Tag Archives: uk festivals

The Transformative Power of Yoga: World Yoga Festival 2017

When I got off the train at Pangbourne, near Reading, on my way to World Yoga Festival, I noticed some graffiti on the wall opposite the station. It read “Buy More. Work Harder. Live Less.” A great reminder why it’s sometimes good to stop and think and take time out to reconsider what is important to us in life. World Yoga Festival, which took place from 6-9 July in the beautiful natural setting of Beale Park by the river Thames was the perfect place to do this. In fact, it was like a positivity boot camp.

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The festival only started last year, but it felt like it’s been around for decades. Ram and Sonali Banerjee and their team have created something very special, which in itself reflects the power of yoga as a philosophy, that oneness is not just a theoretical, hard to grasp concept, but that by doing the right actions, big and small, and working actively towards positive goals with others we can achieve something incredibly beautiful. World Yoga Festival brings together renowned masters from different yogic disciplines and embraces all eight aspects of yoga. It is yoga in practice.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been at an event where there was so much spiritual knowledge gathered in one place. I had never heard of most of the speakers and teachers before last weekend and I’ve still not been to India. But World Yoga Festival is probably the closest you can come in the UK to get a taste of spiritual India while also having a real outdoor retreat with a swimming lake, lounging in the chai tent at sundown, eating the most scrumptious vegetarian and vegan food and getting lots of healthy exercise. There were a number of gurus (removers of the darkness of ignorance) and swamis (spiritual teachers) present and every speaker I listened to (pictured above is Swami Satvananda Saraswati), had something helpful to add to our own practice, no matter where each of us currently was on our path of learning.

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In fact, the variety of festival attendees was quite astonishing. I met people from various countries, holistic practitioners, yoga teachers, lawyers, engineers, people making the most of their retirement by travelling and learning, seasoned yogis, musicians, groups of friends on a weekend away, families with little ones and older children, enjoying nature together and the craft workshops and classes on offer especially for them. All the volunteers were really into yoga and super friendly and we exchanged lots of tips about other yoga events.

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It was also really easy getting to know new people before and after classes and over some of the yummy vegetarian and vegan food, which included salads, crepes, risotto and pasta, Mexican and lots of delicious Indian food, which was my favourite (South Indian masala dosa, savoury Indian pancakes, curries and dhal). In addition, there were stalls with yoga clothing, mediation cushions, a non-alcoholic cocktail bar, fresh juices, coffee and yogi tea.

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By the lake you could learn to drum or play the didgeridoo, have a massage or simply lounge in the beautiful Earth tent, which was strewn with large cushions and little lights, which glowed beautifully in the dark. Even the toilets were amazing. I don’t often post pictures of something as basic as this, but it just underlines again how much care went into every detail of the festival. There were hardly any shower queues and it all made me feel like I’m at a holistic retreat rather than a camping festival. So nice.

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The main draw and best part of the festival, however, was of course learning from the wonderful masters and teachers, many of them from the birthplace of yoga, India. As at most festivals, there was a packed schedule divided across four stages (Space, the largest, where all the evening concerts and some ceremonies took place, Air, Fire and Water). The tents were spacious and each had a differently coloured floor with white walls and ceilings. It was a little overwhelming at first to choose between so many excellent sounding classes, workshops, gong baths (see pic further down), meditations and talks, plus a Bharatanatyam dance workshop by Ananya Chatterjee, which all seemed unmissable and to also get enough time to relax (or rather let all the teachings sink in!). So I just tried a few different ones each day.

Unlike at quite a few other yoga festivals, there was a huge emphasis on knowledge and learning. So rather than lots of physical yoga, even the asana-based classes in the water tent were often more on anatomy (e.g. by Sri Louise from the USA) or positive thinking (Neil Patel talking about yoga and cancer).

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My favourite teacher at the festival was 98-year young Tao Porchon Lynch (see pic above – the world’s oldest yoga teacher and ballroom dancer, who grew up in India, marched with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was a resistance fighter during WWII, a top model before that term even existed, Hollywood actress, business woman etc.). I went to her first session on Friday morning and decided to go to the two other ones, too as I’ve learned from other festivals that it’s often good to stick with someone you can really relate to. Her personality, kindness, gentle sense of humour, fierce strength (shoulder stand with lotus) and resilience (three hip replacements, broken wrist etc. never stopped her) was just beautiful to witness. The first time that weekend when tears came to my eyes was when we did sun salutations with her to tango music. And she just kept reminding us that a positive mindset is everything, that she always feels every day is going to be the best day ever and nothing is impossible. How lovely that she felt grateful to be there with us this weekend just like we felt lucky to witness her boundless energy. What a role model!

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Iyengar teacher Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh’s daily 2-hour early morning and afternoon classes in the large Space tent were also a huge draw. He went into lots of detail about the poses he taught and speaking to attendees afterwards, it was a very valuable learning experience, which I’m sad to have missed (as were Dr. Bali‘s sessions, another nonagenerian yogi!). I did catch a beginners’ Iyengar class with Uday Bhosale and Mary Niker, however, who were great at assisting us with different asanas and despite the hard work, the hour and a half went by quicker than I thought. The longer session concept of the festival with various classes building on the previous ones, was a good system, so you actually felt you progressed throughout the weekend. Alternatively, you could sample lots of different styles and talks and then continue learning more about specific ones after the festival.

I also attended various talks on non-duality and yoga philosophy, which began with festival director Ram Banerjee’s sunset talk on Friday night, followed by a Ganga Arati ceremony by the lake. Throughout the weekend I listened to a number of gurus and philosophers discussing complex concepts, usually with a lot of humour, but also lots of space for serious questions. It felt very good being able to sit or lie in a sun-flooded tent with others who were all keen to soak up knowledge, respectful of the speaker, the space and each other and take it all in. This year’s masters and teachers included some of the above mentioned as well as Swami Ambikananda, Guru Dharam, Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati and others.

The live music in the evenings was a great mix of traditional Indian musical instruments and singing blended with a more Western sound and I very much enjoyed Manish Vyas‘ quieter devotional music as well as Soumik Datta’s (see pic below) Saturday night set, which turned into a real drum and base dance party with an Indian twist at the end of the night. There were also some great outdoor lunchtime sets by Sam Garrett and Brett Randall. And how lucky (or well-planned) that Guru Purnima (homage to the gurus, i.e. our spiritual teachers) happened to be on Sunday, which was of course marked with a ceremony in the Space tent. To top everything off there was also a full moon on Saturday night, a truly auspicious weekend for a yoga festival!

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Writing this in my home in London and looking through other festival goers’ social media posts with lots of smiles and the sun shining on us all weekend long (we did have a lot of influential people praying for good weather!), I still feel buoyed by the vibrant and playful energy of World Yoga Festival. This is why this blog exists. Go out there wherever you are and find these special gatherings, be open to learning new things and you will see that the world is an amazing place!

My main take-aways from the festival weekend:

  • Meditate regularly (so please ask me next time you see me if I’m doing this as I really, really want to make it a habit, but find it even harder than my regular yoga practice)
  • Deepen my knowledge of yoga philosophy and my personal yoga practice
  • We can all achieve more than we think, if we believe in it and are open to learn (I improved my bridge, tree and dancer poses through simple but effective tips from Tao and Uday)
  • Travel to India (I’ve been wanting to go for years, but the more I learn about yoga philosophy, the more this is becoming an actual plan)
  • Remember to be more like Tao whose motto is ‘Nothing is Impossible’ as in ‘Everything is Possible’
  • Finally, return to World Yoga Festival, because it was just fantastic in every way!

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

 

Meet the Festival Makers: Ram and Sonali Banerjee, directors of World Yoga Festival

World Yoga Festival, which will be taking place from 7-9 July 2017 just outside Reading, is the largest yoga festival in the UK and brings together a collection of expert teachers from around the world in traditional yoga and meditation plus offers live music and ample opportunities for learning and reflection. Unlike some other yoga festivals, this one focuses on going deeper in your yoga practice, no matter if you are a beginner or have been practising for years. The organisers‘ core aim is that once you leave the festival, you will go home with more understanding and carry it over into your everyday life.

This all sounded excellent to me, so I’m heading there for the first time in July and decided to interview the festival founders, Sonali and Ram Banerjee, to get a better idea about the upcoming event. Here is what I learned.

WYF 2017 logo

Life is a Festival: In the West, yoga is quite often reduced to practising and perfecting asanas and, to some extent, pranayama. You focus on a more holistic approach. How did this come about and what impact do you think it has on participants and the communities they bring this learning back to after the festival?

Ram & Sonali: Yoga should always be on a holistic level. To gain acceptance in the west, the early practitioners were obliged to strip out the spirituality and thus turn it into fancy exercise. The eight limbs (or aspects) of yoga as described by Patanjali go from truthful living all the way to Enlightenment. We aim to bring all these aspects back together in one festival to be offered as a platter of delicious items. Each item genuine, authentic and of the highest quality possible. These tastes may be new and unknown but they are presented for you to try. No one can describe a taste to you. You have to sample for yourself and once you do, and like it, there is no turning back.

At the festival, every guest has unrestricted access to all classes, to all tastes. Are you brave enough to try something new? If you do, that knowledge will stay with you forever. When you return from the festival you will enthuse others with the wisdom gained and start them on their own path to discovery. They say ignorance has no beginning but has an end, while knowledge has a beginning but no end. Our mission at World Yoga Festival is to offer the classes on subjects familiar and unfamiliar to you. For you to sample and eradicate ignorance on subjects with knowledge. How you choose to use and develop that knowledge afterwards is entirely up to you. This is always about YOUR personal journey to liberation.

Life is a Festival: In order to build knowledge, participants are encouraged to follow a series of practical workshops and talks by renowned yoga masters during the course of the weekend, which is something I’ve missed at similar events. Is this something that has always been part of the festival and how can it help the individuals’ progress on their yoga path?

Ram & Sonali: Everyone is on their own yoga path. There is no right or wrong path but your path may be restricted to what you have come across. The festival aims to offer a wide variety of yoga subjects – all at the highest level. In order to catch a glimpse of the depth of each of these paths, it is necessary to spend a little time on them. Not only do we have longer classes (up to 2 hours) so that the master need not rush to covey the wisdom but a succession of classes throughout the festival allows masters to develop on a theme and be more elaborate with the content. This allows for deeper learning.

Life is a Festival: I heard that there will be a world record attempt happening at this year’s festival. Can you tell me a little more about what is planned or is it still top secret?

Ram & Sonali: We are very excited to announce that we will attempt to beat the world record for the largest Laughter Yoga class. According to the Guinness Book of Records, this stands at 1129 people attending a single class. This is a tough challenge but it will be fun to try and break the record. I think this will appeal to a lot of people. It would be incredible to be able to say “I was there!”

WYF lake yoga

Life is a Festival: Are there any general tips you have for first timers at your festival, be it in the practical sense as in what to bring or leave at home as well as on a more spiritual level in terms of mindset and expectations?

Ram & Sonali: If you have a yoga mat then please bring that. If you are not into asanas then just bring yourself in the mindset to learn something new. Leave any judgement at home since you cannot learn anything new if you judge it immediately on hearing. All judgement is based on what you already know, hence you cannot learn anything new. Better to accept ‘subject to future verification’ and see if it makes sense to you by (a) hearing everything with such dedication that you can paraphrase it back (b) discussing and asking questions so that all doubts are removed and (c) sitting and contemplating to see if it is true for you. Expect your mind and your heart to be opened without drugs or alcohol amongst like-minded individual whose only mission is to learn to love and love to learn!

Thanks to Ram and Sonali for getting me even more excited about the upcoming festival! The masters confirmed to be teaching at World Yoga Festival 2017 include Tao Porchon-Lynch (who turns 99 this summer!), Rupert Spira, Dr. Madan Bali, Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh, Swami Ambikananda, Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati, Guru Dharam, Sheila Whittaker, Peter Russell, Swami Svatmananda, Swami Santatmananda and many others. There will be 12 hours of expert-led yoga each day, followed by entertainment and dancing in the evenings, delicious vegetarian world food, a healing area and also a dedicated family entertainment zone.

Namaste for now, see you at the festival!

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Disclaimer: All photography used in this blog post was provided by World Yoga Festival.