Friday night in San Francisco. The sleepy city stirs and groans under the weight of cars lining the Bay Bridge, nudging their way through the malaise towards their destination. This city, a mecca for the creative, the free-thinking, and the fantastic hosts any number of interesting and colorful events each weekend – ranging from the raunchy to the refined. The more time I spend here the more I learn not to take unobtrusive and indistinct doorways and building facades at face value. Whole worlds exist within.
Such was certainly the case last weekend in the Mission. About 100 of us entered a building whose only demarkation was the large black garage door with the words ‘no estacionar’ printed on them in bold white block letters. But the moment my foot touched past the threshold I entered an ambiance of pure delight. A hallway lined with flower petals, candles and artwork beckoned guests (shoes off) past a registration table where you were welcomed by beautifully, and tastefully adorned greeters. Down the hallway and to the right the sound of laughter and reunion, the sound of sweet community drifted at varying levels of volume over the music. A modern kitchen bustled with professionals in heels and ruffled aprons, slick black slacks and polished shoes, as they set out artfully displayed cucumber water, orange slices and chocolate squares. To the right was the main room. A massive white-walled space with high ceilings displayed three-dimensional pieces of sacred art called yantras. A central altar drew the eye to vases of peacock feathers, flower arrangements and glowing tea lights. A duo of musicians checked over their instruments, an audiovisual team adjusted microphones and tweaked huge projection screens depicting vibrant imagery, and the crowd began to arrange themselves, settling down over time onto their….yoga mats.
The event was Vimala Maha, A Tantric Festival of Pure Delight, and yoga asana, as surprising as it may seem given the setup, was only one of many offerings and experiences set to take place throughout the night into the morning. Others included fine cuisine and tea service, a satsang or spiritual talk and practice, vocal and musical performances, fine art exhibits, airbrushing, poetry and a dj dance party to top it off. And the revival of original Tantric culture as it existed a thousand years ago in Kashmir, among other places, was the thread that wove through it all.
The word ‘Tantra’ in this lineage does not infer intimacy games or couples eye gazing. Christopher ‘Hareesh’ Wallis, founder of the Matamayura Institute and creator of the event, describes Vimala Maha as ‘a revival of Tantric culture that is connected to the original tradition. It’s not a re-imagining or a creative take on Tantra, but a true renaissance of a tradition that almost died out – a tradition that is uniquely relevant to people today.’
Hareesh and his colleagues number themselves among the few scholars in the world that read and translate the original Sanskrit sources. He describes non-dual Tantra as ‘a coherent system of spiritual practices aimed at addressing every level of our being. What we’ve been presenting in workshops is Tantric philosophy and mediation practices but there are aesthetic aspects of the tradition – poetry, music and art that are just as prevalent. What Vimala Maha is aimed to is is to actually reach and extend what Tantra entails into the realms that it originally occupied.
And indeed to attend a yoga class by the masterful Sianna Sherman who guides you into your body like moving art, to listen to a delicate composition of music, to let a piece of chocolate melt on your tongue and become absorbed in the flavor, to connect and share stories with a friend in your community, to sip fine tea poured by Om Shan Tea, to become absorbed in the living teachings in satsang with Hareesh, is to experience the unfolding of your deeper self. To bring holistic non-judgmental awareness to moment to moment experiences is Tantra.
In the western world that tends toward the puritanical separation of celebration and spiritual practices, Vimala Maha invites you to step into life as yoga – all of it. As Hareesh said, ‘then deeply connected wisdom becomes the place you ordinarily hang out.’
I left Vimala Maha past midnight. The bars in the city were full, the late-night crepe stand lines just starting to form. I walked three blocks to my car. Past one door, then another. Each one an invitation. Each step an opportunity. Each moment a delightful unfolding.
Photography by Mario Covic
For more information on Tantra and Hareesh Wallis check out Hareesh.org
Vimala Maha is scheduled to be a regular event. The next one will take place early in the New Year.