga and I began to wonder if the reason the yoga masters continued their practice after so many years was a key to the secret of its power. So, I decided to ask.

There are three yoga halls at the Joshua Tree festivals, only one of which is indoors. When the sun is still nestled between the desert hills, Yoga Hall 2 isn’t as hot as it later becomes. The sky is dazzlingly blue and the cotton clouds encourage hope that the temperature will stay on the mild side. The morning brought us beautiful Hemalayaa.

Hemalayaa owning the joint

She was all sparkle and shimmer radiating from a grounded spirit. Her energy commanded we discard our perception that we are all somehow divided and unite in our beauty no matter what we looked like. At the end of her class, we were all dancing, as a Kirtan band played behind her on stage, with her recipe to discovering our creativity and discarding our baggage through Kundlini-dance yoga. There was screaming involved and it could have felt weird outside of this spiritual haven but on that day, for a few minutes, we sparkled right along-side Hemalayaa. I asked her later why she does yoga and she said, “So I can show up every single day. So I can get rid of the B.S. and get to the Bhakti.” Bhakti, according to some websites, is the essence of love and devotion. The theme of her class was transformation; getting rid of what’s blocking you through breathing, dance and movement to get to your full potential “like we were six years old again.” Her tip to beginning a practice: “The journey of yoga is a vast one with many layers and places to find depth and connection with oneself as well as the divine…Find many teachers, not just one. Find your mentors, teachers and guides, to be in your fullest, richest experience of life.” You can experience the magic of Hemalayaa at Shakti Fest in her classes (with Live music by DTO of Buddha Music Group) Saturday May 13th and Sunday May 14th at 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm

One thing about both Shakti and Bhakti Festivals is they are very popular. If you want to take a class with a well known yoga teacher, you have to have a strategy. Sometimes your strategy doesn’t work out and you’re forced to find another class and fortunately the festival is full of them. That’s how I discovered Yogrishi Vishvketu.
Blue skies threw the sun’s heat soaked rays around the dessert’s open air studio. We gathered on our mats trying to find spots hidden from the blaze above. Sand dunes, with pockets of sprouting cacti and joshua trees, greeted us as we relaxed into our spaces. We were back at Yoga Hall 2, though the “hall” was comprised of a music stage and an overhang covering the practice area with a translucent fabric. My girlfriends and I had no idea what to expect, so when a little man in monk’s garb appeared before our group and started to talk about making little bee noises, we just went with it.

Yogrishi making little honey bee sounds

Yogrishi’s soothing voice, coated in a sweet Indian accent, chuckled between irreverent words. He told us that the moan we make when we are in pain and the moan we make when we are in pleasure are almost identical. In yogaspeak, making this sound is called a mantra. Yogrishi says this sound sends a signal to the mind for healing. I actually found myself trying to adopt this into my practice for weeks after his class. He spoke about the true path to happiness and told stories like the the one about the bunny and the cockroach who are both looking for it. I decided true enlightenment has to include humour. He told us true love has to be based on truth. “What is real can never be taken away and what is unreal can never be kept.” I asked him at the end of class, why he does yoga. He responded, “To be normal,” and he laughed. Realizing I wanted more, he elaborated: “To continue to be normal and continue to be connected to my higher self, to be compassionate.” Well, I loved that and after I got home I looked up his ashram in the Himalayan Mountains and dreamed of going. He holds a PhD and is the founder of Akhanda Yoga, which is a holistic approach to yoga that includes teachings and meditation in every class. His tip for beginning a yoga practice: “Pay attention to your breath.” Personally, I think that’s for an advanced practice. He is coming back to Bhakti Fest on September 7, 2017.

Besides yoga, the Bhakti and Shakti Festivals are full of things on which we wanted to spend money. Vendors from around the world brought outfits we wouldn’t find on racks in Big 5, foods that nourished our body while making our senses jump for joy and jewelry that is priced far below the uniqueness of it’s quality. We took time to explore their offerings between classes and lectures. Fueling our bodies with clean nutrients for an entire weekend, elevated our moods which contributed, I’m sure, to our shift in consciousness. When you feel good physically, your mind is more open to process new experiences.

Suburban moms, Rachel Russell, Rina Nehdar and Lori Calabreses enjoying the scene at the food court

There is a staggering amount of workshops and lectures held throughout both festival weekends. Presentations range from creating sacred relationships to removing the blockages that past experiences have caused us. There are workshops on chanting, healing and dance. Gender divided sessions in the Women’s Lounge and Men’s Tent address topics of a more private nature that become a forum for discussing our collective, more personal experience. We wandered into a workshop on Tantric Sexuality that involved staring into the eyes of a stranger for the longest minute of our lives and the feathery touch of rose petals. We sat in on a talk by Radhanath Swami who told ancient stories about devotion and overcoming obstacles.

Radhanath Swami Inspiring us

Each left our brains buzzing pleasantly with the gift of exploring ideas that we didn’t have time to think about in our real world.
We ate our meals in the courtyard in front of the Main Stage where musicians performed from morning until late into the night. We brought beach chairs and left them with the understanding that others are free to use them until we need them again. I had never appreciated Kirtan music because it always felt foreign and disconnected from my experience but with the great variety suddenly available, I was able to appreciate some of the artists. I bought a CD by Sean Johnson & The Wild Lotus Band to listen to while I worked.

We finished our yoga day with a journey into the world of Mas Vidal, master yoga teacher and ayurvedic practitioner who has just written a book on both called Sun, Moon and Earth: The Sacred Relationship of Yoga and Ayurvedic.

Mas Vidal at Bhakti Fest photo by Mas Vidal

With the fading sun and the darkening sand dunes as his backdrop, he walked around us while we froze in poses of his choosing, head clean-shaven, imposing, toned figure wrapped in genie-styled, peach colored pants and a black tank top. He shared about life from his empowered perspective. He told us “Bliss is your birthright” and it sounded fair so we believed him. He told us, as we held chair pose far longer than normal, that initially our environment is more powerful than our will but then our will becomes more powerful than our environment. He shared a tip about our most natural action, our breath. In Ayurvedic medicine when you breath in, your stomach should go out and when you breathe out, it should go in but, he explained, when people have experienced trauma, they do the opposite. I tried to see what my natural inclination was but it was to hard to tell since I was judging myself.
I asked him, after he sang to us at the end of our strong class, why he practices yoga. “I do yoga to realize my spirit is one with all of existence,” he answered. His tip for someone about to start a yoga practice: “Make it simple, make it convenient. It should work easily into your lifestyle.” He also recommends spending time with someone who already has a yoga practice so you could learn from them and have a partner to share your discoveries.

Both Mas Vidal and Hemalayaa will be back in Joshua Tree for Shakti Fest, Mother’s Day weekend, May 12-14. They will be joined by many yoga teachers including Mark Whitwell, Shiva Rea, Kia Miller and Saul David Raye. Musicians from all over the world like Trevor Hall, Jai Uttal and Krishna Das will add a soundtrack to the festivities. Gurus and Swamis will join the gathering as workshop speakers to share the wisdom of their experiences and save us the heartache of having to learn their lessons the hard way. Reverse osmosis water will be available to all with a refillable bottles.

There is on-site housing and camping but we’ve always rented either hotel rooms or houses through Homeaway or Airbnb. It’s nice to be immersed but it’s also nice to get away.

The beauty of the yoga and music festivals is that they allowed us to explore many more teachers and styles than I was willing to commit to financially at home. It exposed us to music, food and a culture outside of our suburban bubble. It opened my mind to possibilities I didn’t have time to think about as a busy mom, classroom volunteer and in between chores writer.

Shakti and Bhakti Fest is the opportunity to wake up and come back to ourselves. It’s also an opportunity to give back since part of the ticket prices are distributed between five charities. For more information or to join us there visit http://shaktifest.bhaktifest.com