This photo of C.C. White tells the whole story.
There’s a certain magic in the desert of Joshua Tree, California, and the Bhakti Fest tribe that gathers there every September knows how to use it.
Centered around the practice of Bhakti Yoga—the yogic path of devotion and love—this festival truly embodies a continually opening and expansive spiritual vibration. The genuine smiles and vibrant connections felt between all the festival-goers is testament to the great spiritual work being done at this gathering—the Bhakti mode of living that is gradually working its way throughout the entire American Yoga community.
For four days and four nights, mantras were chanted and danced by an international tribe of soulful brothers and sisters, and yoga ceremonies and workshops were presented by lineage-holders to help attendees deepen their connection to their bodies, to wisdom, and to each other.
Visvambhar of The Mayapuri’s, bright as the sun.
Shining Bright in the Desert Sun
I found myself spit-out of the Bhakti-bubble, a mantra-permeated vortex of high vibrations. I found myself in the Phoenix International Airport, and putting my new-found realizations to the test. In the beautiful desert air with a light-breeze, I had had the sun on my back, no shirt all day, surrounded by smiling faces, open-receptive people that know the meaning of seva, that know the meaning of Bhakti.
But now, I found myself in the airport surrounded by America, surrounded by the American Dream, surrounded by McDonalds and Starbucks and frowns. I found myself wanting to hold this torch, this flame of love and community and connectedness, this torch of yoga ignited and sustained at Bhakti Fest as I move through the world. And I’m floored as I’m looking around the airport, nobody is making eye contact with me, nobody is sharing smiles and connection. The airport is the perfect place to test my values and realizations—it’s tense in there, people have their guard up.
d1So I slowly start working, start talking to the lady next to me, eventually we hug, then I look over at a brother and I say “Hey man, if I smile at you will you smile back”, and it was quite awkward for him and I said, “Man, I love you in a totally non-sexual way!” and it was even more awkward for him. And eventually he was able to smooth out, and I tell him “We’ve got to honor the Goddess here, we’ve got to honor the women in our life. We’ve done an awful job in America the way the media has taken over and so wrongly portrayed the female form and we need to make sure the women in our lives know they are respected for who the are and the true beauty and wisdom that they birth into the world.”
I look over at another woman and she’s sharing smiles with me. She wants a hug, I give her a hug. She wants a kiss on the cheek, but I don’t comply and she is put off. I can smell a strong scent of alcohol on her breathe and I say “I’m stoked that you are in this open, loving state. Continue to cultivate this! You seem to be connected to the spirits. Make sure you also cultivate this without the help of alcohol.”
I walk over to some brothers that look like strong guys, I say “You guys look like you are fit, you are cultivated, how do you maintain this?” and it turns out they are motocross riders from Texas. Slowly I work on them “If I smile at you will you smile back, will you share a smile with me and look me in the eye, and will you do this to other people too, other strangers, just look them in the eye and smile?” With their guard up, they don’t quite trust me, half-jokingly they tell me they think I’m trying to get money from them, but all I want is for them to smile at people without any attachments or needs. And these are my realizations at Bhakti Fest.
The first two days of the festival, I made a conscious effort to smile at every soul I walked past, and the people that weren’t smiling, they had a straight face, they had their ego on their mind, they had their guard up. Within two seconds of smiling at them, they’d smile back, and they knew, they knew what was going on in their mind, and they knew it was time to release it. They knew that we were there as yoga community and to share love openly without attachments and without perversion.
And that’s the beauty of Bhakti Fest, it’s such a clean gathering, all the music is either kirtan or mantra-inspired and nobody is on any psychedelic substances or mind-altering drugs, but we’re all super high! I’m just walking around just smiling at everybody, and the people who come to the festival early are the one’s who are really into it and really understand the scene there, so it was really easy to do that work and get everyone to smile.
They would have eventually smiled had I not done the work, but there was some key interactions there of just helping me understand the ego and helping others break through that space of fear or self-consciousness and openly share their positive energy. And when we do this, we come into the energy of the infinite, these positive vibrations have no need from us, nothing to take from us, only energy to give, and when we just share our smile with everybody we come across we all start to feel real good. I noticed on Saturday night as more people came up from L.A. that weren’t part of the core-crew, it became increasingly difficult to hold this space of openness as people took over the venue with their lawn chairs and their issues from their daily lives, still bringing them in, and these people filtered out by Sunday afternoon and we were really left a very very very blissful closing to this festival as the final act, the All-Star Jam in which all the musicians join on the stage to sing Hare Krishna for an entire hour, I saw so many people in a really elated state, and I know I’m not alone when I say I was in a state of connection with the bliss body.
With Shiva Rea, it’s not a yoga class, it’s a tribal ceremony.
And there’s something in having the kirtan mantras going on for 24-hours a day for four days, it does something to you that is not explainable, that is not logical. There’s something in dancing with your friends, singing together, everybody singing together, for so many hours, it just transcends the physical form, it transcends our regular lives, and all of sudden we find ourselves in this other state of being, another state of consciousness that’s so filled.
So here I am in the airport trying to do my work of sharing this in whatever way I can, opening the American public to connection, to cooperation, to love in a new state, a new form. I get off the plane and I take out the karatals (Indian finger cymbals) and I start singing Radhe Govinda. As we exit the plane and take the escalator upwards, while we had been individuals going our separate ways, all of sudden, for those moments, we are one united people walking together, united by the mantra and the rhythm of the hand cymbals.
As I’m walking through the airport walk-ways, people are looking over at these new sounds in the airport and it’s a unique situation because people aren’t used to seeing somebody express their self, especially somebody expressing their spiritual nature and their creative nature, really putting their self out there in a space like the airport. I’ll admit I was slightly worried that the security guards were going to come because I was singing and playing the karatals, this love vibration cutting through the hearts, like it was too much emotion, something that could waken people from their submissive state, a reason to accuse me of a terrorist act.
And I got a good amount of positive reaction and smiles that hadn’t been there moments before, and I heard some people calling their loved ones immediately on their telephone in a state that was more cheerful than they would have been and talking about what I was doing. And I made my way up top to the bus station to catch my bus back to Boulder and just really singing out. And people were really resonating with this, tears in people’s eyes, tears in my eyes as I sing, of just feeling the human heart share itself in a public place in America without any attachments or needs to receive anything back.
C.C. White brings her entire being into her soul-kirtan.
It’s really about just acknowledging each other. And at first it may seem like we are just acknowledging each other individually, but what we are really doing is acknowledging each other at a soul level. We are all coming from the same place, at the roots we are all the same being, and this is what yoga is about, reuniting with the divine self that is inside all of us, and we can do this by just acknowledging each and every person we come across.
At first it may seem like a chore to do this, but when it’s no longer work to acknowledge people, when it automatically happens from both sides, both people, is when we really find our Anandamaya Kosha, our bliss-body that is purely reflecting the divine light, and this is our goal, our desire, as humans, to reunite with this state. And I don’t believe that it is a project for each of us to take on alone, it’s a project for us to work together to complete, and we need to do this. Please share your smile and openly acknowledge one another so that we can all rise together and fly back home.
“Haribol Haribol Haribol! Govinda Govinda Gopal!” Jai Uttal and friends rocked the house with a humongous band and uplifting rhythms.
In kirtan, the audience is just as much a part of the band as the musicians!
Bhakti Fest is like a pilgrimage. In the yoga community of America, this is the spiritual uniting, spiritual festival for our modern American yoga community. We have a really beautiful thing there because we are finding these high-vibrations using ancient wisdom, but it’s not being guided by Indians or people from the East. This is being guided by Americans who have found their way back to the ancient path of yoga and Hindu practice, Bhakti Yoga. It’s really inspiring to see and feel Americans holding this space. Our country is built on imperialism, built on economic competition, and it’s really amazing to see a community like Bhakti Fest gather not around these things, but gather around singing, sharing, and working together to find ourselves.
So it becomes like a pilgrimage for the modern yoga practitioner to make their way to Bhakti Fest. When you are at the festival, a question like “Are you having fun?” doesn’t even take on a meaning, there’s something much deeper going on than just mere fun. And all of us, we’re not just having fun indulging in our desires, we are truly doing work there by singing all these mantras together, doing the work of praising, doing the work of being present to compassionately care for each other and help each other rise into love.
There’s so much diversity of work being done there with the healing tents with massage therapists, yoga classes where people are doing their Kundalini, their ecstatic dance, there’s musicians helping the flow of the yoga classes by helping people get into their Bhakti, into their bodies, into the moment using their physical asana as their prayer.
We also have all these kirtan musicians. Some of the best kirtans that went down happened at a spot in-between the two stages, as acoustic sessions, mostly held by the young devotees, the Gauriya Vaishnavs, and these road-side throw-downs of really strong tribal mantra-chanting and powerful drumming whipped people into a frenzy of ecstatic devotion as the moon rose overhead. Some of the best feelings of the festival were cultivated there, away from the formality of stages and sound-speakers.
Percussionist Haribol Das looking so at home in the bhav.
The festival hosts big-name acts like Jai Uttal, performing with a 20+ piece band with two drum kits, really high-energy reggae and ska kirtan—fun stuff to dance to and really brought everyone together of all age groups and yogic backgrounds. We had Krishna Das. Everybody shows up for Krishna Das on Saturday night and all-of-sudden the venue is packed, times two, for this man who has brought kirtan across all of America. Deva Premal and Miten were holding down some nice loving vibrations singing traditional songs from the Native American traditions and the Puruvian Ayahuasca traditions, and, of course, kirtan. There was this beautiful moment where they were singing a song that stated “love” in a Native American language and they had everybody just find whoever they came across in that moment and sing this song eye-to-eye with their hands in prayer to each other, just sing this song and then go onto the next person and sing to them and repeat. All of a sudden the whole audience took to something so foreign to modern Western life and you could tell that there was some really deep connecting going on with thousands of people, just mind-blowing. So thank you, Deva Premal and Miten for bringing that beautiful connection to the space.
Vrinda Devi’s beautiful dance offering in the desert setting.
Of course, The Mayapuris put on a beautiful show complete with Vrinda Devi performing traditional Indian dance and their final song brought tears to many of the eyes of the audience through just the pure beauty of their devotion to their Gurudev, Srila Prabhupada, and the dieties they hold so high. Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda Yogiji bringing some beautiful music to the main stage, really heart-song oriented music, not only kirtans, but originals as well that stick in your head for days. They also played music for Kia Miller’s Kundalini class that was very heart centered, a class based on bringing positive love into our hearts through the practice of Kundalini Yoga. This year, the festival included mantra-infused electronic music at night, which allowed people to enter deeper into their dance-space, and dancing together is another nice way for us yogis to connect.
Shiva Rea calling in the prana.
In terms of yoga teachers, of course Shiva Rea was a big hit, having a class with Qawwali singing and African drumming, a really strong, powerful rhythmic class at the outside yoga stage, a solar flow with lots of kriyas, getting us worked up in a frenzy of strength and making that a sacred thing, using our strength as a sacred connection to the sun. Also, there were some nice Acro Yoga classes, helping everyone connect in a dynamic, safe, and communicative way. It’s really easy to find connection with somebody using Acro Yoga, keeping each other safe in beautiful, opening postures while working together.
David Newman provided an uplifting kirtan on Wednesday night before the festival had officially begun, allowing everybody drop into the bhav. He even invited random people from the audience to come up and take turns singing the mantra into the microphone which was a special way to break down the barrier between musicians and the audience, which is what kirtan is really all about—we’re all in this together to do the work, to sing the praise, to uplift each other—and he did a great job in breaking down barriers to connection.
Special thanks to Shridar, the festival organizer and creator, for envisioning such a beautiful gathering that has grown over the years and we are all excited to watch it grow and let the bhav take us to higher states of bliss than we ever realized possible. I know I’m ready for more. Bhakti Fest has become a pilgrimage for many of us and I encourage those who haven’t attended to consider coming out. The more people that are able to hold this space in our greater yoga community, the greater we will all be for it. Give thanks.
The Kirtaniyas, Gauriya Vaishnav devotees, bring their entire lingeage and lifetimes of devotion to the stage while sharing their kirtan practice.
During Shiva Rea’s class, Tahir Qawwal (pictured) of Fanna-Fi-Allah sang Qawwali music accompanied by African drumming. The two styles of music blend together beyond well.