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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

Giving Mothers the Gift of Peace

(This article originally appeared in YogiTimes Magazine – I just added all these groovy pictures)

One thing no one ever tells an expectant mother is the arrival of her beautiful, cooing little bundle of chub will be the departure of her private bathroom time, regular showers and any hope of an uninterrupted night of sleep. There might be a mother who escapes from this reality and we have a special name for her. Lucky.

Retro housewife with freshly made lemonade
Always making lemonade out of lemons

The rest of us, however, have to find ways to keep our sanity between the coos and giggles. Agoura Hills yoga teacher, Drorit Rudin, had three kids within three years and four months of each other. She tried to take care of herself in between diaper changes and regularly attended gym classes though never really connected with the vibe there. Rudin said her life changed when she found a yoga class that embodied everything she was. “There were no shoes, no one was checking each other out, no competitiveness. There was a space created for peace.” Rudin says the peace she found on her yoga mat extended into her family life. “I was able to be more calm and my kids responded so much better.”

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Drorit Rudin found yoga and was able to find peace in chaos

Malibu resident, Torrie Simshauser, had a similar experience the first time she did yoga. “I could feel the difference at a cellular level,” she said. All the breathing and meditative nature of moving between the poses eased her anxiety, Simshauser said, and after nine months of daily practice, she decided to train to become a teacher. “I wanted to share all the benefits I was getting in classes that was extending outside my classes, like balance, stability and calmness with others.”

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Tore Simshauser strikes a pose in Malibu

Both yogini mommies can thank Sridhar Silberfein for their practice as he was one of the people responsible for bringing yoga to the United States. In the early 1970s, Silberfein opened the first yoga studio in Los Angeles in Topanga Canyon. He introduced Swami Satchidananda to the stage at Woodstock to deliver an invocation in front of 500,000 music fans. Overwhelmed by the largest gathering of people ever assembled in the United States, Silberfein promised the Swami that someday the same number would come together to chant the various names of God, practicing Kirtan, or sacred music.

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Woodstock was the largest gathering of people ever assembled in the United States

Forty years later, Silberfein created Bhakti Fest (which means love and compassion, a devotional opening up of the heart) in Joshua Tree where they do just that.

Sridhar and Ram Dass
Every year Sridhar Silberfein has video taped conversations with Ram Dass shown at the festivals he created

Bhakti Fest offers unlimited yoga taught by the top instructors in the world. Bhakti Fest also has sacred music and workshops where people learn the meaning behind the chants. From that, Shakti Fest was born which specifically celebrates the creative divine feminine. Shakti Fest features additional workshops like belly dancing and hula hoop, classes in tantric and Ayurvedic.

Silberfein, born to a Jewish family, wants to make clear that yoga isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life. “People start to practice and see the difference in their face and body and want more of that. They may decide to meditate five minutes a day. They may decide to eat cleaner.”

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Both festivals are Silberfein’s peaceful alternative to what he feels are the angst ridden rap and rock concerts that he says encourage personal destruction through the abuse of drugs, alcohol and relationships. Instead, he offers guests a healthy experience, free of any mind altering substances, based on the return to a youthful innocence which he says we lose at age 8 in response to the ego’s need to protect itself from the frantic nature of the world. “It’s very difficult to live in the world today,” Silberfein points out, “We need a daily practice that keeps us quiet in our minds, that keeps us centered from the hassle and frazzle of everyday life.”

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As a young mother, Rudin said, she was always worrying about specific things that might happen to her kids, things that were mostly beyond her control. “After yoga, I didn’t worry as much,” she said. Instead, she started every class by setting a positive intention of peace and happiness for each of her children. It spilled over into her life outside her yoga practice and she was able to feel that peace and happiness herself.

Drorit

Sometimes, Simhauser said, her kids will practice yoga with her. She wants for them to have the gift of calm that she found later in life. Silberfein says the Kid’s Village at Shakti Fest is designed to give children those very skills at an age where they could grow into them. There is music, dancing and puppets. They learn how to work with crystals and even get to take them home. They create gratitude flags to hang in their rooms. And maybe most importantly, they learn how to sit still for two to ten minutes, a skill most adults can probably use.They learn to center themselves in the face of life’s chaos.

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Shakti Fest brings together the most talented female yoga teachers and musical artists. There is a Woman’s Tent, closed to men, run by female elders who discuss sensitive topics specific to women’s struggles. “The idea is to empower the women,” said Silberfein. “They need to have their own space, which is closed to their husband and children. She can tell them it’ll make her a better mommy and wife.”

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Empowerment was something Rudin found eight years ago, when she woke up one morning and decided to open up her own yoga studio, now called Agoura Power of Yoga. “I wanted to practice the type of yoga that I loved,” Rudin said, “At the time the closest studio was in Calabasas, so I create my own.” Rudin said she gets texts, emails and cards from women thanking her for helping them to reconnect with their inner power.

o“In many relationships, women give up their power.” Silberfein said he disagrees with this. “We should be kissing their feet in gratitude for the things they do.”

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yes please

Shakti Fest donates a portion of their proceeds to an orphanage in India that is home to 18 girls. “We want to have a festival where we can give back to the people, so after we pay our expenses, that’s what we do.”

Shakti Fest begins its sixth year at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center in Joshua Tree, CA on May 13 and goes from 7am to 2am until May 16. For more information go to: http://shaktifest.bhaktifest.com/ Discounts are given to veterans, military, students and seniors.

 

 

Na’am Yoga: for kids with special needs or people who need to heal

It sounds like science fiction. It has words attached to it that sound like another language. Words like mudra, mantra and pranayama. But it’s actually an approach to healing that is rooted in ancient history and modern science.

It’s called Na’am Yoga and its unlike any kind of yoga I’ve ever practiced and I’ve been practicing for over a decade. It combines movement (mudra), sound (mantra) and breath (pranayama) to move mountains within the body and mind, promoting healing far beyond the reaches of conventional Western medicine.

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The Na’am Yoga LA center offers classes for everyone, the physically healthy individual as well as the one with specific health challenges. They are a non-profit because they offer free sessions targeted to promote healing for people who’ve experienced set backs such as strokes, diabetes or cancer. They even offer a Friday class for those on the autism spectrum.

I sat in on the class tailored for those on the spectrum and felt the floor shake as the kids pounded on it, combining musical beats with movement and joy. Instructor Eugene Pisareuski helped release any tension the kids may have held in their bodies by guiding them through sharp exhalations and beautiful mantras. The room resonated from a chorus of their declarations that “I am love to all. I am peace to all.” They filed out after class with soft faces and laughter.

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One parent, Kate, thinks it works. She said her two adopted, autistic sons have participated in the Friday class for two years. “I wish they could do this everyday.” She said the class left them calmer and they sleep better. Her sons, Nathan age 22 and Michael age 8, she explained, come from traumatic backgrounds on top of the autism they must navigate. “This practice centers them and that’s a definite plus.”

Executive Director of Na’am Yoga Los Angeles, Jane Mirshak said there are many different paths to healing but this one “opens your heart and makes you happy. When you are happy, you can deal with stress.” And doctors believe stress is the cause of many diseases.

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Mirshak said there is much research on sound and breath and it all gets incorporated into Na’am Yoga. The sound redirects energy throughout the body, the movements and pressure points stimulate healing in both body and brain, then breath promotes relaxation.

“Whatever ailment someone is experiencing,” said Mirshak, “we could design a routine to specifically address it.”

Many of the teachers with whom I spoke found Na’am Yoga after seeing the positive results of someone they knew who was practicing it while also battling disease. Even Kate is now training to incorporate the technique of Harmonium, a healing tool created by Na’am Yoga founder, Dr. Michael Levry, for use in her home. According to the Na’am Yoga website, Dr. Levry discovered the secrets that inspired Na’am Yoga through the teachings of spiritual gurus in India.

Excited by this new discovery, I quickly shared the news with my parents. My father practiced yoga for years until two strokes left him unable to perform many of the moves in a typical yoga class. Since beginning his new practice of Na’am Yoga, his caretaker tells me he’s happier and wakes up excited to start the day. Na’am Yoga, it turns out, is good for everyone in the family, even if you’re not the one practicing it.

There are 11 Na’am Yoga centers around the world. For more information go to: www.naamyoga.com or www.naamscience.com

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A shorter version of this post originally appeared in LA Parent Magazine