Driving through Albany, north of Auckland, where the industrial estate splurges into a mega out-of-town shopping precinct complete with NZ's own holy trinity; Pac N Save, Kmart and Carl Jr Drive-Thru Burgers, the last thing you'd expect to find is a yoga festival; but that was exactly what I was looking for as I drove through the sprawl in February, increasingly thinking I'd made a mistake.
Kawai Purapura means “the nexus point between the lineage of the past and the seed of the future,” and entering the so-named retreat centre and permaculture village nestled away, not 200m from the main road, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd 'gone bush.' As if passing into a parallel universe of calm, cicadas and rushing streams drown out the thundering motorway traffic; ferns, dewy and furled fringe the driveway, and the air becomes a little purer.
Ditching Robin for a weekend of (as he would put it) 'Hippy Dippy' I was to volunteer here, at the 5th International Yoga Festival for the weekend; 6 hours work a day, in return for as many classes as I could squeeze in, dorm-style accommodation and an unexpected bonus; two meals a day.
At the introductory talk, we were introduced to the key staff members and facilitators and everyone was asked to shout out a word to set their intention for the weekend; the obvious 'peace' and 'love' were tentatively thrown out there straightaway, but as we thought about it, the smattering of voices steadily grew, like popcorn in a microwave; 'grounded', 'open-minded', 'learning' and 'growth' came called out in harmony with 'new friends', 'me-time' and 'resetting.'
While all this was going on, I couldn't help but notice how many girls in the assembled group had luminous green hair- whatever, I thought, all's fair in love and yoga. Turns out the natural swimming pool was sanitized with a copper compound and indiscriminately separated the natural blondes from the bleachers.
With new and easily made friends (one with green hair), I explored the grounds; tipis set up to accommodate the following day's classes, workshops and music. Gazebos and stalls assembling finishing touches to their crystal, clothing, jewellery, toiletries and food displays. Prayer flags fluttered their primary colour salute in the warm February breeze. The existing (beautiful) yoga shalas would also host vinyasa, hatha, iyengar, ashtanga, kundalini, yoga nidra, aerial, yin, meditation and pregnancy classes throughout the weekend.
Within two minutes of standing and breathing, I felt the unmistakeable zinging in my ears and dull headache that precedes a dizzy spell, and knew I was about to faint. My eyes prickled with black spots and I felt my lips go dry- If anyone was to open their eyes, I would be visibly paling. Perhaps it was the standing and deep breaths, or perhaps it was the fact I had indulged in a thai massge in Henderson en route to the festival and all the toxins were releasing from my muscles, or perhaps, indeed, it was the collective energy of 100 people breathing in time, sending out love and friendship into this shared space and moment.
I watched the rest of the fire ceremony upside down, head between knees from a bench. People dropped their handfuls of earth and herbs into the flame, foreheads were blessed with a powdery white tilaka and new red string joined the raggedy old one from my YTTC.
After a steaming, spicy chai latte, the evening was spent dancing in a tent. The festival is drug and alcohol free and, I can only speak for myself here, to start with I was content to sit and watch the music. But then, as more and more people got up and started to dance, I was struck by a very intense and immediate burst of 'what the hell', and got up and started dancing around as though I was in my bedroom, age 12, with Britney on CD and hairbrush in hand. There was a complete carefree, joyful, uninhibited atmosphere in the tent that night- a feeling which I would find carried through the whole festival.
Waking at 5.50 the following morning, I snuck out, through the sleeping bodies in the dorm to a gentle morning yoga class. A basic hatha flow, during the 90 minute practise the sun rose and tuned the hazy morning bright and clear. Teacher Maria's soothing European inflections, and soft but sure-handed alterations eased everyone into gentle twists and bends, repeating the mantra 'I am that I am,' for a grounding and personal wake up class.
At 9am, I went to a workshop focussing on Te Reo Maori song. “When in Rome,” I thought. Teacher and healer Wairete sang us a beautiful introduction and blessing, and then we played a name game. “Kor Robyn Aho, Kor Wairete Ki” (SP). My favourite part of this workshop was learning a waiata.
In Te Reo Maori, which is a phonetic language based heavily on vowels; the 'Ah' sound designates the feminine and the 'Oh' sound the masculine. Where they meet, is the sound 'Ee'. So the sound to denote balancing of masculine and feminine energies, as is the basis of hatha yoga, is 'Aaaheeeoooh.' We learnt a four verse song, based on these principles.
After this class I had an hour or so to look around the stalls. As The Worst Person for Saying 'No', I was quickly accosted by a duo from Siddhartha Meditation Practise, sharing their chosen technique. As someone relatively new to the yogic lifestyle, calm, focussed concentration is still a challenge for me, and actual meditation seems unobtainable for my flighty mind right now. So, I thought, I should try all types of meditation open to me. I sat down on a foldy chair next to an elderly lady who introduced herself as Nell.
This meditation technique involves placing your hands on strategic parts of the body- head, heart etc and repeating certain mantras. I wont go into it here, and obviously I didnt find inner peace in a 10 minute trial in a gazebo at a festival, but the point of this tangent is that when it was all over, Nell asked to sing us a song.
And so, the 80 year old lady with a slightly Russian accent, wearing a canary yellow salwar kameez and barely coming up to my shoulder, looked at me directly, and closed her eyes. Immediately I wished I could have recorded this moment. I cannot remember all the words of her beautiful song- the tune was haunting and tinkling and simple, and of all the words, I can remember only one verse.
“I am love, I am love
Fear and Pain can't touch me
Because I am love.”
The six hours I was designated to work per day was in the cafe, selling a plethora of muffins, brownies, bagels, cakes, sandwiches and salads with all the extractions you'd expect to find at a yoga festival; vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, you name it, Jaynee could cater for it, and it would be delicious.
I made a friend that weekend, and her name is Jade. Jade runs the exquisitely colourful When Life Gives You Coconuts blog and is an instagram feed to make your mouth water. She was working in the kitchens too, and has captured some of the food much better than I could have. I have stolen her photographs here:
Saturday night, drums beat the dusk into darkness and on Sunday morning, Jade and I rose with the sun to attend a deep and slow Yin practise. By the time the heat of the day was starting to penetrate the panoramic windows of the studio, we were thoroughly stretched and relaxed.
I stayed in the same studio to listen to a lecture by physiologist about the effects of yoga on the spine. Having suffered with intense back pain through university, and being scared of it returning, this was really indispensible advice. I will collate the thoughts into another blog soon.
The last class I squeezed in before my second 6 hour shift in the cafe was a Kundlini class, something I'd never done before but had always wanted to try. Kundalini yoga is all about clearing our energy channels, smashing through blockages of negative energy and releasing the coiled up energy we all hold in the base of our spine to allow this it to surge up through our body and invigorate us- allowing us to reach a point of bliss. That's the theory. It all sounds very serious and yogic and I had no idea really what little unmindful me could possibly achieve.
In practise, it was the most fun class of the weekend. Our teacher, Rebecca reminded me uncannily of a younger, Barbara Streisand, she was light, smiling and funny; we laughed together as we flopped our hands and waved our arms and circled our bodies around our hips and breathed together; in to the right, out to the left, in to the right, out the the left...
It was a surprisingly active class; I had imagined kundalini to be a lot of meditating and pranayama (Both of which I am not good at), but by the end I had worked up a sweat. I flopped down at the end of 90 minutes in savasana, not feeling the great snake of energy unfurl and give me orgasmic-like bliss, (as has been recorded by many) but I did feel my body tingling and alive, and that was good enough.
The second day in the cafe was quieter, we picked on leftover chocolate brownies and green juice, demonstrating perfectly the balance between a weekend that was really good for us, and really good for us. New friends, good food, different practices, new ideas. I left at 6pm as the stall holders were dismantling their gazebos and the last of the kids were being dragged out of the pool.
If you are in NZ next February, I highly recommend checking out the 6th annual yoga festival, hosted by Kawai Purapura. The tickets can be found here.