Photo: Lori Stott
The good people of Boulder, Colorado recently hosted its first ever ultra-groovy yoga festival and I was there.
The Hanuman Festival, dreamed up about a year ago by Valerie D’Ambrosio (a force for good in the world) was a wonderful gathering of yogis and yoginis from far and near. The festival was named in honor of Hanuman, the mighty ape that aided Lord Rama in his expedition against evil forces and is one of the most popular idols in the Hindu belief system.
I got to spend time with good friends and to reconnect with some women with whom I participated in the Off the Mat, Into the World® leadership training in Denver in November. My perpetually tight shoulders opened up in a brand new way in Amy Ippoliti’s class. Seane Corn once again inspired me to reach deeper, higher, more. Kia Miller radiated grace, charm and beauty. Simon Miller almost killed me with one hip opener after another (but I loved it).
I did Kundalini, Anusara, Vinyassa flow, and trance danced my way to multiple blisters on my feet and a profound release of old tensions. I breathed in pranyama, breathed out lion’s breath and I sweat like a mo-fo. I was told to rewind, release, and return.
In a circle led by exuberant drummer Suzanne Sterling, seventy yogis and yoginis reenacted an ancient circle of fire, shouting out words like fear, anger, shame, pain and addiction, then brought in positive words of life such as love, acceptance, grace, forgiveness. Powerful stuff.
Exposed to the wonders of yoga at an early age, I still have photos of my grandmother and me doing Halasana (plow pose) when I was just seven years old.
In college, I partook in various yoga and meditation classes when I could fit them in between keggers and occasional studying. Over the years, I had popped in and out of yoga classes, but had never really made a commitment.
Then in 2003, I turned forty. Then I had a baby. At first I went to class simply as an excuse to get the hell out of the house, but after a while, I was hooked. A few years later, I learned that I have advanced degenerative arthritis and cervical spine issues.
My yoga practice took on more of a life-saving role, and I then discovered Core Power yoga. Burning and sweating through intense Vinyassa felt so good on my aching muscles, and I left class feeling like I’d had a facial. Bonus! My yoga practice had become an integral part of my life, and I am deeply grateful for it.
But I gotta be honest here. For me, the Hanuman Festival wasn’t all love and peace and hugs. There were several moments in the midst of all these Chataranga Dandasanas and exultation that I found myself wondering—as the kids say these days—is this “for reals?”
Is it okay that I buy my yoga clothes at Sierra Trading Post in the bargain bin, instead of the Prana store in Boulder? What about those of us who carry some middle age around our middle, who don’t have abs (or arms or legs or butts) of steel?
Was I hip enough to be here? Was I smiling enough? Should I rush over to the Pearl Street Mall to get an armband tattoo on my shoulder or a tramp stamp on my lower back? And what of these Sanskrit chants? Does anyone know the meaning of the words, or are we just drinking the Kool-Aid?
Why oh why wasn’t my vibration getting lifted as advertised?
What I began to notice is that some folks take this yoga thing very seriously. Very. I think I get the basic idea. Yoga has been around a long time and it is indeed a sacred practice. But why didn’t people smile back to me as I passed them on the way to class? I made a real point to make eye contact and more often than not, I was met with either a blank stare or was ignored completely.
Now, I’m a pretty friendly person (especially after two cups of coffee—ooops—probably shouldn’t admit that) so I didn’t understand this. Why were some people walking around like they were trying to make the subway to get to work? Weren’t we all supposed to be in oscillation to a higher plane?
Then there is the whole business of yoga that turned me off. There were at least three yoga mat companies selling mats, several over-priced clothing booths displaying flowy batik dresses and cork shoes and lots of organic free-trade, nonfat, gluten free things to eat, drink and rub on our skin.
Don’t get me wrong. I have several flowy batik dresses hanging in my closet, right above my cork shoes and I enjoy a good BumbleBar made from seeds grown on farmer-owned co-ops in Honduras. With over sixteen million people in North America practicing yoga, a whopping six billion dollars—that’s SIX BILLION—was spent on yoga products in the last year. I get it, I even participate in it, but I don’t really like it.
I now realize that in taking notice of these things, I was in my dark. Maybe I’m a cynic. I am, after all, a New Yorker at heart, despite the fact that I’ve called Boulder County my home for twenty-one years. I felt a little disappointed that my vibration didn’t lift, my charkas weren’t more aligned and frankly, that I hadn’t lost five pounds after all of that trance dancing.
About halfway through the weekend, a shift occurred. I laughed loud and hard in Anand Mehrota’s class, despite the fact that he gave an in-depth talk about yoga and spirituality. He said this thing that stuck: “Please don’t take this stuff too seriously.” And he is a real Indian (which for whatever reason gave him more validity in my mind).
Then…Hanuman happened. The more I looked around, the less hard bodies I saw. I began to see regular people with normal bodies, stretching to new heights and grunting their way into and out of poses. After years of telling myself there was no friggin’ way I could get into Urdhva Dhanurasana (wheel pose) there I was, with the help of goddess Ellin Todd, getting into full wheel.
I noticed the woman who practiced not in Lucy or Lululemon pants but in khakis. She was also quite overweight, which made me love her more. I started to look into people’s eyes and to let them look into me. I stopped looking for people to smile back at mine.
My step got lighter—I didn’t need to walk with such intense purpose, hard against the ground below me. I got lighter. My heart was melting! Entering the Boulder Theater to experience the phenomenon that is MC Yogi, I was able to giggle as I overheard someone say to her friend, “Gotta go! Namaste!”
So while there were moments at Hanuman Festival that were reminiscent of Grateful Dead shows a lifetime ago—I wondered if I was cool enough, did I belong, did I have the right clothes on—there were also moments of pure grace. It’s said about Hanuman that it’s hard to find a mythical character that is as powerful, philosophic, humble and amusing. There I was, experiencing the light and dark within my own self. What a gift.
I will go again next year to the Hanuman Festival. And I’ll wear my bargain bin yoga clothes and my wrinkles and my tummy. I will bring an open heart, an open mind and my mat spray. And I will honor both the light and the dark within myself and in others.
For now, I gotta go Namaste.
Lori Stott writes grants for a living (NextWriteThing.com) and personal essays for fun. Her work has appeared in two anthologies and she has just completed her first nonfiction book. Lori loves to laugh, travel, connect with friends, chant, dance and sweat. She doesn’t like phonies, chihuahuas or Chinese food. Next to her family and long-term sobriety, yoga is her love.
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