This is a place to let loose, beyond stretching your muscles and connective tissues. Bhakti Fest is a great way to exercise your spirituality.
This is not for everyone. The 2011 fall festival attracted about 4,000 serious yoga practitioners over the four-day weekend. These were not the ones that tune in to an online class or DVD, or hang out at a gym or yoga studio for weekly workout. These are the real yoginis that understand yoga is about much more than just twisting your body or standing on your head. The four-day festival starts and ends with a puja (fire ceremony).
Many of the hatha and bhakti yoga enthusiasts welcome being close to nature, and Bhakti Fest is set in the high desert, about 20 minutes past Palm Springs. A large number of the attendees choose to camp out at the Joshua Tree facility which not only gives them a greater chance to receive prana, but it also allows them to soak in more of the 24-hour live music offerings.
While music is a major focus at Bhakti Fest, there are nearly 100 hours of yoga classes, 40 hours of workshops/lectures and about 60 hours of kirtan*, not including the many yoga classes that feature live bands.
Yoga practices clearly can be enhanced by connecting with the vital elements such as earth, sky and sun. So practicing outdoors in the hot desert air bothered few of the yoginis, and sleeping outdoors in a tent under the moonlit sky with faint sounds of drum beats, and periodic frenetic chanting, was also not only practical and inexpensive, but a treat. For those on an even tighter budget, Bhakti Fest offers work programs where attendees volunteer a certain number of hours before, during and/or after the festival.
Many of the Bhakti Fest attendees are repeat visitors. They come prepared with their chairs and blankets and set up their viewing areas by the main stage early on, and keep their spot for the entire four days of the festival. A few of the hard core folks sleep at the main stage area, as the bands never stop. This is considered the Woodstock for an alternative crowd, focused on self realization.
n the yoga community, much is said about love, in the broader sense of the word. Mark Whitwell, the founder of the The Heart of Yoga who has taught across the world for more than 20 years, spoke much about love prior to his yoga class. He referred to Jesus who said, “Love They Neighbor as Thy Self.” Whitwell then went on to explain how yoga helps one to love. “Love fails when we fail to love. You can’t be intimate with someone else until you’re intimate with yourself.” Since yoga is about union, it helps you to be intimate in your own life.
Bhakti means devotion, and bhakti yoga is the practice of devotion through kirtan and other related practices. It seems as if all the Bhakti Fest yoga teachers are bhakti practitioners and they all infuse a good amount of spiritual knowledge into the classes. Many have live kirtan bands performing in the background or on stages.
Kirtan is like gospel music. It is the language of the heart. It’s devotional and it begs the listener to participate, not just by singing along, but by pouring the body and spirit into it. Bhakti yoga is said to be the most direct and therefore essential of all the eight yoga branches. Practiced mostly in Sanskrit, it enters the soul.
At Bhakti Fest the music is not just the traditional harmonium accompanied call and response that may be the norm at ashrams. The kirtan bands here at the Joshua Tree resort range from fusions with soul, rock, gospel, Caribbean and funk.
Beyond the music in the yoga classes, there are two stages with live music, which are on a non-stop track. One stage entertains folks in the food court area. But the main stage is the big draw where some stake out their spots early the first morning, and spend the night in their sleeping bags as the music rolls on until about 5 a.m. The vendors surrounding the main stage seem to get into the beat, too. Most are still open well past midnight.
The vegetarian food vendors in the food court area don’t close their doors after the traditional dinner hours, either. The all organic gluten free vegan menu items are plenty, as early as 8 a.m. until the wee hours of the morning. There are natural juices, smoothies, raw desserts and vegan burgers and curries.
Lydia’s prepares several styles of gluten free vegan crepes, among many other popular items ranging from kale chips to granola bars to cold curry salad and a raw quinoa burger on a blini rather than a bun.
The Krishna Kitchen serves up a bowl of vegetable curry with rice and a salad for seven dollars. They also serve samosas and fresh coconut milk. One of the exhibitors gives free samples of hot or cold Teecino, a coffee substitute, while another offers bottles of refreshing sugar free juice made out of plant proteins like spirulina and quinoa.
For those that may be looking to take a break from the sun, the workshops round out the days here. Perhaps one of the most interesting was one that validated why people feel so good, or replenished, after yoga, kirtan or deep breathing.
Dearbhla Kelly has studied extensively how the brain reacts to the different branches of yoga. According to Kelly, when you chant, do pranayama or stand on your head, we release neuropeptides. Hormones are released during chanting or hatha yoga, basically endorphins. She gave the example of oxytocin that is released in your system when in a head stand, just as it is released during breastfeeding. This is also why women are told to focus on their breathing during labor, to release the endorphins.
So basically, a yoga practice, whether pranayama, bhakti yoga or hatha, all create bliss in the body as the natural endorphins in the body communicate with the internal organs, digestive, central nervous system and respiratory system. Maybe this is why yoga enthusiasts seem to have a different outlook on life, and traditionally abstain (or don’t need) alcohol or other drugs. Kelly callas all this “karma is chemistry.” It’s a natural pharmacopeia that enhances your whole life. Could be those natural drugs are what keeps the festival goers coming back each year.
*Kirtan is the practice of chanting mantra. In Sanskrit, kirtan means “to repeat”, and mantra means “to tune the mind.” Like yoga, kirtan is used to align the mind, and, spirit