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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.

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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!”

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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.

Meet the Festival Makers: Lou Wellby, Music Curator of FloVibe Festival

The tag line for the new FloVibe yoga and wellness festival taking place at Kelmarsh Hall near Northampton from 2-4 June 2017 is ‘where retreat meets festival’ and judging by the line-up, you could spend all your weekend learning new skills, getting pampered or partying in a relaxed atmosphere to some great live music. The above concept is nothing completely new, of course, but every festival has its unique story, focus and vibe, so I interviewed the event’s music curator, Lou Wellby, to find out more in order to make the best of the upcoming festival weekend.

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Life is a Festival: I’ve caught the yoga festival bug last summer when I attended Yoga Connects and Soul Circus and it’s so great to see Flovibe bursting onto the exciting emerging UK wellness festival scene this June. How did the festival come about and who is behind it?

Lou: Founder Jason Pooley created The House of Yoga in Putney which is a thriving community and local haven and he wanted to connect with other wellness communities and practitioners, to celebrate common ground and learn from one another. This developed into FloVibe Festival, bringing together yogis, musicians, sportsmen, movers & shakers to relax in nature, share ideas and let their wild side come through. Jason Pooley partnered with Matt Cooke (InFrame Media) and I came on board as Music Curator (I founded Jam Sandwich Live in 2011, hosting gigs for artists across the city).

Life is a Festival: FloVibe combines yoga and pilates with wellness and music, so there will be a lot of learning opportunities as well as a chance to relax and just party. What kind of experience do you want festival goers to have?

Lou: Exactly, the festival is about discovery, wellbeing, creativity and play. We wanted to create an experience where people could nourish themselves from the inside out and party with friends in nature – a weekend of discovery, without a week of recovery under the duvet! You can design your day to find your balance, between talks, classes, workshops, disco naps and letting loose to live music. We believe you can be wild and be well, there’s room to try new things, to restore, and to let loose.

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Life is a Festival: I had a look at the fab programme for the festival’s kids area and am sort of regretting being too old to take part in all the fun. What can festival families expect and are there any ways us grown-up kids join in a little bit, too?

Lou: Kids are very welcome, I think we can learn a lot from them about how to immerse yourself in the moment, in creating and in ‘being with’ yourself and others. Festival families will have their own camping area and can enjoy the beautiful lakeside setting together. Yoga, meditation, crafts and games for little ones – the festival is an opportunity to reconnect with your inner child, so yes, absolutely, grown up kids get involved too!

Life is a Festival: Have you got any suggestions for yoga newbies as well as experienced yogis, anything that we should definitely give a try, be it a class, food or treatment?

Lou: Oof that’s a tricky question…I’d say Acro Yoga (collaborative, balancing yoga) and SUP yoga (standing up / paddle board yoga) on the lake will bring a lot of laughter and fun to newbies, Yoga Nidra and Yin Yoga are lovely restorative practices for deep rest, especially after lots of dancing! I also tried Reflexology recently and LOVED it, go through the woods to see Georgie (Retreat 4 Your Feet), it is heavenly. The Bhangra Bus Cafe serves up healthy Indian vegetarian food, so nourishing. I could go on forever and as Music Curator I recommend ALL the music, of course!

FloVibe takes place for the first time from 2-4 June 2017, the line-up, tickets and teacher bios can all be found on the festival website. Camping is possible from Friday until Monday, but there are also day options available, if you’re short of time. Can’t wait to pitch my tent for a weekend of yoga, food and fun!

Disclaimer: All photography used in this blog post was provided by FloVibe festival.

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Mind Over Matter: Soul Circus Yoga & Wellness Festival 2016

I started my yoga journey nearly a year ago and it must have been around the same time when the idea for Soul Circus (19 – 21 August 2016) was conceived by the festival founders, Matt, Ella and Roman. When Matt contacted me about the event earlier this year I was very impressed by their concept: a wellbeing-focused yoga festival with music and food thrown into the equation and thereby bridging the gap between the yoga, music, foodie and wellness communities. It was an experiment I was most happy to be part of.

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YOGA: The top reason most of us gathered for Soul Circus in a rural part of Gloucestershire on a fairly rainy, windy weekend in August was the yoga classes with teachers from the UK and abroad. Three distinct yoga areas (Hot Tipi, Experience Tipi & Main Sail Tent) plus an arial yoga set-up offered plenty of options to choose from. As I had hurt my hand just two days before the festival and felt a bit under the weather in general, I soon realised that instead of energetically throwing myself into all sorts of exciting workshops, I’d have to adjust my expectations to match my physical and emotional state. How refreshing to then discover a class by the lovely Kate Lister whose positive energy was seriously infectious and we found ourselves giggling more than once while trying to balance in a particular pose. And there was even group singing, woohoo. Without the self-imposed pressure of having to try as many classes as possible, I opted for quite a few meditative and theory-focused sessions instead. This turned out to be an excellent choice as it not only helped me to keep my energy up throughout the weekend despite the partly adverse weather conditions, it also inspired me to focus more on the spiritual side of yoga. The mindfulness talk by Charlie Taylor Rugman in association with Warrior Wear (another inspiring yoga start-up story) in the Experience Tipi on Saturday as well as his pranayama class the next morning provided a lot of food for thought and motivated me to further improve my own home yoga and meditation practice. The only class I decided to go to despite my inclination to hang out on one of the cosy beanbags around the corner instead was a yin yoga class by Evelyn Cribbin. I know I need more yin to balance out the many yang aspects in my life, yet this has always been the most challenging part of my yoga practice. But hey, I got through it (Evelyn’s soothing voice and clear instructions were a great help) and, in time, I might even learn to enjoy it. The last session of the festival for me was a very interesting and down to earth yoga anatomy class with Emily Young. In the large Main Sail Tent we had 90 minutes to explore pretty much every muscle in our bodies, do some partner work and learn how this knowledge could benefit our posture and lives in general.

Ushti Baba Soul Circus

MUSIC: Being a big fan of quality live music I was very curious what The Fat Hat Collective from Bristol would come up with on their live music stage. Let me tell you, they didn’t disappoint! In fact, it was a great pity so many of the yoga classes overlapped with some excellent band slots, but I’ve noted all their details and they will most likely appear on another part of this blog at some stage. Their mix of dub, gypsy, folky, jazz and R&B sounds plus some spoken word and even a Mongolian acrobatics display were wonderfully eclectic and all excellent. In case you’d like a taste of the fab music we enjoyed for three days, make sure you give these guys and the rest of the collective members a listen: Lounge Cat Ideals, Mount Nakara, Snufkin, The Inexplicables (who I missed as I was already wrapped up in my sleeping bag by that time, but who come recommended), Ushti Baba & Solus. Kudos not only to the musicians but also to the stage crew who successfully battled wind and rain most of the weekend to provide us with quality sounds!

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FOOD: I admit I’m a big fan of burrito and wood-fired pizza stalls at festivals which would be a great addition next time around. However, the food on offer at Soul Circus was of some of the best quality I’ve ever had in a festival setting! Raw vegan chef Jay Halford and team as well as the always cheerful Asparagasm crew did a particularly good job of offering a yummy selection of breakfasts, mains and desserts all day long. In addition, there were also other options, such as a curry and salad stall, (vegan) ice cream and croquettes. Some of the festival partners, such as Plenish, Wholefoods Cheltenham (the knowledgeable local team did great wine & cheese tasting sessions), Positivitea and Rude Health also offered snacks, hot/cold drinks and breakfast items plus there was a daily gin happy hour provided by The Little Gin Company in the Kit and Ace lounge, so it is well worth upgrading to a VIP ticket. With their concept of working with select sponsors/partners who enhance the festival experience while helping to provide funding for the event, Soul Circus seems to have struck a positive balance. This might not work for every festival on the planet, but particularly in the high end sector, it can be a clever and sustainable strategy, if the partners are well-aligned with the values of the event.

Meet the Founders Talk Soul Circus

WELLNESS & LEARNING: With the weather being less than ideal, especially on the Saturday, many festival attendees took advantage of the onsite sauna, hot tubs and complimentary treatments by Liz Earle Spa, who also provided some luxurious toiletries in the showers and toilet block. I personally greatly enjoyed the ‘Food and Travel’ talk in the Kit and Ace lounge by Tom Perkins, author of ‘Spices & Spandex’, who told us of his –  sometimes very adventurous – travels, mostly by bike, around the world and the deeply inspiring encounters with locals he had had along the way. Another session hosted by Kit and Ace which proved very interesting, was the ‘Meet the Founders’ talk with Plenish founder Kara Rosen, and Soul Circus founders Matt Millar and Ella Guilding. As with so many things in life what really counts is having a good idea, finding business partners who complement your own skills, getting genuine target audience feedback, tweaking the product or service accordingly, getting influencers on board and keep working hard towards your envisaged goal.

tent village Soul Circus

All in all, a well-planned first edition of a growing event with a lot of future potential (not only) for the UK the yoga community in the years to come. I made some lovely new yogi friends (among them @76sunflowers, her own review here) from different areas of the UK and further afield and was genuinely impressed by the many friendly volunteer helpers who always seemed to have a smile on their faces. And even if you aren’t a yoga addict (just yet), with this much entertainment and pampering on offer, you could happily spend a day or too relaxing, eating nurturing food and enjoying the fantastic live music. If there is anything that could still be optimised it would probably be keeping the yoga tents and the music stage a bit further apart, so each can be enjoyed fully and separately. It would also be wonderful if bottled water used across the site could be switched to mostly tap water and the transport options for train users could be improved in order to further decrease the ecological footprint of the festival. Other than that, Ella, Roman, Matt and the rest of the team are definitely onto a successful festival format, which is bound to add greatly to the growing yoga festival circuit in the UK.

Read the Life is a Festival interview with Matt Millar, one of the Soul Circus founders, on how the inaugural festival came about here.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a VIP pass for the 2016 festival in exchange for a personal review 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.

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

Meet the Festival Makers: Matthew Miller of Soul Circus Yoga Festival

There’s a new festival on the block and it promises to be one to watch on the UK summer festival circuit. Soul Circus is a boutique yoga and wellness festival in the beautiful Cotswolds, an intimate ‘immersive escape’ for about 500 lucky folks who will spend an August weekend doing yoga in three themed tents (ambient, party, experiential), getting pampered plus enjoying quality local street food and live music every night.

Sounds awesome, right? I spoke to Soul Circus’ creative and media director (and Broga founder) Matthew Miller to find out more about the upcoming festival.

Life is a Festival: How was the idea for Soul Circus born and what makes it unique?

Matt: This past year, my business partners Roman and his wife Ella had what was billed as a ‘festival wedding’ over the course of three days in the Cotswolds. It was to date the most amazing wedding I have ever attended. Ever since I first moved to the UK from California a few years ago, I was totally enamoured with the idea of the British festival. We have loads of summer music festivals and concerts in the States but nothing, (besides Burning Man), that is an immersive escape from the world we know everyday and a chance to escape through nature back to a simpler, carefree and more joyful life, like when we were kids. We love the smaller UK festivals and thought, what if instead of having the wellbeing as a sideshow to accompany the music, we flipped it around and made the focus the wellbeing, and had the music as the add-on extra? A whole weekend of just being good to yourself and enjoying nature with a little bit of raucous fun instead of debauchery with a bit of detox rehab served on the side. Soul Circus was born.

Life is a Festival: The festival seems incredibly well thought out (stunning location, specifically designed yoga practice areas, posh toilets, health-conscious food offerings), how are you making this happen?

Matt: We threw our idea on Stunning Tents, who supplied the Cirque de Soleil quality tents and glamping accommodations for the wedding, and they loved the idea of hosting a luxury wellness and yoga festival. We have also kept it local in terms of catering. The spa treatment tent is hosted by the Holistic partner from the South West and the organic food and artisanal drink is coming from home-grown upstarts like The Core Cheltenham and The Little Gin Company.

Life is a Festival: Looking at the (very tempting!) Soul Circus website, you managed to get a number of amazing teachers on board, what sort of different sessions can festivalgoers expect?

Matt: Wherever you are on your yogic journey, we want you to have an ideal weekend. With 18 classes a day, guests can fill their days with vinyasa flow and relaxing yin classes, or branch out and try circus aerial or body painting yoga. Whichever way you flow, you’ll learn from the UK’s best teachers who are coming from far and wide to host creative workshops and classes. Not to mention there will be three distinct environments you will never get at your gym or studio at home: a party tent featuring DJ’s, live music and rave lighting; an ambient tent that will host both open air and steaming hot classes and an experiential tent with visual video projections on the walls to transport you to a different land.

Life is a Festival: What about the music, can’t have a festival without music, right?

Matt: Music is the heartbeat of Soul Circus. Our experiences range from DJ-powered yoga classes to acoustic musical meditations to the electric main stage performances. Whatever your taste, you’ll enjoy artists all day and into the secret woodland rave at night. You may even discover your next musical crush.

Life is a Festival: How about kids, is Soul Circus suitable for families too?

Matt: Don’t worry, we didn’t forget about the kids! Soul Circus is totally family-friendly with dedicated kids activities and an on-site spa for some alone time as well.

Thanks Matt! So if you haven’t got any plans for 19-21 August 2016 yet, get your hands on the coveted Soul Circus tickets and join the yoga party. I, for one, am already super excited to add the festival to my packed summer schedule!

Stretch, Breathe, Laugh, Repeat: The OM Yoga Show 2015

There are many reasons why people get into yoga. Mine was slightly different from the usual ones of finding calm or getting fit. As a festival enthusiast, I had often been enviously eyeing the many fabulous yoga festivals and had always felt a bit left out as I don’t usually enjoy most organised forms of sport and had felt too inflexible to join in. I had tried yoga a few times in the past, an open class in a museum in Australia and a small group class in New Zealand when I was travelling, but I had never really wanted to do it again until this September. Having just returned from a holiday visiting family, I decided to give yoga another go. I searched for some online classes and quickly came across Yoga with Adriene. I told myself I’m going to stick with it for just the one half hour the video lasted and if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to do it again. Then something amazing happened. I woke up the next morning and the first thing I thought was, I must try another one of those Adriene videos (and did I mention her adorable dog Benji features in some of them, too, and she is from the live music capital of the world, Austin!). I couldn’t believe it. Trying out yoga once had pretty much instantly turned into a near daily yoga habit – thanks Adriene ;-).

Coco class

Of course one of the first things I did next was to look for nearby yoga festivals, so I came across the OM Yoga Show at Alexandra Palace in London from 23-25 October 2015 (which should really be called the OMG Yoga Show!). The organisers were so nice to give me a free ticket to the show (thanks guys!) and I decided to write a blog post on my first yoga “festival” to show other beginners that it’s all about giving it a go and facing your fears.

On the Friday morning I was super nervous. The programme looked amazing and most classes were for “all levels”, but did that really include the half an hour a day yoga for barely six weeks me? My heart was pounding when I walked through the doors until I found the aroma yoga session with Sophie Bickerdike. I looked around. The people on the mats (women and quite a few men of all ages) seemed friendly enough. Right, I thought, what have I possibly got to lose? I sat down on a mat and have not looked back since!

I ended up trying a couple more classes that day, Dru meditation, yoga for health and wellbeing (run by the British Wheel of Yoga) and Kundalini yoga. All of them were intriguing and each instructor made sure each of us felt comfortable and included. I also loved the general atmosphere at the event. Unlike at many other trade shows, it was all very friendly with lots of enthusiastic smiley people and an incredible amount of tempting colourful yoga outfits, props and retreats on offer.

The next morning I felt completely different than the day before. I couldn’t get to Ally Pally fast enough and was circling a whole number of exciting looking sessions in the programme on the bus. Alas the first class I had picked was totally oversubscribed, so a quick decision was needed and I joined a laughter yoga class with Harish Chavda. OMG! How much fun we had acting like children wearing props such as Christmas hats while actual children were looking on incredulously probably thinking, what are these adults doing?? After such a relaxing start to the day I stayed on the same mat for the Let it Flow class by Tiffany Mackenzie-Shapland. Despite some tech issues (the only downside to the show all weekend), it was a lovely, peaceful session, which left me floating for the next couple of hours. Another highlight of the weekend was the Yogabeats class with David Sye, which made me quite emotional in a good way. Their approach and projects are really well worth checking out and supporting. Beautiful stuff.

Lotus class

I also had a chat with Sirrka Fisk, who has written a lovely children’s yoga book called Ommie and the Magical Garden. The lecture stage at the show had quite a few interesting sessions as well including one by Louise Palmer-Masterson of CamYoga on running a successful ethical business whilst overcoming self-limiting beliefs, which really applies to any business, not just to teaching yoga. As the yoga for horse riders class had sadly been cancelled I headed home a little earlier. This turned out to be very lucky, as I ran into the fabulous Tara Stiles, who owns Strala Yoga in New York, at Finsbury Park station. Another one of my favourite online yoga inspirations, she was super friendly and I just couldn’t believe how much fun I was having this weekend.

There is always the dreaded last festival day and it was no different at OM Yoga Show. I absolutely tried to make the best of it though and gave quite a few different yoga styles a go. I started the day with a raw vegan chocolate making workshop (yes, there were samples and all food at the show was  vegetarian or vegan!) followed by a Dance on Your Fears class by Eleonora Zampatti, who also happens to be on the OM Yoga Magazine November cover. The description had sounded relatively general and I liked the idea of learning to deal with my fears, but had had no idea it was all about arm balances! However, once I was on the mat, there wasn’t really any way of getting out of it, so, to my utter amazement and thanks to Eleonora’s precise and encouraging instructions, I gave Crow Pose a go.  I managed to lift myself up on my beginners arms for about a second at a time and felt like this pose might become a friend much sooner than I could have ever expected. Wow!

The rest of the day was equally enlightening. I took part in a wonderful and fun Animal Asanas class with Jenny Mace, right before which I bought a fantastic t-shirt from My Mantra Activewear with “I just want to drink coffee, save animals and do yoga” written on it – I couldn’t have put it any better! Next up was Yoga Bou with Chaco from Yokohama, using a Japanese stick. I love Japan (travelled there twice) and Chaco made the class super fun while we also got a really good workout. I should have probably called it a day after this session (especially my arms were screaming ‘stop’ at this point), but couldn’t resist the Yoglow class (the only 45 minute one I did) with Michael from Yogangster. Even this early on I’m already a big fan of flow classes and despite feeling sore from three full-on yoga days in a row I managed to stick with it.

coffee animals yoga tee

Alas all festivals come to an end at some point, but luckily OM Yoga Show seems to have two sister events in Glasgow (2-3 April 2016) and Manchester (20-22 May 2016) and now that I’m completely hooked on yoga, there are so many other things out there to try. Acro yoga looked amazing for instance and I cannot wait to teach a few basic animal asanas to my little nieces during the Christmas holidays. So if you, like me not so long ago, think you’re not flexible or patient enough to give yoga a try, just give yourself half an hour or even just 15 minutes a day, do one of the Adrienne videos online and notice how you feel. I completely agree with Tiffany of Croyde Yoga, whose session I attended on Saturday, that trying out lots of styles and teachers is a great idea. You never know, yoga could become your great new passion. It has definitely already changed my life so much for the better. Namaste 🙂