Bhakti Fest: Notes from a First-Timer


I pulled my rental car into the dirt parking lot of Bhakti Fest, in the Joshua Tree desert, and a security guard in a bright orange vest motioned for me to roll down my window. I did, to a blast of 100-degree heat.

He grinned at me, yelling, “Namaste!”

I grinned back, realizing I had pulled off the highway and into an alternative reality.

Bhakti translates as love, devotion, and the festival is five days of camping in the starry California desert, practicing yoga to the backdrop of live musicians, singing kirtan and dancing barefoot to the likes of MC Yogi and Krishna Das until late at night. When my friend, Deidre, invited me, my whole heart said yes.

In general, I tend to be a rule follower, prone to anxiety and worrying. Bhakti Fest promised to be the exact opposite of all of that. I was especially excited to go there with Deidre, who was also the extroverted opposite of me. She had been several years in a row and knew the ropes: where to register and set up camp, where to get good coffee, where to take a shower. These details were high on my list of pre-festival anxiety triggers, but they turned out, like most things, to be no big deal. Still, it was nice to follow Deidre’s well-traveled Subuaru past the friendly security guard and down the desert mesa to the flat, sandy campsites.

“All of this space will fill in around us,” Deidre predicted, and by Day Two, it had, someone even slinging a hammock between two Joshua trees right beside my tent. I never met the person, but I saw the cocoon of his or her sleeping body every morning, when I was awakened by the sunrise.

That was part of the joy of BhaktiFest, the beautiful grittiness of it. Waking to the rising sun, taking photos of the pink clouds and walking through the sand to the Porto-potty. The 103 degree temperatures in the middle of the day, when we emerged, sweaty, from yoga classes (in an air-conditioned hall). The joy of jumping in the Joshua Tree Retreat Center pool, of ordering delicious vegetarian food from a range of food carts in the dirt parking lot: dhosas, acai smoothies and cold avocado alkaline soup. Not to mention the occasional Coconut Bliss ice cream and chai and yes, coffee, definitely coffee, at 7:00 a.m. before Kia Miller’s Kundalini class.

Kundalini yoga was completely new to me. There were so many offerings at Bhakti Fest that were new to me: shamanic dream journeys, talks by Radhanath Swami, a cacao ceremony with Juan Pablo Barahona. But I had been most nervous about trying Kundalini, unsure about the white outfits and weird arm swinging exercises. The whole practice was such a departure from my background in staid Iyengar yoga and vinyasa-based Ashtanga yoga.

Deidre, though, had completed a Kundalini yoga training with Kia Miller in India and she was emphatic that I try her class. I trust Deidre in all things, really, but first and foremost in getting me out of my shell. So I tried it. And Deidre was right; I loved it.

Kia’s style was so approachable and open-hearted that I finally got it; I understood what the arm exercises and the breath of fire exercises were about: I felt the integration of mind and body, the experience of absolute love and acceptance, right there on the mat. And Kia’s accompaniment, by the musicians Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda, aka Kirtronica, was divine, rhythmic grooves and soulful vocals, creative riffs in response to Kia’s teaching, right there in front of us, live.

Every class, actually, was creative and completely inspiring. There was the San Francisco couple, Govind Das and Radha, blending kirtan and yoga postures and just plain all-out dance party. There was Sean Johnson & the Wild Lotus Band from New Orleans, weaving storytelling into yoga, adding humor and lightness, encouraging us yogis to laugh at ourselves (and oh, there was so, so much to laugh about, really: sweaty group hugs being #1 on my list). There was Sianna Sherman, conjuring Goddess Power to empower us all.

The two Bhakti Fest events that Deidre was especially excited about were on Day Three of the festival, the cacao ceremony with Juan Pablo Barahona and a sky art project in the desert, where 1000 people would form the shape of a water goddess, photographed from a drone flying overhead, to protest fracking in California.

As Deidre and I crowded into the performance tent for the cacao ceremony, I asked, tentatively, “Have you seen the ‘Portlandia’ episode about cacao?” She hadn’t, which was good; it was full of ironic humor, but at the moment, that kind of humor wasn’t helpful.

Juan Pablo, a charismatic yoga instructor from Costa Rica, was all about genuine open-heartedness, the exact opposite of ironic self-effacement. He stood on the stage with a gorgeous smile and infectious attitude, leading a group of musicians, engaging us in kirtan, honoring the new moon and paying tribute to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. It was so touching and the live music was so beautiful that we were all swept up in it, singing round after round of Om Gam Ganapataye while Juan Pablo passed out small paper cups of cacao, flavored with cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg.

“Cacao in Maya,” he said, “is ‘fire of the heart.’” He said that the drink symbolically opens the heart chakra. “It is pure medicine,” he added. “Elixir.” He instructed us to hold the small cups up in each direction, north, east, south, west, drinking to health and love and new beginnings.

The ceremony was so simple, so unexpectedly profound that it was another Bhakti breakthrough, smashing my skepticism and opening my heart. And the sky art project turned out to be just as inspiring.

I almost didn’t go. By the time the cacao ceremony ended, it was late afternoon, the temperature hovering at 100 degrees. I had visions of trekking through the desert and standing in the hot sun for hours while the artists tried to herd 1,000 of us into the desired water goddess shape.

Deidre’s optimism prevailed, though, and we filled our water bottles joined the crowd, collecting our friend, Jack, along the way. We made a colorful parade, winding down a dirt trail from the mesa, led by a group of drummers and dancers. The sun dipped behind the clouds, illuminating the faraway mountains, and the temperature cooled.

It was lovely, actually. And despite the odds, the art project came together seamlessly. The outline of the water goddess was staked in the sand with twine and ribbon, and we all arranged ourselves, lying along the perimeter, leaning against each other, supporting each other. The drumming and chanting continued and Shiva Rea and Mark Whitwell led a soul-felt prayer to the earth and the precious resource of water. In that moment, the thousand of us were one; we were art, we were music, we were raising awareness of water conservation, we were protesting fracking in California. It was freaking awesome.

Bhakti Fest as a whole was truly awesome. Part of what made it so powerful was that the entire festival revolved around live music. Sridar Silberfein, the organizer, envisioned Bhakti Fest as a spiritual Woodstock, where thousands of people would come together, chanting the names of God. Krishna Das has said that in India, people understand that God is within, that the Hindu images associated with God, deities like Krishna and Hanuman and Ganesha, are symbols of the divine that live in each one of us. Chanting the names of God from any tradition is sacred because each repetition is said to be a seed, and sooner or later, that seed grows.

The seeds of love were certainly sent out like a dandelion blizzard all day and late into the night at Bhakti Fest. The main stage was an ideal meeting spot, and Deidre and I gathered there with clusters of new friends, sprawling on lawn chairs and blankets, singing along with artists like Gina Sala, her sweet voice, gorgeous sari and beautiful lyrics, inspired by a Hafiz poem, “The one I love lives inside of you.” We jumped up when David Newman performed “Radhe Bolo” with Brenda McMorrow, everyone dancing and spinning. And then there were the fantastic evening concerts, DJ Yogi, Jai Uttal and the resonant, moving voice of Krishna Das.

On Sunday evening, I had to peel myself away from the music to pack up my tent before dark. Trevor Hall was playing on the main music stage, his voice echoing out over the desert. In the span of four music-and yoga-filled days, I had connected with people I barely knew and talked about things that really mattered, conversations about the divine within, about our deepest dreams and our spiritual paths. Bhakti Fest was an alternate reality, a better reality, and I wanted to wrap the love around me and take it back home, shining in my heart, scattering the seeds onward.