Into the Desert: Bhakti Fest I

I’ve just returned from five days of Bhakti Fest – what I lovingly refer to as Yoga Heaven.

In the middle of the Mojave Desert, at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, about 5,000 yogis and bhajans come together to sing, practice, and pray for four days. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be at Bhakti Fest, but I want to give it a shot to share it with you all.

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I arrive on Wednesday mid-morning, after a three hour drive from my brother’s place in Pasadena. Los Angeles has a magical quality, sandwiched between the ocean and the mountains. But Joshua Tree is in the desert beyond the mountains, and the drive there is a metaphor for the journey we’re embarking on. We leave behind the beaches of Santa Monica, and hikes in Hollywood Hills, drive through gaps in the San Bernadino┬ámountains, past giant cities of windmills, beyond Palm Springs’ 100 golf courses and the Native American Casinos to arrive at the Institute for Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree, CA. (Yes, that’s what it’s called).

The Retreat Center is well worn, with a few central buildings – the Sanctuary we use for workshops, the carpeted “exercise” hall that transforms into Yoga Hall I – surrounded by modest housing designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his son. Don’t get too excited – it’s no Falling Water – but the stark design of the apartments and caravansary don’t distract you from the landscape.

The desert of Joshua Tree

The desert of Joshua Tree

And then here in the middle of the desert, is a giant outdoor stage, along with two other yoga halls, and a tiny village built for all of us to come together to sing, practice and pray. We drink chai and vegan protein shakes, eat delectable dosas stuffed with kitcharee. I’m grateful they have a coffee stand, and the chunky monkey (blended bananas and cacao nibs) ain’t half bad.

I settle into my apartment, a bathroom and workable kitchen (except the stove is just for show), which I share with six other women – five of whom are strangers. I describe my sleeping arrangements as “bougie,” to a friend who (like most attendees) is camping in the desert nearby. I know myself well enough to know that I’m not enlightened enough to go without A/C and my own shower for five days in the desert.

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My first day is spent in an intensive with Dharma Mitra. He’s one of the old masters; a 70-something Brazilian who you might accidentally mistake for Indian — especially when he effortlessly demonstrates a two-fingered headstand. Like most of the spiritual teachers of the weekend, I am reminded that humor is mandatory to be successful in this business — whether because it attracts students or keeps you sane doesn’t seem to matter.

Mitra tells us at least a dozen times to “extend our compassion beyond our pets,” which is a much milder version of vegan promotion than his previous edict “If you eat animals, you become an animal.” I do my best to meet teachers like this with a blend of compassion and humility, for both of us. We do an old school practice that requires a lot of long holds of deep poses, including lizard as pose #3. There are lots of invitations to bring lotus or half-lotus into our postures, which I politely decline.

Like many old school teachers, he goes around the room giving less-than-gentle adjustments. It almost looks like he’s throwing people into poses, teasing them when they cross the wrong leg in front, openly scolding people who can’t follow his direction. He can get away with this approach, yet it stands in such contrast to the gentle coddling I give my own students who don’t have a highly developed sense of body awareness.

Within half an hour we’re doing a number of headstand variations (again: on carpet under yoga mat), followed by shoulderstands. These are the “king” and “queen” of poses, but I try to remind myself to take it easy and not push too hard — I can do the poses, but I know my ego still makes wagers my body can’t cash in on. I’m a little worried for the students who are less aware or less careful, considering these are also the most injurious poses in the practice. I’m surprised that Mitra pairs us up at the end of practice for a couple of acro poses, and grateful when he gives us an extra long savasana. That is something the old school teachers get right every time.

We’re given a 20-minute break, and return for a dharma talk about the philosophy of yoga. Without telling us that’s what he’s doing, he’s breaking down the first three chapters of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. I find it nice to start here. The Sutras may not be everyone’s favorite text, but it seems important to start weaving the tapestry of the weekend with this as the base layer. We’ll hear competing advice over the weekend to the “nirodha” yogis (withdraw your senses, retreat inside, and discover the magical gem of your true nature), but Mitra offers it sincerely and honestly as “the right way.” He goes into the koshas and the kleshas and atma bodhi, and teaches some pranayama. He tells us to skip the first two chapters of the Bhagavad Gita (bless his heart).

He uses computer and cell phone metaphors, which seem ubiquitous nowadays in the yoga crowd. But it’s a nice way to think of it: what makes a cell phone useful is the signal, not the hardware. You’re gonna trade in for the newest technology every two years anyway (if you’re lucky enough not to crack your screen) — so better not to get too attached to your current device. Remember: the signal is what matters. “If you don’t see the bliss in you, you’re blocking it.” It’s both a hopeful and hopeless sentiment.

He tells us he loves to play pool. He gives practical advice about how to put these lessons into action: do your meditation like you take a shower. Do it every day. Don’t beat yourself up when you miss a shower, you just take one the next day. He closes with a perfectly luxurious 30-minute yoga nidra (usually translated as “yogic sleep,” but that he calls “psychic sleep” — I prefer this translation.)

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I limp back to my bougie apartment to eat, shower, and prepare for the opening kirtan. My knee hurts, and I know instantly that my chronically tight groins were not okay with the deep groin work, even if I did skip most lotus attempts. I promise myself I’ll make an appointment with a body worker in the morning.


More to come…