"Yoga is not a union of our hands to our feet or our heads to our knees. It is a union of the self to the Divine" - HH Pujya Swami Chdanand Saraswati
Over 1,000 people from 60 countries around the world gathered for Rishikesh's largest ever International Yoga Festival from March 1st-7, 2015. Events were held at the picturesque Parmath Niketan, the town's largest ashram on the banks of the Ganges river. It was a jam-packed week of asana classes, lectures, cultural performances, presentations, evening prayer ceremonies, and fabulous vegetarian food. There were so many sessions running parallel that it was impossible to attend all of them. Looking back 10 days later, some of the highlights for me at this first festival I've attended included -
How to Be the Change You Wish to See - Dr. Vandana Shiva Dr. Shiva gave a passionate presentation to inspire activism, and encouraged festival participants to get involved and educated on environmental and health issues. She spoke about health risks on the rise around the world, and particularly related to GMOs. She noted that leaky gut syndrome and autism are rising at an alarming rate, and it's mostly due to the food we eat.
"As earth citizens what we do with food is one of the most important aspects of citizenship," she said, in response to a question on what we can do in our local communities. Dr. Shiva referred us to several websites for more information, including www.seedfreedom.org and www.navdanya.org
Special Divine Satsang with Pujya Shri Prem Babaji Shri Prem Babaji was calm, focused and direct. His message, as I interpreted it, boiled down to this - the key to your own happiness is no lamenting and no complaining. Yes! We spend so much of our times and thoughts doing both - and how much happier and lighter life would be without all the lamenting about what could've been or could be. A beautiful chorus of young musicians accompanied him - playing both before and after the lecture. Their rendition of 'Om Shanti' was nothing short of angelic.
Traditional Hath Yoga Asana Class with Sun Salutations and Mantra with Sadhvi Abha Saraswati (Mataji) and Indu Sharma Mataji's gentle classes were the perfect start to the day - a mix of joint loosening practices, sun salutations with mantra, and several asanas to finish. Her angelic voice filled the room with Sanskrit chants to begin each class. Indu assisted Mataji on some days, and taught herself on the final day of the festival. She coaxed participants into ardha chandrasana - demonstrating first and then walking around the room to assist with her radiant smile and precise instruction. Their classes are both accessible and enjoyable to a wide audience.
Jivamukti Yoga with Jules Febres Jules led two two-hour classes on days 3 and 4 of the festival. He started both classes with a beautiful chant session and then went on to present fun, challenging asana sequences with uplifting music, assists, and lots of laughter. Both classes were packed mat to mat. Memorable moment: Jaya Jagatambe chant, which Jules started himself slowly and quietly, and then built up to include the whole room chanting along. Gorgeous.
Kundalini Yoga Gurmukh, Tommy Rosen and Kia Miller taught all week! The kriyas were both accessible and invigorating. We were even treated to a live performance by Gurunam Singh at one of Tommy's classes. As Tommy noted in class, 'We need both short and long term goals. See life as a series of choices we can make, and set yourself up one day at a time for the best day possible.'
Holi Celebration! The yoga festival coincided with the spring festival of colors Holi, with the ashram boys getting into the spirit and playfully smearing eco-friendly colors all over festival delegates. We were greeted with enthusiastic bursts of 'Happy Holi' and purple, pink, green and yellow chalk! Live music, dancing and lots of color made for a holiday that felt every bit, if not more, of a celebration than New Year!
Evening aarti ceremony on the Ganges at sunset was magical every night. Listening to the ashram leadership and students chanting songs and prayers, with hundreds of people repeating after them, was the ultimate sound experience. I also couldn't help but admire the serene faces from around the world that came to discover their own versions of union for the week. Union with one another in the form of new friendships, a closer connection to and exploration of yoga and the Divine, and union with the Ganges, mother earth and the environment.
As Mataji said at the end of each class, 'never forget the blessings you have been given, and count them every day.' What a blessing it was to experience the festival!