10th Annual Bhakti Fest: Healing And Expanding The Heart
By Ashley Shires
It was 100 degrees in the Joshua Tree desert and the sandy parking lot of Bhakti Fest radiated heat, even as the sun dropped in the sky. It was the third time I’d been to the Yoga festival, founded by Sridhar Silberfein, a visionary from New York who had been on stage at Woodstock in 1969, introducing his guru, Swami Satchidinanda, who chanted the invocation to the crowd. Bhakti Fest is a modern-day Woodstock, with a huge outdoor stage featuring all the Yoga favorites: Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, MC Yogi, and a smaller, Hanuman stage, with music flowing all day and into the night.
Even as a yoga teacher, Bhakti Fest is such a departure from my normal life, a four-day, all-day, all-night immersion into Yoga, kirtan and ecstatic dance. I had been nervous the first year I’d come, overwhelmed by the logistics of flying to Southern California with a tent and sleeping bag, finding a campsite between the joshua trees, navigating the festival. I’d been worried about where I would shower, how I would get coffee in the morning.
But after my first Bhakti Fest, I knew it was all worth it. I met a group of friends who came to the festival every year from Chicago, Jackson Hole, Southern Utah, and Los Angeles. I camped with them under the stars, ate amazing vegetarian food in the festival’s vendor village, took classes with my favorite Yoga teachers: Kia Miller, Janet Stone, Saul David Raye, and Shiva Rea. I danced my heart out to Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda, was moved to tears by Krishna Das. This year, walking into the 10th Annual Bhakti Fest, I felt nothing but excitement.
It was a big year for Bhakti Fest, the 10th Anniversary. Deepak Chopra was joining the line-up, along with Dharma Mittra and other luminaries. To kick it all off, Govindas and Radha were leading kirtan on stage in Workshop Hall 1, a large building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Radha’s beautiful, sultry voice singing, “Jai Ma.” The room was full of dancing, swaying people, and there he was, my ex-boyfriend, in the middle of the crowd. I felt a wave of dismay. I had debated bringing him to Shakti Fest the previous May. The festival was my sacred place, a retreat from my daily life. But I loved the festival so much that I also wanted to share it with him. When I first met him, he had been into CrossFit, took one yoga class a week at the gym. I wasn’t sure how he would handle the yoga festival in Joshua Tree: the heat, the chanting, the hugging. But he’d loved it, just like I did.
My friend, Jennifer, waved from across the room, and I moved towards her, grateful, and we gave each other a huge hug. And then I spotted Jack, a friend I had made at my first Bhakti Fest, three years earlier. He spotted me, too, and bee-lined through the crowd, picked me up and swung me around. I laughed, my whole body relaxing. I was with my people, in the Bhav. There was room for me, my ex-boyfriend, for Jennifer and Jack, and for my friend, Deidre, who was placing her blanket in the sea of people at the main stage; there was room for all of us.
That night, in my tent, I poured through the program, circling the classes I didn’t want to miss, the performances, the workshops, the music. In the morning, I went to my first yoga class, Kia Miller in Yoga Hall 1. I looked up from my mat to see my ex-boyfriend on his mat, five people over, but it was an opportunity, I told myself, to practice compassion, for myself and for him, to embrace the Yogic teachings: love, forgiveness, letting go. I had introduced him to Kia, and also to the music of Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda, and now he, too, was a devotee.
Almost all of the Yoga classes at Bhakti Fest are accompanied by live music - there is something amazing about singing and chanting in the middle of a vinyasa or kriya, the music infusing the physical practice. And after each class, everyone floats blissfully out into the desert heat, filling water bottles, buying acai bowls and cacao hemp shakes, falafel and dhosas, making their way down to the main stage. It was four days of this: Yoga, live music, dancing, kirtan camp with Girish and David Newman and more, workshops on tantra and the Hanuman Chalisa. By the second day, even my ex-boyfriend and I gave each other a huge hug, forgiving each other, grateful for the love we had for each other, letting each other go our separate ways with kindness.
In that state, I made my way to Deepak Chopra, an incredible addition to Bhakti Fest in honor of the festival’s 10th year. “Science,” he said, “is a particular story of reality based on a methodology. As yogis,” he continued, “you don’t want to settle for a story. You want to know what reality is.” He talked about the importance of Patanjali, the first Yoga sutra. “Yoga,” he said, “is mental formations.” He talked about the power of meditation, participated in a wisdom panel with Shiva Rea and Jai Uttal, and he gave a moving guided meditation on the Main Stage Saturday night, before Krishna Das came on stage with his deep, resonant voice, the crowd swaying, chanting, dancing deep into the night.
Over the course of the festival, all the Yoga instructors, artists and musicians sent gratitude out to Sridhar for making the event happen year after year, an incredible public service, contributing to the greater good, to a more loving, conscious world. Bhakti means love, devotion, and I came home from the festival transformed by the experience, awed by the way Bhakti Yoga heals and expands the heart.
To learn more about Bhakti Fest visit bhaktifest.com.