My take on Bhakti Fest
Two days into Bhakti Fest I skipped the yoga class I had signed up for, went before the main music stage hoping that something there might better suit my desert-heat-altered state, and found the band Hanumen offering up sung truths about the divine as it bleeds through the world.
More specifically, Hanumen offered a temporary, pulsing kind of trinity across three kirtan gems. Kirtan is a form of call-and-response devotional music that I often describe as “South Asian Gospel.” The kirtan trinity I heard wasn’t about Vishnu, Shiva, Devi or Father, Son, Holy Ghost, but was three evocative musical moments that opened me back into the possibility for honest consonance with a reality larger than my own personal fantasies. Isn’t that what we want a yoga class to give us?
Lead vocalist Gaura Vani got things rolling with a song that wrapped a deep observation within a simple tune of levity called “Come Dance With Me.” Basically the main lyric suggests that god is the moment when we are invited to dance with the world. Children get this in an intuitive way: they simply join the dance without too much fret and bother. The rest of us too often allow a million things to get in the way of the natural gravitation of our feet and our bodies to the rhythm of the tune. Too simple a way to understand god you ask? Maybe. But anyone who has experienced being a wallflower, like myself, knows that Gaura is on to something.
Benjy Wertheimer followed the wise levity of Gaura Vani’s offering by singing the crowd into the next layer of apprehension of things as they are, with the song “God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters.” A blues-infused kirtan blend, the song dropped us deeper into the unflinching openness at the heart of Bhakti yoga. Bhakti denotes a form of yoga emphasizing devotional love. It is identified in the Bhagavad Gita and variously developed throughout later Hinduism.
The song’s lyrics reminded that all will not be pure bliss, unadulterated joy and cosmically-aligned delight. Our waters will be troubled and that too—perhaps even most of all—is where devotional navigation becomes necessary. It is in moments such as these, that Bhakti Fest commands my respect and full attention. When a musical artist or yoga teacher has done justice to the multidimensional nature of authentic devotion, neither glossing over the difficult realities of human life, nor leaving the audience adrift in a hopeless recognition of how much devotional yoga asks of us.
The kirtan pathway of getting down to the marrow of the bone, as Hanumen was tracing throughout their set, hit its crux in band member John de Kadt’s spoken word-with-music interlude. If Gaura got us moving with both a more intentional and more delighted bounce in our step, and Benjy led us into the muddy rich depths of the ever-changing river of devotion, then John’s words prompted us to cover ourselves with that mud, savoring the elemental, ineluctable aspects of existence with the courage of a warrior.
His poetic offering called out the raw features of life (anger, pain, exposure) that likely thwart devotion the most, but that need devotional embrace more than anything else. John’s lyric poem, set to percussive rhythm, became for me ,the center of my festival experience. It grounded the boundless, dancing joy that distinguishes much of Bhakti Fest in an honest and beautiful appraisal of the difficult truths that any religious view worth living by must encompass.
My trip to Bhakti Fest wasn’t my first, and yet I still found myself re-learning the ropes of how best to sink into the distinctive gifts that a yoga festival can give. I went into it with a schedule of classes I had signed up for, workshops that couldn’t be missed, and plans about how to use the time in between.
And then the desert happened.
And the heat rose.
Sweat poured and evaporated off my skin as constricting layers of self became air that drifted away over cacti. My senses were flooded with colors, sounds and smells that my-little-schedule-that-could, could never have anticipated.
I met people in that special, unguarded way I have come to identify with Bhakti Fest, where the presence of another ripples back into one’s own being, recasting the little, grand plans and orbits of the self.
As the hours passed, as day one melded into days two and three, a softening of the self slipped in, a lilt to my being came to grace my body. A more fluid, permeable way of moving around the festival emerged and that was when its potential magic was released. Classes got ditched and new openings into devotion got discovered.
Who knows, maybe next year I won’t even bring my mat.
Jenn Rapp is a writer, professor and yoga teacher living in an out-of-the-way high desert valley near the California/Nevada border. She can be reached at [email protected]
Editor: Maja Despot
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