The Transformative Power of Yoga: World Yoga Festival 2017
When I got off the train at Pangbourne, near Reading, on my way to World Yoga Festival, I noticed some graffiti on the wall opposite the station. It read “Buy More. Work Harder. Live Less.” A great reminder why it’s sometimes good to stop and think and take time out to reconsider what is important to us in life. World Yoga Festival, which took place from 6-9 July in the beautiful natural setting of Beale Park by the river Thames was the perfect place to do this. In fact, it was like a positivity boot camp.
The festival only started last year, but it felt like it’s been around for decades. Ram and Sonali Banerjee and their team have created something very special, which in itself reflects the power of yoga as a philosophy, that oneness is not just a theoretical, hard to grasp concept, but that by doing the right actions, big and small, and working actively towards positive goals with others we can achieve something incredibly beautiful. World Yoga Festival brings together renowned masters from different yogic disciplines and embraces all eight aspects of yoga. It is yoga in practice.
I don’t think I’ve ever been at an event where there was so much spiritual knowledge gathered in one place. I had never heard of most of the speakers and teachers before last weekend and I’ve still not been to India. But World Yoga Festival is probably the closest you can come in the UK to get a taste of spiritual India while also having a real outdoor retreat with a swimming lake, lounging in the chai tent at sundown, eating the most scrumptious vegetarian and vegan food and getting lots of healthy exercise. There were a number of gurus (removers of the darkness of ignorance) and swamis (spiritual teachers) present and every speaker I listened to (pictured above is Swami Satvananda Saraswati), had something helpful to add to our own practice, no matter where each of us currently was on our path of learning.
In fact, the variety of festival attendees was quite astonishing. I met people from various countries, holistic practitioners, yoga teachers, lawyers, engineers, people making the most of their retirement by travelling and learning, seasoned yogis, musicians, groups of friends on a weekend away, families with little ones and older children, enjoying nature together and the craft workshops and classes on offer especially for them. All the volunteers were really into yoga and super friendly and we exchanged lots of tips about other yoga events.
It was also really easy getting to know new people before and after classes and over some of the yummy vegetarian and vegan food, which included salads, crepes, risotto and pasta, Mexican and lots of delicious Indian food, which was my favourite (South Indian masala dosa, savoury Indian pancakes, curries and dhal). In addition, there were stalls with yoga clothing, mediation cushions, a non-alcoholic cocktail bar, fresh juices, coffee and yogi tea.
By the lake you could learn to drum or play the didgeridoo, have a massage or simply lounge in the beautiful Earth tent, which was strewn with large cushions and little lights, which glowed beautifully in the dark. Even the toilets were amazing. I don’t often post pictures of something as basic as this, but it just underlines again how much care went into every detail of the festival. There were hardly any shower queues and it all made me feel like I’m at a holistic retreat rather than a camping festival. So nice.
The main draw and best part of the festival, however, was of course learning from the wonderful masters and teachers, many of them from the birthplace of yoga, India. As at most festivals, there was a packed schedule divided across four stages (Space, the largest, where all the evening concerts and some ceremonies took place, Air, Fire and Water). The tents were spacious and each had a differently coloured floor with white walls and ceilings. It was a little overwhelming at first to choose between so many excellent sounding classes, workshops, gong baths (see pic further down), meditations and talks, plus a Bharatanatyam dance workshop by Ananya Chatterjee, which all seemed unmissable and to also get enough time to relax (or rather let all the teachings sink in!). So I just tried a few different ones each day.
Unlike at quite a few other yoga festivals, there was a huge emphasis on knowledge and learning. So rather than lots of physical yoga, even the asana-based classes in the water tent were often more on anatomy (e.g. by Sri Louisefrom the USA) or positive thinking (Neil Patel talking about yoga and cancer).
My favourite teacher at the festival was 98-year young Tao Porchon Lynch (see pic above – the world’s oldest yoga teacher and ballroom dancer, who grew up in India, marched with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was a resistance fighter during WWII, a top model before that term even existed, Hollywood actress, business woman etc.). I went to her first session on Friday morning and decided to go to the two other ones, too as I’ve learned from other festivals that it’s often good to stick with someone you can really relate to. Her personality, kindness, gentle sense of humour, fierce strength (shoulder stand with lotus) and resilience (three hip replacements, broken wrist etc. never stopped her) was just beautiful to witness. The first time that weekend when tears came to my eyes was when we did sun salutations with her to tango music. And she just kept reminding us that a positive mindset is everything, that she always feels every day is going to be the best day ever and nothing is impossible. How lovely that she felt grateful to be there with us this weekend just like we felt lucky to witness her boundless energy. What a role model!
Iyengar teacher Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh’s daily 2-hour early morning and afternoon classes in the large Space tent were also a huge draw. He went into lots of detail about the poses he taught and speaking to attendees afterwards, it was a very valuable learning experience, which I’m sad to have missed (as were Dr. Bali‘s sessions, another nonagenerian yogi!). I did catch a beginners’ Iyengar class with Uday Bhosale and Mary Niker, however, who were great at assisting us with different asanas and despite the hard work, the hour and a half went by quicker than I thought. The longer session concept of the festival with various classes building on the previous ones, was a good system, so you actually felt you progressed throughout the weekend. Alternatively, you could sample lots of different styles and talks and then continue learning more about specific ones after the festival.
I also attended various talks on non-duality and yoga philosophy, which began with festival director Ram Banerjee’s sunset talk on Friday night, followed by a Ganga Arati ceremony by the lake. Throughout the weekend I listened to a number of gurus and philosophers discussing complex concepts, usually with a lot of humour, but also lots of space for serious questions. It felt very good being able to sit or lie in a sun-flooded tent with others who were all keen to soak up knowledge, respectful of the speaker, the space and each other and take it all in. This year’s masters and teachers included some of the above mentioned as well as Swami Ambikananda, Guru Dharam, Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati and others.
The live music in the evenings was a great mix of traditional Indian musical instruments and singing blended with a more Western sound and I very much enjoyed Manish Vyas‘ quieter devotional music as well as Soumik Datta’s (see pic below) Saturday night set, which turned into a real drum and base dance party with an Indian twist at the end of the night. There were also some great outdoor lunchtime sets by Sam Garrett and Brett Randall. And how lucky (or well-planned) that Guru Purnima (homage to the gurus, i.e. our spiritual teachers) happened to be on Sunday, which was of course marked with a ceremony in the Space tent. To top everything off there was also a full moon on Saturday night, a truly auspicious weekend for a yoga festival!
Writing this in my home in London and looking through other festival goers’ social media posts with lots of smiles and the sun shining on us all weekend long (we did have a lot of influential people praying for good weather!), I still feel buoyed by the vibrant and playful energy of World Yoga Festival. This is why this blog exists. Go out there wherever you are and find these special gatherings, be open to learning new things and you will see that the world is an amazing place!
My main take-aways from the festival weekend:
Meditate regularly (so please ask me next time you see me if I’m doing this as I really, really want to make it a habit, but find it even harder than my regular yoga practice)
Deepen my knowledge of yoga philosophy and my personal yoga practice
We can all achieve more than we think, if we believe in it and are open to learn (I improved my bridge, tree and dancer poses through simple but effective tips from Tao and Uday)
Travel to India (I’ve been wanting to go for years, but the more I learn about yoga philosophy, the more this is becoming an actual plan)
Remember to be more like Tao whose motto is ‘Nothing is Impossible’ as in ‘Everything is Possible’
Finally, return to World Yoga Festival, because it was just fantastic in every way!
Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.