Where Yogis Come to Play: Yoga Connects Festival 2016

Yoga festivals have become hugely popular around the world in recent years, so it comes as no surprise that there are also more and more of them starting out in the UK. This summer was the second time Yoga Connects (14-17 July 2016) was held in the stunning surroundings of Stanford Hall, near Rugby, less than an hour on the train from Central London. It’s a boutique festival (only a few hundred people), which focuses on gathering yoga enthusiasts from around the UK and further afield and offers classes by top international teachers, shamanic ceremonies, a holistic area by the lake, SUP yoga (balancing on a surfboard in the water), gong baths, talks on mindfulness and wellbeing as well as live music in the evenings.

Yoga Connects yoga outside Stanford Hall

After setting up my tent, I headed straight to my first yoga session of the festival led by Emma Henry, who taught a lively jivamukti-style class with chanting elements to a live soundtrack of hypnotic grooves courtesy of Filter Coffee, it was time for the shamanic opening ceremony in the Warrior Tent led by Sally Griffin, one of the festival founders. This was followed by the most beautiful music by Peru-based healer and musician Misk’i Takiy, which I could still faintly hear when I was already snuggled up in my sleeping bag.

After a super early volunteer shift, I joined a class by London-based Anusara yoga teacher Katy Bateman in the Stanford Hall ballroom. Lying on my back, gazing at the painted ceiling of this special room made me incredibly grateful to be here this weekend. Katy’s class was really uplifting, grounding and intimate with only about 15 of us practising in the space – well, plus one adorable Jack Russell, Peaches, who had come along with one of the attending yogis.

The session which impressed me the most on Friday afternoon was by Yogi Ashokananda, an Indian-born expert yoga and meditation master. The many different breathing exercises were a timely reminder of the vast amount of knowledge passed on by our ancestors we can all build on if we are open to it. While travelling and festivals are a great adventure and outer journey which continue to inspire and energise me, the inner journey of getting to know ourselves is just as exciting a challenge and a fascinating, lifelong path to follow.

My favourite session all weekend was the charity yoga class in aid of Our Mala, a wonderful London-based non-profit founded by yoga teacher Emily Brett in 2011 and offering yoga and English classes plus additional support to refugees and asylum-seekers. The class was led by Dylan Werner, whose hang drum playing was the perfect intro to a beautifully paced and challenging class (his teaching was clear, humorous and inspiring) with a specially created soundscape by Amir of Rudimental as well some live gong playing by Martyn Cawthorne. It was one of the most peaceful yoga experiences I have had so far, surrounded by nature and practising alongside lots of friendly other yogis.

Yoga Connects Opening night music

I also joined a great Saturday morning class by Canadian-born UK-based vinyasa yoga flow specialist Mercedes Sieff and attended an inspiring mindfulness talk and guided meditation by Brett Moran in the lovely cushion-filled Zen Den tent. With so much calorie-burning and concentration-challenging activity going on, there was luckily enough veggie and vegan food to keep me going all weekend (incl. Caribbean stews, handmade sourdough pizza, brownies, smoothies and Routes Coffee with about five types of milk alternatives!) and I also made sure I had some me-time just lying in the grass with a book. The perfect yoga retreat!

Despite the fact that music was not as much of a priority as at most of the other summer festivals I usually attend, the line-up was wonderfully eclectic. Saturday night in the Warrior Tent started on a quiet note with Brooke Sharkey and Adam Beattie, whose atmospheric sound and musical storytelling had us all under their spell. They were followed by a set by talented indie four-piece Nonta and the final act of the night was 47Soul who had everyone dancing their flip-flops off with their contagious Middle Eastern sound. The following night it was time for the yoga rave! Before that, however, we got treated to an exquisite set played by Shirish Kumar on tabla and Bansuri-player Jason Kalidas and some songs by gifted spiritual singer Aiswarya. Next up were the very good Burnz, a multi-style musical project with a great vibe. Their sound also attracted a few revellers from the nearby motorcycle festival and one or two brave souls even joined in when the yoga mats got rolled out again for the yoga rave organised by Nine Lives. Way to go! As I heard some drumming from the fire circle outside, I ventured over for a bit and we sang some tribal chants dancing around the fire in the dark led by Antarma. Afterwards I returned to the Warrior Tent for another half hour of energetic dancing before retiring to the happy tent for the night.

Yoga Connects slackline fun

There were quite a few festival yogis with me on the train back to London on Sunday night and we were all in a playful, happy mood. It occurred to me then how special it is to get to spend a few days around so many positive thinkers and creative folks. The event felt very safe and relaxed, children and adults were playing and learning new things all the time (e.g. someone brought a slackline, which became the centre of all the non-scheduled activities) and many of the attendees were also yoga teachers with an enviable combined wealth of styles and knowledge. Another thing I really loved was the proximity of the camping area to the yoga tents and food stalls, so you could quickly pop back to your tent for your mat, some snacks or a little nap if needed. While a few of the organisational details (more showers, maybe creating a proper festival brochure, getting the plastic-free ethos and recycling policy across in a positive way, less gaps in the class schedule, additional food vendors etc.) may still need to be ironed out in future years, what makes a festival truly great is leaving enough space for spontaneity to unfold and just see what happens. So if you’re already a practising yogi or are new to it, it’s a great opportunity to expand your comfort zone, learn and play with some seriously inspiring people! ॐ

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