When I took my first yoga class, it was a level 2-to-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.
Last year, I discovered the Shakti and Bhakti festivals at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, which lifted my practice and awareness to a whole new level.
Bhakti Fest, which returned to Joshua Tree on Sept. 6, 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 40y 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 girls’ weekend or a chance to introduce yoga to the family since kids under 12 are free.
I took the opportunity to attend with Agoura Hills mom Lori Calabrese and Oak Park mom Rachel Russell.
Both times after my festival experiences, I felt clean and strong and my mind felt connected to those around me, despite the fact that we were all so different.
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 morning brought us beautiful Hemalayaa. She was all sparkle and shimmer radiating from a grounded spirit. Her energy commanded we discard our divisions 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.
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 alongside 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 is the essence of love and devotion. Her tip to beginning a practice: “Find many teachers, not just one. Find your mentors, teachers and guides, to be in your fullest, richest experience of life.”
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.
As we found ourselves in Yoga Hall 2 again, we gathered our mats in spots still hidden from the blaze above. 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 honey bee noises, we just went with it.
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. Yogrishi says this sound sends a signal to the mind for healing.
He told stories like the one about the bunny and the cockroach who are both looking for happiness. I decided true enlightenment has to include humour.
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.”
I loved that and after I got home I looked up his ashram in the Himalayan Mountains and dreamed of going.
His tip for beginning a yoga practice: “Pay attention to your breath.”
Fueling our bodies with clean nutrients for a 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.
There is a staggering amount of workshops and lectures held throughout both festivals. We sat in on a talk by Radhanath Swami who told ancient stories about devotion and overcoming obstacles. 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. I had never appreciated Kirtan music because it always felt foreign and disconnected from my reality but with so many artists performing, it was hard not to get swept away in some of their moments.
We finished our yoga day with a journey into the world of Mas Vidal. With the fading sun and the darkening sand dunes as his backdrop, he held the space around us while we froze in poses of his choosing.
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.
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 ideas outside of our suburban bubble.
It opened my mind to possibilities I didn’t have time to think about as a mom, classroom volunteer and in between chores writer.
This next time, though, might be the perfect opportunity to expose my husband to this experience.
Rina Baraz Nehdar is an Agoura Hills mom and writer. She can be found at mommyhasastory.com.