May 7, 2011

Gathering the American Yoga Tribe: Bhakti Fest OMmersion 2011 Recap and Photo Essay

Mantras permeate the ether. Sun-kissed bodies offer hugs and namaskarams all day into the night. Joshua trees wave hello from all directions. And all the yoga classes have live music! Shiva Rea with Shantala. Saul David Rea with Govindas and Radha. Himalayaa with DJ Drez. We’re all attending three yoga classes a day and singing hours of kirtan…bound to be in bliss.

Everywhere I turn I see family, I see tribe. Everywhere I turn I see a vibrant, smiling face greeting me, encouraging me to enjoy this day, celebrate this life, share my love and share in their love. And each moment it becomes easier and easier to surrender into this moment as my smile shines genuinely, reflected in the smiles around me. Sacred space.

Maybe its the desert sun. Maybe its something in the water here. Maybe its all the seriously-devoted, world-class yoga teachers and kirtan performers boosting the prana. Maybe I’ve just found my way home.

Partner-yoga meditation in Samantha Shakti’s Anusara class.

In Govindas and Radha’s unique “Kirtan Vinyasa” class, my voice and limbs embody a flowing prayer. Govindas and Radha, a husband and wife team and owners of the Bhakti Yoga Shala in Santa Monica, have united their love for kirtan and vinyasa yoga. They teach classes where students practice vinyasa flow instructed by Govindas while simultaneously singing kirtan led by Radha. The moment Radha opens her mouth to sing, something I haven’t felt in decades begins to stir inside – a familiar feeling from the womb, childhood games and family togetherness, my first love affair, the first time I dove into the ocean, views from atop a mountain peak. My body moves in the familiar shape of Surya Namaskar, yet it takes on a whole new flavor as I sing from deep inside my heart, prayers to Siva, prayers to Rama. Body merges with breathe. Voice merges with heart. My body, voice, breath and heart move together like never before, a moving prayer. Truly open, tears roll down my cheeks in upward dog and tears flow up my forehead in downward dog. There is no sadness in this cry, and also no happiness in the normal sense – tear-drops are simply the result of this union. And then I remember, the same thing happened the last time I practiced with Govindas and Radha. They’re onto something here, they’ve found an effective formula. In the words of Swami Sivananda , “Life without kirtan is like a garden without flowers”.

Truly grateful, surrendered into the bhava at the end of Govindas and Radha’s “Kirtan Vinyasa” experience. Wow, feel the peace and clarity in each of these beautiful faces! Love!

Family. Tribe. Beautiful beings.

Bhakti Fest has found a golden formula: assemble most of America’s best yoga teachers, call-in America’s most popular kirtan acts, gather-up thousands of yogis and kirtan fans, unite them at the power-spot vortex known as Joshua Tree, California, give them pure water and organic food, kick-start the festivities with an opening puja solidifying the intention to heal all our deepest wounds and recreate us into multi-dimensional, infinite, glowing balls of light in the key of love, and let us roll with it for three or fours days. The festival completes with another puja ceremony on a full-moon night and we’re sent back to our “real” lives all giggly like we just lost our virginity again. Works for me.

The Bhakti Fest Spring OMmersion festival was held April 15-17, 2011 at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. For the past three years, Bhakti Fest has been hosting an annual fall festival and this spring, the same crew put together a smaller-scale, three-day, spring festival that was just as enjoyable as the fall offering.

The beloved DASI Karnamrita (left). Her voice shines the image of Radharaman.

The yoga teachers taught classes full of intention, from relaxing flows to high-power vinyasa. Shiva Rea, Janet Stone, and Sara Ivanhoe brought the power vinyasa. On Sunday evening, Shiva Rea taught a special class introducing Yoga Energy Activism, a new concept in the wake of the Japan nuclear disaster. She encourages yogis to consume less energy and participate in Energy Regeneration Days in which participants turn off all electricity for 24-hours and take a technology-fast. Shiva also hosted a post-event, donation-based workshop on Monday in which participants sang Indian melodies while performing heart-opening backbends. The result was a very deep energetic opening.

On the Bhakti-vinyasa front, Saul David Raye and Govindas and Radha brought plenty of love and soothing meditation into their vinyasa classes. While many yoga styles encourage participants to “push” themselves to their edge, these teachers taught an approach of moving with love and enjoyment, turning each sequence into a moving prayer. They instructed students to work only enough to feel the energy of the pose or movement and to stop stretching before there is strain in a pose. Raye encouraged students, “Don’t cheat yourself by doing more work than necessary.”

Many teachers also taught interesting and exciting yoga combination classes. Kia Miller and Tommy Rosen combined kundalini with vinyasa. Hemalayaa taught kama-sutrasana, a blend of sensual dancing with vinyasa yoga designed to activate and empower the swadhisthana chakra and raise the kundalini. And Samantha Shakti brought an Anusara practice along with hula-hooping and partner-yoga.

DJ Drez workin’ the beats live for Himalayaa’s juicy outdoor yoga session.

Himalayaa. This woman knows how to get down. Chakra blast kick in the pants of a class. Kundalini wind-up and pop, release. Kama-sutrasana…guess you had to be there…she got us all wound-up.

Kirtan, the ancient Hindu practice of ecstatically singing the names of dieties, was well represented in a variety of forms from the traditional to the radical. Dasi Karnamrita, Prema Hara, and Arjun Baba sang powerful traditional melodies. Dave Stringer’s style was more rock-and-roll kirtan with much enthusiasm. Jai Uttal performed a special reggae-kirtan set. And C.C. White infused kirtan with blues and soul. As the audience sings along with the performers, the idea is that everyone begins to resonate on a high vibration that takes the yoga to a deeper level.

(Left) Mantra master Arjun Baba leads a shaktified kirtan, opening the chakras using the science of raga. (Right) DASI Karnamrita and her Devis.

Kirtan rockstar Dave Stringer and his band are waaaaayyyy into what they’re doing on stage.

Back-up vocals by divas Jaya Laksmi and Joni Allen.

An intimate Bhakti workshop with Jai Uttal, Daniel Paul, and Prajna.

After seven yoga classes in three days, the body is most certainly activated. Bom Siva!

The Bhakti Fest Spring OMmersion was held April 15-17, 2011 in Joshua Tree, California at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. Joshua Tree National Park is about a 20 minute drive from the event grounds. The fall festival will take place September 8-11, 2011. More information can be found at bhaktifest.com. Early-bird ticket prices are currently available. On-site camping and lodging options are also available. The desert is hot, bring sunscreen. Be ready to move. Be ready to sing. Be ready to smile. Be ready to love.

Actually, skip going right back to work and instead stay a few extra nights under the stars camping in Joshua Tree National Park, climb bomber granite cracks and beautiful boulders, self-practice yoga on desert sand in the morning and sing “Kumbaya” around the campfire with your friends into the night. This life just keeps getting better and better. Climber: Melinda Reece.

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