This past weekend I attended the 6th annual Bhakti Fest—a celebration of devotional music and yoga at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. Unlike last year when I came just to check out the “bhav”, this year I was an actual “presenter” and taught 2 yoga classes on Friday and one on Saturday. Bhakti Fest is like the Woodstock of devotional music. Many of the top acts in the world of devotional music were there—Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Deva Premal, MC Yogi, Shantal, Girish, Donna De Lory, and many more. Thursday night’s headliner was Matisyahu, the talented singer who combines elements of reggae and Hazzan—sung prayers in the Jewish tradition. He sang some songs from his new album, Akeda, featuring his new “stripped down songs”. Around 10pm I really started to get sleepy and trudged back to my car for the five-mile drive back to Yucca Valley and my luxurious accommodations at the Super 8 Motel.
Friday morning I awoke early, knowing that I was teaching a class at 7:30am. This is pretty early for the Bhakti Fest crowd because the music keeps going until the wee small hours of the morning—still, maybe 90 people showed up. I took a poll in the beginning of the class to see how many of the students were regular ashtanga practitioners, and was pleasantly surprised when half of them raised their hands. Based on that survey and the fact that the students were still fresh that early in the day, I taught a pretty traditional first series class through navasana, plus backbends and finishing poses. Some people came up afterwards and expressed their appreciation for a “traditional class.” My next class wasn’t until 5:30 pm so I had plenty of time in between for breakfast with my assistant Maria Zavala, a nap, a reiki treatment, and another nap before driving back to the festival to catch some afternoon kirtan. I met my friend Uta at the main stage at 4 to see someone she highly recommended--Karnamrita Dasi, an American bhakti who has one of the most beautiful voices in the Vaishnava tradition. When Karnamrita began to sing, the pure devotion pouring through her voice immediately touched a chord in my heart and brought tears to my eyes. I could have listened to her for hours, but had to leave at five to go teach my class—An Introduction to Pranayama. I figured that at this time of day it would be good for people to do something more sedentary and restorative. Some of the students apparently hadn’t read the class description and, despite the brilliance of my presentation, several of them made early departures. I was reminded of a recurring dream I have, where I am teaching at a big yoga conference and the students gradually walk out of the class until I am the only one left. Thankfully, many of the students stayed. The featured performer Friday night was Salif Keita, known as the “golden voice of Africa”. According to Krishna Das, Salif Keita is “The best singer in the world”. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the sound that took some time to resolve so he and his band didn’t start playing until almost 10:30—way past my bedtime. They were great, and I hung in there for about 45 minutes before I had to go back to the motel and crash.
Saturday morning I got up early so I could sing the Hanuman Chalisa with Nina Rao from 8-9. Nina is Krishna Das’ personal assistant and manager, but also a talented kirtan walla. We sang 6 or 7 Chalisa’s with Nina over the course of an hour, which were very powerful. Afterwards I drove into the little town of Joshua Tree and had breakfast at the charming Crossroads Cafe. I didn’t have to teach on Saturday until 1:30 so I had time to wander about the premises and catch a couple of impromptu kirtans and drum circles, as well as sampling some state of the art new herbal formulas and checking out all of the Bhakti Fest vendors. I was teaching in a different location on Saturday, known as Yoga Hall 2. Someone informed me that this is an outdoor venue and my heart sank when I realized that we would be practicing in the sun during the hottest part of the day. At the time it was about 95 degrees. Someone else said, “It’s not so bad—they have some shade cloth up and they’ve glued yoga mat material to the concrete slab.” For the final part of the class I would lead the Hanuman Chalisa, so I had to show up a little early for a sound check. Paul, my guitar player, and Susan, my bass player, drove all the way from Encinitas to be there and play with me. My percussionists, Amanda and Christine—the final members of the “Pancha Vayus”-- were already on site and they were all waiting for me when I showed up for sound check. As we were getting all the microphones set up the venue began to fill up. The class was called, “Nourishing the three Vital Essences—Prana, Tejas, and Ojas.” My plan was to do an hour of asana, ten minutes of pranayama, and then sing the Hanuman Chalisa. The asana portion was more of a flow sequence, including my signature Suryanamaskara C. I wore a headset for the class, which somehow unleashed my inner comedian. It was a fun class that everyone seemed to enjoy. After class I texted Krishna Das to see if he had time for a short visit before his sound check. He said he could meet backstage at 5:30 and we had a few precious moments together, catching up on the latest with our families, our travels and, once again, talking about doing a retreat together someday. Nina was in on this conversation, which means that something might actually happen. Krishna Das and Jai Uttal were the featured performers Saturday night. I was happy to see that KD was starting at 7:30 because I was planning to drive home after his set. I’ve seen a lot of kirtan wallas over the years, but KD is still my favorite. He didn’t disappoint on Saturday night. An added treat to the kirtan came near the end when Ram Dass appeared via skype on the two large screens on the sides of the stage. Ram Dass received the Bhakti Fest humanitarian award for 2014 and just wanted us to know that he loved us more than ever. At the conclusion of KD’s set I got up and reluctantly made my exit from Bhakti Fest. The lightness I felt in my heart made the two and a half hour drive home seem like a breeze.